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Self as Self-Impersonation in American Poetry

ISSUE:  Winter 2006

As a boy, I remember one of the few Sundays that our family went to church. Our regular attendance was partly hampered by the fact that one Easter Sunday my older brother, on a dare from Weegee Hansen, hit Reverend Fox in the back of the head with a water balloon: you can imagine the withering effect this might have on tender religious feelings, especially when Reverend Fox turned up at our house later that afternoon, seeking, as he put it, “to wring that little sinner’s neck.” But on the particular Sunday I have in mind, Reverend Fox recounted the story of Saul on the way to Damascus, in which God knocks Saul, the Christian persecutor, off his horse and he rises up from the dust as the apostle Paul. The miracle of the conversion went right by me. All that I could think about was the fate of the horse: Was Paul a better master than Saul? When God knocked Saul into the dust, did the horse also feel the blow? What kind of fodder did the horse get that evening in Damascus? The fact that my mind focused on the horse first, and Saul second, indicates how far I am from comprehending the mind of a truly religious sensibility, for whom Paul’s conversion would have been a template: the fallen consciousness is brought to God’s light by the fire of faith, and the self that suffers the flames is all the better for the scorching.

Although my sympathies may lie with the horse and not with God’s implacable heat, implicit in this conversion story are questions about identity, how it gets established, and what forces are sufficient to sponsor it. In the realm of poetry cocktail parties, you get to hear your share of conversion stories: cocktail parties being what they are, no one is under oath. And so I once witnessed a poet undergo multiple conversions in a single evening: depending on the confessor’s faith, this Paul/Saul claimed to be an autobiographical poet one moment, a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet the next, a narrative poet after that. Totally apart from whether or not these professions were sincere, is the question as to why a poet shouldn’t be able to inhabit all these positions at the same time. And it’s an interesting question as to why this kind of fluidity causes such unease in the poetry world, as well as in the realm of cultural debate. If you claim to be in league with the aesthetics of poet X, then you can’t possibly like the work of poet Y.

One aspect of this unease is the ongoing and inevitable debate about the place of subjectivity in art. What are its limits and possibilities, its responsibilities and risks? The varying camps of cultural and critical theory in which “I” is both a grammatical project and projection of systems of power, and the almost pre-literate hostility that some poetic scribblers feel toward any attempt to call the authority of “I” into question, makes for a lot of noise—some of this noise is what a friend calls “a tempestio in a teapotio,” the usual jockeying for audience that every generation is heir to, while some of it harks back to a reigning and basic question that underlies American imaginative writing from its beginning in Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor. Emerson formulated it when he asked what was “American” about American poetry, and what and whom should American poetry serve. But it exists in embryo in Bradstreet, when she declares that she wants no “Bayes” of laurel as handed down by tradition, but is content with a home-grown “wholsome Parsley wreath.”

In a poem entitled “Here Follows Some Verses upon the Burning of Our House July 10th 1666,” Anne Bradstreet exhorts herself to see God’s hand in the flickering flames, presumably as part of the murky working out of His Divine will.

In silent night when rest I took
For sorrow near I did not look
I wakened was with thund’ring noise
And piteous shrieks of dreadful voice.
That fearful sound of “Fire!” and “Fire!”
Let no man know is my desire.
I, starting up, the light did spy,
And to my God my heart did cry
To strengthen me in my distress
And not to leave me succorless.
Then, coming out, beheld a space
The flame consume my dwelling place.
And when I could no longer look,
I blest His name that gave and took,
That laid my goods now in the dust.
Yea, so it was, so ’twas just.
It was His own, it was not mine,
Far be it that I should repine;
He might of all justly bereft
But yet sufficient for us left.
When by the ruins oft I past
My sorrowing eyes aside did cast,
And here and there the places spy
Where oft I sat and long did lie:
Here stood that trunk, and there that chest,
There lay that store I counted best.
My pleasant things in ashes lie,
And them behold no more shall I.
Under thy roof no guest shall sit,
Nor at thy table eat a bit.
No pleasant tale shall e’er be told,
Nor things recounted done of old.
No candle e’er shall shine in thee,
Nor bridegroom’s voice e’er heard shall be.
In silence ever shall thou lie,
Adieu, Adieu, all’s vanity.
Then straight I ‘gin my heart to chide,
And did thy wealth on earth abide?
Didst fix thy hope on mold’ring dust?
The arm of flesh didst make thy trust?
Raise up thy thoughts above the sky
That dunghill mists away may fly.
Thou hast an house on high erect,
Framed by that mighty Architect,
With glory richly furnished,
Stands permanent though this be fled.
It’s purchased and paid for too
By Him who hath enough to do.
A price so vast as is unknown
Yet by His gift is made thine own;
There’s wealth enough, I need no more,
Farewell, my pelf, farewell my store.
The world no longer let me love,
My hope and treasure lies above.

