When I decided to write the historical persona poems in women’s voices that make up Sisters & Courtesans, I resolved not to use the voices of anyone famous. The closest I came was a couple of sonnets in which the narrator is a bit part player in another famous woman’s story, such as “My Life as Joan of Arc’s Maidservant.” This choice is one of the most important ones facing the would-be writer of historical character poems, along with a consideration of the dramatic moment of the poem, and, especially for female characters, the extent to which a male partner/spouse signifies in the poem.
Most poets writing in this genre choose instead to make their subject a famous woman, perhaps because it is easier to research an individual than to research an entire historical era. The problem with this is that the usual suspects have a tendency to feature frequently. Penelope, the long-suffering wife of the wandering Ulysses, serves as a prime example, appearing in works by poets from Louise Glück to Margaret Atwood. Jehanne Dubrow even has an entire book of poems, Stateside, framed with a Penelope feel. However, my favorite of these Penelope poems is “The Wife of the Man of Many Wiles” by A.E. Stallings, because it gives the classic tale a twist and Penelope herself a bit more gumption:
Believe what you want to. That they never touched me.
Believe your own stories, as you would have me do,
How you only survived by the wise infidelities.
One could argue that the character of Penelope is more myth than history, but if we can assume Homer’s Odyssey is at least informed by Ancient Greece, then poems based on myth can nevertheless be historical. Perhaps mythical characters are also easier to write about than factual figures, because the poet is less constrained by truth. Certainly myths are a common source of character-based poems–Lucille Clifton wrote a series of poems in the voice of Leda, who was raped by Zeus disguised as a swan, H.D. wrote a celebrated book length poem called Helen in Egypt, and don’t get me started on the proliferation of Persephone poems!
Ulysses is necessarily part of Penelope’s story, but Penelope has always had her own story. Many historical character poems, on the other hand, attempt to bestow stories on the often unknown women behind famous men. U.A. Fanthorpe’s “Three Women Wordsworths” is a wry case in point, in which she attempts to reappropriate some of the words that William stole from his supportive wife Mary and sister Dorothy:
Years later William knocked it together;
Mary gave her two lines. But it was Dorothy
Did the fieldwork, across the daffodilled years,
Perhaps the best-known recent example of poems from this perspective is The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy, a collection in which all the poems are persona poems in the voices of the women–sometimes real, sometimes imaginary–married to famous men. We meet Mrs. Tiresias, Mrs. Faust, Mrs. Quasimodo and many more. The poems can be funny and caustic, but often have a core of poignancy. Here’s Mrs Midas:
Separate beds. In fact, I put a chair against my door,
near petrified. He was below, turning the spare room
into the tomb of Tutankhamun. You see, we were passionate then,
in those halcyon days; unwrapping each other, rapidly,
like presents, fast food. But now I feared his honeyed embrace,
the kiss that would turn my lips to a work of art.
The most popular male historical persona poem, “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning, is possibly based on a little-known Italian duke, but much of the poem is fictional, which begs the question of whether there are any similar historical character/persona poems in which the female subject is neither famous herself nor associated with a famous man. This leads us to Margaret Atwood’s gruesome “Half-Hanged Mary,” written in the voice of her ancestor Mary Webster who survived the title treatment during the Salem Witch Hunts.
My throat is taut against the rope
choking off words and air;
I’m reduced to knotted muscle.
Blood bulges in my skull,
my clenched teeth hold it in;
I bite down on despair
Also of note in this poem is what I am calling the dramatic moment that Atwood has chosen. The piece is written in present tense vignettes occurring at intervals throughout the night of the hanging, with a final section labeled “Later.” This gives Atwood the opportunity for her speaker to address different audiences in different sections–including the women of Salem, the townsfolk generally, and God–or to simply meditate upon her fate.
Michael Ondaatje employs a different dramatic device in his persona poem about the Virgin Queen, “Elizabeth.” The poem tells her life story in a few past tense stanzas, using language age-appropriate to her life stage. The effect is similar to the dream-like state induced by hypnotic regression, and gives a sense of the evolution of her character from innocent princess to bitter spinster:
I would speak of Tom, soft laughing,
who danced in the mornings round the sundial
teaching me the steps of France, turning
with the rhythm of the sun on the warped branches,
who’d hold my breast and watch it move like a snail
leaving his quick urgent love in my palm.
And I kept his love in my palm till it blistered.
Kevin Young, in his poem “Reward,” elects to write the poem in the detached language of a newspaper advertisement submitted by their owner, Elizabeth Young, offering a reward for the information of the capture of two escaped slaves:
RUN AWAY from this sub-
scriber for the second time
are TWO NEGROES, viz. SMART,
an outlandish dark fellow
with his country marks
on his temples and bearing
the remarkable brand of my
name on his left breast,
As Rebecca Hazelton argues in her essay “Teaching the Persona Poem,” “by choosing to use the advertisement language, rather than Elizabeth’s speaking voice, Kevin Young discourages intimacy with this speaker.”
By contrast, John Berryman, in his long poem “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet” fosters a deep intimacy with the world’s first housewife/poet, couching many of his stanzas in language that feels as though it was lifted from her most personal diaries:
The winters close, Springs open, no child stirs
under my withering heart, O seasoned heart
God grudged his aid.
All things else soil like a shirt.
Simon is much away. My executive stales.
The town came through for the cartway by the pales,
but my patience is short.
I revolt from, I am like, these savage foresters
Ironically, this poem was part of my inspiration for Sisters & Courtesans. Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672) was the first housewife/poet. Before her, most of the female poets were either semi-royalty, cloistered nuns, or women of easy virtue–everyone else was too busy having children and raising chickens! I thought it would be interesting to explore women’s lives throughout history using that lens and the sonnet as a form, and to attempt to see what else such women might have in common. Being sonnets, most of my persona poems are lyric meditations that attempt to encompass a life–you could perhaps call them character statements–although the odd one is addressing a specific individual, such as “My Life as a Hollywood Madam,” in which the speaker is attempting to pick someone up at a bar!
Be that as it may, I hope this blog piece inspires more female historical persona and character poems, especially if you avoid the obvious. Penelope & Persephone, we are so over you!
Further reading: “Why We Wear Masks” by Jeannine Hall Gailey. “The Sisters & Courtesans Self-Interview.”
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