“This is the beginning – from “I” to “we”.
– John Steinbeck
The majority of the poetry published today is on the Internet, available all over the world to anyone with computer access. Audiences are no longer restricted by limited geographical and national boundaries. Given the globalization of communication, the arts, like everything else from science to fashion, must adjust to the new reality of a much more widespread dissemination.
A kind of poetry that has thus far been uncommon but that is particularly well-suited to the new international literary scene is the personal-plural, hereafter called the “we” poem. This approach has an anthropocentric focus and a collective voice/persona. In this mode, a poet or poets speak for all of us as a species.
It’s quite idealistic, I know, but the alternative seems to be fatalistic nihilism, so I, an old man, choose idealism. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Websters defines egocentrism as “viewing everything in relation to oneself, self-centered”. Ethnocentrism is defined as “the belief that one’s own ethnic group, nation or culture is superior”. Anthropocentrism is defined as a belief “that considers human kind as the central focus, conceiving of everything in terms of human values”.
Each of these centric belief systems has a correlate/analogue in poetry and the other arts. Critic Robert Peters, in his book Hunting the Snark: A Compendium of New Poetic Terminology, wrote “The ego poem, or the “I” poem, is the genre favored by most poets today, and especially by the younger products (Yes, poetry in this country is big business) of our ubiquitous writing programs.” My old friend Donald Hall famously referred to them as “McPoems”.
In terms of greater relatability and accessibility, ethnocentric poems are more universal than ego poems. Ethnocentrism is a step above and away from self-centered McPoems toward greater generalization. “Not just me, but others who are like me” is the idea. When considering the whole of humankind, however, ethnocentrism leads to polarization and, ultimately, conflict. Ethnocentrism is ultimately incompatible with a general humanism.
The Anthropoetic mode is not necessarily one that poets need to occupy full time. Anthropoetics is a movement of poems, not poetry. Maybe a single poet would “only” write one poem in her lifetime that spoke directly for the human species. That, combined with the unique Anthropoetic poems of others, would promote conceptual and emotional bonding between people around the world. This would be a better goal for poets to pursue than personal aggrandizement. I hope poets and other artists will be open to that part of themselves that connects us all, and to expressing it.
Greater universality may be achieved through a more depersonalized (thus more generalized) persona. The personal element, on a superficial level, tends to distract from the universal when it is too specific to the poet’s particular experience and not fully connected to that deeper level that represents common experience. Historically, the Deep Imagists and the Surrealists were heading in this direction. Objectivism also demonstrated a more universal approach. In the nineteen-thirties, socialist American poet Walter Lowenfels proposed that poetry should be published anonymously. Lowenfels followed his own advice for a time, before dropping out of the literary scene completely for sixteen years to become a union organizer. Lowenfels, in addition to poetry, edited several international anthologies, including Where Is Vietnam? – American Poets Respond (Doubleday Anchor, New York, NY, 1967) and For Neruda/For Chile (Beacon Press, Boston, MA, 1975). I knew him during the last few years of his life. Our correspondence was largely focused on the social responsibility of the poet. Here’s one of Lowenfels’ poems that addresses the Big Picture.
There are three billion billion billion constellations
(the sky books says) but I am a patriot of the
Milky Way. It gives me a thrill when I look
out the telescope at our galaxy. I mean—I
know where I belong—just like those two tit-
mice feeding together outside my window, and
right now flying off together—I, too, know
I have a home, an identity established not
only by national boundaries, common speech,
etc., not just by our own beautiful sun, and
its planets, moons, asteroids, but by our own
dear galaxy. O lover
in your pure feathery light, across thousands of billions
of spiral nebulas, you are the best of all
and I know you love me too, for out of the vast riches
of your fiery interstellar sperm you have
given me inalienable rights to life, liberty
and the pursuit of happiness
and my own little life to cool.
I Belong is a confirmation and recognition of the energy that connects all life. It’s a good example of how simple language and imagery can be used to impart a deeper meaning.
