Professor of English
Bonnie Costello has just returned from a year as a Fellow in the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, where she has been working on a book called Pronoun Trouble: Auden and Others in the First Person Plural. “I” is the pronoun we most often associate with poetry, but many poets want to reach beyond the self, to speak to and for a larger public, whether limited or unbounded. The English born, cosmopolitan W. H. Auden wrote in 1938: “the problem for the modern poet, as for everyone else today, is how to find or form a genuine community.” His varying use of the first person plural reflects this search and his changing attitudes about the artist’s relationship to the group. As a critic of English society between the wars, as a witness to human suffering in war torn Spain and China, and as an émigré to the US at the eve of World War II, Auden saw many groups in crisis and called for public response. But he also resisted the dynamics of the crowd and the collective, returning repeatedly to forms of dialogue and intimate address that would maintain an ethical relationship between “you” and “I.”
Poetry’s “we” raises questions central to modern social thought: for whom does the poet write and what authority does he have to speak for others? Is there a prior selfhood standing behind the collective, or is the “I” suspended in the voicing of “we”? Is “we” one or many? Modern poetry’s “we,” exploiting the inherent ambiguity of the pronoun, is especially reflexive, highly sensitive to political and historical circumstance, and often speculative, dislodging labels and imagining potential communities. Using ideas and tools of ethical philosophy and socio-linguistics, Professor Costello is probing the anxieties and opportunities associated with this powerful two-letter word.