It’s the first day of summer and somehow the perfect day to quote Emily Dickinson. Here’s her very famous poem (with June in it):
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Then there’s a pair of us?
Don’t tell! they’d advertise—you know!
How dreary—to be—Somebody!
How public—like a Frog—
To tell your name—the livelong June—
To an admiring Bog!
Some versions say, “They’d banish us” instead of “they’d advertise” and some use “the livelong day” (as in the song, “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”), but we’re in the middle of a hot, dry-for-too-long, now suddenly humid June, here in the Midwest, so I’m hearing “livelong June” from Emily today.
But what I’m pondering this Poetry Wednesday in the EIL Blog is the sometimes disappearing “I” of the lyric poem…. That is, lately I’ve noticed a disparaging of the “I” in lyric poetry—not just the familiar disparagement of “confessional” poetry but a move away from permitting autobiographical poetry, or what is assumed to be autobiographical poetry when it includes an “I” speaker, but which might not be that at all.
To point to an example of an “I” that is “not I,” I’ve been following the process notes/poetry drafting blog of Sandy Longhorn and watching her create “a sickly speaker” from the words and circumstances that emerge as she reads and writes. If we were to read these poems and assume that the “I” speaker were the poet, we’d be wrong. Longhorn is creating the speaker, the “I,” just as she creates the rest of the poems’ elements—their images, lines, shape, “plot,” etc.
Jeannine Hall Gailey has a wonderful essay, “Why We Wear Masks,” in the persona poetry issue of Poemeleon, that explores why and how we create speakers intended as “masks” or voices meant to be heard as other than our own.
In fact, Hall Gailey states the problem—that subtle contemporary disparagement—within the explanation of what persona poetry is and does:
With much of contemporary poetry being straightforward and confessional, all about the “I,” persona poetry, in contrast, forces writers to imagine the “other.” It gives us an exercise in empathy and analysis, as we describe in detail what another person might feel.
And I understand what she’s saying, but any “I” speaker in a poem I’m reading is already not me and teaches me empathy and allows me to identify with an “other.” That’s why I’m reading, to identify with an “other” and learn how to live a more compassionate life.
Hall Gailey says, Persona poems provide writers with a wider range of stories and experiences, rather than just a plain vanilla autobiographical narrative.
And once again, I think, “What’s wrong with vanilla?” and “Why suggest that a poet’s own revelations are ‘plain vanilla’ compared with rich, exciting other flavors?” If I read enough poetry, I’ll “taste the rainbow,” as they say (on commercials for Skittles). And all the variations of vanilla.
But I know she’s not really dissing all poets who write mainly as themselves. And she’s talking as a writer of poetry here, not a reader. She’s showing how poets can shake things up* for themselves as they write.
She’s also showing how they might actually delve deeper into themselves, via Jungian archetypes, for instance, the “disappearing ‘I’” being only the surface self, or the self shown to the world:
Writing persona poems might allow a writer to fully voice an emotion they might be repressing, such as anger or sadness, without feeling they are personally vulnerable. They can express opinions without fear of reprisal, since, after all, the writer isn’t presenting their own opinions, merely those of a created character. This can result in an artistic embrace of the “shadow” self, as well as an exploration of the anima/animus of the writer.
And a third reason for a mask, and for an “I” that gets “disappeared,” is political:
A mask might help the writer assume power she might not feel she has, and help her avoid the stigma of being identified with unlikable viewpoints and feelings.
It’s sometimes safer to speak as someone else—a persona who may also be a mouthpiece for the author’s own unconventional or currently unacceptable feelings or opinions. Picking a mythological, fictional, or archetypal character, or literary or historical figure, protects the poet who might otherwise be afraid to speak for her/himself, or advised to stay silent.
But I have to admit I admire the courageous person or poet who speaks in his or her own voice about what is dear to him or her. In these days of online “handles” and anonymous newspaper comments, of PACs and Super-PACs, of all kinds of ways to hide the money and power behind a political action, these days of so much personal and political irresponsibility and unaccountability, I often turn to poetry for quiet, honest, humble speech. Truly free speech, name attached.
Oh. On the other hand, “I am Spartacus.”
*Around here, we have Lemon Shake-ups in the summer. And, of course, chocolate and vanilla and strawberry milkshakes. And all kinds of fruit slushies. Not to mention iced coffee drinks. And…OK, it’s hot! Happy first day of summer!
Art by Delilah Jones in Artist Watch and available in the EIL Store. (“They’d advertise—you know!”)
And check out the poetry features of Sandy Longhorn and Jeannine Hall Gailey right here at Escape Into Life.
–Kathleen Kirk, Poetry Editor
Thanks for the linkage, Kathleen, and for this wonderful essay. I have to say that this is the first time I’ve been so overtaken by a persona as to create a whole manuscript in her voice. It is as if I am inhabited by an alien life, but it also seems to fit exactly what prose writers say when they talk about their characters taking charge. When a novelist or short story writer uses the first person, I don’t here people having these intense conversations about persona. Maybe they do and I’m just not hearing them b/c I’m so focused on poetry, but it seems like such a genre-specific issue that it baffles me.
Also, my favorite flavor is vanilla!
Yay for vanilla! It’s fascinating that this persona is overtaking you! Yes, I think the narrator, and first person p.o.v., is completely understood as an element in fiction but that many people don’t realize that not all poetry is autobiographical. I’m glad we have discussions of persona and speaker to help make that clearer.
Another dilemma, though, is when a fiction writer uses “thinly disguised autobiography” (as they say, but not in Skittles commercials) as the main plot. That confuses things again…
I hope to take up speaker again as a topic in this blog soon. Even when I do write as myself, I’m creating a speaker that is not myself. Another weird aspect of writing poetry….
Hah! Poets as multiple personalities! And yes, we are always weaving layers and layers on to ourselves when we write, even when we are unaware of the layering.
Yes, I think it’s important for poets to realize (and remember) that we have the same tools that fiction writers and memoirists use – it’s just that the vein of poetry that most people are used to is the memoir-ish kind. I find that my fiction-based poems tend to be much more interesting than my non-fiction based poems. I think that my fiction may be “truer” than my non-fiction.
And I especially like the idea of trying to write in the persona of someone whom at first you might think you have nothing in common with, or feel revulsion towards. That tends to be a useful exercise. I mean, I ended up writing a poem (“The Snow Queen Explains”) in my first book that has a speaker who, it is implied, eats children. And that is something I don’t condone in real life…:)
Thanks for continuing this conversation! I think my fiction is deeply true, too. And, likewise, I often write about characters who trouble me in order to get to know them better, love them better, etc. (unless they eat children)! And in poetry, personas can be so liberating, as you suggest in your wonderful Poemeleon article!