When considering the speaker of a piece of poetry one of the first things to keep in mind is that the poet may not be the speaker. This should be considered along with the tone, mood, and context clues. It is quite likely that the poet chose to write from a perspective that isn’t their own. They might be channelling someone with very different life experiences. It could be someone they know, a historical figure, or someone of a different gender or race who knows the world in a way they can’t. In fact, without the proper contextual information, it is safer not to assume a poem is written from the poet’s perspective.
Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
The narrator of this poem is a woman, a mother, speaking to her young son. She goes through her own personal history and uses it as an example of how one might meet with adversity in life but persevere through that struggle. A reader should examine the mood of the text, the speaker’s dialect, and the poet’s chosen diction in order to determine what kind of speaker they are utilizing.
Other examples in which the poet takes on a role different than their own include:
- ‘The Arnolfini Marriage‘ by Paul Durcan
- ‘Writing in the Afterlife’ by Billy Collins
- ‘The Wife’s Tale’ by Seamus Heaney
- ‘Mrs. Midas’ by Carol Ann Duffy
Inanimate Object and Animal Speakers
Just as the speaker in a piece of poetry might not be the poet, it might also not even be human. It is far from unusual for a writer to utilize an animal or inanimate object as the central speaker or narrator of a text. This is often done in order to a share perceptive the reader might not have considered before. Alternatively, it allows a novel, or new, take on a mundane or accepted situation.
A perfect example of this kind of speaker at work can be found in ‘Bull Song’ by Margaret Atwood. Within this poem, Atwood utilizes a bull, specifically one in Spain that is forced to participate in bullfighting as the speaker. Due to this perspective, the themes of this piece are considerably more impactful than they would be if a normal human speaker was describing the plight of the animal. Take a look at these lines as an example of how the bull’s own words make a difference in a reader’s ability to understand its daily life:
I stood dizzied
with sun and anger,
neck muscle cut,
blood falling from the gouged shoulder.
The bull’s rage at its situation is slowly being replaced by fear in these lines. It is desperate to understand what’s going on. As the poem continues, it refers to the humans around it as the “gods with sinews of red and silver”. Only the bull is able to adequately depict its own fear and suffering.
Other examples of inanimate objects or animals used completely or partially as speakers include:
How to Determine the Speaker in Poetry
There are a number of different ways a reader might consider who a speaker is, whether it’s the poet, an inanimate object, animal or another human being the poet felt the desire to channel. In the case of Hughes’ poem, ‘Mother to Son’ the title gives the speaker away, plus, through careful reading, Hughes provides clues to the speaker’s identity. The caring attitude and desire to teach and protect come through clearly as parental.
‘Bull Song’ is slightly different. The title is even more important in this piece as the text itself never says one way or another what animal is speaking. But, through context clues a reader should realize where the animal is, the torture it is enduring, and therefore, what animal it is.
Utilizing Contextual Information
Often, especially with fairly well-known pieces of writing, the speaker is very obviously the poet. For example, in late 1912 the famous English poet Thomas Hardy lost his wife, Emma. She died suddenly, at least in Hardy’s eyes. He had no knowledge of his wife’s illness until after she was gone. This was in part due to their separation (although they lived in the same home) and in part due to his mental distance from her, something he discusses in his poetry.
Scholars consider the period after her death to be one of his best. The poems that were written and published in 1913 and 1914 speak on his personal emotional reaction to her passing. They also expose his fragile state of mind and desperation to bring her back to him. These poems also explore the surprise and horror he felt knowing she died with his being able to say goodbye. Examples include ‘Rain on a Grave’ and ‘Your Last Drive’. The documentation of Hardy’s life provides scholars and causal lovers of poetry with the information they need to determine that yes, Hardy was writing from his own perspective.
Other examples that come straight from a poet’s own perspective include: