Near the beginning of his strange, brilliant book Crowds and Power, the Bulgarian writer Elias Canetti claims that our most primal fear is the fear of being touched: the hand in the dark, something reaching out and grabbing hold of us. We only really lose this fear in crowds, says Canetti, since it is in crowds that we allow the boundaries of the self to melt away. We touch and are touched in the scrum and bustle of the crowd, but in the crowd we don’t feel touch as a violation. It doesn’t bother us, because we don’t think of the crowd as other than ourselves: an angry mob, a multitude gathered in protest, a pack of like-minded sports fanatics surging back and forth and chanting in unison: when we’re part of such groups, we don’t experience the crowd as separate from ourselves: we’re part of an us, and the only threat is from whomever we’ve collectively designated as them. From this Canetti builds a fascinating, and at times terrifying, theory of the crowd.
Poets, of course, have also expressed revulsion from the crowd, but also the seductive bliss of immersion in the collective. Indeed, the two oldest and most revered modes of poetry — the lyric and the epic — respectively express the individualistic ethos of private emotion, and the collective ideals and aspirations of the group. But unless I miss my guess, it’s really at the beginning of the nineteenth century that we see an uptick in the frequency with which poets consciously meditate on the meaning of the multitude. And this poetic examination of the relation of the individual to the crowd has continued up to the present.
Monstrous Ant-Hills: The Crowd in Romanticism
Romanticism is a large and various literary movement, and it certainly has its moments of collectivism, especially in the more peripheral nations of Europe, where nationalist sentiment, even to the point of atavism, was an important part of the reaction to Enlightenment universalism and the spread of standardized, deracinated laws and customs under the banners of Napoleon’s conquering armies. But the dominant relation to the crowd in English Romanticism is certainly revulsion. Here’s Wordsworth describing London in book seven of The Prelude:
Rise up, thou monstrous ant-hill on the plain;Of a too busy world! Before me flow,Thou endless stream of men and moving things!Thy every-day appearance, as it strikes--With wonder heightened, or sublimed by awe--On strangers, of all ages; the quick danceOf colours, lights, and forms; the deafening din;The comers and the goers face to face,Face after face; the string of dazzling wares,Shop after shop, with symbols, blazoned names,And all the tradesman's honours overhead:Here, fronts of houses, like a title-page,With letters huge inscribed from top to toe…
What really strikes Wordsworth about the crowded streets of London is the signage. It’s hard for us to put ourselves in a state of mind where the presence of shop signs is a strange and alienating thing, but that’s were Wordsworth is coming from. For him, the need of shops to spell out in gigantic letters the nature of their services indicates how impersonal a place the crowded city had become. In small villages such as those Wordsworth knew in the Lake District, one knew the individuals with whom one bartered, but in the city every shop needs to shout out its identity to a rushing crowd, lest it remain anonymous. No one really knows where they are or who they’re with, not in the way the characters in, say, Wordsworth’s “Michael” know each other. In “Michael,” each little pile of stones has a story about the generations who lived around it, and all those stories are known to the locals. They know who they are and where they live in a way the inhabitants of the monstrous ant-hill cannot.
Wordsworth is also a bit put-off by the internationalized, multicultural space that London had already become. Here’s a small piece of a long passage on a marketplace:
Presents a company of dancing dogs,
Or dromedary, with an antic pair
Of monkeys on his back; a minstrel band
Of Savoyards; or, single and alone,
An English ballad-singer
Camels, monkeys, and Italian musicians from Savoy: the poor ballad-singer, a representative of indigenous culture, hardly stands a chance, surrounded as he is by a noisy array of exotics, including:
…every character of form and face:
The Swede, the Russian; from the genial south,
The Frenchman and the Spaniard; from remote
America, the Hunter-Indian;
Moors,Malays, Lascars, the Tartar, the Chinese,
And Negro Ladies in white muslin gowns.
But what really throws Wordsworth off balance isn’t anything so banal as the presence of the culturally different. It’s a version of the anonymity and alienation that we saw earlier in the shop signs:
How oft, amid those overflowing streets,
Have I gone forward with the crowd, and said
Unto myself, "The face of every one
That passes by me is a mystery!"
