There’s No “I” in Poetry

I graduated from Beloit College with a Bachelor’s in creative writing in December 2006. I didn’t write another poem until August 2008.

When my friend and former Beloit classmate Russell Jaffe (founder of Strange Cage) moved to Brooklyn in the summer of 2008, the first thing he asked me was “Are you still writing poetry?” I told him the truth: I wasn’t. Russell had just completed his MFA from Columbia College in Chicago and was determined to make an impact in New York’s literary scene. He had booked a space at Flushnik Studios, an artist’s space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and planned to put on a poetry reading there. He offered me a slot—if I had poems to share.

The truth was that I had felt rather down about my creative writing. I didn’t start writing until I was 20, during my sophomore year of college. I didn’t believe in myself as a writer back then. I gave it up after college—until Russell believed in me enough to put me on the show. Russell had spurred me on to write again. After talking to him, I composed a series of poems heavily influenced by slam poetry, filled with verve and clever wordplay, sharper than anything from my days at Beloit.

But they were filled with I’s.

I showed them to Russell about a week before the reading. He liked them, but he gently suggested that I should perhaps consider removing the “I’s” from my poems. I did. When the time came to read them, I was thrilled by the raucous applause I received afterwards. It felt a lot better than the similarities to being in front of a firing squad whenever my poetry was workshopped in college.

It’s not a hard rule that you should never use the word “I” in your poems. However, if all your poetry is so intensely personal it devalues the intimacy of the device. It makes your poetry seem confessional and limited, when it could be so much more by choosing to remove the “I” and present it as far more expansive. Your work will go beyond seeming to be just relevant to the narrow contours of your life.

There’s a time for “I” in poetry. You should certainly keep using it, if appropriate for your poem; however, if your poem feels flat and insular, try taking the “I’s” out and reshaping it to go beyond your immediate feelings and experiences. Your work should truly shine.

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