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“I’m Nobody”: Lyric Poetry and the Problem of People

ISSUE:  Winter 2007
Life is an affair of people not of places.
But for me life is an affair of places
and that is just the trouble.

—Wallace Stevens, Adagia

That we mourn. That we ache. That we want. That we lie. That we forget. That we fail. That we kowtow. That we deceive. That we covet. That we love. That we die. That we remember.

Our symposium is entitled “Lyric Poetry and the Problem of People.” My list, of course, denotes the problem, some of the problems, with people. I want to press on with this proposition for a moment before I turn my attention more fully to another part of the title.

The problems with people have provided poets with their subjects for millennia. In our own investigations of three primary lyric modes, we have previously considered the love poem (and the problems of passion, heartbreak, betrayal), the elegy (and the problems of death and loss or forgetting), and the ode (and the problems of social rhetoric and lyric progression). In parsing these three categories into more specific rhetorical modes or landscapes, we have looked at other problematics within the lyric: pastoral poetry (thus, the problem of nature), the sublime (the problem of beauty), and narrative and syntax (the problem of time). Our present issue finds its focus in lyric meditation and the problem of people. Wallace Stevens prepares us in Adagia: “Life is not people and scene but thought and feeling.”

To be sure, people are a real problem for the lyric poem. Conventional definitions of the lyric poem generally abide by Roman Jakobsen’s assessment: “lyric poetry speaks for the first person, in the present tense—a present toward which lyric always impels any past or future events.” Isn’t this the case? I turn to works of literature for many things, in many needs. But I seek lyric poetry specifically for its meditation, for the example of its music, the solace of its radical interiority. Harold Bloom goes so far as to assert that the main value of literary study is to “enlarge a solitary existence.” Such is the dream of the lyric in particular, that the self shall be revealed and enlarged.

Immediately, a problem. In a narrative of self, what is the place of the other, of others, of people? From here the problem extends in many directions. Does the lyric possess a political aptitude? Can it protest, criticize, convince? What is the place of the popular in a seemingly hermetic site? How do communities, indeed how do urban and technological constructions, fit into the private or pastoral space of the lyric? These are real and delicious problems to tackle, for don’t we want a lyric poetry capable of cities, populations, politics, testimony, exchange, social engagement?

I am going to limit my own discussion to a more basic problem of people and the lyric. I wish to consider the center of both the social and lyric cosmos: the self, that conscious or self-conscious entity speaking from the singular and personal present. If a lyric poem is a song of oneself, what is that self? What is its relation to the collective? Has the lyric poem always extended outward from the center of the solitary self to the “others”? The answers range vividly.

Sometimes we hold that the self is an autonomous and independent entity, a body and a psyche of measurable dimensions, the fixed hub around which our perceptions and relationships orbit. This is consistent with Bloom’s notion of the lyric’s function: to enlarge a solitary existence. Emerson identifies this version of the self in its most pure and central state: “I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me.”

Sometimes we think of the self as a more fluid or deconstructed thing: an artifice formed by convenience and language, a social construct, a fiction. This attitude dissolves the self into the social collective. Likewise, Anthony Easthope disperses the genre of lyric poetry into the overall category of discourse; hence, all exchanges engage equally in “a process of enunciation.” The poet’s presence—and the anthropomorphic trope of the poet’s “voice”—is hereby recuperated into a symptomatic of ideologies, power struggles, and destabilized structures. In her essay “Coherent Decentering,” Annie Finch agrees with this critique of the notion of the stable self: “Like many contemporary writers, I find the Romantic poetic construct of the fixed, central self and its point of view to be extraordinarily limited. . . . I am aware that my own selfhood, let alone the self voicing my poems, is not a clear and simple unit separate from everything else in the world.”

I agree, too. I know I am, as Whitman says, “part and whole.” I am no more independent from the water and wind of the world than a hair is parcel of the independent from my head. But I sense a problem here as well. Note how Finch begins her next paragraph: “When I was a child, my family would spend several months a year in an isolated cabin in the Maine woods without car, phone, radio, tv, or even electric light.” And on she goes, in a complex study of Cartesian logic, Buddhist selflessness, and subjectivity, to destabilize that “Romantic poetic construct of the fixed, central self.” And she undertakes her study, persistently, in the first-person singular.

