Persona Poems

August 16, 2022

  Even though persona is just one letter short of personal, its original Latin means almost the opposite: theatrical mask.  In more recent literature it refers to dramatic monologues like Browning’s “My Last Duchess” and T. S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.  In a wider sense, persona refers to someone’s role in public, as distinguished from their inner, private self.  In contemporary poetry, persona usually refers to a speaker who is distinctly different from the writer.  But I would argue that almost all poetry is persona poetry, since even an I speaker who has a lot in common with the writer is a construct on the page–a public role.  The only exception might be confessional poetry, which at least gives the appearance of conflating the speaker with the writer.

Most personas speak directly in first person, but some are characters spoken about–avatars for the self, or distinctly others.  Persona poems always have a duality: the mask, and the person wearing the mask, speaking through it.  It’s a powerful device, one that can free a writer to speak in a voice very different from his or her own, and to take on different attitudes, to see the world from a different angle.  And the self is also seen at an angle, indirectly–“Tell the truth, but tell it slant,” as Dickinson said.

I thought of many poems I couldn’t include here, like Marvin Bell’s Dead Man poems (too long, and impossible to format here), Eliot’s Prufrock, Pound’s Personae.  I’d recommend poems from Adrian Matejka’s book The Big Smoke, about the first black heavy-weight champion, Jack Johnson; many of Richard Howard’s poems; Frank Bidart’s “Herbert White” and “Ellen West”; Robert Hayden’s “Night, Death, Mississippi,” where the poem’s speaker is a Klansman.  And I highly recommend reading all six sections of Mona Van Duyn’s “Letters from a Father,” that charts the gradual transformation in her parents’ lives after she gives them a bird feeder.

As usual, I’ll send the Fridays at 4 (eastern time) zoom link at the end of the week.

 

SIREN SONG

Margaret Atwood

This is the one song everyone
would like to learn: the song
that is irresistible:

the song that forces men
to leap overboard in squadrons
even though they see the beached skulls

the song nobody knows
because anyone who has heard it
is dead, and the others can’t remember.

Shall I tell you the secret
and if I do, will you get me
out of this bird suit?

I don’t enjoy it here
squatting on this island
looking picturesque and mythical

with these two feathery maniacs,
I don’t enjoy singing
this trio, fatal and valuable.

I will tell the secret to you,
to you, only to you.
Come closer. This song

is a cry for help: Help me!
Only you, only you can,
you are unique

at last. Alas
it is a boring song
but it works every time.

*

Two poems by Lucille Clifton:

aunt jemima

white folks say i remind them
of home i who have been homeless
all my life except for their
kitchen cabinets.

i who have made the best
of everything
pancakes batter for chicken
my life

the shelf on which i sit
between the flour and cornmeal
is thick with dreams
oh how i long for

my own syrup
rich as blood
my true nephews my nieces
my kitchen my family
my home

 

uncle ben

mother guineas favorite son
knew rice and that was almost
all he knew
not where he was
not why
not who were the pale sons
of a pale moon
who had brought him here
rice rice rice
and so he worked the river
worked as if born to it
thinking only now and then
of himself of the sun
of afrika

*

excerpts from LETTERS FROM A FATHER

Mona Van Duyn

II

We enjoyed your visit, it was nice of you to bring
the feeder but a terrible waste of your money
for that big bag of feed since we won’t be living
more than a few weeks long.  We can see
them good from where we sit, big ones and little ones
but you know when I farmed I used to like to hunt
and we had many a good meal from pigeons
and quail and pheasant but these birds won’t
be good for nothing and are dirty to have so near
the house.  Mother likes the redbirds though.
My bad knee is so sore and I can’t hardly hear
and Mother says she is hoarse from yelling but I know
it’s too late for a hearing aid.  I belch up all the time
and have a sour mouth and of course with my heart
it’s no use to go to a doctor.  Mother is the same.
Has a scab she thinks is going to turn to a wart.

III

The birds are eating and fighting, Ha! Ha!  All shapes
and colors and sizes coming out of our woods
but we don’t know what they are.  Your Mother hopes
you can send us a kind of book that tells about birds.
There is one the folks called snowbirds, they eat on the ground,
we had the girl sprinkle extra there, but say,
they eat something awful.  I sent the girl to town
to buy some more feed, she had to go anyway.

