Second Person Impersonal
First, a familiar quotation; then, some observations related to it. The quotation is from Joyce; here, Stephen Daedalus distinguishes between lyric, epic, and dramatic forms on the basis of the emotional distance of the poet from the object of emotion. According to him:
The lyrical form is in fact the simplest verbal vesture of an instant of emotion, a rhythmical cry such as ages ago cheered on the man who pulled at the oar or dragged stones up a slope. He who utters it is more conscious of the instant of emotion than of himself as feeling emotion. The simplest epical form is seen emerging out of lyrical literature when the artist prolongs and broods upon himself as the centre of an epical event and this form progresses till the centre of emotional gravity is equidistant from the artist himself and from others. The narrative is no longer purely personal. The personality of the artist passes into the narration itself, flowing round and round the persons and the action like a vital sea … The dramatic form is reached when the vitality which has flowed and eddied round each person fills every person with such vital force that he or she assumes a proper and intangible esthetic life. The personality of the artist, at first a cry or a cadence or a mood and then a fluid and lambent narrative, finally refines itself out of existence, impersonalises itself, so to speak.
This evolutionary theory of literary forms results in implicit evaluation, as Stephen concludes that the dramatic artist accomplishes “a mystery” like that of “the God of the creation” and, like God, the artist remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails. That Joyce has Stephen’s surly companion Lynch scoff at this rhapsody should alert us to the possibility that such an aesthetic, aptly as it characterizes Stephen, may not be Joyce’s own! On the other hand, the veiled allusion to Flaubert’s letters (in the picture of the artist standing back and paring his fingernails) reminds us what an honourable history lies behind belief in the impersonality of art as both an ideal and a practicable possibility.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was published in 1916; modern literary theory has generally conformed to the Flaubertian model embraced by Joyce’s hero. Imagism exhorted us to have “no ideas but in things;” T.S. Eliot stated that “the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates ;” and “New Critics” like W.K. Wimsatt scorned any reader so naive as to commit the “intentional fallacy.” Later rearguard attacks by people like Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton, writers of what came to be called “confessional poetry,” did little to disturb the overall consensus that biography had nothing to do with literature, and that the lyric “I” was simply a speaker: a persona and not a person. Recourse to interpretative information not directly accessible from the literary work itself was taboo; in fact, whereas the 19th century had mourned our lack of juicy gossip about Shakespeare, the 20th century heaved a collective sigh of relief that literary criticism could study the works in a blessed absence of knowledge about the man.
These days, the mania for impersonality has gone a lot farther than anything presaged by Stephen Daedalus’s aesthetic idealism. The radical scepticism of French philosophy has led to widespread denial not only that we can ever determine the author’s intentions in a text, but even that the author can have intentions, or ultimately embody them in language. On the contrary, critics chortle, language is doomed from the start to be an self-enclosed system with no referentiality and therefore no possibility of expressing “a cry or a cadence or a mood” except as an absence, a deferral, a not-being heralded by symbols. The twentieth century fascination with semiotics has made Stephen’s initial premise – that emotion may actually be expressed in a lyric — seem hopelessly ingenuous. Language is now seen as a system of conventions which constrains its users, in thought as well as in speech or writing, to conventional meanings. The Derridean mantra is “from the moment that there is meaning there are nothing but signs. We think only in signs.”
Poetry, we are admonished, is doubly removed from unmediated reality. Not only is it linguistically determined, but it’s not even a genuine utterance. That is to say that “A poem is never spoken, not even by the poet himself. It is always re-cited; for whatever its relation to words the poet could have spoken, it has, as a poem, no initial historical occurrence. What the poet composes as a text is not a verbal act but rather a linguistic structure that becomes, through being read or recited, the representation of a verbal act”. This is a far cry from Stephen Daedalus’s nostalgic vision of primitive man cheering on his labours by spontaneous cries! According to the contemporary definition, all poetry, even that improvised in performance, is representation: not presence.