Thus have I looked, nor ceased to look, oppressed
By thoughts of what and whither, when and how;
Until the shapes before my eyes became
A second-sight procession, such as glides
Over still mountains, or appears in dreams;
And once, far-travelled in such mood, beyond
The reach of common indication, lost
Amid the moving pageant, I was smitten
Abruptly, with the view (a sight not rare)
Of a blind Beggar, who, with upright face,
Stood, propped against a wall, upon his chest
Wearing a written paper, to explain
His story, whence he came, and who he was.
Caught by the spectacle my mind turned round
As with the might of waters; and apt type
This label seemed of the utmost we can know,
Both of ourselves and of the universe;
And, on the shape of that unmoving man,
His steadfast face and sightless eyes, I gazed,
As if admonished from another world.
The old blind beggar has no relation to the people swarming around him. In a village he’d be known to everyone, and they to him, and if it were his home village, he’d be connected to the community by webs of family obligation. His story would be well-known, and he’d have a place. But here, in the crush of bodies pouring through the streets of London, he’s no one at all. His only claim to any connection to others is through advertising his own story, in letters much like those of the shop signs we saw before. He has to assert his humanity and individuality and particularity, and in the passing rush this assertion takes on both a pathos (he’s so small, he’s so vulnerable, he has so little claim on making us care) and a sublimity (he’s so small and vulnerable, yet he endures and is not destroyed, his small light held against the darkness). If you live in America, you’ve passed some homeless man, most likely a veteran in a wheelchair, and seen exactly this sort of life-story scrawled in marker on a piece of cardboard. I don’t know what the sight made you feel, but Wordsworth would see in it “the utmost we can know/Both of ourselves and of the universe” — an emblem of our condition as little orphaned individuals in the largeness of space and time.
Crowds like this are, for Wordsworth, threats: threats to the dignity and rootedness of the individual. And he’s not alone in his aversion to the crowd: Byron introduced us to Childe Harold (the Ziggy Stardust to Byron’s Bowie) by saying:
… soon he knew himself the most unfit
Of men to herd with Man; with whom he held
Little in common; untaught to submit
His thoughts to others, though his soul was quelled,
In youth by his own thoughts; still uncompelled,
He would not yield dominion of his mind
To spirits against whom his own rebelled;
Proud though in desolation; which could find
A life within itself, to breathe without mankind.
To be with others in a crowd is to “herd” — to be subhuman, animalistic, erased as an individual. What a psychologist now might describe as the imperfect socialization of a severe narcissist, Byron sees with pride. Harold was “untaught to submit his thoughts to others” — he retains his swaggering individualism and independence, which gives him an isolation that is both a curse (“desolation”) and a mark of specialness.
We find variations on the revulsion from crowds in all the major English Romantic poets, though in Coleridge it is tempered by a kind of nostalgia for a lost sense of community (the Ancient Mariner was only ever unselfconsciously part of a group before he killed the albatross, and at the end of the poem he preaches a gospel of community he cannot embody); and in Shelley it is combined with a yearning for a small community of the likeminded (as we see in “Epipsychidion” and the deeply under-rated “Alastor,” and in the pathos of “Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills”).
I imagine the exalting of the individual, and the praising of the small community against the crowd, has to do with both the large-scale social conditions of the time, and with the particular circumstances of poets in the Romantic era. The French Revolution and the incipient industrial economy had uprooted old social order. This both unleashed the power of the individual to find his or her own course through the world and bequeathed to those atomized individuals a host of anxieties about anonymity and dislocation. And poets, shut out of the old patronage networks and unaccommodated by the market, felt particularly out of place, alienated from (and therefore critical of) the dominant institutions of their age. They had their individual pride to fall back on, and dreams of happier days in closer communities.
The Poet as the Flâneur in the City
Of course not all poets felt alienated from the crowds of the growing cities of the nineteenth centuries. As the century wore on, cities increasingly became the natural habitat of poets. How did these figures relate to the crush of bodies around them? Baudelaire, in “Les Foules” (“Crowds”) admits to a taste for the multitude, but he begins by noting such a taste isn’t for everyone:
It is not given to every man to take a bath of multitude; enjoying a crowd is an art; and only he can relish a debauch of vitality at the expense of the human species, on whom, in his cradle, a fairy has bestowed the love of masks and masquerading, the hate of home, and the passion for roaming.
What makes it possible for Baudelaire to appreciate crowds? It’s something having to do with imagination:
Multitude, solitude: identical terms, and interchangeable by the active and fertile poet. The man who is unable to people his solitude is equally unable to be alone in a bustling crowd.
