Notes towards an egoless poetry 1: Visibility of the persona
A great deal of poetry in the past century puts the poet's persona in the foreground. Even though such a persona can still be a construct, in the way a fictional character's persona is a construct, it is often easy to confuse the persona in the poem with the poet's. A great deal of autobiographical, confessional poetry explicitly states the author's intention to be self-revealing. Setting aside for the moment post-modern literary-theoretical concerns about the authenticity of the text, or whether or not an author can be totally self-revealing in a constructed artistic text such as a poem (the ideas of representation, masks, performativity, and simulation), this trend towards self-revelation has come to dominate contemporary poetry—and not necessarily to the betterment of poetry. In fact, it has so come to dominate contemporary poetry that many younger poets apparently do not even realize that there are alternatives to self-expression, self-revelation, or confessionalism in poetry.
A lot of this poetry is about ego. The confessional trend in American poetry, begun by Robert Lowell and his friends and followers, is about self-representation and autobiography. (Is poetry even the best vehicle for autobiography? That debate remains open.) Revelation of the self remains a common trope in post-confessional poetry: workshop poets writing about the minutiae of their personal lives; poets who write poems that spiritually and psychologically explore their own inner selves (which includes a number of the Beat poets, at least sometimes); poems that meditate on daily life, and are inspired by daily life, and reflect upon little more than daily life.
In Poetry Slam hip-hop poetry, a lot of pieces are explicitly about ego-stroking, self-advertising, competitive self-marketing, and presentational positioning. Many of these pieces might work on stage, in front of a cheering crowd, but as the Nuyorican Poets Cafe collection ALOUD: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe (ed. by Miguel Algarin & Bob Holman) amply demonstrates, many of these sorts of pieces simply do not work as poems on the page. They might work as texts for verbal performance or dramatic recitation, but they fail as poems; a poem has to work both on the page and read aloud. Go through these Poetry Slam collections and count how many times the word "I" is used: almost all of it is first-person posturing, narrative, and recitation. A lot this poetry is about ego.
It is as if contemporary poetry has been reduced to the single topic of the self. The self seen in mirrors, in closed rooms, with windows. The self endlessly analyzed and discussed, to the point of claustrophobia. Where is the rest of the universe, all those things that transcend the self? To write only of the self, as though only the self exists: this is the very definition of poetic solipsism.
It's time, perhaps, to go beyond the ego in poetry. It's perhaps time to move beyond the self, and into the wider world. It's perhaps time to move beyond the Romantic and Modern ideals of artistic heroic self-expression, and let other forces speak through us. Other forces than our persona-egos, which can include the unconscious (does anyone still practice automatic writing in the manner of the Surrealists?), other voices than our personality-egos, other elements of our personalities than those small elements that are our interface with the world. Perhaps even forces that arise from our unconscious selves, and express themselves as archetypes, gods, and other numinous encounters with Mystery. Perhaps it is time to restore to poetry its original shamanic function and power.
At the very least (and with all due respect to Tony Kushner's angels), I I I I get tired of the incessant I I I I of contemporary poetry. I I I I get tired of the foreground persona in most poems being represented as first-person POV, the I I I I viewpoint being promoted as though it were the only waters in which we could swim. So, I I I I feel (in response or in reaction) the need to explore an egoless poetry.
An egoless poetry, one that removes the incessant "I" of so much contemporary poetry, is something I have been working towards for some years in my own writing, although it's possiblity and method remain constantly in development. By egoless, I mean non-self-centered. By egoless, I mean, in the Zen sense, non-self-involved, non-self-expressive, but an emanence of no-mind. By egoless, in psychological terms, I mean getting at the root of the Self: the cessation of the chattering monkey-mind little self, so that the greater, more integral, more holistic Self can be directly experienced. Shoveling the crap out of the control room, so we can actually see the monitors. One path to this is meditation practice. Another path to this is artistic practice: Art as a Way.
The foreground visibility of a persona in a poem, a character's or the poet's, is one place we can start looking into this, and maybe make some changes.
One can move towards pure description, and away from first-person viewpoint narration. When you have a poem or stanza with no "I" in it, moving it towards impersonal description, then the reader can come to feel they're perceiving the scene directly, with no intermediaries, either the poet's or the narrator's intermediation being in the way of direct perception. The reader, via the poem, experiences the poetic moment directly.
This is an important aspect of haiku writing, this direct perception. Some haiku poets talk about becoming an open eye that sees, with no judgment or discrimination. This is of course where some of the Zen influence on haiku comes in, with precisely this "no-mind."
A master of this style of poetry was Robinson Jeffers. I find that in his poems he is able to give the reader a direct perception of the scene he is describing, and even when he makes a comment, it is as though the land is speaking rather than the poet. Somehoiw, the poet's persona is able to be moved out of the way, and not be a dusty window between the perceiver and the perceived. Jeffers coined the term Inhumanism to describe what he sought. There has been a lot of misunderstanding about this term, with critics assuming he was taking an anti-human stance, when he was not.
Jeffers wrote in his preface to The Double Axe that what he called Inhumanism is a shifting of emphasis and significance from man to not-man; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the transhuman magnificence. . . . This manner of thought and feeling is neither misanthropic nor pessimist . . . It offers a reasonable detachment as rule of conduct, instead of love, hate and envy. . . . it provides magnificence for the religious instinct, and satisfies our need to admire greatness and rejoice in beauty.
I believe what Jeffers was trying to do, with his Inhumanist viewpoint, was seeking to remove the dominating human-narrative elements from poetry (the solipsism he refers to, which also has an ecological interpretation), and emphasize the purely natural world. Then, the characters in the poem become the eagle, the land, the movement of the fog on the sea's edge, and the poet's persona recedes. Jeffers reminds us that we are not apart from nature, we are not divorced from nature; rather, we are part of nature, part of the natural realm, the universe, and no more or less significant than any other part of nature. His stance is a bracing antidote against the self-absorption and autobiographical confessionalism that has so come to dominate poetry for the past century.
I've been working in this direction for some years in my own poetry. I feel it's possible to do a poetry that consists of a series of images and descriptions, out of which the reader organically builds a narrative. We cannot avoid narrative, as long we continue to bind time as linear with our perceptions and expectations. But we can do it cinematically rather than as story-telling. (The movie equivalent is one of those non-narrative, non-dialogue films that consists entirely of images and music; such as Ron Fricke's Baraka and Kronos, or Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi and the other films in that series.) I feel like I've approached this poetry a few times. You can't really get rid of POV entirely, but you can indeed make persona minimal and receding. Viewpoint can become no more than camera-position, and run without an operator.
I tried to do this with my Green Man haibun, posted here awhile ago. Iit starts with an "I" narrator, who dissolves into the greening. The dissolution of the "I" is directly represented in that poem, too, by the dropping of normal, narrative, time-binding syntax.