The plural of us

Uses and abuses of an ambiguous pronoun

The tenth anniversary of 9/11 brought with it a surge in the use of the first person plural. While most would agree that this tragic, history-changing event must be memorialized, I know I’m not the only one made uncomfortable by the ready invocation of this public We. It seems at once abstract and presumptuous, and it plays to a dangerous human desire: to become part of a crowd, and to define oneself against Them. Does this “we” have any real antecedent for an unbounded, diverse populace? Does it claim to speak for me? Whatever the founders may have meant by “we, the people,” it rings hollow in the arena of contemporary politics and popular journalism. With Tonto, I want to ask: What do you mean we, kemosabe?

The first person plural is an indexical pronoun, dependent on context for meaning, but the boundaries are often unclear even to the speaker. And there’s something not only ambiguous but also incoherent in the pronoun. As Franz Boas warned in 1911, “a true [first person] plural […] is impossible, because there can never be more than one self.” Poetry, though we associate it with “I,” is rather fond of “we,” and not only the intimate “we” of private I/Thou relations. But the best poets are also aware that it’s a shifty and treacherous pronoun.

Surprisingly, poetry, the genre we most identify with private, subjective experiences, is far freer in its use of the first person plural than narrative prose, though there are a few bold examples in fiction, such as Kate Walbert’s Our Kind, Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides and, most recently, Justin Torres’ We the Animals, works that suggest a “we” prior to or stronger than the individuating psyche.  But poetry has given much freer rein to the first person plural.  At the same time, the pressures and perils of the pronoun “we” are registered with particular sensitivity in the genre with the most acute linguistic self-consciousness.


Perhaps because of its historic attachment to the single voice, lyric poetry has maintained a place for the royal “we” though it is pretty much extinct in other discourses. (Shakespeare’s kings use it all the time, of course, but Margaret Thatcher’s “we have become a grandmother” was widely ridiculed, and even the editorial we of the New Yorker’s voice in “Talk of the Town” was always somewhat arch). Poetry continues to find a use for this peculiar nosism that causes an “I” to speak not for the many but as if it were many. In modern poets, the royal we has often been a trope for division or plurality within the self. Shakespeare scholar John Berryman uses it in Dream Songs, for instance, though his Henry has little kingly stature, and the plurality of the self is a matter of fear or schizophrenic confusion more than status, authority or alliance with the divine.

I’m scared a only one thing, which is me,
from othering I don't take nothin’, see,
for any hound dog’s sake.
But this is where I livin’, where I rake
my leaves and cop my promise, this’ where we
cry oursel’s awake

On the other hand, the plurality of the royal we may still suggest the majesty of the imagination, as it did for Emily Dickinson (“We send the wave to find the wave, / An errand so divine”), as it did for Wallace Stevens (in “The Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour”), and as it still does for Kay Ryan: “I think poetry is aristocratic, an aristocracy for the mind,” she said in an interview. “You have to make yourself worthy of it.” And her poem “the Task We Set Ourself” (note she does not say  “ourselves”) uses the royal we to reflect that struggle:

the answer sewn inside us
that invalidates the test we set ourself
against the boneless angle at our right
and at our left the elf

If the royal “we” pluralizes the self, the group “we” turns many into one, a rhetorical strategy with its own set of advantages and dangers. In America, poetry has been a strong voice for minority experience, the first person plural announcing a unique group identity and a call for inclusion in society, sometimes both at once. “We” has sometimes been racially marked, but at other times deliberately ambiguous. Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask” can be read as a particular or as a universal address. Claude McKay’s “If we must die,” addressed to “my Kinsmen” and referencing situations that clearly point to the historical violence of a dominant group against a minority, seems less general, more defiant. McKay eschews the personal lyric in this sonnet; “we” is rallied against a “common foe.” Amiri Baraka’s “Our Nation Is Like Ourselves” foregrounds race and critiques individualism in order to test an American ideal of inclusion: an excluded "we” confronts an ideal of “we, the people” that history belies. But solidarity has its dangers as well, especially when the group loses plurality and becomes an undifferentiated block, a kind of collective ego. For Gwendolyn Brooks, the exclusive “we” of the gang induces false confidence and reckless bravado that not only conceals individual fear and vulnerability, but also obstructs individual reason and conscience. She caught the ironies and dangers of the pronoun unforgettably in “We Real Cool”: “We / Lurk late. We / Strike straight.” Brooks calls out the shots in the enjambed end of the line “We” until the prophecy of the pool hall’s name, “The Golden Shovel” is fulfilled: “We / Jazz June. / We / Die soon.” The pronoun in this poem is clearly indexed to “the pool players,” who are digging their early graves.  (They are seven, one for each deadly sin perhaps). Yet any poem projects a meaning beyond its context and the final “we” applies to all mortals in the game of social survival. Clearly Brooks saw poetry as a specific social intervention on behalf of an oppressed group. But she did not embrace group identity in her poetry. Brooks rarely uses the first person plural in her work.  She individuates the people she describes, even when they are types, and this in turn universalizes them. She gives them names — “Sadie and Maud,” “De Witt Williams,” “Mrs. Coley,” “Jeff. Gene. Geronimo. And Bop” — and breaks down groups into persons, even when, “as seen by Disciplines [police].” “There they are [collectively] […] Sores in the city” (Baraka).