Obviously there has been a continuous line of development from Joyce to Derri-dada. But something seems to have been lost along the way, some underlying conviction of the power of art to move, to teach and to delight. In my more cynical moments, I can only see the academic respectability of post-structuralist theory as the natural result of the publish-or-perish industry; armed with all this new magic language, a whole generation of careerists can churn out endless articles proving that any author did not/ could not write what he or she set out to write but instead, wrote something which no other critic but the current one has had the good sense to understand. Moreover, in dethroning the Author, Deconstruction has simply dropped the ermine mantle of Authority onto the heretofore stooped and tweed-clad shoulders of the Critic.
Nonetheless, there’s a good deal of indisputable sanity in the contemporary view of literature, a salutary rejection of the “Great Ideas of Great Men” approach, and a bracing insistence that we really pay attention to how literature is made, how it does what it does. Anyone who’s ever written a poem, and most who read poetry with attention, will agree that the deictics of a poem (the orientational markers like pronouns and adverbs, “you” and “I,” “here” and “there,” “now” and “then”) do not have referentiality. They are essentially relational, helping us to construct the situation of the poem, which, whatever its origin, once written about is timeless and unlocalized. Each reader will construe the deictics somewhat differently; and knowing the “I” was really Willie Yeats, “now” was 1916, and “here” was Dublin, is the least important part of the poem’s reality. It’s an extra that can give any poem an added frisson, but the truly good poem has to stand on its own feet (bad pun) and provide everything necessary for the reader’s experience within its own confines.
Having conceded all this, have I also necessarily relinquished my profound conviction that I can hear the authentic voice of an author speaking from his or her felt experience? When I am powerfully moved by a poem am I only experiencing a psycho-linguistic response to neuro-linguistic stimuli? Can I never faithfully attend to someone else’s being, someone else’s passion moving in words? Here, for example, is a poem by Denise Levertov which states that we cannot hear each other’s music. Why then do I feel its rhythm so profoundly on my own pulse?
Each life spins
into its own orbit – rain
of meteor showers, sparkle of –
some brittle desire, is it?
the stab of deep pain?
Not without tearing
a few fibres,
the magnet forces
pull apart. I. He. Being
is not referential.
I wake: instant recollection – a shadow
threatens my son’s life.
Others slide their elongations toward his spirit.
My being, unconformable
to his perception,
moves on. Awake, I keep waking.
and leaves, moving
through the apparition he sees and
away from it.
Again waking, I stretch a hand out
to stop the warning clock.
Time is another country.
Squinting toward light:
a tree has filled it
with green diamonds. Or there’s the air, bemused:
Shock waves of a music
I don’t hear
don’t hear mine.
How they beat on the sea-wall!
“Shock waves of a music/ I don’t hear”: not a bad description of what I’m after. Even if “Being/ is not referential” and therefore “I” and “He” are simply conventional gestures towards infinitely unstable, ultimately unknowable subjects, there is something shared in the experience of being which enables us to understand each other: to pick up the shock waves if not the music. If you’ve read this far you must be getting something out of my language; for me to keep on writing, I must believe not only that I have something to say but that it’s possible to say it. And when I say “you” and “I,” we’re both clear about who’s on which side of the dialogue: “I” am the writer; “You” are the reader.
What I “intended” to write when I began this piece was some reflections on the widespread use of a device I have called in my title the second person impersonal. I was pondering the ubiquity in the contemporary lyric of a “you” who is not the reader; that is, who is not the object of direct address as in so many traditional love poems, elegies and satires, but, rather, is a kind of universal abstraction of the speaker. Open any literary magazine: there are dozens of poems written in this voice. “You are walking down the street in your home town” or “You didn’t mean it/ but you did it anyway” or “you remember the girl you once loved/ her small hands,” and on and on. Of course, the device may be observed in many literatures, and in other genres beside poetry. To take an obvious recent example, Jay McInerary’s glossy bestseller, Bright Lights, Big City, is written not only in the second person but in the present tense. I suspect this rhetorical stance had as much to do with the book’s popularity as did its deadpan humour and world-weary decadence; readers were not only invited to identify with the Hemingwayesque protagonist in his search for love and honour among a new lost generation, they were apparently required to do so by the book’s presentation of the action. “You walk into the bar. There is no one there you know.”
