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It’s us and them, but who are ‘they’?

July 9, 2011

‘They’ is a fantastically versatile word. It’s also disgustingly lazy, much like myself. It can refer to anyone and everyone, to whomever the author or reader intends. Both have an equal stake in the anonymity of ‘they’, but what’s really wonderful about it is that you can put any words you like in their collective mouths without fear of contradiction, because no-one knows for certain who to contradict.

I am a terrible mis-user of ‘they’. It’s a personal pronoun but I don’t think I could use it more impersonally if I tried. It’s the word I use when I have no-one else to blame, and I never bother to attach a face to this scapegoated little pronoun. So what I finally asked myself this morning (in the shower, if you want to know), is this: who are ‘they’? The government? Global capitalism? The public? The ghosts of a thousand dead straight white guys? The short answer is I don’t know, but it’s an answer that I reached primarily through wussing out of asking my question properly.

In Tony Harrison’s famous poem ‘Them and [Uz]’, it’s clear who ‘them’ refers to. In a scathing — and hilarious — attack on the linguistic hegemony of Received Pronunciation (“RIP, RP”), Harrison draws an unquestionable, if invisible, boundary. The otherness ascribed to the speaker, despite occupying the role of ‘uz’, is so stark that the titular ‘them’ don’t need names. In this case, we know who they are.

In my own poems, I’ve never really taken the time to question who the ubiquitous ‘they’ really are. Because of course they’re not just one thing: they range from gossiping old women to faceless doctors to the electrical board of Kyrgyzstan.

This multifarious entity that pops up again and again might seem a gift to any poet with a grudge against everyone, but I’m starting to think ‘they’ are a crutch, something to hide behind. That’s probably why the word keeps cropping up; the repetition signals my reliance upon it, which makes me think it’s becoming disadvantageous.

Of course, ‘they’ still wield some evocative power. The opening of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch:

“I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves […]”

Here, ‘they’ represent a very real threat, one that is menacing precisely because it is not identified. Using ‘them’, it seems, has its time and place. Maybe that’s what I need to learn.

But for now I think it’s time I stopped using ‘them’ as a convenient shorthand for the rest of the world, and squared up to who it is that’s really behind the word, who’s really making the decisions that become statements in these poems.

…I’ll let you know how that turns out.

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