You: The Quest for Second Person Point of View, Part I of More

You have begun to wonder as you teach your writing classes each semester why you never talk much about the second person point of view. You mention it, briefly, cursorily, along with its weightier, meatier cousins: first person, third person (omniscient, limited, objective). You typically glide past it: “Second person is rare in writing, and is mostly reserved for manuals and advertisements.” End of story. But as this new semester gets underway, you think, well, what the heck, why don’t you spend more time with second person, why not get into you and your?

Maybe you feel like you’re not qualified to talk about second person point of view. For one thing, you’ve only read one novel in this point of view, and sadly, you can’t even remember its name. And the novel you’re forgetting is not the big one that everyone points to: Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney. You haven’t read that one. You’ve read some manuals, sure, but that’s the terrain of the technical writers, and that, you are not.

You begin to think that ok, maybe second person point of view doesn’t serve creative prose, but what about poetry? Surely, you’ve written some poems yourself to an unnamed you. But you can’t find them. A Google search yields no quick and easy lists of poems written in second person point of view. You click randomly and neurotically at various poems at poets.org, hoping against hope that you will land on one amongst thousands that is in second person point of view. You fail.

You get a brilliant idea! Surely, aubades are written in second person; after all, aren’t aubades about addressing the missing lover, the one who has left in the morning, the pined after you?

The first aubade you find is by Philip Larkin, and it starts, “I work all day, and get half-drunk at night. / Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.” No luck there. John Donne’s famous aubade, “Break of Day” uses only one thou and then the rest is I and we. You abandon your search for you-centered aubades. It’s no use.

You stop your maniacal quest for a minute, and breathe. You think about the value of this narrative approach. What does you do? You tell your students that sometimes saying you can stand in for the narrator, or a character. Instead of being given a name, Prairie becomes you, or she or he becomes you. But it’s more than that: you is addressing the reader—the reader becomes a character in the story, is dragged into it, perhaps unwillingly. The barrier between reader and writer is diminished, if not obliterated, by the use of you.

As a creative writer, what makes you hesitant to use it? What makes you turn into the familiar arms of I and they? Do you worry that you’ll impose too much upon the readers, make them squirm, make them sit up straight and blink rapidly as though caught in the act?

Do you think you have that much power?

You decide it’s worth pursuing, this illusive you, and you make it your mission to find poems that use it. You make it your mission to use it yourself. You make it your mission to ask others if they use it. Do you?

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2 thoughts on “You: The Quest for Second Person Point of View, Part I of More

  1. I have wondered sometimes why the second person wasn’t used more. I seem to remember it being used sometimes in “Choose Your Own Adventure” types of books, but I could be misremembering.

    As a reader, I think it would be harder to get into a book in the second person. I say this just considering that the author might be addressing a political, religious or philosophical topic with which I do not agree. In that case, how would I react to something which informs me that I (you) do something out of your own nature?

    I’m not saying it couldn’t be fantastic literature, I just don’t know if *I* could get into something that forces me to be something or someone I’m not. Interesting topic to consider, for sure!

  2. Well explained, Prairie. Thanks for this post. Seems that second person narrative is an intimate voice, maybe a difficult POV since the writer doesn’t know to whom she is speaking (writing) and the reader may bristle at the invasion of personal space. Or maybe it seems too regal, like speaking about oneself as the royal “we,” though that isn’t exactly right either.
    I’ve sometimes written a chapter in two POV, trying to work out which sounds most comfortable, but have never attempted second person.
    Except in lesson plans and worksheets for kids.

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