While the poem seems like a form of obeisance to God’s inscrutable will, the poem seems to hint that all is not right in the New World’s dunghill mists. Bradstreet’s admission that the voices calling out “Fire” dovetail with a secret desire of her own makes one wonder about Bradstreet’s hidden tendencies toward the community: Is she a kind of spiritual pyromaniac wrestling with her more saintly self over how best to burn down God’s house? Of course I realize that one of Bradstreet’s aims is to use her own persona as a vehicle to proselytize. And from that point of view, her self-admonishments are both exemplary to others as well as sincerely felt. I suppose what I’m talking about is a kind of historical sixth sense that the poem exudes to a secular reader like myself. In Bradstreet’s New World, the tenor of religious feeling is undergoing a subtle shift: because there are no rose windows and high-flying spires to buttress your belief, to a sincere Puritan like Bradstreet, God’s personal presence begins to imbue everything, from a chest or a trunk to a burning house. And as God’s personal involvement in your life increases, so too does His responsibility for your fortunes. And that level of personal intimacy is bound to have serious psychological consequences.

As I said before, I realize that my horsy loyalties may reflect my own secular shortcomings in understanding an intelligence like Bradstreet’s. Nonetheless, when Bradstreet shifts from “I” to “thine” toward the end of the poem, I sense the ground of being shifting as the pronouns shift: this division of soul is finding expression on the level of grammar. Bradstreet’s ambivalence about losing “that store I counted best” is subtly signaled by her use of the second and third person pronouns to address the “mighty Architect” and keep him at a slight grammatical remove. In contrast, she lavishes affection and regret on her burned out house by addressing it as “thee.” And in the final couplet, Bradstreet’s teethgritting resignation is likewise undercut by a subtle shift in pronouns in the last third of the poem. Once she learns that her house is on fire, she goes from addressing the Lord as “my God” in the eighth line, to calling on God in the third person, even while she tries to bless “His name that gave and took.” Of course, one wonders why she should need to bless His name at all. Shouldn’t she be the one asking for His blessing?

Further evidence of this psychic strain is the way she addresses herself in a strangely disassociated second person, which at first seems like a form of self-address, but in fact is an address to her house. When she says, “Under thy roof no guest shall sit,” the psychic blurring between herself and her “pleasant things” that “in ashes lie” signals the spiritual depths in which she now burns. It’s as if the shift in pronouns signals a clandestine desire to cut loose from the Puritan God and explore her own peculiar psychological mechanisms. She splits off from the sorrowing self in order to admonish that self, and in the process the “I” sanctioned by the divine principle has begun to split along the grain. The more Bradstreet exhorts herself to see in her personal tragedy a divine lesson, the further she ventures into her own subjective wilderness. Apparently obedient, her mind may be the horse ridden by God, but it harbors animal tendencies to rear up and throw Him.

Abstracted further and further from its divine source, Bradstreet’s version of a religious self gives way to the Emersonian self, the Whitmanian self. For the self in American poetry has usually been dependent on some sponsoring transcendental source, even in a poem like The Waste Land, with its reflexive inclusion of personified spiritual qualities of Datta (give), Dayadhvam (sympathize), and Damyatam (control) from the Upanishads, not to mention the weird, oneiric Christ-like figure wandering in the desert who sinisterly invites the reader to “Come in under the shadow of this red rock.” Since its inception in Bradstreet, American poetry has never been content to let the self hang in the wind, subject to the uncertainty of its own status, but able to experience that uncertainty in its own independent way. And this seems as true to me now as it was to those in the seventeenth century.

