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Life Among Others

ISSUE:  Winter 2007

The lyric poem is a form of social speaking. This simple, self-evident feature has often been obscured or overshadowed by the lyric’s prized affinity for inwardness. But the very trait we prize—the public face of privacy—is paradoxical, reminding us that the social and the solitary, the plural and the personal, are interdependent and mutually sustaining realms. What follows is a highly unsystematic effort to examine the lyric as a site for investigating the reciprocal pleasures and obligations, treacheries and fidelities of life among others. One of my examples is drawn from the sixteenth century, two from the twentieth century, one from the very recent past; two were written by women and two by men; two make much of the poet’s real or ostensible autobiography; two are silent, or all but silent, on just that point. All are poems I admire. Together they seem to me to delineate a landscape of possibility: the varied means by which the lyric poem may seek to address its own entanglement in social life, an entanglement both moral and epistemological. Together they debunk a Romantic stereotype: far from thwarting or impinging upon the apprehending self, life in the clamorous social world affords the self its meaningful occasions for coming into consciousness and contour. Or so these poems attest.


Isabella Whitney was the first woman in England to publish a volume of poetry. She published not one but two: The Copy of a letter, lately written in meeter, by a younge Gentilwoman: to her unconstant Lover (1567) and A Sweet Nosegay, or pleasant Posy (1573). Whitney seems to have been a member of the minor gentry; we believe we know the family to whom she was born; she spent some years “in service” in a London household. Her precise class position and thus the nature of the service she is likely to have performed are difficult to ascertain: she would not have been a charwoman, but neither would she have qualified as an all-but-equal companion to aristocrats, like Maria in Twelfth Night or Nerissa in The Merchant of Venice. She seems to have known the nature of real domestic chores: her writings display familiarity with the boisterous commercial and material life of sixteenth-century London, the noise and stench of the streets, the haggling with butchers, apothecaries, and pawnbrokers, the harried contracting of petty loans, the everyday business of getting and spending. Whitney lost her employment in the early 1570s, or so we conclude from her published work, and was forced to leave London for lack of means.

Upon her departure, she wrote a 364-line poem in which she bids farewell to the city and makes a series of mock bequests. Thus begins “The manner of her will, & what she left to London: and to all those in it, at her departing”:

I Whole in body, and in minde,
but very weake in Purse:
Doo make, and write my Testament
for fear it wyll be worse.

Much in the manner of Francois Villon, Whitney construes her departure from the city as a kind of social death and builds her poem upon the rhetoric and method of a last will and testament. In Whitney’s era, as in Villon’s a century earlier, the last will was a document of both legal and religious force. Villon, despite the mock liberality with which he disposes of worldly goods in his famous “Testament,” grants considerable space to that which we recognize as belonging to the soul: he tempers lyric satire with extended meditations on mortality, lost love, lost chances, and regret. Whitney’s tonal and sentimental range is considerably different, more like that of Villon in his shorter “Legacy.” Whitney dispenses with the soul rather briskly, for instance. And once she has dispensed with it, she doesn’t look back: the conceptual and rhetorical leverage that interests her is that which she can achieve by working entirely within her principal conceit:

I first of all to London leave
because I there was bred:
Brave buildyngs rare, of Churches store,
and Pauls to the head.

As conspicuous as the conceit itself is the punning and tautological spirit in which it is deployed. The speaker is leaving London because she is no longer able to support herself there; she leaves to the city that which she must leave behind, that which is not, in the usual sense, hers to give, that which the city owns already or keeps in circulation, that which makes the city what it is.

When she turns her beneficence from the city itself to its denizens, the poet lets loose an expansive and proliferent body of detail:

For Nets of every kynd of sort,
I leave within the pawne:
French Ruffes, high Purles, Gorgets and Sleeves
of any kind of Lawne.
For Purse of Knives, for Combe of Glasse,
or any needeful knacke
I by the Stoks have left a Boy,
wil aske you what you lack.

Would you have luxury fabrics and ornamental sleeves or ruffs? I leave you, says the testator, a world of such things in the pawnshops. Would you have mirrors and trinkets? I leave you hawkers on every street corner who will gladly provide them, cheap. “What do you lack?” is the street hawker’s cry, distinctive as the church bell or the alehouse sign. “Lack” is hawker’s slang for “wish to buy.” Lack is the fuel of commerce and also its undoing. Lack for the buyer means appetite; for the one who cannot buy, lack means destitution. The stocks, near which the hawker plies his wares, betoken the threat beneath enticement: for those who fall outside the law or the margins of economic competence, the city has prepared a disciplinary corrective.

