And I was taught to feel, perhaps too much, The self-sufficing power of solitude. — William Wordsworth, The Prelude
I have been rereading William Wordsworth’s The Prelude (the 1805 text), a poem I haven’t so much as thought about since 2007, when it was one of two texts featured on the written exam for my Master of Arts degree (the other was James Baldwin’s Another Country). Wordsworth, along with the other Romantics, is commonly credited with igniting a revolution in poetic form, poetic address, and poetic imagination. For students of lyric poetry, Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s collection Lyrical Ballads (1798-1805) looms large. One could argue (and many have) that most of our fundamental assumptions about what poetry is or what poetry should be come from Romanticism; in a sense, Romanticism never really went away. Lyrical Ballads and The Prelude, along with pretty much all other Romantic poetry, reoriented the history of European literature toward subjective experience: the individual, his emotions, and his interior self became the focus of literary expression. (If Romanticism isn’t a subject you’re familiar with, I recommend reading the second and third paragraphs of this Wikipedia entry.)
That’s correct: I refer to his emotions and his interior self. Although many Romantics were women (and many of the men were feminists in their time), the abstracted, European notion of a unified “self” was consistently figured as male and, well, European. Romanticism is often contrasted with the Enlightenment, the rise of capitalism, and the Industrial Revolution, but it is better imagined as a coherent response to and extension of those phenomenon. And like Enlightenment ideas about the individual and the self, Romantic ideas about the individual and the self seem pretty white and pretty male.
For this reason, there’s a tendency among certain literary critics to associate the rise of Romanticism with the emergence of the individual as such. A more general tendency exists to associate the Enlightenment with the emergence of individual selfhood as an idea (think Harold Bloom, who wrote an entire book about how Shakespeare “invented the human”), and critics can take this argument in many different directions. In one direction, critics heap praise on Enlightenment/Romantic authors who apparently discovered a radical and profound poetic language that articulated something eternal and ancient: the Self. In another direction, critics argue that, because the Self wasn’t really recognized in its modern form until (say) 1798 CE, and because we can locate mechanisms of the Self that seem historically and even racially contingent, then the Self itself is essentially a fiction. Such critics skate tantalizingly close to making the arguments so commonly ascribed to them by their ideological opponents: that everything is contingent on language, that nothing exists outside the text, that reality is a social construct, that good old Western standards like “human rights” are in fact racist in their origin, &c.
How close do such critics come to making these such arguments? Consider these sentences from a recent blog post by Matt Sandler, a literary critic and historian of racial ideology based at Columbia University. Sandler describes the (very) minor controversy surrounding Louise Glück’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, submitted last month but not delivered because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The acceptance speech is pretty anodyne stuff, except that, in her defense of what she calls “the intimate, private voice,” Glück cites two poems by white poets about black subjects. Her acceptance speech isn’t overtly about race or racial ideology, so choosing two instances of minstrelsy to advance the argument that poetic interiority is a worthwhile endeavor is…strange, to say the least (especially in the racialized political context of 2020). Glück’s strange choice inspired some backlash on social media, inspiring Sandler to write the blog post for Verso, the one-time publishing arm of the New Left Review. He sets the scene in rather vicious terms: “An accomplished white artist proffers the refinement of their racism as craft, then awaits their due in attention, attack, defense, and more laurels. The circumstances barely warrant rehearsing….” Later, Sandler writes:
Glück’s case for poetic loneliness, at the expense of history, loiters weirdly and anachronistically among the white lyricists of the age of slavery’s abolition. Why this particular competition between these particular racial ventriloquisms? … Through what warped arc of history is the private and personal of Anglo-American slavery resonant today? Is it possible that Glück, ensconced at Yale, missed Nobel laureate and Princeton professor Toni Morrison’s short book Playing in the Dark (1993), about how white American writers project their anxieties onto Black characters? In the decades since childhood, has Glück never considered that Black writers might have written their own laments, perhaps even in that decisive century of abolition struggle which so draws her attention? Could she possibly have missed her own former colleague at Yale, the poet Elizabeth Alexander’s collection of literary critical prose, The Black Interior (2004)? Can Glück have ignored the work of other colleagues in English departments and writing programs to think through cultural appropriation and the white supremacist aspects of lyric individuality, privacy, and interiority? What about the research pointing to the racially white framing of her preferred “confessional” mode? What if Blake and Foster’s play with Black personae constitute an invasion of Black privacy? How then might we have to re-think Glück’s radically personal sense of the poetic?
My first impression is that Sandler and members of Verso’s audience were most upset by the final line of Glück’s acceptance speech, which stated that “public utterance can sometimes augment or extend, but never replace,” the private interiority of the voice found in lyric poetry. To privilege interiority and individual subjectivity over public utterance and political identity is not-a-very-Marxist-thing-to-do, and so obviously Marxists (or people who write blog posts for radical left-wing presses) would object.
But Sandler has more interesting points to make than that, particularly in recommending Morrison’s Playing in the Dark and Alexander’s The Black Interior, two excellent books that everyone should read. Amid those interesting points, however, is a line that gave me chills: “the white supremacist aspects of lyric individuality, privacy, and interiority.” Here, Sandler skates extremely close to the assertion that certain aspects of human experience—those related to individuality, privacy, and interiority, i.e., those aspects historically represented in lyric poetry—are structured by white supremacy. This would be a strong assertion, and one easily skated away from: Sandler is most likely arguing that lyric poetry, which is obviously historically and culturally structured, presents as universal and transhistorical modes of experiencing individuality, privacy, and interiority that are historically and politically (and racially) contingent. There are, therefore, only “white supremacist aspects (emphasis mine) of lyric individuality, privacy, and interiority.” That’s a much less controversial claim, at least for me.