When I mentioned this view to a friend of mine, he thought it was a pretty strange claim, since in his mind any poetry that wasn’t overtly devotional more or less had to be based on epistemological uncertainty. And I don’t disagree. Maybe what I’m talking about is more an attitude of inquiry, a special attentiveness to this metaphysically weightless condition. The image I have in mind is of a poet in a spacesuit, crossing the void with a little jet pack, and when that fails, behaving like Milton’s Satan as he fights his way through chaos, who “With head, hands, wings, or feet pursues his way.” In other words, to make that uncertainty a place to explore so that the poet doesn’t try to vanquish it by falling back on universalizing abstractions—which are, as always, in abundant supply. In our age, God the supreme authority has been displaced by secular abstractions like “hegemonic discourse”; or if you are a semiologist, the “transcendental signifier.” And the poetic doctrine of “deep image,” which saw consciousness as a set of images pre-existent to tainted history, looks to Jung’s notion of the collective unconscious as its sponsoring, transcendental authority. Even theories of poetry that stress language’s primacy seem based on a displaced passion for the assertion in John: “In the beginning was the Word.” And aesthetic stances like objectivism, imagism, and followers of projective verse tend to treat the world’s surface as a kind of phenomenological absolute. We may give lip service to human subjectivity as its own self-sufficient cause for being, but even the scientific assumptions surrounding neurological research, such as the right-brain/left-brain structures of consciousness, have been enlisted as a way to root the self in something outside its own waveringly subjective force field and experiential flow. This scientific way of explaining consciousness as brain function resembles a kind of Cartesian variant: “If my mind is structured like this and perforce must think like that, therefore I am the projection of that structure that I think of as if it were my self.”

Shifting from an epistemological to an historical perspective about the place of the self in American poetry, we return to the questions Emerson asked: What makes American poetry “American” and not European; and whom or what should American poetry serve. Frost’s half-joking line, “The land was ours before we were the land’s,” points to not only the irony of a colonial situation in which the colonists, fleeing the oppression of their mother country, feel alienated in the promised land, but their unconscious arrogance in assuming that the land is theirs while being blind to their own murderous intention to take the land by force from its Indian inhabitants. Of course the ironies I’m deploying here are more mine than Frost’s, since he did read the poem at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, hardly the venue for revisionist thoughts about the United States’ westward expansion.

But if you squint at those lines from a certain historical perspective, Frost’s repetition of “we” implies a queasiness about who this “we” really is, in which ethnic and class divisions are elided so that “we” may possess, and become possessed by, the land whose price “was many deeds of war.” The answers to these questions about American poetry’s status as American—which seem narrowly chauvinistic at worst, and at best a goad to make a “nation language” that isn’t cowed by what Seamus Heaney once called “the Absolute Speaker” of bureaucratic and technocratic officialdom—don’t seem to have entertained the notion that American poetry could be a force in its own right, a self-sufficient category of human consciousness. Either its purpose was to serve God in the New World theocracy; or, as democracy replaced theocracy, it must serve, according to Whitman, as a prophetic source for the ever renewing energies of democratic experiment.

But to return to Bradstreet: as Puritanism became less and less the attempt to fathom the mystery of God’s grace in the New World wilderness, and more and more focused on individual salvation and self-scrutiny for the purpose of exposing sin, the native skepticism of such scrutiny inevitably turned against its transcendental author, the hitherto unimpeachable “I am that I am.” Belief becomes non-belief through Puritanism’s own genius for self-scrutiny and self-doubt, and so the grounding authority of the self is forced to find new ground: Emerson floats the concept of the Over Soul, a version of God as human and human as God, but all so undifferentiated that the self begins to blur into universal consciousness: it becomes wispy, thin, fog that mists a mirror. And then Whitman attempts to clean the mirror by focusing on the body: this seems like a promising direction, to ground the self in the universality of sexual feeling; he calls this “adhesiveness,” but his missionary zeal about eros as a democratic force doesn’t take into account how oblique sex is, how opaque, how irremediable to generalization—people actually having sex in Whitman is too often a question of hygiene, physical and mental, and too seldom a matter of “sharp-toothed touch.” Whitman’s intuition of the self grounded in sexual pleasure smudges out into his proselytizing zeal to make us all into mothers and fathers of clean-limbed sons and daughters of the Republic.

