A. Van Jordan
This essay—in its entirety—first appeared in the original print edition of Mentor & Muse: Essays from Poets to Poets. Below, you will find an excerpt of the essay.
August 30, 2010
When we talk about the short story, we think of a moment in a character’s life that defines who this person is. In the persona poem, we have a similar artistic problem: we need to locate that person’s voice, but, more important, we need to locate where that voice is at this time in his or her life. The question I often ask of the persona is, why are we hearing this story now? That is to say, I want to know what is the defining moment that reveals character in the poem. And if character is revealed, I want to know something as simple as What am I supposed to learn from this? What’s at stake here? These are valuable questions to ask of any poem, really, but I think the necessity is more pronounced when we talk about the persona. Indeed, the persona will surely fall short without attending to these questions.
I’ve identified five categories of the persona, five routes leading to the persona that call for us to stay true to the emotion in the poem. These are just a few possibilities for the persona; they’re conduits for the emotion they can carry and the tone that will bring them to life:
- Voices we don’t know, but characters with which we’re familiar. We don’t have a preconceived idea of the voice of this persona, but we know enough about this figure to know if the voice rang false: the voice of Leadbelly’s guitar in Tyehimba Jess’s book leadbelly, the voice of a house one grew up in, the voice of the unknown soldier, and the like.
- Voices we know publicly but not intimately: the voice of Patricia Smith’s poem “Skinhead,” the voice of Mr. Rogers, or the voice of Superman.
- Voices we know intimately and publicly from their own confessions: the voice of Anne Frank, the voice of Frederick Douglass. The challenge here is what can we say that hasn’t already been heard from this figure.
- Voices we know in a vacuum but not in challenging situations. This is simply the fish-out-of-water persona, such as the voice of an alien on earth in Robert Hayden’s “American Journal.”
- Voices we know but not in the context of counterpoint characterization, talking to a specific other: John Berryman’s Dream Songs; Mr. Rogers sitting at Andy Warhol’s table at Studio 54.
When asked about the enterprise of writing in the voice of others, Rita Dove—in an interview from The Swansea Review—had this to say: “I do find relationships to be kaleidoscopic and infinitely changing; no relationship is ever clear or safe, no matter how intrinsically wonderful it is and all that.” In “The House Slave,” Dove delves into that “kaleidoscopic and infinitely changing relationship” of slave plantation owner and slave:
The first horn lifts its arm over the dew-lit grass
and in the slave quarters there is a rustling—
children are bundled into aprons, cornbread
and water gourds grabbed, a salt pork breakfast taken.
I watch them driven into the vague before-dawn
while their mistress sleeps like an ivory toothpick
and Massa dreams of asses, rum and slave-funk.
I cannot fall asleep again. At the second horn,
the whip curls across the backs of the laggards—
sometimes my sister’s voice, unmistaken, among them.
“Oh! pray,” she cries. “Oh! pray!” Those days
I lie on my cot, shivering in the early heat,
and as the fields unfold to whiteness,
and they spill like bees among the fat flowers,
I weep. It is not yet daylight.
The tension of daybreak opens the poem, on the verge of possibilities and of limitations. The point of view in the first stanza offers a more comfortable perspective; we’re seduced into thinking this is a narrative in third person, with the distance of third person, but by the second line of stanza two, we realize that the narrator is more reliable and more intimate: this is the first-person narration of a slave beginning his day. “The House Slave” offers an example of voices we know publicly but not intimately and voices we know publicly and intimately from their confessions. That is, we know that there are African American slaves in America’s history, but we may not know their voices, their everydayness, intimately, unless we’ve spent time with the singular voice of the slave narrative, unless we read their intimate confessions. Here, Dove makes an amalgam of the two genres: poetry as slave narrative. This is not Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, or the narrative of Henry Bibb or of Frederick Douglass, but we know other slaves had their narratives to tell, so we buy it.