The poet enjoys the incomparable privilege of being able to be both himself and someone else, as he wishes. Like those wandering souls who go looking for a body, he enters as he likes into each man's personality. For him alone everything is vacant; and if certain places seem closed to him, it is only because in his eyes they are not worth visiting.
The solitary and thoughtful stroller finds a singular intoxication in this universal communion. The man who loves to lose himself in a crowd enjoys feverish delights that the egoist locked up in himself as in a box, and the slothful man like a mollusk in his shell, will be eternally deprived of. He adopts as his own all the occupations, all the joys and all the sorrows that chance offers.
What men call love is a very small, restricted, feeble thing compared with this ineffable orgy, this divine prostitution of the soul giving itself entire, all it poetry and all its charity, to the unexpected as it comes along, to the stranger as he passes.
For Baudelaire, the experience of the individual going out into the crowd is a matter of the individual more-or-less disappearing, becoming an egoless emptiness into which all passing things flow. It’s much like what Emerson was getting at when he wrote “I become a transparent eyeball—I am nothing; I see all the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me,” though Emerson was thinking about nature and wilderness, not the crush of humanity on the streets of Paris.
Baudelaire concludes by changing things up a bit. So far he’s been following a kind of via negativa, an erasure of self in order to take in and become at one with all he encounters. Here, in the final paragraph of his prose poem, he compares this experience to the experience of Moses-like figures who create a community around themselves:
It is a good thing sometimes to teach the fortunate of this world, if only to humble for an instant their foolish pride, that there are higher joys than theirs, finer and more uncircumscribed. The founders of colonies, shepherds of peoples, missionary priests exiled to the ends of the earth, doubtlessly know something of this mysterious drunkenness; and in the midst of the vast family created by their genius, they must often laugh at those who pity them because of their troubled fortunes and chaste lives.
In the end, I suppose, there’s not much to choose between the two paths: whether one’s union with the crowd comes from self-erasure, or from the kind of assertive, paternal leadership of the “founders of colonies, shepherds of peoples,” it all ends in the same place: blissful, promiscuous union in the crowd. Here, I think, is what Elias Canetti was getting at when he said that the crowd was the key to losing the fear of being touched: there is only touch, and no self to be touched from the outside.
Walt Whitman, another urban poet, takes a similar approach in “There was a Child Went Forth.” The poem starts out with something like Baudelaire’s self-loss in the encounter with the objects around one:
There was a child went forth every day;
And the first object he look'd upon, that object he became;
And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part ofthe day, or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.….
And the old drunkard staggering home from the out-house of the tavern, whence he had lately risen,
And the school-mistress that pass'd on her way to the school,
And the friendly boys that pass'd--and the quarrelsome boys,
And the tidy and fresh-cheek'd girls--and the barefoot negro boy and girl,
And all the changes of city and country, wherever he went.
Soon, though, we see that Whitman isn’t giving us a self-erasure, but a kind of building up of the self: everything the child encounters enters into that child and “becomes part of him.” That is, the child takes in and comprehends the world, digests it, and makes it part of an enduring and expanding self. All the people the child encounters “became part of that child who went forth every day,” and if there’s an encounter with the eternal, it isn’t that the child enters a unity larger than himself. Rather, he gathers the passing faces of the crowd into himself, and it is there that they survive, as he “now goes, and will always go forth every day.” Talk about the egotistical sublime!
What's striking about both Baudelaire and Whitman is the way there's a kind of meeting of the individual and the absolute through the medium of the crowd: the crowd is the way the self opens up to a connection with something like the infinite. It's a very abstract kind of community that's at stake here: not a matter of getting to know others as particular people, but of finding a mystical union between self and all. It may be profound, but it's hardly sociable. I doubt Wordsworth, who dreamed of communities where people knew one another's life-stories, would find it satisfactory. But it is a way to live in a city and find something other than horror and revulsion at the sight of the multitude.