After Whitman’s vision of democracy based on the body gets trampled under by the Civil War and the national psyche splits into North and South; after the Robber Barons who endow our major museums cement the divisions between the classes; after advertising seduces the language of private desire into the language of consumerism; after Eliot and Pound explode the remnants of the self into the many voices of The Waste Land, and the historical perspectives and personae of the Cantos; after New Criticism puts pressure on the work and begins to displace the author as the subject of literary study; after autobiography becomes just another form of psychological and historical projection; after “confessional poetry” becomes simply a blanket term of disapproval of certain kinds of done-to-death subject matter; after the death of the author, both as a joke and as a serious challenge to the myth of authorial mastery over language; after re-readings of cultural icons like Shakespeare, such that Shakespeare’s heroes are removed from the realm of action in the world, and made into specular instances of various schools of psychoanalytic and cultural critique; after media conglomeration and the proliferation of “real time,” “real life” news coverage and television shows, such that the self observing the self impersonating the self becomes the most current form of naturalism; after a sense of time as serial begins to fragment into a sense of time as discrete, so that the actual moment of writing becomes part of the drama of writing, as in Beckett’s speakers who make the phenomenon of their own vocalizing the focus of the story; after all this, who would dare claim that the “I” isn’t a phantom and a projection of language, a mere grammatical convenience? Add to all this the lingering prestige of the Tel Quel group declaring that writing (as Italo Calvino informs us in his essay, “Cybernetics and Ghosts”) no longer consists in “narrating but in saying that one is narrating.” According to this idea, the immediate claim of sympathy on the reader by an “I” confident of its status as not only a linguistic entity, but as a flesh and blood speaker whose fate is of intrinsic interest, has come to an end. What one says becomes identified with the act of saying. The psychological person is really a grammatical person, defined by its place in the discourse.

But I balk at this—there is something a little canned about all of it, a little too symptomatic of a kind of expected, “with it” theorizing that ignores what I feel when I write. And so I don’t quite know how to take my own list . . . is it merely poetry gloom, culture gloom, spleen? Or in a more serious vein, could the list be symptomatic of a desire to make up stories that would join in the weave of stories that blanket all earth’s creatures in an atmosphere of compassion and intelligent concern—what Teilhard de Chardin called the noosphere? If this notion seems a little too idealized, its hard-headed corollary would be a pluralist, quasi-anthropological way of understanding the world, in which there are many different cosmologies and cultures all functioning with equal authority, if not equal in their political and economic status.

Both of these models pose a quiet challenge to what vestiges of the Whitmanian self remain. After all, when Whitman says, “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person,” underneath the well-meant identification, a certain violence is being done in that omission to ask. Yes, the poet is identifying with the wounded, but the identification is also a kind of erasure of that person’s local cultural and historical circumstances. So is there a way of allowing the voice of the wounded to speak through the poem, while preserving the right of the poet to make the kind of confident self-assertions that Whitman makes? In other words, how can the poet make the partiality of “I” into an interesting formal feature among many, as opposed to the be-all end-all of lyric utterance? More importantly, how can the solitary singer’s story participate in the larger story, as Wallace Stevens puts it, “of the planet of which it was part . . . ”?

My notion of the “I”’s partiality depends to a certain extent on understanding the range of solutions to the problem of solitary singing and its potential participation in the larger story of the planet. One of the most prevalent solutions has been to favor dissolution of the teller of tales into a tale telling itself, language out on its own space walk, floating through referentiality, as opposed to being anchored in it. You might call this a constructivist perspective, in which words have their own autonomy and plasticity, and meaning doesn’t depend upon a solitary singer, but is the result of the poet’s exploratory relationship to many different lexicons, ranging from the slogans of advertising to political rhetoric to the whisperings of private feeling. Of course the danger here is relegating the singer to a language prop, or what one critic dubbed the “subjectivity effect.”

And then there’s Allen Ginsberg’s notion of poetry as “first thought, best thought.” This approach makes the solitary singer’s song the by-product of a meditative practice of mindfulness that would release us from the world of illusion to the eternal truths behind the veil of Maya. To further that recognition, Ginsberg was willing to sacrifice what he called “the whole boatload of sensitive bullshit” that undergirded the myth of poetic mastery. A poem’s raison d’être is to serve as a prayer wheel whose mind-expanding spin helps us contemplate the inexhaustible forms of reality, and of the unity behind those forms. His poetry of swift notation proposes that the self is nothing more—or less—than the ebb and flow of perception, in which perception is a springboard to comprehending the Oneness of the universe.

Another tack is Robert Duncan’s practice of poetry as composition by field: the page is a field of possibility and the words are actions on that field. That the actions are of consequence becomes a matter of knowing when the self is at the right spiritual pitch to plot a significant course in words, the words open to the accident of inspiration at every moment of composition. There is no perfected “form” for the poem to take on, no conventional adherence to beginnings, middles, or ends. Every poem the poet writes is really the sign of a continually unfolding revelation that only comes to an end at the poet’s death—and not even then, because the story is taken up by other poets, and in Auden’s phrase, “modified in the guts of the living.”

