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The First Person
Transcript of The First Person
From "Tradition and the Individual Talent" by T.S. Eliot (1920)
The mind of the poet is the shred of platinum. It may partly or exclusively operate upon the experience of the man himself; but, the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material.
In English-language literary history, the word "
" usually means
"after the Second World War."
The word contrasts with "modern,"
which usually refers to the literature
written from about 1880 to 1945.
There is so much writing in English that it is almost impossible to know where to start, with a class like this one.
Particularly because it is very important to me to represent different kinds of people--to avoid the idea that all artists who write in English are Caucasians, or men, etc.
And particularly because so much writing is translated into English.
So in the process of putting this class together, I realized that we would have to have an arbitrary limit: we're going to read authors from the US. Which is what I know the most about anyway.
Anglophone Hong Kong
Of course, there is a great deal of literary writing
in Hong Kong
This is an excellent database of HK fiction:
And this is an excellent literary journal, run from HKBU:
Ultimately this class is not really about what is "contemporary" about contemporary literature, or what is "English" about literature written in English.
Although those would be interesting classes.
Instead, this class is mostly about what literature is, and how various kinds of writing are related to one another as
So, today we are going to look at:
And we will also read:
autobiography, a play, a graphic novel, and many things which have no names at all
This class is called:
but I'm really calling it "The First Person."
The First Person
The concept of "the first person" unifies the highly diverse texts in this class. Nearly everything we are going to read is written "in the first person," and the rest will be
the first-person in some way.
This topic is inspired, in part, by some ideas I've noticed in student papers and elsewhere.
There are some common ideas about the first person:
First person narration can really show the reader what a character is thinking.
The first person makes a connection between the author and the reader.
First person narration is more subjective, and third-person narration is more objective.
Basically, I don't believe any of these ideas, and neither do most critics.
One of the key ideas of modern literature,
and modern culture generally,
is that all knowledge
comes from a perspective.
Writers like Friedrich Nietzsche, for example, argued that all thinking is "the confession of its originator, and a species of involuntary and unconscious auto-biography."
Beyond Good and Evil
For Nietzsche, like many moderns, there is not really a sharp contrast between a subjective opinion and an objective truth.
Instead, there are subjective opinions, and then there are other subjective opinions which are pretending to be something that they are not.
In literature, this seems to mean that all writing, regardless of its topic, is ultimately autobiographical:
either obviously, in the first person,
pretending to be something it is not.
But of course this can seem kind of narcissistic and self-involved.
For many years, people throughout the English literary world felt that the best solution to the problem of
was the one proposed by T.S. Eliot.
What happens [in art] is a continual surrender of [the artist] as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality....I shall, therefore, invite you to consider, as a suggestive analogy, the action which takes place when a bit of finely filiated platinum is introduced into a chamber containing oxygen and sulphur dioxide.
This "impersonal theory" of literature was dominant until around 1945...when the first person began to return.
"The First Person" in Literary Analysis
Usually, the concept is applied to fictional narrative:
: a mode of storytelling in which the narrator appears as the "I" recollecting his or her own part in the events related, either as a witness of the action or as an important participant in it....
Note a few features of this definition:
1) The narrator is "telling a story" and can be lying or wrong.
2) The narrator is "recollecting" and can therefore be forgetful.
3) The narrator can be an important character, or simply a witness.
4) Everything we know about other characters will be in the "third person"--the narrator is our only source of information.
This idea became known as the "impersonal" theory of literature.
To the First Person
The impersonal theory of literature led to generations of students being taught to distinguish between the "author" and the "narrator,"
or the "poet" and the "speaker."
There often are distinctions to be made. But so many people believed this, that literature as such came to be defined as a language art in which the poet and the speaker differed.
Recent writing calls that idea profoundly into question, making clear that in fact the speaker and the poet can simply be identical. And there are often profound connections between narrators and authors.
Our thesis for this class is that those connections are
complicated, variable, and flexible tools for authors.
Writing as an "I" can have incredibly diverse effects.
This class explores those effects, without making any oversimplified assumptions about the meanings or purposes of using the first person.
