Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The One-letter Pronoun

Public domain image

From grade school to high school teachers enjoined some of us never to use the word "I" in our compositions. I don't recall ever receiving an explanation for this commanded omission.  Teachers also banned "you" for which one could substitute the word "one" ("one" presumably being distinguished from "you" as the one who read the book report about The Lord of the Flies that I wrote for Mrs. Mitchell). Dancing around the first-person pronoun proved in the long run to be a marvelous formal restriction, akin to the sorts poets impose upon themselves, that led to better writing. Certainly Mrs. Mitchell, my high school freshman English teacher, would have approved of this analogy. She was one of those conservatives who worries that wearing blue jeans all the time makes people lax. But I (oh, I) digress.

College brought the first relaxation of the rules against "I". An anthropology professor told a friend of mine that the dreaded pronoun could enter a scholarly paper so long as it arrived with a footnote and properly cited sources. In my junior year a professor announced to the astonishment of our honors seminar that he believed one ought to use the first person, and further that not doing so avoided taking responsibility for one's arguments.

At about the same time I discovered some poets had shyness about the first-person pronoun that rivaled the squeamishness of freshman composition. Their substitute for "I" was "you". I noticed this trend first in fellow dabblers in poetry but found it in abundance in the work of Richard Hugo. This way of photoshopping the lyric I out of poetry became my usual way of writing poems. Some people read poems written in this manner, misunderstand the strategy and feel that statements within the poem--"you go", "you wake up"--issue nasty, unwanted commands to the audience, when in fact the poet's intent was to remove the egocentric authority of the omitted "I". Of course that lyric I never refers to anyone in particular anyway, however closely it may resemble the poet. But the need for these kinds of pronouns in lyric poetry (or representation in any literature) is nearly intrinsic, so we are probably stuck with these confusions forever.

Others object to the use of "I"--or at least they keep a sneer ready for its appearance--because the word serves as a marker for the writing of the self-centered and whiny. Personally, I'm not sure how you can write a decent, informal email without liberal application of the first-person pronoun. We can find other pronouns to substitute, but they never really work out. I knew a woman who consistently referred to herself in the third person or by her proper noun: a habit that was immediately noisome in a person who turned out to be dangerous. Substitution using the second person singular pronoun is possible and sounds deeply insane. We have sometimes substituted using the first-person plural, which has the advantage of manufacturing consensus, but doing so identifies us with a royal ego.

Lately I've developed a new dislike of "I". My reason is none of the ones above and considers only the power of phrases. "I" shares with all pronouns a lack of definition. "She" is not so definite as the proper noun "Melissa Klein" nor as crisp as the expression "the woman who consistently buys Kenya AAA blend." Pronouns offer the opportunity to leave out information: at best as a shorthand for something described elsewhere and at worst described not at all. In common with the dreaded passive verbs, pronouns can suck energy out of a sentence. But "I" sucks more than the other pronouns. "He hits the ball" and "she walks the dog", but "I only exist and think about him hitting the ball and see her walk the dog". Even when "I" arrives to you in words such as "I slap you in the face" there's a deep lack of definition in the agent of action that "he" or "she" will never quite have. Who is this "I"? You know who you are. I need footnotes. And footnotes are very, very boring to read. In short: "I" is the "to be" of pronouns.

I'm left in a predicament, but at least I don't have the vapors over it, as the abundance of "I" attests in this post. Still, I see paragraphs shot full of holes and hear the giant, sucking sound that can only be I.


  1. Ah, the great, flaming "I" of Sauron!

    Poet that you are, I'm sure you've heard of Taylor Mali. On the very slight chance that you aren't familiar with him, I'd highly recommend that you give his recitation "What Teachers Make" a look-see. There are several versions of that poem (written by Mali) on YouTube; all of them are quite good, quite rousing. Mali has a gift for inspiring others; if "What Teachers Make" is an example of his larger work, he's galvanic, energizing, and hortatory. I thought of Mali while reading your piece, though, because "What Teachers Make" is liberally showered with "I"s, and that brusque-yet-ambiguous little pronoun detracts nothing from the content of Mali's poem.

  2. I'm a bit behind on the poetry scene these days, so I'll have to check out Mali. Thanks!