And now I hesitate. My sense of the dilemma that faces contemporary poets and how they represent “I” might simply boil down to this: no matter how fragmented words appear on a page, they will tell a certain story, if only as the trace of the mind that willed them onto the paper. And so the “I” is still intact, if not as a personality in words, then as words diffusing the traces of a personality, a doppelgänger projected outward from the page. And so the mere presence of a poem suggests that the poet is also a subjective presence, if only as a projection of the operations of language. Well, and so what? Who didn’t know that if you saw marks on a page that someone put them there? But is that really as obvious as it sounds? Well, yes—provided that you’re willing to grant those marks the provisional status of “author”—but if you aren’t, or if your initial reaction is to think this is writing, l’écriture, an inheritance of the tribe’s codes and customs, as opposed to thinking this is the texture of an individual mind, then the question of the authority of who is speaking becomes important in our experience of these marks.

Most serious readers float somewhere halfway between these two shores and reserve judgment about the issue of authority until they are well into the experience of reading. But this very reservation of judgment is also a hesitation that affects writers: I can identify at least three tendencies in American poetry that this self-consciousness has engendered: the fact that “I” has been impeached as too confident in its pronouncements has forced some poets to adopt the tone of self-reflexive irony and jokiness that undercuts the commitment of the voice to any particular tone, stance, or provisional stab at truth. This is an extremely popular stance, and amounts to a widespread period style. Another strategy is to adopt the tone of phenomenological inquiry, but to do it in such a way that suggests an obsessive temperament relentlessly interrogating perception: the stance here is that the obsession flows from an obsession with “truth”—a truth that may already be discredited as merely a projection of human desires, but is better than nothing. When this stance amounts to more than a surface manner, it can produce poems of great power and integrity, as in the work of Frank Bidart, or in the best poems of John Ashbery. But all too often, it degenerates into the third tendency: an armored, “smart” sounding vocabulary that steers back and forth between the referential and the hiply non-referential, a kind of brainy, process-is-all surrealism that at its best promises verbal innovation, and at its worst feels utterly formulaic in its disjunct leaps of association—a more complex variant of the above mentioned joky ironist, but who as an undergraduate read a smattering of Lyotard and Baudrillard and picked up their tone of philosophical inquiry.

But let me put my cards on the table and suggest another way of thinking about the impeached “I.” What I’m proposing is not to be taken as a manifesto, but a speculation on how the self in poetry is a kind of self-impersonation, the subject of a voice, or voices, that are always aware of their own provisional status. As I mentioned earlier, I want to incorporate that provisionality into the poem’s formal structure. The shortcoming in Whitman’s stance toward the wounded, in which Whitman desires to be the wounded person, is that he seems unconscious of his own limited subjectivity. The verbal formulas Whitman resorts to, the catalog, the relentless parallelisms, speak to the automatic nature of Whitman’s response. And the difference between a poem like “The Waste Land” in its multiple voicings and many-eyed perspectives, and my speculation, has to do with Eliot’s manipulation of the voices in the poem. Great a poem as it is, there is something faintly imperious about Eliot’s virtuosity, the sense of a puppet master deploying the materials of his poem with just a touch too much certainty. The material, for all its portents of chaos, never really seems on the verge of spinning out of control. And it’s precisely this sense of the material beginning to get away from the poet, the sense that the voices in the poem have an autonomy beyond the authorial presence, that interests me. And from a reader’s viewpoint, I mean more than the fact that poems often bear contrary meanings to their authors’ overt intentions, as in the case of Blake reading Milton and saying that Milton was of the Devil’s party, but without knowing it. In my scenario, the poet is deeply attuned to the paradoxes and contradictions inherent in having both devils and angels whispering in his ear: the poet must express, simultaneously, the many ways that such opposing and unruly recognitions might function in a poem.

Many contemporary writers have responded to this question of self as self-impersonation, but what do I mean by that phrase? Of course, it’s a truism that the first thing any writer does is impersonate whoever the “I” is that does the writing. Italo Calvino, in an essay on the levels of reality in literature, creates a flow chart that starts with Gustave Flaubert, the author of various books who then impersonates the author of the book he is currently working on, in this case, Madame Bovary, who then projects himself into Emma Bovary who then projects herself into the Emma Bovary she would like to be. The salient thing about this flow chart is that it works in reverse as well, with each link in the chain reaction transforming, both forwards and back, all the other links. So when Flaubert says, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” the question arises as to how much of the “I” who shapes the characters is, in fact, an “I” who has been shaped by the characters. In American literature, this way of thinking has been taken to an extreme point by a poet like James Merrill in The Changing Light at Sandover, in which the poem’s author, James Merrill, is also the speaker of the poem who also becomes a character denominated in his speeches by the initials, JM, even as the entire poem’s cosmological machinery is made present to the author/character through the oracular voicings of a Ouija board. This is obviously a radically different and mischievous way of thinking about writing than the myth of the writer as a little god or as a master of language who “treats” his material by giving it style. But you don’t have to go as far as Merrill does in order to see that this flow chart notion of intersubjectivity upends the traditional hierarchy of author set above his so-called “characters.”

