Personae in Speculative Poetry

Guest columnist Richard H. Fay is back today, as he continues to give us his very well-researched take on the odd and the occult.  You can read his blog here, and we also recommend checking out his Zazzle Store, and artwork referred to this piece can be found here.  

Art: An Invitation to Elfame by Richard H. Fay

Writers of prose fiction do not necessarily write in voices that are their own. Narrators of works of fiction need not be the authors themselves, oftentimes they are personae, fictional characters distinct from the authors This is true in both works of general fiction as well as works of genre fiction. It is also true of poetry, especially when it comes to speculative verse (poetry with fantastical, science fictional, or mythological themes). Characters speaking or thinking in poems need not be the poets themselves. Heck, when it comes to speculative poetry, the narrators need not even be human!

Speculative poets often speak through an imaginary or historical narrator. It seems doubtful that most speculative poetry is meant to be confessional verse, at least not it the usual sense of the term. Speculative poets frequently take on the voices of others, and these others might be aliens, or fairies, or demons, or mythical beasts, or mundane animals, or even objects traditionally seen as inanimate. It should be obvious to those either reading such poetry or hearing it read that the poets haven’t actually turned into such things. It should be clear to all that the poets used their imaginations to speak in the voices of beings or things distinct from themselves. However, the notion that ALL poetry MUST be confessional has muddied the waters a bit. The line between imagined and real might not always be clear to all readers or listeners, especially when speculative poets speak with voices all too human.

In my own brand of speculative verse, both dark and light, I’ve used this idea of persona again, and again, and again. I’m certainly not a brain-eating demonic serpent (“Serpent of Storms”), or a cosmic fighter pilot facing his own demise (“Last Thoughts of a Cosmic Fighter Pilot”), or a life-draining vampiric entity (“Life is the Life”), or an Earthling married to a furry alien (“Marriage of Earth and Antares”), or a killer being driven to madness and suicide by visions of the face of the lover he killed (“Your Bloody Face”), or a fairy inviting a mortal to Elfame (“An Invitation to Elfame”), or a bleak haunted island (“The Haunted Isle”). However, in the respective works, I spoke as if I were a brain-eating demonic serpent, a cosmic fighter pilot facing his own demise, a life-draining vampiric entity, an Earthling married to a furry alien, a killer being driven to madness and suicide by visions of the face of the lover he killed, a fairy inviting a mortal to Elfame, and a haunted island. I think the ability to speak in the voice of another is just as important to fictional poetry as it is to prose fiction. It is also one of the creative techniques that can set speculative verse apart from more mainstream poetry.

Contrary to what some believe, not all poetry need be confessional, at least not personally confessional. Unfortunately, it seems some poets and poetry readers believe otherwise. They apparently think poetry is, by its very nature, confessional. This can lead to a misunderstanding of speculative verse, especially when speculative poets write in personae.

During one of the Poet’s Live Corners I attended at a local library, after I stated that I had some dark speculative pieces to read, one of the other poets present mentioned the time they had a poet show up and read poetry about murder and mayhem. I got the impression that the group had been shocked by this other poet’s material, as if it were almost confessional in nature. Did they truly have a murderer in their midst that day? I doubt it. I had to smile, knowing the dark and often diabolic nature of much of my own verse. Does that mean I’m a dark and diabolic person? Of course not!

Just because a poet writes about bloody murder doesn’t make that poet a bloody murderer. That’s the whole point about writing in persona – it’s imaginative versus outright confessional. However, I think my experience at the Live Poet’s Corner exemplifies the lack of understanding speculative poets writing in personae may face within the broader literary community.

One of the first things a reader or listener of speculative poetry must understand is that such verse is imaginative verse. The poet is speculating about other places, other times, other beings, other thoughts. They are imagining more than confessing, although confession may still be buried beneath the imaginative trappings. Unfortunately, if a reader or listener operates under the notion that poetry is confessional by default, they might misunderstand the concept of personae in speculative poetry. They might not fully realize that the speculative poet is speaking as someone or something else, that they are imagining. They’re missing the point of what the poet created!

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