First Person, Present Tense

Michael Peverett

    Things have their own lives here. The hall chairs
    count me as I climb the steps.      (Jane Cooper)

    I run into the cool morning;
    rooks study the rubble of the pavilion,
    a motorbike buried in the hedge...     (Kelvin Corcoran)

This note is about poems that go: I do this, I do that, something happens, I feel this, I do something else. My main interest is the use of the simple present, and sometimes other persons might predominate: for instance it might go they do this, you do that, and sometimes the other persons are disguised "I"s, but only sometimes.

That's reductive, but this isn't about having an easy laugh, because some good poets have been very comfortable in this mode (Peter Redgrove, for instance; Jane Cooper and Kelvin Corcoran also). It's still a dominant mode in the writings of naïve poets. Its pressure as a dominant mode is even discernible, I think, in the strategies of poets who go out of their way to avoid writing that kind of poem.

This has doubtless been discussed a hundred times before, but I haven't seen those discussions, so here is mine. The examples I'm going to use are by Jeffery Bahr and Florence Elon, both poets that I happen to like, but I do them no service here. The extracts are not from outstanding poems and are used only as illustrations.


    I drop him off, and get the call
    and drive back to his school
    to find him slumped against a sign,
    one hand in his pocket, etched
    with pen-stroked rock bands, pentagrams,
    the other waving.      (Jeffery Bahr)

One reason you know this is a poem is the tense, i.e. the simple present. There is an absorbed convention active here. Most readers take the tense of such poems for granted; they don't notice anything unusual about it. Yet in spoken English the simple present is very restricted in its use.

     Where's John?(1)

     He's gone outside.(3) He's helping unload some paper.(4) He'll be back in a few minutes.(5)

     You never answer his phone.(2) I need to know(1) if the printer's been fixed yet(7)
nbsp;    I do normally,(2) but I'm too busy doing this report.(1) It's got to be out by lunchtime.(1) I thought of some additions last night.(6)

1. Simple present is usual with auxiliary verbs, the verb to be, etc. Also verbs of feeling or knowledge (I want). This note isn't about these usages; it's only about verbs of action.
2. Simple present, implying a habitual occurrence.
3. Simple past – for recently completed action.
4. Present continuous. The usual tense in English for something that is occurring right now.
5. Future
6. Simple past, used for remote completed action (compare 3).
7. Composite past, used here to venture into the irrealis (where a lot of other languages would use a subjunctive).

As the above example shows, the main idiomatic use of the simple present is to imply repeated business. (What I am calling the "simple present" is sometimes referred to as the "habitual present".) Thus, if you overheard someone say

    I drop him off

you would automatically interpret this as implying a habitual state of affairs. You'd understand it to mean I generally drop him off i.e. he doesn't catch the bus.

If you overheard someone say

    I get the call

you would be puzzled to interpret it at all (because the "habitual" version would be I get a call e.g. every time the printer breaks down).

As the second example shows, Jeffery Bahr isn't using the simple present in its "habitual" sense. His poem is about a "happened once" situation.

Most narrative is about the past, and the most common tense for narrative, spoken or written, is the simple past.

For the uncommon situation where narrative is actually about the present, we use the present continuous. E.g. on a cordless phone: Hold on, I'm having my tea. I'm just looking for the number. I'm trying to remember where I wrote it. Just going upstairs now.

The simple present is, nevertheless, used for narrative; paradoxically, narrative about the past. In literature, this is the "historic present", as for example in half the chapters of Bleak House. It's a self-consciously literary device. Novelists might use it sometimes, but journalists don't. In a novel you would appreciate it; it's only in poetry that you don't notice it.

The simple present is also used for:

- spoken narrative in non-Standard English. She goes to me well you can't come in we're closing so I go to her I go my sister works here I’ve got to get the keys off her and she goes well she's left for the day so I go down the street and there's her car so I go back and I go well I don’t think she has cos I can see her car...

- telling jokes. A man goes to a funfair and he wins first prize at the shooting-gallery. So the man says what do you want for your prize....

- stage directions and screenplays. When people describe a film they talk like this: He escapes from the hospital with a nurse who takes him off to a ranch where they can't be traced. He trains himself up with Chinese medicine and martial arts. But one day she tries to contact a friend who turns out to have been killed and then they follow her back and surround the house... (This use of the simple present acknowledges, I think, that the action on film or stage can be re-played.)

