The Representative of the Verse: On the Poet and Her Mask (Part II)
Many things have already been said on the subject of persona and poetry, but if you don’t mind, I’d like to say a few more.
Some writers (me), in thinking back on their development, realize that when they “found their voice,” they did not unearth an unadulterated gem of true-being from deep within themselves, but rather, fashioned a vessel for channeling that being in language. Let’s go ahead and call that vessel a mask. A mask formed by the writer’s own hands, and from their most treasured materials, perhaps, but a mask all the same.
A friend and writer I admire, Charles D’Ambrosio, has spoken eloquently on the use of persona in nonfiction writing, a concept which might seem anathema to some readers on first blush. “Persona isn’t being untrue to the self so much as enlarging the self so that it can contain the whole of an artistic truth; it’s a self with room for all the demanding and conflicting currents inside written art.”
In daily life we are expected to project a consistent and coherent self. The people in our lives have ideas about what sort of person we are: charming, shy, needy, generous, resourceful, successful, quick to anger, etc. Each of us is plastered with enough of these labels to fully obscure our face (another origin of mask).
“A real self simply can’t expand enough,” D’Ambrosio continues. “Instead of accommodating, as art must, it bursts, like an appendix, spreading sentimental poisons. It’s hard to locate the problem but in my own work things gunk up when I feel myself burdened by a fidelity to fond fact, as if naked reality alone were sufficient, or I identify too closely with some cherished idea of myself rather than a speaker, a voice, a complicating and questioning presence—a persona, in other words.”
The poet Ed Hirsch makes a related point in A Poet’s Glossary. “Creating a persona is a way of staging an utterance. There is always a difference between the writer who sits down to work and the author who emerges in the text.”
Hirsch’s entry on Persona includes variations on the uses of the mask, variations that overlap, but might serve different masters. The mask utilized in “archaic rituals,” in which “independent beings possess the ones who assume them,” acts as a conduit for sovereign energies that overtake the vessel of the actor. This possession is differentiated from the mask’s more collaborative uses, “the poetic move into personae” which has “a quality of animism” and “embodies the displacement of the poet’s self in a second self.” But with whom or what does the poet collaborate?
Thinking on this second-self makes me wonder about the tertiary self, the quaternary, and so on. What might arise from the poet who inhabits her splintered parts of self, of psyche, the splintered aspects of her family or cultural systems? These parts need not relate directly to one’s public face, one’s life narrative, or even be recognizably human. Indeed they might arise from subconscious material, from dreams, from the greater than human world. They may go to war with our supposed selves.
I think of moments in Berryman’s Dream Songs, when the Whitmanic assertion takes a metastatic turn:
I am the enemy of the mind,
I am the auto salesman and love you.
I am a teenage cancer, with a plan.
I am the black-out man.
I am the woman powerful as a zoo.
Or in Mark Levine’s “Work Song”:
An electric fan blows
Beneath my black robe. I am dignity itself.
I am an ice machine.
I am an alp.
I stuff myself in the refrigerator
Wrapped in newsprint. With salt in my heart
I stay good for days.
In both examples, the “I” functions as personae, a cadre of emergent and recessive selves, assuming and relinquishing the spotlight at the rate of a strobe. Both “I”s make a project of accommodating seemingly unrelated or even contradictory selves in the same stanza; they refuse a single descriptor. Rather, a singular consciousness is transmitted through the accrual.
Carl Jung conceived of persona as the self assumed in order to play a social role, one which suppresses a person’s true inner being, the anima.
“The mirror does not flatter,” he wrote, “it faithfully shows whatever looks into it; namely, the face we never show to the world because we cover it with the persona, the mask of the actor. But the mirror lies behind the mask and shows the true face.”
I don’t personally believe in a “true face” any more that I believe in an objective mirror, though I do agree that ephemerally-true faces are freer to emerge once the rigid mask of social obedience is removed.
Meanwhile, other voices contend that the mask can serve as an access point to the animae, who might, after all be faceless. Most famously, Oscar Wilde: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.”
Unburdened of the ‘self’ and its attendant manners, anxieties, insecurities, and social alliances, the poet is freer to speak in ways good sense or self-preservation might preempt, whether or not those ways of speaking are ever made public. It’s a bit like visiting the shrink, come to think of it. Not every dream of excrement is fit for public consumption, but the poet’s ability to free associate while drafting is vital, and a marker of good-health. I don’t often fall in love with persona poems, but I do think the practice of writing them (as with any formal constraint) can help unlock the imagination. A kind of calisthenics for the Poetical Character.
“The Poetical Character has no character –it enjoys light and shade, it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated . . . What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the chameleon Poet,” according to John Keats.
Inconstancy: my deepest shame and greatest virtue. The Poetical Character, capable of exploring and bearing the contradictions, uncertainties, and inconsistencies that both compose the living world and make for complexity in art. But, as Plato knew, not so useful to the State.