The analogy [is] that of the catalyst. When the two gases previously mentioned are mixed in the presence of a filament of platinum, they form sulphurous acid. This combination takes place only if the platinum is present; nevertheless the newly formed acid contains no trace of platinum, and the platinum itself is apparently unaffected; has remained inert, neutral, and unchanged.
Walt Whitman, 1819-1892
Edgar Allan Poe, 1809-1849
In Emerson's essay "Nature,"
we get both a theory of the poet and a theory of the first person.
First, Emerson argues that solitude--truly being alone--is not simply the absence in a place of other human bodies. Instead, solitude is only achieved in the contemplation of nature.
Second, Emerson argues that this ability to see nature, and become solitary, is rare--and "poetical." It requires taking on a certain kind of perspective, which Emerson strongly associates with childhood, and which he contrasts with stress, work, cities, and other results of intentional human action.
The most important sentences here, though, are the ones in the first person:
Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a
I am nothing; I see all
These sentences offer us our first theory of the first person.
In this theory, the first person is associated with a heightened, poetic state of mind defined by solitude. Other people are in the way.
More importantly, this theory defines an inverse relationship:
I am nothing, I see all
Insight--that is, the ability to access truth and understanding--is defined as having no personality, and specifically as having no body...just being an eyeball, and a transparent one, at that.
This idea a key component of the literary-philosophical movement with which Emerson is associated, "
Thoreau was also a "transcendentalist," and many of his ideas are similar to Emerson's.
However, our text, from
, is part of a memoir, not an essay, and this shows in Thoreau's emphasis on his own experience: he tells us how he built a little house in the woods, and he lived there alone, providing everything he needed for himself.
Thoreau is not "nothing." He bases his memoir specifically on two things: having actually done something, and the idea that personal experience is the only real way to learn something.
a reproduction of his cabin
The opposite of insight, for Thoreau, is not self, but instead tradition, education, and inheritance--in general, the opposite of Thoreau's first person is
In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not remember that it is, after all,
always the first person that is speaking
. I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well....Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men's lives...
Thoreau's theory of the first person
Whitman is often described as an American romantic writer, and there is a good deal of nature imagery in his work. But the key relationship is always with people:
"I stop some where waiting for
Whitman is one of the first authors in English to really enjoy cities, to celebrate them as places of interaction, excitement, fullfilment.
Compare with Blake's "London"!
Whitman liked photographs of himself--this one, which appeared across from "Song of Myself" in most editions of Whitman's book Leaves of Grass, is one of 128 existing images of Whitman. He said that this one was "involved as part of the poem." Remember this for later, when we encounter multimedia or hybrid texts.
Whitman and/or Poe?
It is almost as though Poe's story is about Whitman. But somehow the latter's joyful desire for connection has been turned into a dark, inescapable obsession.
The Man of the Crowd could not begin his poem "I celebrate myself," but he could say something like "every atom that belongs to me as good belongs to you."
Edgar Allan Poe's fiction (and his poetry) deals with extreme, terrifying, and incomprehensible experiences. He can be credited with inventing both "horror" and "detective" genres of stories.
Poe's First Person
The first person in Poe's story is different than in Whitman's poem. Obviously, "I" in this story is not presented as Poe himself. This is a basic property of literary fiction "in the first person."
Furthermore, this story is an example of "
" in a first person narrator. Over the course of the story, we have more and more reasons to question this person's knowledge and authority--particularly as the narrator starts to act more and more like the Man of the Crowd himself. This should remind you more of Nietzsche again: everything is "just" a perspective.
Yet at the same time,
The parallel between the narrator and the Man can also be extended "back" toward Poe himself. Think about what composes the story--a descending catalogue of types of people made by the narrator, and then a descent into the night made by the Man.
The parallell suggests that ultimately Poe himself is just as as the narrator is in pushing the bounds of his knowledge toward exactly what they cannot finally understand--namely, other people.
From one point of view,
A Paper Idea
The paper for this class requires you to cite, and respond to,
a source of some kind.
Here's an example of what a paper might look like.
