The Insular I: a poem’s point of view
The Insular I
People don’t like poetry.
That, of course, is not universally true. True enough, though, that 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 a poem. Poetry is a great medium for self-exploration, but 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 feel, powerfully and graphically”), is going.
I suspect students of poetry tend to be told they aren’t “digging deep enough”; that aspiring poets find themselves harangued (or at least prodded) also, for harking back, stylistically, to sagas, chansons, even sonnets and pastorals. Inhibitions, if categorized as a sort of decorum, things associated with formalism, have long been 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 it produces volumes of manufactory 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 upgraded phones; we have electronic junk. In art, everything is everything. No one thing has an 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 below you, 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 on purpose, 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
(2017, Stephanie Foster)