The Presence in Poetry

We talk a lot about narrators in our prose, but did you know your poem has a narrator as well? While perhaps hidden, someone is the speaker behind the poem. Who is it? What is her/his mood? How does he/she speak?

Ted Kooser calls the person behind the poem the presence, and notes that readers start “seeking a presence at one, trying to get a sense of the speaker during the first words he or she reads.” It’s not just about what the poem is saying, but how it is said – the tone and style of the speaker. “The presence in and of a poem has a lot to do with the way a reader is affected,” says Kooser, noting that a narrator with personal charm is more appealing to readers than one who is self-pitying or arrogant.

Note the differences between the following three narrators. What does the language of each poem tell you about the narrator, the presence behind the poem?

The first poem is “The Pool Players Seven at the Gold Shovel,” by Gwendolyn Brooks.

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

How about this part of the poem “What the Mirror Said,” by Louise Clifton?


you wonder.

you a city

of a woman

you got a geography

of your own.

One more, this section from “The Bay at West Falmouth,” by Barbara Howes

Serenity of mind poises

Like a gull swinging in air,

At ease, sculptured, held there,

For a moment so long-drawn-out all time pauses.

The heart’s serenity is like the gold

Geometry of sunlight. . . .

The narrators are entirely different. In Gwendolyn Brook’s poem, the narrator appears to be young, male, probably not well educated, and well aware of what life holds for those in his circumstances. He speaks in the slang of his time and place. Louise Clifton’s narrator is most certainly a woman, probably better educated than the person from the previous poem, and older too. She is a plainspoken speaker, using simple, direct language. In Barbara Howe’s poem, the narrator’s language is more complex and intricate, belonging to someone well educated. In addition, it’s more distant, more abstract, stepping back from the experience to tell about it, while our previous two narrators were in the middle of their moments.

Keep narrator in mind when you are writing poetry – the presence that invokes an image for your readers.

It’s poetry month. Every day I am posting tips, advice, and inspiration about poetry on My Blog.  I hope you’ll join me.