Here is my first point: The self exists. Of course it is a vexed, changing, elusive, and fictive—a linguistic—construct. But linguistic constructs are real. We make the world when we say it, and it’s the only world we have. The poet and philosopher John Koethe is succinct: “I know that I exist, but what about that place we lived? Is it still real? / / —Of course it is.” That is to say, we have a self because we insist on an “I” as separate from a “you” or a “she.” And when we say “I,” we all seem to agree more or less on what that word signifies.

How did the issue become so complicated? I wish I could propose a tidy linear, historical explanation: that the first lyric poetry was private and coherent, and that poetry has become more complicated or contaminated as it addresses its social and postmodern mien; or that the history of privacy in the lyric has moved from fact to irony to utter impossibility; or vice versa. But these are false propositions. The issue has never been stable, just as the self has never been stable.

When I turn far back to the classical Greek poets, I find it significant that already the literary arts have gravitated into discreet genres. Epic poetry embraces the expansive history, the continuity, of a whole culture. Dramatic poetry serves as a more narrowed—in the narrative sense—performance of voices and types. And lyric poetry sings the song of the self. But is this the case? Michael Schmidt reminds us that there are actually three basic modes of Greek lyric poetry. The “coarsest,” he says, is iambic. Old Greek iambic poems were typically recited, not sung, and were an important feature at festivals. Bawdy, playful, slangy, but also highly formalized, they are the root of satire. The oldest practitioners are poets such as Archilochus and Semonides. In such poems there’s no self, interior stance, or personal point of view, anywhere in sight.

The second category, elegiac poems, does not indicate a poem sung in mourning, but rather a metrical structure. Greek elegiac couplets are made of a line of dactylic hexameter followed by a line of dactylic pentameter. These, too, are intended for public recital and performance, as Schmidt notes, are hortatory in nature, and often are not lamenting or memorial but erotic. Only much later does the rhetoric of the dirge overtake the metrical origin of the elegy, thus shifting the term from a formal to a thematic designation. As practiced by poets such as Mimnermus and Theognis, these are even more highly conventionalized, ritualized poems.

And finally, the third category is melic, a lyric composed in meters. Schmidt says that melic poems “take the form of a monody, a single voice perhaps with musical accompaniment.” Here Sappho and Anacreon are forebears of what we conventionally refer to as lyric poetry. Most speak from an “I” and address a single listener. Critics have suggested that in melic poetry we find a point of departure for the first-person subjective lyric; Sappho’s apparently intimate perspective, for instance, often marks the origin of the personal lyric. But, Schmidt points out, this overlooks three significant things: the entirely public context for which melic poems were composed, the necessity of instrumental accompaniment, and the fact that the emotions and the “personal” elements were “shared” by the symposium participants. It is thus dangerous to assume a too-similar relationship between those ancient lyrics and ours. Schmidt reminds us that Yeats says lyric poems are overheard, not heard. Yet Greek melic poetry is heard.

It is in fact dangerous to assume a too similar relationship between those ancient people and us. A fascinating difference between the Greek lyricists and ourselves derives from the entity we label “the self.” How did the self come to be? Have we always been self-conscious, of two or three or four minds, a stew of self-aware voices? Julian Jaynes thinks otherwise. In The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind—that famous book my poetry friends adore and my psychologist friends shrink from—Jaynes surmises that the early classical mind, still bicameral, shows us the coming-into-consciousness of the modern human, shows our double-minded awareness as, originally, a haunted hearing of voices. To Jaynes, thinking is not the same as consciousness: “one does one’s thinking before one knows what one is to think about.” That is, thinking is not synonymous with consciousness or introspection; it is rather an automatic process, notably more reflexive than reflective. Jaynes proposes that epic poetry, early lyric poetry, ritualized singing, the conscience, even the voices of the gods, all are one part of the brain learning to hear, to listen to, the other.

