When I Mean I

The conventions of essays being what they are, when I write “I” here, you’ll probably assume that I’m referring to myself. If I want you to think otherwise, it’s up to me to give you some kind of sign.

Maybe you object. Maybe, for example, the whole idea of a self seems like a dangerous and unstable fiction to you. Or maybe you think that the very act of writing distorts the self by forcing it into and through generic and linguistic conventions incompatible with the experience of selfhood as you know it. Fair enough. But I don’t think that would prevent you, in objecting, from writing “Farmer argues….” I’m on the hook for these words and these ideas, and it would be absurd for me to reply that “No, it was the speaker of this essay who said that.” And within the larger conventions of our lives among each other, the ones that entail accountability and obligation, the ones that allow us to meet, to agree or disagree, to act in concert or opposition to each other, to write, to speak, that matters quite a bit. It matters quite a bit to me.

But if, instead, I write
I am referring
to myself
there’s a much greater chance you’ll assume that both “I” and “myself” refer to someone else, someone fictional. Even if you don’t assume that, if you’re sufficiently familiar with the conventions of talking about poems, you’ll probably speak as if you do, referring to me as “the speaker.” In fact, given how we’ve been taught to talk and think about poems, those lines have an irony I can’t write out of them, no matter what I add or how I revise them—unless, that is, I put them back in prose.

This seems like a problem. Or: This seems like a problem to me.

I think we’ve done what we often do: we’ve taken a true statement—“in some poems, the person speaking is not the author”[1]—and turned it into a shortcut, without even realizing that we’re doing so. And by now we’ve taken the shortcut so many times we don’t even notice that it sometimes leads us astray.

Here’s a true story: A man wrote and published a book-length sequence of poems in which the speaker describes the death of someone dear to him. He—the author—gave a reading from the book, and afterwards, during a Q&A, someone in the audience offered condolences for his loss, and so the author had to explain, awkwardly, that he had experienced no such loss. Afterwards, someone wrote an essay about this, explaining, based on this moment and others, how important it was that we not confuse author and speaker. Look, the essayist said, where that can lead.

Fair enough. But I imagine another reading, this one by someone who had, in fact, lost their beloved and published a sequence of poems about it. And I think about how strange it would be to preclude such awareness, to offer no fellow feeling there. I imagine referring to the author, standing in front of us, maybe still lit up with grief, as “the speaker.” And I can’t help thinking how strange it is to pretend, while we ask questions about the poems, that we are unaware of the actual grief, the actual person who died.

Here’s another true story: A small child was kidnapped. The white parents of his white mother took him from his black father when he was old enough to retain some ghostly memories of his father, but nothing precise. His white grandfather, a white supremacist, raised him to believe he was white and often abused him, presumably outraged at least in part by the blackness he (the grandfather) could not acknowledge and no one, including the child, could altogether avoid noticing. That child grew up to be an extraordinary poet, writing lines like these about his experience:
Growing up black white trash you grow up wondering you
are raised
Wondering what you did and when Lord wrong to
Deserve your skin     / You grow up wondering you / You
grow up standing Lord outside       yourself and sometimes it’s not bad           / You ride
your in your body bike
but no    matter how hard you pedal how
Steep Lord the hill you dive down head first almost falling like you’re falling down
You stand
Outside yourself stand still
Like how it seemed when you were younger      Lord like the world moved beneath
The wheels of the car and car didn’t move
Growing up raised by white
supremacists     / You grow up skinned / You make
a puppet of your skin
These lines, by and (I believe) about the poet Shane McCrae, seem masterful to me, but one potential meaning of their mastery depends on the admission that this is a real person talking about what happened to him. These lines, like many in McCrae’s poems, not only embody pain and confusion, they enact the human ability to use language, convention, shared experience, and imagination to channel the currents that can elsewhere cut us off from others. They involve the worst of life in meaning, and in that way they hold open a hope for continuance, if not for healing. They are at once an image of breathtaking human cruelty and a proof of human beauty. If this were only imagination, it would still be masterful, but it wouldn’t mean that—not exactly, not quite.

It matters, similarly, to know that Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” is about Robert Lowell—the same real person I have also encountered in many other Lowell poems—even as I know that the scene described here is partly fictionalized (partly borrowed, in fact from a story about Walt Whitman) and that the lines also borrow from and allude to John of the Cross, John Milton, the blues song “Careless Love,” and, more broadly, Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Armadillo,” whose form they follow:
One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull;
I watched for love cars. Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . .
My mind’s not right.
A car radio bleats,
“Love, O careless Love….” I hear
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat. . . .
I myself am hell;
nobody’s here—
In one valence, these lines are an inverse of McCrae’s. Instead of gathering speed, they drift away, apparently unmoored. In the span of just eight lines, Lowell trails off four times. You can hear an awareness of his own excesses and register the work that his mind must do to avoid his mind’s accelerations and distortions (alongside, perhaps, the gaps written into his mind by the medication that allowed him to recover from the breakdown the poem describes). It’s worth noting that Lowell did not, in fact, write this in the present tense of the poem. But as with his slightly falsified version of events, that does not undo the importance of the person speaking here being the person writing here, being the person who lived through, more or less, these things.

