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Francesca Richardson

AP Literature

Ryan Gallagher

Explication “I the People” By Alice Notley

In her poem, “I the People,” Notley comments on the inability of creating true

democracy resulting from human nature of people to have different opinions and views.

Notley uses repetition to emphasize the selfishness of the human race that is developing.

She also follows the same structure throughout her poem to symbolize something


Notley begins her poem with the same line as her title, “I the people,” indicating that

this is a strong point in her poem. Throughout the poem, Notley continues to repeat “I the

people” which emphasizes the selfishness of the human race. That is why Notley changes

the familiar phrase “We the People” used to express love for one’s nation into “I the

People.” She does this repeatedly to express how the human race is becoming more and

more self-centered. Notley follows the first line of her poem with, “to the things that are

were &/ come to be” (2-3) to establish the speakers reasoning in speaking selfishly. The

speaker does this to make the reader unaware of exactly what they are mentioning.

Notley begins to address other people now in her poem by speaking of “we” and “you”

and “our.” She begins to add these pronouns along with “I” much more consistently in

the poem. Notley has the speaker address themselves with another by saying, “we were
once what we know/ when we/ make love.” Notley begins to use pronouns to add more

points of view to the poem. Notley begins to speak of defining moments of life, such as

“when we/ make love” and “when we go away/ from each other.” (5-7) Both are

moments in life that can have great effects on who we are. Notley continues to use the

pronoun “we” throughout her poem to emphasize the experiences that “we hope we are

/notes of the musical scale” (11-12) give us false hopes. By using “we” Notley is assuring

her audience that they are not the only ones to commit this fault, there are many others

just like them. However, Notley goes back to speaking of “I” to focus the poem back on

herself as a speaker.

Notley’s repitition of “I the/ people” (13-14) brings her back to the first person point of

view. In doing this, Notley begins to criticize the idea of true democracy. Notley mocks

the United States Constitution whose opening line is, “We the people,” which goes

against the title of her poem. Notley choses to create this irony to show that the general

public only thinks and worries for themselves. Notley reveals her tendency to “hold the

neighbors loose- / ly in light of [her] gel [her] vision” (14-18). This expresses her

expecting things to be the way she sees them to be, emphasizing her greater idea of self-

centeredness. Notley adresses the problem of man’s “eyes to hold you sur-/round you in

gold/ & you don’t know it /ever” (20-23). This is criticizing man’s inclination to expect

the world to change specifically to all his needs.

Notley continues to add to her claim of the general public being too selfish to ever be

at a true democratic state. Notley now adresses “Everyone” (23) which can symbolize a

united group. She then states that she is “a late Pre-/ in this dawn of/ We the people” (30-

32). This establishes that she was not included in “the people” before, because she did not
understand anything but her own beliefs. The phrase she uses in the beginning of the

poem “to the things that are & were & / come to be” (33-34) is present again, in order to

show the speaker’s opinion of democracy. She persuades her audience to look into the

faults and mishaps of the system.

Notley’s purpose through this poem is to reveal the self-centeredness of “the people”

who are suppose to make up democracy, which is why it is never fully accomplished.

However, Notley also criticizes her own faults so her audience does not feel accused, in

doing this, Notley is successful in revealing these aspects of democracy to “the people.”