We shall be released; or, On the First Person Plural in Poems

I’ve been advised enough times not to do it, you’d think I’d stop trying. But here we are again. The royal “we,” I mean, possibly, or the group of us who do such a thing, as opposed, I guess to the “they” who do not; that is: use the first person plural pronoun (we) in poems. Why do I keep trying to make it work?

It interests me to write poems from the perspective of this identity: a member of the human species. From this perspective I can think about the so-called “human experience,” not as “in opposition to the nonhuman,” but as a part of a, let’s face it, pretty significant force on the planet, and as a representative of a species that is able to think about itself and go “Hmm…really?” A member of a species that is aware of, possibly obsessed with, death, and, therefore?, a bit obsessed with life and its meaning.

But the use of “we,” or MY use of “we,” shall I say, has caused people to become argumentative (“you do not speak for me,” they say, or sometimes just “oh yeah?”) or to be otherwise put off by the lack of immediacy and intimacy (“hm, what are you distancing yourself from,” they ask). I don’t know, though. Do I not have the — what: right? capacity of imagination? proper hubris? — to speak out of that human stance?

The use of the all-humanity “we” has a long tradition, but fell out of favor when societies began saying “hey, wait a minute, this ‘we’ is not representing me, but rather the autocracy.” So social movements that overthrew old hierarchies to introduce a more democratic worldview plus a rise of the validation of the personal experience led to, it seems, a skeptical view of the poetic “we,” so fakely grand and oratorical it seemed, off-putting and snooty, the voice of empire. But I want to call it empirical: that is, based on experience, verifiable by observation.

As an anthropologist by study and natural inclination, I’m a participant observer here on earth among you/we humans. I hear your/our/my joys and pains and confusions. I believe that for all our differences — beliefs, tastes, fears of spiders v snakes, ability to roll the tongue or no, color, hair type, tattoo-level, who you worship, who you fuck — we humans are more the same than different. That’s the “we” I aim to write from.

But okay, fair enough, I’m not all people, and doubtless my imagination fails to capture much of the you-ness of you and your experience. So what’s the big deal for me about switching to “I”?

For me it gets tangled in the history of confessional poetry. As if what “I” am about to tell you better be pretty personal, or you’ll be disappointed.

Maybe contemporary taste is not willing to abide less than a confession. Maybe we don’t want to hear from some damn “we,” who, in point of fact, is a middle-aged white lady who quite possibly indeed does not know shit from shoe polish.

There has been much scholarship and musing on this topic, as I have found in my dive into it all. Back in 2004, writer Laura Miller said this in the “The Last Word” column in the The New York Times: “Modern readers find collective first-person narrators unsettling; the contemporary mind keeps searching for the familiarity of an individual point of view, since it seems impossible that a group could think and feel, let alone act, as one….You could say that the history of Western literature so far has been a journey from the first-person plural to the first-person singular, the signature voice of our time.”

On aerogramme.com in 2017, editorial director of The Masters Review, Sadye Teiser, noted this: “If the first-person plural tries to be too sweeping, if it does not acknowledge its own subtleties, it can miss the mark. But it also has the singular ability to harness a power that is not limited by the bounds of one character’s individual perspective. That is why the first-person plural is often used to describe events, be they real or unreal, that feel bigger than us. Even if there are things that we experience differently, there are others that we share, and that, especially in our times, is worth remembering.”

Martin Buber had this to say about “we”: “For the word always arises only between an I and a you, and the element from which the We receives its life is speech, the communal speaking that begins in the midst of speaking to one another.”

In Poetry in 2010, Jane Hirschfeld said: “I suppose some would say it’s terribly old-fashioned, or terribly arrogant, for a person to use ‘we’ in a poem to speak of ‘us all,’ but it’s a concept I still believe in — that certain experiences are universally and profoundly human, and that one of the possible tasks of poetry is to name or evoke them.”

Of course, I am aware that I have cherry-picked some quotes here, in order to bolster my continued attempts to get away with my “we” penchant. And you can continue to question my judgment about it. And we will continue this wrangle to voice ourselves to each other. After all, we’re in this together.

2 thoughts on “We shall be released; or, On the First Person Plural in Poems

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