Every Name in History is I.
I. The Metaphysical I
I am here to speak to you today about the Metaphysical I in poetry.
I define this I, as a wild lyric I, one that has no center and has no way to predict where it will go. An I in a poem that is a shapeshifter. A persona that uses unexpected language and imagery, that is inconsistent, frightening, funny, and beyond the idea of a singular self.
I started thinking about this kind of I because I think that oftentimes a contemporary reader of a poem will conflate the I of the poem with the I of the poet (despite that we have been taught in school not to do so).
This always frustrates me because when we reason out genre distinctions clearly, the I of a poem is always a kind of performer. As readers, we know that the greatest distance possible is between the I and its author in a work of fiction and that the closest relationship between the I and its author is in a work of nonfiction. There is often moral obligation that the I of a nonfiction piece be 100% truthful. This can have even legal ramifications, too.
Take, for instance, the famous story of James Frey. He first tried to publish his 2009 book, A Million Little Pieces, as a work of fiction, but when it didn’t sell, he tried his hand at publishing it as a memoir. This worked and he instantly became a national favorite, with an Oprah-backing and enormous sales. But with this spotlight of fame thrust upon his book, people started researching the stories within it and found out that some of it was not entirely the truth. When he finally had to admit that the I of his piece had some distance from the I of himself as a person, he was banished and shunned. Everyone thought he had done something morally wrong. Oprah took away her crown from his book and his publishers dropped him—he was done for. The lesson of this is, of course, that a nonfiction I better be exactly the same person as the author, or else.
The distance between the persona of a poem and the I of the poet is a tricky relationship and not as simple as a nonfiction I. Should the I be the poet? Should it not be the poet? Poets always have to make this hard call. Knowing that even when we make an I so clearly not ourselves, someone will assume this I is us anyway. Or if they know us as live persons, will put their idea of us on our poor little I. An I in a poem with no bodily form to buffer it, just trying to make its own way.
The best gift that a poet can give his or her I is to allow it to be its own cool animal. An I that is a wild thing, a mercurial trickster that resists all definition. That is so close to a self (a self or the self)—and so far away from it at the same time––that the reader can’t help but see a real self in it. But that is a self who makes so many contradictions, who manipulates the reader and his or her expectations to such a degree that the reader is left both full and empty after having encountered it.
Lorca, in his writing on the aesthetic of duende, discusses how when a piece of written art is good or real, it has soul. And that a soul is a kind of demon. That a piece of art is authentic when the demonic is at play in it, when it has gone to the other world and brought a spirit back to inhabit it. And so that when you are experiencing a piece of art with duende in it, you will feel delight and disgust when you encounter the demonic. And that without a little demon, a poem is not a poem at all.
It makes sense. After all, without a demon, how else to make the top of your head blow right off?
There is a sense in Lorca’s idea of the duende that a poem’s persona is infinitely strong to handle this demon. That the demon becomes a live alphabet, an actual freakish livewire that the I of a poem must encounter, control, manipulate, beautify, handle, and you know, just deal with.
This I, (not the demon, but what has to control the demon), of the duende is what I am concerned with. I am concerned with, in considering the Metaphysical I, the part of the demon that has to know itself and control itself. That is so much the puffed up essence of personal, it can harness all fragmented senses of self and use them whenever it needs to, to go beyond it. I am talking about an I that is so powerful it can truly become a universal I.
In Alice Notley’s 1998 essay “The Poetics of Disobedience”, she writes of an I that has been stripped down to its essence, full of strength, that is bare and fearful, but that has a supernatural power:
In a book that will soon be published, Mysteries Of Small Houses, I was firstly trying to realize the first person singular as fully and nakedly as possible, saying “I” in such a way as to make myself really nervous, really blowing away the gauze and making myself too scared of life and death to care what anyone thought of me or what I was going to say. Saying I in that way I tried to trace I’s path through my past. In a more subsidiary way I decided to go against my own sense that certain styles and forms I’d participated in formerly might be used up, that autobiography was, that the personal-sounding I (as opposed to the fictional I) might be, against the rumor that there’s no self, though I’ve never understood that word very well and how people use it now in any of the camps that use it pro or con—I guess I partly wrote Mysteries in order to understand it better. I came to the conclusion, in the final poem of the book, that self means ‘I’ and also means ‘poverty,’ it’s what one strips down to, who you are when you’ve stripped down.