How seriously do I mean all this? I don’t for a moment imagine that anyone will sit down with this model in their head and apply it systematically. But what I’m interested in is finding a way of talking about the slippery transactions that go on between whoever “I” is and the words that “I” is putting on the page: the old model of revision as the writer working toward a formal unity seems to me far too limiting a description of the possible ways of writing poems. And since one of the crucial determinants in how you think about the art is the way you envision embodying the self in language, I’m interested in putting forth a new description that opens up the old model, if not exactly exploding it. The various levels of reality that interact in the creation of art, the empirical, psychological, supernatural, aesthetic, mythic, all of which sort together in a play like Hamlet (e.g., the political rottenness of Denmark; Hamlet’s state of mind; Hamlet’s father’s ghost; the play within the play; and the actors killed off as characters and resurrected as themselves at the curtain call), suggest just how insufficient and blinkered this all too settled notion of “I” is.

But how would a poet actually write the kind of poem I envision? Let’s imagine P walking down the street to do some shopping, his own internal monologue fissioning off in various directions: PTA, long-ago memories of late-night heroin parties, a fantasy about the Medal of Honor being given to John Waters, a plan to set aside certain hours in the afternoon to re-read Paul Valery’s musings on the character of Monsieur Teste, that monster of abstraction who knows the plasticity of thought because everything Monsieur Teste thinks his mind obligingly performs. P has a little notebook in his pocket, and suddenly these random thoughts begin to suggest words: the words keep getting distracted by a not-too-original erotic fantasy, a sort of bookmark that marks off the page of desire that P is currently perusing. But brushing away the thought, P sits on a bench, takes out the notebook, all the while feeling a little foolish to be doing this outdoors at a bus stop rather than at home at his desk: but the words are beginning to announce themselves: “The window is stuck. First tragedy of the day.” And suddenly P is no longer P, he is stretched between his various thoughts and roles, he is stepping out of his skin and plunging into the currents of language. As P scribbles though, he begins to be aware of other P’s that want to say things: the P that doubts that windows are tragedies, the P that wants to salvage that sense of tragedy by turning it into a joke, the P that begins to feel despair that any of these words will ever make it into a finished poem, let alone get published in a book of poems. And then P has a savage turn against the “I” that is writing the poem and puts down the notebook in disgust, suddenly torn between his sense of real tragedies, what he knows is the political awareness of the poem, and his desire to insist on the window’s stuckness as indeed feeling like a tragedy, a metaphysical condition he can’t escape from. And so the poet is stretched between politics and transcendence, and feels a growing hostility toward any settled position, and more and more desperate to be affected by, and responsive to, all positions at once. In Seamus Heaney’s words, the poet is disposed to be “negatively rather than positively capable.” And then he begins to pull away from the window and to try to view it from the farthest reaches of space, or to view it from as great a temporal distance as possible, in order to give that negative capability free play. Now he is channeling the spirit of George Herbert in which a human being “is a brittle crazie glass”; and as he peers through that glass he’s also looking through Larkin’s high windows, meditating on the “sun-comprehending glass, / And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows / Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless,” and suddenly he is taking out his pencil again and writing a very different kind of poem: a poem that might say “I,” but in which a “self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration,” in Elizabeth Bishop’s phrase, has taken over all the anxieties, the hesitations and squirmings. And what to say about his concentration except that it seems neither an act of the self or the product of the many different voices that consciousness is woven from. It speaks, as Kafka says, with the voice of an alien stranger, but a stranger whose voice seems to resonate inside P, if not exactly belonging to P. And of course that voice keeps diffusing into voices: the voice of tradition that Herbert and Larkin represent, the voice of the social world that P inhabits, the voice of English itself in the way it inflects, reflects, and projects outward the words flowing from that “self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration,” in which will and imagination are involved in a call and response of completely mutual entailment.

