A recent thread on Facebook (which shall remain anonymous) began with this question: “ . . .what writers articles started the whole thing of criticizing “the romantic I” ? – either from quietist and/or langpo/experimental angle”.

An interesting question, if somewhat stunted in its formulation. Quietist or langpo? Surely those two markers don’t exhaust the interrogation of the lyric I. But more of that later. Marjorie Perloff (via Barthes) was immediately trotted out, quoting from her 1999 essay on Ron Silliman and Susan Howe, “Language Poetry and the Lyric Subject”: “the author is never more than the instance writing, just as I is nothing other than the instance saying I: language knows a ‘subject’, not a ‘person’.”

This was an articulation of the “theoretical” attack on bourgeois subjectivity that used Foucault, Barthes, and later, Lakoff, and the objectification of language, to (supposedly) remove the author from consideration (remember the hysteria over the Yasusada poems?), or even further, to remove the world from experience, to locate the non-existent “I” within what was called the prison house of language.  Barrett Watten, who had been invited to comment by the poster on the original use of the phrase “Romantic I” expanded the discussion to a criticism of Olson, Duncan, and Creeley as participants in what he went on to call the Sovereign Ego: “the question of “self” was under attack, and this was associated immediately with the “postmodern romantics” such as Duncan and Olson—and even Creeley . . . Sovereignty as a poetics/politics. . . . Cf. Freud—the ego as sovereign. Makes certain sense of Olson, Duncan, Creeley et al., yes?”

Well, actually, no, Dispatches protests. It doesn’t make sense.

What about this old thing from 1950: “Objectism is the getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego, of the “subject” and his soul, that peculiar presumption by which western man has interposed himself between what he is as a creature of nature (with certain instructions to carry out) and those other creations of nature which we may, with no derogation, call objects. For a man is himself an object, whatever he may take to be his advantages, the more likely to recognize himself as such the greater his advantages, particularly at that moment that he achieves an humilitas sufficient to make him of use.” We know Perloff slandered this as plagiarism once Olson was safely planted, but many still find it provocative and challenging.

And it sure sounds a lot like a critique of the Romantic I or Sovereign Ego or Lyrical Self or whatever other moniker you want to pin on it. It has all the right vocabulary: lyrical ego subject. Not only that, it presents an historical context in which to locate the significance of the terms rather than presenting them as part of some functional moralist code—Self bad. When Charles Olson published those words in “Projective Verse,” they were revolutionary in multiple dimensions. The significance and influence of the essay arose as much from this observation as from any so-called “formula” regarding syllable and line. It opened the poem to what Jack Spicer later called Outside or Martians. (No wonder he kissed Olson’s feet the first time he met him.) How then, you well may ask, does Olson become instance of something called Sovereign Ego in the poem? An interesting question.

And then, pursuing the thought of that elusive wraith, the self, Dispatches recalled Robert Duncan’s brilliant essay, “The Self in Postmodern Poetry”. Duncan fastidiously tracked his own evolving relation to the question of self in an unfolding,  exfoliating recollection of his encounters and struggles with self, beginning with the “Me-Myself-and I” of fairy tale. Discussing his play, Adam’s Way, at the end of the essay Duncan, who returns us to “person,” not in the reductive sense Perloff’s understanding is limited to, but as figure of an expansive, intimate encounter wrote:

With the changes between ‘your Self,’ where Self is no longer pronomial but a person, counter part of your angel, and the second yourself, where the ego is banished from the work or, rather, is commanded to lose itself in the work. ‘How may I grow into what I do not know,’ Adam asks.

He then goes even further into the dissolution of Self:

The Self, with a capital S, this Atman, Breath, Brahma, that moves in the world to sound I so love I also would undo the idea of, let it go. The theme increases in recent years, and back of it hovers the dissolution of the physical chemical universe which I take to be the very spiritual ground and body of our being.

Then there’s Ed Dorn. Where is Ed in Watten’s list? But then Dispatches remembered that in certain circles Ed’s name is not to be spoken, even to curse it with accusations of Sovereignty; Dorn, the rogue poet whose unflinching honesty and caustic gaze were beyond the pale of polite discourse as it emerged in the 1980s’ corporatization of the poetry scene. He, too, had thoughts on this ego thing. In “What I See in the Maximus Poems,” he wrote:

No matter how much I may want ego to be a centrality, it is practically worthless as ‘center.’ In the sense of self and center the ego lacks meaning, and this class of senses disintegrates immediately into something cheap and commercial and psychiatric.

Dispatches recalls affectionately the appearance of “i – Secretary to Parmenides” in Dorn’s mock-epic, Gunslinger.

Given this abundance of critical address to the question of self in the work of the poets Watten accuses of Romantic Self-dom and Sovereign I-ness, Dispatches was left confused. Why was the unprecedented and unflinching work of these writers overlooked in the quest for “writers who started the whole thing of criticizing the Romantic I”? Sure, you can say, “This is about the 1980s,” but is it even possible to imagine the 80s address to Self without understanding its relation to the thinking of those other poets who came before and addressed it so forcefully? Dispatches does not want to go all Oedipal about this stuff, but come on. Anxiety of influence, anyone? Not to mention a certain animus that arose out of being bloodied in outbreaks of the poetry wars and, so we hear, physically threatened and driven from the stage by that brute, Robert Duncan.

The real issue, if we may be so bold, is cosmological, an honest to goodness all-out Mental War in the best knock-‘em-down-drag-‘em-out Blakean tradition. This is not about opposites or contraries or any of that binary business. It’s about fundamental difference. Olson, Duncan, Dorn, Creeley, and others of that moment opened an interrogation of self that so many later writers – writers like Diane DiPrima, Joanne Kyger, Alice Notley, and Anne Waldman – joined. It’s not about this self or that self. It’s about the creative entanglement of self and language in an unfolding dynamic world in which Self, Time, and Space constitute a vortical triangulating of emergent sense, unspecified determinations of locus brought to focus in the work of the imagination so that we may know where and when we are. This is not some reductionist notion of self as empty lexical clarity, but self in all its kaleidoscopic mystery, configured/disfigured/misfigured in currents of power and authority, freedoms and incarcerations, destinies and damnations, but always in quest of an articulation of its emergent condition.

Beginning with various ascendant resistances to and attacks on the New American poetry that bloomed in the 80s, cosmology was lost to sociology; or say, sociology, rather than being located within a cosmology, was, through sleight of hand, substituted for a cosmology, upheld by a materialist functionary fantasy about the intersection of language and self and the dubious invention of something called a “subject position.” The attempt to locate the “origins” of the turn against the “lyric I” in the reductionist materialist theories of the 1980s is just the most recent attempt to erase the knowledge those earlier poets achieved, and replace it with commodifiable “theory” pre-packaged for consumption in university courses and MLA panels, tenure and promotion dossiers, literary award applications, and publishing contracts.

– Dispatches

(To be continued)