Like Notley’s idea of the I an I that is one of poverty, is at its essence beyond the trappings and costumes or layers that might normally surround it, a Metaphysical I is an I, a self (both fabricated and true, simultaneously) who is what it is when it is stripped down. As Notley says, it is an I to “make myself really nervous, really blowing away the gauze and making myself too scared of life and death to care what anyone thought of me or what I was going to say.” It is an essence of self that cannot only conquer its own personal demon(s), it can overwhelm the Devil himself, or the source of all human evil, whatever we choose to call it. Like Notley’s I, a Metaphysical I is a core I, but it is also a core that is willing to move and recreate itself at every turn.
And what I mean to distinguish today about the Metaphysical I is like what we think of as duende and also what isn’t duende. And what differentiates The Metaphysical I from duende is very important, is the crux of everything important about the poems I am about to discuss. Because while duende is the power core of the I, stripped down to its essence in poverty, a Metaphysical I is the use of this power to become a trickster, a thief, a demon, a little thing, infused forever with purely the occult.
II. The I Full of Mojo, The I Full of Swagger
I know from a rather superficial study of hoodoo mysticism about something called John the Conquerer root. It is said that when one adorns himself or herself with this root, an insurmountable mojo is bestowed upon him or her. That when you wear it, no one can truly overcome the nasty musk of your ineffable power.
The power of the root is steeped in the story of a folk hero, an African prince, John the Conquerer. After being sold in America into slavery, he had such clever wit and strength of spirit that he evaded not only his earthly masters on several occasions, but the Devil himself.
The story goes that John the Conquerer fell in love with the Devil’s youngest daughter, when visiting West Hell (the hottest, most terrible region of Hell). The Devil’s daughter fell quickly in love with him, and she gave him a magical axe to get out them both of Hell. They also stole her father’s horses, mad and lust-drunk and ready to elope. Nothing could have angered the Devil more than having both his baby girl and his horses stolen, so the Devil chased John the Conquerer all over West Hell, hoping to kill him.
John, in order to elude his demonic pursuer, shapeshifted many times into demons and animals and objects and weather, and in a bout of incomparable swagger, passed out ice water to all of the poor souls trapped in the heat of Hell. It is also said that to this day, Hell is slight cooler than it used to be because of this ice water. And in an epic battle, John the Conquerer won over his pursuer by tearing off the Devil’s own arm and beating him with it, stealing his daughter away as the ultimate prize.
When a poem contains a Metaphysical I, it not only contains the demonic, but a shapeshifter that can handle this demon. It subverts the reader’s expectations of it every step of the way and can never be conquered, because at each grasp, the I turns into a different thing and a new sort of handle upon it must be made. The reader must make a set of mental shifts to master this I. But when an I of a poem is Metaphysical, the reader can’t ever truly master it.
It has been said that if one encounters a bear in the forest, all he or she has to do is say the words “John the Conquerer” and that the bear will run away in sheer terror.
A Metaphysical I in a poem cannot be conquered, but like all incredibly strong things, is gorgeous to watch change and flit in the light of our reading. It is most gorgeous because of its strength to not be just an overwhelmingly strong self. It is most gorgeous to have the courage not to even pretend to be a self at all.
III. Some poems that contain the Metaphysical I as a way to define it
The devil is a lie, bitch I’m the truth
The devil is a lie, bitch I’m the proof
The devil is a lie, the devil is a lie
Bitch I’m alive, the devil is a lie
Now I will share with you some poems that I think exemplify key components of the Metaphysical I as a way to better explain what I mean.
Although I will not mention work by all of these poets, I think that poets who write poems with the Metaphysical I include: Ovid, Walt Whitman, Horace, Gwendolyn Brooks, Frank O’Hara, Sylvia Plath, Nathaniel Mackey, Catullus, Eileen Myles, Audre Lorde, Bernadette Mayer, Martial, The Notorious B.I.G., Bhanu Kapil, James Tate, Nicki Minaj, Kanye West, and Anne Sexton, among others.
Most of these poets I mention come from Ancient Rome and from America, writing around the middle of the last century until the present. Some of my fusion of these two places and time periods to define the Metaphysical I has to do with my own aesthetics and background in poetry.
