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date: 25 February 2021

Abstract and Keywords

After J. S. Mill, lyric address has often been thought of as personal and private ‘overhearing’. Yet repeatedly in contemporary British poetry, to address you is to demand attention to poetry’s public function. The poem’s interlocutive capacity insists upon its implication in civil acts, from constructions of nationhood to gender relations, regional, ethnic, and class-based identities to the economic and political negotiations conducted in the aesthetic sphere. With attention to the lyric addresses of W. S. Graham, Geoffrey Hill, Roy Fisher, Douglas Dunn, Jo Shapcott, Carol Ann Duffy, Veronica Forrest-Thompson, J. H. Prynne, and Tony Harrison, this essay probes how, in post-1960s British poetry, you is engaged in complex cultural constructions of gender, identity, region, class, nationality, tradition. To say you is to find oneself confronted by a vast array of changeable aspects of discourse; thrown into dialogue with many changeable voices informing literary inheritances. To focus on you is to rethink attitudes toward canonicity, the norms of poetic reception, and poetry’s role in quotidian life. This essay argues that poets repeatedly use lyric address to scrutinize poetry’s strengths (and shortcomings) in negotiating the real sociopolitical conditions of the altering British state from modernism to the present.

The essay focuses especially on post-1960s poetry that, in speaking to you, demands attention to author and public, page and reader. The work of Prynne, Fisher, and Forrest-Thompson prompts debates over arts funding, poetic broadcast, small and large press publishing, and the role of the poet-intellectual as cultural insider or outsider. Harrison, Duffy, and Dunn repeatedly emphasize that the artwork is a complex cultural nexus. Their poems alert you to the tensions between margin and centre, I and other. In Shapcott and Hill, to voice you is to be bound up in the politics of speaking to others, and the implications of aligning oneself with particular individuals, social groups, and public bodies. In Duffy and Harrison, class- and gender-based identifications and alignments with particular yous are fraught issues, given Britain’s continuing absorption of differing influences, experiences, identities, and discourses. So too, the addresses of Graham, Prynne, and Fisher insist on poetry’s involvement in shaping—not merely reflecting—the conflicted public world. Saying you is a way of making directly, disconcertingly evident that the speaker and his or her interlocutor(s) are directly affected by and affecting cultural change. Implementing philosophy of language and speech act theory (Wittgenstein, Austin, Searle, Heidegger), the essay examines the cultural politics of putting I and you into uncomfortable poetic proximity, in face-to-face deictic relations. If these poets are of their time in emphasizing poetry’s negotiation of the sociopolitical sphere, their addresses also take pleasure in unsettling audience perceptions, calling for your re-evaluation of the role of the poet in contemporary culture.

Keywords: address, you, contemporary, British, poetry, J. H. Prynne, Geoffrey Hill, reception, patronage, audience, canon, public speech, poetry industry, commerce, identity

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