Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Notes towards an egoless poetry 10: first person stranger

The question is asked: If you use the first person in a poem that is supposed to be in a character's "voice," does that create confusion between whether it is the narrator or the author speaking? and in the case of a non-human "speaker" in the poem, how do you convey what perhaps no language can convey, without becoming merely anthropomorphic?

Two initial replies come to mind:

1. Any time we use the first person, we risk the reader conflating the writer with the narrator. There are those whose literary-critical stance states that all writing is autobiographical, at least to some degree: because the writer cannot write from outside themselves, they can only reveal aspects of themselves. I think that's a fallacy, but it is a continuum of self-inclusion and self-revelation, obviously. There are degrees.

Still, if you do write a poem in a "voice," i.e. a character's voice, a narrator's voice, etc., you will run into this.

Readers who are perhaps less sophisticated may not always be able to tell who the first person is, in the poem, and how much the author's "I" is mixed in. This is not to say that one must be an academic theorist in order to understand a text—although I have read academic papers on Mickey Spillane, Winnie the Pooh, and Miami Vice—but there is a certain level of sophistication that simply reading a lot gives anyone who does. A less-sophisticated reader might not be able to articulate it an a sophisticated way, but they can still tell what's going on, and figure out the difference between Stephen King and any of his characters.

What you are left with is oppositional assumptions: that the poem is always about the poet; or, that the poem is never about the poet. The truth may lie in the middle: everything a poet writes may be at least partly about themselves, in terms of that poet's psychology and interests, but the poem may not be even remotely autobiographical.

2. In the case of the character/voice being a pre-human, non-linguistic being, you have to get the reader inside the mind of the character—but you have to use the tools of the words you familiarly know to do it. Is the character in fact non-human? is that even possible? How can we linguistically describe someone(thing) who(that) does not think the way we do? It might require a more experimental language than many poets feel comfortable using.

These are basically questions of xenopsychology. If someone thinks differently than we do, how can we express that? This is a basic difficulty for cultural anthropologists trying to explain their fieldwork experiences to their peers, and the general public. The range of human culture has been wildly diverse. One solution, obviously, is to use very different ways of expressing things. Here we can get into "experimental" text, altered syntax used to evoke a different kind o consciousness, or a different sense of time-binding. It's difficult to use narrative, linear time-bound language to describe a character who lives only in the Now; sometimes weird constructions and odd syntaxes are one's only recourse. Another solution is to invent a language, or mutate an existing language. Or play with syntax till some different way of structuring experience is developed. Anthony Burgess has experimented with Chinese grammar applied to English, for example.

The question of thinking from inside the mind of the Other is a question that has fascinated science fiction writers for decades. There are some great science fiction stories that get us into the mind of non-humans to good effect. (As much as that is ever possible.) If it's done well, one gets a completely different way of looking at the universe out of the experience. C.J. Cherryh is one of the best writers of this kind of science fiction; so was Jack Vance. Cherryh's Serpent's Reach and The Pride of Chanur are excellent examples; both novels explore the worldview of alien species with their own advance civilizations. Another writer who does this well is British SF writer Brian Stableford; his novels Critical Threshold and Optiman are particularly satisfying looks into alien psychology. Russell Hoban, in Riddley Walker, successfully uses a post-apocalyptic modified English throughout this novel; the people are all human, but not necessarily humans as we know them now. Sometimes they think in ways familiar to us; sometimes their rationales for their actions seem very alien.

What does it mean to be an "I"? or to be absent an "I"? or to have a different kind of "I"? What would that look like? What would it imply? How do we explore the ramifications, given the fact of it?

One good example is the seminal 1954 SF story by Alfred Bester, Fondly Fahrenheit. The story is told in the first person, but the story is about psychological projection and psychosis, and the "I" shifts constantly between two lead characters, till you're not always sure who is speaking at any one moment. It's a real tour-de-force of unusual voice viewpoint used in otherwise traditional narrative.

Other examples from science fiction:

Ursula K. LeGuin: Nine Lives, in which one character is the sole survivor of a clone of ten members; he must relive each death of his fellow clones before he can begin to discover his own identity, as a newly-minted individual.

