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Mark Strand, “Against Persona”

Recently, I found myself challenged to reconsider the role that persona-driven poetry plays in my classroom pedagogy. Currently, it plays none, and though I’d always felt confident in that election, I’d never really contested my confidence until I discovered just how many other creative writing instructors find persona a useful tool in teaching undergraduates. Had they discovered some valence of this particular compositional technique that I’d missed? I certainly couldn’t exclude the possibility; indeed, my view on the place of persona in the undergraduate classroom is by no means dogmatic. Instead, it arises from my own aims as a creative writing instructor, which need not be those of any other lifelong teacher similarly situated. Still, it seems a useful exercise to publicly put myself through the paces in considering how or why persona is or is not a constructive pedagogical tool in my classroom.

I suppose I start with the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, which identifies three historical strains in poetry: the lyric, the narrative, and the dramatic. The first has as its chief ambition the expression of an emotion; the second, the relation of a story; and the third is only lightly regarded in poetry circles these days because of the existence of undergraduate and graduate creative writing workshops in screenwriting, playwriting, and writing for television. (In other words, if much dramatic poetry emulates the spatial and dialogic elements of screens, stages, and novel-pages, whither its place in the conventional poem-space?) In many creative writing classrooms I’ve observed—chiefly undergraduate classrooms—the only strains of poetry acknowledged are the lyric and the narrative. Implicitly or explicitly, students are encouraged to see the foremost role of poetry as being (variously) to render an emotion or render a narrative in some manner of elevated language, whether the means of elevation is semantic, sonic, rhythmic, or formal. Is it any wonder such students are apt to write so copiously of their many eighteen year-old emotions and eighteen year-old exploits? They’re merely adapting their content to the limited conceits (I might say constraints) with which they’ve been introduced.

So there’s a problem here, I think. First and foremost, we live in the Internet Age; archival materials have never been so available as they are in this era—interviews, exposés, firsthand accounts, autobiographies, and so on. Whereas in Medieval times a Saxon nobleman could write in the person of a Saxon serf and dazzle his well-heeled peers with his ability to inhabit and ventriloquize an alien experience, today a student or teacher or simply an avid reader of poetry can use JSTOR or Google or a university library to track down much more moving, articulate, and comprehensive accounts of the Other than any eighteen year-old could produce. (Even more so when we regard it as likely that the research conducted precedent to such an account was minimal.) Of course, the value of a persona poem—qua information—to the individual reader is an issue quite apart from the value of such a work to the author or to a reader “qua Art.”

A second concern with persona poems is that, from a certain perspective, we might feel that they instantiate and reinforce failure in a way that’s counter-productive. First, they double down on the failure of an instructor to admit into the classroom more strains of poetry than the lyric and the narrative, and they do this by urging students to use a compositional technique whose primary benefit is that it teaches students to empathize with—variously—the emotions and stories of another, in other words exactly the work lyric and narrative poetry has always done and asked its readers to do. In this respect, it’s a technique that asks its users only to carry forward the same project all other poets before them have done. The second form of failure that seems encouraged by the use of persona is a failure on the student’s part, and it’s a much graver one than the preceding: that is, their failure to, as all poets really ought consider doing, form an idiosyncratic relationship with both a) language generally, and b) genre specifically, which relationship would qualify, in toto, as a “poetics.” For what are we teaching our students, really, if and when we are not helping guide them toward compositional praxes that, being singular to them as individuals, produce poems likewise singular and unreplicable?

I mean to say that while we may not wish for our students to merely “write what they know,” if all they know to write are lyric or narrative poems that will (respectively) echo emotions and narratives that are already well-worn among their age cohort, is not the solution for students to “write through themselves” rather than “write against themselves”? Now, when I tell a student to “write through herself,” I do not mean to say she should write lyric or narrative poems that inscribe her personal mythos; in fact, I do not mean for her to consider the writing of lyric or narrative poems at all. What I mean, rather, is that every poet who has seriously regarded herself as an idiosyncratic human intelligence has already developed the capacity to perform a “poetics” that is entirely unique. 

Case-in-point: Let us assume I have a male student who is from rural China; who is obsessive about videogames; an expert in calculus; epileptic; tall for his age; afraid of small spaces; and gay, as well as many other fascinating qualities and identities and subjectivities which need form no part of this anecdote. If I ask this student to perform the poetic act via lyricism, he will mimic a series of emotional gestures—say, obsession; anxiety; alienation—that both I and his peers have seen and heard many times before. The poetry may well be splendid, but it will forever run the risk of being derivative. The same is true if I ask this young man to write narrative poems drawn directly from his experience, for experiences born of high-school obsessions, anxieties, and received cruelties tend to exhibit a sameness. But what if I tell this young man, directly and fervently, that his particular matrix of experiences has given him a relationship with language generally, and with the capacities of his chosen genre specifically, that is his and his alone? That cannot be replicated? What if I ask him to first try to understand this idiosyncratic relationship, then conceptualize it, then reify it in whatever form of verse best delivers evidence of what he’s by then understood and conceptualized? This is what I mean when I say that the young man (who could, of course, be a young woman instead) ought to “write through himself.”

Now, I will admit, rather late in this little note, that I have in fact asked my undergraduates, on occasion, to write poems in persona. But the only items of interest I’ve ever found in the results of these experiments are indicia of their failure: that is, evidence that the student possessed such a large quantity of something—some feature native to his or her experience of language and his or her conception of what poetry can do that no other genre can—that it was impossible to mask that something beneath the projected emotions and narrative arcs of (say) Fritz the Cat or Gumby. It is these stubbornnesses I hope to cultivate in my students, for while (in verse at least) the average eighteen year-old will let go only too easily of their emotions (which distress them anyway) and coded mythologies (which they neither particularly believe in nor particularly wish to share widely), it is the idiosyncrasies of their relationship with language that they cannot discard because they haven’t yet absorbed them. We cannot lose what we’ve never yet found, as it were. 

So to return to the example of the hypothetical student above, I may see in his writing, persona-driven or otherwise, that the instinctive trajectory of his logic is circular rather than linear, consistent with certain Eastern philosophies; that years of playing videogames have both made him obsessive about repetitive action and likely to see typing on his computer (even when writing poems!) as an inherently aggressive act; that his association of one word to another, and one image to another, is mathematical rather than associative; that he is accustomed to seeing language—especially his own—interrupted in an untimely fashion by unexpected interventions; that his given narrative perspective is (in a mirror of his physical perspective) “from above”; that he uses every inch of white space on the page (or even sends his words flying off the page altogether) for fear of seeing his language lodged in a constrictive enclosure; and that an awareness of sensuality and his own body inhabits every facet of his relationship with language, given that our homophobic society forces such an awareness from him at all other sites of human contact, too. Now, I can ask this young man to throw all these glorious idiosyncrasies to the wind and ventriloquize Joan of Arc or Ronald McDonald because I’m worried that he’s somehow unable to avoid writing about beer—and rarely have I encountered a student so recalcitrant—or I can ask him to discover, under his own nose, a poetics no other can replicate: a relationship with language that comprises an intricate matrix of circularity, repetition, aggression, algebraic relation, disjunction (by interruption), omniscience, omnipresence, sensuality, and a studied refusal to color between the lines.

Shall I tell you what this young man created, once we’d discussed this “poetics” of his, or continue to pretend all the foregoing was merely hypothetical? Well, I will tell you; indeed, I will show you. This is what he produced: http://www.inknode.com/piece/2355-seth-abramson-author-s-note-from-the-compleat-memoir-.

I worry that when we implicitly encourage our students to abandon all hope of producing work no other human could produce—when, in fact, we do anything but insist on this eventuality from the start—we doom them to a life of derivative writing and ourselves to a hundred hundred [sic] more stories about their fraternity or sorority hijinks. Or, to a series of exercises in which they are unconvincingly Cleopatra or unconvincingly Sigmund Freud or unconvincingly LeBron James, when in fact I could open my Mac and find, in minutes, richer and more faithful accounts of these persons from a hundred hundred different sources. When in 1950 Charles Olson urged the poet to “stay[ ] inside himself…contained within his nature,” and to find there a world more expansive than any he could see with waking eyes, Olson knew, too, that that dive is a harrowing and dangerous one—a leap of faith that lasts a lifetime—and that we therefore must start our students on it as early as possible. Even rethinking the role of persona in poetry with the aid of essays from peers I admire (many of whom are now advocating for its use), I find myself believing that asking undergraduates to write in persona is a retreat from a necessary cliff rather than the nudge from its edge they so desperately require.

Posted 05/13/14
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