Here, too, the poem feels masterful. And here, too, the mastery becomes an emblem of our ability to live meaningfully in spite of circumstances that threaten meaning—so much so that those threats become a fundamental element of their meaning, like the high bar that proves the pole vaulter’s achievement. If the person writing here has not survived the breakdown of his mind, it matters less that his mind can orchestrate these lines so artfully.

I wonder sometimes, thinking about that book of poems describing the death of someone loved, why, if the author didn’t want anyone to think that the speaker was him—that the beloved was his—he didn’t do anything to keep that from happening. He could, for instance, have given it a subtitle like “A Novel in Verse” or “A Poetic Fiction,”[2] or he could have made the speaker female or in some other way signaled the separation between the two.[3] He could even have done what John Berryman did when he got tired of people equating him with the speaker of The Dream Songs, and included a note at the front saying, in essence, this isn’t me.[4] One plausible answer is that the separation of speaker and poet is so doctrinal that he saw no need. Another is that he valued the heightened immediacy of the lost beloved, the way a lingering suspicion of her reality shortened the distance his poems must travel to make her real (which is one of the challenges most fictions have to overcome).

If so, that’s fine. Writers have been playing with these lines (and drawing an added charge from their live currents) for a long time. Philip Roth, as just one example, has written fiction about a character named “Philip Roth.” Purity is not the point, which is probably good, since I doubt purity is possible. Even in our greatest intimacies, we are always mediated, multiple, compromised. Even when reading a memoir, most of us recognize a distance between the artistic representation and the original events. And yet many of us choose to read memoirs, biographies, and histories, not to mention newspapers and nonfiction articles in magazines, in spite of the artistic potentials all of those genres and media can impede. We do so, I believe, because we believe in reality (a reality that, of course, includes fiction, that is full of novels and movies and poems and plays with a nearly infinite variety of relationships to reality; and that is only partly knowable, always mediated by the limitations and beauty of our minds and bodies). And because we believe in the importance of not only real events but real people. And we would like to meet them. And we would like to be heard, and understood, by them as well.

There’s a risk in assuming that the speaker is the poet. When I first reviewed Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, I hadn’t read anything about it, and I assumed that the stories she told about “you” all referred to her. I was wrong—factually, demonstrably, wrong. Rankine gathered those stories from others and stitched them together through stylistic consistency and a standardized mode of address. It bothers me to have gotten it wrong, and to have done so so publicly, at that. Looking back at the book, I think I should have been able to figure it out just by paying closer attention, and I feel a lingering queasiness that my visible foolishness also means that I misrepresented the experiences of real people—including Rankine—in print. But that matters for the same reason that I think it matters when we fail to see the reality, however mediated or complicated, of an actual person speaking to us through a poem.

As in the other places where we sometimes encounter real people—parks, offices, bedrooms, streets—we will sometimes misunderstand them in poems. Humility matters. We should be wary of too much presumption. We should listen carefully, judge slowly, take care. We should not, however, make the unknowability of others into the sole or primary thing we know about them. And we should not let the risk of making a mistake narrow our sense of possibility or starve us in our hunger for people who are real. We should listen carefully enough to hear a poem when it tries to tell us that the person speaking to us exists.

[1] And maybe this one, too: “In some poems, poets present fictionalized versions of themselves and their experience.”

[2] Working in the other direction, poets seem to be adopting a fashion for including the phrase “self-portrait” in the title of a poem, but more often than not, those poems tend to play with the idea of selfhood, displacing self-conception into other objects or beings.

[3] McCrae, who frequently writes poems about both historical figures and fictional characters has no shortage of means for signaling those differences, even as he filters their imagined (and sometimes actual) speech through his distinctive rhythms and patterning.

[4] Berryman’s note—which begins “It is idle to reply to critics, but some of the people who addressed themselves to the 77 Dream Songs went so desperately astray (one apologized about it in print, but who ever sees apologies?) that I permit myself one word”—always amuses me, because even if the speaker isn’t him, it’s clearly not not him, either. He’s mythologizing himself there, and so his protestations never quite ring true. He’s putting on a John Berryman mask and then complaining that people call him John. The differences between the face and the mask matter, but they don’t do away with the similarities, as he undoubtedly knew.

