You: The Potential for Universality in 2nd Person Point of View

Last month, I wrote a post about second person point of view, and how this point of view is the ugly duckling to the ubiquitous and elegant 1st person and 3rd person points of view. Second person point of view is so sparingly used that I was hard-pressed at the time to find some examples of it, specifically in poetry. In the weeks since that post, I have found some 2nd person jewels.

For this post, I want to reflect on the value of second person point of view as a tool for rousing an audience, and inspiring a sense of kinship and unity. Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If—” does precisely that, using the second person pronoun “you” as a universal placeholder, as a way of welcoming the reader into a shared experience.

For those of you unfamiliar with the poem or who wish to revisit it, you can find it here:

In this poem, Kipling does not use second person point of view as a way of imposing, in a negative or off-putting way, an emotion or experience on the reader (as this point of view so often runs the risk of doing); rather, his approach draws readers in, weaves them into a common experience. One of the ways he does this is by addressing pathos-driven topics and using emotive diction. He discusses dreams, lies, chaos, triumphs, disasters, self-possession, winning, and losing. He discusses our hearts, our desires, our deepest fears. Who hasn’t experienced fear? Who hasn’t dreamed of something larger than him/herself? Who hasn’t faced duplicity in another human being? The second person point of view works, in this case, because the poem deals with generalities, not specifics.

Take these lines as an example: “If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken / Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools . . .”

Kipling refers to truth, generally; knaves, generally; the verb twisted, generally (we do not know in what way twisted), and so on.

It’s not: “If you can bear to hear your opinions about the Affordable Care Act / Made fun of by your cousin twice removed.” There is less there for readers, as a whole, to latch onto. So, through the poem’s generality, readers can be find an easy place for themselves.

It bears mentioning that the last line of the poem identifies the “you” of the poem as the speaker’s son. For me, this is where the poem loses its universality. Kipling falters there—the poem, its message, and its ability to connect with its readers would be better served without that final line. That final line shifts the all-welcoming, all-encompassing usage of “you” and turns it back into what it is often accused of being: a narrow, alienating, imposing point of view.

Last line aside, this poem exemplifies the use of second person point of view as a tool for engaging an audience, in a way that the first person plural “we” doesn’t quite do, or perhaps, does differently. “You” is rousing; it requires and inspires action, attention, and connection.


2 thoughts on “You: The Potential for Universality in 2nd Person Point of View

  1. The poetry foundation site seems to be having some problems today, so as of this comment the link to Kipling’s poem, “If–” is not working. I found the poem here as well:

    I agree with everything you’ve said in this post about the power that the second person POV has. I find it really, really hard to imagine myself writing in second person and to be honest, I’ve found it hard to read it as well. I find it uncomfortable. That, of course, is part of the power of it, but also it is possibly part of the reason it isn’t very common. Strange how we want to engage readers and we want to draw them into a story as a participant…but generally only want to do so if we can draw them in as “someone else”. Interesting topic, it has made me think a lot about POV.

  2. I never liked that last line either, feeling it diluted the power of the poem. It was however written for a specific person and perhaps originally not intended to be published.
    Have you read The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern? The book generated lots of excitement when it came out so I got on the bandwagon and read it. I was disappointed. It used two devices I don’t love. One is present tense which I find unnecessarily clumsy to follow. It also jumps around in time, but the story would have worked just fine in chronological order. But I’m mentioning it here because parts of the book were written in second person POV. I think this bothered me less than it might have because the other devices bugged me so much.
    Poetry, by its intimate and relatively short nature, seems to benefit from second person POV more than other genres.
    Interesting posts, these. Thanks.

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