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. The reader or listener must do more than just hear the voice of the poem to identify the speaker. It is important to examine the other elements of the poem, such as the situation, structure, descriptive details, figurative language and rhythms to help determine the speaker’s identity.
Read the poem all the way through once without stopping to ask questions. Write down an immediate impression of the speaker in the poem: What kind of speaker do you imagine in your “mind’s eye”? Jot down anything that comes to mind. This is your first impression of the speaker.
Read the poem again, making notes in the margins; ask the question, “What is this poem about?” Pay attention to the title; it often hints at the situation or meanings of the poem. Underline words or images repeated by the speaker; repetition creates emphasis, and emphasis reveals the concerns and attitude of the speaker toward the subject of the poem.
Determine the “situation” of the poem: What is happening when the poem begins? What is the subject the speaker is addressing? Describe the setting portrayed in the descriptive images: Are they taken from nature or the city, a specific location or a generalized setting?
Examine the kinds of language used by the speaker: Is it formal or colloquial, as in everyday speech? Are there references to any particular situation or to an internal state of mind? Notice the focus of the speaker: What is he or she paying attention to?
Determine the overall emotion of the poem: Is the speaker reflective, excited, nostalgic, worried, angry, optimistic? Analyze the language for words that suggest moods: colors, sounds and images. Describe the rhythm of the speaker’s voice to help determine his or her attitude: Is the rhythm gentle and flowing or choppy and curt?
Write a brief description of the speaker’s physical appearance, age, gender, social status and any other details that help bring the speaker to life. If the details in the poem are not specific about these characteristics, use the context of the poem to speculate.
Review the notes taken during your analysis of the poem and draw some conclusions about the speaker. Write a brief character sketch of the speaker based on the notes taken from the close reading of the poem.
Do not assume that the speaker is the poet; poets write from many perspectives and personas.
- Do not assume that the speaker is the poet; poets write from many perspectives and personas.
Anna Story has written professionally since 1974. Her poetry appears in "Black Fly Review" and "Kentucky Poetry Review," among others. Her essays are included in "Resilience," "Students’ Encyclopedia of American Literary Characters" and "The Southern Quarterly." She holds a M.A. in English from the University of North Carolina.