Poetry Writing Workshop: The Persona Poem                                         
WRIT 2040 section 001                                                             
Instructor: Amy England

For most of us, our first impulse in writing poetry is to express our own inner experiences and subjective states. A necessary next step is to think about how those experiences give us insight into other people’s inner lives, and what it feels like to be someone else. Of course, this is tricky, since our imagination is not likely to be completely accurate, and the right of any person to speak for another is limited. In the best cases, however, either some act of genuine empathy occurs, or something new and interesting is created by the effort. We will experiment with the different possibilities of the persona poem, read some of its more famous examples, and talk about some of its pitfalls.

To pass the course, students need to write six poems for workshops, and write a one page response paper to each of the readings (except the first week).You need to contribute to the discussion in a manner that reflects your familiarity with the books and respectful attention to the work of your fellow students.You should email the poetry assignment out to the class by the Saturday night before the assignment is to be covered. The response paper is due, either by email or hard copy, at the beginning of the class when it is assigned. A good approach to the response paper is to pick one or two poems by the author we’re looking at and comment on them in detail. What kind of formal tools is the poet using, and why? How do the poems connect form and content? What kinds of contradictions play out in the poem; for example, how ironically is the voice constructed? Etc. Try to incorporate things you pick up from the readings, even if it is to argue with them, to expand your range of technique and allusion as a poet.

Please turn off cell phones and keep them put away during classtime. Please do not leave class to take cell phone calls.

Absences should be reserved for true necessities, like an illness or the observation of a religious holiday. Students can miss no more than two classes, including late arrivals and late enrollment. In the case of an extended illness, you should contact Health Services; for other serious problems that affect your ability to attend (like a death in the family, for example), contact the Academic Advising Office, and certainly let me know as soon as possible.

Required texts, available at Barnes and Noble, State and Jackson, in the basement:

Brown, Stacy Lynn and Oliver de la Paz, editors, A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poems
Browning, Robert: My Last Duchess and Other Poems
Byrne, Elena: Masque
Masters, Edgar Lee: Spoon River Anthology
Yasusada, Araki: Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada


I    9/9    Old English riddles, "The Dream of the Rood," Elizabeth Bishop. What exactly is a persona poem? What does it mean if a poem gives voice to an animal, an object? What kind of space is a poem if those voices can occur in it? Harry Mathews exercise on creating a composite character

9/10: Add/drop period ends

II    9/16    A poem in a voice as far from yours as possible. You might rewrite (and I do mean rewrite) the work you did in the class writing previously. You might choose an animal or object, as in the riddles or the Bishop poems.

III    9/23     Masters, response. Who are the speakers talking to? How does the poet suggest that we might be suspicious of the speaker, or have doubts about her/his version of events? How do these poems suggest a narrative? Poetry is a territory where unreal versions of real people have voices–are able to speak in a way they would be too reticent or unaware to do in real life. How does this work in Masters’ book?
IV    9/30    Ghost poem: a person’s voice that could not exist in the real word of spoken language.    

V    10/7    Tennyson and Browning, “Ulysses,” “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister”, “My Last Duchess”, “Porphyria’s Lover”, “The Bishop Orders His Tomb”, “Fra Lippo Lippi”, “Andrea del Sarto”, “Caliban on Setebos”, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”. Response.

How does Browning use form? What are the forms he uses? How does Browning use the persona poem to propose definitions of art? What ethical problems do persona poems raise? What responsibility does poetry have to facts, or the truth?

VI    10/14    Poem in the voice of a historical person, either a particular person or a person typical of a historical time and place—use research to explore the relationship between fact and imagination in constructing this person’s voice. What information do you fill in, or actually change?

Or: Exercise in voice and form: Browning chooses different meters and rhyme patterns to express something about the person he is depicting. There is also often an ironic conflict between the measured rhymes of the voice and the crazed actions it is describing. Choose a form (it can be anything other than free verse–rhymed, syllabic, accentual alliterative, a sestina or villanelle, etc.) that has an interesting relationship to the voice you are constructing.

VII    10/21    From A Face to Meet the Faces, read the poems in the chapters “Releasing the Kraken” and “After Happily Ever After.” Response. You might want to look up some of the myths in the poems–often they’re referenced right in the titles. How are the myths altered in these poems? How is it different to hear the story from the point of view of one character, rather than an omniscient narrator? How does the speaker’s character effect the style of language? Sign up for conferences.    

VIII    10/28    A poem that retells/revises a fairy tale or myth from the point of view of one of its characters. Finish signing up for conferences.

10/28: Last day to withdraw with a “w”.

IX     11/4    conferences

X    11/11    From A Face to Meet the Faces, read the poems in the chapters “It Kept Burning” and “That Was Then.” Reponse. What is the poem’s responsibility to the world of actual events? Does poetry necessarily have an ethical, or a political aspect? How do you write out of interest and sympathy for other people without co-opting their point of view?

XI    11/18    Record by tape or notation someone telling a story, or talking about some engaging subject, and then arrange their words into a poem, paying special attention to their typical expressions, the structure of their sentences and rhythm of their speech. This exercise concentrates on conveying the way people talk, the voices that are peculiar to them.

 Or: A research poem. A persona poem in which the speaker is a historical figure, or participating in some event of historical or political importance. Include your sources–reading, interviews, etc. While Wikipedia might be a good starting point for looking up things that interest you, your sources should move beyond that level to something more reliable.        

XII    11/25    Byrne.     


12/2: Crit week, NO CLASS

XIII    12/9     A poem that retells the same material through the voices of multiple characters.
XIV    12/16    Yasusada. Instead of a response, construct your own fake poet. You might give us some of their poetry, or make a short scholarly presentation on their work.

Other possible exercises, if one of the assigned ones doesn’t appeal to you: We’ll add to this list in response to the readings and the topics that come up in discussion throughout the semester.