Incredibly, it seems that the idea of anonymity does not have a strong appeal to the majority of poets, the conveyers of the ego poems. Strange, but true! The idea of poetic anonymity is a radical step in the direction of a less personalized persona. Ironically, the early imagists thought that the image, by itself, could carry the meaning of the poem as well as lessen the selfish presence of the poet. They placed high value on specificity and description, which too often buried the metaphor and its meaning with the poem becoming cluttered with fussy detail that confounded or distracted the reader. Poets struggled to find “the right word” and that often seemed to become a priority in and of itself. In essence, their “rich” imagery too often camouflaged a lack of meaning.
I’ve been discussing the idea of collecting an anthology of “we” poems for the past couple years with several contemporaries, most notably Jim Cohn, (Colorado Poet, disability advocate and curator of the Museum of Modern Poetics), Gary Metras, (Poet Laureate of Easthampton, MA and publisher of Adasta Press) and Peter Krok, (Philadelphia’s red brick poet, Arts Archivist and Editor of SVJ). It was Peter who suggested that an essay or two might clarify the goals and parameters of our project. My first attempt was published as Anthropoetics in SVJ 52. In this one, I use examples from contemporary practice to further explicate the collective potential of the “we” poem to benefit mankind.
One of the best examples of a poem written as the result of a collective consciousness is Echoes by Peter Krok. As it’s well known in Philadelphia, Peter spends his days empowering other artists as the Director of the Manayunk Roxborough Arts Center. A “we” poem is an expression of species consciousness, great empathy for others and unselfishness on the part of the poet.
We take apart what took so long
to put together, like children
playing on carpets with tinker toys,
but we are not children. The years
now have their own stairway and
nooks of time we never left.
We have seen age wear away the face
that was our face and set before us
another outline in the looking glass.
The lines under the eyelids, you say,
were not expected, and I ask,
for there still are questions
what, after all, did we expect?
There are only the old addresses
and the echoes like the sound
still ringing in the seashell.
The past, like the tide, comes back.
Memory evokes the wanted image
which will not be left behind.
So was it under the August sun
when, like and Egyptian figurine,
with up-raised arms you held
the orange globe of dawn.
Your body in the Atlantic summer
all bronze and scented with the salt
of ocean spray returns continually.
Krok begins with a “we” that may be taken generally but progresses in the last seven lines to a specific experience shared with one other person. By the time the reader reaches “So was it under the August sun” the sense of general inclusion is already established, so it lingers to the end and enhances reader identification and thus the poems universality.
The following poem by Charles Fishman is a beautiful example of the use of primal language that translates easily and in which the imagery is universal. (Fishman has a wide international perspective, reflected in both his work as a poet and as an anthologist. He is poetry editor of Prism: An Interdisciplinary Journal for Holocaust Educators and, with Smita Sahay of Mumbai, India, is co-editing Veils, Halos and Shackles: International Poetry on the Abuse and Oppression of Women.)
Snow is the Poem Without Flags
for Orhan Pamuk
What is whiter than stars yet darker
than cloud-sifted moonlight, softer
than the breast that nurtures a child?
Only snow answers this call to mystery
and pleasure — the white snow of a winter’s
morning that dreams itself gone.
And what is its name, this creature
of cold light and desire, where is the center
of its knowledge and longing? Clearly, its address
is history and the heart its blue-white body,
but who can tame it and raise it up from silence?
who can instruct its paws to brush like lamplight
against her face? Only the white breath of the wind
— the wind that moans in Arabic and Turkish in Hindi
and Hebrew and English in the cold mouth
that prays in a thousand tongues and knows
no mother or father that cries like a child
who thirsts for the breast only the wind
brushing the face of the snow that was born
anonymous the wind in the snow’s
white hair And where can we find this snow,
immersed as we are in summer in the heat
of war with a hot sun blazing and the whine
of rockets and bombs that fly like blown flakes
of darkness everything on fire with a great
and unquenchable thirst? Only the wind can speak
and name its country.
Fishman uses the common images of snow and wind to contrast with “the heat of war”. The poem is easily translatable to other languages because it uses public symbols that are universally recognizable.