In thinking about this device, I found myself necessarily considering contemporary views of the presentation of self in language. These meanderings, some of which I’ve inflicted upon you above, lead me to conclude that the lyric “you” is not simply a fad , just as Deconstruction is not simply a fad. Both are profound reflections of the pervasive scepticism of our age. “If you consult the polestar for the truth /of your present position, you will learn that you have no position,” writes Gwen MacEwen in “Polaris.” And that, surely, is the point. If I cannot speak with confidence as an “I” because the current wisdom holds that:
a) It is egotistical to assert that I know anything
b) I can’t know anything anyway; the world is unknowable
c) “I”- the subject – do not exist
d) all of the above
then perhaps I had best speak as a disembodied “you,” creating a persona who is somehow outside of me, though not quite an independent dramatic creation, not quite a “he” or a “she.” This voice is generally understood by contemporary writers to be not — as might have been assumed — a presumptuous attributing of ideas to the reader, but rather a sidelong wooing of the reader to enter into the experience of the poem as the fictional persona. “You,” according to this convention, is still “I”. The difference is that when a poem is written in the first person, it is spoken by a persona who is a fictional construct and inhabits the world of the poem. When the poem is written in the second person impersonal, however, it is describing the thoughts and feelings of that person as seen from outside.
The second person impersonal may be seen as a natural development of the idiomatic “you” of proverb lore and general observation. Susanna Moodie, for example, uses it frequently when describing landscape such as anyone might view:
Eastward, the view down the St. Lawrence towards the Gulf is the finest of all, scarcely surpassed by anything in the world. Your eye follows the long range of lofty mountains until their blue summits are bended and lost in the blue of the sky. Some of these, partially cleared round the base, are sprinkled over with neat cottages, and the green slopes that spread around them are covered with flocks and herds. The surface of the splendid river is diversified with islands of every shape and size…
This impersonal use of the second person, which joins reader and writer in a common experience, fills a perceived need in daily English, where “one” sounds too formal, “we” too pompous, and “I” not inclusive enough. Far from being “poetic diction,” then, this usage has filtered slowly into poetry from non-literary speech. It is used by Kim Maltman in the following poem exactly as it is used by Moodie in the extract above, but with even more emphasis on accurate camera-eye reportage, with no evaluative adjectives like “finest” or “splendid” to betray subjectivity.
All Hallow’s Eve
At sunset the low hills turn blue
and the thin wail of a coyote rises
like a trail of smoke above a campfire.
Halfway to Medicine Hat
a fox melts through the dark
and leads her litter out into the cool
night air. Mice sift through the grass.
Owls ride the long drafts in from the riverbanks.
Along the road the gravel crunches.
Then you stop and it’s like
a switch had been flicked off.
All still. All quiet under the night.
What is interesting to consider is exactly where the slippage from “you” (meaning the general observer) to “you” (meaning “me”) takes place. Even in Maltman’s poem, despite its determined objectivity, one can’t help seeing the “you” as, partly, an “I;” tht is, as a speaker self-observed. But there is also space for the reader to project herself into the shoes of the protagonist.
In another short lyric, this one by Roo Borson, the images again are convincingly universal, the situation equally so. Both poems are set outdoors, in the autumn, as night falls; both note analogous details such as the wheeling flight of birds over bodies of water. Both set the scene, and then acknowledge the presence of an observing figure in the landscape, this figure being presented in the second person. And yet the tone at the end of this second poem is decidedly more personal than that of the first. Here “you” reads very strongly as “me,” even though the device of the second person encourages reader identification.
It is dusk. The birds sweep low to the lake and then dive
up. The wind picks a few leaves off the ground
and turns them into wheels that roll
a little way and then collapse. There’s nothing like branches
planted against the sky to remind you
of the feel of your feet on the earth, the way your hands
sometimes touch each other. All those memories,
you wouldn’t want them over again, there’s no point.
What’s next, you ask yourself.
you ask it ten thousand times.