But note how the poet turns an empty purse to plenty. She who lacks everything but mother wit, whose extreme lack has occasioned both her departure from the city and her metaphorical death, writes a poem whose method is that of copia. She contrives, by the sheer force of the speech act, to make the whole burgeoning inventory of urban plenty pass through her hands:

To all the Bookebinders by Paulles
because I lyke their Arte:
They evry weeke shal mony have,
when they from Bookes depart.
Amongst them all, my Printer must,
have somewhat to his share:
I wyll my Friends these Bookes to bye
of him, with other ware.

Isabella Whitney is not the first to expose the legal document (“will”) as a vehicle for the capricious exercise and intractable constraint of individual purpose (“will”), but the particular pressure she puts on the paradox—a complex staging of personal insufficiency and resilience—is like no other I know. The city, she writes in a preamble to her will, “never yet, woldst credit geve” nor “help wold finde, / to ease me in distress,” and yet, in the spirit of forgiveness and witty one-upmanship, she makes London her “sole executor.” What is more, she makes London the unrivaled darling of her poem: she addresses the city as one might address a cruel beloved (thou “never yet . . . hadst pitie,” she writes); she blazons the city’s noises, textures, and rhythms as one might blazon the beloved’s eyes and lips.

Isabella Whitney wrote for money at a time when women in England did not do such things, though some few aristocratic women translated Psalms or circulated Petrarchan lyrics in manuscript. Whitney published her intimate acquaintance with the topography and commerce of the city when such details were thought to be sordid and knowledge of them discrediting to her sex. At a time when women had very limited powers under the law to own or convey “real property” at all, she contrived in “The manner of her will” a proprietary interest in the material life around her. She made social and economic vulnerability the ground of rhetorical strength:

And though I nothing named have,
to bury mee withall:
Consider that above the ground,
annoyance bee I shall.
And let me have a shrowding Sheete
to cover mee from shame:
And in oblvyon bury mee
and never more mee name.

Imagining, and forcing the reader to imagine, the naked display of her own dead body, the poet turns shame to moral advantage. She is no confessionalist, god knows; she works at the opposite end of the spectrum. But she pioneers a salient technique: undressing in public, strategically.

Whitney’s prosodic choices are telling as well. She composes “The manner of her will” in ballad meter, a popular and populist verse form: iambic tetrameter alternating with trimeter, the trimeter lines end-rhymed. The lowly origins and ubiquity of the form are well suited to the urban traffic Whitney takes as both her subject and her setting: ballads were sold on the street in Whitney’s London like other cheap consumer goods. Ballads were also the repositories of folk memory and popular performance, very much at odds with the sheltered decorums thought to be appropriate for literate women in the sixteenth century, at odds also with the sobriety and high seriousness expected of last wills and testaments.

In a world that measured privilege by the power to withdraw from common public life, Whitney flaunted her immersion in the color and noise of urban commerce. In a world that measured womanhood by its powers of modulated restraint, Whitney practiced exorbitant indecorums. She wrote in her poetic “Will” an oppositional portrait of the system that ruthlessly preserved disparities of privilege and well-being. She invented a public self and a mode of public speaking-on-the-page that England would not see again for nearly a hundred years. To the city that rejected her, she wrote a knowing and exuberant love letter, a letter, and a love, that left that city considerably richer than she had found it.


In 1935, Yale University Press published a book called Theory of Flight, the newest winner of the Yale Younger Poets prize. Like many a first book, it was built around the story of the poet’s coming-into-consciousness. But this particular poet, whose aptitude for inwardness and finely calibrated lyric cadence are manifest throughout her book, scorned to trade on the easy beauties of private sensibility. Or, more precisely, she scorned to think that consciousness worth the name had been born in familial or ruminative isolation. “Prinzip’s year bore us,” she writes in “Poem out of Childhood”; “see us turning at breast / quietly while the air throbs over Sarajevo.” Gavrilo Prinzip, Serbian nationalist, who assassinated the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, plunging Europe, by a series of missteps and inadvertencies, into a disastrous World War. Muriel Rukeyser—it is she who writes—was six months old at the time.