Poems have greater universal value when they are written in a collective voice. Lowenfels suggested that poets write anonymously, while others have suggested that we rise above the 1st person singular and avoid the use of “I.” While the intention of such an approach is good, it isn’t necessary to put such a radical restriction on poets, who should always be free to express themselves however they want. A better approach would be to mean “we” when writing “I.” Poets should ask themselves to what degree their “I” is representative of the shared human condition. It’s free to ask and good to know, because a poem’s degree of universality is likely to be its greatest value. This poem by David Chorlton progresses from the “we” of a personal relationship to a wider, universal “we”. (Chorlton comes to his world view through his life experiences. He was born in Austria and grew up in Manchester, England. He moved to Vienna in 1971. Seven years later, he married and moved to his wife’s hometown of Phoenix, Arizona.)
Once we had two silver teaspoons
but they proved too small to control
so now there’s only one, while the set of forks
that started as six became four
and we’re mystified as if
two of them melted in dishwater. At the end
of every wash a single blue sock
lies crying out for its mate and now
the tax forms have gone into hiding
among papers we always meant to throw away
but allowed to pile up on the desk,
beside the stove, and on the table. We prefer
not to think about the ring with a precious stone
that rolled through a crack in the floorboards
to a place we daren’t go to look.
The catalogue of losses grows
as we blunder along, breaking this and mislaying
that. We lost the cozy lodge we used to stay at
when a sports bar took its place,
we lost the old houses on the corner of our street
to an office block, we lost
a mid-sized city to the huge one that replaced it.
We lost listening to the radio
for a friendly voice, we lost whole portions of the desert,
and we lost the gravel roads that led
to secret places when they were paved.
We lose some lions every year. We lose forests.
We lost the freedom to reclaim them. It’s happening
all the time; a tree falls, a condor dies from eating
a poison carcass. We know where things belong;
the letters in a drawer, the cinnamon in a cupboard,
the pine trees on the mountain, but they’re gone
like the glacier that shone for thousands of years, gone
like the shirt that opened out its sleeves
and flew miraculously away.
Chorlton skillfully transitions from personal losses to more general losses with the line “We lose some lives every year. We lose forests.” His language is simple and direct, yet it invites the reader in through common experiences.
One may also begin with a highly generalized voice, as Alan Britt does in the next example. I met Alan in the early seventies when both of us first entered the literary scene in our early twenties. We shared an interest in the symbolist and surrealist artistic movements and Alan was especially passionate for South American surrealism. His mentor (Duane Locke) and mine (Robert Bly) advocated for the deep image approach, wherein poets try to dredge images up from their common human experience. Both of us incorporated the use of the “we” poem into our work early, despite the fact that hardly anyone wrote from a species-wide perspective. Throughout his poetry career, Alan has continued his interest in South and Central American poetry. Here is one of his poems that addresses the human connection:
We Are You
We rise on jaguar wings orbiting
a bronze waist before crossing
the torch of Liberty.
We sling ruthless reds, bruised
golds & tropical greens across
hurricanes chewing the Atlantic
coast off Cuba.
We surface the Amazon
with webbed toes.
Freedom’s eyeglasses fogged we
enter each holy house as though
entering a proverbial hall of
aware the moon nursing Manhattan
skyscrapers also splinters the icy
of Peru, ignites Caymans in
the Quichua in Ecuador, yucca
in Mexico, plus Bolivar’s bones in
We chase amnesia thermals,
but mostly we prefer heirloom
lean meats, exotic spices,
& a dozen-year-old California
after an exhausting day of painting
dreams across a canvas called
Britt draws a common connection between the lives of both North and South Americans in a poetic call to international brotherhood in this poem.
Collaboration between two or more poets can also be an expressway into the “we” poem. I have collaborated extensively with poets old and young, male and female, and written about it in my book The Third Voice: Notes on the Art of Poetic Collaboration. Here are the first few sentences from that book: “When poets collaborate, the persona of their poems transmutates into a third voice, which is the combination of their individual voices. The poem they produce together is no longer a product of a single personality. It takes on a social aspect, even within the limitations of a duo.”