Race and American Poetry: Dove v. Vendler

If your Twitter or Facebook feed includes anyone who cares about American poetry, you’ve probably seen a link or 11 to Rita Dove’s recent letter to the editor in The New York Review of Books (and Helen Vendler’s painfully terse reply). If not, here’s a quick rundown: The November 24 issue of the NYRB included Vendler’s review of The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, edited by Dove. The anthologist responded with a letter calling Vendler to task, in particular, for explicit and implicit dismissals of poetry by black Americans. Vendler replied, in full, “I have written the review and I stand by it.”

To understand what Dove objected to, you needn’t read any further than the opening paragraphs of Vendler’s review:

Twentieth-century American poetry has been one of the glories of modern literature. The most significant names and texts are known worldwide: T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Hart Crane, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop (and some would include Ezra Pound). Rita Dove, a recent poet laureate (1993–1995), has decided, in her new anthology of poetry of the past century, to shift the balance, introducing more black poets and giving them significant amounts of space, in some cases more space than is given to better-known authors. These writers are included in some cases for their representative themes rather than their style. Dove is at pains to include angry outbursts as well as artistically ambitious meditations.

Multicultural inclusiveness prevails: some 175 poets are represented. No century in the evolution of poetry in English ever had 175 poets worth reading, so why are we being asked to sample so many poets of little or no lasting value? Anthologists may now be extending a too general welcome. Selectivity has been condemned as “elitism,” and a hundred flowers are invited to bloom. People who wouldn’t be able to take on the long-term commitment of a novel find a longed-for release in writing a poem. And it seems rude to denigrate the heartfelt lines of people moved to verse. It is popular to say (and it is in part true) that in literary matters tastes differ, and that every critic can be wrong. But there is a certain objectivity bestowed by the mere passage of time, and its sifting of wheat from chaff: Which of Dove’s 175 poets will have staying power, and which will seep back into the archives of sociology?

Notably, Vendler’s list of America’s foremost 20th-century poets is entirely white — a fact that becomes especially significant when set up against her subsequent suggestion that this legacy of greatness is being crowded out in part by “introducing more black poets.”

Up to a point, it’s worth going easy on Vendler. Like Dove, she had a job to do — the same job, really: make a case for what was worth reading in 20th-century American poetry. Dove made hers, and the NYRB asked Vendler to evaluate it. And after those two paragraphs Vendler’s argument mostly shifts away from issues of race and into critiques that, accurate or not, have more to do with Vendler’s dislike of what she calls “accessibility;” her defensiveness about what Dove refers to as the “poetry establishment;” and what Vendler describes as Dove’s “breezy chronological introduction, with its uneasy mix of potted history (in a nod to ‘context’) and peculiar judgments.” While any of these could be stand-ins for racial prejudice, I don’t believe they are. Instead, they feel like an uncomfortable mix of, on the one hand, Vendler’s legitimate arguments about selection and interpretation and, on the other, her fear that the poems she loves most won’t matter enough to others.

But those first two paragraphs can’t and shouldn’t be ignored. Dove rightly takes her to task for this, effectively unpacking the implications of, for example, dismissing minority writers as being of merely “sociological” interest; suggesting that such writers tend to be valued for their “representative themes,” whereas the major white writers Vendler lists are supposedly notable for their “style;” and asserting that they write poems because they “wouldn’t be able to take on the long-term commitment of a novel.” (Vendler might argue that she didn’t mean any of these observations to be specific to minority writers, but she introduces all of them right after complaining that black writers are over-represented, and a critic who’s famous for her attention to detail should know that she’s setting up that reading of her remarks.) Dove also fairly marks the places where the shadow of such remarks can be discerned later on in the review.

Ultimately, I think Vendler’s condescending talk about race and writing is driven by her defensiveness about her own tastes (and more about that in a bit), which of course does nothing to excuse it. But given that Dove and others have already effectively unpacked this most glaring aspect of the review — and given that Vendler’s case seems far from unique — it’s worth stopping to look at the assumptions that underpin most arguments against inclusiveness in art, including this one.

Part of what leads Vendler astray is her belief in a kind of literary value that’s all noun and no verb — that is, one that wants to define value without making room for the fact that many people do in fact value the very writing that, she says, is not, well… valuable. In the process, she, like many other critics (and not just of poetry), creates an oddly unpeopled universe — or, at least, one that’s strangely devoid of living people. Vendler asks us to think of value in terms of a hypothetical and permanent future, one that will have unvarying and therefore conclusive (that is, correct) notions of what was good and bad in our writing. It’s an exasperating argument, since it asks us to defer to the critic’s mystical conjuring of our far off progeny, a population that will, of course, have the same values as the critic herself.