- telling a psycho-analyst about your dream. It's always the same. I'm at a crowded party somewhere. Suddenly I realize that people are watching what I'm doing. I start to feel trapped...

What the dream and the joke have in common is a sense of the narrative action being unlocated in time. Both are narratives whose significance does not relate to the time they occured (if there ever was such a time) but only to the time now, when they are being recounted. The narrative is presented as having a typical quality.

Now we are, at last, getting close to Jeffery Bahr's poem. The "poetic present tense" is somewhat different from all these analogues, but it resembles each of them in different ways. The characteristic prominence of the first person differentiates the "poetic present tense" from some of the other uses I have mentioned, for instance jokes and screenplays. First-person present tense is (as it seems to me) the most glaringly unidiomatic of uses. How many times in a year will you actually say

    I clean my teeth


    I draw the curtains

though you in fact do both these things every day? Not often, I suggest.

So why would you want to write like this in a poem? Unlike the joke and the dream, the poem very likely does narrate events that actually occurred in the past. Let's try converting Jeffery Bahr's simple present into the simple past.

    I dropped him off, and got the call
    and drove back to his school
    to find him slumped against a sign,

I accept that this tense-change isn't enough on its own to convert the poem into idiomatic English. But make a few other changes and it could:

I dropped him off, but then I got a call and drove back to the school. I found him outside. He was slumped against a sign....

What this change of tense also does is introduce into our minds a fictional occasion of telling. Instead of just Jeffery Bahr and his poem, we now have a poem which quotes a narrative that, we imagine, was spoken not to us but to someone else.

But often this "occasion of telling" would be hard to picture, because the narratives in such poems are deeply personal, unsensational, inconclusive, the sort of thing that does not get told at all outside of a poem.

Besides, a strongly pictured "occasion of telling" has a way of inserting a wedge between poet and narrator that turns the whole performance into a dramatic monologue. This induces preoccupations in the reader that are for the most part unwanted in modern poems. Narrative in the simple past is a comparatively unusual choice for a modern poet. It feels old-fashioned. It requires a trust in the infallibility of the poet (who is in contrast to the fallible narrator). It's a kind of trust that we are not now in the habit of conceding.

With the poem as it stands, we may interpret the present-tense narrative as a kind of tacit meditation, rather than telling. One reason for its current prevalence in poetry is surely an uncertainty about what is being done, an indefiniteness of audience and even an uncertainty of whether there is an audience at all outside the poet's own mind. Well, there is an audience, of course there is; they'll read the words, but you can't trust them to – how can I put it? – to take your meaning... The distrust, in other words, is mutual.

This is a stanza by Florence Elon.

    Now moon beams pattern leaves
    outside the blinds
    where linnets nest.
    I lie alone.
    Under the study door
    your light shows in a strip:
    you leaf through texts,
    take notes, file them away.
    Through swaying leaves
    the moon circles our quilt.

This time I'm going to try a conversion into the continuous present. (As above, it's necessary to make a few other adjustments.)

Now moonbeams are patterning leaves outside the blinds, where linnets are nesting. I'm lying alone. Under the study door your light is showing in a strip: you're leafing through texts, taking notes, filing them away...the moon's circling the quilt...

At first things go along quite well, because the word Now implies a time-located narrative. The change of tense gives a greater sense of immediacy to the drama; we feel closer to sharing the speaker's lonely experience of lying in bed, moment by moment. But at the point where I break off, a tension between tense and content is starting to become apparent. The continuous present implies a record of experience, but the speaker can't actually know exactly what her husband is doing behind the closed door. He certainly is not leafing through texts, taking notes AND filing them away all at the same time. And when we get to the moon, it positively flies round the quilt in an effort to match the tempo of leafing through texts.

The collapse of this attempted transformation betrays the temporal complexity that lies concealed beneath that simple present. It isn't a single momentary "now" at all, it's a long wakeful night and what's more it's resonant with habituality. The poem does not, after all, describe a single precise occasion, or rather it does to a certain extent, but it also implies a long-continued state of affairs. The narrative slip-slides from one to the other, and this is made easy and unobtrusive by use of the simple present.