I realize that this description can be dismissed as mere soft-focus blur—but that blur seems more true to the actual process of writing a poem than a more coherent laying out of terms and principles based on a myth of mastery of language. Of course, allowing yourself such permeability is its own talent. I see in that talent a kind of transcendent achievement that nevertheless has nothing to say definitively about the transcendence of the self. Of course, much contemporary academic criticism has focused on calling into question the notion of a transcendental self, and in the process tries to eliminate the concept of individual authorial genius as a necessary criterion of literary and cultural value. These attitudes are expressed in the various HOW TO READ theories, in which an interpretive grid is laid on top of a poem so that it produces certain kinds of meanings in relation to that grid. My focal point is somewhat different, in that I am not so much interested in how we read, as in the experience of understanding what happens to us as we read. And since I’m a writer, I take the further step of trying to account for what happens to us as we write. If that’s your point of entry, then what you are doing is trawling through your own unconscious processes for some glints and gleams that might prove useful to others when hauled up into the light. So when I say that the myth of mastery over language is insufficient and blinkered, I’m not doing so to undermine the difficulty of the art of poetry, and how the genius of individual poets negotiates that difficulty. What I am doing is hoping to find some inklings and intuitions that will suggest a more comprehensive model of subjectivity for the working artist.

I want poetry to be as complex, as resistant to easy generalization, and as humanly capacious as Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (one of the obvious models for Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover). The many levels of reality the novel occurs on are paralleled by how the “I” can be split into a number of voices, all working under the aegis of the Argus-eyed Marcel: the narrator who writes the work (or rather complains about not writing the work), the sufferer of the narrator’s tale who lives out what the narrator is nerving himself up to write, the social commentator of drawing rooms and bedrooms, the cultural historian of a bygone era. This many-eyed way of seeing many-leveled reality suggests, for poetry, the obvious analog of many different kinds of speech sorting together, with no self-consciousness about juxtaposing wildly differing lexicons and forms of diction. And this is precisely the procedure of John Ashbery. But Ashbery’s is not the name that seems to exemplify in the fullest way possible the potentialities of a multiply overlapping “I.” In fact, Ashbery’s multi-vocal, multi-perspectived way of writing a poem isn’t so much a form of provisionality as a settled stance. In other words, the formal inventiveness in Ashbery has crystallized beyond the point where the formal structure of the poem is being called into question. Despite the associative movement that Ashbery has perfected, his poems as formal structures are fairly static. A reader knows more or less the linguistic territory Ashbery will inhabit, and from that settled perspective there is capacious, often brilliant insight into the “solving emptiness” that underlies daily life. But despite the standard critical line that Ashbery is a poet of ceaseless transformations, what I feel in his poems is a fatalist at work. Ashbery’s ingenuity as a rhetorician doesn’t extend to wanting to ground the “I” in a unitary identity, so as to call that identity into question, to explode it, to deny its existence, to diffuse it into the quietly rebellious pronouns at work in Anne Bradstreet’s poem, or the myriad other operations you can perform. In other words, Ashbery assumes the multiplicity of “I,” but never does that enter into his poems as a process of ongoing revelation. Consequently, Ashbery represents what Elizabeth Bishop once called “the mind at rest,” as opposed to “the mind in motion.”

Dissonance of feeling, the disrelation of “I” to any settled viewpoint, which is a way of being that seems foreclosed to the “mind at rest,” is a quality in poetry that over the years I’ve come to prize more and more. As the “tale of the tribe” grows ever more complex, and the notion of subjectivity ever more vexed, I want to feel that every time the poet sits down to write is the occasion of what John Crowe Ransom called “a last ditch ontological maneuver.” And while I admire Ashbery’s fidelity to his stance, and the melancholia of his habitual irony, there is nothing “last ditch” about his amiable, and wholly admirable relation to this issue of self and selves. In fact, the difficulty of pinning down Ashbery in his poems as anything other than the medium of language is one reason why he is such a bad model for other poets interested in the slippery relations of “I” to “the tale of the tribe.” The positing of a unitary identity is crucial to a process of questioning that identity. Ashbery’s associative movement is too strictly linear in what it is obliged to leave out: the sense that we are getting “the real John Ashbery,” illusory and as much an effect of language as that may be, is simply not one of the formal burdens that Ashbery’s poems are willing to take up.

