This should go in the comments section of Silliman’s Blog, but he’s turned his comments off, so I’ll respond here.
In response to Sherwood Anderson’s 1918 poem “Song to New Song”, Ron writes:
Several things in this text stand out, above & beyond the obvious influence of Whitman. One is the fact that there is nothing personal here about the use of the first person singular. Is “I” here even a person? More accurately, it strikes me as a rhetorical position. Nor is there anything personal, even personified, about “you,” bird man of the furnaces. Rather, this is a kind of public, figurative language we hardly hear any more, save possibly in church. If it seems preposterous or stilted or dated, that is the index of just how far outside our expectations such language is today within the poem.
Ron is referring to Sherwood Anderson’s rhetorical, and presumably communal, use of I and you: “I greet thee, horse and terrible singer, half man, half bird, strong, winged one./I see you float in cold bleak winds,/Your wings burned by the fires of furnaces…”
My first thought was that this language is epic language, and that indeed one occasionally does find such language used in contemporary poetry, if only ironically . My second thought was of Juliana Spahr and her repeated address to “Beloveds” and her use of the rhetorical I in her book This Connection of Everyone with Lungs (Spahr was also ready-at-mind for Gabe Gudding). Finally, I recalled the very common use of infinitives that function rhetorically, figuratively, and publicly, and that are often composed as lists in much contemporary poetry. This sort of infinitival excessiveness is the syntactic soft spot into which the public I and rhetorical you have recently wiggled: “To labor night and day/To bear rain or wind/To eat badly and to sleep badly, etc., etc.” In Heretical Imperialism Pier Paolo Pasolini calls this the “inchoative infinitive”:
…. “inchoative,” that is, as description of repeated actions – always because of a normativity alluded to with the absolute certainty of being understood, of exciting sympathetic sentiments in other people who not only have had similar experiences but who don’t even have the possibility of thinking for themselves of different experiences….The infinitival category […] in any case implies a humble and, I would say, labor-union-like epic quality: and so it does not imply only a simple “reanimation” of the speech of a speaker as a statistically and above all socially individualized particular character, but of a typical speaker, a representative of a whole category of speakers, thus of a milieu, even a people….The sympathy of the author in reanimating his speech grammatically thus doesn’t go out to him, but to all those like him, to his world.