Three Contemporary Women Writers and Their Use of the Persona Poem
Persona poetry offers contemporary writers opportunities for imagination, empathy, and to undermine expectation and surprise both the reader and the writer with the insights gained from writing under an assumed “mask.” In this essay, I’ll discuss the uses of the persona poem, examine the use of the persona poem by contemporary poets Margaret Atwood, Lucille Clifton and Louise Glück, and discuss why these poets might use the persona as a means of examining their own struggles to subvert a still-patriarchal hierarchical society. I will discuss which characters they choose as speakers, and why the writers might choose those characters and examine how they rewrite well-established narratives to illuminate previously ignored details and characters.
The word “persona” is Latin for “mask.” The University of Victoria’s online Writer’s Guide defines it this way:
The persona was the mask worn by an actor in Greek drama. In a literary context, the persona is the character of the first-person narrator in verse or prose narratives, and the speaker in lyric poetry.
The use of the term “persona” (as distinct from “author”) stresses that the speaker is part of the fictional creation, invented for the author's particular purposes in a given literary work.
So, a persona is the "I" of a narrative or the implied speaker of a lyric poem. A persona poem is a poem in the first person in which the speaker is explicitly separate from the author. You could write a persona poem in the voice of a fairy tale character, a character in a current news story, a member of your family, or a 16th century coal miner.
Why Write Persona Poems?
Writers use persona as an artistic tool to open up their creative possibilities. Persona poems provide writers with a wider range of stories and experiences, rather than just a plain vanilla autobiographical narrative. It also allows the writer to choose tone and voice more adventurously. In short, it gives the poet an expanded opportunity to use one of the most diverse objects in the toolbox of the fiction writer: creating character.
With much of contemporary poetry being straightforward and confessional, all about the “I,” persona poetry, in contrast, forces writers to imagine the “other.” It gives us an exercise in empathy and analysis, as we describe in detail what another person might feel.
Persona also allows a poet to start “in media res,” as the reader will already know the back-story and be invested in the character as a character. This frees the poet from much of the tiresome work of establishing plotline and back-story. If you write a poem as Athena, the reader will make assumptions; for instance, they will know that you are speaking as a goddess of Wisdom, that you were a character in Greek mythology, and that you transformed a talented weaver-woman into a spider. This enables a poet to dive straight into her take, focusing on the aspect, tone, or particular poignancy that most interests the writer.
The second reason a writer might choose to write in persona has to do with the psychology of the writer. Carl Jung spoke of the persona as the mask or façade that each person presents to the outside world.
The persona…is the individual’s system of adaptation to, or the manner he assumed in dealing with, the world. Every calling or profession, for example, has its own characteristic persona…. Only, the danger is that (people) become identical with their personae—the professor with his textbook, the tenor with his voice…. One could say, with a little exaggeration, that the persona is that which in reality one is not, but which oneself as well as others think one is. (420)
In persona poetry, this is doubly true—the writer knowingly selects another person to represent in their work, which unconsciously displays something about their internal psychology. Writing persona poems might allow a writer to fully voice an emotion they might be repressing, such as anger or sadness, without feeling they are personally vulnerable. They can express opinions without fear of reprisal, since, after all, the writer isn’t presenting their own opinions, merely those of a created character. This can result in an artistic embrace of the “shadow” self, as well as an exploration of the anima/animus of the writer. Using archetypes from fairy tales and mythology allows writers to explore the subconscious collective imagination that we share as well.
Another reason a writer might choose to use a mask, or persona, in her poetry is the issue of power and politics. A writer might choose to use a persona for the subversive remaking of patriarchal narratives. A mask might help the writer assume power she might not feel she has, and help her avoid the stigma of being identified with unlikable viewpoints and feelings.
