The Plural of Us –
Poetry and Community in Auden and Others
By Bonnie Costello
Princeton University Press – £37.95
When will we learn, what should be clear as day,
We cannot choose what we are free to love.
‘The Future of Us’
Poetry’s ‘we” can be highly nuanced and variable […]
marking overlapping and concentric circles.
‘Speaking Of Us’
In the final chapter of this highly focused book (‘The Future of Us’), Bonnie Costello endeavours to once more enter, and finally come to terms with the great chasm of an elongated, and at times self-induced ambiguity; by highlighting the non-definable space that surely lies betwixt the most pronounced personal of ‘I,’ and the most assumptive universal of ‘we.’
In so doing, she reinvests a certain assertion that the reader might readily agree with what is at best, a poetically endorsed thesis, wherein analysis takes centre stage almost throughout these 225 pages ( excluding Acknowledgements, Notes, Biography and Index). For example, when she writes: ”Whatever the scale of relations, being is always already being ”with” – ”we are pressed, pressed on each other” – and one effort of the poetry is to discover meaningful unity within this condition of proximity, for ”we have chosen the meaning /of being numerous;” are we to readily agree?
What does the authoress essentially mean when she writes of ”meaningful unity”?
As for the ”condition of proximity,”this surely differs in relation to each and every varying circumstance?
I have to confess to initially being drawn to The Plural of Us – Poetry and Community in Auden and Others, largely due to the Auden in the title. For along with Eliot and both Dylans’, Auden is for me, the quintessential poet of the twentieth century.
As such, I was inquisitive to embrace the rather scientific formality of the subject matter ([…] some poetry seeks to harness the rhetorical power of the first-person plural to posit and promote community, often where there is social fragmentation. It can also alert us, intentionally or not, to the pronoun’s dangers and exclusions […]), within the context, or at least within the realm of the Auden trajectory.
Rather like Costello herself: ”He is perhaps the preeminent modern poet for thinking about groups and group organization, intuitively and in the abstract, but he is he rarely fixed to a particular theory or ideology for long. He is the poet of ”private faces in public places,” and of ”private stuff”and ”public spirit,” interested in the tensions and continuities between our intimate lives and our historical relations. He loves theories and doctrines, sometimes to the detriment of his verse, and passes through them like the pages of a calender, but the questions remain the same, and give coherence to the process. He is a writer not only interested to think about but interesting to think with, in part because he is always thinking, always changing position and genre.”
One could readily assert that it was said change that enabled Auden to remain at the vanguard of true poetic thinking.
Even to this day.
All the more so I’d have thought, simply because he did wrestle with (and love) theories and doctrines. Even if he did pass ”through them like the pages of a calender.”
That Bonnie Costello substantiates the fact that Auden was ”a writer not only interested to think about but interesting to think with,” accounts for much this book’s adherent allegiance to that of deciphering what its title suggests.
As not once does Costello remotely deviate or straddle off course.
There again, she appears to understand Auden all too well: ”As a ventriloquizing poet, always playing us back to ourselves so that we may hear what we mean, he is highly sensitive to the many postures and tonalities that can arise in the use of the first-person plural.”
In and of itself therefore, many could readily assert that this book is something of a first within its field; or, as Jahan Ramazani, the author of Poetry and Its Others: News, Prayer, Song, and the Dialogue of Genres, has since written: ”Bonnie Costello’s exquisite book brilliantly explores how Auden and other poets use the first-person plural to conjure collectivities into being even as they also unsettle them. Her rigorous and commanding reflections on the pronoun ‘we,’ her luminous close readings, her deep knowledge of lyric poetry, and her nuanced yet cogent arguments make this book a model of literary criticism.”
As the title The Plural of Us might suggest, this book circumnavigates the plurality of humanistic value in such a way that sheds new light on an oft, far too forgotten subject.