But notice how close he comes to the bolder, more dramatic assertion: that racial identity—that white supremacy—are more foundational than other aspects of personhood to our experience of subjectivity.
Don’t misunderstand me: I thought Glück make a strange choice by pairing two poems by dead white writers about the black experience in her acceptance speech. This choice was not politically correct; it was also not very literarily astute (the poems, for those who haven’t read Sandler’s blog post, were by William Blake and Stephen Foster, two writers who share little in common except that each wrote a poem about black subjectivity, so to juxtapose them and not talk about race is a little weird). But Sandler’s response troubles me. He decries Glück’s “implicit claims for the whiteness of the interior, the intimate, and the private”; Glück, as far as I can tell, is making no such implicit claims (read her full acceptance speech here). She’s not guilty of espousing white supremacy or “racial hostility” (to quote Sandler) in her argument—if anything, she’s guilty of impolitic curation, of highlighting two poems without much thought given to the effect they would have on her audience and her argument.
And ultimately, it’s her argument that Sandler objects to: the idea that the quiet, private, personal voice of an individual can express something that public and collective declaration cannot, the idea that the quiet, private, personal voice of an individual might actually express something better than public and collective declaration. I don’t necessarily agree with Glück’s argument. But that’s no reason to argue that her lyric poetry, or that all lyric poetry, is structured around the cruel and violent logic of white supremacy. It’s certainly no reason to suggest that, poetry aside, the experience of the individual self is tainted by white supremacy. Just because she believes that poetic loneliness comes (to quote Sandler) “at the expense of history” does not mean that Glück believes that white experience or white personhood is more valid than or superior to the experience and personhood of others.
And as if Sandler hasn’t just suggested that the interior life of a white poet is structured by white supremacy, he goes on to write:
…what’s most galling is still Glück’s implicit claims for the whiteness of the interior, the intimate, and the private. We are a long way off from the abolition of whiteness if this lurks in the “foul rag and bone shop” of our best poet’s “heart.” Is minstrelsy really the first step on the way to white self-knowledge? Glück’s account of the growth of her poetic mind indicates some significant moral and political limitations on the “privacy” she values so dearly. Blake and his contemporaries in the late eighteenth century had begun thinking about what abolition meant not just for the enslaved, but also for “free” people, spiritually and psychologically as well as politically and economically; this work remains, it appears, woefully incomplete. In the context of a housing crisis, myriad climate disasters, and a pandemic, with U.S. police running rampant through Black people’s neighborhoods and homes, the racialization of the interior is a matter of urgent consequence. Acknowledgment of this will be a component of any real historical process of becoming “cloud free,” to borrow Blake’s inadequately visionary language.
First of all, Glück is not arguing that “the interior, the intimate, and the private” are white. Scholars who argue that the poetic modes for expressing “the interior, the intimate, and the private” are necessarily structured by white supremacy are much closer to making that argument. Glück is not “racializ[ing]…the interior” nearly as much as her critics are!
Second, what are the “significant moral and political limitations” on privacy suggested by Glück’s talk? And what are the moral and political responses to these limitations? We’re not talking about reading more writers of color or “decolonizing your bookshelf”: we’re talking about a moral and political objection to privacy, which is qualitatively different from diversifying your literary consumption and also extremely troubling.
Throughout its history, Verso has published some very good books that nonetheless diminish (at best), whitewash (bad), or apologize for (absolute worst) crimes and violence committed by left-wing actors. Must I trot out the history of the gulag every time I quote a left-leaning, bourgeois nineteenth-century poet who speaks with the voice of the working classes (when everyone knows the working classes can speak for themselves, thankyouverymuch)? Of course not. So why should Glück be accused of ignoring contingencies or racializing interiority just because she doesn’t properly historicize the poems she discusses?
The second half of Sandler’s post comprises an intelligent close reading of Glück’s interpretation of Emily Dickinson and argument against collective judgment. Because of his apparent political commitments, Sandler writes in defense of the collective. This is, I suppose, admirable given the rampant individualism in our culture. Glück wrote her acceptance speech against the collective in favor of individualism, which offends Sandler’s political sensibilities. Alright. That’s an honest disagreement with moral and political implications. But must the accusation of white supremacy accompany this serious disagreement? Sandler’s allusions to “implicit” white supremacist arguments and “unconscious racial hostility” irritate me. Is what Glück did wrong? Is it really enough to warrant the charge of white supremacy? If so, then some kind of action should be taken. But what? Sandler concludes his post having accused Glück of thought crimes and defended the judgment of morally righteous tribunals, so we can only imagine where he believes this should end.
So I say, three cheers for collective experience, collective action, and collective expression! Glück may be swimming against the tide of contemporary poetry when she champions what Wordsworth calls “the self-sufficing power of solitude,” but she’s not speaking much truth to a culture that values individualism above all else. Still, we shouldn’t throw interiority, intimacy, privacy, and solitude out the window with whatever problems they sometimes cause, and we certainly need not dress them up with charges of white supremacism. The self was discovered, not invented, and everyone is entitled to it—even elderly white poets.