What does “subversive remaking of patriarchal narratives” entail? The current critical mode of deconstruction sees every piece of writing as a construct of environment, economics, power, popular culture, religion, and other influential parts of the artist’s world. Deconstruction has been popular with some feminists as a way to critique certain recurring constructs—for instance, stories in which a woman is saved by remaining quiet or staying passive are seen as a construct of a society that values silence and passivity in women, and therefore a construct that needs to be subverted. Revisionist mythmaking is the process of re-creating a story to subvert the dominant paradigms within them; for instance, the popular story Cinderella has been recreated in the recent film Ella Enchanted with the reconstruction that Cinderella has been cursed with obedience and must find a way to stand up to those in power while under this dangerous spell. This revisionism is a tool for reshaping the way the writer and reader think about certain archetypal characters. Glück, Atwood, and Clifton all subvert the dominant patriarchal paradigms of the mythologies they borrow; for instance, Penelope becomes not a paragon of patience and faithfulness but a woman who chooses her fate because of her own passive aggression in Glück’s Meadowlands rewrite of Homer’s Odyssey, and Atwood rewrites Helen of Troy as an active, rather than passive, sexual exhibitionist with father issues. These particulars will be discussed later in the paper.
Consider the following quote from Eleanor Wilner’s lengthy essay “On ‘Women’s Poetry’” in the January 2006 issue of Poetry:
My appreciation for Ostriker's re-visionist work is consonant with my concern for what she calls “stealing the language”: the need to return to the foundation texts like the Bible and, while mining the power of its great poetry, alter its narratives precisely by entering and giving voice to those silent or anonymous figures who did not “make history” but suffered it. The figures in and structures of these narratives are another kind of form, and here I think that the long exclusion from tradition (and equality) does affect the shaping, the restructuring of these deep narratives—and this is true for people denied access to literary outlets by class and race, often a more complete exclusion than that for gender alone. But all this is too copious and well-documented a subject to more than touch on here. (23)
This quote discusses the use of persona poetry, particularly the personae of silent or slandered women in already-known mythologies and folk tales, as a subversive form of the remaking of patriarchal narratives. If a writer feels that perhaps, the female characters of say, Homer or Ovid, or the Bible, deserve better representation, the use of personae allows the imagination of reader and writer to reform archetypes. This is a powerful way to create spaces for all the diverse aspects of womanhood in history and myth.
If we allow that dramatic monologues are very similar to persona poems and consider that dramatic monologues have been around a very long time, then one could say that the persona poem has been around at least as long as the ancient Greek poetical dramatic works, and of course, more recently, popularized by Shakespeare. In the last hundred or so years, Victorian poet Robert Browning may have set the trend for persona poetry with his poems “My Last Duchess” and “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister.” Modernist master T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is an excellent example of persona poetry, allowing Eliot to express (at 26) his angst about aging, impotence, and mortality. John Berryman’s The Dream Songs play with the idea of speaker as character, and even Plath, who we tend to think of as a straight forwardly confessional poet, wrote “Lady Lazarus” as a persona poem. Browning, Eliot, and Berryman had a profound effect on me when I was reading poetry as a kid; from my mother’s college text of poetry, I discovered the biting, angry wit of the murderous monk in a Spanish cloister, the charming, neurotic Prufrock, and the whimsical Henry and had a new world of poetry opened up to me—a kind of poetry where one might use a fiction to tell an important, but maybe inadmissible, truth.
To move on to modernist women writers, Louise Bogan and H.D. both wrote mythological persona poems, H.D. most famously as Helen, in the book-length poem “Helen in Egypt.”
Use of Persona by Female Contemporary Poets
As a young biology major in college, and later studying poetry in graduate school, I was introduced for the first time to contemporary female poets, including Rita Dove, Sylvia Plath, Louise Glück, Margaret Atwood, and others. One trend I noted in almost all of them was the use of persona and character—H.D.’s Helen in Egypt, Plath’s Lady Lazarus, Glück’s poems in the voices of Telemachus, Penelope and Odysseus, Atwood’s Helen and a wild array of mythical beasts and beings such as witches and werewolves. I asked myself why the use of persona was so prevalent, and what benefit did persona offer specifically to women poets? In Elizabeth Dodd’s discussion of female writers in her book The Veiled Mirror and the Woman Poet: H.D., Louise Bogan, Elizabeth Bishop, and Louise Glück, she states that “The persona poem has been a literary tool…throughout the century…since it can allow a writer to unite personal, autobiographical material-tales of the self-with a mythological, allusive mask- tales of the other- and to finally seek shelter behind that mask” (149).
The remainder of this discussion will focus on three women poets of the generation before mine, Louise Glück, Margaret Atwood, and Lucille Clifton, and I will discuss the way each poet uses persona poetry as a means of rewriting myth, allowing women a more accurate, complete, and perhaps controversial representation. These personae, I believe, also represent something important about each writer—a desire to replace stereotype with something new, a desire to expand what a woman can do and say, a desire to explain things from a female point of view, without silencing, critiquing or sugar-coating. This concept of “revisionist mythmaking” is discussed more fully in Alicia Ostriker’s book, Stealing the Language.
Louise Glück’s Use of Persona
Glück has used various personae throughout her career—one of her best known early poems was 1969’s “Gretel in Darkness”—and mythological personae in several books, including the early Triumph of Achilles, Meadowlands, and her most recent book, Averno. Critic and poet Elizabeth Dodd describes her use of mythic persona ”—as “postconfessional personal classicism—one in which the voice of the self is muted by an amplified sense of the mythic, the archetypal …, without losing the compelling presence of an individual, contemporary ‘I,’ a personal voice addressing the reader” (149). Lee Upton in The Muse of Abandonment: Origin, Identity, Mastery in Five American Poets, says that “the self in Glück is placed in relation to a larger mythological backdrop but is not overwhelmed by this competing narrative. The mythological narrative is used to dignify the self, particularly the female self, which might otherwise be domesticated or trivialized” (119).
While Glück does use the personae of flowers in Wild Iris, her Pulitzer Prize-winning collections of poems, to allow the writer to speak to God and express her feelings of loss, passion, and disappointment, as well as the responses of God, for the purposes of this essay I concentrate on Glück’s later works, Meadowlands and Averno, to exemplify her use of classical and mythic personae.
In Meadowlands, Glück uses personae from Homer—Penelope, Telemachus, Circe, and the Sirens— juxtaposed with poems that form a dialogue between a contemporary couple in the midst of a deteriorating relationship. Her ability to write a sympathetic portrayal of a “bad” character from a mythological story, such as her poem “Siren,” in which Homer’s famous seductress who lured men to their own destruction is recast as a wistful, heartbroken, ex-waitress, compels us:
I became a criminal when I fell in love.
Before that I was a waitress.
I didn’t want to go to Chicago with you.
I wanted to marry you, I wanted
your wife to suffer.
…I think now
if I felt less I would be
a better person. I was
a good waitress,
I could carry eight drinks. (27-28)
This is surely revisionist mythmaking, a twist that makes a character of female destruction into an overworked, charmingly honest girl-next-door. One of the strongest poems in the book, “Circe’s Power,” is written from the sorceress’ perspective. She is portrayed not merely a seductress, but a powerful woman who sees the limits of her power and the love Odysseus has for her:
a few tears upset me? My friend,
every sorceress is
a pragmatist at heart…
…If I wanted only to hold you
I could hold you prisoner. (37-38)
In a different mode, the patient, long-suffering Penelope is written as a less-likable, withholding character, who in “The Rock” says that “perhaps I have/ the soul of a reptile after all” (36). Glück’s inimitable tone, dry, sometimes witty, sometimes sharp, unifies the voices of the women in the book. Telemachus, the son of Penelope and Odysseus, occupies the observer position - obvious in poems like “Telemachus’ Detachment.”
In Glück’s essay, “Against Sincerity,” she talks about the decision poets make to distance themselves from, and so shape their own life as a subject for poetry. In Meadowlands’ “Void,” the snippets of conversation between a man and woman—which many critics assumed was Glück and her then-soon-to-be-ex-husband—seem highly personal, although controlled, glimpses into a control-freak’s private life—a woman whose husband persuades her to invite guests over by convincing her to think of them as “extra chickens” (49). Should we assume these characters—and Glück gives as much dialogue to the man as the woman, even censoring the female voice completely in “Void”—are personae as well shaped and formed to allow Glück to express something, as she might suggest in her essay, or are they, in fact, “sincere,” straight-from-her-life-to-the-page? It is an interesting question. It also makes me look more closely at the feelings of the women in the mythological persona poems. As I mentioned before, Glück’s “Siren” and “Circe” get fairly sympathetic treatment in Glück’s hands, although they could both be described as unreliable narrators.
Penelope, like the contemporary female speaker, is not handled with quite as much sympathy. I’m convinced that this character is the one with whom Glück most strongly identifies herself, and that the “other woman,” embodied by Circe and the Siren, possibly represent (if we commit the sin of reading biographically) the object(s) of her ex-husband’s love. These “other women” are treated with more sympathy by the poet, and Penelope is treated with some contempt, especially by Telemachus, who in several poems, lashes out at his mother. Are we to believe him, or is he yet another unreliable narrator? Glück’s straightforward diction and understated tone belie a fairly complex set of speakers and motivations. Yet, in all these characters she has embedded parts of herself and her complex personality, and at the same time, each of her personae is archetypal—not personal, but universal characters that we all relate to.
In this way, her most personal work is also very ambitious, in that she seeks to write embodiments of the multiple women of Homer’s story—embodiments of archetypes (the bored housewife, the femme fatale, the pure mother, the corrupt whore). In caustic voices, she channels the unlikable female narrator, creating characters that the reader can identify with yet still hold at arm’s length. Through Glück’s poems the female reader is allowed to utter the unutterable, to embody the negative emotions of bitterness, anger, betrayal, and lust, without feeling as though she will be judged for these emotions—after all, though these poems are in the first person, they aren’t really anyone in particular—just the work of imagination. In this way, women are able to explore their Jungian shadow as Glück does through these poems.
In Averno, Glück uses the myth of Demeter and Persephone to illustrate her problematic relationship as daughter and lover and expand on themes from previous books such as an obsession with soul versus spirit duality and her use of cold, barren landscapes as metaphors for inner life. Although these aren’t persona poems (they are more retellings of mythological stories), they do include an interesting use of “you” and “us,” and reveal something about the writer’s interest in identifying with, and writing, unlikable female heroines. Using Hades as a metaphor for both death and love, in the central poem of the book, the multi-page “Persephone the Wanderer,” the speaker identifies herself with Persephone, similar to the way, in previous poems, she has talked about her fear of being like her real-life mother: “Is she/ at home nowhere?...Is she/ a born wanderer, in other words/ an existential/ replica of her own mother….” She goes on to critique the myth itself: “You are allowed to like/ no one, you know. The characters/ are not people.” I love this moment the writer stands outside the myth for a moment and gives the reader permission to dislike the characters she creates. Next, Glück points to Persephone’s participation in her relationship to death/hell/marriage, her guilt by association and her power.
Persephone is having sex in hell.
Unlike the rest of us, she doesn’t know
what winter is, only that
she is what causes it.
At the end of the poem, the writer turns to the readers again, challenging them in an about face from her previous aside (you can dislike the characters if you want to) to empathize with Persephone’s situation, and question their own culpability: “What will you do,/ when it is your turn in the field with the god?” (17)
Margaret Atwood and the Unlikable Female Narrator
Like Glück, Margaret Atwood, excels at “becoming the villainess” in her poems. In her book of essays, Writing With Intent, Atwood addresses critics who complained about her unlikable female main characters, her women and girl villains (in books such as Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin, Cat’s Eye, Lady Oracle, and in short stories and poems), in the essay “Spotty-Handed Villainesses”—referring, of course, to Lady MacBeth. Here is the gist of her argument for creating female villains:
…Were all heroines to be essentially spotless of soul—struggling against, feeling from of done in by male oppression?...was it at all permissible…to talk about women’s will to power, because weren’t women supposed…to be communal egalitarians?...Could one examine the seven deadly sins in their female versions…without being considered antifeminist? Briefly, were women to be homogenized-one woman is the same as another-and deprived of free will…or were men to get all the juicy parts?...women have more to them than virtue…they, too, have subterranean depths; why shouldn’t their many-dimensionality be given literary expression? (132-138)
Considering the discussion of Jungian archetype, shadow, and anima, she states in the same essay: “If you are a man, the bad female character…may be…your anima; but if you’re a woman, the bad female character is your shadow; and we know…she who loses her shadow loses her soul.”
Atwood has never been afraid to stand up in her poems and speak as the adulteress, the punishing goddess, the stripper, or other much-frowned-upon female characters from mythology and other sources. In one of her most recent books, Morning in the Burned House, her speakers include an aging calendar girl (“Miss July Grows Older”), Helen of Troy, as a defiant stripper (“Helen of Troy Does Counter Dancing”), an Egyptian goddess of war, pestilence, and storm (“Sekmet, The Lion-Headed Goddess of War, Violent Storms, Pestilence, and Recover from Illness, Contemplates the Desert in the Metropolitan Museum of Art”), and an accused witch from 1600’s who miraculously survives a hanging (“Half-Hanged Mary”). To each of these characters, she brings a sharp-tongued humor with an edge of anger. In “Sekmet…” her character responds to prayer by saying, “…But if it’s selfless/ love you’re looking for,/ you’ve got the wrong goddess” (40), a renunciation of the usual mother-earth goddess status, quickly disabusing her worshippers of their illusions. In “Half-Hanged Mary,” after surviving a night in a noose, Mary responds to the townspeople:
When they came to harvest my corpse
(open your mouth, close your eyes)
cut my body from the rope,
I was still alive…
…Now I only need to look
out at them through my sky-blue eyes.
They see their own ill will
staring them in the forehead…
Before, I was not a witch.
But now I am one. (66-67)
By focusing almost exclusively on the less likable female archetypes—the witch/crone/Baba Yaga character, the destructive, devouring woman goddess, and unrepentant femme fatale—Atwood manages to bring some balance, allowing us to empathize with their situations, or understanding the conditions by which the villainess came to be. I don’t believe she presents these characters as victims. Rather, she merely illuminates the flaws in the world as well as the flaws in the character.
Atwood’s use of the second person (that shifting “you”) with tremendous depth and precision is particularly interesting to me. Notice these lines she writes from a poem in Power Politics called “They eat out:”
you hang suspended above the city
in blue tights and a red cape,
your eyes flashing in unison.
The other diners regard you
some with awe, some only with boredom:
they cannot decide if you are a new weapon
or only a new advertisement.
As for me, I continue eating;
I liked you better the way you were,
but you were always ambitious. (5)
Who is the “you?” Is it a specific person, a man, a machine, a superhero? An advertisement, a weapon? We cannot read this thinking of ourselves as the “you,” but we are implicated—we must consider ourselves, and also others—what man—or indeed, what reader—could be all the things that Atwood lists in these ten or so lines? She stretches the idea of the second person here, in a way that’s interesting to me and that I have tried to imitate—“you” characters that can’t possibly be the reader, but that the reader might find implications of themselves in.
In an earlier book of poetry, Power Politics, there are only two characters, “you,” the male other, and “I,” the female. This series of poems casts the “you” character as variously as a six-eyed alien, a vampire, a werewolf, superman, a soldier, and lover, whereas the “I” character sees the other as alternately loving, dangerous, life-threatening, and silly. The title of the book illustrates that the content is explicitly, political—and the poems show that the “Power” in the title has to do with gender politics, specifically. The persona here is another archetypal female, non-specific, certainly not plainly autobiographical—I think few critics would say the “I” in these poems is Atwood herself, but rather “woman” —much as fairy tales use “the beautiful princess” as a placeholder for character.
