Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Addressing a "You": Part 1, Personal Address

Writing is often addressed directly to another person, a person called “you” by the speaker, or, in former times, “thee.” Some of the oldest literature in the world is written in this form. Here’s an excerpt of a love poem by Sappho, who was born in Greece in the 7th century B.C.E. The English translation is by the writer Anne Carson:

                                  …oh it
puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking
is left in me

Those lines take my breath away. This is an example of what I would call the “you” of personal address. The speaker is talking to a realistic person. It even seems the writer is actually going to give or recite the work to the person addressed. Of course, we have no idea if Sappho had the opportunity to present or speak these verses to this woman, but for all intents and purposes, it seems as if that is her aim.

Shakespeare’s sonnets are another great example of the “you” of personal address, since many of them feel so intimately directed to another human being. Here is Sonnet XXXVI, not one that your high school English teacher had you read, because it’s about illicit love:

Let me confess that we two must be twain,
Although our undivided loves are one:
So shall those blots that do with me remain,
Without thy help, by me be borne alone.
In our two loves there is but one respect,
Though in our lives a separable spite,
Which though it alter not love’s sole effect,
Yet doth it steal sweet hours from love’s delight.
I may not evermore acknowledge thee,
Lest my bewailed guilt should do thee shame,
Nor thou with public kindness honour me,
Unless thou take that honour from thy name:
But do not so, I love thee in such sort,
As thou being mine, mine is thy good report.

I would bet money that Shakespeare handed that poem to his secret love, written out with his own quill. More than literary fame inspired that sonnet! He wanted to reassure his lover that even though their love was tainted by being out of wedlock, or even a betrayal of another, she still had his respect.

The advantage of a poem like this, written with the “you” of personal address, is that it can be given directly to the other person, often a much-sought-after beloved. For this reason, a poem of this sort has to be diplomatic. For instance, Shakespeare doesn’t call their love adultery or a union out of marriage, though it probably is, judging from the sense of the poem. He also tells his beloved that he alone will bear whatever shame their union evokes.

The fact that the writing is addressed to a real human being with an urgent message also makes the words compelling to an outside reader.

More on addressing a "you" in the two blogs to come.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka

Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer

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