Dove moves us to this place with the sounding of “the second horn” when “the whip curls across the backs of laggards.” This comes after we know that “mistress sleeps” and “Massa dreams,” but our speaker “cannot fall asleep again.” The dichotomy of the mistress and master sleeping and the slave who cannot sleep provides not only a tension but also a transition into the action of the day via the awake dreaming—or nightmares, more appropriately—of the slave narrator.
The possibility of what the speaker’s sister will face in this day as “she cries” “Oh! pray,” provides enough tonal desperation to get a sense of what’s at stake: the everyday routine and the danger of the unexpected. And once this work is done, we’re brought back to the moment at hand: “It is not yet daylight.” We have a marriage of narrative and of lyric. We get a sense of the speaker’s “story,” and also of the voice and circularity of his experience.
There’s the need to get the story out, but there’s also the music rumbling beneath the terror. The tone is of a speaker in tune with his vulnerability—“Those days / I lie on my cot, shivering in the early heat”—and there’s the music beneath this “as the fields unfold to whiteness, / and they spill like bees among the fat flowers,” and the evidence of emotion in “I weep.” The narrative offers vulnerability and good reason for caution, but the lyric of the poem offers the hope to survive. The narrative and the lyric are contrapuntal in this persona, as the strength to face the day is contrapuntal with the fear of facing the day.
The power of the persona comes from speakers who have something to lose, speakers who contemplate their actions or who are forced into their actions, and speakers we already know placed in extraordinary situations. The persona should challenge the poet to say what they never thought to say in their own voices and, as with all poems, it should challenge us to say what has not been heard before.As you move forward, try this approach:
- Choose one of or even a few of the five options from above for persona.
- Pick a persona to inhabit, and,
- Pick a location in which you want that persona either to confess a secret or to offer advice on something; the location should relate to the confession or to the advice.
The Flash Reverses Time
DC Comics, November 1990, #44
“Never Look Back, Flash,
Your Life Might be Gaining on You”
When I’m running across the city
on the crowded streets
to home, when, in a blur,
the grass turns brown
beneath my feet, the asphalt
steams under every step
and the maple leaves sway
on the branches in my wake,
and the people look,
look in that bewildered way,
in my direction, I imagine
walking slowly into my past
among them at a pace
at which we can look one another in the eye
and begin to make changes in the future
from our memories of the past—
the bottom of a bottomless well,
you may think, but why not dream a little:
our past doesn’t contradict our future;
they’re swatches of the same fabric
stretching across our minds,
one image sewn into another,
like the relationship between a foot and a boot,
covariant in space and time—
one moves along with the other,
like an actor in a shadow play—
like a streak of scarlet light
across the skyline of your city
sweeping the debris, which is simply confetti,
candy wrappers, a can of soda,
all the experience of a day discarded
and now picked up
even down to the youthful screams of play
that put smiles on the faces of the adults
who hear remnants of their own voices
through a doorway leading back
to a sunrise they faintly remember.
1. A. Van Jordan, Quantum Lyrics: Poems (New York: W. W. Norton, 2007), 13–14.
2. Rita Dove, “Rita Dove Talks to M. Wynn Thomas,” Swansea Review 19 (1995): 158–63, also found as “An Interview with Rita Dove by M. Wynn Thomas,” Modern American Poetry, 1995, http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/dove/mwthomas.htm (accessed March 11, 2010).
3. Rita Dove, The Yellow House on the Corner: Poems, 2nd ed. (Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1989), 33.
“The House Slave,” ©1980 by Rita Dove, from her collection The Yellow House on the Corner, Carnegie-Mellon University Press. Reprinted by permission of the author.
A. Van Jordan
A. Van Jordan is the author of four collections: Rise, which won the PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Award (Tia Chucha Press, 2001); M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A, (2005), which was listed as one the Best Books of 2005 by The London Times; Quantum Lyrics, (2007); and The Cineaste, (2013), W.W. Norton & Co. Jordan has been awarded a Whiting Writers Award, an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and a Pushcart Prize. He is also a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship (2007), a United States Artists Fellowship (2009), and a Lannan Literary Award in Poetry (2015). He serves as the Robert Hayden Collegiate Professor of English Language & Literature at The University of Michigan.