The Poet’s Toolbox: Point of View

by Manuela Williams
published in Writing

Welcome back, poets! In my last article, I talked about revision strategies you can incorporate into your poetry writing routine. Today, I want to take a step back and focus more on the nuts and bolts of crafting a poem, particularly point of view (POV). 

If you’re familiar with prose, then you’re familiar with POV–first, second, and third person (and everything in between!). For a full cheat sheet on utilizing POV in your prose, check out Gabriela’s The Last Point of View Cheat Sheet You’ll Ever Need

The good news is that a lot of the considerations you make in choosing POV for your prose can also be utilized in the poetry world. That being said, I’d argue that poetry allows you to experiment with POV in some very interesting ways–ways that might not make sense if you’re working with more traditional prose. 

Let’s take a look at the most common POVs used in poetry, and how POV can affect the meaning, tone, and much more in your poems. 

First-Person Point of View

First-person POV refers to the “I” speaker in poetry (most commonly referred to as the lyric “I”). 

As one example, check out this excerpt from Shannon Burns’ delightfully named collection, Oosh Boosh

“I like that clean cloth. I like that fog that came in. I think the fog must have come in sometime a long time before I did and never went out. I like that blue thing feeling. In life I’ve loved sun and field and pumpkin and have claimed in distress to hate blue things and have then been afraid it was a dark sin.” 

from “Blue Thing Feeling”

When the first-person POV is used in a poem, it tends to create a more personal, intimate effect. The lyric “I” is often associated with the confessional movement, which I discussed in my article The Poet’s Toolbox: What is Confessional Poetry

Though the lyric “I” is often read as autobiographical, or as if the poet themselves is the narrator (referred to as the ‘speaker’), this is not always the case. For example, some poets–most notably Patricia Smith–use the lyric “I” to embody others in persona poems.  

Second-Person Point of View

Second-person refers to the use of the pronoun “you,” as in the below excerpt from Burns’ Oosh Boosh

“It’s okay to just look around
and think about yourself
You don’t need a magazine
on a plane
Let the people you’re looking at
bear the news away from you”

from “Poem in Case I Die on Thanksgiving”

Using the second person POV in a poem tends to create a more immediate effect for your readers. In other words, there is a sense that the poet is directly addressing the reader. The use of the “you” in the above example draws us in and gives us an emotional stake in the poem. 

Third-Person Point of View

Third-person point of view refers to the use of third-person pronouns such as he, she, or they. This can also refer to “characters” that appear in poems, as illustrated in the below excerpt from Lee Young-Ju’s collection, Cold Candies

“They say a house too old becomes human, but the old woman goes down to the basement sometimes. The place is packed with rained-on barrels, slices of pork roll on the floor. Why, the legendary world of a bountiful basement sometimes feel real.” 

from “Brewery”

The above example has a more narrative feel to it, as if the poet is telling a story. The “old woman” referred to in the poem is not named and–unlike in Burns’ poems above–the lack of first or second person creates a more distancing effect for readers. We are observing the scene from afar and aren’t necessarily in the speaker’s mind or experiencing the speaker’s thoughts. 

Using Multiple POVs 

My next statement is written with the caveat that I have not read many novels or short stories with rapidly changing POVs–in other words, stories in which the POV changes multiple times throughout a paragraph or chapter. Readers, if you have any examples, I’d be more than happy to take a look!  

When choosing which POV to write your poem in, it’s important to not limit yourself and understand the ways in which you can experiment. One way to do this is to explore using multiple POVs in a single poem, as shown in the below excerpt from Louise Glück’s Averno:

was used to death. Now over and over
her mother hauls her out again--

You must ask yourself:
are the flowers real? If

Persephone ‘returns’ there will be
one of two reasons: 

either she was not dead or
she is being used 
to support a fiction--

I think I can remember
being dead. Many times, in winter,
I approached Zeus. Tell me, I would ask him, 
how can I endure the earth?”

from “Persephone the Wanderer”

In the above example, Glück uses not one, but three POVs in the span of five short stanzas. The first stanza begins with the third person before switching to the second person “you” in the second stanza. The excerpt returns to the third person POV before ending on the first person. 

So, what’s the effect of such rapidly changing POVs? I have a theory. The beginning stanzas have a more scholarly, distant feel to them. We are being taught about the Persephone myth. The addressing of the “you” in the second stanza reads like a professor giving instructions (“You must ask yourself…”). The final stanza, written in the first person, pulls us away from that more academic tone and brings us into a more personal, intimate space.  

Back to you, poets! Which POV do you tend to write your poems in? Let us know in the comments! 

By day, Manuela Williams is a copy writer, editor, and strategist. By night, she’s a poet. Her first poetry chapbook, Ghost in Girl Costume, was published by Birds Piled Loosely Press in 2017. Her poems have also appeared in Bone BouquetWicked Alice Zine, and other literary magazines.

Manuela loves helping other people build their brands through written content. She’s obsessed with web design, logos, brand boards, color schemes, and fonts. When she’s not busy agonizing over font decisions, she can be found drinking tons of coffee and reading sappy romance novels. You can connect with her on her website.

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