My earliest relationships to actual poems with a shapeshifter I were with Ancient Roman poets, because these are the first poets I read (or more so, had read to me). When I was in 5th grade, my teacher, Mrs. Jayne Hanlin, read us passages from Ovid’s Metamorphoses every day over lunch. These weird and wonderful stories cut into my soul and made me be a poet. I had been writing poems for a few years before 5th grade. But these lunchtime readings, as they say, sealed the deal.
A key component of the persona of the Metamorphoses is that it is a complete shapeshifter. It is part of a tradition of Hellenistic metamorphosis poetry, but Ovid reinvented the form by organizing myths around themes and clumping stories together to tell one cohesive story.
The book itself is a series poem, with each myth culminating in the start of the new one. For example, as the story of Io ends, with her transformation into a cow by the jealous Juno, the next myth starts with Io as a way to introduce a friend of her son, the son of the sun. She is the central figure in her own myth, but acts as an ancillary figure in the next in order to move the entire book forward. Another myth tells the story of two winged boys who join the Argonauts, only for the next myth to begin with the entire group of the Argonauts, enveloping these two boys into a whole set of people, again, moving the book forward as a never-ending narrative hydra.
In this way, the persona of the Metamorphoses book-poem is never one being, but a constantly shifting perspective, morphing and metamorphosing into the next monster or thing, a constant I with which Ovid can overlay the feelings, dreams, and fear of each new being. An I that has to control the demon, the entire story itself, a story of what it means to be human.
In their shapeshifter-ness, poems with a Metaphysical I play with their relationship to their reader in a way that is manipulative. They do so in a way that we oftentimes refer to as postmodern. Although this volleying relationship has happened long before the Postmodern age, which is an age I don’t believe in, in case you were wondering. (I believe that all works created since Modernism began are still just all Modernist and will continue to be so for a long time.)
Nevertheless, poems with a Metaphysical I are postmodern in that they remove the fourth wall, the veil of safe performative distance between the persona and the reader. They make evident that the persona of the poem sees you. They may act at times as if they don’t realize you are peering over their shoulder, but at some point they let you know they know. All of this they do through an ever-changing display of human emotions through an I that takes on a never-ending stream of costumes, to make beautiful the many moods and their hot and awful divinity, to conflate both hate and love.
Catullus, a Roman poet writing from 84-54 BC, is another poet who uses the Metaphysical I. He fills his poems with both hate and love. Take for example his poem, #43:
Hi there, girl with a nose by no means tiny,
Non-dark eyes and two most undainty ankles,
Not-long fingers and undry lips, besides a
Tongue that’s far from overly refined—you
Bankrupt from Formiae’s mistress! Does the Province
Spread the word that you’re attractive? Do men
Pick on you to compare my Lesbia with now?
Oh this tasteless age, ill bred and witless!
Here, Catullus dresses down a poor big-nosed girl, telling her she has a bad case of the cankles, seemingly just for the sake of it. It is unclear if this is a revenge poem to this girl for a possible rejection or if his purpose all along was to write a love poem for his beloved Lesbia, who I will discuss in a moment.
As we see with the above poem, if Catullus doesn’t like someone, it is with a lethal and ice-ringed method with which he lets them know. As he writes to another poor guy, Cominius:
If public judgement, Cominius, should ensure that your hoary
Old age, soiled by impure habits, was cut short,
I personally don’t doubt but that some greedy vulture
Would, first, be fed your severed tongue, and then
Your eyes would be pecked out and eaten by a black-throat
Crow, your guts scoffed by dogs, the rest by wolves.
Catullus has so much mojo, so much swagger, that he can destroy a person with his words. He has insurmountable power to feel as he wants to and as strongly as he wants to.
