By Jeanie Thompson, Spalding Low-Residency MFA Poetry Faculty
Today, poets are exploring how to engage readers with history by entering the lives of characters. This increasingly well-regarded genre is called historical persona poetry.
When former Kentucky Poet Laureate and Spalding graduate Frank X. Walker visited Montgomery, Alabama, he met with students in George W. Carver High School’s library. “There ought to be a section in every library,” Walker declared, “labeled historical persona poetry.” Walker is a master of the genre and has published books about characters from Kentucky history, including the enslaved York who traveled cross country with explorers Lewis and Clark. In 2015, Walker produced the masterful Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers, taking on the story of the slain civil rights leader’s assassination through multiple characters in persona. Each of these books teaches history through the heightened language of poetry.
Like Shakespeare’s soliloquies and Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues, historical persona poems reveal character, motivation, and the human soul through intimate speech – sometimes addressed to an auditor and sometimes in a moment of self-reflection. This sounds easy enough, but the ineffable element in these poems is the connection that the poet makes with the subject matter, the moment when the poet loses her own ego to the subject, allowing a transcendent poem to emerge.
Persona poems have appealed to me throughout my writing life – first in graduate school when I discovered persona poems by the poet Pamela Stewart who was exploring characters from a Russian novel and bringing them into poetry. Later, I found poem after poem that entranced me for the character’s compelling voice and scene. When I taught poetry to middle schoolers in New Orleans, I made worksheets of persona poems to teach from so that they could write their own. Two poems from the period stay with me: Louise Gluck’s early poem “Jeanne d’Arc” and Ellen Bryant Voight’s “The Lifeguard.” As I transmitted my enthusiasm for these poems to the young writers, I saw them catch the spark of what a persona poem could be. Sometimes coupled with a simple form like the pantoum, the poems by these kids knocked me out. I’ll never forget “The Runner” written by a sixth grader in Kenner, Louisiana. These young poets saw the immediacy a persona poem afforded in Voigt’s lifeguard who told of attempting to rescue a drowned swimmer and thus, they experienced the profound proximity of empathy. I have no doubt that the chief take-away for these young writers was the shared experience a persona poem offered, as well as the sheer power it provided to connect with an audience.
Years later, the persona poem is a mainstay of “Writing Our Stories,” a creative writing program for at-risk and incarcerated youth in Alabama. Teaching empathy through poetry writing is a wonderful way to heal wounded young people. And perhaps that healing is the reason it appeals to adult poets, too.
As I wrote my way through persona poems in my early years, I fell in love with my subject matter, but somehow I always felt a little too present there as I appropriated someone else’s life. The reason for the poem seemed to be often about my own personal connection, lived through the character. This was a secret I held: here was a poem about subject X, ostensibly, but really, this was the way I worked out my own personal problem Y. After several years of writing this way, I felt more prepared to work through my own narrative lyric. Persona poems helped me find my own voice as I practiced through the voices of others.
When I began to understand that I wanted to write poems about the Alabama activist and writer, Helen Keller, I knew what I was striving for was more complex than the persona poems I had written for some 30 years before. I knew I had the chops to write in persona, but what I wanted to say and do with Helen seemed more profound than that genre offered me. Or so I thought. So, for some six years I read Keller’s own writing and some of the best biographies of her, and I approached and avoided the historical persona poem without truly understanding the pathology of the genre. I thought the material needed to be a film or a play; it seemed “bigger than poetry,” which I now find hilarious. What could be bigger than poetry?
Eventually, I started writing the poems that were uppermost in my mind from my research at that point – her thwarted love affair with Peter Fagan that had come to a tragic ending in Montgomery, Alabama, not far from where I was living at the time, and her sadness about not being a mother. Then other poems began to come – her spiritual life and her relationship with Annie Sullivan, her trips abroad as an emissary for the deaf-blind around the world, her hatred of war and her faith in peace, her love of art, and her experiences that were as deep and authentic as anyone’s, despite her double disability.
