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Notley's “I the People”- Explication
The phrase 'We the people' is embedded into the democratic foundation of the United States. It can be found between the lines in important historical documents, famous quotes, and even in our very own pledge of allegiance, consequently, this sense of national unity is inescapable. However, this pretentious notion of unity is scrutinized in Alice Notley's, I the People, as she critiques the overbearing pretense of 'uniform thoughts' derived from 'unified peoples'. Notley's poem is a commentary on the eroding sense of self in the amplifications of the 'we' or the whole in American politics, specifically how the existence of an actual ’we’ in politics is non existential despite popular rhetoric. Notley creates her social commentary by making the speaker preside over past, present, and future of all the citizens of the United States. Notley's usage of “I the People (1)”, specifically 'I' becoming metonymy for the whole population of the United States, as 'I' becomes the substitute for 'We' which alludes to the preamble to the United States Constitution. The satirical nature of 'I the People' instead of 'We the People' indicates how one person can presume a position of such power, that he/she can speak for the whole (all of the individuals of the United States) so righteously. And in doing so, Notley
successsfully exposes this discrepancy as 'I the People' seems a lot more accurate in the context of today's political infrastructure, as the minority rules the majority, despite a nation that boasts its political camaraderie with its civilians. The abstract speaker indicates that he/she is the people to all things “that were (2)” and “come to be (3)” indicating that in the past, it has always been 'I' and in the future, it will continue to be 'I the People'. There as never been a 'we' in the truth of politics as the individuals of society always succumb to the desires and wishes of the powerful and elite ruling class. Notley exchanges the use of pronouns in her later stanzas in order to juxtapose what 'true unity' really is, and what 'we' actually represents in the context of the reality as opposed to the 'we' in today's politics. Notley uses the intimate act of sex, as two bodies “were (5)” when “we make love (6)”, the act of sex is demonstration of what it means to be unified as the partners work harmoniously together. However, the 'we' that exists in the act of sex was only a thing of what “we were once (4)”, and it indicates a type unison of 'we' that is no longer preeminent today. To enrich her argument about the degradation of 'we', the poem suggests the separation of 'we', and the encroachment of 'I' to preside over 'We'. After suggesting the implications of unison mentioned in making love, the poem shifts as “we go away from each other (6,7)”- there has been a break. To parallel the 'break up' of 'we', Notley mirrors the separation through her syntactical structures by coupling phrases with '&'. For example, the mention of “10th and A (9)”, she directly makes the reader read the words not as one, but as two, it is “10th” and then “A”. The break up of the literal setting of the poem is extenuated further as the speaker further elaborates that we go away from each other “in winter (10” “& of trees”, “& of the history of houses (11)”, instead of phrasing
them in a way so that all the features of this setting are just one line, Notley breaks them apart, and the distance between the words are disturbed and choppy as to exemplify literal separation. After the failure of unison is acknowledged, the speaker once again returns to the presumptuous notion of 'I' as he/she embarks on a ramblings of a vision that belongs to 'I'. The speaker acclaims that “I the People, so repetitious (13,14)” as to satirize the consistency of 'We the People' that is so often projected in popular rhetoric. The repetition of 'I' lends the speaker to assume a position of the all knowing, a quality that is pompous and turns people off. Yet, it is effective in which it exposes how American politics really work. The speaker declares, that “my vision (14)” to hold people in “the gel (16)” but specifically “my gel (16)” indicates that he/she has a sense of righteousness and conviction that can truly speak for all. And through this gel, the speaker wishes to “surround you in gold (18)”, yet “you don't know it (19).” Gold is connotated with richness and decadence, that for a brief moment, the reader is swept off his/her feet and consumed by feelings of 'importance' that the speaker believes he/she knows what is good for 'you'. Despite the fact that the sentence is laced with grandiose gestures of affection and love, in its true form, it is a declaration that is so deep rooted in 'self', that in essence the speaker becomes an egomaniac. For the speaker only has a vision that is derived from his/herself to “surround you”, which is directly towards the reader, and presumably the whole of the American people, that a vision any different would seem intolerable. Notley effectively seduces the reader into becoming entangled in a web of egotistical thinking that the reader lets his or her sense of self be spoken for, however, this exact type of patriotic propaganda is utilized to 'unify' the American people. It is a country of 'We the
People', that 'we are' together, a unit of one, and through this declaration of 'we', the individuality of each person is compromised. In the later stanzas, the Notley inserts social commentary on the status of her own individuality in the state of this 'We the People' pretense. The speaker declares that he/she is “late (26)” in this “Pre dawn of We the People (27,28)”. To interpret, the speaker shifts as he/she isolates herself from the present time of events, to declare that in the current facade 'of We the People', the speaker knows of no such silly notions, and that it is foreign to her. The speaker describes the vision of “We the People” as being a “vision of gold & silver & silken liquid (23)” which wraps around “all the walls (26).” Aesthetically, this vision sounds decadent and luxurious, 'to be wrapped in gold' that is, however to put in context, the vision is gilded. The walls represent the vision of 'We the People' and the gold, silver, and silken liquid (all rich connotations) help to mask this vision, and in fact the vision gives off an impression of goodness and richness (like gold), but it is actually never solid gold in its true form. It is only covered in gold, the true face of the vision is actually not at all what it seems. A gilded dream to be exact. The speaker then touches upon the definition of true unity by recalling nostalgia of the past. The phrase of 'We the People' are merely superficial words as they “show what we were once (37, 38)”, and that’s exactly what they mean now, just words with no substantial meaning. Recalling the precedence of the past, the speaker says that in the past that contained the 'We', they recognized the airy nature of such a word to overtake the individuality of people and in the process recognize the “immortality (40)” of “numbered bodies (41)” meaning that simply people are so degraded of 'self', only numbers are used identify themselves, like how the superficiality of 'We' is tossed around
in governance. Notley then utilizes juxtaposition to emphasize and further define the status of the individual in the onslaught of politics and the cliché of 'self'. She juxtaposes the idea of “hearing (42)” and “saying (42)” as to reiterate how people 'hear' but don't listen, and 'say' to repeat, but to not really 'speak' for themselves. And because of this inability to be more proactive of one's own fate, individuality has been eroded, and people have fallen victim to the “double edge (43).” The double edge is symbolic of a weapon that could be seen as a benefit but a liability as it could inflict harm to oneself as well. The double edge would be the patriotic feel of 'We the People'- however when supposed 'unison' destroys the 'self', and privacy has been hindered by the public, the wound is punctured further. The speaker then reiterates the superficial way in which we comply to unification through the hollow words of politics but stresses the way we really feel and react to the pronoun 'We'. The speaker only “hears what we say (45)”, but then juxtaposes the statement with the italicization of the second 'we' as to indicate that the second we, is the voice of the real individuals of society, and that the prior is simply a mold of what 'unification' in terms of politics represents, an empty mold. The speaker senses a pang of pain as she is “parted (47)” between the two and is left to “cry (48)”. The lingering sense of detachment the speaker feels towards the one same pronoun ('we') insinuates sense of departure that the public (the real 'we') feels towards politics. That although popular politics preach 'unification' and 'We', the status of individuality is being comprised and disintegrating further. Notley's poem is a social critique on the cliché role of 'self' in the grand scheme of politics. That in fact over anything else, uniformity and conformity is preached to a
nation built on the foundation of independence and freedom of distinction. Individuality is deconstructed in order to give way to a type of politics built around the desires and implications of a few, when the status quo of democracy supposedly gives the majority power. Notley's poem exposes the fraudulence of cliché politics, a politics that propagandizes subliminal self-erosion.