VI

It’s sure a surprise how well Mother is doing,
she forgets her laxative but bowels move fine.
Now that windows are open she says our birds sing
all day.  The girl took a Book of Knowledge on loan
from the library and I am reading up
on the habits of birds, did you know some males have three
wives, some migrate some don’t.  I am going to keep
feeding all spring, maybe summer, you can see
they expect it.  Will need thistle seed for Goldfinch and Pine
Siskin next winter.  Some folks are going to come see us
from Church, some bird watchers, pretty soon.
They have birds in town but nothing to equal this.

So the world woos its children back for an evening kiss.

*

DREAM SONG #29

John Berryman

There sat down, once, a thing on Henry’s heart
só heavy, if he had a hundred years
& more, & weeping, sleepless, in all them time
Henry could not make good.
Starts again always in Henry’s ears
the little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime.

And there is another thing he has in mind
like a grave Sienese face a thousand years
would fail to blur the still profiled reproach of.  Ghastly,
with open eyes, he attends, blind.
All the bells say: too late.  This is not for tears;
thinking.

But never did Henry, as he thought he did,
end anyone and hacks her body up
and hide the pieces, where they may be found.
He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody’s missing.
Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.
Nobody is ever missing.

*

ABOUT MR.. COGITO’S TWO LEGS

Zbigniew Herbert  (trans. from the Polish by John and Bogdana Carpenter)

The left leg normal
one could say optimistic
a little too short
boyish
with exuberant muscles
and a well-shaped calf

the right leg
–God help us–
thin
with two scars
one along the Achilles tendon
the other oval
pale pink
shameful reminder of an escape

the left
inclined to leap
ready to dance
loving life too much
to expose itself

the right
nobly rigid
sneering at danger

in this way
on two legs
the left which can be compared to Sancho Panza
and the right
recalling the wandering knight
Mr Cogito
goes
through the world
staggering slightly

 

 

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Some Thoughts on Poems to Keep Cool By

August 8, 2022

  I was surprised not to get any comments on the Poems to Keep Cool by–maybe they worked so well you were too relaxed to respond.  So here are a few thoughts to get things started.

The Naomi Shihab Nye poem sucks me in immediately, with the vivid details–even though it’s in past tense, I’m immersed.  And from the first sentence on it’s clear it’s not just describing a scene, but also giving the context for the speaker’s feelings.  It’s not a typical sledding day–some unhappiness at home has sent them out into a blizzard: inner and outer turmoil.  I feel carefully led through the poem, every surprising step prepared for.  And then the stunning ending, with those italics and exclamation points evoking the way we slap our arms and stamp our feet in the cold, paired with the inner revelations.  It brings together that past with years that followed–and maybe someone did die of that emotional cold.  The simile that sticks?  Digging their cars out “like potatoes.”

As I read this poem I’m reminded that one of Strand’s late books of poems was titled Blizzard of One.  Its sense of time is very different from the Nye poem.  Even though it says “Tonight as it gets cold…,” it’s not a specific night, but one that could be any night.  It’s also incredibly solitary, no other people in the scene or elsewhere.  And it’s an instruction: “Tell yourself,” but that self seems to be the speaker’s, not anyone else’s.  And why should he do that?  So that finally, he “will be able/ for once to like down under the small fire/ of winter stars.”  To not keep going.  Strand’s poems are full of loneliness and darkness, but also incredible beauty, and in the second half of his career, humor–much of it at his own expense.  There’s also a lot of irony, but that’s not what I’m hearing here.  Instead, I’m hearing acceptance, peace, even forgiveness, love of the self.  “And if it happens”–just happens–“that you cannot go on,” it’s not your fault.  I think this is unusual in Strand’s work.  Maybe being able to laugh at himself prepared the way for it.  The image that remains is a metaphor: “the small fire/ of winter stars.”

Levertov’s poem “February Evening in New York” returns us to an actual scene in present tense, winter in the city.  It’s an omniscient narrator rather than a first person speaker, seeing the crowds, anonymous in their winter clothes; then overhearing a conversation between two vivid and particular women.  They seem crucial the poem, those specific people singled out.  In the last stanza the camera zooms back out to take in a wide view of the scene, but those two women humanize the poem, turn the stanzas before and after into the background for their conversation–“more life tonight!”  A glimpse of thawing, a return of personal connections as everyone begins to emerge from winter’s blanketing–“the bodies aren’t really there.”  Image that most sticks with me: “balloon heads/ drift and dive above them….”

