Articles - January 2012
On Grzegorz Wróblewski
Translated from the Polish by Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese.
Reading Hotel Cats (Rita Baum, 2010), Grzegorz Wróblewski’s collected poems, I wondered how best to talk about his first three collections: The Chewiness of Life (bibLioteka, 1992), Planets (bibLioteka, 1994), and The Valley of the Kings (Biblioteka KARTEK, 1996). Logically, I would have to place his early volumes within the artistic and literary frameworks of the 1980s and 1990s. I would need to outline his response to the most essential questions posed by art (and poetry) at the end of the twentieth-century. I was aware, however, that Wróblewski’s views and attitudes would announce themselves more clearly if such a reading was completed with a reading of his later poems, those from the first decade of the twenty-first-century: The Master of the Year, Grass and Turquoises (FA-art, 2009) as well as Candidate (Rita Baum, 2010). Therefore, I decided to examine Wróblewski’s books from both vantage points simultaneously.
Let me begin with an overview of the aesthetic framework and, more specifically, its three vital characteristics. First of all, the 1980s bring a significant change in neo-avant-garde strategies of “doing away” with art. After performance art and conceptualism, the neo-avant-garde search focuses on earth art, environmental art, body art and art exploring technological progress (including multimedia). This search leads to the altered understanding of such concepts as nature, environment, and space; it also highlights the numerous possibilities technology offers art. Secondly, aesthetic debates of that time stress more and more frequently positive outcomes from the contemplation of the “crisis” in art and aesthetics. Contemporary aesthetics invites optimistic predictions about the death of fine arts and aesthetics, which can be traced back to, among others, Hegel’s assertions that art belongs to the past. Transcultural, multimedia and pragmatic types of aesthetics seem to suggest a way out of an impasse in discussions about the significance of art in contemporary society. Finally, changes in our understanding of the status of art and in our attempts to define art (urged by “heirs” to the Dadaists and Duchamp) consolidate thoughts about the relationships between politics, economy and culture. According to Hal Foster, in the 1950s this kind of thinking, criticized both by traditional approaches — keen to see the significance of art in the realms of confession and expression — and by avant-garde formalisms, gave rise to two groundbreaking movements: minimalism and pop art, which were then taken up by feminist art, postcolonial art and cultural studies. “As minimalism challenges this order of modern aesthetics, it also contradicts its idealist model of consciousness. For Rosalind Krauss this is the central import of the minimalist attack on anthropomorphism and illusionism” (Foster, The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century 42). The attack on anthropomorphism and illusionism as well as the emphasis on the materiality of art and its economic entanglements resulted from political radicalization of the 1970s.
If we choose to view the abovementioned queries of twentieth-century art and aesthetics as questions of poetic activity, we can easily notice inquiries about the significance of poetry as an institution, about the privileged status of poetry in a given country, and about the authority of the poet as a national bard. (Following the antipoetic examples of Tadeusz Różewicz, Miron Białoszewski, Stanisław Grochowiak, and Rafał Wojaczek, poetry loses its moral and aesthetic grounds, although it acquires cultural justification. The paradigm of mass communication is considered a threat as early as mid-1990s by such poets as Krzysztof Jaworski, Darek Foks, and Robert Tekieli.) Critical readings of the poem as an aesthetic form weaken; the poem understood as a cultural artifact comes under attack. Language experiments and concrete poetry of the 1960s and 1970s, which stressed the antirealism of poetic representation by foregrounding the poem’s textuality, language itself and its control over the speaker (the equivalent of neo-avant-garde tendencies to emphasise metaartistic reflection) live on in the work of so-called deconstructive or poststructuralist poets Andrzej Sosnowski, Tadeusz Pióro, and Eugeniusz Tkaczyszyn-Dycki, to name just a few. Finally, at the start of the 1990s the contestation of the New Wave poetic school and the politicization of poetry in its socialist version produced a variety of countercultural approaches which diversified the understanding of the political. Numerous poetry books (by such authors as Marcin Świetlicki, Krzysztof Śliwka and Jacek Podsiadło) sought to snub “the idealist model of consciousness” (Krauss’s term) with its transcendental aspirations and lack of response to the social and material world around it.
