Essay: The Insular I

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint People don’t like poetry. That, of course, is not universally true. True enough, a lot of poetry you read (or glance over) launches like the voice of someone you’re stuck with in an elevator. I write poetry, and I too get that twisty feeling when I’m afraid of being trapped by it. Poetry is a great medium for self-exploration; still, another party is involved—and many poems give the reader no story to grapple onto, no certain inkling of where this road (potentially, this hundred lines of “I”), is going.

I suspect students of poetry tend to be told they aren’t “digging deep enough”; that aspiring poets find themselves harangued also for harking back to sagas and chansons, even sonnets and pastorals. Inhibitions, if categorized as a sort of decorum, things associated with formalism, are thought anti-modern. To throw out all devices, all structure: rhyme, meter, punctuation, alliteration; to label these dishonest, manipulative, artificial…”pre” rather than “post”—is as fine a methodology as any, if it produces good art. (Regardless, we should allow room for every type of art.) If this produces volumes of factory product, built from aversions, and pandering to the new taskmaster…not so much.

There is an appealing fallacy that whatever time we live in is the cutting edge of modernity—all that passed before being dead and over. We imagine ourselves always progressing, everything of the now, real; everything old, fake in some way—not “vital”, or “true”, or “relevant”. The human race does progress, by centuries, and at the same time drags itself back. We have cars; we have air pollution. We have new phones; we have electronic junk. In art, everything is everything. No one thing has objectively proven superiority. And in the finding of popular taste a de facto bad taste, there is a kind of shadow colonialism. How can this notion be, without the assumption of a hoi-polloi, yourself in the high seat judging?

Then, a number of things of softness and sentiment, are—unfortunately—viewed as feminine, and denigrated for this, not always openly so.

Are blood and iron bigger than oxygen and song?

The challenge, when “I” tells the story, is that the narrator knows the outcome, and gets no help from the omniscient guiding force, who can’t live inside this head; while the narrator ought to see things only through his/her own eyes, either in chronology or memory. “I” feels honest, self-analytical, but is bound by nature to be dishonest as well. The revealing takes place, but the contract is missing, the implied statement of the eye in the sky: “I’m concealing information from you, and meting it out as I go along.”

I think of a man with a falcon

Who has set it to circle for prey

It seems that the bird cannot hear him

Though perhaps he has nothing to say

I think of things centered careering

When some law of physics has failed

I think this unhinging is nearing

Now madmen and tyrants prevail

Of course, this is doggerel, not Yeats’s “The Second Coming”—one of the poems most often cited on lists as a favorite. We don’t much want this “I” who stands aside from the action, offering opinions. Yeats did often write in rhyming couplets, or ABAB schemes. Part of the timelessness and strength of “The Second Coming” is that it has a varied meter and rhyme. And here, the poet references himself only twice, only in the voice of a dazed witness visited by vision.

I see lilacs bud in contrast with the brown earth

Soon I will see frost blight them dead

April a month that teases, promising and withholding

Though also rains of spring

Stir nostalgic longings; there, under snow, I am aware

Tubers catch the drip of melting

I know that lives of roots are small, yet they return

And this, for gaining an arguable intimacy, lacks the authority of “The Wasteland”. In Eliot’s work, the “I” is often the voice of a character, or one who keeps in the background (and may or may not be Eliot’s own confession), appearing late—the narrative is strong, declarative and imperative moods employed; the language delves deeper after a beginning crafted for rhetorical effect.

My eyes in morning see pale fingers clutched in rigor

Clover blossoms, a handful gathered

In a glass stayed on my bedstand

The alliteration of the vowels in “handful”, “gathered”, and “bedstand”, have a pleasing echo, and this snatch again has intimacy, but the reader may suspect the poem will maunder on, become a depressive inventory of sad things in a sad person’s room.

What if we introduce a character, and begin this piece as though telling a story?

Howie wakes and sees, on the bedstand, at his left hand

The little clutch of flowers he hadn’t wanted to throw away

The name gives you a picture of a particular type of person, direction from the expectation raised by this. Howie is a little sentimental, but we don’t see him over-signify the clover. The lines have an active rhythm; in this not wanting to throw the bouquet away, a plot point is implied, maybe one of sufficient interest to take the quease off, for a non-poetry lover.

Now, suppose we toss this out using a speech-maker’s language?

What pale fingers rise above the crystal rim

Attention-getting…but over-rich. However, many beloved quotes from the canon roll out with such portentousness. Rilke’s “Requiem for a Friend” begins:

Ich habe Tote, und ich ließ sie hin

In every translation I’ve seen, this in English is:

I have my dead, and I have let them go

The words are declarative and rhythmic, their tone not that of therapy-language. The poem, for the author was, however, therapeutic—a long study on the nature of death, what relationship the dead have to the living.


As poets we have things to say, worth writing down. Those things may be told allegorically, through a figure conjured from the ranks of the ordinary. We don’t want to deny ourselves the best means of communication, by substituting one type of reaction for another, but use all the tools our medium has left us in legacy.


2017, Stephanie Foster



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