On the train heading upstate now, the Amtrak Albany line—certainly one of the most gorgeous train trips anywhere: gold west-slanting sun ricocheting off the Hudson, sailboats, a backdrop of the Catskills. Bear Mountain looms out of the water, and in the back of my mind, a soundtrack of Elgar’s Enigma Variations (Nimrod) starts up . . .

. . . unfortunately drowned out by the bad hair-metal from the headphones of the guy sitting two seats behind me. (When I say “hair-metal” (which I despise), I don’t mean to also denigrate those speed-metal bands (whom I worship and adore) whose members happen to be follicular overachievers, such as Slayer, who in concert do this incredible thing where the guitarists whirl their waist-length hair like helicopters in perfect unison while playing.

at least as beautiful as any boy
or helicopter.

I can’t even get my head to whirl evenly on its axis like that while not playing unbelievably fast polyrhythmic guitar, much less in sync with two other whirling players.

Perhaps proficiency in this esoteric art form can be made mandatory for all hair poets. (Personally, I’d pay $100 to see Jorie, Lucie, and Gjertrud even give it one good try. So if you’re feeling a little short of cash, ladies . . .))

* * *

Current favorite word: “pleather.”

[Note to self: Stop reading mail-order catalogs!]

Current favorite quotation: “A sweater of earthworms may provide warmth, but it provides it at the expense of many other feelings.” (Henri Michaux, “Night of Inconveniences”)

“Yuck!”: friend S’s response yesterday to most recent Ignatz poem, where I had been aiming for “erotically transgressive.” Sigh.

The Ignatz project may be reinforcing one of my habits (not sure whether it’s a bad habit, but from the existentialism-lite perspective I tend to take about poetry, all habits are presumptively bad): displacing extremely personal/sexual subject matter into the third-person voice, or at least into the dramatic first-person, as opposed to the lyric first-person.

Unlike a lot of developing poets, until I was in my mid-twenties, I never wrote in the lyric first-person, and I remember certain poems (e.g., an early one called “10 Years Old”) that I started in first-person voice and was actually unable to write until I shifted to the third-person, at which point things started to flow again. The first time I forced myself to stick with the lyric first-person (a poem called “A Parking Lot in West Houston”—perhaps coincidentally my first published poem), it felt like a huge embrace of personal risk, claiming and taking responsibility for the perspective of the speaker.

One would like to think that one’s stylistic choices are rooted in artistic convictions, rather than personal neuroses, but I have to admit that this avoidance of the first person wasn’t any conscious stance re: impersonality, but stemmed, I think, from deep-rooted habits of repression and secrecy and from a craving for anonymity that I still feel strongly (why I live in NYC), as well as from a childhood allergy to poetic approaches that privilege “voice,” as in “finding your true poetic voice.” Yuck, indeed.

The displacement-to-the-third-person reflex for personal/sexual subject matter, is an especially odd impulse because it’s not as if the coy “I have this friend who has this problem” game of the third-person voice is fooling anyone. But somehow using the third-person seems to cool it down a notch, soothes the outraged privacy, makes it ok.

Is the superego censor really this easy to trick? Is there a theory of the lyric third person?

(Of course, at root, all art involves displacement of the personal into the formal. But somehow the third-person vs. first-person problem puts a finer point to this displacement.)

Aaron Kunin encapsulates this weird solace brilliantly in his poem “The Bloody Revisions,” which I include in its entirety, since it’s hard to excerpt and really good.

until the blood dried
and blackened he tried

(several times) to
masturbate and failed
(there’s no way I could

possibly write that)
in the first person
keep the bristles hard

and brush teeth until
bloody (scratch out rub
out) hold smile until

bloody and (you know
how it can make you
want to roll in it

and do that sweet thing)
until it coats the
mirror properly

only for the warm
sleepy feeling it
gives you afterwards.

Great, now this blog is going to come up on Google searches for “masturbate + gochujang.” Because I don’t get enough freaky e-mails already.

Originally Published: August 9th, 2006

Monica Youn is the author of Blackacre (Graywolf Press, 2016); Barter (Graywolf Press, 2003); and Ignatz (Four Way Books, 2010), which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and the New York Times Magazine,...