Considering character in poetry – creating the persona poem
by Heidi St. Jean
|Baron Wormser Bio|
Poet Baron Wormser believes “The teaching of poetry should open students up to the experience of art, an experience that moves outward from the center of individual responsiveness to language.” He sat down with Heidi St. Jean, poetry editor of Mason’s Road, on a rare July day of torrential rain on Ender’s Island in Mystic, Connecticut. While the wind whipped through the heavy-headed hydrangeas in the garden, he sat cozily in a small, window-rimmed room with a view of the Long Island Sound, discussing the craft of characterization. (Read his full biography here.)
Q. How does characterization differ in poetry from prose?
A. Well, poetry is inherently a more distilled art. You don’t have as much room and you don’t move through time and space the way you’d move in prose. You can build up character over pages in a prose piece through descriptions and interactions. You can’t do that in poems. So typically, the way it works for me is to try to distill some moment where something is happening with the character and use that moment to expand into a sense of who this person is, what this person’s doing, how this person feels. That can be expanded further, into a series of moments. You could do flashbacks in time. Basically the distillation factor comes into play. You use the tools of metaphor and image (and whatever degree of the literal) to try to get into the situation. You’re trying to get at what’s going on in a life – so maybe it’s a little more existential in a poem because again, you just don’t have that room to show them doing this and show them doing that; you have to go to some kind of crux. Obviously, it could be dramatic – it depends on whether you’re telling it in first or third person. Are you showing the person? Or is the person talking about him/herself directly? How much interaction is there? How much is setting in it? Setting is another character. Setting works with your character. That’s a short version of what it is to me.
Q. So, some techniques that you would suggest using to create character include: image, metaphor, setting – any others?
A. Those are all part of it. You’re trying to get into the person – action – drama – with literal detail.
Q. How does the use of “persona” play into characterization?
A. That’s different. That’s when you’re creating a specific character. I haven’t done it that much, although I did do it with the character of Carthage. (Click here to hear Baron read from Carthage.)
Q. Can you talk about that, how that process is different?
A. Well, it’s different because, certainly with Carthage, you’re following the character through a number of situations. So you do have more latitude to show the character doing this, doing that. The issue there is that you don’t want the character to be only a caricature, even though it kind of invites you – the persona poem can have a somewhat satirical purpose. It’s more interesting to me to show more of a range of the character’s life and times, so to speak, to show the confusions, the misunderstandings that attend the character. Herbert’s Cogito was my model. I was looking to create a character something like that, someone we’re sympathetic to in certain ways and then in other ways he’s just a bit hapless, you know? You could say Carthage is a bit hapless as a human being.
Q. Is that true for persona poems in general?
A. I don’t know – no, I don’t think so. I think you can create all kinds of personas.
Q. Are there other elements of the persona poem, reasons why someone might choose to do that and use a series, for example?
A. Well, you know I do have characters in poems. I have Mulroney and a character named Rabinowitz who looks at the calendar and thinks about the Holocaust but more what I’m doing there is evoking a particular human being. I give him a name because I want to do that. I’m trying to designate an identity to a particular person.
Q. Do you think that naming the character is critical in order to develop a “true” character?
A. I think naming characters is critical; we just believe it more. When I think back to some of my poems like the homosexual man, Bob Ward, who is living a closeted life back in the 50’s in a small town. Giving him a name makes it more real. It’s the flavor of particularity that is important for creating credibility. In a poem about a grocery, I give the girl I reference a name – Tammy LaChappelle – as opposed to saying “that girl I had in high school once.” Naming characters lends them a kind of dignity. That is also important.
Q. Can you give a last example of an outstanding poem that deals with character?
A. I think Hayden Carruth’s “Marshall Washer” about a farmer who lived near Hayden is a tremendous poem. It’s a poem I think about often. That one comes to mind the most.
Q. On the prose side, is there anything else we should talk about, other than that one has more space in which to accomplish it? Are there other techniques that someone would use that we haven’t yet covered?
A. Well, it depends so much in prose whether you’re writing in first or third person. For me that’s always a huge difference. First person is the individual defining him or herself through voice one way or another. However, third person posits that you believe in a social world, so to speak, in which things happen. If I say, “Baron walks through the door,” I’ve created a world in which Baron walks through the door. But if I say, “I walk through the door,” I’m still in my head, to a degree. That’s different. It took me a long time to accept the ‘third person world,’ so to speak, in prose – whereas voice is pretty natural to me as a poet. Poets have to have voice to go write poems. So, accepting third person in prose has taken me time, and even still, when I write prose I’m attracted to those existential moments where things happen – or I approach it through image or metaphor more – which is to say I don’t have a lot of interest in plots.