first posted 10/6 11 a.m.
At any given moment, a poem is a response to existence– on the part of Someone–a listener, a speaker, Everywoman. That Someone may be covert– not present as the direct speaking voice in the poem– or intentionally present as an intimate, discerning voice– the lyric “I”.
Who, then, are the “Language Poets”and their disciples to say that poetry written in the first person is solely and only “self-referential,” as if it were true that the many accomplished poets deploying the “I” were not writing of the human experience in sum.
And who is to say that even autobiographical narrative/ lyrical poetry that turns on mastery of the craft, on music, literary “figure”–all that makes a good and great poem– is somehow illegitimate?
Finally, who are these cerebrating apologists–Silliman and company– to say that poetry written in the first person, an entire body of art and endeavor, is irrelevant to contemporary life and intellection? For to denigrate the use of the first person singular is to dismiss poets as enduring and diverse as Dante, Shakespeare, Donne, Dickinson, Thomas and Lawrence–most moderns, many post-moderns, contemporaries.
Evidently someone thinks the “language” school is onto something because the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize were given to Rae Armantrout for not much more, it appears, than her “wit”– see Versed, Wesleyan, 2010, and the commentary posted by the Pulitzer committee.
It is true that we live in an era of capricious cross-genre making: we have the personal expose’ dignified as “memoir,” now “lyric memoir”– one assumes a weaving of poetry and narrative together– narrative poetry, lyric poetry, so-called language poetry, hybrid poetry written in codified language meaningful to its following, and general appropriation of the critical vocabulary so that it is hard to understand what anyone is talking about, really. Just read the blog Harriet. Or try to read a Jorie Graham poem. What is she doing, and why must we have a poetry that has to be cracked open with a hammer and all of that pompous, unintelligible, attenuated, deconstructionist theory? It has been observed and I reiterate, that a poetry wrapped in shiny barbed wire is not arbitrarily brilliant.
I remember when I encountered poetry written in the intimate speaking voice, in the open line-and how liberating it was to set aside my obsession with form and formulas–not to say subject matter. Bravely, at the age of nineteen, I published a poem in the Colorado State University literary magazine as follows;
With October hunger
in our bodies
we arch skyward
and our feet pestle leaves
Andrews, circa 1967
Yes. I did write that, from a literal, young sensibility seeking to place itself next to D.H. Lawrence. A former, very conservative spinster professor advocated for my right to free speech when a hue and cry was raised over this poem.
Many years later and counting, we have reductio ad absurdem theorists opining that such poetry is dead, that the lyric is dead. Here is a recent poem, indelibly lyrical and personal, also speaking to the correspondence between poetry and the sung lyric:
On Hearing the Lyric Tenor
Let me lie with you like a castaway
in a redolent room
show me how to receive you
With the very bread of my body, risen and glistening
no more the woman of brass leaching
tears of pewter
two different metals fusing together
re-open me with knives of starlight
slice into me like a diver
Decipher, rising moon, when the new life
Of paired foxes
slips wetly into the grass.
(Andrews draft, 2009).
For me, growth as a poet has meant that my work has become increasingly emotive, direct, free and discursive– to take shape in the weaving together of the narrative and lyrical; I view poetry as the highest form of imaginative response, with a mandate to affect, to reach, the reader. None of us really writes from either intellect or emotion, one or the other; these are not valid distinctions. Not to belabor the point, but a poem’s writing is not solely an act of mind, will— it is not solely the offspring of emotion on the one hand or the intellect on the other– insofar as the “I” is seated in the brain, it is these things working together.
No one sane would label the previously named poets confessional or autobiographical or as suffering from the great shortcoming of “self-reference”– why then do that to serious contemporary poets who employ the “I”. What the writer has to work with is a subjective field in which he extrapolates from individual perception to a larger dimension, even if unconsciously, for it is the very nature of language to create a relationship between self and world. It may be argued in that sense, then, that the “I” most often means “we”. To charge, as Language Poetry theorists do, that first-person poetry is written out of mere self-involvement is really to miss the essence of lyric poetry– it calls out to others of our species.
Consider that when we speak, we begin most of our declarations and questions with “I”. It is the “I” that ponders, constructs meaning and eventually, on the page, builds the universe of the poem which, as it is a work of art, takes on its own life.