Catullus’ Lesbia (or Clodia, as she was known as a woman in real life) is the focal point of many of his poems, particularly his love poetry. Although in his 116 surviving songs, he goes from telling her there are not enough kisses he can give to informing her that she is an awful slut. Still, the kisses win out throughout history, as he writes:
Let’s live, my Lesbia, and let us love
And let us esteem the gossip of old men
As equal to one penny
Suns can set and rise
But after that brief light goes out
There is the one unending night to get thru
Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred
Then a thousand more, a second hundred,
Then another thousand then a hundred
Then when we’ve had our thousands
The numbers will be confused and we will surely lose count
So that no evil eye can look upon us
To know the final sum of all of our kisses
Catullus’s swagger comes from the golden quality of his blackened tongue. No boundary can stop his passion. When he loves someone, like Lesbia, no amount of kisses can ever be enough. He has an almost supernatural passion, where the people looking on––the potential “evil eye[s]”––can’t ever even begin to quantify the love he has for Lesbia. And as we see, when he hates someone, his words can hurt the person, can wound them through the immortal vortex. He is able to use his poetry to hate and love and to make this hate and love happen simultaneously.
Catullus’ Metaphysical I is able to hate and love simultaneously, with immense mojo:
I hate and love. You wonder, perhaps, why I’d do that?
I have no idea. I just feel it. I am tortured.
It is the openness and bluster with which his persona exalts the beauty of human feeling—both good or bad—that creates the Metaphysical I in his poems. After all, to hate and love is to be alive. And showing a live persona is what a Metaphysical I can and will do, and will do well, because it lets the living-ness of feelings and the changeable nature of the I be what it is within a poem, no matter how scary this is for the reader, time, or even the poet themselves.
My favorite part of the Bible is from the Book of Revelations, in which Christ advises a passionate relationship to God, that is both full of hate and love: “Because you are neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm, I shall vomit you out of my mouth.” God doesn’t want you if all you feel is lukewarm for him. A Metaphysical I is both hot and cold, most of the time hot and cold at the same time, but is never lukewarm. What is the point in being lukewarm? Neither God nor your reader will have you.
Following along my own aesthetic sensibilities and blinders, I have always thought that American poets of the mid- to the end-of-the-21st century contain the Metaphysical I in surplus.
A classic poem that contains the Metaphysical I is Eileen Myles’ “An American Poem”.
I might ask now, how many people know Eileen Myles’ work? And of these people who do not know it, who of you believe that Myles is actually a Kennedy?
Some of you may have raised your hands. If you don’t know anything about her or her work, it is a fair assessment. After all, she states in her poem that she is one. Or more so, her persona does.
Still, her shapeshifter I is at work here. We believe her I is a Kennedy because of the feeling and fanfare she brings to this identity. The self of the poem, however false, becomes universal as it feels and expresses these human feelings, both a hatred and a love simultaneously.
Those of us who know who Myles actually is, a female poet from a working class background, can start to see her posture of a Kennedy in the poem tinged with complexity. Why would she state through her Metaphysical I that she is a Kennedy if not to challenge and overwhelm the authority of the Kennedy identity? After all, when we read her poem closely, we might for a second think that she might actually be a Kennedy. And what does the poem gain and lose from playing with our expectations? We listened intently from this flash of ostentation, this overwhelming power position. There is magic in her mojo. And the magic is also in her I. Once we realized her I wasn’t simply a powerful Kennedy, but a powerful trickster, we began to ask ourselves: who is this Metaphysical I that she speaks both with and from? How can it take on the costume of a Kennedy so effortlessly?
Bernadette Mayer is another poet who employs a Metaphysical I in her poems. Her I is always shapeshifting and we are never clear who or what it is. Take her poem “Sonnet”.
In the poem, she turns the rejection over the guy not calling her up (his unfortunate fate to be immortalized in a great poem for being a dud—that should teach all you duds!) into an attack on his gendered and socioeconomic privilege until she becomes a mystic I, bestowing sex or death (or both) upon her readers, depending on what page of her book they choose to read.
And this mystic I does all of this work in a magical book and she makes the book magical with this I. For what may be lost when a reader reads this poem other than in her revered The Bernadette Mayer Reader is that page 121 reveals a poem about sex, but there is no page 172. So, that the reader who chooses death must imagine a page that does not exist, in a supernatural imaginative space that only Mayer’s I has the power to create.
Another classic Metaphysical I poem is Ted Berrigan’s “Red Shift”.
The poem starts out placid enough. We are placed in a New York scene, with the persona of the poem looking at it and placing himself within it. But by the end of the poem, the persona has come back from another dimension, on the ready after being called back by the reader, coming back as “only pronouns” and “all of them.” Not asking itself for this fate, but having it because the reader “did”. After all, it was the reader’s call who made the I not just pronouns, but all of them. By the end of the poem, the body itself is just a costume the Metaphysical I must wear as the “world’s furious song flows” through it so violently.