Which elements of this intellectual and aesthetic climate find their way into Wróblewski’s first books? Neo-avant-garde inspirations, though not readily visible in his poetic strategy (for instance, he rarely resorts to metatextual strategies), are clearly there. Wróblewski is not interested in formally offensive linguistic experiments; he does not set off to prove the literariness of literature, nor does he want to emphasize its representational character. He does not turn his poem into an object, the way concrete poets do; neither does he stress its materiality, which does not mean, however, that his texts are deprived of self-reflexivity. For him these aspects are of secondary importance. He does not want a lyric poem to recover traditional aesthetic values (such as experiencing and contemplating) or to restore traditional readings of poetry. Wróblewski does not seek to prove that reality is artificial, construed or simulated; nor does he wish to reveal secret dimensions of reality. Interestingly, he does not strive against high modernism and its perceptions of art: many of his poems offer some form of confession, though always framed by the understanding of art as resistance, not as affirmation. Neo-avant-garde inspirations can easily be noticed in Wróblewski’s opinions about the relationship between art/poetry and the whole human world (which is not identified with the linguistic medium) and in his convictions about the critical, contestational function of art in society.
It is exactly this “non-reconciliation” (akin to non-affirmation) that I consider fundamental to the social and aesthetic premises established by Wróblewski as the author of Candidate, and to his neo-avant-garde affiliations. In Counterrevolution and Revolt, Herbert Marcuse – the leader of counterculture in the 1970s – emphasized the importance of this non-reconciliatory aspect of art:
The affirmative character of art was grounded not so much in its divorce from reality as in the ease with which it could be reconciled with the given reality, used as its décor, taught and experienced as uncommitting but rewarding value, the possession of which distinguished the ‘higher’ order of society, the educated, from the masses. But the affirmative power of art is also the power which denies this affirmation. In spite of its (feudal and bourgeois) use as status symbol, conspicuous consumption, refinement, art retains that alienation from the established reality which is at the origin of art. It is a second alienation, by virtue of which the artist dissociates himself methodically from the alienated society and creates the unreal, ‘illusory’ universe in which art alone has, and communicates, its truth. (97)
Marcuse recommends art that is able to represent “the forces of oppression” which epitomize the raison d’état or the social status quo: “This is an order which demands resignation, authority, control of ‘the vital instincts,’ recognition of the right of that which is” (95).
Marcuse’s text is vital not only as a document, but also as a set of instructions: although nowadays we are aware of the fact that the ease of reconciling the world with art does not necessarily prove the surrender of art to the commercial and political demands of the established order (pop-art and postmodernism have been accused of submissiveness to capitalism and consumerism), we continue to appreciate the readiness of art to revise the status quo. Artistic activity reveals not only the forces of repression, but also its consequences and connections with other dominant forces — the whole multiplied and multifarious network of relationships and influences, which frequently renders the positioning of various subjects unclear and ambiguous so that it is no longer possible to outline the simple symbolic dichotomy: the governing/the governed. Art and poetry which concentrate on “non-reconciliation” disclose relationships (usually invisible due to resentment, pride, frustration or upbringing) between subjects and processes happening under specific conditions. Wróblewski writes about society, culture, sex and race. A closer look at his poems reveals how the relationship between particular elements of the presented order (social, cultural, aesthetic, etc.) frequently assumes a negative form which results from the duality and uncertainty of every action, position or reaction. The poet’s task (or ambition) is to examine these forces, to avoid presenting them as too anonymous or too personal, and to show how they interrelate under specific temporal and spatial circumstances.
In “Midsummer Night’s Concentration,” from The Chewiness of Life, the speaker’s story suggests a connection between St. John’s Eve celebrations (a custom which might seem a vacant gesture in a contemporary metropolis such as Copenhagen) and primeval forces of the past, most probably not fully apprehended. Their effect on the speaker is perceived most clearly when he observes, “A bearded man in a horned helmet is eyeing me. / He must be a Viking, but I play it cool. / Let him be the first to draw a sword …” Similarly, “A Mexican Ribbon” (The Chewiness of Life) uncovers the relationship between technological culture and magic beliefs.