“Not Sappho, Sacco,” she writes. Nicola Sacco, of Sacco and Vanzetti, Italian anarchists executed in Massachusetts, 1927, for murders they may never have committed. Presiding over the poet’s coming-into-voice-and-awareness was not an esteemed lyric forebear, “with her drowned hair trailing along Greek waters, / weed binding it, a fillet of kelp enclosing / the temples’ ardent fruit,” not the muse of erotic fecundity and victim of erotic passion, but the symbol and victim (as was widely believed) of ethnic and political hatred, of American justice shamefully perverted. “[W]e were a generation of grim children,” writes the poet; a violent world was “smearing [its] centuries upon our hands.”

Rukeyser was a journalist as well as a poet. She covered the Scottsboro trial in Alabama, the eve of Civil War in Spain, the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. In 1936, she traveled to Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, to cover an outbreak of silicosis among the miners there. What she saw in Gauley Bridge she could not contain in either the journal article or the lyric poem as she had heretofore construed it. What she saw required her to shatter old decorums and forge a new poetic form; what she wrote was “The Book of the Dead.” The sequence records not only the spectacle of harrowing illness and impoverishment but the more invidious spectacle of indifference and collusion: while the miners were breathing the silicon dust that would kill them, their employers were suppressing information about the danger in their mines. Rukeyser wished to find a place in poetry for the experience of people who did not produce a literature of their own, who lived without political, social, or economic power. She wrote in a quasi-documentary mode, using materials from her own interviews with the dying and their families, from letters and news reports, from transcripts of congressional hearings, from stock reports in the New York Times. One section of the poem is cast as a blues ballad, art form of the dispossessed. The poet juxtaposes clinical description with highly personal testimony. She allows herself very few moments of direct commentary, affecting instead the transparency of an archivist or court reporter. This transparency is a fiction, of course, but one that is immensely important to Rukeyser, both ethically and aesthetically. It gives her control over tone; it allows her to step aside and say, in effect, this is not my story, I am not the one who is important here, but I (and you too, Reader) are emphatically responsible.

Sometimes in “The Book of the Dead,” an embedded stage direction will suggest a private interview, or a private moment in public deposition:

This is the X-ray picture taken last April.
I would point out to you: these are the ribs;
this is the region of the breastbone;
this is the heart (a wide white shadow filled with blood).
.    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .
Come to the window again. Here is the heart.
More numerous nodules, thicker, see, in the upper lobes.
You will notice the increase    :    here, streaked fibrous tissue—
That indicates the progress in ten months’ time.
And now, this year—short breathing, solid scars
even over the ribs, thick on both sides.

Other passages speak directly through the voices of the victims:

“It is growing worse every day. At night
“I get up to catch my breath. If I remained
“flat on my back I believe I would die.”

Yet others mimic the subdued adversarial pull of a formal deposition or courtroom interrogation:

It gradually chokes off the air cells in the lungs?
I am trying to say it the best I can.
That is what happens, isn’t it?
A choking-off in the air cells?
There is difficulty in breathing.
And a painful cough?
Does silicosis cause death?
Yes, sir.

The victims of the Gauley Bridge silicosis disaster were black and white, men (the miners) and women (their wives and mothers), old (dependent parents) and young (dependent children). Those who died were in the prime of life; their death was the by-product of economic and social class. “Yes, sir” is a line of painful penetration: the deference of the witness, the protocols of deposition, the stateliness of the law stand in ghastly contrast to the broken social contract. And so it is throughout “The Book of the Dead,” whose abutments and oppositions capture the interlocking logic of deathwatch and market watch, capital and labor, free breathing and the breath that will not come. The poem’s faceted panels of genre and point of view aspire to something like wholeness, insisting that wholeness is never abstract but grounded and material. “I remember being asked what grit was,” wrote Rukeyser of her school days, “and I said ‘number 4 gravel’ when I was supposed to say ‘courage.’” She wrote “The Book of the Dead” without sentimentality, without condescension, without the consolations of private disavowal or easy irony. It must have been hard to keep irony under wraps sometimes: the 1930s’ rural poor still spoke with respect to authority.