There is a little "poem guide" to Plath's "Fever 103" on www.poetryfoundation.org. I think this guide says something which is false.
Here is my paper idea, responding to this error with a strong, specific, but still very contained, thesis.
What the poem guide says
She conjur[es] up the heat of a high fever:
The tongues of hell
Are dull, dull as the triple
Tongues of dull, fat Cerberus
Who wheezes at the gate. Incapable
Of licking clean
The aguey tendon, the sin, the sin.
The tinder cries.
The indelible smell
Of a snuffed candle!
And the poem guide offers this interpretation.
....When she writes “tongues of hell,” we think of the shapes of flames and purification by fire. Instead, Plath gives us dog slobber: “dull, dull as the triple // Tongues of dull, fat Cerberus.” Her emphatic twist on the Cerberus myth renders the terrifying three-headed hound of hell into a plainly pathetic old dog...
.... If Plath is creating the sense of a fever burning away the soul’s impurities, then she is also creating the sense of
a soul so completely composed of impurities that this fever threatens to burn it entirely out.
This interpretation contradicts itself.
Is the fire hot, or slobbery?
As always, the answers to literary questions are produced by close analysis of the literary text.
As you are writing, you should always remember that I am waiting for the proof, the evidence: which will come from your claims about specific words, lines, sentences.
So my claim is this: The problem in this poem is not that the fire is hot and the soul is sinful and the fire threatens to burn it out.
: the poem is about how the fire isn't hot, and the soul won't burn, and there is no way to become pure.
"Pure? What does it mean?" (line 1)
This is skepticism about whether purity is possible.
"The indelible smell // of a snuffed candle" (lines 9-10)
This is a line about flames
, not flames consuming the soul.
"yellow, sullen smokes / ....will not rise" (lines 14-15)
Does this seem like an all-consuming flame? No.
This is a lazy, stupid flame that can't burn anything.
And that's the basic problem in this poem.
Where to find a hotter flame?
Reading "Lady Lazarus"
As I read this poem I want you to ask yourself general questions about the poem's style. What do you notice about the way this poem works? What are its techniques, its formal features?
1) Extreme enjambment, and a radical discontinuity between grammatical form and stanzaic structure;
2) insistent use of slant rhymes which never resolve into a rhyme scheme;
3) acceleration, toward the end of the poem, through anaphora (repetition of phrases at the beginnings of lines).
What are the effects of these techniques?
The title makes it clear we're talking about a woman who is
-But she has a foe: “O my enemy”
An example of the literary technique of "apostrophe.”
-“And I a smiling woman.”
Smiling in triumph. So we begin to develop the sense of embattlement further. Now we have a second specific invocation of the speaker’s gender, and this fact has become a
of this poem.
New forms of the first person
-“The peanut-crunching crowd shoves in to see...”
Here is our group. What is it like--demos or crowd? Crowd, but quite different again: it is made of spectators. Its attention is captured and possessed by the disrobing of the speaker (the implied removal of grave wrapping).
The crowd is not a source of anonymity. Instead, the speaker is transported by this attention, but also dismissive of the crowd, which is hungry for more and more, a desire which the speaker satisfies. But perhaps out of self-loathing?
-"So, Herr Enemy."
The poem returns its attention to this single figure, a doctor who tries to take control of the "art of dying" by making the speaker his "opus."
-"Out of the ash / I rise...and I eat men like air"
Again Plath invokes the legend of the pheonix, the bird which dies over and over again and is reborn out of its own ashes. Fire eats air.
The Art of Dying
There are nine stanzas in this poem. So let's break up int the same groups in which you're going to lead discussion.
Answer these three questions about your assigned stanza;
Choose somebody to represent your group's ideas when I come around.
1) What role does the first person play in this stanza? What first-person words occur? Where and why?
2) What ideas, persons, groups, or people stand “opposite to” the first person in this stanza?
3) How do those contrasts—between what is internal, and what is external—develop the
of the poem?
Whitman's First Person
"Song of Myself" is all about the first person, starting with its title. The poem throws itself open just like Morris' box, with a big naked smile.
