The Difference Between the Poet and the Speaker of a Poem
Reading a Poem Out Loud
Who Speaks the Poem?
When referring to the speaker of the poem, it is always more accurate and safer to say, "the speaker" instead of "the poet" because the speaker of a poem is not always the poet. A poem is a crafted performance, a portrayal, or a dramatization similar to a play. The speaker is quite often a created character, just as the characters who are on display in a play are created characters.
Most poets possess a sincere fondness for their poems. They have no compunction about claiming the importance of their life experience, their personal goals, dreams, and heartfelt struggles that inform their poems. But they still quite often create characters through which to expresses that experience and those struggles.
Thus, the safer answer to the question—“Who speaks the poem?”—is “the speaker speaks the poem.” Even if the speaker is obviously delving into her own feelings and situation, as Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s speaker is doing in her Sonnets from the Portuguese, it remains more accurate to refer to the speaker of the poem as “the speaker” rather than “the poet,” “Elizabeth,” or “Barrett Browning.”
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Speaking Through Characters
Often many poets may claim that their poems are their children; thus it is important to keep in mind that children and their parents are not the same. Children may, and often do, hold very different beliefs and attitudes from their parents. And a poem's speaker may profess very different attitudes from the poet who wrote that speaker into existence, many times for that exact purpose.
Even though poets are close to their poems, they may not always place biographical information in their poems. Poets may not always reveal their exact beliefs in their poems. Like playwrights, poets usually create characters through which they speak in their poems.
Readers are not likely to confuse the characters in a play with the playwright. Thus, no one would make the mistake of thinking that Willie Loman, the character in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, is Miller himself. Miller has explained that the Loman character is, in fact, based on the experiences of one of Miller's uncles.
Yet because Langston Hughes has written in his poem titled "Cross," "My old man is a white old man / And my old mothers black," readers often surmise that Langston Hughes himself had a white father. Both Hughes' parents, however, were black. Hughes has created a character in his poem, just as Arthur Miller created Willie Loman in his play.
The Speaker Is Not Necessarily the Poet
When discussing a poem, the reader is always on more solid ground if he refers to the person vocalizing the words as "the speaker," instead of "the poet." A poet can give his character any ideas or beliefs that are necessary for the execution of the poem's purpose. According to Anna Story, discussing this issue in "How to Tell Who the Speaker Is in a Poem,"
The speaker is the voice or "persona" of a poem. One should not assume that the poet is the speaker, because the poet may be writing from a perspective entirely different from his own, even with the voice of another gender, race or species, or even of a material object.
In his poem, "Cross" Langston Hughes explores the idea of how an individual of mixed race might feel. So he created a mixed race character and let him speak. Hughes, himself, cannot be testifying as to how that person feels, because he does not actually have the experience himself. But he is perfectly capable of exploring the idea, the "what if" situation that poets engage in quite often.
A Caveat: Observation vs Inner Sturm und Drang
Langston Hughes' "Cross" would likely have been a better poem, had he not chosen to engage the first person. Some issues simply cry out for authenticity that speculation of this kind cannot provide. Hughes message could have remained somewhat similar, but he would have avoided the twofold issue that he would be mistaken for a mixed race individual and that the plight of the speaker remains under a cloud of doubt.
That fact does not detract from what other poets have achieved in their character creation. For example, Emily Dickinson assumes the persona of adult male to express the experience of "There's been a Death, in the Opposite House," and her portrayal remains genuine. Unlike Hughes’ “Cross,” Dickinson’s speaker is reporting on an observation, not a deeply felt inner turmoil.
Whether the speaker in Dickinson’s poem were a boy or a girl at the time of the observation matters very little, but if the poem had delved into deep seated feelings that the observation caused, it would have been less authentic to speak through the opposite sex. Inner turmoil can be very differently experienced depending on the sex of the individual. As Paramahansa Yogananda has explained, females are guided more by feeling and males by reason; although both sexes have both feeling and reason. In postlapsarian humanity, those qualities need to regain their balance and unity.
Exploration and Creativity
Poets, as well as novelists and playwrights, often explore feelings and thoughts and situations that they have not personally experienced. They often explore and dramatize beliefs that they do not necessarily hold. For this reason, it is always safer to assume that the poet is creating a character rather than merely testifying, that he is exploring ideas rather than merely elaborating his own beliefs, thoughts, or feelings.
Even though the poet may, in fact, be testifying and issuing her own beliefs, thoughts, or feelings, it is still more accurate and safer to assume that the poem is being spoken by a character, rather than by the poet.
Identifying the Speaker in a Poem
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes