Persona and Differing Perspectives Analysis Essay
Poetry has long been an activity of reflection. The best poets have a gift to pull thoughts from their minds and arrange them on a page so as best to communicate the attitudes, emotions, and conflicts associated with these thoughts to their audience. However, for many poets whose works are eventually published and widely distributed, attaching ideas to their own self may not be feasible. Instead, some poets choose to take on a “persona” - or a character in their poem who is vastly different from themselves. This allows them the freedom to express ideas that they might not necessarily be able to write about from their own perspective such as in William Butler Yeats’ Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop where Yeats writes from the perspective of an old woman named Crazy Jane, allowing him to talk in a manner that was unavailable writing only as himself. Moreover, in Anne Sexton’s Her Kind, Sexton speaks through the persona of a witch. She describes herself as, “a possessed witch, haunting the black air, braver at night; dreaming evil,” (209) as she leaves her house. This allows Sexton to describe beyond her quotidian life and connects to her attitudes of being a misplaced woman during a time period in which a women’s worth was directly tied to her ability to become a good housewife and a mother. This “witch” persona allows Sexton freedom to describe herself as “evil” and “out of her mind;” words that allow her to speak her mind as this witch and critique this aspect of society that condemns women for not allowing themselves to be reduced to their bodies and appeal to men.
Helen Vendler also argues against the many criticisms writers experience when they chose to write outside of their race, gender, religion, or sexual identity. There are many who reject the idea that an author can and should take on the persona’s of wildly different perspectives asserting that only a black author can speak of the black experience or a woman of the women’s experience. Vendler, however, states that the entire purpose of poetry is to take on new perspectives and jump across all worldly barriers including race and gender. Furthermore, Vendler delineates that by taking on a persona, writers draw attention to social issues to audience members who might not have considered these issues before, or who might see them in a new way. She claims, “It does not matter who wrote the lyric, if the self presented in the lyric is a credible one invested with imaginative power. Because every speaker of a lyric is a constructed speaker, made “alive” by the imagination, and delineated in the play of language, a poem asks that as you step into the shoes of the speaker, you notice how language has been arranged to make that possible,” (Vendler 194). Vendler theorizes that because a speaker is made alive through the imagination of the reader, one should focus instead on the message and not the physical person writing the words. She argues for unity instead of division between writers in the eyes of poetry. While a compelling thought, this idea works merely theoretically, not realistically in the current world. Helen Vendler is an incredibly intelligent and talented writer, however, she - and I, as white women - are limited in our perspective. No matter how much one studies and engages with others in different cultures, they will never be more knowledgeable than a member of that culture because culture is more than just facts to memorize. While Vendler’s idea might work in a society without a history of oppression and systemic racism, the identity of marginalized groups cannot fully be understood by a non-member of such a group and therefore, an author writing under this persona would likely not fully spread credible and accurate information.
Poetry should always be a place of freedom but freedom means many different things to different groups. For many people of a more privileged background, freedom is being completely free of all restraints. We should be free to write as who we wish, become who we wish, and talk as we wish. However, for many marginalized groups, freedom is the ability to have their voice heard. Vendler argues that writing in a different persona may draw attention to social issues but if what it takes to mobilize an audience is a white man writing about the issues marginalized groups face then is that not a criticism of the attitudes of readers? Instead, is it the responsibility of poets to use their platform to lift up marginalized voices instead of speaking for them? Poema para los Californios Muertos by Lorena Dee Cervantes is an example of the influence a poet can have given the chance to express their emotions from a unique perspective. Cervantes reflects on the original inhabitants of California, killed by American settlers. Her poem combines both English and Spanish in order to encapsulate the attitudes and culture of her background writing, “Now at this restaurant nothing remains but this old oak and an ill-placed plaque. Is it true that you still live here in the shadows of these white, high-class houses?”(175). Cervantes gives a voice to all the native Californians whom American History has forgotten. She illuminates this issue with all the care of a member of such a community. For any other to speak on such a matter, it would betray and offend the subject matter itself. Poetry should be a place of freedom but to some privileged authors, freedom in poetry means that they are entitled to speak through the mouths of underprivileged communities, perpetuating the very system their poem is attempting to critique.
Writing through a persona can be an incredibly useful technique. It allows for writers to express ideas that they might otherwise not be able to convey as depicted in Her Kind by Anne Sexton. However, although in an ideal world, writers should be able to take on the persona of any other being that they chose, that is simply not feasible in our world of history and trauma. To write a story featuring a member of a different race is reasonable in many cases but in poetry one decides to take on this character and make the character come alive through their writing to speak on social issues. By doing this, one silences the voices of marginalized groups and chooses to speak for them. Poetry has always been a source of inspiration and activism but the forefront of activism should always be the group it involves, not an outsider inserting themselves into the situation.