We can see the whole poem as a kind of "
" of what Nietzsche argued more negatively: that all ideas are subjective and personal, none necessarily truer or better than the other.
This is represented in his poems in a very fundamental way by Whitman's favority literary technique: the list.
Whitman's Second Person
For Whitman, the first person seems to exist just to make contact with the second person.
He is always about connection and friendship, and he is often about sex.
Whitman likes crowds, but not in the abstract--he likes them because everybody is a potential friend & partner.
For all of these reasons, he is a profoundly
Let's take a look at "Houses and rooms..." (p1)
"Stop this day and night with me..." (p2)
"Listener up there!..." (p3)
Let's look at
"Out of the dimness..." (p2)
"Do I contradict myself?..." (p4)
Poe's work therefore contrasts pointedly with Whitman's. For example, Whitman and Poe, though they both write about cities, have profoundly different attitudes toward them.
My intention is to use this polarity or contrast to frame much of what happens in this class.
So let's spend some time putting these two texts through a more detailed comparison and contrast.
Two thoughts, to begin:
In fact, this story can be understood as an
Poe's Third Person
Where in "Song of Myself, "I" reaches out toward "you," this first person fixates on a third person.
That third person, the Man, is presented as deeply fascinating and almost magical in his attraction and interest: "a craving desire to keep the man in view..." (5)
At the same time, the idea of coming to know the Man is not at all what interests the narrator. Instead, the Man is constantly described as "a book that does not allow itself to be read."
What other remarks are made about the Man? How is he characterized?
So, where for Whitman the group is
, for Poe the group is
. What is the crowd like, in this story? How does one, or how how can one, interact with it?
For the narrator:
"peering through the smoky panes" (1)
"scrutinizing the mob" (4)
For the Man:
"the old manner" (6)
"a half-shriek of joy" (7)
The reading for next week will introduce a set of questions we haven't even begun to address today: who is the "I"? Are all "I" the same, or do some "I" write differently than others?
What if, in other words..."I" were a woman?
This is a class in "contemporary" or "new" literature, so I don't really want any papers only about Whitman or Poe.
But I am intensely interested in papers that compare later texts with these two. For example:
How do other authors use the second person? Is it like Whitman?
How do other authors represent crowds? Is it like Poe?
How do other first-person texts become allegories of authorship?
Many more to come.
Further Comparisons: Whitman and Poe
After various previous attempts & hospitalizations, Sylvia Plath committed suicide when she was thirty years old.
At that time she was the author of
, a book of poems, and a novel,
The Bell Jar,
which is an account of an attempted suicide, and a recovery in a mental hospital.
The book from which you are reading,
, came out after Plath was already dead. And many of the poems are about that death. The book, therefore, combines Plath's life, death, and art in a very unusual and remarkable way.
And let's go line by line.
Plath and Rich with Whitman and Poe
We're still using today's texts to make a kind of theoretical frame for this course as a whole. So let's try to start putting these four authors in relation.
We placed Whitman and Poe at two ends of a scale, on which the terms were
Fully involved first person yearning for more connection
Distanced, observing first person contemplating the unknowability of others
“Listener up there"
"A book that does not allow itself to be read"
The group as demos
The group as crowd
We will try today to both add some ideas to this set of contrasts, and also locate Plath and Rich with respect to these terms.
Plath and Rich are both associated with mid-twentieth century, second-wave feminism.
Both write from an adamantly female point of view—a specific identification of the self, a "marked" characteristic.
Like most members of hegemonic groups, our authors last week are free to ignore who they are, to pay no attention. That’s not what we encounter this week.
This week, we have two writers who position themselves not over against a “you” like Whitman, or over against an unknowable “person” or “crowd,” like Poe, but over against
men or masculinity.
The Marked Voice
In particular, we see two women who are writing against the “impersonal” of Eliot, and whose writing makes the claim that to be represented in their own writing is as much a political as it is an aesthetic act.
This is a major theme of this course, and a major development in the history of contemporary literature in English.
As the canon expands to include writing by different kinds of people, so do those people tend to represent themselves in their writing. So the writing of the “first person” gets this crucial twist: the question “who is this”?
Reading "Fever 103"
Let's talk this one through in groups. Easy questions:
1) Let's accept that this poem is quite similar to "Lady Lazarus." How? Clue: begin with ending.
2) Who is the poem talking to now? Who is this poem's second person, and does that change the poem somehow?
3) How about that smoke that goes around the world? What kind of world is this, and what are the people like in it?
Rich is among the most important English-language poets of the second half of the century.
She was also a major literary critic and literary theorist, not to mention an important public intellectual and campaigner for the rights of women and racial and sexual minorities.
She also, as you will have noticed, has an incredibly diverse, multiple style of writing that has been quite influential.
Where Plath writes an incredibly ornate, halting, but musical verse, Rich is very unpredictable on the page, moving from prose, to quotation, to free verse.
Reading "The Burning of Paper"
I should take this poem off this course. Its motions are so various, its styles are so unpredictable, and its topic and tone are so evasive, that I think most of you probably found it baffling. It is baffling.
But we need an idea from it...so let's have a look.
Knowledge of the oppressor
This is obviously one of the themes of this poem: that there is an oppressor, a dominator, one who burns things.
Like books, like the bodies of Jews, like the body of Joan of Arc...
...and it is crucial to know, rather than to avoid knowing, this force.
The oppressor's language
...in the structure of the language,
with which the lover can be addressed.
There is a lover in this poem, and the loving of the lover is a counter-force to the force of the oppressor.
Yet the oppressor is not avoidable. The mark of the oppressor is everywhere, in all the books, in all the history, and even...
Reading "Diving Into the Wreck"
Sometimes people say that there is a "deeper meaning in" or a "meaning behind" a work of literature. In general, this is a misunderstanding. Meaning is not really organized in layers, some of which are above or below, in front of or behind, the others.
The exception to this rule is
. Allegorical works of literature have this specific characteristic of being organized into layers of meaning.
In an allegory, one world stands in for another, and the work of interpretation is to find and understand the one world hidden in or behind the other.
This poem is an
It isn't really about diving into a wrecked ship.
Instead it is about gaining "knowledge of the oppressor," particularly insofar as that knowledge is contained in books, myths, and language.
Play with allegory
Allegory is in some ways a primitive literary form; some very early literature in English is allegorical. It's not at all common now.
Still, we should play around with it a little bit. I'd like you to work with your group to write a quick allegorical poem. Do not attempt to write a good poem. Just write a poem.
The theme of your allegory should be:
"It is sad, but we need to break up."
But because this is an allegory, there should not be any boys and girls saying goodbye to each other in your poem.
Reading a Rich Allegory
I say the allegory is "rich" because there are many connections between the two worlds of this poem.
In your group, answer the following questions:
1) What connections does Rich create between the literal "dive" the the figurative "gaining of knowledge"?
2) How does Rich indicate that the poem has more than one layer? How does she combine the two?
3) Finally, why is the allegory an appropriate form for this particular poem?
“My Enemy" versus “The Oppressor"
In terms of their understands of who stands against them,
Plath’s poems are more like Poe's story—preoccupied with a particular you, like the "Man of the Crowd" who nearly drives the speaker crazy.
And Rich’s are more like Whitman's—preoccupied with a crowd, although in this case, that crowd is congealed into a systematic injustice.
Versions of the I
But in terms of how the reader relates to the "I" of these poems? How knowable are other people? How friendly, open, or accessible are they?
1973, a landmark anthology
"but I need it to talk to you..."
"an allegory is a story in verse or prose with a double meaning: a primary or surface meaning; and a secondary or under-the-surface meaning....[it] can be read, understood, and interpreted at two levels (and in some cases at three or four levels).
Collecting some evidence from the poem
I want to work through this poem, and as I do, I want you to collect words, thoughts, images, and events that can be understood allegorically.
By the end of our reading together, you should have a list of items that exist in both dimensions of the poem: the story of diving, and the gaining of knowledge of the oppressor.