Rukeyser’s active writing life spanned more than forty years. She wrote about love, about war, about slave revolts and labor strikes, philology, physics, and Harry Houdini. She distrusted, even mocked, the model of poetic calling that depends upon privileged sensibility and sanctified retreat from the ordinary run of human affairs:

All the voices of the wood called “Muriel!”
but it was soon solved;        it was nothing, it was not for me.
The words were a little like Mortal and More and Endure
and a word like Real, a sound like Health or Hell.
(from “Then I Saw What the Calling Was”)

Rukeyser’s lifelong commitment to social activism was born, in part, of her particular historical moment, of place and time and intellectual context, but it was also in her DNA, as central to cognitive process as were her gifts for image and idiom. The murderous inequities of power and well-being that afflict the social landscape were as constant in her consciousness as in the world around her. When she wrote, she wrote in the syntax of human affairs as natively as in poetic line. This deep marriage of political and lyric consciousness will always, I expect, be rare. Rukeyser’s example is not, in any straightforward sense, a model for emulation. It is nevertheless a tonic example. Take “Islands,” a late poem, quarreling with its title: “O for God’s sake / they are connected / underneath.”


In 1989, Rodney Jones published his third book, Transparent Gestures, deepening and extending the project he had so beautifully begun in The Unborn: a sort of double portraiture that combines personal coming-of-age with collective autobiography. In Jones’s case the collective parameters are threefold: his perspectives are those of the American South, American masculinity, and the generation of Watergate and Vietnam. Jones is a master of local texture, local idiom, vivid material detail. He favors a capacious line. Remarkably, for a poet so governed by memory, he grants much of his finest attention and finest insight to the lives of others. His poems are in that sense unvaryingly hospitable, though the truths they tackle are often harsh. Narrative is his all but invariant mode, the matrix from which lyric shape and lyric discovery derive.

“Dangers” is the story of a dare, of adolescent group behavior and the knife-edge that separates fated inconsequence from an equally fated paying-the-price. The game is “chicken.” Many of Jones’s readers will have played it once themselves: two groups of teenagers in two cars speeding down upon a one-lane bridge from opposite directions, each attempting to be the first to cross. In this version, the Ford is Tyler Wilson’s, the Chevy Sonny Walker’s, the bridge is the bridge at Hurricane Creek. A drunk-on-danger group of friends, our narrator among them. In the moment before disaster, this narrator turns aside, as though a stall in the poem or syntactical digression or plain prayer could rewrite history:

There is a kind of savior who blusters through the South, good
with animals and machines,
Who surely somehow would have found a gap, through an open gate
Into a marshy cornfield
or up a logging road into a hillside wood.
At any rate, there is just a little while, shy of any bridge, just
as judgment
Balances its two blind alternatives and a third accelerates head-on.

The poem lingers as long as it can in narrative hiatus. It looks outside itself for help. It courts the heady reaches of human ingenuity:

They spin the purest glass, they split the atom, they speak with God.

If they can do all this they can surely prevent the smash-up that lurks in a minute’s misjudgment. Or if prevention is not allowed, if fate has written its verdict indelibly, they can surely, those wiser ones, soften the blow:

They make a sort of Teflon hip and attach it with metal screws,
Only the threads upbone keep stripping
so they have to operate
Again and again, and what she’s accomplished is more of a gait,
Than a walk.
.    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .
Each step is obviously trained, and the whole earned motion full
Of muscle, plastic, and bone
is coordinated by nerves even the
Strictest dance does not require. She has said there is no fault.

The fault is in nature, in the wiring, in us. No rescue in hypothesis: the story-as-scripted doggedly claims the poem again.

The connector here, the logic by which the poem first flees and then returns to narrative arc, is the logic of other people. One of them, a kind of savior, might have been at the steering wheel. Some of them, many, the whole wide world of saviors, might have found the gap in providence or physics that would let a group of adolescents off the hook. The “they” in this passage conjures those generic others, the ones in power, the ones possessed of ways and means, the ones we want when we want to be rescued, the ones in “It’s amazing what they can do with a fractured hip these days.” Jones’s third-person plural renders a telling bit of American idiom and, by extension, a telling bit of American psychology. A populist rather than a formal usage, this “they” bespeaks a kind of low-key alienation, half resigned and half relieved, a delegation of initiative to others who are better informed or better placed. It can also bespeak resentment based on class or money or social ideology: “They’ve really got us over a barrel with this new social security bill.” So the issue behind the pronoun is really that of moral and practical agency: Who’s in charge here? What about active intent? Is passive compliance better or worse? Am I to blame for the harm that comes to someone else? In other words, this tiny idiomatic locution speaks to the heart of the whole ethical and psychological dilemma that drives the poem.

