January’s Prize Poem was a persona poem: a poem written in the first person (I or we) but which uses a voice other than our own, i.e. the poet adopts someone or something else's identity, and allows them to speak.
When we write a persona poem we have two options:
1. We can take on the persona totally and speak with that voice and through the identity of that persona. We sustain that voice, remain faithful and accurate to that persona's story or imagined life, and do not lapse into our own voice or concerns. The January prize poem uses that approach.
2. We can project our own pre-occupations into that identity, so the persona's voice becomes a sort of metaphor for ourselves and can enable us to express intimate thoughts in surprising ways. We can alter the story in any way we choose, or project whatever thoughts we choose onto that persona’s voice. The poem might act like a ‘mask’ in the same way that fancy dress can protect and liberate us at parties! If you know the work of Carol Ann Duffy, take a look at her collection, The World’s Wife, and in particular the poem, ‘Mrs Midas’, which updates the Midas myth to a contemporary woman’s experience of her husband’s greed and explores the effect this has on their relationship.
Of course, we could say that whichever approach is used some opinion of the poet will always be present, after all, language, imagery, and even the subject matter in the first place are all down to a particular poet’s preferences. But what matters is that we work consciously with either approach and also try and convince the reader of the persona’s world. If the reader believes the world the persona lives in then they’ll be more easily persuaded by what they have to say. Using precise concrete detail will help us do this – language that appeals to the reader’s senses, things they can see, hear, feel, touch, taste and smell.
The following poem, by Nigel McLoughlin, makes me feel the farmer’s connection to the landscape, how it is almost a part of his own physical body: The dark mass of the hill/is mine to the bone. Look through some poetry collections and anthologies and read some more persona poems, seeing if you can identify which approach you feel the poet has taken, then have a go at writing your own.
A Hill Farmer Speaks
No-one envies me my spire of fields
when the sun barely creeps above the maam
in the bowl of winter, the whirlpool of early spring
and I'm out pounding the land in all weathers
climbing up the sheer face after sheep
or up to my oxters in lambing time.
Not even the hill walkers want
to cross my bare quarter, under
the brooding bulk over Doire Ui Fhril
where the wind sheers in from Toraigh.
It's no wonder I took the second job
to see the animals foddered over winter.
No-one understands why I stay,
why, day in and day out I hob-nail
my barren acres, where I know every stone
and own each knuckle of ground.
The dark mass of the hill
is mine to the bone.
from Dissonances (bluechrome 2007)
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