“Mr. Cullen’s Raid” draws our attention to a bigger history: the 1836 truce between colonizers and Native Americans, as shown through the prism of obsessive actions, seemingly grotesque and funny, but in reality pointing to the speaker’s fundamentalist and nationalist leanings. In “The Parliament” (The Valley of the Kings) Wróblewski focuses on social dynamics, demonstrating how a community can achieve them. The economic controversies, which lead to political and cultural fervor “on the square of Ålholm” — the titular parliament — signal the communal ways of communicating and creating social ties. This poem finds its equivalent in “Psycho Taiga” from Candidate. Here the ecological, social and cultural issues are expressed in the aggressive and frustrated language of those whose voice in public debates typically goes unheeded. Interestingly, these voices were named in “The Parliament,” but in “Psycho Taiga” remain anonymous; they could even belong to the system’s beneficiaries, who believe themselves to be its victims. Such a reading may be justified by “Larsen Tells Us in a Christinshavn Pub about His Undeserved, Little Stabilization” in The Principle of the Series (Instytut Wydawniczy Świadectwo, 2000). None of its interlocutors are satisfied with their position in the social hierarchy: despite higher standards of living, they still perceive themselves as low-wage workers, unwilling to accept their present “bourgeoisie” lives, while at the same time unable to return to their previous status. Moreover, their current, privileged position makes them superior to all those “sad-looking / boys in orange vests / who cut weeds on the moat / since the early morning.” The poem’s protagonists cannot identify with any of the life models presented — this inability proves that “unalienated” life is impossible.
In Chewiness of Life, Planets and The Valley of the Kings the speaker’s disapproval of his own life can be understood literally as an expulsion from various geographic spaces, and symbolically as the speaker’s examination of different factors responsible for integrity or disintegration of societies. For example, in “The Transfer” or in “My New Day” the speaker investigates the conditions that enable people to find their place in a given community. Such an active observation allows conclusions drawn from the failure of “assimilation” efforts. Wherever he is, he perceives himself as an odd element, disturbing the social message; however, thanks to his oddness, he manages to uncover the relations which unite or destabilize a given society, although there is no space here for the carpe diem of the individual fully indentified with the world of social and economic structures.
From the vantage point of Wróblewski’s later volumes, the fundamental thought of his first three books can be easily spotted: being at odds with any socio-economic order. In “A Passenger” from Rooms and Gardens (Biblioteka Narodowa i Duński Instytut Kultury, 2005), the animal world is ruled by economic principles: corruption and venality cannot be avoided in the capitalist system. Unclear relationships between sexes are described in, among others, “She Said: You Resemble an Ape” (The Master of the Year, Grass and Turquoises) and “Masters of the Night” (Candidate). Here Wróblewski proposes a holistic vision of the world where the relations between culture and non-culture create intriguing combinations: the macho needs not only a victim, but also humiliation. Humiliation, in turn, allows the speaker his rites of passage (as it happens in “She Said: You Resemble an Ape”); leaving behind his childhood and infantilism, he gains enough strength to confront himself. The subcultures of macho men and “good girls,” which condition one another, are presented in simple and clear situations where their interconnectedness emerges through minute meaningful details.
Wróblewski’s poems — focusing our attention on culture, sexuality, politics, economics, or social conventions — offer an excellent opportunity to examine the contemporary world. They zoom in on its complexity while relishing in its detail and hyperbolic shortcuts. At the same time they constitute a camouflaged response to conflicts of our world: they insist on rehearsing thoughts banned by a community, they turn new mythologies inside out. This dismissal of any system where Wróblewski’s speaker could function often leads to the private reappraisal of the paranoia implicit in such a system. “Dodo” (The Master of the Year, Grass and Turquoises) closes with the description of the speaker rolling “in a jam jar / together with a damaged cherry / and an autistic beetle.” This intensification of the speaker’s paranoic states — his self-defence against the world — proves right on numerous occasions, each time differently. Here, the dodo, a species which ceased to exist at the end of the seventeenth century, becomes the future of a human being. The poem’s closing lines sound like a confession of museum exhibits. The resemblances are not merely coincidental, even if we think that we have puzzled out our biology, and there is no connection between such a complicated creature as a human being and something as plain as “a damaged cherry.” However, this is not only about the impossibility of adaptation. The cherry and the beetle embody the process of mutation; hybridity signals the damage (rather than the rot) of the fruit. The word choice referencing technology rather than organic structure points to a peculiar crossover between a living organism and a mechanical object. Similarly, the beetle’s autism (its malfunctioning brain) complicates its categorization as an insect. Equally mutated is the “rolling I” — it is impossible to guess the speaker’s sex, gender or age. All the features that usually assist the identification of “objects” in space and allow their classification have become deformed. The world of distinct categories for human beings, animals and plants belongs to the past. All the parameters specifying category boundaries have eroded, and yet — if the poem’s temporal setting can be established as “post-mutational” — the memory of the dodo, an odd creature, persists.