If it’s true that “what we resist, persists,” (Carl Jung again), that our disavowed parts of self form shadows that are then projected on the environment. And if we can extend this concept of the shadow to the collective body, to our respective societies, where shadows assume the form of monsters and villains—then the mask might help us exorcise those persistent resistances.
And hasn’t this long been a human practice? The collective body gathers and invites its shadows into the formal constraint of ceremony. Masks are fashioned in the likeness of misfits, cannibals, sexually voracious animals, masks of the excluded and despised, of the cruelest Gods—all taken up and inhabited on ritualized ground. The communal catharsis does not come because the shadow undergoes transformation and rejoins the whole (though that might be a byproduct of the play) rather, the objective is to see, and to allow ourselves to be seen by these specters.
Mask, in Medieval Latin: Masca. “Specter or nightmare.”
For our purposes, the poem is the ritualized ground.
Perhaps no one more fully realized this potential than the poet Ai, who wrote dramatic monologues from the perspectives of killers, child abusers, fallen priests, and other persona non grata. Think about the bluntly titled “Child Beater.” Here is an example of the poet who takes up the mask of a monster and gives voice to complex feelings that refuse to be transformed in a way that might comfort the reader. The child beater is neither a two-dimensional ghoul to be summarily dismissed, nor is she transformed or redeemed. She is. The child beater is despicable, but not beyond our ability to understand.
This is one of poetry’s powers, to pull the masks from the monsters and find out what’s underneath, what made them, what are they connected to, how *might* they transform and if not, why not? We hear that to speak a thing aloud is to make it live, which is one truth. Another truth, we hear less frequently, is that the unutterable steers our attention, defenses and impulses, too. Put another way: to not speak a thing aloud is to keep it alive.
In my former life I was an actor. When I was 21 years old, in the midst of fifteen-week run of the play MAX, by Gunter Grass, three of my friends from high-school died in a car wreck and I developed incapacitating stage fright, basically over night. To take the stage felt like a lie. I could no longer inhabit my character, I could only recite her lines. It was as if I’d been thrown from the vehicle of my body.
My sudden inability to inhabit my character clued me in to the space between the actor and her mask, a space of crucial importance. An audience detects the difference between the exuberant pantomime and the performer with whom the mask has fused. As poets, our mask is language, and likewise does the reader detect the difference between the poem that talks about experience, and the poem that conjures it.
I recently returned to the foundational text, Improvisation for the Theater, by the best teacher I never met: Viola Spolin. And I’ve been powerfully struck by how readily the key concepts of that text transfer to our work as writers. Thinking of persona as constraint, and constraint as a kind of game.
“The games do not inspire proper moral behavior,” Spolin wrote, “rather they seek to free each person to feel their own true natures.”
For our purposes, we might say that the “game” of the poem is to generate problems, while providing a venue for our spontaneous efforts to solve them (and let’s hope we never do solve them, at least not completely). This is my faith as a teacher of writing: that talent and creativity are not static qualities within a person, to be appraised by an outside authority, but energies in the world, available to all, activated and made accessible through play.
Like poetry, the pleasures of a game are complicated; they aren’t attached to easy satisfaction, but spring from the very frustrations and limitations they impose. In other words, in order for the game to satisfy, it must have rules.
Of creative frustration, the analyst Adam Phillips writes, “It is frustration that makes us inventive, resourceful, at our best and worst.” He observes that it’s not the unknown which disturbs us, but not knowing—and that in order to manage the anxiety of not-knowing, we tend to fill in the gaps with conviction.
In poetry-making, these convictions might manifest as charged, heavily defended ideas about what constitutes a right kind of poem and a wrong kind of poem. You hang out long enough, you hear the gamut: “I only like lyric poems,” or “deep image poems,” or what might be described as experimental or avant-garde. Poems of the academy or of the street, poems that are labeled “difficult” or “facile” or “deliberately unintelligible” (meanwhile, the poet, in staking out and defending these positions, very often discovers she has neither time nor inclination to write a poem.)
There is much to fear in this work. Exposure. Irrelevance. Vulnerability. Mediocrity. Our poems ask us to align with something greater than our fear, to bear our frustrations, to make peace with not-knowing, to move beyond prescriptions and into direct experience. For a person prone to hand wringing or tsking, getting their hands involved in a game could free them from the inner critic who inhibits expression. Sure, poetry might save your life. It might even be something to survive for. But we might also imagine the poem as a ritual for voicing, bearing, and rendering the often incommensurable details of our lives in-progress, however inconvenient or unseemly.
Lisa Wells is a poet and essayist from Portland, Oregon. She is the author of a poetry collection, The Fix (2018), which won the Iowa Poetry Prize, and a book of nonfiction forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2020. Her poems and essays can be found in Harper’s Magazine, Granta, The Believer, n+1, the Iowa...