Whenever I read this poem, I wonder, what is it about that like “I am only pronouns, & I am all of them” that haunts so profoundly. Is it because there is that incomparable swagger of saying ‘I am everything’? Yes. It is because it is terrible and awful and scary beyond measure for an I to say I am only language, that I am not what I think I am, I am nothing but this moment on this page, in this infinite present. Because the I then knows it is already dead and that its contemporaries are ghosts, no matter how living they are in the moment of writing the poem. Because the I faces the truth that it always writes most to a future reader, one who isn’t born, but who in that moment has bothered to pick the poem up. One whom the I is obligated to—to hate, love, destroy, empower, all selflessly.
I have always found American Hip Hop from the late 20th century into the present to contain the Metaphysical I in heaps. The I in a Hip Hop song shifts, subverts and manipulates listeners’ expectations, and has a great bravado. It is an I that must harness the demon of the duende and with incomprehensible swagger because it does not only need to do this in written language, but in oral form, due the nature of how it is performed in this contemporary moment.
Kanye West’s song “Power,” exemplifies a Metaphysical I with the lines:
I’m living in that 21st Century, doing something mean to it
Do it better than anybody you ever seen do it
Screams from the haters, got a nice ring to it
I guess every superhero need his theme music
No one man should have all that power
The clock’s ticking, I just count the hours
West’s I tells everyone confidently that he is the best poet alive, that he (a “superhero”) can make beautiful music, his “theme music”, from even the “Screams from the haters”. That his I is so strong it can take what might break another persona and make it his strength. It is scary to be hated, but West’s I can face his fear and turn it into the power of the poem. His Metaphysical I conquers all who oppose it through poetry and wins the ultimate prize of power by having a persona’s immortal power.
One of my favorite poets, The Notorious B.I.G. (also known as “Biggie”), embodies the Metaphysical I. A listener can never pin down his I, with its overwhelming arrogance and simultaneous vulnerability and the sheer power of his hate and love of his reader/listener.
One of his best songs is “Juicy,” from his 1994 album Ready to Die, which he begins with the classic Metaphysical I line:
(Fuck all you hoes) Get a grip motherfucker.
In the song, he goes on to tell a rags-to-riches story, to bestow faith upon the listeners that the power of poetry can change one’s life circumstances. He also uses the song to showcase his unparalleled skills as a poet and that part of this swagger is all about believing in one’s own power.
As he sings, rapping used to be “all a dream” to him, when he was young and “used to read Word Up magazine”, imagining who he would one day become as a famous poet. In the song, Biggie’s I is what everyone is talking about, it’s “in the limelight” because it “rhymes tight”. Poetry not only has the power to change his life, to give him wealth and stability, but Biggie’s genius as a poet makes him both the best poet and rich. And much like Myles or Mayer, Biggie infuses mojo into his I not only to empower it, but to empower his readers to change their own circumstances. Even the choral refrain of the song seems to bestow mojo upon its listener:
You know very well who you are
Don’t let em hold you down, reach for the stars
You had a goal, but not that many
’cause you’re the only one I’ll give you good and plenty
Biggie’s Metaphysical I eludes its listener through its bravado in an ultimate act of kindness, a kind of positive charge for Is like it who might otherwise be silenced, to infuse these Is with their own power. A kind of selfless elusive quality that so many poems with the Metaphysical I employ. Biggie’s I gives us an immortal gift not only through the poems and songs he leaves us, but through his faith in his listeners to pave their own road filled with mojo, too.
IV. The Bees
In my process of uncovering the Metaphysical I in poetry, I have found a weird thread in the form of bees. In many poems that have a Metaphysical I, there is the prevalence of bee imagery and the symbol of a poet and the process of writing poetry twinned together.
The Roman poet Horace, from 65-8 BC, in his poem, “To Iullus Antonius,” famously refers to his work as a poet to that of a bee:
I create my verses,
in the manner
of a humble Matinian bee, that goes
gathering pollen from all the pleasant thyme,
and labours among the many groves, on the banks
of flowing Tiber.