Larkin’s poem “First Sight” is also spoken by a third-person narrator and of a general rather than specific time–late winter, lambs being born in snow.  Humans might take the conditions as some sort of sign or omen, but sheep have no sense of the future, no idea that everything is about to change as spring comes.  Only humans know what’s coming, including spring–and, eventually, their own deaths.  The passage of time measured by the seasons is what will eventually carry them there.  It’s an odd little sonnet, fourteen lines evenly divided into two stanzas.  Rhyme scheme AbabCdd EFefGgg.  The image that most sticks: “Her fleeces wetly caked.”

De Unamuno’s poem “The Snowfall is so Silent” seems to be third person–until the very end: “Snow…come and cover over the sadness/ that lies always in my reason.”  Until then it’s a narrator’s description of snow, a portrait of snow and its essence, rather than a description of a scene.  Everything about the snow is positive–“quiet,” “gently”–it protects the fields from frost attacks, it’s “pure” and “silent.”  It’s “content,” even “gay.”  And then the gorgeous image: ” skyflowers,/ pale lilies from the clouds/ that wither on earth.”  The snow falls like grace, but can’t last on earth.  As I read I’m thinking, “Where is this going,” and I’m a little impatient.  Until finally, finally, all of that narrows down at the end to one person, one speaker, pleading for the snow to cover his sadness.  Then that last line has the weight of some Shakespearean sonnet final couplets: it’s equal in weight to the entire poem that came before it.  Piercing.

The only translation I can find is Robert Bly’s.  Here’s the original Spanish, for any of you who want to try your hand at it.

La nevada es silenciosa

La nevada es silenciosa,
cosa lenta;
poco a poco y con blandura
reposa sobre la tierra
y cobija a la llanura.
Posa la nieve callada
blanca y leve;
la nevada no hace ruido;
cae como cae el olvido,
copo a copo.
Abriga blanda a los campos
cuando el hielo los hostiga;
con sus lampos de blancura;
cubre a todo con su capa
pura, silenciosa;
no se le escapa en el suelo
cosa alguna.
Donde cae allí se queda
leda y leve,
pues la nieve no resbala
como resbala la lluvia,
sino queda y cala.
Flores del cielo los copos,
blancos lirios de las nubes,
que en el suelo se ajan,
bajan floridos,
pero quedan pronto
derretidos;
florecen sólo en la cumbre,
sobre las montañas,
pesadumbre de la tierra,
y en sus entrañas perecen.
Nieve, blanda nieve,
la que cae tan leve
sobre la cabeza,
sobre el corazón,
ven y abriga mi tristeza
la que descansa en razón.

Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Imaginary Iceberg” is the most mysterious of these to me.  It’s an early poem of hers, and I’ve been fascinated by it since I first read it–the repeating form, the mysterious iceberg, the surprising opening declaration.  And the ending seems like a forerunner to the end of “At the Fishhouses”: “…our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.”  The point of view is first person plural, “we,” but is that we “we humans,” “we poets and artists,” “we two lovers”?  What does it have to do with the imagination?  I suppose that most of it’s unknown, everything except the tip, and that that’s the heart of art–making the invisible visible, that it’s what drives the imagination.  That takes us to the ending, with the wonderfully old-fashioned and formal “behoove,” and the iceberg akin to the soul in their invisibility.

For me, the details of the Nye poem remain most vivid and moving, but the Bishop poem is the most haunting, the one I never stop thinking about.  How about you?  Leave comments here, and we’ll discuss them at this week’s Fridays at 4 (eastern time).  I will, of course, send the link by Friday morning.

 

 

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Poems to Keep Cool By

August 3, 2022

 

You will all know why I chose these poems–let’s see how far our imaginations carry us away from the heat.  I thought of many obvious ones at first, but chose less familiar ones hoping their freshness will be more compelling.  Once you’ve read them for their chilling effect, go back and look at how they’re put together: beginnings, endings, how they travel from one to the other, point of view, verb tense.  Also notice the images, especially similes, because I think that will be coming up soon.  Please comment here and add any of your own.  I hope they help.

Fridays at 4 (eastern time) will be taking a brief break this week.  See you next week.

 

SNOW

Naomi Shihab Nye

Once with my scarf knotted over my mouth
I lumbered into a storm of snow up the long hill
and did not know where I was going except to the top of it.
In those days we went out like that.
Even children went out like that.
Someone was crying hard at home again,
raging blizzard of sobs.