But even if the critic is somehow right about what the academics of the 22nd century will value (and even if the 23rd, 24th and 25th centuries value the same things), it begs the question — why should it matter? Our current canons are based on what a select group of current readers find useful, pleasurable, interesting, meaningful. Were readers in the 17th century wrong for sometimes finding pleasure in other places? Should they have been more concerned with what a Harvard professor might care about today?

With some notable exceptions, taste is not a moral category. Yes, it makes a difference if we eat meat; and it matters, too, if our diets are full of sugar or salt. In different ways, it matters if we embrace art that enforces our prejudices, degrades others, or results from exploitation. The same is true if we choose to read in ways that inspire pettiness or abet us in living timid, unfulfilling, unimaginative lives. But more often than not, none of that is really at stake in these arguments. Just as some people will like poetry and some will like fiction, some sculpture, some movies, some wine — some many things, some few — there are countless ways to get to meaning through poems and just as many different experiences of meaning to arrive at. And almost all of them are worthwhile. In fact, we can enlarge ourselves by being more imaginative about value; it’s a way of learning about others that resembles the experience of art itself, an act or curiosity and creativity and engagement.

Many critics seem to move in the opposite direction, letting in a sense that the appreciation of writing outside of their preferences somehow threatens the value of the poetry they want to champion. If page-counting is a necessary part of reviewing an anthology — of unpacking its claims — the treatment of artistic appreciation as a kind of zero-sum equation is not. There’s a strange logic here, one that feels a little like the idea that gay marriages would threaten the sanctity of straight marriages (which is not to accuse any critics of homophobia — just to note the ways in which a lack of imagination about other people’s pleasures can turn into an unwarranted prejudice and a strangely militant attitude about the things others do and love.)

Vendler’s hardly alone in this. Harold Bloom has made a name for himself by defending the great tradition, as he imagines it, from the encroachment of all kinds of writing. In a nice bit of synchronicity, Bloom actually moved to the vanguard of the cultural wars by releasing his own anthology of sorts — The Western Canon — which made headlines for selecting 26 essential authors and defending their pre-eminence against an army of straw-men and -women: feminists, cultural theorists, etc., a group he likes to refer to as “The School of Resentment.” He, too, has passed judgment of Dove’s anthologizing, in his case when he made the selections for a Best of the Best American Poetry that largely discarded the choices of the series’ first 10 editors, including Rita Dove, and instead came up with his own roster of works that “will endure, if only we can maintain a continuity of aesthetic appreciation and cognitive understanding that more or less prevailed from Emerson until the later 1960s, but that survives only in isolated pockets.”

It’s likely that some of the defensiveness that critics like Bloom feel comes from their awareness that their own selections may be subject to attack, their awareness that championing an all or mostly white or male roster of artists is going to leave them subject to charges of racism and sexism. But there’s a simple way around that: admit that the kind of writing you value is just one kind of potentially valuable writing. Keep in mind that, in trying to maintain the prerogatives and preferences of the establishment (quotation marks deliberately omitted), you’re trying to sustain a series of cultural traditions and institutions that have been hostile to women, blacks, and other minorities on grounds that have nothing to do with merit. Take seriously the ways in which others experience and uncover meaning at the same time you ask others to preserve space for the things you value most. And (hey, why not?) take a little bit of time to consider the possibility that female and non-white writers are already doing important work in that same vein — and that maybe it doesn’t seem that way to you at first glance in part because you haven’t yet immersed yourself in a slightly different set of cultural experiences and associations. (On that last note, Vendler does eventually get around to praising both Carl Phillips and Yusef Komunyakaa, but it comes so late in her review that it doesn’t provide much counterweight, and her assertion that the “excellent contemporary poetry” of these two writers “needs no special defense” revives her claim that many other black writers are valuable only under the terms of some separate and lower standard.)

The importance of this extends beyond racial inclusiveness. One of the most useful things a critic can do — and one that Vendler herself has done at various points in her career — is to open us up to new sources of pleasure and insight. In denying the value of so much that clearly does provide value for others (including, for me, the brilliant Gwendolyn Brooks, whom Vendler faintly praises for a “pioneering role” before expressing wild outrage at Dove’s claim that Brooks’ first book “confirmed that black women can express themselves in poems as richly innovative as the best male poets of any race”), a critic works against our capacity for imagination. We can, should, and will continue to argue about artistic quality, but we should do so while remembering that poetry can only live in the minds of living readers, and that its value comes out of their encounters with individual poems, which are, thank god, incredibly various (both the poems and the encounters.) Too much criticism suggests that we must serve art — a supposedly timeless art removed from the particulars of people immersed in culture and history. And yet the most enduring value of Shakespeare — the favorite cudgel of literary culture warriors — is his ongoing service to individual readers, his ability to bring them joy and inspiration, bring them a more vibrant connection to the language we all speak in our own ways, rich grief, and insight into people living very different lives. Why worry so much about any other writing that provides the same?