It is fair to say then that being and art are not and cannot be in any sense one and the same, and that therefore, lyric poetry is unable to function as mere self-disclosure. The first person may be the exigent vehicle for a poem but in order for a poem to exist there is a necessary aesthetic distance from utterance. Craft and a host of other considerations come into play in the writing down and therefore, art and life, no matter how intimate the art seems, are not one.
Poetry written in the first person remains the mainstream contemporary tradition precisely because the “I” is a semaphor for intimacy with the reader; it implicates an “Other,” a listener, and invites the reader into the house of the poem.
In truth, it is the emotional reach of the lyric, the lyrical momentum of the first person apprehending the world, that makes most poetry as art relevant and blurs the lines between writer and reader. The I bravely and perennially struggles to elucidate the true nature of things, and to make a record. The I is also authoritative, the pure voice of perception, exerting a measure of power over that which is perceived: “I looked in the lake and saw the sky…”– this is direct testimony.
All we really have in this life is one another’s assertions, the putting of oneself on the line to deliver a version of what is true. We are reassured by the presence of an intimate speaker: by extension the I is speaking to you– to me, to us. “I rise with my red hair/eating men like air”. We do not doubt that and how ineffectual that declaration if written as “She rises with her red hair–” implying that the true voice in the poem– the speaker– is writing with detachment. Does anyone out there want a poetry of detachment?
In recent years the novo critics have also assailed the “workshop poem,” charging that it is merely autobiographical and facile. But is it fair to fault even the autobiographical voice? Do we not abjure young poets to write what they know?
The Language Poets may believe that in “fracturing,”– in the new jargon, “deconstructing” lanugage, “re-contextualizing” and foregrounding poetry of a certain “mien” as “post-moderns,” they are showing the true status of the collective psyche: fragmented. Bankrupt. Without soul. But consider that even John Ashberry says that language depends on referents– symbols with comparatively static meanings and connotations– and that he cannot subscribe wholly to the language school. This is heartening, as the avant garde language poetry is inhospitable to those who most need to know they do not face life in a vacuum– all of us.
T.S. Eliot may have wished to make war on tradition, but consider Prufrock. The I is utterly essential. “I grow old, I grow old; shall I wear my trousers rolled…” Existential angst is made unbearably immediate; the I conveys the sense that there is real anguish here imposed upon a real human being.
Ergo, the homely, overly accessible I cries in the wilderness on our behalf. We reach across time and history toward each other with the I. The I is reporting directly back from the front lines and living in the foreground, pays the price of laying itself bare. It is wounded, world-weary and yet perseveres.
Here is a spectacular lyrical-narrative poem by Tess Gallagher, from Amplitude:
An entire poetics is embodied in these lines: “…Again, I/am the found one, intimate, returned/by all I touch on the way.” To a great extent, perhaps, the subjective voice insists that the reader join it in both its loneliness and its ecstacy. It has made itself vulnerable, inviting our allegiance. “The last time I walked/ I took a grey mare out to grass…” — we are invited into a private realm, a personal locus of time and matter; we are forced to open our hearts–mood indigo translated between poet/speaker and reader– ultimately, by its vulnerability inviting empathy, we find ourselves reflected in the I…
I have been greatly enriched by reading my friend Canadian poet Tom Wayman’s introduction to A Literary History of Saskatchewan, which he just sent me. He brilliantly articulates the origins and problems of the Language school seemingly ignored or not seen at all by its practitioners, and makes the point that it is accessible, referential and linear poetry that both envisions and creates community.
As I’ve noted before on the blog, I have been summoning renewed faith in my talent and my work, sending a manuscript out into the great void. The poetry therein is not published, but it is not untested– most of it has earned validating response. But I understand now why my best lyrical/narrative poem– “Amphibian”– was rejected by Poetry– with its millions from Ruth Lilly, an aspiring lyric poet– now arrogantly devoted to the displacement of literary tradition and attempting to place itself at the head of the literary elite. By the problematic litmus of the paroxysms of the illogical required by language poetry, my work will be viewed as too predictable, ordinary, and therefore pase’.
Serious writers should not have to defend themselves within the ranks, but individually and together, we must: we must not abandon our work to accommodate the current literary establishment principally situated in the academy where a self-anointed elite writes to sooth and please its own denizens and no one else. In the case of those sealing themselves off from the rest of us via hermetic language, trashing the lyric, calling oneself avant-garde the while, continues to add up to the height of arrogance, to work against generating a love of poetry in this country and elsewhere.