Poetry, Poetry and Philosophy, Poetry and the Self, Poetry Philosophy Psychology

The Lyric ‘I’: Poetry and The Self

The Lyric 'I'Though it originally referred to verse that was accompanied by a lyre or other musical instrument, the term ‘lyric’ now denotes poetry that expresses the thoughts and feelings of the poet (or their persona) at a particular moment in time. From the Romantic era onwards, the lyric has been seen as the ideal vehicle for examining the nature of conscious experience and ideas about the self, and its pre-eminence has meant that we sometimes forget it is just one poetic genre amongst others, and see it as more or less synonymous with poetry itself.

Consequently, poetry, more than any other literary form, tends to be seen as ‘self-expression’. But what exactly are we expressing when we express our ‘selves’? Naturally, we all assume that we have a ‘self’ and that our self is what makes us what we are. But what if there were no self – if the self were just a kind of illusion or a notion that we have invented to make sense of an otherwise bewildering and incoherent mass of impressions? How might this affect the theory and practice of poetry? What happens when we take the ‘I’ out of lyric?

This was the theme of a workshop I hosted recently at the Dugdale Theatre in Enfield Town. Drawing on the latest research in philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience, and looking at a range of poetic ‘selves’ from the intensely reflective, inward looking self of the romantic poet, to the fractured, disembodied self of modernists like T.S.Eliot, I encouraged participants to explore these fascinating questions through a series of discussions and guided writing exercises.

The obvious starting point was the question: what is ‘the self’? We should notice, though, that the form of this question, with its use of the definite article, seems to commit us to the view that the self is an entity of some kind, that is to say, an object or thing which has a discrete and independent existence whose properties or characteristics may be clearly described.

But while many of us may be comfortable with the idea that we possess a self, it is by no means clear that our self exists in quite the same way as does our body, since it cannot be directly observed. Rather, it is something whose existence we infer from things about ourselves that are directly observable, such as certain features of our thought or behaviour.

This might be why some philosophers have sought to question its existence, arguing that the idea of the self is merely an unfortunate by-product of language, which makes it impossible for us to speak of action or experience without invoking an actor or experiencing subject. Nietzsche, for example, maintained that the use of the pronoun ‘I’ misleads us into thinking that there must be some real world entity to which this term refers, while Daniel Dennett has suggested that the idea of the self should be seen merely as a useful fiction, a conceptual construct which makes it easier to think and talk about certain aspects of our lived experience.

One way of avoiding the assumption that the self is an entity of some kind  is to reframe the question. Instead of asking: ‘what is the self’ or ‘do we actually have a self?’, we should ask: ‘what do we usually understand by the term ‘self’ and to what extent is this understanding supported by what neuroscience is now telling us about the human brain and human behaviour?

Answers to the first part of this question are likely to be complicated because we consider the self to have many different dimensions. However, I think we usually view it as having three key aspects.

First, we see it as the addressee of experience – that to which sensory information is directed, both from inside and outside the body. Second, we view it as that which ties together all our various experiences into a more or less coherent and unified whole, thereby offering some assurance that the person who is writing this now is the same person who wrote an essay on the subject fifteen years ago as a student, despite the many changes I have undergone in the intervening years. Finally, we see ‘the self’ as that which lies behind all our thoughts and actions, the initiator of all that we think and do.

In much of what follows, we shall see that these intuitive notions about the self have almost all been brought into question by recent research in neuroscience and related fields. In time, this will result in a revolution in our understanding of ourselves, comparable to the one set in motion by Freud. But while poetry has already assimilated the ideas of psychoanalysis, creating a divided and troubled lyrical ‘I’, we do not yet have a poetry for the age of neuroscience. Who, I wonder, will be the first laureate of the cognitive unconscious?




7 thoughts on “The Lyric ‘I’: Poetry and The Self

  1. Simon Bowden

    I am initially sceptical that neuroscience will add much to our understanding of Lyric Poetry. I think it’s a bit trivial to say that damage to the brain can transform a person’s perception and personality. We know the voice of Shakespeare when we hear it – and that will do – even if he suffered a stroke and became confused in old age,
    I am much taken with the analysis of Walt Whitman in The Gift by Lewis Hyde. He seems to highlight Whitman’s generous breadth of sympathy with all the doings of human beings and natural things; the way in which he gives his self over to these tumbling perceptions – and feels himself to be all men; and the way in which his perception is often coloured by sexual feelings – a kind of projected tenderness towards the world he sees. I think that’s a key source of the feeling in poetry and not a million miles from Robert Graves’ White Goddess.;


    • Hi Simon. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on my post, though I’m not sure I follow your line of reasoning. I don’t know what you mean when you say that it is ‘trivial’ to point out that a stroke or brain injury can alter a person’s perceptions or personality. Surely, that’s undeniable, isn’t it? If Shakespeare had had a stroke that severely compromised his ability to write and speak (as happened with my Mum), he wouldn’t have a voice for you to recognise. However, reading between the lines of your comments, I suspect your concern is that I have adopted a ‘reductive’ approach to the interpretation of poetry. If this is right, then I should say that my post was not an attempt to use neuroscience to understand lyric poetry. It asks whether neuroscience may eventually transform the way we think about the self and whether this, in turn, might change the content of a poetic form which has, traditionally, been concerned with exploring selfhood. More generally, the aim of the blog is to attempt to navigate whatever conceptual passages their might be between poetry, philosophy and psychology, not to understand any one discipline in terms of any other. I recognise the differences between the various disciplines and discourses, but avoid placing them in any kind of hierarchy. Poetry, philosophy, and psychology, along with all the other disciplines, are equal partners in the search for knowledge.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Coming home on the train tonight reading John Burnside’s All One Breath and seeing him described in the flyleaf as a lyric poet I am interested to read Alan’s description of what Lyric poetry is, especially as I open the computer to look for such descriptions so I have learnt something I was seeking to know from reading, Thanks, It makes a satisfying read in that respect. Burnside is a poet who explores the Self too, and without blatantly raising the neuroscientific flag he delves into the territory. Our culture as well as our individual interest seems to be taking us in this direction, exploring Self in a wider context than the so called individual and hitherto known.How can we stand apart from culture or consciousness from which all else flows, in which everything appears? (although I am struggling with the concept of ‘appearing’ at the moment).


    • Hi Lynnemarie. Thanks for taking the time to comment. I share your enthusiasm for John Burnside. His poem, ‘Epistemology’ is (despite its title) a very good example of the way in which he is able to address philosophical and psychological questions without recourse to academic discourse. In my own work, I always try to keep the philosophy and psychology in the background. I feel it should inform my work, without being a part of it. That way, the philosophy is there for those who want it, leaving everyone else to engage with it in whatever way they choose. And this, I think, is something that Burnside does, too – aside from a few regrettable lapses into Heideggerian onto-babble. And how wonderful that you read poetry on the train. That’s not something I see very often.


  3. Mary Duggan

    Thank you Alan. So fascinating that I wrote my poem The Flicker Zone in reflection of this. Great stuff..keep it coming please!


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