Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The "I" of the poetic self

I've been reading Claudia Rankine's Don't Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric, which is sort of a cross between a long prose poem or series of poems and philosophic meditation and just plain (interesting) weirdness. One of the conceits of the book is that the world, and perhaps the author, is like a giant liver, detoxifying and filtering everything. (I think here of the closing lines of Whitman's "Song of Myself" in which he talks about filtering and fibering our blood--so Rankine's conceit is not absolutely outrageous.)

She has some interesting things to ponder regarding the "I" of the poem, which is a problem, I suppose, that every poet has to confront in her own way--does the "I" recede into the material, or does the "I" emerge in a pronounced fashion? Let alone the question of the relation of the "I" to the author--I've never thought that T. S. Eliot's solution of the mask was particularly honest--it's kind of like Sharon Olds talking at the Folger last year about her work, and going through the regular motions of stating that the "I" is not always equivalent to the poet, that the author changes details about real life, etc., but then Olds turned to the audience and said something to the effect of, "I say this with a BIG wink."

Is constructing the poetic "I" simply a problem of audience reception, or is it a problem in poetic construction? There are those for whom connecting the "I" and the author is something like a mortal sin, there are those who elide the two, there are those who don't seem worried about it, there are those who seem to project a sense of self that seems upon closer inspection to be a persona of sorts.

Here are Rankine or Rankine's "I"'s comments on the subject. The "I" of this piece has been writing a book on the liver and has just finished talking to her editor:

"I understand that what she wants is an explanation of the mysterious connections that exist between an author and her text. If I am present in a subject position what responsibility do I have to the content, to the truth value, of the words themselves? Is "I" even me or am "I" a gearshift to get from one sentence to the next? Should I say we? Is the voice not various if I take responsibility for it? What does my subject mean to me?"

Or then there is Anne Carson on ekstasis, or the ecstatic, in which the author finds herself outside the self looking in: "To be a writer is to construct a big, loud, shiny centre of self from which the writing is given voice and any claim to be intent on annihilating this self while still continuing to write and give voice to writing must involve the writer in some important acts of subterfuge or contradiction." That's from the essay on Sappho, Porete, and Weil in Decreation.

And, Marsha, I've turned the comments function back on just for you, although I don't imagine I'll leave it on for that long.

1 comment:

mj said...

Hey Jeneva, thanks for the comment option! Don't touch that dial!