Persona Poems

There's been a big conversation on the Wompo Listserve (women poets listserve) about persona poems and autobiography in poetry. I've been horrified to read how many readers believe that every poem is autobiographical (if this is true, it means Jeannine Hall Gailey eats children! ;-) --she doesn't of course, she mentioned this was truly fictional).

But Rebecca Loudon and Jeannine both had wonderful responses on the topic.

Here's my response referencing their responses--

"Thanks, Rebecca for your response.

I especially appreciate what Rebecca wrote-- "What I was writing is that why should the poet always be considered the narrator/subject/I of the poem? I was addressing the readers of poetry in my post, not poets. I never assume anyone who writes a poem is writing a memoir--and--...because poems can become so personal (I call these "Marcie's bladder poems) that they lose their art."

Also what Jeannine said, "But I take a more Jungian view, that we all have some shadow self, that the collective unconscious exists and we sometimes write out of that, etc."

Here's my 2 cents--

Poetry is quite complex. It plays with Truth vs. Fact., it offers shadow selves, personas, different voices, but ultimately, it is the poem that comes to us on the page, not the poet. And again, I think the discussion comes back to craft vs.content.

My concern in a society that views the poet as the speaker of each and every poem is that poems will not be written because the poet will be afraid that the topic/subject/theme will reflect poorly on them. Who would want to write about a difficulty in a relationship or a bad marriage if the result was everyone assumed the poet and her husband were on the brink of divorce?

I feel I am very open about my life, but I would feel limited in my topics if everyone assumed that every poem in first person was about me. I think I've lived a pretty interesting life, but I believe my imagination offers much more to the reader than my actual lived experience. Though both places--real and imagination--are places to draw from when we write and as Tom Hunley said, we can use both in our poems.

One interesting note is many times--because poets fear that their first person poems will be considered autobiography--poets will write in third person on the subject, topics, or issues that are closest to them. The "she" or "he" in the poem is really them. I guess because this mistake does happen to poets a lot, it's another way to keep the focus on the poem and not the poet.

I write because I like to be in the background. I love to create something and see how it moves in the world. I would be a painter if I could paint or a sculpture if I could sculpt, but I love language and words, so I write. So when I create something on the page, I send it out into the world without me, without my biography or list of experiences. I send out a piece of paper with words on it, not with a photo, resume, or my ID-- the poem enters the world without me and its better that way.

There is too much "celebrity" right now, people famous for being famous, and that's what I love about well-written poems--they don't need an author with perfect white teeth or a good hairstyle, they don't need an author who speaks well at parties or always has the perfect line (that's what revision is for!) One of my favorite things about a poem is that the best poems need nothing else except words. That's it! How simple. You don't have to be rich, powerful, or good-looking. You don't even have to ever leave your little home in Massachusetts. Poems require a strong mind and the ability to put down "the best words in the best order" as Coleridge said.

We are lucky to have this before us as poets, the ability to write about ourselves or not to, or to do both. I guess I'm thankful that poetry isn't memoir and poetry isn't fiction, but we've created genre to move into each of these places if we choose.

Anyway, this whole conversation has been wonderful, I've found it both enlightening and absolutely frightening. ;-)


So the question is--

Do you care if the poet is writing about something s/he hasn't lived or isn't true?

Is it (fiction/persona) always okay or do you draw the line at certain topics?

Are you always the "speaker" in your poem --or are your poems usually or always based on your life? Why or why not?


  1. My entire book Masque (Tupelo Press 2008) contains persona poems, both literal and abstract personas. Although some of the poems are informed by my life and emotional fabric, not one is autobiographical. It was great fun doing the research for the poems, adopting the voices and "living inside" the mind of each poem.

  2. Very cool! Tupelo is one of my favorite presses (beautiful books!) I will have to check it out. Thanks!


Post a Comment

Always love to hear from you...and the anonymous option is open for those feeling shy.