Lately I’ve been thinking about the multiple ways writers use the second person; how, depending on the situation, the “you” functions as an address to a specific other, to the unknown reader or readers, or to the self when the long litany of I I I grows too tiring or when what’s being written about is too fraught.
I’ve always loved writing in the second person and was horrified years ago when reading a sociology book about sociopaths (sociology and true crime books: my guilty reading pleasure, no longer a secret now that I’ve outed myself here) and learned that they speak in the second person more often than most other people--particularly when asked to express emotions. One of my best friends was reading the same book at the time and we both briefly worried we might secretly be sociopaths--in Diana’s case because sociopaths also apparently love spicy foods and she loads her pizza slices with chili flakes as thick as snow in a Siberian winter; in my case because I was writing a lot of poems where I swapped in “you” when I really meant “I.” Of course the reasons are different: sociopaths say “you” so they have a coat hook to hang emotions they don’t feel onto, whereas my longstanding joke title for my future memoir has been I Had Too Goddamn Many Feelings--I used “you” in the poems I was writing back then because I needed the illusion of distance from my subject matter.
To leave talking about myself aside for a minute, my co-editor at Augury Books, Kimberly Steele, wrote a great piece a few years back about John Ashbery and Richard Siken’s use of the second person in their poems. Sadly I can’t link to the essay, but I can quote her when she says, of Siken, “The details are too singular to implicate the reader, but the absence of a first person calls attention to the ‘you.’ The speaker stands out as the subject just as transparently as if he had employed the first person.” One of my favorite of Siken’s poems, “A Primer for the Small Weird Loves” (Crush), is a perfect example of this--the “you” so clearly an “I” who needs to speak through displacement into the observational eye detailing the scene. And yet I would also add that, despite the specificity of the details, the emotional trajectory the poem follows is common enough that many readers can and will put themselves inside this “you”--not only as we see with Penny Lane’s analysis of the poem on The Rumpus in the link I included, but also because a lengthy Google search for “A Primer...” brought me to a number of tumblr pages where fans had transcribed the poem but misquoted the last line, adding a “never” before “leave you alone.” Not only does this addition entirely change the line’s meaning, but I think it also reveals how fully the transcribers conflate the “you” of the poem with themselves; because they feel themselves inside the poem they need it to end less bleakly, even if they have to create the new ending themselves.
When I write in the second person now, I find that it allows me to direct my poems simultaneously to myself--the Other Kate who writes the poems--and to someone else, giving me a way to try to understand my own thoughts at the same time that I present them to others, hoping for them to understand (or, at least, see) me. Sometimes the other person is simply The Reader / a stranger, but more often it’s someone specific, usually chosen from the handful of people I care about who I no longer talk to except in my head; speaking to them through my writing is a way of keeping my lost ones in my life, even if our conversations have become one-sided and imaginary. I suppose when I use the second person, I feel like I’m sending a message out into the ether even though I know the “you” I address is unlikely to ever read it. Still, using the “you” is a way of reaching out--for understanding, for acknowledgement, as an invitation for a response, for connection. Because I am talking to someone, what I’m also saying is, of course, always “please answer.”