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?