Wróblewski aims at recording the images of the world in a manner which could be described, after Walter Benjamin, as dispersive. His construals of mini-observations capturing multifarious relations are akin to Jean Dubuffet’s dense canvases, the detailed art of calligraphy and tachism — the techniques that assemble spatially and temporally disconnected details and found objects. Such assemblage causes dispersal and, at the same time, concentration (fragmentation does not exclude detailed attention), which are not systematized by any unifying principle.
Most importantly, Wróblewski’s work reveals its ethnographic potential. His are poems which discover different geographic spaces organized into distinct forms of life. Wróblewski explores them from multiple perspectives: political, historical, economic, racial, and sexual. They are evoked in the images of concrete human subjects and in their responses to reality.
The poet searches for locality and specificity; he turns away from the universally unchangeable. For these reasons his speaker is not a superior, transcendental author of his texts. None of the perspectives which allows observing and recording various systems, models, orders is privileged; no vantage point becomes the reference point. Therefore, the speaker is always included in the observed order, although he never identifies with it. Moreover, his own perspective is frequently questioned, with its extreme positioning which tends to distort and magnify observed events and phenomena. The borderline between the repressed subject and the upholder of the given system, between the system’s beneficiaries and its victims, is fuzzy. These continual shifts of perspective are essential to demonstrate the hidden complexities of the system which do not allow control over all the processes and relations.
Wróblewski avoids the trap of an ethnographic approach. As Foster warns, numerous artists are susceptible to pseudoanthropological art, where the subject is defined in the terms of cultural identity, and not in economic terms, the tendency noted since the 1990s. Foster points to minimalism, social and theoretical pressures, and postcolonial studies as responsible for such an ethnographic turn. “Thus did art pass into the expanded field of culture that anthropology is thought to survey” (184).
Read from this perspective, Wróblewski’s poems show their multiculturalism. They describe how human behaviour is influenced by a particular space and time; how individuals are conditioned by, but also free from, the culture where they grow up and live; how they are affected by political, social, biological and environmental changes. In other words, such an ethnographic approach foregrounds examinations and interpretations of the “overlap” between cultures in the studies of emigration and uprootedness. A Night in Cortez’s Camp (WBPiCAK, 2007) provides ample evidence: it is a book which focuses on the confrontation (military, religious and, most importantly, communicative) between the Aztec culture and the Spanish culture. Also, the reading of Planets cannot forego the narrative of cultural reciprocity between indigenous peoples and incoming peoples. The ethnographic miniseries created by such poems as “A Visit,” “The Celebrations of a God,” “TV Easter,” “A Reading Room in Christianshavn,” “On the Beach in Dragør,” “Bente,” “Local News” and “Dolny Mokotów” comments on the different manners in which people are organized in space. These different sceneries — beach, reading room, public space, private flat, school — alongside numerous habits, obsessions, oddities, prejudices, rituals, and attitudes (work or leisure, religion or other cultures) build up Wróblewski’s story about his selected corner of the world (his 2000 collection of essays entitled Copenhagen also shows its ethnographic character). In this pursuit Wróblewski shows his affinity with Miron Białoszewski, who was very much intrigued by the diversity of human behaviour.
With their disciplined anthropological attention, Wróblewski’s poems search in whatever conditions for regularity within the origins, existence and activity of the species called humankind. These observations of complex biological, social and cultural systems present the human world in all its rich diversity. This diversity of human life forms constitutes the basic principle governing the world. As Clifford Geertz argues in The Interpretations of Cultures, “If we want to discover what man amounts to, we can only find it in what men are: and what men are, above all other things, is various. It is in understanding that variousness — its range, its nature, its basis, and its implications — that we shall come to construct a concept of human nature that, more than a statistical shadow and less than a primitivist dream, has both substance and truth” (52).
