Poems written in the second person can be complicated for the reader. The “you” to whom the poem is addressed can make the reader feel as though he or she is being spoken to directly, or as though he or she is listening in on a conversation. The second person pronoun can also be a tricky maneuver. It can be patronizing, assume too much. Or can be alienating to the reader who may not feel a strong enough connection to be addressed directly and therefore feel left out.
A poem by Robert Pinsky not only walks the tightrope skillfully but dives into the pronoun problem.
The title of Pinsky’s long poem, “An Exploration of America” sits above what looks like a dedication but is not. It reads, “A poem to my daughter.” It is not for his daughter, but to her. In the poem itself, Pinsky includes anecdotes, pieces of advice, his own experience, but he also explores what he means by his epigraph. The poem explores the meaning of writing a poem “to” someone, and challenges the possibilities of such an address.
In the first stanza of the first section of the first part, entitled “I. Prologue: You,” Pinsky writes, “I want to tell you something about our country, / or my idea of it: explaining it / if not to you, to my idea of you.” “An Explanation of America” is a poem written with self-awareness. Pinsky is present in the poem, telling us how his mind is working as he writes. In the middle of the poem, Pinsky details his thoughts on writing to his daughter, an explanation that sticks out in the reader’s mind every time he uses the pronoun “you” throughout the long poem:
But before going on about groups, leaders,
Churches and such, I think I want to try
To explain you. Countries and people of course
Cannot be known or told in final terms…
But can be, in the comic, halting way
Of parents, explained: as Death and Government are.
I don’t mean merely to pretend to write
To you, yet don’t mean either to pretend
To say only what you might want to hear.
I mean to write to my idea of you,
And not expecting you to read a word…
Though you are better at understanding words
Than most people I know.
He the goes into a specific account of the complicated things she understands. This moment of explanation above is what the reader would see as listening in on a conversation. It is a very intimate and vulnerable moment for the speaker, who wishes to be expressly understood in his intentions. It sounds like a father trying to explain something complicated, in a conversational tone as if it is a written record of one side of an actual conversation.
In the second section of ‘Part One: It’s Many Fragments’, he focuses his intentions even more.
What do I want you to see?….
I want for you to see the things I see
Not that I want for you to have to see
Atrocity itself, or that its image
Is harmless. I mean the way we need to see
With shared, imperfect memory.
In this moment, the scope of Pinsky’s pronouns broadens. In the last sentence of the excerpt, Pinsky says “the way we need to see,” this brings the conversation from being conducted between father and daughter, to a global perspective. He is speaking to the idea of the daughter, but the idea of a person can be fleeting and adaptable. Bringing in that “we” makes the moments throughout the poem in which Pinsky is not describing specific moments involving the daughter a toss-up. If he writes “you” in an abstract moment, it can be either the idea of the daughter or the idea of the reader of his poem. For example, Pinsky opens section one of ‘Part Two: It’s Great Emptiness’ with a command, “Imagine a child from Virginia or New Hampshire…”. That command could be addressed just as easily to the idea of the reader, or the idea of the daughter. In section two, he writes, “Americans, we choose to see ourselves / as here, yet not here yet – as if a Roman / in mid-Rome should inquire the way to Rome.” This sentence is one piece of punctuation away from being a direct address to all Americans instead of about all Americans. Changing the comma after “Americans” to a colon would change that sentence completely.
When we write to someone, whether it is a letter or a speech or a poem, most of the time we don’t have that person sitting physically in front of us, speaking as we write our words down. We envision that person in our minds, and write what we wish to say. There is no guarantee that person will read or understand what we have written. We are writing to our ideal listener within that person. What a challenge that would be, to write a poem to a person with him or her sitting in front of us! Instead of this poem reading like a glance at an intimate lesson between father and daughter, it becomes both internal, and widely external. By explaining that he is writing to his idea of his daughter, not to her directly, brings the narrative within himself. His incorporation of a collective pronoun makes it, at the same time, a lesson meant to be heard on a more universal scale.
The mode of address is an important choice in a poem or story. Most commonly, writers use either a first or third person approach – an “I” or an omniscient narrator. A second person address is rare, and one that works well and suits the work is even rarer.