The wellspring of “Dangers” is adolescence in America, that traveling-in-a-pack state where individual will becomes occluded and responsibility dispersed. The dangers at stake are not merely those to life and limb but also those to spirit: evasion, forgetting, agreeing to find “no fault.” In Jones’s larger body of work, the list of indictable sins is long: oil spills and complacency, contempt for the former slave, pity for the waitress, indifference to the veteran of our less-remembered wars, botched line-work on the night shift when planes can go down for lack of a well-made bolt. Jones is always alert to the fate that people don’t make for themselves, to luck and its uneven distributions, but the subject that compels him is what happens in spite of or in the wake of luck: the process by which collective workings-out of blame and inadvertence, guilt and forgiveness and waking to awareness produce the human soul.


A book entitled Citizen might seem to fall too easily into the present survey, but there is nothing easy about the book in question or the spirit in which it bears its name. The author, Andrew Feld, is well and wittily aware of the contradiction thought to exist between poetic contemplation and civic solidarity. “You think of Thoreau,” he writes, “steering his solitudes / through the fields . . . of the Lower Cape,” eschewing the roadways that betoken “habit / and a slavish disposition.” Thoreau of the independent view, Thoreau the georgic anchorite. “So it comes as a surprise,” writes the poet, mildly, “to learn that he had / a companion.” Not to mention a mother who did the wash. “[H]e had / a companion, as I did.” As to the alternate posture, the writer-immersed-in-the-lives-of-the-masses, Feld is equally wry: “At this point,” he writes, apropos of nothing much more than hanging out with the locals after the tourists have gone, “I would like to state my solidarity with the working classes.”

Citizen: the word derives from city, one who dwells there and enjoys its rights. Historically, the term has been used to distinguish civilians from soldiery, masters from apprentices, denizens from transients, those who live by commerce from those who own the land. “A man of trade,” wrote Samuel Johnson in his dictionary, “not a gentleman.” The word therefore is shot through with division: inside is preferred to out, wealth preferred to poverty, greater wealth to wealth. Feld’s readers, of course, will understand the term more broadly, in the modern sense: the citizen is one who belongs to the nation, not merely to its densest settlements; the citizen has rights and obligations not governed, in theory, by guild or regulated trade. But the commonwealth is still a common good that depends upon exclusions, exclusions as ruthless as were London’s when Isabella Whitney lost her place.

The country to which Feld belongs, the—or is it these?—United States, is built, like any other, on contradiction: inclusiveness and xenophobia, “equality” and envy, unity and severalness; note the ambiguous grammatical number that characterizes our very name. Contradiction can be generative, a kind of tensile strength or provocation. It can also be a sorry liability, productive of nothing but shame, inaptitude, and incoherence. Of one particular period when incoherence seemed to reign—morass in Cambodia and Vietnam, break-ins and cover-ups and payoffs at home—Feld has written a national portrait-in-verse, part satire, part lament, and three parts paradox: a study of the treacheries that bind us. The poem is “Best and Only”; its first part is “The Ship of State.” Which sails on a river, as if to escape the clamor of public affairs:

The way a carp’s speckled brown and white head
flashes just below the surface of the Potomac
night waters, Richard Nixon’s penis almost enters

the national consciousness, as a thin gold thread
of urine stitches him to an August night in 1973,
on the stern of the Sequoia. Standing beside him

is the Cuban financier Bebe Rebozo, who is also
pissing into the river. The image is a small shame
in the middle of many greater ones: the damp dots

on his pants as he shakes off with an awkward
drunk step back and zips up: the president pissing
on the Republic, over which he stands.

Pastoral was always the genre of city folk, the simple life a fantasy of power elites.

“The Ship of State” is all third-person, a telling choice for a portrait of intimate friendship, but the voice passes through a series of shifting perspectives, allied now with one accidental witness and now with another. From narrative omniscience, endowed as it is with hindsight and opinion, the stanzas migrate to the sight-line of the on-call Secret Service agent, “trained to see elsewhere” while guarding the men on the boat, and then to the hippie playing Frisbee on the riverbank, who

mistakes the drunken laughter
of two old men in a boat for the drunken laughter
of two old men in a boat, unaware that History

is passing so close he’s breathing its exhaust. . . .