While poetry is traditionally protective of the private self and its claims of personal feeling and identity, it has always been a medium for public protest as well. Recent experimental poets such as C.D. Wright (One with Others) and  Juliana Spahr (The Connection of Everyone with Lungs) have broken down this distinction, especially in the wake of 9/11, redefining personhood within a texture of sociality. But most poetry is still posited on an assumption of an “I” existing prior to a “we,” a single voice reaching out to address or speak for invisible listeners.

The inclusive or universal “we,” addressed to humankind, has different perils from the “we” of group identity. For James Merrill, AIDS put new pressure on the glib notion of the global village, a concept arising as much from consumer culture as from universal fellowship. In “Self-Portrait in a Tyvek™ Windbreaker” he cringes at the cheery “wave” of the “smiling as if I should know her” teenager who, “wearing ‘our’ windbreaker, assumes” a kinship of taste and value based on the printed map of “Mother Earth.” What really underlies this “dumb jacket” of the inclusive first person plural? We may live in the chaos of global corporations and commodities, but such incorporation erases rather than grounds our personhood. And any return to nature, to the Darwinian earth, further dehumanizes us. “We?” he asks sardonically, “A few hundred decades of relative / Lucidity glinted-through by minnow schools / Between us and the red genetic muck — ...” It’s hard to find much comfort or community in a “we” so primordial. Merrill’s imagination retreats from the postmodern clutter and the prehistoric muck into the memory of the smaller, more intimate community of prefascist Naples, preserved in the songs of Robert Murolo. Merrill turns at the end of his poem to the one-to-one community of art, an intimate “we” where the self is not lost in the laws of the state or the “wave” of the masses. 

It’s hardly surprising to hear revulsion toward the mass “we” from so elite a poet as Merrill. But Merrill is often channeling Elizabeth Bishop, and one of the many poems by Bishop he alludes to in his “Self-Portrait” is “In the Waiting Room”: “I — we were falling, falling // [...] beneath a big black wave and another and another.” The lines are in response to a transpersonal “cry of pain” that sends the young Elizabeth into vertigo. In the pre-social vulnerability of the body and its constraints in language and culture the poet finds our commonality; but it’s hardly enough to incorporate a “we” as community, or to give it meaning and value. The shattering of the foundations of the ego does not in itself make way for a new grounding of personhood in sociality. “What similarities [...] [hold] us all together 
or made us all just one?” asks Elizabeth Bishop. Her next words are not an answer: “How unlikely.”


Yet we use the pronoun everyday — there, I’ve done it; it’s impossible to avoid (“Yet I return her wave, like an accomplice” Merrill relents). And we do want to find common ground, to go beyond our atomic experiences and identify shared feelings and values beyond the red genetic muck, whether in local communities or less bounded human experience. Antagonism to the social may be the default position of the lyric, but it has never been the only position. And if poetry is a message in a bottle, it is also, sometimes, a mass mailing. Or is collaboration a better model, since it does not presume to speak for all from the vantage of one, but to forge community in the work of poetry?