Though this poem is formally addressed to the speaker's (ex-)husband, we never suppose that its words were actually, then or now, spoken to him. The poem represents feelings that were not articulated then and are now transmuted into the art-articulation of poetry. The poem evokes a scene which (we understand) is a conglomerate of real events put together with a motive, i.e. to assert it as typical. The "poetic present tense" is a way of having it both ways, supplying the evidential force of something that actually occurred while simultaneously claiming the generalising force of the kind of thing that's always happening these days, the kind of thing that just says it all.

When things go bad in our relations with someone, we can't help the way that we don’t communicate, which is also the way we communicate. When we feel frustrated by the repeated failures of that communication, we start to frame magical, healing sentences which would actually get through (unlike all the things that we do really say to each other, which fail to achieve anything – because we’re in a vicious circle, endlessly stimulating each other's pattern behaviour). So long as those sentences are never verbalized, they would get through – in the irrealis. So long as we don’t make the mistake of actually verbalizing them, we take comfort from half-believing that they would effect the healing change that would alter our destructive relations. (If we verbalized them, we’d learn that all the effort that we lovingly expended to deliver a sort of clinching clarity was entirely useless, because it's still us speaking, and since we haven’t changed, we’ll be ripped to pieces again.) In fact this self-therapy prolongs the problem by fixing our pattern behaviour yet more deeply; though there is this to be said for it: inasmuch as it allows us to be who we really are, it helps us to grow tired of who we are. A lot of naïve poetry is a vent for recording these “healing sentences”; it turns to personal advantage the underlying realization that the poems don’t have any readers who matter personally.

I'm not saying that first-person-present-tense poems are all bad, or indeed all anything. But my twin themes of self-therapy and uncertainty of the poem’s social function are meant to be suggestive. All art has conventions, but all conventions exact a cost. So incessant use of the present tense is the symptom of a problem – the actual problem may lie with narration itself, which is obscurely seen to produce enervated poetry. A poem, some of us wisely – but symptomatically? – proclaim, is not a machine for narrative; it is not about saying things, not in this kind of way anyhow.


The current dominance of the "poetic present tense" disguises the surprising fact (well, it surprised me) that its use is rather new. In older poets (when Blake walks thro' each charter'd street, or Marvell falls on grass), the implication is always habitual, as in normal spoken English.

Then you can pick out occasional lines from Coleridge or Keats:

     'Tis midnight, but small thoughts have I of sleep      (Dejection)

    I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
         Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs...      (Ode to a Nightingale)

But as a whole these poems are not about what the speakers do. The poet who's stting there in the present tense provides only a brief descriptive frame for meditation, exclamation, etc. The poet in fact is not in action, the poet is only seeing (or not seeing), listening, reflecting. See also This Lime Tree Bower My Prison, Frost at Midnight, Rugby Chapel, The Scholar-Gipsy etc.

It's Whitman, I think, who first begins to drop the meditation and to compose a whole poem out of the record of present-tense actions. This is chiefly in some of the short poems in Drum-Taps:

    A sight in camp in the daybreak gray and dim,
    As from my tent I emerge so early sleepless,
    As slow I walk in the cool fresh air the path near by the hospital tent,
    Three forms I see on stretchers lying...

That was during the US Civil War. But it wasn't until a hundred years later that this mode became truly commonplace.

Hmmm... I'm not sure much can ever be accomplished by applying academic biases to art.

The use of 1st present has a very specific set of ARTISTIC uses in oral storytelling. In that sense, it is used as a device to add immediacy, foreshadow, focus attention, etc.

Its rubbish, in the linguistic sense, to say that oral storytellers have bad grammar!

If you write poetry from a position of such an academic (or even class-based) bias, then you risk of giving your implied narrator the voice of a crotchety academic, or perhaps a Jr. high English teacher.

Nothing destroys poetry faster than setting it on the artificial pedestal of proscribed grammar.

I prefer poetry that deals directly with describing the REAL grammar of one setting or another. Such as reading you post here as poetry.

Beautiful poetry in habitual present.
And for another perspective, we could look to Japanese and Chinese poetry. 1st present was found as a frequent if not dominant mode in both!

As in my favorite, ancient Tamil poetry, some of our earliest recorded poetry. The use of 1st person present in storytelling, poetry and prose has ancient roots, indeed.

We could examine what these old masters had in mind when they took up this perspective as a tool. Its application could be equally valid today.
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