As the book took shape into a loose chronicle of her adult life, I found myself pulling toward a more political Helen – one who dared to imagine asking President Franklin Roosevelt (beyond the grave) if he would’ve dropped the bombs on Japan, and one who connected Annie Sullivan with peace and wanted to state that for the world. And, there were the poems in which Helen talked back to the world, rebuking it for its treatment of the deaf-blind. The final poem in the book is a brief coda spoken from Helen post-9/11. As if in minimalistic prayer, she asks us, readers and fellow humans, to consider how a bust of herself, housed at Helen Keller International’s offices near the Twin Towers, had survived the fires, and how, in turn, we should direct our gaze back to the surviving world. As I look at The Myth of Water, I believe that the whole book was moving toward that poem, though I would’ve had no way to know that from the beginning. Only because I had worked through Helen Keller’s persona in a variety of settings – real and imagined—was I able to experience that final moment when she exhorts us.
Now, as a poet, I can’t imagine not working in a mode that allows me to exhort, comment, or somehow demonstrate some truth about our world. I’ve long been called to the things of this world – the luminous green of early spring that gives hope, the sudden warm breeze that renews our belief in love, and other deeply personal images that push their way to the page. I offer this explanation of The Myth of Water as a way of saying that I believe we poets can make a tremendous difference in the world by talking about our world in a bigger way that allows us to step outside of ourselves.
As I researched Helen Keller’s life and looked for shapes for the collection, as well as for individual poems, one book was my guide – Carver: A Life In Poems by Marilyn Nelson. I returned to this book to learn how Nelson captured her subject’s journey – through life, through the world. In the case of Carver, the poet had also chosen a very well known, well-documented figure – George Washington Carver. Through her poems, I met him and learned about a community, Tuskegee, Alabama, some 40 miles east of me. To imagine that book taking place so close by was exciting and profound. For anyone seeking to research a subject and fashion a frame for it, I highly suggest choosing companion books to study as guides. This will prove to be sympathetic and an inspiration.
Recently, Marilyn Nelson commented in an interview for World Literature Today about how she feels impelled to write out of history and current events, “…. the current political situation has forced me to write poems that I wouldn’t ordinarily write. And I don’t usually write about current events, but I find it very hard not to right now. I’m more inspired by history than by anything else. I don’t have a project I’m working on right now, but I imagine, if and when I do have a new project, it probably will be historical. I really enjoy doing research and learning things before I start writing. I don’t like to spin poems just out of myself and my own experience. I like to learn something in the course of writing.”
I understand this impulse to move past spinning out of oneself. But that is not easy to separate from writing out of an historical character. Only after I had found a publisher for this collection and it was on its way to publication did I fear a missed opportunity with The Myth of Water. I felt that if I had seen the whole book from the beginning, and concentrated more on Annie and Helen’s relationship in its fullest dimensions, and had determined to paint Helen’s impulse toward service that impelled her to challenge the Lions Clubs of America to be the “Knights of the Blind,” I could’ve had a more wholistic book, almost a novel in verse. But as I took the book out to readers, sharing the poems and talking with them about her life of service and her inner personal life, I came to understand that I had made a valid journey through the history of Keller’s life and through the world she lived in from 1880 until 1968, the year of her death. The material still calls to me and I have considered a sequel, but I think that this journey has run its course and my further time with Helen would be better spent in some form of service like hers. Perhaps my service is to take the persona poem form to other poets and share with them the journey and the responsibility of historical persona poetry. Our world is brimming with need for understanding. If I can reach a reader by speaking in another’s voice, then maybe there is hope that we can understand each other, hear each other, and survive living together on this planet. Perhaps my service is to share this way of writing with those who choose poetry as their field of expression and help open that door.
Jeanie Thompson is an award-winning poet, educator, arts advocate, and faculty member of the Spalding MFA low-residency Writing Program. She is founding director of the Alabama Writers’ Forum and has published five books of poems, including The Myth of Water: Poems from the Life of Helen Keller (The University of Alabama Press, 2016) and has co-edited The Remembered Gate: Memoirs by Alabama Writers. www.jeaniethompson.net