The ethnographic potential of Wróblewski’s work complicates its positioning within the artistic framework at the end of the twentieth century. The philosophy of art and aesthetics of that time — neo-avant-garde experiments with referentiality or representation, as well as existential and metaphysical responses to reality — cannot provide a relevant context for the discussion of Wróblewski’s poems. However, it is exactly the ethnographic framework that can tell us more about the speaker, reality, and language in this poetry.
What does such an ethnographic impulse introduce to our reading of Wróblewski’s work? First of all, it allows us to understand that the poet creates “raw” and “dense” ethnographic records. It helps us to realize that his speaker is not a textual construct, an individualist project of the I or a creation which will dissolve the borderline between the text and the world. Rather, he is “a social actor” (Geertz’s term for the subject of his ethnographic texts), the first-degree informant who creates his own interpretations and who is aware of his own interpretative — authorial, in this case — power. The typical starting point for Wróblewski’s observations of the dynamics of the cultural space created by his poems is an appearance of strange elements on some familiar territory, when known and understandable forms of communication reveal the fragility of convention and context. Alternatively, he introduces familiar elements onto a foreign ground.
This may be one of the ways to read Candidate. Just like Rooms and Gardens as well as The Master of the Year, Grass and Turquoises, Candidate reveals ethnographic ambitions and ushers in different spaces or, to be more precise, space without any temporal, geographic, national or social borders. Whereas A Night in Cortez’s Camp can be considered overtly ethnographic because of the ease with which we can separate the contemporary narrative from that of the past, only occasionally getting lost in time loops, The Master of the Year, Grass and Turquoises can be seen as set in a peculiar non-time and outside any symbolic borders of human administration. In “Jaguar/ Cage” the speaker’s desire to live suggests that the so-called natural space (of the city, forest, countryside) does not exist: “Let’s get out of here quick, to the sun / and plutocracy. / (O! After all, Mary has suffered from a heart attack) / Through the doors. Onto the street. Into the cacti or / egiptology. // Among the people, pretending / they are great cats.” “You Tell Me Too Much about Angels” substitutes the reality of concrete, glass and other materials — which constituted the natural surroundings of the protagonists of Planets, The Principle of the Series and The Chewiness of Life or the metaphysical space of dreamlike visions from Rooms and Gardens — with the terrain reduced to “black insects / and colourful butterflies.” Interestingly, The Master of the Year, Grass and Turquoises swarms with comments about insects, spiders, salamanders, birds and other animals, as if only those forms of life were possible in the world which had suffered a severe stroke. In “Mercury Project,” “the Earth’s nervous snigger” is one of the signals perceived by the terrified speaker “watching / A pack of brown animals romping in an abandoned / Motel parking lot.” [Above: Wroblewski, “Statistics and Informatics.”]
We might say that the landscapes described in these poems are deprived of the symbolic reference which allowed humans to first orient themselves (not only in space) and which defined them as human, or at least gave them their recognizably human shape. It is no longer the vision of multiculturalism known from Wróblewski’s earlier books, but the project of a world without any cultural framework – under such circumstances humans do not differ from other living creatures. Such a claim is supported by the following verses: “Everything boneless / avoids me” (“The Spirit of Flat Opuntias”) and “I’ve ended up among horned insects” (“The Master of the Year, Grass and Turquoises”). If the slogan that a human being does not exist outside culture is still valid, then Wróblewski’s recent books revive it with all their might. Candidate continues this process of (metaphorically speaking) positioning some sort of human being outside cultural influences, although the book does feature protagonists newly situated in the urban space with all its human behaviors — fitness clubs, beaches, cannibal clubs, male and female courtship games, lotteries — all while waiting for God or fate: “It’s enough to register. The signature / And you will finally / be saved” (“Everything Goes. Hunting for a Candidate”). So we deal here with a human hybrid which is neither a project nor a projection.
Allow me my final interpretative remark. Considering the possibility of generalization in reaching ethnographic conclusions, Geertz proposes vitally that “The locus of study is not the object of study” (22). Bearing Geertz’s comment in mind, we should avoid a literal reading of Wróblewski’s poetic situations, which would turn them into simplistic sociological observations. Although Danes, Greenlanders, Poles and Dolny Mokotów, Japan and Zen Buddhism, Mexico and flower wars are all particular and peculiar individual cases, they afford the generalization and synthesis of what we at times call “the pulse of the planet.”
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.