Have you ever watched a movie, been to a play or read a novel involving complex relationships between diverse people and marveled that one writer could so convincingly bring such different characters to life? What kinds of skills—or is it magic?—allows a man to write the part of a little girl? An agnostic the part of an evangelical minister? A total klutz the part of an accomplished athlete? A single woman in her prime enjoying all of the benefits of robust health the part of an infirm grandmother? It takes great skills of observation, you will no doubt say, as well as close attention to personal experience. The writer may vividly recall her grandmother’s last years of illness, for example. Yes, but how to account for that uncanny sensation of getting inside another person’s skin, of seeing the world through their eyes? If the piece is well written and performed, you, the reader, the viewer, experience that uncanny sensation. You feel as though you are seeing the world through the eyes of a person who may be very unlike yourself.
Let us hesitate for a moment outside comforting platitudes such as ‘we are in essence one humanity’ and admit the existence of The Other. The Other is that person you do not automatically see when you look in the mirror. You have to try a little harder. The Other is younger or older, richer or poorer, the opposite sex, speaks a different language, worships a different god. The Other may even be the one who hates you. It is not necessary, in the interests of a poetry prompt, to go so far as to imagine one who hates you, but it’s helpful to recognize its possibility in order to understand the reality of he or she who is other than you.
Imagine that person who is other than you, and think about how you might construct a dramatic monologue in poetry. Think about the actor’s work. Sean Penn is not a murderer but he portrayed one convincingly in Dead Man Walking. What did he do, what could he do, but be himself as that person? Imagine that person (not a creature of fantasy or a beast, but a person) who is different than you. Draw on your skills as an observer, use your experience, your empathy, do some research if you want to. Then write a poem from their point of view by being yourself as that person.
Such poems have been called persona poems. Robert Browning introduced the persona poem to the Victorian world with works such as My Last Duchess. The twentieth century brought a flourishing of the technique by Rainer Maria Rilke and many others. The Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa created bodies of poems by over one hundred different personas, complete with bios, which he called heteronyms. Although not all dramatic monologues, the poems are each written as one of the heteronyms, and thus from the point of view, in terms of style at least, of a person other than Pessoa himself. Here is one of my favorite persona poems:
The Song of the Tortured Girl
By John Berryman
After a little I could not have told—
But no one asked me this—why I was there.
I asked. The ceiling of that place was high
And there were sudden noises, which I made.
I must have stayed there a long time today:
My cup of soup was gone when they brought me back.
Often ‘Nothing worse now can come to us’
I thought, the winter the young men stayed away,
My uncle died, and mother broke her crutch.
And then the strange room where the brightest light
Does not shine on the strange men: shines on me.
I feel them stretch my youth and throw a switch.
Through leafless branches the sweet wind blows
Making a mild sound, softer than a moan;
High in a pass once where we put our tent,
Minutes I lay awake to hear my joy.
—I no longer remember what they want.—
Minutes I lay awake to hear my joy.
For those who would like more information, I recommend this article at poets.org. For those who are ready to get started:
Click the Mr. Linky box below, then add your name and paste the url of your one poem and submit.
Visit others who have taken the challenge, and have fun!