The perpetual pursuit of what George Oppen called the “meaning of being numerous” seems to be one of the jobs of literature, and since 9/11 it has had new urgency. In the December 2010 Q&A issue of Poetry magazine, Jane Hirschfield wrote: “I suppose some would say it’s terribly old-fashioned, or terribly arrogant, for a person to use ‘we’ in a poem to speak of ‘us all,’ but it’s a concept I still believe in — that certain experiences are universally and profoundly human, and that one of the possible tasks of poetry is to name or evoke them.” Hirschfield calls us back to an old humanism through the use of a universal “we.” Oren Izenberg’s critical study Being Numerous: Poetry and the Ground of Social Life (2011), proposes a “new humanism” that also returns us to the “ground of social life.” He does not take up poetry’s use of the first person plural pronoun as such, but the idea of “we” formed in poetic experience, in contrast to a poetics of individual experience, is the central principle underlying his analysis of a range of poets from Yeats to Bob Perelman. Indeed, his two kinds of poetry suggest a negative. “Against a poetics of poems that enters deeply into the texture of the experience of persons,” the poets he describes “seek ways to make their poetic thinking yield accounts of personhood that are at once minimal — placing as few restrictions as possible upon the legitimate forms a person can take — and universal — tolerating no exemptions or exclusions. Finally, they will also demand that our concepts of personhood identify something real: not political fictions we could come to inhabit together, or pragmatic ways of speaking we might come to share, but a ground on which the idea of a ‘we’ might stand. This poetry, I argue, is an important site for the articulation of a new humanism: it seeks a reconstructive response to the great crises of social agreement and recognition in the twentieth century.”  That’s a tall order for poetry and it lives more as a project than as an achievement in the work Izenberg analyzes, which may be the point (notice his word “might”), since poetry understood within the “ground of social life” must be a restless, open poetry, embedded in an interactive model of communication.

But the temptation remains not only to enable community through art, but also to identify universal principles of human connection, and this often involves poets in a turn from the “ground of social life” to impersonal dimensions of earth and sky. Inhuman scales and phenomena can create backgrounds to define human experience. In an effort to incorporate a humanist “we” poets of all eras have turned not only to the “red genetic muck," but also to the starry sky above, to discover the moral law within. An alien “it” of the impersonal cosmos rather than an antagonistic “they” of the social realm, incorporates an inclusive human “we.” This strategy informs Tracy Smith’s Life on Mars, which was featured on the PBS Newshour, where essayists often use “we.” In Smith’s “It & Co.” “It” seems to designate what she describes in another poem as “the largeness we cannot see,” a largeness that modern telescopes make palpable, but that drifts off into metaphysics. That invisible “largeness” beyond the boundaries of the human seems to be what helps us form ourselves as a group, helps us become “Us & Co,” the title of the concluding poem of Smith’s volume. Smith seems to use the organizational title less in a spirit of irony than in a spirit of revision, reclaiming it for an uncommoditized ideal of human connection. The title presents more trouble than help, however, in conceiving of “us all” collectively. If “Us” is the whole of humanity caught in the flow of human time, an unbounded, mortal “we,” “Co.” suggests something bound together. If the poem were called “Us, Inc.” we would read it differently, to indicate that “Us” has been incorporated, signed off on, made into a financial and legal body (Viking, Inc.) with clear boundaries. “& Co.” generally follows the name of an individual (e.g. Shakespeare & Co.), suggesting a hierarchical organization. “Co.” designates a firm, an establishment, a house, a concern, or a business. “Company” when unabbreviated suggests something social, as in Stephen Sondheim’s musical by that name. But Smith’s main basis for incorporating “us” seems to be the fleetingness of individual life and its small scale in the universe. The abstractions and metaphors of the poem leave “one” with little sense of what “Us & Co.” really amounts to other than words and vague sentiments.

Tim Donnelly in Cloud Corporation is a lot more suspicious than Tracy Smith of the cosmically incorporated “we” and our ability to escape the atmosphere of commerce. “We” amounts to “a congregation of bodies / united into one immaterial body, a fictive person / around whom the air is blurred with money.” The ambiguities of the subject “we” are multiplied in its range of cases: the objective (us), the reflexive (ourselves), the possessive (our), and the majestic plural (ourself). Donnelly’s brilliant title offers an unredeemed and redeemable image of our collective reality. Living in New York, Oppen’s “city of corporations” that manufactures desire, and living in the internet’s “cloud” that “connects” us by absorbing us into a soulless, all-knowing computation, Donnelly suggests that “we” has taken on a demoralizing, dehumanizing and faceless unreality, a pseudopersonhood. And yet poetry too is a cloud formation, its world is imagination, and its ability to imagine potential community, to give a body to what seems insubstantial is part of its power. So one cloud might provide an antidote to another, if not simple redemption. Like poetry, a cloud seems like fog when you are in it, but seen from a distance a cloud has form and substance. This duality between the debased and the poetic, between an “us” reduced to manufactured desires and an “us” of conscience and aspiration, finds expression throughout Donnelly’s book, perhaps most explicitly in “Claire de Lune.” This villanelle with its repetitive formal unity (its incorporation of words into pattern) enacts an idea of collective self-assessment. The alternating lines establish division within this body that allows the plurality of the first person plural to assert itself, however agonistically. “We revolt ourselves; we disgust and annoy us.” The grammatical strains of the villanelle’s permutations create collective confusion and irony; “we” are in mutiny against our own coercions. “We become like those who seek to destroy us.”  The summation of the villanelle is really a second turn of the screw, however. The self-disgust itself seems to generate the self-destruction when we are not just like the enemy but are becoming the enemy: “We disgust and annoy us / into those we become we who seek to destroy us.” Is there any hope for community in this portrait of hollow, incorporated, evasive, opiated and eviscerated “we,” in this “cat-and-mouse world” of capital? The poet is unique yet part of the group, and this introduces a dialectical element into an otherwise static I/We dichotomy. “Notice the group photo in which I stand / apart from but attached to. I feel I should die if I let myself / be drawn into the center no less than if I just let go.” The strangely hanging preposition “to” where “group” might be the object, reminds us that the group is only abstractly an entity, and has no living “center.”

