Jim Whitman: We Limit Ourselves By Only Talking About Ourselves

I am of the current opinion that one of the biggest limitations on the potential of poetry is that poets are obsessed with themselves. Now then this isn’t to say confessional poetry, or personal poetry is bad, but rather, the current world of poetry feels more like half-baked vlogs than a genuine attempt at doing something unique in this medium.

I notice more and more that writers are using poetry only as a documentary or diary of their own thoughts or experiences. This, of course, isn’t anything new and I am not proposing that it should end. However, I feel as though poets are terrified to write from the perspective of anyone or anything other than themselves. Perhaps, it is because in poetry the idea of being honest to oneself is praised by many as a primary pillar of the art. Perhaps it is because we tend to know ourselves the best, or at the very least, think about ourselves the most. This self-obsession has saturated the climate of poetry. My problem with this is that we have confined ourselves to only discussing the self, or how others interact with us, or our opinions on current events.

How many poets are aware that they can write from the perspective of a submarine, of a terrorist, of a dolphin that can only speak Portuguese with a bad dolphin accent? How many poets are aware that they are free to discuss what lies outside of the universe; can write about Mario’s shroom addiction, can write of interdimensional aliens that enjoy scaring lower lifeforms with the threat of annihilation? Many might know this, but few attempt this even as a one-off because many writers feel it is being disingenuous to write about something that isn’t personal.

The “I” is an important tool for poets because it helps them psychoanalyze their own thoughts, experiences, and purpose. It can help connect one person with another person who shares in the thoughts expressed by the poet. It is an invaluable tool of self-understanding, but it can, and often has, resulted in an echo chamber where the only perspective written by poets is about poets. I feel that the insight that poets are able to bring when analyzing themselves through art could be used for extraordinary good if utilized beyond their own existence. Being able to tackle things beyond themselves would also further help them better understand the world and, potentially, themselves for the better.

Perhaps this viewpoint has come out as a cynical opposition to the vast amount of poetry I have read, where the only things discussed are, “wow I am in love, wow I am heartbroken, wow I sometimes hate myself and life, wow sex sure is a thing.”

If you as a poet bring something new to the table in regards to universal subjects, wonderful! I’d love to read it. If you are just getting stuff out of your head impulsively from the moment to process things, wonderful! I’d love to read it. But I argue that if you only ever write about yourself, and assuming you or your life is fairly normal, your poetry can easily become stagnant, un-insightful, and boring.

I think of things such as Beowulf, Dante’s Inferno, and Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock as examples of the power of fiction in poetry. These works of art were able to move beyond the limitations of the singular writer and were able to become universal masterpieces.

To defend myself for those that take this discussion on the person personally, again, I do not hate this kind of poetry and I even use it myself.

I suppose the catalyst of my opinion on this subject came from my own dissatisfaction of how my own poetry was so egotistical. Nearly every poem was written in the first person. If I wrote a poem about the death of my cousin, it was a poem about how it impacted me. If I wrote a poem about politics, it was from my personal view on politics. With the realization of how often I was doing it, I became increasingly aware of how prevalent the phenomenon was in the current poetry community.

In the end, I am not arguing that you or your favorite poets should change one's style forever based on subjective opinion. Let personal poetry be your thing if personal poetry is your thing. The only proposal I have is to become more conscientious and critical when using the word “I” in poetry and to perhaps impose a challenge by writing from a perspective that is outside your comfort zone, at least once.

If there is one thing we shouldn’t be with poetry, it is comfortable.

Jim Whitman is an aspiring poet who has been featured in Glassbook and has been writing for 3 years. He spends his time off from college working on Frenchmen St. in New Orleans writing poetry on the spot for strangers. Jim is soon to release a parody poetry book entitled Milked for Money and is also working nonstop on an upcoming collection of poetry.

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