Telling the poet he addresses in this particular poem that this poet’s lesser, wordly plight is to celebrate Caesar, whereas Horace’s work as a poet is to exalt the immortal human sun:
‘O lovely sun, O
worthy to be praised!’
During the time Horace wrote, this poet, Iullus Antonius, might have thought that Horace’s bee-like work, worshipping the “lovely sun,” was more inconsequential than the poetic effort he put in to worship the all-powerful Caesar. But we know that Horace’s I actually does the work of a seer and has an otherworldly master and that his Metaphysical I is one who steadily worships the divine in the natural world and who has the ultimate power to conquer the universe.
In Finnish folklore, there is the story of Lemminkainen, who went to the North Country to try and win the hand of the fairest maiden in the land. An old cowherd, whom he offended with his plight, killed Lemminkainen by a river and cut his body into eight pieces and threw it in the river. Lemminkainen’s mother fished his body pieces out with a magic rake and put the pieces back together again, only to make a speechless doll of a man.
Knowing that she needed to give her son voice again, she called on the bees to help him and bring him honey.
But with all that we know of how hard bees work, her bees really had to work hard. For Lemminkainen’s sad mother, they traveled to Metsola’s fair meadows to get Lemminkainen a special honey, but this honey did not help him speak. So, the bees traveled again, this time across nine lakes to an island, to bring back an even more special and powerful honey. Still even this honey did not help her son.
So on a third journey, the bees went past the stars to Jumula the Creator’s realm and brought back a honey that cured Lemminkainen, who spoke and was alive again.
The bee holds the magic—honey—that makes the voice of a poet. That can make an I speak. And for this reason, the Metaphysical I in poems not only become the powerful bee, they respect the work ethic of the bee and in many cases try to emulate it. They become humble at the magic of the bee and then they take this magic into their poems.
There are so many bees in poems with the Metaphysical I when you starting looking for them. And I have found that once you start looking you can’t stop, they almost start to swarm at you.
In a collection of his prose, Whitman writes in a section called “Specimen Days,” of bumblebees with a similar respect. As he writes of the
MAY-MONTH—month of swarming, singing, mating birds—the bumble-bee month—month of the flowering lilac—(and then my own birth-month.)
And he writes of the sensual overload of nature and living, and because he is a poet, he feels to record this overload with his characteristic and large undulating detail:
the blue birds, grass birds and robins, in every direction the croaking of the pond-frogs and the first white of the dog-wood blossoms. Now the golden dandelions in endless profusion, spotting the ground everywhere. The white cherry and pear-blows—the wild violets
But it is the bees that capture his poet heart with their metaphysical kinship. As he writes of the bees, “conveying to me a new and pronounc’d sense of strength, beauty, vitality and movement” with the
deep musical drone of these bees, flitting, balancing, darting to and fro about me by hundreds—big fellows with light yellow jackets, great glistening swelling bodies, stumpy heads and gauzy wings—humming their perpetual rich mellow boom. (Is there not a hint in it for a musical composition, of which it should be the back-ground? some bumble-bee symphony?)
these wild bees, whose loud and steady humming makes an undertone to the whole, and to my mood and the hour.
For Whitman, it is the hum of the bees that make them like the poet, with the gift of musical composition, of song. They are overwhelmingly strong, beautiful and vital, with immense mojo. They have magic in their song, creating a symphony with their loud and steady humming, with their overwhelming power, which overtakes even a wild garden in spring. Even in their incessant undertone, they overtake everything.
The singer Nicki Minaj uses the symbol of a bee to address her work as a poet in relation to other poets, as she writes in “Beez in the Trap”, a play on the word “bee” and “being”:
Bitches ain’t shit and they ain’t sayin’ nothing
A hundred motherfuckers can’t tell me nothing
I beez in the trap, bee beez in the trap
I beez in the trap, bee beez in the trap
In her first line, she talks about all of the other lesser poets singing today who “ain’t saying nothing” because they “ain’t shit.” They have no mojo to bring to there Is and their songs, and subsequently their listeners. She goes on to say that even a “hundred” of them do not have the authority to sing as well as her or to tell her what to do. Her I beez. It is, and it is not, it hates and loves, but more than anything, it has harnessed the duende and exists.
She goes on to infuse her Metaphysical I with classic bravado and mojo in the first verse of her song:
Man I been did that, man I been popped off
And if she ain’t trying to give it up she get dropped off
Let me bust that U-ie, bitch bust that open
Might spend a couple thou’ just to bust that open
Rip it off no joking, like your name Hulk Hogan
Comparing herself, through her I, to the great wrestler Hulk Hogan, infusing her I with sheer power and strength, an I full of money (“Might spend a couple thou’ just to bust that open”) and mojo (“Let me bust that U-ie, bitch bust that open”) because of her superhuman swagger and muscle and her skill at making beautiful language. And much like the Metaphysical poets discussed earlier, Minaj’s I empowers her listeners, because when we hear her song, we feel all powerful, too. And it is only because, like all of the other Metaphysical I poets, she selflessly strips her I down bare to its nerve and is able to surround it with ineffable magic.
Sylvia Plath writes poems full of the Metaphysical I. In her final book, Ariel, she summoned many bees. Some of this is due to her actual biography—her father was a beekeeper. Like Horace and Nicki Minaj and other poets of the Metaphysical I, she uses bees as a kind of battlecry.
In “The Arrival of the Bee Box”, she describes the confinement of being a bee, of being a poet, a thing being been, in this lifetime, in a box that by the end of the poem is only “temporary”.
And her desire is to give these little bees, these poets, these dangerous poets, or Is, a voice, much like Biggie did:
How can I let them out?
It is the noise that appalls me most of all,
The unintelligible syllables. It is like a Roman mob,
Small, taken one by one, but my god, together!
I lay my ear to furious Latin.
I am not a Caesar.
I have simply ordered a box of maniacs.
They can be sent back.
They can die, I need feed them nothing, I am the owner.
In an ancient Indian mythology, there is a story of the Asvins, two twin horsemen, who are the lords of light and are also honey-bearing, who along with drawing “white horses” and “ambrosial swans” wherever they go, also bring “honey to the bee” and prolong human life with the magic of the bee (its honey). Because of this, honey was also used in magical rituals, where people would sing:
Anoint me with the honey of the bee,
That I may speak forceful among men
In her poem, “Stings”, Plath summons the queen bee and her Metaphysical I becomes her, especially as she ends the poem with:
They thought death was worth it, but I
Have a self to recover, a queen.
Is she dead, is she sleeping?
Where has she been,
With her lion-red body, her wings of glass?
Now she is flying
More terrible than she ever was, red
Scar in the sky, red comet
Over the engine that killed her—
The mausoleum, the wax house.
In this poem, Plath’s Metaphysical I has become the queen bee, takes on her power, and goes beyond the “women who only scurry,/ Whose news is the open cherry, the open clover?” and like Minaj, becomes the horrific thing, the shapeshifter bee monster who with unearthly bravado speaks for more than herself. Who has summoned the demon of the duende, trapped it like the Devil’s horses, and rode it into the town square of the poem, smiling, a face full of brightly colored ribbons.
V. To conclude
To conclude, all of these bees and poets and Is are important to me, because as a poet, I want to write poems that hate and love their reader simultaneously. Poems that are more than Lorca’s demon, but are the harness of otherworldly dread––human heat. That empower a reader to overcome a devil, too, through beautiful language. This is, I think, one of the main answers to the common question, How is poetry relevant to our society today? It is relevant because it is a way to amalgamate dark and vibrant human emotion and permit its expression to and for and through everyone. And I think poems that contain the Metaphysical I prove this.
And maybe this lecture is, as Biggie wrote, an “album […] dedicated to all the teachers that told me I’d never amount to nothing.” Because in my own ways, specific to me, I have been a little silent thing, too.
I write my own poems out of necessity, summoning as much bravado as I can. And maybe I do this because when I started writing poetry my I was a tiny I that I had to blow John the Conquerer root upon to become big. Because we all start small. One cell, one poem, one word, one utterance into the dark. The point of it all is to go beyond that beginning, to become something else, whatever that poem may be.
And maybe the I in my own poems is still very small, but I promise you that when I’m gone, my I is going to be as big as this whole room.
And if you are a poet listening or reading this, here’s my battlecry for you to be big, too.
As Plath says, “The bees are flying. They taste the spring”.
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