“We” has always been an ambiguous pronoun in English, as its scope and relation to the addressee can only be interpreted in context. “We” can be royal or communal, universal or parochial, intimate or public, personal or impersonal, inclusive or exclusive, majestic, universal, or corporate. But “we” as an indexical pronoun, is context dependent. It is often hard to disambiguate and readers and listeners often tolerate a large area of confusion or uncertainty about the identity of “we” in a given sentence. But ambiguity is a virtue in poetry if also sometimes a problem. Gertrude Stein preferred pronouns to nouns precisely because they elide the fixities and past conceptions of names, allowing for more open and immediate thought: “pronouns represent some one but they are not its or his name. In not being his or its or her name they already have a greater possibility of being something than if they were as a noun is the name of anything.” In poetry “we” is open ended because poetry is the genre of possibility. Is Bishop underscoring this ambiguity in “The Moose” when she writes: “why do we feel / (we all feel) this sweet / sensation of joy?” Who is included in this “we”? Bishop’s parenthesis both graphically highlights the ambiguity of the pronoun’s inclusion, and gives it extension beyond any clear indexical function in the poem. Poetry depicts small communities but in using the “we” poetry can also metonymically suggest broader ones, so that the sense of the general does not withdraw from the particular into impersonal abstraction. Poetry manages this play of scale without allowing the local “we” to claim any imperial authority or forced consensus.

One thing we can say for certain: “we” includes “I” but is not limited to it. First person plural might better be called first person plus, where the second term of the equation I + X = We needs to be solved. And the equation would also perhaps involve two forms, I + X - hearer = We, or I + X + hearer = We. But insofar as poetry asks us to repeat a speech act, “I” and the hearer become one. Attention to the “we” in poetry causes us to pose many questions, then. Among these are: What conditions allow the poet to speak as if in accord with others? Can the poet construct a “we” that retains multiplicity within its choral force? When does the poem give assent to this claim of collective identity and when does it distance itself? Does the poem point to the “we” as an already established identity, or does it produce this “we” in performance?  Modern poetry often creates a face of we that is volatile in character and number and avoids the mask of a restricted as a universal interest.

How do we profit from this scrutiny of first person plurals? Maybe just in an awareness of the pitfalls of the pronoun — in an imperative to listen to ourselves, or at least to "ourself," and go back to the face to face encounters, even the faceoffs, that are the foundation of any community.  “We” derives from the horizontal, ever-shifting clusters of I/Thou relations. All first person plurals are particular, whether they are inclusive or exclusive. At the same time, poetry’s first person plural, in which the indexical situation is often obscure or ambiguous, suggests how the genre might propose or project community, create a sense of potential in “us” which is not predicated on consensus or the mentality of the crowd.

Poets are intensely aware that language is not just a system of rules, but a community of users, who shape it in their direct and indirect speech acts. Poetry sometimes wants to refer to or speak for a preexisting group, or wants to expose or critique “we” as social performance rather than something natural or given.  But it also often tries to bring into being a particular “we” that has been obstructed in history; hence the appeal of poetry in emerging cultures.  Finally, though, “poetry makes nothing happen,” as Auden said. Its ultimate performance may be abstract; it calls up human feeling without confining it to historical particulars or divisions, perhaps even interrupting these. This “we” is projective, parabolic, and provisional. Poetry can keep the first person in the first person plural, and keep the plural from becoming too incorporated, too singular.