Thursday, January 08, 2009

My Persona And I

I've begun writing a series of poems using a persona. The immediate difficulty is that I’ve read most of Zbigniew Herbert’s ‘Mr Cogito’ poems and it would be awful to write stuff that sounds a bit like them except nowhere near as good. The same goes for Weldon Kees’s ‘Robinson’ poems I mentioned the other day.

I’ve done this kind of thing before, writing as someone who isn’t me and holds opinions that may even be contrary to my own, but contains certain aspects of me. However, I’ve always used the ‘I’ before, even when I wasn’t writing as myself. I’ve never been clear, even in myself, whether that was a good idea or not. Several poems in ‘The Clown of Natural Sorrow’ worked like that – The Hedge Artist, The Actress, The Innocents etc. The poem about the Harry Potter launch featuring an unhinged, scissors-wielding JK Rowling stalker, was originally written in the first person singular. I changed it in case anyone really did believe I thought like that!

Creating a persona, a fictional character who ought to develop over a sequence of poems, is a new challenge. It releases me from the anxiety that people might habitually identify me with the ‘I’ of my poems, but it means I have to get inside the head of a fiction who, already, is quite hard for me to understand.


deemikay said...

With regards reader perception, I like using the inverted comma. 'That way, people know there's fiction (or faction) at work...'

rossw said...

Interesting post Rob. I remember attending a Bernard McClaverty reading a few years ago and he said something about his readers assuming he held the same views as his characters. He also mentioned one occasion when a writer who should have known better asked him why he didn't like Samuel Beckett because a character in one if his stories didn't! McClaverty did like Beckett of course!

I've some personal experience of this as well. If a character is strong and articulate and getting the better of an arguement in my fiction people sometimes think it's me speaking. One pal said to me once "well, I don't agree with YOU there Ross!" I don't agree with "myself" either I replied!

I'd imagine this misunderstanding would apply even more to poetry than fiction. I think it's a good thing for poets to try though, and no doubt a healthy thing in general: trying to think like someone else for a wee while, getting away from the self.

I'll have to check out the poets you mention. I know John Berryman was concerned about people mistaking him for the character in his Dream Songs. So much so he mentions it in a 'note' at the beginning of the book. Maybe a good way of distancing yourself from the characters in your own book?

Berryman writes in his note:
"the poem then, whatever its wide cast of characters, is essentially about an imaginary character (not me, not the poet.)"

What was it Rimbaud said "I is someone else."

"if someone offers you coffee, don't go looking for beer in it. If I present you with the ideas of the professor, trust me and don't look for Chekhov's ideas in them."
Anton Chekhov, a life in letters.

Andrew Philip said...

Isn't it a persona only if you're writing in the first person? Otherwise, it's a character, I'd have thought.

Terminology aside (a pretty minor point, really!), I'd say just write the poems and do your best not to worry about any similarities. If the work is strong enough, it will transcend its influences, and you're easily a good enough writer to pull that off. Besides, readers will always look for comparisons; it's just part of how people react to and assess any work of art.

I wonder whether it's more common for people to equate the first person with the writer when they're reading poetry than when they're reading fiction. Certainly, anyone really familiar with the techniques and approaches of contemporary poetry is unlikely to assume automatically that, just because a poem is written in the first person, it directly reflects the experiences and/or opinions of its writer (or that, just because it's an obvious persona, it doesn't -- cf "The Apple's Song" by Edwin Morgan, for instance). You have to make that judgment writer by writer and poem by poem.

One way round that is to use the second person, but I don't really like that. I've tried to explore the reasons for that dislike here.

Andrew Philip said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew Philip said...

Hmmm. That link didn't seem to embed in the comment. Can't work out why. My thoughts on the use of you are at:

Rob said...

Thinking about this more, there was a definite strength to using the 'I' in the way I've done. It does create interest, especially when the various 'I' characters contradict themselves or appear to fit uneasily together.

Andy, you're no doubt right that most poetry readers won't assume anything, although some will read poetry with a desire to get some kind of emotional connection with the imagined author. They might feel cheated by personas. That's not anything I feel inclined to do anything about(!), but I'm aware of it. I remember your post on the 'you' form. I still sometimes use it, although less than I used to. I must now read your post again.

Ross, I do think putting myself in a fictional character's shoes has been interesting over the last few days. Oddly (perhaps worryingly) liberating!

David, do you mean you'd write 'I' with inverted commas every time? I don't know if I could do that.

Rob said...

Interesting to read Andy’s expanded thoughts on this in a blog post titled, Me, Themselves and I.

deemikay said...

No, I was meaning around the whole poem. Like several of my Cuba poems here

But using ""I"" would be so archly silly that it might be fun to do so. ;)