Persona Poetry as Poetry of Witness

Poetryarchive.org defines the persona poem “from the Latin for mask, a character taken on by a poet to speak in a first-person poem”. The Academy of American Poets’ website poets.org defines the persona poem as a dramatic monologue, akin to the theatrical monologue: “an audience is implied; there is no dialogue; and the poet speaks through an assumed voice—a character, a fictional identity, or a persona. Because a dramatic monologue is by definition one person’s speech, it is offered without overt analysis or commentary, placing emphasis on subjective qualities that are left to the audience to interpret.”

For a poet, the persona poem offers a greater level of freedom than a poem written from the traditional first-person point of view. It also poses a greater challenge, that of embodying the other, seeing through that person’s eyes, feeling her emotions, suffering her pain, injustices, confusions. In the past five years I’ve come to embrace the persona poem to such a degree that I wonder if I should just write fiction (or plays).

Through the persona poem I have taken on the voices of a 19th century abused woman, her abusive husband and father-in-law, a 19th century giantess, a freed slave, the founder of Rhode Island Roger Williams, a host of Native Americans, both an 18th century midwife and a mother who commits infanticide . One could ask why I didn’t simply write about these people and their situations instead of creating a kind of poetic multiple personality disorder in book form. I can only say that writing about these people from the outside leaves me cold, while inhabiting them and speaking through their voices has resulted in some of my most fulfilling experiences as a writer. And I would bet that other poets who tend toward the persona poem feel similar. At a certain point poets get tired of writing about themselves, but not about the human condition. This isn’t to say that I never write first person poetry where the is actually me. I just don’t find it as compelling and more often than not my first person poems become a hybrid; maybe I start with some fact true to myself, but I quickly move out of myself, fabricate, universalize. It’s just so interesting to imagine how a 19th century giantess might feel if she feared she’d never stop growing. This is where the persona poem can become a poem of witness. Instead of literally witnessing the lives of others from the outside; their suffering and oppression, we become them. Rather than conjuring sympathy, we embody empathy. I’m not saying this practice is without flaws. In speaking in the voice of an oppressed Native American or escaped slave, I’m not assuming I know what it felt like to have my family, my ancestral land, my life taken away. But I can try. I’m human and I think it’s part of my responsibility as an artist to know the vagaries of the human condition, to experience through imagination the lives of others, to try.

I have noticed that I’m compelled to write from the perspective of people who have no voice, who have been silenced. It’s likely my own horror at the thought of not having a voice, not being heard. After all, a person, or a group of people can be seen but have their voices dismissed or silenced. And I enjoy the process of finding those voices and listening to what they have to say.

Below is one of my own persona poems which doesn’t appear in either of my forthcoming collections. It was a finalist a couple years ago for the Blue Mesa prize, but sadly wasn’t published. The story and italicized passages were taken from a New Yorker article of May 2011 titled: “God Knows Where I am” by Rachel Aviv. The article chronicled problems of the mental health care system, in particular, the tragedy of Linda Bishop, a schizophrenic woman who fell through the cracks and was found dead in an empty farmhouse. She had kept a journal during the last months of her life.

 

More Than the Weight of its Laden Branches

 

The cottage has an apple tree and textbooks

in the attic, a couch slashed by bars of sun

where I lie tragic as a wine spill.

Because I fear discovery by the man

who mows the lawn, I keep my routine

simple: wake early with the birds,

wash in the stream, harvest water and apples.

Keep out of sight, conserve energy.

Three apples a day times twenty years equals…

When I stand too quickly the room goes

dim. In autumn I pick the tree

clean, store the apples in a pillowcase 

for winter. I move like a ghost

behind faded curtains, ration my reading,

ration the apples, and make lists

in a black address book: embolism, sharp

cheddar, rhizome, cell division, linguini and clams. 

I write: I know I will die of starvation

and should leave here. I stay.

I write: God is sending a husband

and wishes me to wait for Christmas.

Three apples a day times three months

equals…I wait. Christmas comes,

New Year’s, clumps of hair in the bed.

I believe the remedy to be profuse

sunshine and love. I believe I will

die of starvation. Thirty days ago

I ate the last apple. It’s cold

but the chickadees will sing me

(nobody-nobody-nobody) through winter.

I stop reading. I follow, on hands and knees,

the sun as it moves through the rooms,

lie down in its patches. The heater’s breath

grows shallower every day.

I know I should leave but don’t.

For one, I can no longer stand,

two; it’s so peaceful here. I have everything

I ever wanted—an apple tree equals

more than the weight of its laden branches.

When my husband arrives we’ll add

a garden and a smokehouse. My heart-

beat slows to an icicle’s thin drip. I write:

whomever finds my body should know

this was a case of domestic violence.

 

 

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