Something about twentieth century experience in America seems to have made many of our best poets ambivalent about crowds. My great touchstone for all this is William Carlos Williams’ “At the Ballgame,” which includes these lines:
So in detail they, the crowd,
to be warned against
saluted and defied—
It is alive, venomous
it smiles grimly
its words cut—
The flashy female with her
mother, gets it—
The Jew gets it straight— it
is deadly, terrifying—
It is the Inquisition, the
It is beauty itself
day by day in them
the power of their faces
It is summer, it is the solstice
the crowd is
cheering, the crowd is laughing
The crowd is beautiful, happy, deeply-rooted in the past of human experience (it’s important, I think, that “it is the solstice,” with all of the freight of pagan festivals that time of year carries). But then again, as Canetti knew, where there’s an exalting us, there’s also a threatened them. The flashy female is likely to find herself objectified — which is a form of not belonging, of being set apart. And the Jewish character has plenty of historical reason to distrust crowds as they thoughtlessly celebrate their oneness and togetherness.
George Oppen’s Of Being Numerous presents another ambivalent meditation on the relation of solitude and multidude. Images of shipwreck and an isolated Crusoe figure haunt the 39-section poem from which the book draws its name. But no matter how deep Oppen’s fears of isolation run, he remains committed to solidarity with others: “Obsessed, bewildered / By the shipwreck / Of the singular,” he writes, “We have chosen the meaning / Of being numerous.” Again, we see the desire to come together. But the urge for community is counterpoised to a skepticism about public platitudes: committed to concrete observation, Oppen cannot fathom those who, with such ease and abstraction, “talk/Distantly of ‘The People.’”
The series ends with a quotation of a piece of Walt Whitman’s prose, in which he looks on the capitol building rebuilt after the Civil War:
The capitol grows upon one in time, especially as they have got the great figure on top of it now, and you can see it very well. It is a great bronze figure, the Genius of Liberty I suppose. It looks wonderful toward sundown. I love to go and look at it. The sun when it is nearly down shines on the headpiece and it dazzle and glistens like a big star: it looks quite
The choice of Whitman, the great American Everyman, is significant: his presence signals an interest in a poetry of national community. But the break mid-sentence, together with the lineation, put a great deal of stress on that final word, “curious.” What is Oppen’s take on the idea of community? Is he skeptical? Intrigued? He certainly can’t bring himself to yawp with a full-throated Whitmanesque enthusiasm. The questions are left hanging there in front of us.
Crowds and Countercultures
The countercultural movements of the sixties and seventies put different spins on the theme of solitude and multitude. Gary Snyder, for example, clearly feels the pull of the crowd in one of his most famous poems, “I Went Into the Maverick Bar.” The poem begins like this:
I went into the Maverick Bar
In Farmington, New Mexico.
And drank double shots of bourbon
backed with beer.
My long hair was tucked up under a cap
I’d left the earring in the car.
Two cowboys did horseplay
by the pool tables,
A waitress asked uswhere are you from?
a country-and-western band began to play
“We don’t smoke Marijuana in Muskokie”
And with the next song,
a couple began to dance.
They held each other like in High School dances
in the fifties;
I recalled when I worked in the woods
and the bars of Madras, Oregon.
That short-haired joy and roughness—America—your stupidity.
I could almost love you again.
Certainly Snyder’s speaker (let’s call him “Snyder,” since he pretty much is Gary Snyder) feels alienated. He is, after all, disguised in the enemy camp: long hair tucked away, earring hidden, while the anthem of the hippie-bashing multitudes plays. But he feels the allure of the warm embrace: dances, horseplay, all that unselfconscious human community. I love the ambivalence at the end of the third stanza. In fact, I’ve always thought the poem would be better if it ended there. But instead we have another stanza, one truer, perhaps, to what Snyder really felt. Or perhaps only truer to what he thought he ought to feel:
We left—onto the freeway shoulders—
under the tough old stars—
In the shadow of bluffsI came back to myself,
To the real work, to
“What is to be done.”
“What is to be done,” of course, is the title of a famous revolutionary tract by Lenin. If there’s solidarity in this last stanza, it’s not to any actually experienced crowd, like the one in the Maverick bar. Rather, it’s to an abstract idea of a class-based community. Maybe it’s this shift from the warmth of a real crowd to the coldness of allegiance to an abstract multitude that irks me. And believe me, I want to be on Snyder’s side.
