Posted 23.08.13 in Workshop
Image by gnuckx
Despite the old adage of ‘write what you know’, putting on a mask and writing from a persona can liberate an author from the need to stay loyal to their own experiences and voice. As a young poet myself, I have had many people read my poems with the assumption that they are merely rhymed and metered diary entries. Soon I started to feel like this assumption hurt my poems rather than helped; I wanted my poems to stand as their own entities and read outside the context of my life. As my own act of rebellion, I started distancing myself dramatically from the ‘I’ in poems by writing dramatic monologues and persona poems: poems in which the ‘I’ is clearly not the writer. As I started to read more poetry in this genre, I found that obscuring the relationship between the writer and the narrator can lead to the most surprising and interesting of poems. Look at this excerpt from ‘Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Return to Vienna’, where Rita Dove breaks barriers of gender, race, and even time to speak through the voice of Beethoven. Consider the first few lines:
Three miles from my adopted city
lies a village where I came to peace.
The world there was a calm place,
even the great Danube no more
than a pale ribbon tossed onto the landscape
by a girl’s careless hand.
The ‘I’ here is clearly not Rita Dove. But by writing beyond herself, of experiences that so clearly are not autobiographical, she is able to evoke emotion that is relatable no matter the reader’s experience. Think about the lines “at first I raged. Then music raged in me/rising so swiftly I could not write quickly enough/to ease the roiling”. While the situation of composing is particular to the ‘I’, the catharsis that comes with creation can be felt by anybody. Here, it is felt by Rita Dove. It is felt by the readers.
While Rita Dove has chosen to speak as someone incredibly far removed from her, consider this poem by William Butler Yeats, in which Yeats speaks through the voice of someone he once knew, his friend Major Robert Gregory, whose death paralleled events in the following poem. Here, Yeats uses the ‘I’ to express the last thoughts of this young soldier before his death.
An Irish Airman Foresees His Death
I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
With the understanding that the ‘I’ in this heart-rending poem is an obvious ‘mask’ put on by the author, what techniques did Yeats use to make this ‘I’ effective and believable? One strong technique is his use of detail. Because this man is from “Kiltartan Cross”, he transforms from being an anonymous person fighting for Ireland to a person with a hometown, a trait that defines many people. Similarly, because this poem is a dramatic monologue, the reader feels the death more strongly as we follow the pilot’s personal thoughts. If the poem had been written in the third person, with personal thoughts removed, the reader may be distanced from the intimate first-person-narrative that makes the reality of his death so effective.
Lastly, think about this: does the ‘I’ even need to be a human? What happens when the narrator in your poem is speaking as an inanimate object? While it sounds crazy and difficult, look at this beautiful Sylvia Plath poem ‘Mushrooms’, wherein the “we” represents the fungus rather than a person.
Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.
By portraying the mushrooms in first person, by giving them a voice, they seem to acquire human traits. It makes a poem that may otherwise seem to be about a mundane topic suddenly very intimate. Similarly, think about how Plath uses allegory and metaphor here and how you can use it in your own writing. We automatically want to have the mushrooms ‘stand’ for something beyond simply mushrooms and, because of this, many interpret this poem to be about the women’s movement or immigration, despite the fact that the two themes are never concretely introduced. In your own poetry, how could you use your ‘I’ to stand for something else? Imagine writing a poem from the point of view of a dog who is tired of obeying its owner: will the reader not try to parallel the relationship of submission to something human, such as a worker to a boss? If you tackle an inanimate ‘I’, be aware of the metaphorical connotations that can bring your work into another dimension.
So here is my challenge for you: think about the current state of the ‘I’ in your poems. Do you often write about yourself? Or do you tend to write more in third person, using ‘he’ and she’ instead? Then, with inspiration from the prior poems, write a poem where the ‘I’ is someone who is not yourself, where the situation is one you are not in. Don’t feel constrained by gender, age, time, or place. Just experiment with what I said earlier – the liberation of putting on a ‘mask’ in your poetry.
This challenge is now closed – you can read the fantastic results in our New Writing section.
Sarah Fletcher was born in America but grew up in the UK, where she is currently studying English at Durham University. She’s been writing professionally for many years, making her debut at 14 in The London Magazine, and has since been published in a variety of places. She is a twice-time recipient of The Christopher Tower Poetry Prize in 2012 and 2013 (placing first, and then second). In 2012, she was a Foyle Young Poet of the Year and commended for The Times Stephen Spender Prize for Poetry in Translation. She has read at Royal Festival Hall, The Institute of Contemporary Arts, and Trafalgar Square. During the 2012 Olympics, she and ten other poets worked with Jacob Sam-La Rose to construct a poem that was displayed at Olympic Park. Currently, she is the Managing Editor for The Adroit Journal, where she runs The Adroit Journal Editing Service and lectures for The Adroit Journal Summer Workshop.
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