I dragged the sled by its rope,
which we normally did not do
when snow was coming down so hard,
pulling my brother whom I called by our secret name
as if we could be other people under the skin.
The snow bit into my face, prickling the rim
of the head where the hair starts coming out.
And it was a big one. It would come down and down
for days. People would dig their cars out like potatoes.

How are you doing back there? I shouted,
and he said Fine, I’m doing fine,
in the sunniest voice he could muster
and I think I should love him more today
for having used it.

At the top we turned and he slid down,
steering himself with the rope gripped in
his mittened hands. I stumbled behind
sinking deeply, shouting Ho! Look at him go!
as if we were having a good time.
Alone on the hill. That was the deepest
I ever went into the snow. Now I think of it
when I stare at paper or into silences
between human beings. The drifting
accumulation. A father goes months
without speaking to his son.

How there can be a place
so cold any movement saves you.

Ho! You bang your hands together,
stomp your feet.  The father could die!
The son! Before the weather changes.

*

LINES FOR WINTER

Mark Strand

Tell yourself
as it gets cold and gray falls from the air
that you will go on
walking, hearing
the same tune no matter where
you find yourself—
inside the dome of dark
or under the cracking white
of the moon’s gaze in a valley of snow.
Tonight as it gets cold
tell yourself
what you know which is nothing
but the tune your bones play
as you keep going. And you will be able
for once to lie down under the small fire
of winter stars.
And if it happens that you cannot
go on or turn back
and you find yourself
where you will be at the end,
tell yourself
in that final flowing of cold through your limbs
that you love what you are.

*

FEBRUARY EVENING IN NEW YORK

Denise Levertov

As the stores close, a winter light
opens air to iris blue,
glint of frost through the smoke
grains of mica, salt of the sidewalk.

As the buildings close, released autonomous
feet pattern the streets
in hurry and stroll; balloon heads
drift and dive above them; the bodies
aren’t really there.

As the lights brighten, as the sky darkens,
a woman with crooked heels says to another woman
while they step along at a fair pace,
“You know, I’m telling you, what I love best
is life. I love life! Even if I ever get
to be old and wheezy—or limp! You know?

To the multiple disordered tones
of gears changing, a dance
to the compass points, out, four-way river.
Prospect of sky
wedged into avenues, left at the ends of streets,
west sky, east sky: more life tonight! A range
of open time at winter’s outskirts.

*

FIRST SIGHT

Philip Larkin

Lambs that learn to walk in snow
When their bleating clouds the air
Meet a vast unwelcome, know
Nothing but a sunless glare.
Newly stumbling to and fro
All they find, outside the fold,
Is a wretched width of cold.

As they wait beside the ewe,
Her fleeces wetly caked, there lies
Hidden round them, waiting too,
Earth’s immeasureable surprise.
They could not grasp it if they knew,
What so soon will wake and grow
Utterly unlike the snow.

*

THE SNOWFALL IS SO SILENT

Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936), translated by Robert Bly

The snowfall is so silent,
so slow,
bit by bit, with delicacy
it settles down on the earth
and covers over the fields.
The silent snow comes down
white and weightless;
snowfall makes no noise,
falls as forgetting falls,
flake after flake.
It covers the fields gently
while frost attacks them
with its sudden flashes of white;
covers everything with its pure
and silent covering;
not one thing on the ground
anywhere escapes it.
And wherever it falls it stays,
content and gay,
for snow does not slip off
as rain does,
but it stays and sinks in.
The flakes are skyflowers,
pale lilies from the clouds,
that wither on earth.
They come down blossoming
but then so quickly
they are gone;
they bloom only on the peak,
above the mountains,
and make the earth feel heavier
when they die inside.
Snow, delicate snow,
that falls with such lightness
on the head,
on the feelings,
come and cover over the sadness
that lies always in my reason.

*

 

THE IMAGINARY ICEBERG

Elizabeth Bishop

We’d rather have the iceberg than the ship,
although it meant the end of travel.
Although it stood stock-still like cloudy
rock and all the sea were moving marble.
We’d rather have the iceberg than the ship;
we’d rather own this breathing plain of snow
though the ship’s sails were laid upon the sea
as the snow lies undissolved upon the water.
O solemn, floating field,
are you aware an iceberg takes repose
with you, and when it wakes may pasture on your snows?

