Second Person

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Like many another writer doesn’t precisely work in creative writing, I’ve spent a lot of time teaching composition…so let’s just start with a shout-out to all the contingent labor teaching composition on a piecework basis, year in and decade out, summer and winter, usually for under $30,000 a year, sometimes way under.


Moving on from the shout-out, every composition instructor has her issues, those not-so-favorite deviations from standard usage which, after some while, give her the eye-twitching look of Herbert Lom’s mad Inspector Dreyfuss, or lead her to write such suicidal thoughts as “No, no, NO!” in the margins and then white them out.  (It’s not invariably her, of course…but it shouldn’t be news to anyone that women are overrepresented among non-tenure track faculty.)  One of my own issues was, and is, the use of second person pronouns or point of view in formal nonfiction prose.

You know the kind (sterling example right there, yes).  The author uses you to mean (often simultaneously), one, the individual, everyone, I, or (on rare and beautiful occasions) some specific reader.   The second person you is flexible, and its use in oral colloquial English is pervasive and (sometimes) intimate and weirdly charming.  You know how, when a rat dies under your porch, you call your best friend’s husband and leave a three-minute message on his machine? Based on context, this you is likely to refer only to readers who happen to be straight single women sharing an inexplicable distaste for dead rats; the author has assumed an informal tone for an informal context and has managed to establish an audience into the bargain.  It’s dicey in that not all readers can fit the demographics of the imaginary audience, but in its place—would-be-helpful hints in certain magazines, for instance—it can work.  But this sort of use is the exception.

More likely is the pernicious and unlicensed reproduction of the second person with no real idea who is meant.  You might think that you should spay your female pets but let your males roam the hills like travelling salesmen, but… What if I never thought this, either about pets or salesmen?  Or, Honestly, all of the food safety regulations that are put into place don’t ensure that your food is more safe than if the regulations weren’t in place yet what the regulations do is prevent companies from doing illegal things such as…well, let’s draw the curtain of charity over that one, which is nowhere near its rendezvous with death.  Whose food?  We don’t know.  If I eat a lot of local food not inspected by the FDA, does that mean me?  What if I’m travelling in some sunny paradise not known for its food regulations, possibly with a class of high school students, and ten of us have just contracted a textbook case of cryptosporidium?  Does it still mean me, Catherine, or is that me, Vickie, to whom this actually happened?  Wouldn’t our do the same job more economically, maybe with a nice signal phrase to indicate who constitutes the we and the us of the author’s fevered imagination?  Or how about a nice semi-definite third-person plural, as in Many believe that they should spay their female pets but permit their males to…

I (Catherine) have asked these questions of many an unhappy young author, because this is my exclamation-point-in-the-margin, facial-tic favorite (well, second perhaps to impact used as a verb with regard to anything but teeth.  Okay, and service used as a verb meaning “to serve.”)  For the misuse of the second person, I have smitten the perpetrators with such vindictive smitings as “Who, me?” long strings of capital letters, interrobangs, and possibly tongue-in-cheek marks of F-.

All of which makes it the more ironic (and by ironic I mean “humiliating”) that in poetry (and maybe in one or two blog essays), I’m not at all averse to the second person (that’s what we in our lit-crit hats like to call “litotes.”) I use it all the time. And I’d like to suggest to you at least a few of its potential virtues—that is, you, my hypothetical, language-invested, not-too-compositionally-challenged, for-some-reason-still-reading Ploughshares blog reader (and if you’ve missed any of Billy Collins’ poems about his readers, this would be a great moment.)

One of those virtues:  in poetry, the fluidity that makes the second person so maddening in the hands of the careless can be a force for what usually gets called fruitful ambiguity—stacking meanings on top of one another like multiple love affairs, and wanting them all.  In poetry, maybe you (that’s you the poet this time) really do want to suggest that the you who is the invisible reader; and the you that means Everyperson, one, the individual; and the you who is really the I, the writer, and maybe even, with great care, the you of the poem’s apostrophe—you, Andrew Marvell, you, basil!—all those yous can be one you.  That word draws them, which is to say us, all together, and asserts (or, in the worse case, imposes) some kind of commonality.  It may not really be there, of course; if you (the poet) choose to begin a poem By the cuttings of my nails / you can curse me… and you (the reader) have no such interest…well, you (I) get what you get.  Or don’t get:  and that is, of course, certain readers.

Another one, the one that really hooks me:  it gets you (the poet) out of the everlasting I of the autobiographical lyric free-verse poem.  You-the-reader (or at least I the reader) get so tired of that:  I crawl under the dusty porch to drag forth the dead rat, and then I think of you (now some actual person from the speaker’s life, apostrophized), and then I remember the day on the prison bus when I, I, I…ay yi yi.  Saying you opens things up; you (poet) can start a poem with By this spring you cannot stand… and it doesn’t matter if there’s an actual spring in your actual life, if it got silted up years ago, if maybe it’s more of a metaphysical construct, or if Elizabeth Bishop ever really caught that fish.  With you, you (writer) have available all the resources of the possible, the imaginary, the empathetic, the conditional and future tenses.  You’re not stuck in your own eye.

It also reminds you (the poet) that there might be someone else in this relationship of the invisible besides…well, you.  Or me.  That I’m not just writing to myself.  With a you in my mind (that’s really you, this time, Gentle Reader) who shouldn’t be bludgeoned or exhausted, I can pare more surgically, prune more callously, and pitch whole concepts onto the compost heap more willingly.

In short, you, if treated with care, are very good for me.  And if you—scarred by too many youthful effusions—are hesitating doubtfully over the cloudy waters of the second person, maybe that’s all you need to know.

This is Catherine’s ninth post as a Guest Blogger.