Persona poems allow poets to inhabit the minds of other people and write from their perspectives. If you’ve ever wanted to get inside someone’s brain, crawl around in it for a while, and come to a deeper understanding of their psyche, you might want to learn how to write a persona poem.
The persona poetry form lets your poetry transcend the barrier between yourself and other people. Whether you want to write from the vantage of a celebrity, a politician, your sworn enemy, or a character you’ve invented, a good persona poem lets you step into someone else’s shoes.
The persona poem has a rich, layered history, spanning many cultures and millennia. “Persona” alone is a fascinating concept for writers, and we’ll discuss what we mean when we talk about persona in poems. We’ll also examine some prominent persona poem examples, with tips on how to write a persona poem yourself.
But first, let’s define this boundary-breaking poetry form. What is a persona poem?
Persona Poem Definition
Persona poems are poems in which the poem is written from the perspective of a “persona,” a character constructed or interpreted by the poet. We’ll elaborate on what a persona is shortly.
Persona poem definition: poems in which the poem is written from the perspective of a “persona,” a character constructed or interpreted by the poet.
Persona poetry has a rich history, at least as old as Classical China and Ancient Rome. Poets often used the form to elevate the voices of people who didn’t have a voice—for example, from the perspective of an exiled citizen, or a neglected lover.
Closer to the present day, Modernists, like T. S. Eliot or Ezra Pound, often experimented with persona as they tried to document the ways in which modernity changed human society. Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa constructed dozens of literary alter egos, constantly using the persona poem to write in different voices.
The persona poem is also used extensively by contemporary poets, particularly slam poets, who benefit from using the performance space to fully embody the character and voice of their poem’s persona. We’ll look at persona poem examples from many of these poets.
But, before we look at those examples, let’s demystify the persona itself. What is the persona in a poem?
What is the Persona in a Poem?
“Persona” refers to a constructed character operating as the “speaker” of the poem.
First, let’s define “speaker.” The speaker is the person talking to you in the poem. It’s important that we make the distinction between the speaker and the poet themself—often, yes, the poet is the one talking about their emotions and lived experiences, but to make this assumption, we have to also assume that all poetry is autobiographical. It isn’t.
The speaker is the person talking to you in the poem.
If anything, the poem transcends rote ideas of “fact” and “fiction.” In poetry, the poet has space to juxtapose their experiences with the experiences of others, to intertwine different voices into one piece, or to write from the vantage of a completely different person. Sometimes, also, the speaker isn’t clearly defined, and that’s the point of the piece.
Enter the persona poem.
So, while we can sometimes assume that the speaker of a poem is the poet, we still refer to the speaker as the speaker, to account for the nuances of identity and self that poetry itself examines.
Now, on to persona in poems. A persona refers to any speaker that is intentionally constructed for the poem. The persona is always someone other than the poet, but of course that person is filtered through the lens of the poet. Often, persona poetry reveals something intimate about the poet, because we see not only the world from the persona’s point of view, but also how that point of view might relate to the poet, too.
What is the persona in a poem?: A persona refers to any speaker that is intentionally constructed for the poem.
When it comes to persona in poems, you might read from the perspective of:
- A celebrity, politician, or well-known public figure.
- A well known historical figure.
- An invented character.
- A close relation of the poet (for example, Langston Hughes’ “Mother to Son”).
- An alter ego of the poet.
Let’s examine these constructed identities further in some persona poem examples.
Persona Poem Examples
How do poets inhabit the voices of different characters? Pay close attention to the voices of the following persona poem examples.
“Zelda Fitzgerald” by Aria Aber
It’s true I hate the stories about the other women,
but I love the description of their daily lives, like the scene
with twelve raspberry cakes in a French café,
or the drunkard asking for the way. A bottle of whiskey
on a heavy walnut table, my husband’s hands on a glass.
No one’s muses are believable, said the painter
whom I loved for twelve weeks and who would
rarely touch me. To him, the female body
was a plant: it needed to be tended and spoken
to, but too much warmth would spoil the matter.
In his paintings that I like best, women wander through cities
and notice objects. Lanterns. Hats they can’t
afford. Little glasses of Pernod. I loved him
to hurt the other one, whom I loved more. And so,
most of my life, it passes like this: light touching
my skin, lying on the floor among my diaries, writing of him—
What did Proust say, months before he passed away?
I have great news. Last night, I wrote “The End,”
so now I can die. Oh! Had I known the boredom that my talents
had in store for me, I would still have asked for them.
This persona poem embodies Zelda Fitzgerald, the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald (and a fantastic writer and artist herself). Heavy in this poem is a sense of ennui, of listlessness with the state of things, of feeling both superior to other women and wishing she could have their lives, their tastes, their seeming simplicities. Much of Zelda’s personality is embodied very well here, and while this poem is merely a window into Zelda’s mind, it also offers opportunities to reflect on our own attitudes towards women and towards the lives we lead.
“The Herdsman” by Alberto Caeiro (persona of Fernando Pessoa)
Retrieved here, from Poetry Foundation.
I’m herdsman of a flock.
The sheep are my thoughts
And my thoughts are all sensations.
I think with my eyes and my ears
And my hands and feet
And nostrils and mouth.
To think a flower is to see and smell it.
To eat a fruit is to sense its savor.
And that is why, when I feel sad,
In a day of heat, because of so much joy
And lay me down in the grass to rest
And close my sun-warmed eyes,
I feel my whole body relaxed in reality
And know the whole truth and am happy.
