Are Poems Truth or Fiction?
I admire how fiction writers’ minds work. I’m not very good at making stuff up, so writing a novel seems like an impossible task, though not everything in my poems is true and not everything is about me.
There’s that good, well-known advice to writers, “write what you know” (for example, the Where I’m From poem). And, there’s also merit to exploring a subject in order for the writer to get to know something better or to put it into context: sandhill cranes, dust storms, a news story or event, a famous person, etc.
While you can’t assume the narrator in the poem is the poet, many poets do include details about their personal lives and experiences in their poems. But personal territory can be difficult to explore for a writer for many reasons. For example: The subject might be too personal or too painful to broach, or the poem would have to reveal details about other people, and the poet has concerns about their privacy or their reaction to what is written.
The Persona Poem
One tool in the poet’s kit is the persona poem, “a poem in which the poet speaks through an assumed voice.” The persona can be a screen through which the poet tells the poet’s own story and can be an especially effective tool when poets feel a need to write about personal things but need, for whatever reason, to distance themselves from the subject matter.
The persona poem can also simply represent the poet’s idea of how another person (often an historical figure or a fictional character) would think and feel—how they’d tell their own story. The latter can lead to the discovery for both poet and reader of a new context for the character.
Or the persona poem can do double duty and work in both of the above ways. I find these double duty poems to be especially thought-provoking because the poet is revealing an interesting relationship between the persona and themselves. Here’s such a poem from Tina Barry’s book Beautiful Raft. Barry describes her book as follows:
“In 1946, the artist Marc Chagall and his young lover Virginia Haggard moved from New York City to rural High Falls, New York. Local newspapers and magazines made much of Chagall’s arrival, but Haggard, the tall, pretty woman in the photos with her daughter Jean McNeil, was given little more than a name. The prose poems and hybrids written in Haggard’s and McNeil’s voices allow the women to tell their story.”
Barry also moved to High Falls—after living in Brooklyn for many years—and imagined her own situation as being similar to Haggard’s, the voice of this persona prose poem.
Hide Away (Prose Poem)
I thought I’d die living away from the city’s diesel perfume. Hot dogs’ steamy water bath. Pools of dogs’ urine lifted me on my toes. But when I’m here, Jean’s hand in mine, it’s as if these new smells—milky cows’ breath. The sweat of nervous chickens. Frogs’ exhaled algae—are an elixir. Our home, snug against the hill, a stitch of blue before clouds. The road loops and loops with a long story to tell. Wood smoke curls from patched barn wood chimneys. Even the stars pose, waiting for attention.
Barry includes very specific sights and smells that indicate she knows her subject well: moving from the city she loved to a rural place she grew to love. In drawing from her own experience, she’s able to imagine Haggard’s. The reader, then, can see Haggard in this light. It’s a short poem, but it effectively moves from the speaker’s stress to her peace. I like that.
Point of View
The following persona poem also tells the story of a woman’s move from one very different place to another. The woman is my mother, but instead of her voice, it’s her nightgown speaking. I chose to write in first person from the point of view of an inanimate object because… well… it just seemed right. After all, this nightgown (which I still have) traveled across the world with her, and I did not. My mother could be a very funny person, and I wanted to combine humor with seriousness because, like I said in my Poet Laura post on humor, I’m attracted to poems that do that. Suddenly I imagined the nightgown’s voice—perky and honest. I worked with the voice in my head until I had a poem that tells a rather big story in a relatively short poem. (More of my parents’ story is told through other poems in No Such Thing as Distance.)
Confessions of an Ugly Nightgown
I’m a nightmare. Shapeless
silk the color of overripe peaches,
graying lace, and pastel smocking.
Along with 200 war brides,
I sailed from Sydney:
a fiancée’s accomplice
meant to entice her sailor.
She couldn’t carry family or furniture
and thought me pretty.
Lightweight, essential, I slept among
her newly-knitted sweaters
and embroidered tablecloths.
Only once did I hear her fear
she could end up like her friend—
with a coalminer who drank and hit.
I must have been a talisman.
My girl’s Yankee was true
and from under me sprang
Her daughter hangs on to me, keeps me
in a high-up box with other vestiges
from her mother.
In my cool slipperiness,
I rouse a sleeping husband
who doesn’t care how I look.
In fact, I’m at my loveliest
heaped on the floor.
—Karen Paul Holmes from No Such Thing as Distance
Second or Third Person
The point of view chosen for the speaker of a poem influences the tone and perspective of the piece. Another tool poets can use to talk about events in their own lives or of family members, but with a distance necessary, is writing in second or third person rather than first person. Poet Nancy Chen Long chose third person for her poem about a difficult time in her life, Before the Days of Self, or Elementary, or Elementary School Achievement Test as Primer.
Your Turn: Telling Your Story in a Persona Poem
Have you written a persona poem or have you read one lately that you admired? Please link to it or post it in the comments.
(Note, if you plan on submitting your unpublished poem to a journal, please be advised it will be considered previously published if you post it here. Publications like Every Day Poems, however, gladly welcome previously published work! A good poem is a good poem, after all. Worthy of being experienced again.)