In her recent book, The Penelopiad, a mixed-genre book of poetry and prose, Homer’s The Odyssey is again re-examined from a feminine point of view. The story focuses mainly on Penelope, who speaks from Hades, and the unjust slaying of her twelve maids by Odysseus when he returned. The twelve maids act as a chorus, and in one section, called “An Anthropology Lecture,” address those who would read them symbolically in a feminist/deconstructionist manner:
…Thus possibly our rape and subsequent hanging represent the overthrow of a matrilineal moon-cult by an incoming group of usurping patriarchal father-god-worshipping barbarians. The chief of them, notably Odysseus, would then claim kingship by marrying the High Priestess of our cult, namely Penelope.
No, sir, we deny that this theory is merely unfounded feminist claptrap. We can understand your reluctance to have such things brought out into the open—rapes and murders are not pleasant subjects, but such overthrows most certainly took place… (165-166)
While Atwood certainly knows enough feminist theory to poke fun at her own work, there is also a certain aspect of tongue-in-cheek, “I already know what you’re going to say” defense of her own anthropological symbolic lecture, which appears in the middle of her long persona poem/novelistic retelling of The Odyssey. Why even bring up the maids, who are certainly not main characters in most versions of the myth? Because Atwood wants to shine light on the forgotten victims and allow them a voice, even if the voice ranges from bratty—for instance, a chapter of smutty limerick-like poetry in the voice of the maids—to outraged, to somber.
Lucille Clifton’s Use of Persona in The Book of Light
In The Book of Light, Lucille Clifton’s use of persona represents not only a feminist rewriting of historical and mythological narratives, but a rewrite from an African-American perspective. Being African-American or “non-white,” as she indicates in her writing, and female, set her up to be the “other”—so she writes poems from the perspective of “others,” including the most famous other, Satan himself.
Consider two poems from The Book of Light, “adam thinking” and “eve thinking.” These poems exemplify thinking about male and female roles in a world that can be mysterious, harsh, and dangerous.
stolen from my bone
is it any wonder
i hunger to tunnel back
to reconnect the rib and clay
and to be whole again
some need is in me
struggling to roar through my
mouth into a name
this creation is so fierce
i would rather have been born (23)
Notice how Clifton destabilizes the poem by refusing to capitalize the “i” or any beginning of sentences, or indeed include punctuation. At one time this was considered the height of rebellion against the formal strictures of the language, which were seen as a creation of the Western-European-centric patriarchy, although these days it would hardly be counted as “experimental” compared to, say, poems created from Google searches.
Looking at the content of this poem, in which Clifton examines our origin mythology, she writes Adam as a character desperate to reconnect to (to resurrect Jung’s terminology again) his anima, his mother figure, his female counterpart.
it is wild country here
brothers and sisters coupling
claw and wing
groping one another
while the clay two-foot
rumbles in his chest
searching for language to
but he is slow
tonight as he sleeps
i will whisper into his mouth
won't you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed. (23)
With her declaration “something has tried to kill me/ and has failed,” Clifton evokes the historical oppression of women, black people through slavery, and the primal oppressiveness of nature itself. In Clifton’s version of the Biblical creation story, it is not Adam but Eve who decides what to name the animals—in this version, Adam is “slow,” unable to think things up on his own, so that Eve must do this work for him. As opposed to Eve, portrayed as a weak sinner who led to the downfall of Adam, she is Adam’s secret strength, a survivor who is a creative “namer” of things.
Another poem in which Clifton upsets a long-established mythology is in her “Leda” series of poems. In the first, “leda 1,” she (the Leda character) proclaims first a defiant denial of beauty in her rape, rejecting previous descriptions of the rape by a swan in the very first line:
there is nothing luminous
follows me around the well,
his thick lips slavering,
and at night my dreams are full
of the cursing of me
fucking god fucking me (59)
In this version of the story, Zeus is a stand-in for the incestuous father. She rejects the seduction aspect of the myth—the “fucking” in this poem is literally and figuratively cursed. In the third poem of the series, “leda 3,” she connects the Judeo-Christian father/God with Zeus:
a personal note (re:visitations)
stars spinning into phalluses
of light, serpents promising
sweetness, their forked tongues
thick and erect, patriarchs of birds
exposing themselves in the air…
You want what a man wants,
next time come as a man
or don’t come. (61)
Zeus has been reduced to the embarrassing patriarch who can’t stop flashing—God/Zeus is the equivalent of the serpent figure, Satan, and in this version, the speaker commands God to come to earth as a man—perhaps a reference to Christ—if he wants to have sex with human women.
