Monday, 28 September 2009

The poet as the letter 'I'

This is one thing we discuss very near the beginning of any course. Who is the 'I' that appears in a lyric poem? Do we expect more from it than we would from a work of fiction (Reader, I married him)? What are the limits of 'I'? When does it break the glass floor of art and fall through into the cellar of the vulnerable self?

But then when I say 'I' here, how far is that figure detached from the living person at the desk hitting the keys of his computer. How far, in other words, is 'I' discernible as a single complete entity?

Under law it most certainly discernible. That, after all, is the business of law: to discern, to demarcate, to assign responsibility, to hold us culpable. 'Not I' says D. H. Lawrence, 'but the wind that blows through me'. Not much use for the embezzler, the murderer, or the illegal parker to protest in such terms*. The law fingers us.

In art we make not only an 'I' but a world for the 'I' to inhabit. Maybe art is the only true place for a complete 'I' to inhabit. Maybe that is why we need art, so that we may live somewhere that offers dimension and meaning, where the laws are parallel laws, where the complexity of the act (I lashed out and he died, I have always thought it the greatest act of courage to fiddle the figures of a large corporation, I am useless at parking and can't see double yellow lines because they are to me a sign of pure evil). It is a cage for the impossible beasts.

Or, to put it more plainly, is a poem with 'I' in it true in the way law is true? Is the suffering 'I' in a poem a vulnerable cry for help. How do we deal with the 'I'? "I is at the centre of the lyric poem" wrote John Heath-Stubbs, "and only there not arrogant" (quoted from memory* now corrected thanks to reader).

So, Hardy: "I leaned upon a coppice gate / when frost was spectre grey...." etc.

Late. Late back from the private view of Justin Partyka's show. Father still in hospital. "...and winter's eye made desolate . The weakening eye of day..."

*Later thought: though they do do so at times, in terms like: "I wasn't being myself", or "Some devil got into me", or "It was my medication", or indeed the infamous "I was only following orders".

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