Alison Stone and I wrote the following poem together. The title, Emergency, is meant to have a double meaning. It asks if we can emerge from our state of limited empathy. The voice in the poem progresses from “I” to “we”. Stone is the author of several individual collections and a professional psychotherapist.
A siren blares down the highway,
hysterically red as raw meat.
I imagine the worst disasters,
twisted bodies in crumpled cars,
stray bullets near a playground,
families trapped and screaming
or their houses on fire.
Next I think of real people,
then I hope it isn’t them.
Sure, every victim is somebody’s
something, but horror happening
to strangers is bearable, not
even as real as small annoyances
like running out of potato chips
during your annual Superbowl Party.
Maybe that’s what it means to be
human, stuck in personal hungers,
ignoring or pretending to care
about everyone else,
one nation under fear
with justice for none.
Though we go through
the motions skillfully, and
even the siren’s volume
is less than the scream of greed,
we wish for the silent strength
to somehow be more than our
natures, to match the siren’s wail
with our authentic grief, to stand
alive and open in the red-tinged light.
I overheard a conversation at breakfast in a local café awhile back. They were discussing the pros and cons of vaccinations. Exasperated, the presumptive wife exclaimed “I can’t pretend to speak for everyone, but I think it’s the apathy of guys like you that is killing a lot of people!” The man answered softly, but stubbornly “I don’t care.” It made me think of the old Pete Seeger song “Which Side Are You On?”
The post-modern literary taboo against the use of public symbols is a perverse denial of the natural function of literature as it is practiced and represented in world literature. As humans we share the symbolic archetypes that vary only slightly and superficially across all human culture. In terms of subjects for literature in general and poetry in particular, the “big subjects” of life, love, birth, death, courage, hope and faith are the human essence of poetry. A superficial value such as style pales by comparison to a poems essential content. Poets who want to achieve greater universality in their poems may want to utilize public symbols. Here’s one of my poemsthat I hope expresses the human condition through use of common symbols:
The ocean cannot be contained,
but it can be heard inside a small shell.
Stars we named after ancient Gods
enter & depart in a dream.
They reverberate through
our collective neurons,
back beyond the big bang,
to an infinitesimal compact
of impacted selves,
their endings encoded in
expanding beams of energy.
We move toward the unknown,
blind in every dimension
but our poor human senses.
It’s time to pack our weary trunks
for a much colder climate,
to share each other’s warmth
like stranded survivors of an avalanche.
Molecules material but mortal,
beam to black space as errant waves,
each atom alone but connected,
quarking indeterminate but immanent.
Sweet orgasmic magic of our imaginations
plays on all the pages & stages of our days.
We take a break for the sake of sanity,
as they speak to us, through us & for us.
Then we cast them into the frozen fire,
transformed again into invisible wings.
The best poems speak to and for humanity. In the context of the widespread alienation, polarization and narcissism of the Age of Social Media, the realistic potential of an Anthropoetic movement may seem hopelessly idealistic. But, isn’t it better to light one candle than to curse the darkness?
In whatever mode a poet chooses, including a first-person narrative, the potential for universality depends on the poet’s ability to connect with the common human level of his consciousness. Poets should try to go as deeply into the universal subconscious as possible. The universal voice is a discovery, not an invention. Expanded ego-boundaries increase humanitarian awareness.
Reading Wings to audiences familiar with my work, someone usually comments that it “doesn’t sound like” me. I’m happy to hear that, because I want it to sound like us.
The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck, Viking Press, 1939
Hunting the Snark: A Compendium of New Poetic Terminology, Robert Peters, Paragon House, 1989
In The Path of Lightning, Charles Ades Fishman, Time Being Books, 2012
Invisible Wings, Eric Greinke, Presa Press. 2019
Looking for an Eye, Peter Krok, Foothills Publishing, 2008
Masterplan: Collaborative Poems, Eric Greinke and Alison Stone, Presa Press, 2018
Reading T.S. Eliot to a Bird, David Chorlton, Hoot n Waddle, 2018
Some Deaths: Selected Poems, 1925-1962, Walter Lowenfels, Nantahala Foundation, 1964
The Third Voice: Notes on the Art of Poetic Collaboration, Eric Greinke, Presa Press, 2017