Monday, July 30, 2012

Addressing a "You": Part 3, The "You" as "I"

In another variation of second person address, the writer uses the “you” form but really seems to mean “I.” “You” becomes a stand-in for the speaker of the poem or story. Thanks to the poet Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet for suggesting this classic example, Philip Levine’s poem “What Work Is.” Levine’s poem is narrated by a speaker waiting in line with day laborers hoping to find work at a Ford plant. But by the third line, the poet is addressing us, the readers, in an up-close-and-personal voice:

You know what work is—if  you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is…

Soon the speaker is telling us to abandon our usual sense of self: “Forget you. This is about waiting…” Quickly the poem sweeps us into the vantage point of the “you.” But this “you” is really the speaker, since he is recalling such an incredibly specific event:

…now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to   
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.

More than likely than not, none of us has a brother who worked a night shift at the Cadillac plant so he could study German opera. Most probably Philip Levine did have a brother like the one described in this poem. The reason it works in this poem to use the “you” who resembles the speaker, even though the circumstances are so particular to this situation, is that the poet is telling both himself and his reader or listener that love for another needs to be expressed and demonstrated, not just felt. That’s such a universal imperative that it makes sense that the speaker has externalized the poem to an address in the second person.

Often I find that the “I” as “you,” though, is somewhat dishonest. The writer is not really claiming his or her own experience, but trying to soft-pedal it by it projecting onto the reader. If you’ve written a poem or story of this sort, try putting it in the first person. It may be scary to claim that experience, but it also may be far more powerful, and it might push the writing in other directions that enhance your work.

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