William Hazlitt called poetry, “the language of the imagination; and the imagination is that faculty which represents objects, not as they are in themselves, but as they are moulded by other thoughts and feelings, into an infinite variety of shapes and combinations of power.”
John Keats, who was a fan of Hazlitt’s lectures, took it one step further describing a Chameleon poet, a poet who must relinquish the self when contemplating an object or person, so the imagination may speak from a place in-between individual consciousness and the phenomenal world; in fact, a place where the “I” can become an “Eye” as the American poet Reginald Shepard once put it.
But this is not to say the singular first-person “I” does not make a good starting point for the writing of poetry for what houses our imaginations if not our insufferable selves? Things semi-real need “a greeting of the spirit to make them wholly exist” says Keats, which really is his cute way of saying we are stuck with ourselves. We may be the gods of the worlds we create, but we are still captives of our bodies, and of the day-to-day pressures of a shared reality. Yes, damn the ego, by all means, but to throw out the self entirely is to risk a poetry barren of any emotional complexities, any human apprehension, any lived experience, making it a mere inert puzzle or ersatz scheme. It courts anorexia of the soul.
For at least the past dozen years, I've read how the use of the first person lyric leads only to a pauper’s graveyard of easy cliches, unrestrained sentimentality and amped-up confessionalism. A cave of self-delusion and egocentrism. It’s an idea that has gained intractable popularity among younger poets for whom connotative sloppiness has become a trademark or the style du jour. In her essay entitled “Little Death of the Self” which appeared in American Poetry Review, Marianne Boruch explores the growing impatience surrounding lyric poetry written in the first person singular:
But there’s a noticeable shift from this approach, a growing wish in contemporary poetry to discredit or fracture, even rub out forever just such a speaker, a new impatience with genuinely lived experience as the source of poetry. Or it’s a need to remain as hidden as possible. Or a desire for deeper play and outright accident, to e-invent, to flarf, cleverly collaging bits from the web to leave behind the tired old real and potentially embarassing—read: sentimental—self as speaker. Whatever the reasons, I hear and overhear this sometimes: I want to kill the “I” in my poem—as if that could move any mountain. And it’s earnest, this wish, and somehow seductive though it seems like a Mobius strip, doesn’t it? Or the serpent eating its own tail since the most convincing element in such an assertion lies at the very start and keeps sticking.
After all, who wants with such passion to do in that “I”? I do I do I do.….( p.51 May/June 2011 Vol. 40/No. 3)
As someone who reads poetry for its affective nature—its ability to teach us how to live, to be a presence in the world, to connect us with a broader, more universal human experience—it saddens me to see the first person lyric always equated with mere confessionalism. This is frustrating because we intuit the world through the “I”, but the world also brings that “I” into being, from the hodgepodge of sensory perception. It is a symbiotic relationship that has all but been forgotten, and to forget is to despair.
And why the assumption the “I” in a poem is always the poet speaking? Audiences are perfectly willing to understand the teenage narrator in a novel based on an author’s autobiographical experiences in Guatemala is a fictional character, but seem less inclined to do so when reading a book of poems. Philip Levine has many poems where the speaker mentions a sister, and yet Levine has no sister. For myself, I have written many poems based on places I have lived, and people I have known, but if readers were to believe they knew who I was based solely on a reading of my books, they would be in for a rude awakening. I have never been to confessional as I am not Catholic, and I have never gone to school with boys whose fathers were ship-builders, these being just two prime examples that come to mind from my last book.
I suppose what I'm trying to say is the first person lyric is not always private reportage or easy anecdote, for there is a difference between confessionalism and the subjective, and in all honesty, who knows truly what that “I” stands for in a poem given how conditional our lives are. If I knew, I wouldn’t write. As John Koethe has stated, ”I and here and now are ever present, but they vanish in the act of apprehension, as a poem turns into language as you write it down.” Maybe the first person lyric is a broken conduit for many young practising poets, but for me it is not so.
Poems are written by real people. Not robots. If a poem does not feel as if it were written by a flesh and blood person, even if that person is only off to the side somewhere in the poem, I will never connect with it. How else to bridge one’s own imagination with another’s except through the melting pot of the “I”? That it has to be more than a lonely wallflower standing off in a corner obsessing about the past goes without saying. It has to touch upon the collective unconscious of all people, an underworld of wailing voices, while, paradoxically, speaking from the firm ground of an individual lived experience. If the “I” in a poem dreams, it dreams chameleon dreams.