Point of view is what the speaker, narrator, or character can see from their perspective. This can change dramatically depending on who the character is, their own background, the poet’s intentions, and the character’s reliability. It is also possible that the “speaker” is the poet his/herself. From one moment to the text, the speaker’s position in space is going to change. What they see and then relay to the reader is going to influence one’s perception of the story.
The most skilled writers use this technique to their advantage, influencing the reader in different ways by speaking from a very strong point of view or one that’s more confused, fluid, or undetermined. All of these elements affect how one understands the text.
In one poem or story, the speaker might be the protagonist of the story, the hero or the person the reader is meant to root for as the narrative plays out (if there is a narrative). Or, the “point of view” might originate from an omniscient narrator, someone outside the story who knows all the details, can get into the character’s minds, and tell events as if they witnessed them.
The point of view, in simplest terms, is how the writer gets their intentions across the reader.
There are three main types of point of view. They are first-person, second-person, and third-person. First and third are the most popular of the three, but we’ll look at examples of all three kinds of perspective and how the author’s choice to use that point of view influenced the poem.
The best place to start is with first-person. This is the most easily recognized kind of point of view as it uses first-person pronouns like “I,” “me,” and “my”. The poems that make use of this kind of perspective are wide-ranging and poets have crafted innumerably ways of manipulating their speaker’s first-person perspective to influence the story.
Because this kind of perspective comes from an individual, whether the poet themselves, a child, a mentally ill patient, a dying woman, or even an animal, object, or creature from another realm, or any combination of those, the variations are endless. There are countless ways a writer can imbue a character with features and beliefs that bleed through into their understanding of a scenario.
A reader should always be conscious of the fact that characters in literature are also subject to their understanding of the world. A writer might employ an unreliable narrator. This is someone whose opinions about the world are clearly influenced by mental instability, overwrought, consuming emotions, or any other mind-altering experience. Or, as within Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Annabel Lee’ love-sickness and loss. Take a look at these lines from his very famous work:
The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,
Went envying her and me—
Yes!—that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.
This stanza comes towards the end of the poem and is part of the speaker’s explanation for why his love, Annabel Lee, was taken from the world. The use of exclamations, em-dashes, and parenthesis create a very believable pattern of speech. A reader should be able to hear this man’s voice in their head while their reading, feel his desperation and sympathize, if not empathize, with his loss. The perspective of this poem becomes all the more impactful when Poe’s own life is taken into consideration.
Other poems written from a first-person perspective:
The least used of the three kinds of perspective, second-person point of view, uses pronouns like “you,” “yours,” and “your”. Poems written this way are directed at a specific listener, or towards the reader in general. Often times storytellers will use this kind of perspective to implicate the reader in the story they are telling. “You” will be the source of the story’s drama and “you” will face the consequences of “your” actions.
Let’s take a look at a few lines from ‘The Dark’ by Carol Ann Duffy as an example.
If you think of the dark
as a black park
and the moon as a bounced ball,
This very short, very original poem is only six lines long. It is directed at an unknown “you” and asks the reader to think about fear, darkness, and night in a particular way. The speaker in this piece compares these things to happier, more familiar items but then wraps the poem up in an amusing way, discounting everything they said. The fact that “you” are part of the text encourages the reader to consider themselves in the “black park” or contending with the “dark”. You might find yourself thinking about staring up at the moon, and in the end, being confronted by aliens.
Other poems written from a second-person perspective:
Third-person Point of View
The third-person point of view is quite popular as it allows the writer to convey ideas, experiences, and beliefs from multiple perspectives. This point of view uses pronouns like “she,” “he,” and “they”. From this perspective, a reader can hear from various characters while also judging the narrator who is conveying the thoughts of those same characters. The narrator has a very important role in this style of writing. Just as with first-person perspective, there is the chance that the speaker is not objective. Their own opinion about events, if they witnessed them, might influence the way they convey a story.
Out of the church she followed them
With a lofty step and mien:
His bride was like a village maid,
Maude Clare was like a queen.
This is the first quatrain from the 12-quatrain poem. It describes Maude Clare, the title character, following newlyweds from the church. From just these four lines the reader can learn a lot about the speaker’s opinion of the couple, as well as how Maude carried herself. The speaker sees Maude as “a queen”. She is elevated, “lofty” and elegant. This is juxtaposed against the “bride” who the speaker says is “like a village maid”.
Other poems written from a third-person perspective: