Competitive Personhood & the Commonplace of Poetry


            Language is other people.¹



Repetition makes language. What is not yet repeated is not yet a word. Common possession—contra property—is the condition required.

Every verbal act carries the accretion of a people and adds to it. 

We individuate by means of borrowed tools. I tell myself a story and call it mine. This is me, here in the fossil density of the words I’ve learned.

Who would we be but ourselves? And yet in language we move as though through a cave of echoes. We mean to send out a sound of our own making and something comes back deeper than the sound we sent. Our sound gathers echo and resonance. But what was our sound except echo and resonance already gathered? Voices have stowed away within our own. This is for the ego an uncertain circumstance. It’s hard to know what’s ours.  

Repetition and redundancy are first facts of a language-reliant consciousness. This is rough ground for a Romantic individuality to rest on, and rougher still for what these notes will call competitive personhood.


When Allen Grossman writes that poetry repatriates oldest knowledge of the tongue, he means that "I" was here before my self was. In speaking the new poem I come into an already existing capacity (in the mind of God, in the dreams of the ancestors, in the language system). “It was not the speaker who was in the beginning but the word.”² 

The poet is after (at once) what’s already been said and what’s so far evaded saying. We’re influenced but we want the ineffable. In an awkward arrangement, our only model for the unsaid is the said.

Grossman’s term is “archaism”: the poetic is that language which seems somehow to have existed before, that language which—even if its syntactical combination should be literally unprecedented—seems to carry the force or sanction of prior speech. 

There’s the wish at once to speak alone, at some achieved distance from the social discourse that engulfs us, that defines us down, that wants to occupy and make insipid one’s consciousness (that we found this language wanting was why we became poets); but no less is the wish to speak within an echo deeper than our own lives, to conjure what Freud called “the psychic residue of tribal experience,” to repatriate the beloved dead to futurity.

There’s the dream of the lone voice merging with tradition. In this dream the deranged or vulnerable or abandoned speaker finds his way not to safety, exactly, but to utterance which resonates as more than his own, as impersonal and therefore plural, as containing something of the old songs. Rivulets become rivers and rivers run to the sea. Where once I was alone, now the wise dead rest in my throat.

And here is the point I would support: that all literature tends toward a condition of anonymity, and that, so far as words are creative, a signature merely distracts us from their true significance. I do not say literature “ought” not to be signed, because literature is alive and consequently “ought” is the wrong word to use. It wants not to be signed. That puts my point. It is always tugging in that direction and saying in effect: “I, not my author, really exist.” So do the trees, flowers and human beings say “I really exist, not God,” and continue to say so despite the admonitions to the contrary addressed to them clergymen and scientists. To forget its Creator is one of the functions of Creation. To remember him is to forget the days of one’s youth. Literature does not want to remember.³

“I” in the poem looks two ways, forward and back. In neither direction does it encounter an historical (natural) human being.⁴

Poetry is alienating labor; it opens spaces in the unity of the self. But voids may become points of vantage and emptiness a melancholy opportunity.

To listen to genius is to let oneself be guided by that voice in the self that is not the self’s own. It implies an otherness exactly where we expect to find identity; it speaks within us a rumor to us, that we are least ourselves where we are most ourselves.⁵

To wobble honestly at the edges of selfhood: it is I and not my tendentious memory that is real. I speak the words able to find the mouth. The desire to say something is sincerity enough. The poet (she because none else will) must go where speaking and not where the self leads. Otherwise we need no poets. Personality is just animal fantasy jammed into acceptable form. Authenticity is other people’s business. 

The utter fatuity of those who say to you, “By ‘Hadrian’ you mean yourself!” Almost as unsubtle as those who wonder why one should choose a subject so remote in time and in space. The sorcerer who pricks his thumb before he evokes the shades knows well that they will heed his call only because they can lap his blood. He knows, too, or ought to know, that the voices who speak to him are wiser and more worthy of attention than are his own clamorous outcries.⁶


Competitive personhood in American poetry is a rage and program.

Its bulk products include author photos, “bios,” commentary narrating the origin of poems in what’s called “real life.” Every possible intimation is made to suggest the provenance of represented pain in “real” pain (as though pain were not, from its arrival, structured by representation).

Competitive personhood sees the person as the poem’s grounding, as the bedrock justification for poetry's tenuous, vapory, value-evading endeavor. 

A borrowed definition: art is a technology to share feelings. At its best, the experience offered is that of the artist giving you not her feelings but your own—extant or potential.

In our era, the technologies of social media are widely deployed in the sharing of feeling. Poetry and other art circulate on these platforms, of course, but the implication about the shared feelings shifts. The feelings can feel less provisional, more owned and therefore less likely function as one’s own. It’s hard not to first experience posted poem as offering the aestheticized emotions of its author, given that we find it adjacent to personal photos, in a content scroll containing remarks about current events, updates on family and career. 

Poetry comes to serve as a decorative iteration of the regular biographical discourse one weaves daily. Criticism and its attendant politics are downstream from these ambient premises. Biographical fallacy scans as basically incoherent.

“Social consciousness is the new beauty,” a despairing writer wrote a few years ago. As politics, competitive personhood means competing for correct opinions (correct in the sense that enough customers are never wrong).

Aesthetics thus demands hiddenness and rewards it, ethics demands disclosure and punishes hiddenness.⁷

It is the medium, more than the moment, that begs a politics of identity, since the represented identity is the medium’s base unit.

As a social space, much of the action of poetry and its “community” involves the production and consumption of vicarious persons.

Competitive personhood is the advertisement of privacy in public space. It is entrepreneurial emotionality. As poetry it seeks a certain sad dazzling.

Competitive personshood is self-expression bent by the incentives of communicative capitalism. Its language is clamoring, expansionistic, acquisitive. It is vested rather than detached.

The failure of our era’s poetry is to reify rather than renew the era’s idea of the person.

Despite the frequent pretense to radical politics made by poets, poetry’s capture by neoliberal entrepreneurship of the self can seem total. Poets speak of their art as though having internalized the language of marketing. 

What am I after all but a child, pleas’d with the sound of my own name?
repeating it over and over;
I stand apart to hear—it never tires me.⁸

“my” and “my” and “my” poem. — “These times” and their my poems.⁹

Celebrity is the prayer of capital.¹⁰

The ego is public relations.¹¹

Competitive personhood reproduces its society. Since the acquisition of capital can’t be assured, competitive personhood is both a play for capital and the shoring up of psychic and social consolation should capital not come. This is not to call anyone out, since no one really escapes the paradigm.

Competitive personhood pursues the look of success. To these ends, it is resourceful even in recuperating abjection, injury, and failure. Like the capitalism from which it inherits incentives, competitive personhood absorbs its contradictions and tilts them toward marketability.

We’ve naturalized the idea that publication is “awarded,” that books emerge from “contests.” 

Public relations does not readily admit an impeded will, but poetry begins from nowhere else. The poet is up against the knowledge that the deep song doesn’t need her as its singer. 


Pound’s idea was that it was very important that poems be written and not at all important who wrote them. Really this is Confucius’s idea, or the idea a whole culture lends to that name. We seem somehow to have come to an opposite understanding. Because personhood is the vector of investment, the market moves poets more easily than poems.

Maybe a derangement has occurred when we celebrate authors more than books, more than our own acts of reading. “Reading recurs. Writing does not recur.”¹² 

Instead of a contest for the bestowing of prestige on remarkable persons, the more democratic thing—less zero-sum—would be to celebrate the uses of literature, which are plural, open-ended, unowned. 

The only canon that matters is the one which selects itself, that is a history of use—what past is found usable still, usable finally. It needs neither reform nor defense, only use and testament to that use.

The history of poetry is that of a vast and disagreeable coterie with no people in it, only usages, expressive and ruled.¹³

The problem with competitive personhood is that it misrecognizes its materials—persons, poems, the self at sea in the language system. It is continually undercut, destabilized, made to lie by its own medium. Herein lies poetry’s opportunity.

What if we did not think that the recognition of the person of the author was primarily at stake in the reading or writing of poems? What if a poem was not the exhibition of exquisitely singular consciousness but a gift-work offered to readers which, once gifted, in some real sense belonged to that reader? (The catch is that the market and the gift community are coextensive, occupying identical territory, involving the same actors.) 

What if personality/identity/selfhood indicated neither fixed quantity nor something possessed but coincidence with currents of energy operating through forms which precede us. We are iterative of the human; we are revisable; we are revisions already.

True poetry is antibiographical. The poet’s homeland is his poem and changes from one poem to the next.¹⁴


The challenge of our time is to uncouple poetry from competitive personhood, to distinguish its instrumentalization of language from that of communicative capitalism. Some paradoxical horizons: a digital quietism, impersonality in an era of personal branding, anonymity now.

If poetry is just culturally prestigious rhetoric deployed as means to self-fashioning or ego-maintenance, who cares? Ceaseless self-presentation is not obviously a social good.

Those for whom not to be seen is non-existence are not alive; and the kind of existence they spectral; to be seen is the ambition of ghosts, and to be remembered the ambition of the dead.¹⁵

We possess nothing in the world—a mere chance can strip us of everything—except the power to say “I.” That is what we have to give God, in other words, to destroy.¹⁶

The capacity of literature to “transcend” the self is well advertised; less discussed but not less essential or attractive is a kind of subscending capacity. “Immortality (poetic immanence) is the descent of the speaking person into the ground of language as a collective possession.”¹⁷ 

When Rakim asks the non-trivial question “How can I move the crowd?” he’s accessing the origin of rhetoric (property disputes), its inventio, but as he asks this he’s already speaking, rhetorically, to a crowd; and it isn’t a crowd of people, it’s the words themselves, “I” and “crowd” and every other word in the radiant chain. How does one do things with words? By knowing (that and how) words have been doing things with one, by being the latest ways of old sentences. Then the most difficult thing is to use everything, so that Tradition and the Individual Talent can become what they are, synonyms.¹⁸

I recite the Psalms and say “I” (as the text requires) and am unsure what I mean. Is this “I” alone or in company? Do I implicate my own history or the history of the word’s use? Do I speak from the position of some imagined author whose vantage I inhabit as though in a kind of karaoke? Or do I appropriate it in a more fundamental way, for a momentary burgeoning of cognitive capacity, for a fleeting expansion in which my solace and thrill recognize no rivals? And if I have for the moment taken this voice, how may I return it?

I recite the Psalms and say “I.” I mean myself. I mean it in a sense which resonates with but is not strictly the result of the biographical experience of that self. But so too have I been thrown––without warrant but nevertheless––into the speaking position of everyone who has ever lived, or at least of those who have likewise spoken the Psalms. 

I write a poem and say “I.” (Not me, mind you––“I.”) In doing this I have opened or aspired to open a window. Within its frame lies both the brittle husk of the self and the deathless deep song, both the choral lament of a community of speakers and the vapid drone of self-narration. May there be commerce between them.



[1] Iain Crighton Smith, “The Notebooks of Robinson Crusoe”
[2] E.M. Forster, Anonymity: An Enquiry
[3] Forster, Anonymity: An Enquiry
[4] Allen Grossman, The Sighted Singer
[5] Dan Beachy-Quick, Of Silence and Song
[6] Marguerite Yourcenar, “Reflections on the Composition of The Memoirs of Hadrian” 
[7] Paul Celan, Mircoliths
[8] Walt Whitman, “What am I, After All?”
[9] Celan, Microliths
[10] Alan Felsenthal, “Past Life Palinode”
[11] Norman O. Brown, Love’s Body
[12] Grossman, The Sighted Singer
[13] Geoffrey G. O’Brien, statement for the Poetry Society of America’s “New American Poets”
[14] Celan, Microliths
[15] O. Brown, Love’s Body
[16] Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace
[17] Grossman, The Sighted Singer
[18] O’Brien, statement for the Poetry Society of America’s “New American Poets”

*This essay repurposes a few phrases and sentences from an earlier essay, "The Words of Others."


BRANDON KREITLER is the author of Late Frontier, selected by Major Jackson for the Poetry Society of America’s National Chapbook Fellowship, and the recipient of a Discovery / Boston Review Prize from the 92Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center.  He edits the email Practice Catalogue.

Geoffrey G. O'Brien, Experience In Groups (Wave Books, 2018)

Natalie Eilbert, Indictus (Noemi Press, 2018)