I am interested in the progression, then, from those “bicameral” Greek poets to the present. The development seems to be from social and public to private and personal. Indeed the significant differences between the Greek odes of Pindar and the later Latin odes of Horace support Jaynes’s theory. It’s no small act of guesswork to deduce the conscience—and quality of consciousness—of a culture’s people from its lyric poetry, and yet it does seem true that the grand, impersonal, highly formalized Pindaric ode represents the Greek citizen’s subsumed relation to the group. The fifth Isthmian ode is typical. Here, ostensibly to praise Phylakidas (victor of a strength competition), Pindar sings more so of the public good: “I have come with the Graces / For the sons of Lampon / / To this law-loving city. / If she has turned to a clean path / Of god-given actions, / Grudge not to mingle fitting praise / With song for her labours.” The high esteem for law, the gods, and decorum corresponds to the heightened public discourse of the Greek ode. But as early Greek culture with its emphasis on civic duty evolves into the Roman world, notice how Horace—five hundred years after Pindar—enjoys the pleasures of a singular body and personal experience. His ode to Phyllis is a clear step toward the modern individual; Horace is more a self than an arm (or voice) of the polis:

I have saved for a day a full bottle of old
Wine from the Alban hills. Phyllis, out in the garden
There’s parsley, and ivy, for fillets and coronets
To bind up your hair and make you look still more
Beautiful than you looked even before.

If the early Greek culture—so different even from the Roman world—shows a kind of coming into the complexities of consciousness as we think of it now, then the early seventeenth century shows us coming into early modernity. Harold Bloom calls Shakespeare’s achievement nothing less than the invention of the human. By this he refers to the psychological interiority, the self-referencing, the meta-narrative of the early modern mind: “What Shakespeare invents are ways of representing human changes, alterations not only caused by flaws and by decay but effected by the will as well, and by the will’s temporal vulnerabilities.” In other words, before Shakespeare there was characterization—types, allegorical categories—as seen in Homer, Chaucer, and later still in Spenser. After Shakespeare, there were characters, men and women with highly individuated personalities. William Logan agrees that the “invention of personality” is a literary achievement as well as a step in psychological evolution, and that this phenomenon occurs in the early seventeenth century. But Logan nominates Milton as the inventor: the anxious Milton of Paradise Lost, of course, but more so the Milton of those sonnets “drawn from real events,” the Milton who “did not fit.” His agony is a personal agony—neither typical nor archetypal. Rather his is the discomfort of a man acutely aware of himself in the wrong time, surrounded by wrong-minded others of wrong faith.

In the early Romantic era, the self’s evolving interiority becomes even more fully textualized. Here it is transcribed into a landscape that itself takes the shape of the human psyche. Wordsworth represents an example of the power of self-realization, but also embodies the peril of solipsism—both traits of the mind in modern literature. In Book VIII of The Prelude, he admits his potentially self-enclosed predicament: the extent of his solitary “love of nature leading to love of man” is so consuming that he cannot present a vision of social complexities. “Though he had the best of intentions, he could never handle close-packed, present, human crowds in the mode of imagination,” notes Frederick Pottle. Across the Atlantic from Wordsworth, a similar Romantic conundrum stews. When Poe’s House of Usher crumbles, the old mansion’s architecture suggests the rotting psyche of Roderick Usher, poisoned by his family’s fate and his own self-destructive behavior. Where Milton’s earlier garden serves as a social paradigm, a cultural problem allegorized, Poe’s house is the interior world of a single, modern mind.

We might find a similar social withdrawal or debility in our homegrown hermit, Emily Dickinson. Who better embodies the lyric’s self-containment and self-reliance, with her pathological fear of those “close-packed human crowds”? “I’m Nobody! / Who are you? / Are you—Nobody—Too? / Then there’s a pair of us!” she virtually brags. “The Soul selects her own Society— / Then—shuts the Door,” she decides. “Except to Heaven, she is nought. / Except for Angels—lone.” But throughout her work, the radical paradox of Dickinson’s self-imposed privacy is its articulation not apart from but through the tropes of community. Privacy is a precious entity, a mark of the mind’s increasing valorization of the self; but Dickinson’s privacy is also itself a “Society,” a populous “Heaven.” Her very solitude—powerful, empowering, embracing—contains others. The self is a self only as it resists, but relates to, all the others. Helen Vendler makes a related assessment: “Although the usual lyric speaker is alone, this solitude does not mean that he is without social ambiance.”

