The Troubled Speaker

Image: Mikolajus Ciurlionis

I keep coming back to a statement by Robert Bly that “every poem has to have images and ideas and some sort of troubled speaker” (Turkish Pears in August).  The notion of a troubled speaker captured my attention right away.  It gets at two very essential questions about poetry:  for the poet, why one is writing a poem in the first place, and for the reader, why one should even care.

“Troubled speaker” means someone bothered by something, trying to work something out.  And all of us are daily engaged in working things out – it’s what makes us human.  But it is the artist’s job to give voice to this process, to acknowledge the uneasiness, the doubt, the fear, the awe, the surprise, the difficulty, the dizziness, the contradiction that is at the heart of the human experience.

It’s a useful question to ask of any poem:  what’s bothering the poem’s speaker?  To pinpoint the unease is one way of unlocking a poem.  Here’s “The Broken Sandal,” a short poem by Denise Levertov.

In this poem, the speaker feels suddenly disoriented.  She is faced with a decision, one she feels ill-equipped to make – either continue moving, which may involve pain, or come to a standstill.  Either way, the unforeseen turn of events disturbs the speaker and raises questions about her present and her future.  There must have been something she was moving toward, she feels, and she wants to work out whether or not it is worth suffering for.

A friend of mine, the poet MRB Chelko, once told me she thinks of poems as questions.  This insight is similar to Bly’s.  I have found it very helpful to conceive of poems this way — as a seeking after, as a search.  And I am coming to learn that a poem without this energy goes nowhere.

More poems that feature a troubled speaker:

To the Snake,” Denise Levertov

Prayer,” MRB Chelko

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