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I, Not I

 Originally Appeared in: Qui Parle: Volume 26, Number 2 | Published: December, 2017

Who’s speaking? Who’s the speaker? Who speaks? Such variations of the once-mundane question posed by readers and teachers about literary texts were turned topsy-turvy when Barthes first asked Qui parle? with nonchalant reference to the story “Sarrasine” and later answered it in S/Z with such unpredictable categories and unprecedented creativity that his analysis of Balzac’s text frightened off efforts to replicate or extend it, even by Barthes himself. A far different but equally eye-opening view emerged in Bakhtin’s revelation of the novel as genre-protean prose—polyphonic, ventriloquizing, dialogic. Even where the methods of Barthes and Bakhtin are not readily apparent, they have seeped into the critical habits and procedures of the past four or five decades, invigorating novel theory and novel criticism.

Poetry poses the question Who is speaking? in ways that provide philosophy with its most compelling and its most troubling instance of subjectivity. At least since romanticism, lyric is the art form most closely associated with the “I.” The “I” is as essential to lyric as trope and mood. Lyric takes shape as the triad mood—“I”—trope, yet this extremity of subjectivity is not solipsism: poetry is pure subjectivity but not subjective. That puzzle unsettles the categories of subjectivity and objectivity themselves. Modern criticism has responded to the paradoxes of the lyric “I” with approximate, generally inadequate distinctions like those between empirical self and poetic self, biographical person and persona, poet and speaker, and so on. Such distinctions reveal nothing of the relation of the poet to the speaker, the person to the persona, and so on. Overlooked is the very act of writing that creates the supposed poetic self, persona, or speaker.

Even when the word “I” does not appear in the poem, the lyric remains the most condensed and ample articulation of an “I,” the fullest sense of self-expression a writer is capable of. I mean this in the sense of a comment of Heidegger’s in Being and Time: “In ‘poetical’ discourse, the communication of the existential possibilities of one’s state-of-mind can become an aim in itself, and this amounts to a disclosing of existence.”74 Such is the vocation of poetry at least since Wordsworth and Keats, Baudelaire and Dickinson. Where but in the poem do modern human beings mobilize the resources of language to speak fully? Whitman affirms the poetic parole pleine with exuberance: “I . . . sing myself.” By the same token, Mallarmé testifies, as did the earlier romantics more covertly, to the death of the “I” in this full speaking, for as the emotional and linguistic labor of creating the poem reaches its desired end—finding form in William Gass’s phrase—the completion itself causes the poet to disappear from the poem, to die into the poem. Or, stated the other way around, to be left stranded outside the poem, surviving and flung back into inarticulate, incomplete stammering, only to begin drafting all over again. A yet different experience is disclosed in Li-Young Lee’s sequence titled “Furious Versions,” in which the writing down of vivid yet uncertain and sure yet indistinct memories makes every poem a draft:

here amidst
drafts—
yet these are not drafts
toward a future form, but
furious versions
of the here and now.75

“Memory revises me,” he writes, so the drafts and revisions are furious versions of poem and of self. The threads of the conceptual knot posed by modern poetry include Whitman’s “singing myself,” the Mallarméan poem as the poet’s tomb, Lee’s “furious versions,” and countless others.

In Keats’s letters, the one in which he famously coined the phrase “the Wordsworthian or egotistical sublime,” I was recently astonished to read anew what he then says about his own poetic vocation: “A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity—he is continually in for [possibly intending informing]—and filling some other Body—The Sun, the Moon, the Sea.”76 This resonates, perhaps discordantly, with Hegel’s attempt to unravel poetry’s conceptual knot by identifying who speaks in the poem as the poet insofar as the poem latches on to something in the “fragmented and dispersed” flow of “the variegated multiplicity of ideas, feelings, impressions insight, etc.,” of the “inner life of the poet,” and endows that fragment with the poet’s fullest expressiveness: “The poet must have achieved a specific mood or entered a specific situation, while at the same time he must identify himself with this particularization of himself as with himself, so that in it he feels and envisages himself.”77 Complete identification with a mere fragment of inner life is the paradox by which the poem delivers the appearance of concrete identity. Keats, for his part, vacillates between an apologetic pathos—“Not one word I ever utter can be taken for granted as an opinion growing out of my identical nature—how can it, when I have no nature?”—and a poetic aspiration to Shakespearean genius: “It is not itself—it has no self—it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated—It has as much delight in creating an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosop[h]er, delights the camelion Poet.”78

So, between Keats and Hegel the question “Who is speaking?” teeters into an alternative: I becomes Not I or Not I becomes I?79