A common poetry idiom is to write what one knows. The poet relies on her ability to recall sensory details that will set up the scene of the poem—the texture of the chintz sofa in the corner, the conversation she had with her mother, who continually twirled her hair while nervously pacing the room. This idiom often leads to the assumption that the speaker is the actual poet.
Historically, poets were considered vessels, messengers of thoughts from the heavens to transcribe into verse. Thus, the poet should not be afraid when the poem surprises her with language that does not match her own beliefs. The poet should not be scared when her life begins to bore her. Rather, she should turn to the persona poem.
Persona poems allow for the poet to no longer be bound in her own body—there is no time restraint, no inherent gender. The most successful persona poems are crafted from research. The poet gathers details from interviews, newspapers, books, etc. in order to create a speaker that can embody the poem’s time and setting. These details allow for the voice of the speaker to settle into a physical space, a space where the reader feels as if he can stand by the speaker and experience the same event. For example, Ellen Bryant Voigt’s collection, Kyrie, uses several voices from a rural American family to craft multiple perspectives of a village suffering from the 1918-1919 influenza epidemic.
Because of the persona poem’s ability to travel between time and space, the poet is able to comment on historical, cultural, and national events. Poet Patricia Smith (from Staten Island) crafted persona poems to chronicle the losses of Hurricane Katrina in her 2008 collection, Blood Dazzler. Smith, in the poem “34,” desired to step into the shoes of the thirty-four senior citizens who were left to die in an elderly-care center during the storm. Smith crafted this poem sequence, essentially, to give these citizens their final say. Watch how Smith transforms her own voice in her performance of “34” below.
To play off of Walt Whitman’s “I am large, I contain multitudes,” the persona poem allows for the poet to become a contemporary vessel and explore the many facets of the human voice in all its pitches. Through this form, the poet allows herself to contain multitudes. She must only be willing to sing another’s song.
(Patricia Smith’s performance of “34”)
For another amazing Patricia Smith performance, watch her perform her poem “Skinhead” on Def Jam Poetry.
For more persona poems, check out A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry (Univ. of Akron Press, 2012)