Far from being the simple reflection of an autobiographical self, the lyric I is a fictive and profoundly unsettling construction, even in seemingly confessional modes. What could be said, then of the lyric you, which is, if anything, an even stranger literary convention? Perhaps the most striking characteristic of the lyric you is its absence from the scene of enunciation. This absence is not an invariable rule: it is possible to imagine addressees who are actually present to hear the message of the poem. Nevertheless, the presence of an addressee is not necessary, or even expected, for the act of enunciation to occur. Entire genres like elegy and ode, in fact, are founded on absence of the addressee: people who are no longer alive, inanimate objects, and abstract concepts will not be able to receive the message being directed toward them. In a love poem written for someone who is still alive, only one reader will happen to coincide with the lyric addressee, out of many potential readers of the poem. The poem survives the demise of the original poet and the addressee, taking on meaning in new contexts. We feel, then, that we are overhearing rather than hearing the message of the poem, but also, more importantly, that the message is meant to be overheard.
Needless to say, there are two questions here: (1) whether the fictive addressee is seen to be present, fictively, in the scene, or could conceivably hear the message (as an epistle, for example), and (2) whether this addressee is actually the real addressee of the poem, or simply a place-holder.
While the lyric purports to be overheard speech, it is actually a form of writing, and writing itself presupposes the absence of the addressee. Walter Ong, famously, argued that “the writer’s audience is always a fiction.” He explains: “Context in the spoken word is simply present, centered in the person speaking, and the one or ones to whom he addresses himself and to whom he is related existentially in terms of the circumambient actuality.” In writing, however, “the person to whom the writer addresses himself normally is not present at all […] Moreover, he must not be present. I am writing a book which will be read by thousands, or, I modestly hope, by tens of thousands. So, please, get out of the room. Writing normally calls for some sort of withdrawal.”
While this is undoubtedly true of writing, this principle applies equally to song and other forms of the anonymous oral tradition in which the presumptive speakers and addressees no longer exist. The speaker of a proverb, for example, is never its originator. This brings about a strange paradox: lyric poetry puts speakers and addressees in the foreground, yet does so in a way that negates their actual presence.
Émile Benveniste, in a brilliant analysis of the past tenses of French, posits two modalities of the language, which he call histoire and discours. In the histoire, the first and second persons of the verb are absent, along with references to the present of enunciation and all other forms of deixis. In discours, however, first and second person pronouns and verb forms reign supreme, along with other words that refer directly to the here and now of the scene of enunciation. History uses only a simple past tense (aorist) to refer to past event, whereas discourse uses only the passé composé, a perfect tense, for these purposes. The history / discourse distinction is not identical to that between speech and writing, since there can be written forms of discourse, like transcriptions of oratory, but the passé simple is found almost exclusively in writing. Benveniste notes the strangness of forms like je fis, which combine a first-person verb with a tense that is used almost exclusively in the third person.
The lyric presents a special case, since it is a written form, but one that strongly emphasizes the first and second persons. Lyric poetry remains a highly personal mode, in which the I and the you feel intensely present, but also one in which the both pronouns do not retain their normal function, given that lyric discourse is transparently artificial.
The first and the second person are intimately linked. Benveniste links subjectivity in language to the personal pronoun I. “‘Ego’ est qui dit ‘ego.’” And subjectivity, the capacity to say I, itself is constituted by language. The reciprocal relation between me and you ensues as the next stage in his argument. By the same token, Benveniste thinks of the third person as not a person at all in the sense that the first and second persons of the verb are. as, essentially, an impersonal subject or a zero degree of subjectivity.
While this use of pronouns is deeply strange, it is also familiar to everyone who has ever heard a popular song, whether it be a song from the popular anonymous tradition or from commercial mass culture. The singer who is not the author of the music or the lyrics is expressing a message that we attribute neither to the subjectivity of the original composers / lyricists nor (exactly) to the singer herself. The singer is singing to a live audience (or recording for another type of audience), but these potential audiences do not need to include the original addressee of the song (in the cases where we can posit such a thing) or even the you to whom the singer seems to be communicating. Anyone singing along at home to a recording of a song is singing I or you but without any necessary reference to any particular self or selves.