It’s a funny thing—I really enjoy writing persona poems—they’re a bit like acting—but I’m not tremendously excited about reading them. Or at least, I’m not any more excited about reading them than I am any other poem. Maybe even a little less, if I know in advance what it is. Does this have something to do with preconceived notions of pretentiousness? Fears of heavy-handedness? I don’t know. Pound wrote a whole book of ’em, and Pound, though intellectually brilliant, often fails to move me. (For one thing, I don’t like being obliged to do intense research to understand a poem. I feel a poem should work on me through language, not through arcane reference; and that if there is arcane reference, it should add to the experience but not be essential to it.)
Thus when I do write them, I try to make them poems first and persona poems second. The point of adopting a persona, for me, is to explore the experience of another character, to imagine what a given moment might have been like for him, her, or whatever. To that end, the poem should contain within its language everything absolutely necessary to present the experience to the reader, to move them. If I do it right, you should be able to read the poem and experience it, be moved, without needing to go looking for information outside of the text; but if you do, that should only deepen your encounter.
I’ve been thinking about this because the other day, I was browsing through poems from when I was at Sarah Lawrence and came across a handful of persona poems and demi-persona poems. I’ve got one from the POV of Joe in Angels in America, which imagines him confessing his internal struggles to his wife; one exploring what Hektor might have thought and felt in his last days at Troy; one about Odysseus beginning the journey home; one that is an apology from Prince Harry to Falstaff on how he treats his friend on becoming King Henry V; and more. I’ll post one or two soon so you can see.