Samuel R. Delany is a writer who has written a great deal of work about identity, identity politics, variant personality, and what it means to be human when you can change almost every aspect of identity, from name to gender to social role; several of his works deal with questions of identity directly: The Einstein Intersection; Triton; Dhalgren; Tales from Neveryona; Stars In My Pockets Like Grains of Sand.

John Varley: The Ophiuchi Hotline, in which humans can change every aspect of their physical selves using discovered alien technology, including sexual gender; what would this mean for individual identity? how would it play out in society at large?

Varley also wrote the best "disability SF" story ever, The Persistence of Vision, about a group of deaf-and-dumb people together evolving towards a new kind of humanity.

Kate Wilhelm: Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, an award-winning post-apocalyptic novel in which a small group of survivors continue to live as clone-colony; the first half of the book is about the creation of the new clone society; the second half of the book, taking place centuries later, is about the rediscovery of individuality within the established society of clones; throughout, the book raises many issues of identity, individuality, and the self.

Harlan Ellison's two Dangerous Visions anthologies of short stories and novellas contain several stories that also deal directly with questions of identity, occasionally in radical ways, using the tools of experimental meta-fiction, poetry, and stream-of-consciousness; some of the most experimental SF writing ever, all gathered in two giant anthologies.

I do find it interesting that it is so-called "genre fiction" that is so far ahead of the curve in exploring these issues, leaving both mainstream fiction and academic (and PC identity-political) poetry rather far behind in their wake. The "New Wave" period of SF in the 60s and 70s, exemplified by many of the writers included in Dangerous Visions, was a real hotbed of experimental writing, and a lot of these very issues of personhood were explored in depth by the best writers of that era and after.

In "voice" poems it may be necesarry to make it clear that the speaker is a character, not the author. One thinks of Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology, for example.

A bigger problem in first-person poetry returns us to the possibilities for an egoless poetry. The vast majority of first-person poetry in the past century has fallen into the mode of the confessional lyric. The emphasis is on the self, on personal, individual memories, perceptions, and experiences. Even the "voice" poem, or persona poem, in the first-person still tends to carry the assumption that the only real subject of poetry is the self. When one focuses all one's creativity on the self, the reification of the self is not only an illusion, but in spiritual terms, it causes suffering. The distinction is kept between subject and object, removing the possibility that subject/object are one, and that the distinction is an illusion. There is also subject-subject consciousness as a possibility. In strictly spiritual terms, the purpose of much spiritual technology and mystical practice is to remove and annihilate the self/selfhood, beginning with the illusion that the self stands apart from the world, as a remote observer. Rather, self participates in and is one with the world.

Perhaps the increasing secularization of world culture contributes to this emphasis on the self. Secularization in Western culture has its roots in the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods, which were very much about bringing the (genius) individual to the foreground against the backdrop of the teeming masses. This can partly be laid at the feet of Plato, whose writings were re-introduced to Renaissance culture, and were tied to the origin of so-called secular humanism; in the Republic, the schema of the superior, talented leader, the aristos, is raised up against the backdrop the ordinary citizen, the demos. Medieval culture was very much about the "we" of the Tribe, and was openly anti-individualistic and pro-conformist. Part of the Renaissance rebellion against that, from Abelard to Galileo to Descartes, was to emphazise the individual over the tribe. Suddenly, everyone could do their own science experiments, and teach themselves, apart from the tribal-level dominance of the Church. Everyone could research the nature of the universe—which was not yet considered to be separate from the nature of God—and draw conclusions from observations.

Many contemporary (dare one say post-Modern?) spiritual teachers have begun to question the supremacy in Western culture of the observed physical universe over the parallel spiritual world of mythopoesis, unconscious archetype, and soul. For example, Dr. Caroline Myss, one of hte more gorunded of these contemporary teachers, talks about how both cultures and individuals evolve up a ladder of spiritual and social evolution that can be divided into three main levels: tribal, individual, and symbolic. The culture obviously evolves more slowly than its individual members, because it can only evolve at the rate of its slowest members. The shift from Medieval to Renaissance to Modern cultures was a shift from tribal to individual levels of power. Nowadays we are dealing, still, with post-Romantic Modernism, with its ultimate individualist portrayal of the hero-artist as total social outsider. We are now living in a period of time, post-avant-garde and post-Modernist, that is beginning to move from the individual to the symbolic level of power. Signs of that transition include the release of Eastern and Western traditions into the intellectual mainstream mid-20th-century, with the exile of the Tibetan monk-scholars from their homeland in 1959 and with the Council of Vatican II in 1965—both of these released previously esoteric, unpublished, and occult teachings into the mainstream, setting the stage for the first wave of spiritual explorations that occured in the 1960s. Signs of this transition also include the increasing attempts by religious groups to erode the principle of separation of church and state: the rise of the religious right, and the necessity for politics to be religious, even if only cynically, even if not genuinely spiritual. In other words, we have peaked with secularization, and now mysticism and spiritual seeking have become major issues in the cultural zeitgeist.

