reading 32 Poems & exploring perspective in poetry

I picked up a subscription to 32 Poems earlier this year and finally had the chance to spend time with the latest issue tonight. As the name suggests, there are 32 poems in each issue, with a straightforward presentation. Of those 32, I marked five for re-reading and deeper processing (heavy emphasis on processing, as my notes below are not meant to be “reviews” by any stretch):

  • Against Emptiness, by James Arthur. Something is sticky about this poem. As in I keep coming back to it, but I’m not entirely sure why. I think it may have something to do with the dichotomy of air/uncertainty/emptiness and definition/certainty/purposefulness. Or maybe it’s something about meaning and how we intend, or embed, it in the world. I don’t know.
  • Carbon, by Bruce Bond. I’ve been playing around with carbon dating in one of my poems, so I was interested in how Bond used the language. Beyond that, I’m wondering what felt incomplete about this poem for me. Something about the last stanza felt out of place, like the poem shifted its perspective — from meditative to almost instructive. 
  • Words for Words, by Taije Silverman. I’d like to keep unpacking this. I’m wondering about the specific word choices of the speaker, and if there are any consistent parallels in which word is exchanged for another. They all add up to the sort of perfectly anxious final thought: “I want to dig up streets.”
  • After the End, by Ashley Anna McHugh. Something about the voice in the poem makes me want to return and listen more. 
  • On Saturn the Sky is Blue, by Sarah Lindsay. I’m attracted to anything that borrows language from the mechanics of the universe, and there are some beautiful images here, such as: …watch a thunderstorm, thirty miles tall, / walking on stilts of lightning.

Something I’ve been wondering about, which resurfaced as I read 32 Poems, is the challenge of perspective and voice. I’ve been trying to move away from writing so much in first person, if only to use that as a constraint to spark new ideas.

I’ve been thinking about the self-consciousness of first person. When is it contributing to a narrative and when does it start to feel like a claustrophobic self-portrait? With some of the poems I’ve read recently and in some of my own work, I’m beginning to feel as though holding space for “I” and “me” gets in the way of the work the poem really needs to do. Poems weighted heavily in first person have started to feel itchy to me. 

I’m not entirely sure how to resolve this, because as I noted with “Carbon” above, other perspectives can be slippery slopes to tones or styles that may not be intended. In one stanza, the tone can shift from meditative to pedantic, from inclusive to authoritative. This seems to be an easier slip when we leave the realm of the self (I, me) and must project a bit more to get to the perspectives of others (you, we, us, them). 

Which then makes me wonder: Is excessive use of first person a bit of a crutch? I’m picturing it now like a yoga block. A steady place to put my hand while the rest of my body, or the poem as it were, plays around with other elements, such as language.

Ok, no conclusions here. But I had to capture that somewhere. I’m wondering if there is a writing exercise in this… maybe slicing the same question or concept from multiple perspectives and seeing how empathy, authority and voice play out across the resulting poems. What is more powerful? What is more inclusive, accessible, compelling, etc.?