On Pronouns, Collectivity, and Anxiety: How Dead Is Poetry, Really?

This has been one of those weeks where I’ve been mired with rejections, such that I took one demonstrably non-personal rejection as saying, “Your poetry used to be better.” This led to some histrionic sad-facing and familiar but unreasonable thoughts, like “What is the fucking point?” and “I should drop out of grad school and work in a makeup factory.” (Why a makeup factory? Because it is easily the worst job I’ve ever held, and I needed to be as melodramatic as possible). These thoughts were fleeting, of course, and when I emerged from my self-imposed gloom, I started thinking about the seemingly incessant string of death-knells for poetry, the most recent being the much-discussed article in Harper’s by Mark Edmundson. I realized that I, too, in weeks like this, feel the impending death of poetry: I question why I write poems, whether it’s worth it, who I am “reaching” and why and how. But poetry is not dead for me—not really—and it is not dead in the world, either. It seems that what motivates feelings—voiced or not—about the death of poetry is a palpable anxiety, a fear that what poets and poems do is ineffectual, or irrelevant, or otherwise worthless, and to pre-emptively elegize it is more comforting than having its death take us unawares.

But the reason for all this anxiety is that we tend to think in terms of utility and value, and these terms are colored, or more forcefully defined, by our experience with capitalism. For a poem to be “useful,” it should do something—but poems don’t have agency (see my post on political poetry for more on this). For a poem to be of “value,” it should have monetary payout. This reminds me very much of arguments against majoring in the humanities—as though studying English or history or philosophy is worthless because it doesn’t easily translate into high-paying jobs. Arguments about the death of the humanities, of which you might call the death-of-poetry a subset, ignore values that seem to lie outside the marketplace: imagination, intellect, empathy, morality. (Okay, that last one was a little tongue-in-cheek, but you get the picture). And on the one hand, I might argue that these values actually do correlate to the marketplace, in the roles of cultural or human capital, in which case, as much as poetry seems to be dying by the side of the capitalist road, it truly is not. (Just look at bourgeoning MFA programs in creative writing). But this would dismiss the continuing fear among poets, critics, and readers that poetry is on its way out. Why does this feeling persist?

For Edmundson, contemporary poetry fails in part because it doesn’t connect with the reader: it lacks a connection to the community. (Let’s ignore for a moment that the community he seems to envision is purely American and how isolating that makes the notion of “the communal”). I’d interpret his argument as a call for poetry to return to its roots. But there’s a problem with this argument: If you look closely, poetry—and particularly that broad category we call “lyric poetry”—really has not strayed that far from its Classical origins at all. Stephen Burt has touched on this in his own response to Edmundson in the Boston Review.

Edmundson argues that poetry should “slake a reader’s thirst for meanings that pass beyond the experience of the individual poet and light up the world we hold in common,” and he laments that contemporary poetry does not do this. As I see it, part of the problem here is the way in which he sees the lyric “I.” Early European lyrics (and their Classical ancestors before them), sung to an audience and accompanied by lyre or lute, used a collective or “Everyman” “I,” with the singer as emblematic of the audience at large. Though printed poetry is necessarily distanced from both poet and audience, that does not mean that a contemporary lyric “I” cannot be similarly collective.

The issue of lyric pronouns and communality/collectivity is one I’ve been thinking about a good deal as I’ve been writing my dissertation prospectus. Certainly there is a problem with the subjective lyric poem if it is taken to be solipsistic and self-serving. But just because a lyric speaker says “I” does not necessarily mean that the poem is just an act of navel-gazing.

For fun, I went to the Poetry Foundation website and searched for a Recently Added Poem, and then followed the sidebar on the right to find a second poem. I wanted to see how randomly-selected contemporary poems fared, facing the “collectivity test.” The two poems I found were “Noguchi’s Fountain” by Helen T. Glenn and “Flowers from a New Love after the Divorce” by Paisley Rekdal. Here’s what I found: Glenn’s poem, which uses the lyric “I,” can be seen as an Everyman “I”—this speaker is not just talking about herself in the act of grief; she’s talking about how people grieve. If you read this as purely subjective or solipsistic, you’ve clearly missed the point. And Rekdal’s poem, rather than using the lyric “I,” uses instead the lyric “You,” which works to speak about the self obliquely, but is also a means by which traditional lyrics addressed the audience. As such, her “You” refers to both the speaker and the audience. Now, this is by no means a thorough or otherwise reliable analysis of the state of collectivity in contemporary poetry, but it certainly shows that Edmundson is off the mark in thinking that concern with the community, with poetry’s audience—small as it may be, and large as it may want to be—is dead.

Like Edmundson, I worry about how poetry engages the audience, and who/how it represents. As such, my dissertation plays with lyric pronouns. I use the subjective “I” and the Everyman “I.” I write I-You poems that have singular and plural referents (You as lover, and You as audience). I write different sorts of We poems that collapse either the singular I-You or the plural I-You into one pronoun, knowing full well that trying to speak collectively on behalf of a whole group is problematic, overstepping a number of bounds. Most of the collective We poems I write, as a result, are mythic. This way, the world created in the poem, and the seemingly shared behaviors and beliefs of the We are tempered as fictions, which hopefully relate to behaviors and beliefs in the real world, while avoiding the problems encountered when speaking in universals. All of this is to say that lyric pronouns are tricky, and each comes with its own set of problems. To suggest that increased collectivity would be a kind of life-support system for poetry, whether achieved using pronouns or other means, would be rather shortsighted.

The belief that poetry is dead or dying is fueled, as I suggested above, by the anxiety that what poets do is irrelevant because it lacks the notoriety and financial payout that rewards success in other arenas, even other aesthetic arenas. Contemporary poetry’s readers are a small circle, and there’s fear that subjective lyrics could potentially alienate these readers, thus diminishing the circle further. This is a fair concern, but as I’ve tried to (briefly) illustrate, it is not as widespread a problem as critics like Edmundson believe. And further, it is not the only problem inherent to poetry. Like anything else—literally, anything else—it is flawed, and engaged discussion about its flaws is certainly productive. But let’s avoid the histrionics involved with proclaiming poetry’s death (yet again). All that does, as Amy King points out, is paint you as one who “hope[s] to harness the beast for capital gain.” And who does that benefit in the end, hm?

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