Two short, almost transparent lyrics, both built principally of unpretentious images, both in the second person. Am I reading too much into them to feel a difference in degree – if not in kind – in the way the second-person pronoun is used? Look again. In the first piece the second-person pronoun is used only once, to describe the action of the protagonist. Once “you” stops crunching gravel underfoot the landscape is completely silent. The title of the poem provides an eerie subtext for this world which is otherwise observed purely naturalistically, and may be taken as an indication of what “you” feel in such a place at such a time. But nothing else is interiorized.
In the Borson piece, by contrast, the movement from outside to inside begins as early as the fifth line. More than half the poem is about what “you” feel, and the personal emphasis is clear from verbal repetition: “you,” “your,” “your,” “you’,” “yourself,” “your.” So although both poems start off in accurate description of a landscape as night falls, even though they have some parallel imagery, and though both are set in the autumn (“All Hallow’s Eve” is October 31st; “Ten Thousand” draws our attention to the leaves picked up by the wind), they feel very different. Maltman’s poem ends with us listening, attentively, to what’s out there. It doesn’t ask the question – “What’s next?”- with which Borson’s poem concludes, much less asking it “ten thousand times,” because the poem’s interest is not in the intangible yearning and dissatisfaction of the persona. The world of Maltman’s poem is lively, densely inhabited with non-human life: a coyote, a fox with her litter, mice and owls. But the world of Borson’s poem has only a few unparticularized “birds” which, like the leaves passively rolled by the wind, engage in repetitive circular motions as they fly over the lake. In other words, this landscape only gives back what “you” bring to it.
Well, I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. The way the second person is used in each of these poems is intimately related to every other element in each poem; no literary device stands on its own. So we cannot simply isolate a convention and say “this is what it does and this is why it’s used,” since it will be used dozens of different ways and subtly altered in each usage. I’ve already betrayed my theoretical bias at numerous points in this essay, especially by my use of suspiciously old-fashioned terms like “tone” and “feeling.” But to me this is what is worth talking about when we talk about poetry, why topics like variations on the word “you” are interesting and important. Linguistics may provide us with a new terminology for literary conventions, new perspectives on syntax and semantics, and we should certainly use what comes to hand. But I remain dubious about any theory of literature which doesn’t start where Stephen Daedalus starts: with “an instant of emotion”, and with an authorial voice. So I’ll end here, suggesting that you out there, you the reader, carry these investigations a little further. Such things concern you intimately.
© copyright Susan Glickman 1988
 James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (New York: Penguin, 1964), 214-15.
 The first statement of Imagist principles was Ezra Pound’s essay “Imagism” published in Poetry, March 1913. Denying that Imagism was a movement with a manifesto, Pound nonetheless explained its main principles, the first of which was “Direct treatment of the ‘thing’ whether subjective or objective.” The slogan “No ideas but in things” developed later, and may be found in William Carlos Williams’ poem “A Sort of a Song” published in The Wedge, 1944, and in his Selected Poems: 1912-1962 (NY; New Directions, 1969). T.S. Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” is included in Selected Essays: 1917-1932 (NY: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1932). W.K. Wimsatt, Jr. and H.M. Beardsley published “The Intentional Fallacy,” in The Sewanee Review in 1946; it was reprinted in Wimsatt’s classic, The Verbal Icon (Lexington, Ky: University of Kentucky Press, 1954).
 Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology (1967); trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), 50.
 Barbara Herrnstein Smith, On the Margins of Discourse: The Relationship of Literature to Language, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 31.
 If in spite of the glamour of post-structuralist theory we persist in believing that personal experience exists and that poetry can convey both emotion and intention, we will find relief in the intellectually respectable theories of Julia Kristeva. She shuts the author firmly outside the front door of language and syntax, but welcomes the author in through the backdoor of “the semiotic”– the pressure of “drives” which makes itself known in poetry by transgressions of syntactic and linguistic convention. See Revolution in Poetic Language (1974); trans. Margaret Waller, (NY: Columbia University Press, 1984).
 from Oblique Prayers (NY: New Directions, 1984).
 Roughing it in the Bush (1852); (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1962), 23.
 Branchlines (Saskatoon: Thistledown, 1982).
 A Sad Device (Montreal: Quadrant, 1981).