And the winner is: Robert Lowell. Robert Lowell again? The Robert Lowell of Life Studies? The “I” writer to beat all “I” writers? How does Robert Lowell begin to exemplify, even remotely, the provisionality of the self, let alone many selves interacting under the aegis of multiple voices? But there are many ways in which Lowell and Ashbery are “near allied,” especially late in Lowell’s career in a book like Day by Day. The mode of these poems is the lateral movement of a highly associative mind that finds its generative cues as much in the synapse fire between words as in narrative or idea. But even a book like Life Studies has its own form of indeterminacy. What is it but a gallery of family portraits in which the faces, at first highly defined, by degrees begin to blend together into the composite face of a crucial cultural and historical moment in Cold War American life? But more narrowly, the question remains as to who is being portrayed. I would say that each of the characters in the book—from the mad black soldier in “A Mad Negro Soldier Confined at Munich” to Czar Lepke of Murder, Inc., in “Memories of West Street and Lepke”—are in fact aspects of the author’s fractured sensibility, thinly veiled alter egos held together under the myth of the self as unitary. When you look at the personages in the poem, they begin to resemble a hall of mirrors in which the speaker keeps hoping to see in others’ faces the lineaments of his own face in order to firm up his extremely shaky sense of identity. Of course, one could speculate on the relation between Lowell’s mental illness, and the literalness of his desire to make writing a place where his identity would be fixed, stabilized between the pages of a book. And what I see as the course of Lowell’s relation, or disrelation to the lyric self, is that early in his career he clung to the myth of the self as unitary, and late in his career, abandoned the myth but without losing his deep need to believe in it. And this shifting relation to the self in part accounts for why Lowell, of all the poets of his generation, was the most protean stylistic shapeshifter: from the formal grandeur of Lord Weary’s Castle and The Mills of the Kavanaughs to the Chekhovian texture of autobiography in Life Studies to the loose-limbed omnium gatherum of Notebooks and The Dolphin to the final, elliptical, digressive meditations in Day by Day, you can see the poet adopting and modifying to his own purposes the different ways of handling “personality” that I’ve sketched out.

You can feel Eliot’s penchant for collage, Ginsberg’s love of the immediate, Duncan’s trust in process, and the constructivist’s faith in language all operating throughout the years that he wrote his version of the sonnet, and on into the autumnal greatness of Day by Day. But there are indications of all these temperaments at work in earlier poems: in a well-known interview, Lowell credits the Beats with having led him to the seemingly more informal, if no less formidably composed, poetry of Life Studies and For the Union Dead. Of course, to link Lowell with Ginsberg, Duncan, and constructivist aesthetics is to yank Lowell by the hair out of his own milieu: but rather than apologize, I think it’s high time to get rid of blinkered notions about what it means to be “beat,” “confessional,” along with all the other noxious ready-made terms of literary journalism. The continuities are there, just as the discontinuities are unignorable. Only no critics to my knowledge have bothered to suggest the continuities, while the hobbyhorses about “confessionalism,” “objectivism,” and many another contending “ism” have been ridden into splinters.

Lowell’s late work is a treasure house for other poets in a way that Life Studies never could be. Elizabeth Bishop once wrote Lowell that the mere circumstance of his being a Lowell gave his autobiographical impulses a certain edge over less illustrious family sagas. Although Bishop meant this as a compliment, it feels like an oversimplification. The flood of autobiography that attended the publication of Life Studies may have overvalued the aesthetic of sincerity, but it ratified a fundamental shift in American poetry that, although Bishop and Lowell would come to abhor its more sensational aspects, dramatized the fundamental instability of “I” as a source of authority. The wide canvas of Eliot and Pound and the other Modernists, and their confidence in abstract forces outside the self (what Randall Jarrell once characterized as the monumental certainties that go perpetually by perpetually on time) had come to seem overweening. And the uncertain authority of the self even to speak about its own experience became more and more a part of the formal explorations that Day by Day testifies to, both in the associative way in which the poems build and disperse, and in the way they seem famished for the perspective of other voices. In this late work, as in a poem like “Home” from Day by Day, Lowell dramatizes the self as a kind of self-impersonation in which the poem as a place of many different voices enacts the provisional nature of those voices that are always aware of their own subjective limits. Lowell is the medium for no fewer than six different voices in the poem, and the concatenating selves that those voices imply are far more inclusive of the reader and the world precisely because of their instability and overlap.

In other words, Lowell interrogates in these quietly heartbroken, deeply meditative poems the many different selves reflected back from his work. The Christian agonist of Lord Weary’s Castle becomes the secular householder and public-minded citizen in Life Studies becomes the kaleidoscopic, many-selved chronicler of private and public lives in Notebooks and Day by Day. But the self had first to be established in the early work before it could be taken apart, amplified, and diffused over the immense terrain of the poet’s intellectual and emotional life. The Robert Lowell of the page, the history-obsessed chronicler of his own so-called autobiography, in which autobiography is the sieve that strains his verbal genius, becomes the most synthetic of poets: in his developments and creative swerves, you can witness how “one life, one writing” is a response to the shifting authority of the self as it refracts into language and is shadowed forth into the world as a reputation and a name.


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