If this looks like a poem
I might as well warn you at the beginning
that it’s not meant to be one.
So begins one of my favourite Leonard Cohen poems, The Cuckold’s Song. I wonder if, like me, you thought he was talking to you, the ethereal reader, in those lines? As it turns out, the whole thing is aimed at the chap who has cuckolded him:
I know all about her part in it
but I’m not concerned with that right now.
This is between you and me.
and like a well-orchestrated focus-pull, that word ‘you’ takes on a different shape altogether.
The gender-less second-person pronoun is one of the poet’s most abundant tools for tricks and twists in that game of readerly cat and mouse we so often play with good art. Of course we have that most famous case of Shakespeare’s ‘young man’ who is so often assumed to be female by first-time readers of the sonnets, but beyond that, poetry is a world filled with people who choose to hide their feelings behind the blurred word, ‘you’.
Let us take the poem, Dog, from Mark Waldron’s excellent collection The Brand New Dark. The poem opens:
I had thought of you as I lay fighting
off this sleep. Now I find you as you squat
my dream as a dog…
Now we can almost certainly establish that the ‘you’ of the poem is not a literal dog. What then, should we assume? Our instincts want to tell us that the ‘you’ is a lover, for lovers are what we lose sleep over and who we find ourselves writing poetry for in those restless nights. But then again, what if ‘you’ is me? What if ‘you’ is you as you read this poem. Maybe it is you, or the idea of you that has caused Waldron these sleepless nights as he anticipates your reception of his poetry. An unqualified ‘you’ can prove to be quite the potent bomb of possibility in the hands of the right poet – a cluster bomb catching all in its blast radius with the illusion of address.
For all the refractive possibilities of the anonymous ‘you’ however, some of the most masterful poets have managed to use a specific second-person to create a sort of blurred illusion of sharpness in their address. I am thinking specifically here of Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters. Of course, these poems are explicitly addressed to Sylvia Plath, but as Hughes’ writing process continued over 25 years we can see that he is writing to infinite versions and reinventions of his late wife. The poem, ‘Portraits’ opens:
What happened to Howard’s portrait of you?
I wanted that painting.
Whilst we take ‘you’ to be the simple address of a husband to his wife, we know that it also stands for so much more. In the context of a portrait, ‘you’ becomes the version of Plath that was held in Howard’s “molten, luminous” depiction of her. As such, the past-tense line, “I wanted that painting”, comes to suggest that Hughes preferred this vibrant, numinous version of his wife and the word ‘you’ is shattered into the thousand people that Plath became throughout her life as is the case with all of us, especially those who have had the misfortune of suffering from depression.
Whilst I shall not dwell on it here for it has been overdone elsewhere, it is this same skill that Eliot uses so well in Prufrock when he manages to make the word ‘you’ stand for the conflicting sides of his psyche:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Finally, though, the reason I find it so easy to get engrossed in the letters of my favourite writers is ‘you’. When we read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, do we not secretly blind-spot the word ‘Mr. Kappus’ and pretend that he is writing to us? I have vivid memories of reading the following section around about my twentieth year:
You are so young, so before all beginning, and I want to beg you as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like loved rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue.
When we read these words, do we not feel as though the world itself is speaking directly to us? The writers die and re-enter the earth but the words they addressed to other people enter the atmosphere and come to our aid wearing the time-honoured passport to our soul – the word ‘you’.