Clifton exposes her anger towards men, the patriarchy, and male religious figures from a variety of mythological backgrounds. In her poems to Superman, she waits for him to save her, but he never comes—an impotent hero. Father figures are dangerous and incestuous, and God is, at best, untrustworthy. Subversive? Yes. Feminist? You bet. Clifton’s barely contained rage in the voices of the female archetype echoes throughout The Book of Light.
Glück, Clifton, Atwood: Commonalities
To begin with, all three of these women writers came of age as writers when long lined, autobiographical narrative—now referred to as “confessional” poetry—was still the dominant paradigm, as practiced by Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsburg and Anne Sexton. All three, when young, must have struggled to get out from under the shadow of these predecessors. Harking back to earlier female writers—H.D. as one example of a modernist that may have influenced these writers—they emerged, in the beginning, as confessional poets, and developed persona poetry later in their careers. Also, their terse, rather than discursive, line lengths may have also been a reaction against writers whose extremely long lines (common in the sixties) were the norm.
Each writer comes to the mythological aspects of the story with a different agenda, a different tone—Glück’s repressed Penelope, Clifton’s bitter Leda or Atwood’s coolly detached war goddess each represent truths about a woman’s experience that are more effective and powerful for being anti-autobiographical—these personae allow each of us to quickly absorb back-story, other characters, and scene while at the same time projecting ourselves into these classic archetypes. Each poet decides what and when and how to reveal details that may—or may not—come from their own lives in these poems, but we don’t have the sense of exposure and outpouring that we get from “confessional” poets.
These three poets have some things in common—short, direct lines, an edge of anger, a feminist reconstruction of mythological characters, speakers who aren’t afraid of seeming unfeminine, transgressive, and strong. Another commonality is that these three poets make effective use of writing out of an archetype rather than a specific human being’s point of view—they each bring a variety of personalities to their work, but they seem more interested in embodying and giving speech to archetypal figures than merely recounting personal experience.
The outlines of the characters are vague, but the emotional directness and powerful, barely contained threat within the poems are not—in this way, female readers (and male readers, according to Jung’s theories on Animas) are able to exorcise, if you will, their own demons—feeling free to make the speeches made by each archetypal character, without feeling uncomfortably exposed or overly intimate with the poet.
The powerful emotions or insights take center stage rather than the details of a personal life. The utterances of these archetypal characters, it should be noted, are often rooted in powerlessness, and the destructive emotions they may embody are often, as the writers reveal, the product of unfair situations—careless husbands, brutal war crimes, harsh environments. Instead of blaming the characters, or feeling righteously indignant, the reader is left feeling uncomfortable and ambivalent—as both sides of the story are revealed.
The different ways that these three women approach writing persona poems embody their own sociopolitical ideologies as well as their individual stylistic choices and their individual heritages and languages (Atwood’s Depression-era Canadian plain-spokenness, Clifton’s spare idiom of Diaspora and “other”-ness among Western European mythology, Glück’s New England clipped accents). If each woman wrote a poem that told the same myth from the same character’s perspective, each poem would have the indelible imprint of the writer’s individuality. Slipping on the mask of persona might not afford the anonymity it promises, but it does allow for fascinating glimpses into the process of writing, the concept of self and collective consciousness, and allow the writer to, for an instant, take imaginative creation to new heights.
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Atwood, Margaret. The Selected Poems II, 1976-1986. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987.
Atwood, Margaret. Morning in the Burned House. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995.
Atwood, Margaret. The Penelopiad. Edinburgh, Scotland: Canongate Books, Ltd., 2005.
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