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.
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:
white folks say i remind them
of home i who have been homeless
all my life except for their
i who have made the best
pancakes batter for chicken
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
mother guineas favorite son
knew rice and that was almost
all he knew
not where he was
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
excerpts from LETTERS FROM A FATHER
Mona Van Duyn
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.
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.
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
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;
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
with exuberant muscles
and a well-shaped calf
the right leg
–God help us–
with two scars
one along the Achilles tendon
the other oval
shameful reminder of an escape
inclined to leap
ready to dance
loving life too much
to expose itself
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
through the world
Intriguing poems. I’m interested to take a look at a ‘Henry” poem after many years. Also, I liked your idea of the ‘I’ narrator of a poem (I think we can extend that to memoirs and essays, too) as a construct. Construct as in something you first build to make the poem possible. Two personal notes: 1.) Years ago, I wrote a poem that begins, “All my male friends are writing their own/Dead Man poems.” And ends something like, “having attracted him with my feminine and big-breasted wiles.” I remember the first and last lines, but not the title. Anyway, the Dead Man . . . and 2.) I had a poem published last year in Bennington Review where the persona is a bear, but a bear who puts on a child mask because she wants to “learn to be human.” Bear Tries the Child Mask, Bennington Review, Issue Nine if anyone wants to look it up.
Chris, this is so interesting. I love what you say about a construct being something you build to make the poem possible–yes! And a bear who wants to learn to be human–I’m curious to hear where that goes. No one but Marvin Bell could really write Dead Man poems, but a friend of mine here did a wonderful variation–as series of Deaf Woman poems.
The Dream Songs and Mr. Cogito are both in my top ten books of poems; I could not choose between them. There is an intimacy and directness to each voice–a closeness to speech, though the resemblance may be largely artifice (well, poetry IS an art). But the Berryman is American through and through, with its satiric 40’s noir tough guy persona and multiplicity of voices, and the nervy vulnerability (and terror) coming from the bottom up. Herbert has the enviable gift–which seems to come naturally to many Eastern European poets–of making the metaphysical personal. His poems issue from a worldview that casually gives ideas the same weight as, well–legs. Both poets wrote a whole book of poems using a single persona, though neither spends any time trying to convince us that the poet was actually separate from the voice on the page. They knew, as you say, that all poems are persona poems. But the invented voice in both cases allowed each poet to believe for the space of the poem in a kind of adjacent self–one wider, or wilder, maybe, than the voice circumscribed by biography. And what a difference it made!
Jeffrey, thanks for this–it’s interesting and insightful. I agree that there’s something very intimate about persona poems, at the same time that they’re distanced from the writer. And yes about Eastern European poets: “making the metaphysical personal” and “same weight to ideas and legs.” Philosophy a way of being and thinking, not some esoteric subject. I also love your description of the invented voices allowing the poets to believe in a wider, wilder space. Have you written an essay about this?
Thanks Sharon. And thanks for doing this very interesting, and important, work. No, haven’t done an essay on this. Now that I’m retired I’m trying to just write poems. Also, now that the field is occupied by a new generation(s?), I’m not sure who’d be interested in what this old fart has to say. Sometimes I’m not sure we even speak the same language. For instance, reading contemporary American poems and essays on poetry, it seems to me that no one cares or thinks about what it may mean to consider the line as a unique, operational unit in and of itself. This is just one of the things that are important to my thinking about poetry, whether old or new, but which don’t seem to be part of the current discourse. But since I tend to go back to Yeats more than I read current zines, I could be way off about this.
I love the Atwood and Clifton poems! I’ve read them before so it is nice to read them again and together in a batch of persona poems. Like you, Sharon, I would say that all poetry is persona poetry with the I not necessarily the poet but the voice of a speaker, and even in confessional poetry, the speaker in the poem may be able to say things that perhaps the poet could not say without the poem and its speaker.
I hadn’t read the Atwood before, and it’s really sinister–sucked me right in.