This is a scene a sailor’d give his eyes for.
The ship’s ignored. The iceberg rises
and sinks again; its glassy pinnacles
correct elliptics in the sky.
This is a scene where he who treads the boards
is artlessly rhetorical. The curtain
is light enough to rise on finest ropes
that airy twists of snow provide.
The wits of these white peaks
spar with the sun.
Its weight the iceberg dares
upon a shifting stage and stands and stares.

This iceberg cuts its facets from within.
Like jewelry from a grave
it saves itself perpetually and adorns
only itself, perhaps the snows
which so surprise us lying on the sea.
Good-bye, we say, good-bye, the ship steers off
where waves give in to one another’s waves
and clouds run in a warmer sky.
Icebergs behoove the soul
(both being self-made from elements least visible)
to see them so: fleshed, fair, erected indivisible.

 

 

 

 

 

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How Poems Travel

July 25, 2022

  One of the most interesting things in poems is how they travel from one place to the next–from beginning to end, and all the twists and turns along the way.  What are the transitions–some subtle, some obvious–from one thought to the next, one image to the next, one emotion to the next?  We say that poems transport us–they take us somewhere.  We enter with the title and first line, move through the world of the poem, and are shown out at the end.  What was that ride like?  Where did it speed up and slow down? What would a map look like?

Thinking of transportation reminded me of one of the most magical versions I know: the cat-bus in Hayao Miyazaki’s animated movie My Neighbor Totoro.  This was my introduction to his films, and I think I’ve watched almost all of them now, including his best known, Spirited Away.  Reading some poems can be like getting onto the cat-bus.  Here’s a link to the cat-bus arriving to pick up passengers.

So how would you describe the transitions in the poems below?  Post your thoughts here, and plan to join us for this week’s Fridays at 4 (eastern time) discussion.  I’ll send the zoom link later this week.

 

THE WAKING

Theodore Roethke

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground!   I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

 

 

*

 

THE FISH

Marianne Moore

wade
through black jade.
Of the crow-blue mussel-shells, one keeps
adjusting the ash-heaps;
opening and shutting itself like

an
injured fan.
The barnacles which encrust the side
of the wave, cannot hide
there for the submerged shafts of the

sun,
split like spun
glass, move themselves with spotlight swiftness
into the crevices—
in and out, illuminating

the
turquoise sea
of bodies. The water drives a wedge
of iron through the iron edge
of the cliff; whereupon the stars,

pink
rice-grains, ink-
bespattered jelly fish, crabs like green
lilies, and submarine
toadstools, slide each on the other.

All
external
marks of abuse are present on this
defiant edifice—
all the physical features of

ac-
cident—lack
of cornice, dynamite grooves, burns, and
hatchet strokes, these things stand
out on it; the chasm-side is

dead.
Repeated
evidence has proved that it can live
on what can not revive
its youth. The sea grows old in it.

*

ALLEGRO

Tomas Tranströmer   (translated from the Swedish by Robert Bly)

After a black day, I play Haydn,
and feel a little warmth in my hands.

The keys are ready. Kind hammers fall.
The sound is spirited, green, and full of silence.

The sound says that freedom exists
and someone pays no tax to Caesar.

I shove my hands in my haydnpockets
and act like a man who is calm about it all.

I raise my haydnflag. The signal is:
“We do not surrender. But want peace.”

The music is a house of glass standing on a slope;
rocks are flying, rocks are rolling.

The rocks roll straight through the house
but every pane of glass is still whole.

*

 

BLOOD LIGHT

Natalie Diaz

My brother has a knife in his hand.
He has decided to stab my father.

This could be a story from the Bible,
if it wasn’t already a story about stars.

I weep alacranes—the scorpions clatter
to the floor like yellow metallic scissors.

They land upside down on their backs and eyes,
but writhe and flip to their segmented bellies.

My brother has forgotten to wear shoes again.
My scorpions circle him, whip at his heels.

In them is what stings in me –
it brings my brother to the ground.

He rises, still holding the knife.
My father ran out of the house,

down the street, crying like a lamplighter –
but nobody turned their lights on. It is dark.

The only light left is in the scorpions –
there is a small light left in the knife too.

My brother now wants to give me the knife.
Some might say, My brother wants to stab me.

He tries to pass it to me – like it is a good thing.
Like, Don’t you want a little light in your belly?

Like the way Orion and Scorpius –
across all that black night – pass the sun.

My brother loosens his mouth –
between his teeth, throbbing red Antares.

One way to open a body to the stars, with a knife.
One way to love a sister, help her bleed light.

 

 

 

 

 

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