A Door Opens: Writing the Persona Poem by Eleanor Swanson

Through writing a persona poem you can experience a door opening into another consciousness, and can also learn to lead yourself and readers into new realms of perception. Indeed, writing persona poetry can offer writers an opportunity to merge poetry of the imagination with poetry of experience.

Consider the history, in brief, of the persona poem, especially the work of two well-known modernists: Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. Whereas Eliot used “masks” to distance himself from aspects of modern life which he found alienating, for Pound, the use of personae was a means of creating opaque texture in his poems.


A number of contemporary poets write persona poems. Since two of my own poetry collections make extensive use of personae—A Thousand Bonds: Marie Curie and the Discovery of Radium, and Trembling in the Bones—I can talk about my strategies for establishing and maintaining voice and tone. “Radium Girls” is a poem from my first collection. One of the “girls”—Grace Fryer—tells their story, beginning with these lines: “We sat at long tables side by side in a big/ dusty room where we laughed and carried/ on until they told us to pipe down and paint.” In a poem that literally becomes deadly serious, Grace at first manifests lightheartedness. The tone is whimsical, the voice self-assured, and both tone and voice are maintained not only by diction but also by a series of enjambed lines. In Trembling in the Bones, I write from the perspective of a child living in the tent colony at Ludlow and this requires yet another strategy, primary attention to syntax: “With a stick I draw a picture in the dirt/ of a train and make the sound a train makes. Woo woo, I call to my bare feet” (“Charlie Costa Plays a Joke”). Other examples that will help you to experiment with elements of style in your own work are “Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing,” Margaret Atwood; “Medusa,” and “34,” Patricia Smith; “Simone Weil at the Renault Factory (1935),” Nance Van Winckel, and “Of Love and Other Disasters,” Philip Levine. Write in a voice that deeply interests you, a voice from science, art, history, mythology, fiction, nature, or family. Consider researching historical figures such as painters (Van Gogh), writers (William Blake), musicians (Jimi Hendrix), and scientists (Sir Isaac Newton), to name a few.

After you have tried you hand at writing a number of persona poems, you will have “slipped through the door” and entered unfamiliar, seductive, and mysterious worlds, having woven together unexpected connections, and having heard a chorus of voices, not your own, yet, strangely, beginning to belong to you.


About Theresa Crater

Award-winning author Theresa Crater brings ancient temples, lost civilizations and secret societies back to life in her visionary fiction. In The Star Family, a Gothic mansion holds a secret spiritual group and a 400-year-old ritual that must be completed to save the day. The shadow government search for ancient Atlantean weapons in the fabled Hall of Records in Under the Stone Paw and fight to control ancient crystals sunk beneath the sea in Beneath the Hallowed Hill. Her short stories explore ancient myth brought into the present day. The most recent include “The Judgment of Osiris” and “Bringing the Waters.” Theresa has also published poetry and a baker’s dozen of literary criticism. Currently, she teaches writing and British lit in Denver.
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2 Responses to A Door Opens: Writing the Persona Poem by Eleanor Swanson

  1. Marilyn Krysl says:

    Hey, gals, we’re off and running again! Thanks for the creative jolt!


  2. Eleanor: I like your description of Pound’s use of personae as “a means of creating opaque texture in his poems.” The idea of “opaque textures” intrigues me. You also remind me that part of the “fun” of creating persona poem is creating the “unreliable narrator,” who in the course of the poem discover for themselves or reveal to the reader what was previously not known.


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