And what of that most social and democratic of poets, Walt Whitman? No one represents the paradox of the highly realized self and the unavoidable social world better than Whitman. On one hand he demands and defines the “song of the self,” praising autonomy and self-realization above all else. But in “Song of Myself” we find him also “mad . . . to be in contact” with the body of the world, mad to be “quiver[ed] to a new identity” by the simple touch of one to another. In virtually all of his great poems, the connection of body to body serves a number of functions. It is a form of personal acknowledgment or validity, a form of knowledge, a form of political action, and a connection—like a fuse, an electrical circuit—that engenders a power at once political, artistic, sexual, and personal. This personal-lyric poet isn’t troubled by other people, is he? Rather, he seems most himself when he is measured and identified in the group; his song of himself is, gloriously, “a call in the midst of the crowd.”

Whitman’s songs of himself are underscored by the paradox of the public. Those things that seem to separate us—making each self distinct from each other self—are precisely those that most connect us, that we most recognize in ourselves, that we most share. “I too knitted the old knot of contrariety, / Blabb’d, blush’d, resented, lied, stole, grudg’d, / Had guile, anger, lust” and on and on—no sin “wanting,” he confesses in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” Yet we are not shocked, not repulsed by his transgressions, but rather stricken with self-recognition. We literally are Whitman, and he knows it: “I . . . was one with the rest,” he says, this self among selves, this socialized modern man.

I know of few better articulations of this fundamental problem of the self or personality than T. S. Eliot’s comment in “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality,” Eliot writes. Lest he be misunderstood, he continues, wryly: “But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.”

The story of the self in lyric poetry is the story of such contradictions. The progress of lyric poetry—like the progression of personhood—seems to have moved from outward to inward, from social function to self-realization. But have changes in the psyche led to changes in poetry, or has poetry’s increasing interiority helped to create the modern mind? Certainly the development of writing has contributed to our capability to meditate. It’s important to remember that Pindar sang but Horace wrote. And as poetry moved from voice to page, likewise we moved inward, solitary in our enjoyment of poetry. With a book we can read slowly, partially, even backward; we can study, not merely overhear. As books have flourished, so have an increasing number and variety of written genres, many of which have absorbed or overtaken some of the purposes of the oldest poetry. I sympathize with Czesaw Miosz when he mourns the apparent loss of a public function, a social discourse, in lyric poetry: “The poets of the past were not ‘pure.’ That is, they did not assign poetry a narrow territory, did not leave religion, philosophy, science, and politics to ordinary people who supposedly were unable to share in the initiations of the elite.” But newscasts and sports pages, political novels and thrillers, creative nonfiction and biographies—to say nothing of gossip columns, self-help memoirs, and blogs—have become part of our literacy and our imagination; as a result, poetry has found its own specialized but urgent function. Lyric poetry is largely a poetry of the self.

Why apologize? Lyric poetry with its frequent intense interiority is still, and is powerfully, a public art. This is the final paradox. The very history that I briefly recounted here becomes the shared communal text underwriting each individual private text. We share in poetry’s privacy, as we share in poetry’s history. This privacy is a social act or, as Matthew Arnold points out, “a dialogue of the mind with itself.” Helen Vendler usefully extrapolates “dialogue”: “Insofar as every human relation-of-two entails an ethical dimension (of justice, estimation, reciprocity, sympathy) so, too, does every lyric representation of the linkage of two persons.” “Two persons” can be as well two parts of one mind.

Lyric poetry is never merely about a self but is always also a social performance, just as the linguistic and formal material of poetry is a social achievement. As Whitman and Dickinson represent in their work, self-interest—both the figure and fact of the self—is a vital feature of cultural identity, even perhaps of collective survival. The more the self is identified, in detail and in context, the more connective and sympathetic is its relationship to others. Interiority is—the ultimate paradox—one of our most conjoining gestures.


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