The potentially most distant and closest of denotations - the pronoun 'you'
‘And I am happier than you are,
And they were happier than I am’, wrote Ezra Pound in his ‘Salutation’.
‘Whoever you are holding me now in hand,
Without one thing all will be useless’, said Walt Whitman in his ‘Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand’.
The pronoun ‘you’ happens to give poetry students, as well as tutors and critics, some trouble. The 'common sense' reader might try to dismiss Pound, Whitman, or Eliot – all ‘like talking to someone they don’t know’. The simple fact is that they use the pronoun ‘you’ – and what does it actually mean?
‘You’ may mean a single person as well as many persons. Basically, a ‘YOU’ is a ‘NOT ME’ - ‘stand still, you ever-moving spheres of heaven’, says Marlowe. The ‘you’ implies different identity and distance.
‘Let us go then, you and I’, wrote T.S. Eliot. My spellchecker is rebelling against the pronoun ‘I’; it is going to be quashed this time.
The identity and distance become different with the generic ‘you’. Imagine you tell anyone, like your neighbor, ‘then you go left and turn right by the corner, I’ve been there many times myself’? ‘You’ is close to ‘one’ here: ‘then one goes left and turns right by the corner’. How about a ‘how are we this morning’ by a family doctor?
The pronoun ‘you’ is potentially the most distant and closest of denotations in English. No wonder it has become an object of the wordsmiths’ observations. American poets read really great when one keeps the notions of identity and distance in mind ;)
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