If the culture/counterculture animosity could vex Snyder’s relation to crowds, it caused another kind of poet to seek to draw a crowd together. Consider the Black Nationalist aesthetic of Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka’s poem “S.O.S.”:
Here, in a poem clearly written for oral delivery to a racially specific audience, we begin with a strong sense of the phatic function of language, with the poet seeking, apparently desperately, to connect to his community:
Calling black people
Calling all black people, man woman child
Wherever you are, calling you, urgent, come in
Black People, come in, wherever you are, urgent, calling
You, calling all black people
The voice is like that of a lost radio operator seeking to connect to home base. But the radio-operator's voice changes, in the final lines, to something else: rather than a voice in the wilderness, trying to find contact, we suddenly get something like a host's voice, or a carnival barker's, welcoming people into whatever desirable location he inhabits:
Calling all black people, come in, black people, come
From "come in" to "come on in" is a big step: the outsider becomes the insider, and the audience, at first sought desperately, is now welcomed warmly. The move is from solitude to the hope of multitude. One senses that Jones/Baraka wants to become one of Baudelaire’s “founders of colonies, shepherds of peoples,” gathering “a vast family created by their genius.”
One of my favorite contemporary poems to take up the theme of multitude and solitude in Atsuro Riley’s poem “Diorama.” Riley, a half-Japanese southerner, gives us a powerful, non-judgmental sense of a community gathering as a crowd at a small town summer fair. I was fortunate enough to hear Riley read the poem earlier this year, and the man who’d introduced Riley, himself a southerner from Memphis, couldn’t contain himself after the reading, and burst out saying “when I heard your poem, all I could think was those are the sounds, those are the words, I grew up with!” I get it. Riley does a great job of giving what I suppose we could call the audio landscape of a southern crowd of his youth. But then, right there in the middle of the poem, we get a moment where Riley’s main character, a half-Japanese boy, overhears a conversation in which he’s being talked about as an exotic alien:
The Blue Hole Summer Fair, set up and spread out like a butterfly pinned down on paper. Twin bright-lit wings, identically shaped (and fenced) and sized.
This side holds the waffled-tin (and oven-hot) huts of the Home Arts Booths and Contests, the hay-sweet display-cages for the 4-H livestock, the streamer-hung display-stages where girl-beauties twirl and try for queen. There's rosette-luster (and -lusting), and the marching band wearing a hole in Sousa. And (pursed) gaggles and clutches of feather-white neighbor-women, eyeballing us like we're pig's feet in a jar.
I wonder does her boy talk Chinese?
You ever seen that kind of black-headed?
Blue shine all in it like a crow.
This other wing (the one I'm back-sneaking, side-slipping, turnstiling into) dips and slopes down to low-lying marsh-mire: whiffs of pluff-mud stink and live gnat-pack poison, carnie-cots and -trailers camped on ooze. They've got (rickety) rides, and tent-shows with stains, and rackety bare-bulbed stalls of Hoop-La Game (RING-A-COKE!) and Rebel Yell and Shoot the Gook Down. Stand here, on this smutch-spot: don't these mirrors show you strange?
Crowds are gathering. Yonder there and down, the yolk-glow of a tent is drawing men on (and in) the way a car-crash does, or a cockfight sure enough, or neon. The ticket-boy's getting mobbed at the fly of the door.No sign in sight, except for the X of the Dixie-flag ironed across his t-shirt.I am bone-broke but falling into line.The men upwind of me are leaking chaw-spit and pennies.That, plus the eye-hunger spreading like a rumor through the swarm.The rib-skinny doorkeeper's hollering: bet now, bout's bout startin!Over his shoulder, a ropy yellow light.Also: circles of white tobacco-smoke, and bleacher-rows of (cooncalling) men who know my daddy.—And there he is, up in front with some tall man, iron-arming two black-chested boys toward the ring.
The remarkable thing about Riley’s poem, for me, is the way the central moment in which we feel the main character’s otherness remains undramatic. I don’t mean to say that it lacks impact — it has plenty of that. What I mean is, it isn’t a dramatic climax, it doesn’t result in anything like the crowd turning on the part-Asian boy. It doesn’t lead to a direct confrontation. In fact, it’s the very ordinariness of it that makes it important: the people who ask “I wonder does her boy talk Chinese?” aren’t mean-spirited or malevolent. But nevertheless we feel the sting of their words. Like the Jewish character in William Carlos Williams’ “At the Ballgame,” we “get it straight” about what it means to be “other.” That Riley can approach this topic, one that clearly gives him much pain, with a kind of distanced, nuanced understanding is remarkable. It’s one of the things that places him among the best poets I know of working on the old theme of solitude and multitude.