A Speaker(1)-Speaker(2) Structure (?)

30 05 2009


(Spoiler Alert: If you’ve not yet seen the movies The Sixth Sense, The Others, and Fight Club, 1) you should, and 2) you might want to skip this post til you do–some secrets vital to these movies are revealed below.)

We see it often in the movies: the characters we think we know turn out to be radically different from what we had thought.  In The Sixth Sense, Dr. Malcolm Crowe (the child psychologist played by Bruce Willis) turns out to be a ghost.  In The Others, Grace Stewart (the mother played by Nicole Kidman) also turns out to be a ghost.  In Fight Club, the narrator (played by Edward Norton) turns out to be Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt).

And so, prompted by some comments from Avi Akshoti over at the Structure & Surprise “Welcome!” page (thank you, Avi!), I gotta ask: are there poems that employ this kind of turn?  That is, are there poems in which the person you thought was the speaker turns out to be someone else entirely?

Now, of course, a lot of poems record a substantial change in a speaker–just check out the Dejection-Elation Structure or the Descriptive-Meditative Structure, or read Coleridge’s “This Lime-Tree Bower, My Prison,” a poem that combines these two structures beautifully, recording the speaker’s transition from despondency to joyfullness.

But this isn’t what Avi was, and now I am, asking for: what we want to know is: are there poems with speakers who turn out, in a surprising turn as radical as that found it The Sixth SenseThe Others, and Fight Club, to be radically different from what we expected?  If so, what are these poems?  (Please DO feel free to reply.)  If not, 1) write one and send it in, or else 2) theorize why this kind of poem has not been written.

The closest I can get to this kind of poem is Margaret Atwood’s “This Is a Photograph of Me,” a poem in which the speaker turns out to be dead…

Other ideas?




4 responses

2 06 2009

I feel like this kind of “surprise ending” would feel gimmicky in a poem as opposed to the larger scale of a book or movie, but I’ll try to think of one nonetheless. For now I want to throw in a book example: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which I read on Mark Wallace’s recommendation a few months ago.

2 06 2009
Mike Theune

Thanks for your comment, Elisa–

You’re likely correct about the potential “gimmicky” aspect of such a poem–

However, I wonder: might not this kind of turn also be used to interesting theoretical effect? For example, a poem of easy ephiphany could be revealed to have been “written” (or “spoken”) by some kind of unexpected (perhaps some sort of unsavory) character. One could have theoretical/critical fun by attributing kinds of poems to certain people… Perhaps…

Thanks for the book recommendation! I’ll check it out.

All best,

7 06 2009

On a bit of a tangent, there are quite a few poems in which the speaker turns out to be dead, one of my favorites being Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.” Come to think of it, this poem sets up its turn by using a third-person title, then switching to a first-person narrative. A certain percentage of students in my Intro to Lit classes always try to invent a living speaker for this poem — a friend, some observer — because, they say, ‘a dead person can’t be speaking.’ Did I mention I teach at a school with a lot of Engineering majors?

8 06 2009
Mike Theune

Thanks for this comment, Joseph. You are, of course, absolutely right about including Jarrell’s poem amongst those poems in which the speaker turns out to be dead, of which–again, I’m sure you’re right–there are many. (Part of the shock of Dickinson’s “I heard a fly buzz…” comes right away in that poem: “I heard a fly buzz when I died…”) Turns largely are about surprise, and the transition from (seemingly) living speaker (we tend to assume a “living” speaker, yes?) to dead speaker is indeed surprising–often shocking. (I’d love to hear more (at some time–no pressure) about how you discuss the dead speaking in poems with your engineers: why is the turn at the end of Jarrell’s poem significant? how does it contribute to the power and affect of the poem?) Again, with thanks, Mike

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