May 24, 2014

The Never-ending Selfie: Who Is the I?

In fiction, readers are much more familiar with the concept of narrator, and they are comfortable with the idea of an unreliable narrator. No one assumes that a novel about a murderer reflects a writer who has committed this crime. Yet, in poetry, readers sometimes expect the narrator and the poet to be one—that this, somehow, is truth-telling. Readers need to consider the “I” in a poem more carefully.

Selfies posted on Facebook and on social media sites reveal both the given and the made: the face one is born with and the identity that we construct, and perhaps even more than that. Often others can see more than what is presented, a shadow self. Gertrude Stein believed there are two selves: “I am I who my little dog knows me,” and another interior self that cannot be observed and is not known. Her book Geographical History ends: “Identify is not there at all but it is oh yes it is.” Identity is fluid, changing, but always present.

Students of poetry are trained not to assume that the narrator of a poem is the writer. Some poems adopt a persona, and it is the persona who narrates the poem. The poet Ai Ogawa, for example, wrote persona poems. She explained that she did this because “first person voice was always the stronger voice to use when writing.” Duane Ackerson characterized her persona in Contemporary Women Poets as “people seeking transformation, a rough sort of salvation, through violent acts.”
Personae and truth-telling are not mutually exclusive. 

Visual artists have often explored self portraits. The Frida Kahlo with a monkey or parrot on her shoulder says something different than the Frida Kahlo with an excavation revealing the organ of her heart. So perhaps the question is: what images and colors does the self adopt and what do those express?

Adrienne Rich, in her essay “Someone Is Writing a Poem,” writes:

Do I exist in this poem? And this is not a simple or naive question. We go to poetry because we believe it has something to do with us. We also go to poetry to receive the experience of the not me, enter a field of vision we could not otherwise apprehend.
The poem has been made of the collective language and connections that clearly exist between the I, the narrator or the writer, and the work. Readers who open a book of poetry encounter somebody whose voice is often intimate and strange--this is part of the thrill of poetry. We enter into the breath and mouth of the other, the poet. Rich goes on to say:
an “I” can become a “we” without extinguishing others, that a partly common language exists to which strangers can bring their own heartbeat, memories, images. A language that itself has learned from the heartbeat, memories, images of strangers.
The poet's voice might reflect another kind of I, an I that can encompass more than the I that my little dog knows. We can't be sure; we can't presume. The writer might say "I" but she might mean the reader. Rich says later:
Someone is writing a poem. Words are being set down in a force field. It’s as if the words themselves have magnetic charges; they veer together or in polarity, they swerve against each other. Part of the force field, the charge, is the working history of the words themselves, how someone has known them, used them, doubted and relied on them in a life. Part of the movement among the words belongs to sound—the guttural, the liquid, the choppy, the drawn-out, the breathy, the visceral, the downlight. The theater of any poem is a collection of decisions about space and time—how are these words to lie on the page, with what pauses, what headlong motion, what phrasing, how can they meet the breath of the someone who comes along to read them? And in part the field is charged by the way images swim into the brain through written language: swan, kettle, icicle, ashes, scab, tamarack, tractor, veil, slime, teeth, freckle.
She knows that poetry comes from the rich sound play, images, and actions in language. The theater of a poem intensifies the language and evokes the unobserved and silent. This is similar to Muriel Rukeyser's idea that poetry was an exchange of energy. In Rukeyser's book, The Life of Poetry, she explores the resistance to poetry experienced by many in our culture. Some say they don't have time for it, she said, and then she points out how much more compact it is than other forms of writing. Some think it's boring, but she believed that this resistance was actually a resistance to the emotional response that poetry asks for. Obviously, a resistance would not exist if there were not an energy in the first place. Many people have encountered a poem that has effected change inside of them. Rukeyser wrote:
Poetry is written from these depths; in great poetry you feel a source speaking to another source.

And it is deep at these levels that the questions lie.

They come up again and again during these years, when under all the surface shouting, there is silence about those things we need to hear.
The "I" then is a "source." Sometimes I have called this 'spirit mutuality': poetry is the spirit of a writer talking to the spirit of the reader.  It creates an intimacy. We all experience this type of intimacy in a piece of writing, and we are surprised when, after meeting the writer in person, it's not there with the person.  Rich's word choice "source" acknowledges that both readers and writers have sources, visible and not. This is something that the selfie cannot quite capture, and yet it is no wonder that taking and posting selfies are a thing of endless fascination.  "All the surface shouting" is an apt phrase. Sometimes while reading, the reader experiences frustration with surface or superficiality. This might be described an 'impenetrable" or "obscure."  But in a good poem, the reader giving it time will suddenly drop down a level. 

Helene Cixous, a French feminist writer, identifies the self as multiple. She claims to have "an I that writes, an I that teaches, ...and an I that escapes me." And to further push the concept deeper, philosopher Heike Härting writes about alternate subjectivities. This recent philosophic discourse brings important economic and cultural considerations into the concept of self. She says, "Subjectivity is a concept that refers to the cultural, social, political, and psychological processes that shape and determine who we think we are and how we situate ourselves in the world." The concept of the word "self" varies from culture to culture.

And to this, I might juxtapose the idea of annatta in Buddhist thought.

When Vacchagotta the wanderer asked him point-blank whether or not there is a self, the Buddha remained silent, which means that the question has no helpful answer. As he later explained to Ananda, to respond either yes or no to this question would be to side with opposite extremes of wrong view (Samyutta Nikaya 44.10). Some have argued that the Buddha didn’t answer with “no” because Vacchagotta wouldn’t have understood the answer. But there’s another passage where the Buddha advises all the monks to avoid getting involved in questions such as “What am I?” “Do I exist?” “Do I not exist?” because they lead to answers like “I have a self” and “I have no self,” both of which are a “thicket of views, a writhing of views, a contortion of views” that get in the way of awakening (Majjhima Nikaya 2).
Opinions change, perspectives shift, the self is fluid and ephemeral, and to fixate on the question is perhaps silly and not productive. Yet, the writer or poet brings forth particular words and sounds from cultural, social, political and psychological experiences. 
From the pool of shared language, the poet finds personal words that have sparks, that together hold a particular force field that possesses the imagination and leaps across silent fields, between writer and reader.

The self is contradictory and changing. According to Stein, "Identity is not there at all but it is oh yes it is." Somehow it can not be escaped. We may want to deny it, annihilate it, avoid it but we are stuck with it and we love it. In poetry, it is a tool. Amid the common language of the cultural, social, political, I find the variable individual voice very interesting, personal, and electric.


Hartig, Heike. "Subjectivity." Globalization and Autonomy. 2005. Retrieved 24 May 2014. Web.

Rich, Adrienne. “Someone is Writing a Poem.” Poetry Foundation. May 12, 2010. Retrieved 24 May 2014. Web.

Rukeyser, Muriel. “The Fear of Poetry.” The Life of Poetry. 1949.

Bhikku, Thanissaro. “No Self or Not Self?” 1996. Retrieved 24 May 2014. Web. and

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