As are we all, the poem would say; it has blackened our lungs. Along the poem’s Potomac, each corroborating extra adds his bit of the night to the whole.

The title “Best and Only” refers in the first instance to the friendship between the poem’s two center-stage personae: Bebe Rebozo and Richard Milhous Nixon. One of these men also happened to be the president of the United States: we only get them one at a time, so each is for his time perforce the best we have. One man, fallible like the rest of us or even, it seems, more fallible than any other score of us, comes for better or worse to stand for the whole. Feld does not dwell on the unhappy commonplace: the incommensurate scales of moral stature and political consequence. He does dwell upon, or rather ruefully performs, the import of that commonplace, its effect upon the dynamic construction and reformulation of community. Historically, Richard Nixon was a master of paranoia: his secret enemies list became a not-so-exclusive club of doubters and dissidents, investigative journalists, critics of the war in Southeast Asia, social progressives, “Eastern elites,” and public intellectuals. The secret leaked: to appear on the list became a badge of honor; to be left off came to feel like a slight. The enemies list was a scandal and a joke, but Nixon was not wrong about the league he fantasized: of people whose motives varied widely and were even at odds, of people joined in action and people acting separately, of activists and contemplatives, of people with nothing in common but loathing of his policies and methods, the president made a nation. From section two of “Best and Only”:

Protesters under the cherry trees: notice
how each fallen petal rots from the inside
with a small brown dot on its delicate center-seam,
like a piece of used toilet paper:
so corruption is essential in us. It’s in our guts.
(“From the Apocrypha of Bebe Rebozo”)

Nothing is more common than the community forged by contempt. Default, oppositional, the social body is also retroactive, grounded in common memory of a shameful era.

And even a shameful era is profoundly mixed: bad and better, harmful and innocuous, funny and lame, all of it food for nostalgia. The third and final section of “Best and Only” is an abecedarian elegy for the whole of the gorgeous, botched, youth-fearing, youth-idolizing, contradictory American century:

Apollo. Bebe Rebozo. Beatniks.
The Car.
.    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .
The century
when Oral Sex came into its own.
The Overdose. People. Peaceniks.
Plutonium. Post-. Pop-. Plastic-wrapped
bundles of cocaine washing up
on Florida beaches.
.    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .
Watergate. World Wars. The X ray.
Yeah Yeah Yeah. Zen Koan. Ground Zero.

The choral refrain does not resolve to a solace of hail and farewell. Fellow feeling is here, to be sure, and pity for our shared and chronic adolescence, but so is the sting.

Feld is especially deft at rendering the complexities of common cultural reference and private divides, the process by which the self discovers its own nature in the social field. In a poem called “Two Chapters,” in the resonant nave of San Giorgio Maggiore, buoyed by their fragmentary memory of Euclidean optics and Palladian perspective and every art-history book they have ever consulted on transept and vault, the speaker and his companion eavesdrop on another pair of tourists. They hear enough to be appalled, to think they’ve glimpsed the desiccated heart of the others’ relationship, and to thank their lucky stars for that which makes them different. The moment unfolds, the couples exchange no word or overt glance. And after it all, the pair that guides us through their poem, the pair with whom we feel allied, discovers they have misjudged. What had seemed like one thing was something else altogether; our pair catches the trace of sorrows and kindnesses they had not been generous enough to read for. A small moment, and no open transgression or harm. But a moment worthy of James in what it reveals of the soul. “Awful,” writes the poet, “and unasked for, these sudden, sidelong glimpses of the self.”

In their different methods and different cultural moments, Whitney, Rukeyser, Jones, and Feld cannot be made to add up to a single poetic; their example is neither unified nor prescriptive. But their work, in all its agility and conceptual range, does free us from a debilitating premise about the self. We may, though we needn’t, consult high theory to find what we find in the lyric poem: that the self or first person is not, in the first instance, singular. Like language, it is social at inception. It emerges as singular in the process of social encounter and social thinking-through, in the byways of longing and recoil, in the shocks of recognition. The first person is born of the second and born again of the third. It is learned, it is made, it is less a home than a mode of navigation. In this it resembles the poem.


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