The speaker of a poem is the voice of the poem, similar to a narrator in fiction. The poet might not necessarily be the speaker of the poem. Sometimes the poet will write from a different perspective, or use the voice of a specific person, as in a persona poem. The term speaker clarifies the distinction from the poet’s perspective and the perspective they use in the poem.
The poem “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes is an example of a poem in which the poet and the speaker are not the same. As the title indicates, the poem is a conversation between a mother and a son. The poem begins “Well, son, I’ll tell you: / Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.” The title and the opening line characterize the speaker of the poem as a mother. Langston Hughes writes from a perspective different from his own, creating the character of the mother to narrate the poem.
In some poems, the distinction between poet and speaker is not as obvious. For example, in “My Dead Friends” by Marie Howe, there are no specific context clues to indicate that the voice narrating the poem has different characteristics from the person writing the poem. The poem still has a speaker, though its characteristics are not as clearly defined.
The role of the speaker is important in poetry. The speaker can be considered the storyteller or the actor of the poem. The narrative, emotions, and images in the poem are conveyed through the speaker.