Self as Self-Impersonation in American Poetry

By Sleigh, Tom | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Self as Self-Impersonation in American Poetry


Sleigh, Tom, The Virginia Quarterly Review


As a boy, I remember one of the few Sundays that our family went to church. Our regular attendance was partly hampered by the fact that one Easter Sunday my older brother, on a dare from Weegee Hansen, hit Reverend Fox in the back of the head with a water balloon: you can imagine the withering effect this might have on tender religious feelings, especially when Reverend Fox turned up at our house later that afternoon, seeking, as he put it, "to wring that little sinner's neck." But on the particular Sunday I have in mind, Reverend Fox recounted the story of Saul on the way to Damascus, in which God knocks Saul, the Christian persecutor, off his horse and he rises up from the dust as the apostle Paul. The miracle of the conversion went right by me. All that I could think about was the fate of the horse: Was Paul a better master than Saul? When God knocked Saul into the dust, did the horse also feel the blow? What kind of fodder did the horse get that evening in Damascus? The fact that my mind focused on the horse first, and Saul second, indicates how far I am from comprehending the mind of a truly religious sensibility, for whom Paul's conversion would have been a template: the fallen consciousness is brought to God's light by the fire of faith, and the self that suffers the flames is all the better for the scorching.

Although my sympathies may lie with the horse and not with God's implacable heat, implicit in this conversion story are questions about identity, how it gets established, and what forces are sufficient to sponsor it. In the realm of poetry cocktail parties, you get to hear your share of conversion stories: cocktail parties being what they are, no one is under oath. And so I once witnessed a poet undergo multiple conversions in a single evening: depending on the confessor's faith, this Paul/Saul claimed to be an autobiographical poet one moment, a L=A=N=G = U=A=G = E poet the next, a narrative poet after that. Totally apart from whether or not these professions were sincere, is the question as to why a poet shouldn't be able to inhabit all these positions at the same time. And it's an interesting question as to why this kind of fluidity causes such unease in the poetry world, as well as in the realm of cultural debate. If you claim to be in league with the aesthetics of poet X, then you can't possibly like the work of poet Y.

One aspect of this unease is the ongoing and inevitable debate about the place of subjectivity in art. What are its limits and possibilities, its responsibilities and risks? The varying camps of cultural and critical theory in which "I" is both a grammatical project and projection of systems of power, and the almost pre-literate hostility that some poetic scribblers feel toward any attempt to call the authority of "I" into question, makes for a lot of noise-some of this noise is what a friend calls "a tempestio in a teapotio," the usual jockeying for audience that every generation is heir to, while some of it harks back to a reigning and basic question that underlies American imaginative writing from its beginning in Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor. Emerson formulated it when he asked what was "American" about American poetry, and what and whom should American poetry serve. But it exists in embryo in Bradstreet, when she declares that she wants no "Bayes" of laurel as handed down by tradition, but is content with a home-grown "wholsome Parsley wreath."

In a poem entitled "Here Follows Some Verses upon the Burning of Our House July 10th 1666," Anne Bradstreet exhorts herself to see God's hand in the flickering flames, presumably as part of the murky working out of His Divine will.

In silent night when rest I took

For sorrow near I did not look

I wakened was with thund'ring noise

And piteous shrieks of dreadful voice.

That fearrul sound of "Fire!" and "Fire!"

Let no man know is my desire.

I, starting up, the light did spy,

And to my God my heart did cry

To strengthen me in my distress

And not to leave me succorless. …

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