Of course poetry has to deal with all this. Note that the history of the confessional lyric really begins in the Renaissance, and culminates in the Confessional Poets of the mid-20th century, such as Lowell, Plath, Bishop, etc., many of whom were actively writing at the very time that the Tibetan government went into exile, and a few years later, Vatican II was taking place. I note this synchronicity as meaningful, without necessarily attempting to overburden it with too much interpretation. This is not just my opinion, but something I have been encountering repeatedly in the poetry criticism I have been reading of late, for example. A short list:

Philip Larkin: Required Writing
Sam Hamill: A Poet's Work
Robert Bly: American Poetry: Wildness and Domesticity
William Stafford: You Must Review Your Life
Jim Harrison, in the introduction to his poems in: Beneath a Single Moon: Buddhism in Contemporary American Poetry
jane Hirshfield: Nine Gates
Hayden Carruth: Selected Essays & Reviews

So, this beginnning move to empty out the self, I think, is beginning to speak to more poets now, in the West, than before. We can argue about when this wave began, if it is was a prominent wave or not, but I think the fact that it keeps coming up in the essays and reviews of poets nowadays, is very telling.

None of this means that we can avoid the paradox of self-awareness and self-inclusion. Good art-making requires an incredible amount of self-honesty. Even if the topic is not the self, the artist must be aware of self involved in the process of art-making. And we connect to each other through the self. Good art begins with the particular and moves towards the universal: begin with the self, but don't stay there. Most confessional lyric never expands beyond its own boundaries: it looks only inward, a hall of mirrors. By contrast, great art, even if it is through the lens of the artist's self, is applicable to the life of the person reading the poem, or viewing that artwork.

Thus, working towards an egoless poetry does not mean never using the "I" in a poem. We don't want to limit the range of our tools, or exclude the possibility of the transcendent self being in the poem. But neither do we want to just stay locked into the "I." So, let me underline a few points that I think that we all need to be reminded of periodically:

• I dislike poetry that cheapens the experience of being alive: this is why I dislike easy sentimentality and cheap nostalgia in poetry, and also why I dislike clichés: they stand in for actual experience. They are merely signs. They are not even at the level of symbols.

• Good art does require immense self-honesty: and it is a courageous act for any artist to be so self-revealing. Yet, we reveal the self to connect with the universal Self in each other as well as ourselves. I do not believe that "poetry is communication;" if poetry was only that, the phone book would be poetry. Yet there is an element of connection between poet and reader, the particulars of shared experience that lead us to mutual understanding.

• A lot of bad art is woundology-based, such as therapy-poems and journal-poems. The worst types of first-person poetry fall into this category, including much confessional lyric: "you have to love my poem so that I can feel loved!" That sort of maneuver, which is all about self-esteem and nothing at all about art-making. Most of my objections to first-person poetry are precisely where they fall into this ego-display, ego-cry-for-help. This does lead to solipsistic poetry, in fact, because in the end, this a poetry for an audience of one.

• Where is the transpersonal in all this? Where is the non-human? Where is the realization that our place in the universe is not necessarily as its most important center or creation? This was the point of Robinson Jeffers' comments about "Inhumanism," which was not in fact anti-humanism, as is the common misunderstanding, but about man's integral place in nature being such that man cannot afford to place himself either above nature, or separate from nature. For that matter, as PL Travers once put it, The word "supernatural" does not need the "super," because it is all included in the natural.

I for one do not think that asking for such a larger vision is at all a selfish act: quite the opposite, in truth.

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Blogger sciolist said...

"Where is the transpersonal in all this? Where is the non-human? "

You just added a number to your regular readership.Excellent post.

10:22 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks! Welcome aboard.

12:21 AM  

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