“You are the problem.”
I like to think of myself as that clichéd, “work in progress.” Maybe because, within my self-imposed constitution, the bettering of oneself is ultimately what keeps one alive—a continual growth, movement. Because this is so, the beginning half of any given year is typically a low time, a time spent pointing out weaknesses, fingering flaws.
Oh, it sounds dirty, but it is dirty. It’s me in a dimly lit café reflecting on myself—year after year—choosing what war to wage, what flaws to overcome.
So this, my second post on Entropy, is another of my poetic challenges. To the You: that ghost pronoun, scapegoat of desire, the invisible trash bin of so much anger, manic love, swift stanzas in no discernable meter.
“You,” said my former professors at one point or another, “is too vague. Just say.” Say who? Who says?
But what could I say? I came into myself—a pudgy, self-excused, overly and overtly emotional Only Child— doping up on the cryptic confessions of Tori Amos, the hypnotic melodrama of Soap Opera Digest, Shakespeare’s formal sonnets and the love croons of Neruda. Hell if I knew to whom I was saying anything at all. What was I even saying?
(And yes, I just admitted to reading Soap Opera Digest, if you didn’t catch it the first time.)
Now, let’s go back to the early years, the pearly-eyed “pedantics” of my first poems. I was in love with every You: teachers, pets, the parents of friends, the smooth-syllables of television-popular actors and actresses giving me my daily dose of sticky romance. In turn, I wrote bitten-off sonnets that rhymed words like “pervasively” and “insatiably” (I was a wee bit into vocab), but more importantly, this verse was always about love to. Both directed and misdirected all at once, it was as if my heart was so big and my feelings so strong… I had to write to someone.
By the time I got to college—learned the academic side of poetics, the aesthetics and the freeing un-form of Free Verse—my poems began to shape themselves into something more tangible, more lyrical, less practical, maybe. But still, they were addressed to the You, and my professors were pushing for more.
“So who is this ‘you’?” Professor V asked in a whisper, hunched with her hands on her knees.
I had no answer, no real answer, anyway. Flip some many calendar pages, and here I am, 28, years of poetry and writing classes and readings under my belt—still tangoing that phantom pronoun.
The You, no matter how seemingly vague, is anything but. Perhaps in my earlier poems, the obscurity of the You was only a part of my issue. My professors were right: I hid behind lyricism and backless pronouns, among other distractions. But that is not to say the You isn’t effective—almost more effective, I’d argue, than the slippery halo of the third person.
Why the You, then? In many poems, like Margaret Atwood’s “A Sad Child,” the objective is to directly implicate the reader:
You’re sad because you’re sad.
It’s psychic. It’s the age. It’s chemical.
Go see a shrink or take a pill,
or hug your sadness like an eyeless doll
you need to sleep.
…My darling when it comes
right down to it
and the light fails and the fog rolls in
and you’re trapped in your overturned body
under a blanket or a burning car,
and the red flame is seeping out of you
and igniting the tarmac beside your head
or else the floor, or else the pillow,
none of us is;
or else we all are.
An anthem, no doubt. But whether the use of the You is meant to implicate directly, like the poetics above, or not, it certainly does add a level of involvement—a more complex connection between the speaker and reader. A similar intimacy can be found in many poems by Adrienne Rich, including “For the Dead,” where the speaker pulls us in from the very first line:
I dreamed I called you on the telephone
to say: Be kinder to yourself
but you were sick and would not answer
The waste of my love goes on this way
trying to save you from yourself
Suddenly, we are the You, that black hole of the speaker’s love, wasteful. It’s clear the speaker isn’t speaking to the universal You, as in Atwood’s poem, but the incrimination is still there. This, I know, is the kind of in-your-face gut punch I was attempting to muster in my early writing years, though unsuccessfully.
I could go on, featuring more verse, more evidence; though, I suspect now you will do your own investigating. If nothing else, I hope it catches you in mid-breath. And when you sit down to write or read, you will take note of the You—scrutinize it a little more—or maybe, like me, you already know of its power and you, yourself, are trying to hone it to such magnitudes as Atwood or Rich.
So this is my year’s war, polishing my purpose with this seemingly sneaky pronoun.
How about you?