This delightful sonnet comes from Fernando Pessoa, a master of persona. Pessoa developed dozens of personae whom he wrote from in different poems. Pessoa truly embodied each of the personae he developed, whether they were essayists, translators, philosophers, astrologers, physicians, engineers, or, in Caeiro’s case, a “rural, uneducated poet.”
Alberto Caeiro is a prominent persona of Pessoa’s. Caeiro’s bucolic poems often reminisce on the simple pleasures of the countryside. But, within this “simple” persona poem, there are many complex ideas—most strikingly, how the poem blurs the line between thoughts and reality, and how this complex idea seems so simple to the speaker, he feels he knows “the whole truth and [is] happy.”
“Pasadena” by Jasmine Ledesma
Sally’s turning thirteen tonight and I’ve been invited.
My niece, a little blonde twig who can recite the alphabet
backwards and has no idea what they do to war captives.
I’m putting on my finest furs. I’ve got my hair slicked back.
The field that sits across from my bedroom window
looks like an ocean. A private, green, temperamental sea. All mine.
I stain like glass. Thirty-seven years of wasteland.
I’m a den flooded with stale orange light. I’m dean of the bottle caps.
My heart is full of flies and gunshots.
My latest doll was Joanie, lady of anger. Filled with such an ambition to live.
Her hair seemed to burn from her skull.
You’re a cactus, she once told me, her teeth gleaming in the sunlight.
What am I to do with a cactus?
She left, wordless, last spring like a bird. That’s what she must have been.
It’s summer now and the air out there is mean, thick and highly combustible.
Everyone walks around spritzed with delicate beads
of sweat, towels thrown across their backs. It’s nearly juvenile.
The annual rodeo has brought in a desperate zoo to busy up the town.
Masses of unloved families with manic children yanking
at every pinwheel in sight. A flurry of legs. Fried everything.
That cranky ferris wheel turns her tricks well into the oiled midnight.
Last night I bought a ticket to drink beneath those fun neon lights.
And I went to stare at the horses which are not quite show-ponies
but still real enough to draw in twelve bucks a ride.
Their muscles like lightning bolts.
I stood in front of them and peered into their divine, black eyes.
Right down the chamber and I didn’t feel a thing. But perhaps I could have.
Life isn’t wonderful. There are no perfect acrobats in my palm and
exclamation points are a rarity. But look.
There’s a chair for me in Sally’s backyard. My sister in a blue dress.
There’s even cake, a white disaster with pink sugar flowers
dotting the edges. Imagine that.
Life is a rock in my shoe.
But sometimes, like tonight, I can put my body away.
My tissue won’t dissolve within the minutes.
The damage is not entirely done.
And I know that at least I will not die.
Not right now.
The metaphors and attention to detail in this persona poem are mesmerizing. Pay attention to how this persona builds a mood in the poem. The juxtaposition of Sally’s innocence with the speaker’s imagery (drugs, poverty, animals, death) creates a strong sense of tension in the poem, catapulting it towards danger. The speaker might not have a name, but through the poem’s descriptions and attitudes towards the world around the speaker, the reader comes to know them intimately.
“Pigeon Man” By Jamila Woods
Watch this spoken word persona poem here.
A persona poem does not have to be from the vantage of a person. “Pigeon Man” is both hilarious and moving, and Jamila Woods does a great job of embodying the pigeon in this slam piece, progressively getting angrier and more unhinged. The poem itself paints an ugly picture of the life of a city pigeon, filled with grime and shit and and smoke and danger and loneliness. Most elegant is how the poem pivots from comedy to intensity: the details about the pigeon’s bathroom and strut walk are at first hilarious, but become harrowing when we understand the pigeon’s isolation. Whether you like the pigeons of New York or find them disgusting, this piece is likely to give you a little more empathy—which great persona poetry is bound to do.
More Persona Poem Examples
For more inspiration, as well as to learn about other poets in this field of work, here are some other noteworthy persona poem examples.
- Frank Bidart’s poems “Ellen West,” “Herbert White,” and “The War of Vladislav Nijinsky”
- “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot
- “Skinhead” by Patricia Smith
- “Love Song of the Demogorgon” by Jenny Molberg
- “Pig Song” by Margaret Atwood
- “The Wife’s Tale” by Seamus Heaney
- “Lady Lazarus” by Sylvia Plath
How to Write a Persona Poem
Want to write from a different perspective than your own? Here are some tips on how to write a persona poem.
1. Get in Character
Persona poets don’t just write from a different point of view, they literally embody their subject. Getting in character is essential no matter who or what your poem’s speaker is.
Here are some ideas on how to do that:
- If you’re writing about a real person, absorb their work: diaries, writings, art, conversations, anything that was born from their brain.
- Navigate your personal space as though you were your persona. Get incredibly specific. What is the first thing they would do coming home to your space? Where would they put certain objects? What is their routine when they shower, and why?
- Write a list of words, phrases, and ideas your persona is likely to use in everyday conversation.
- Research the era of your persona. What did people wear back then? How did they talk? What was going on in the world? What was the culture like?
- Have a conversation with your persona. Literally. Ask questions from your perspective and answer them from your persona’s. If you live alone, resist the feeling of strangeness and speak your conversation out loud. If you can’t do this, then host this “interview” on a blank sheet of paper.
For more on developing character, you might be interested in our article on character development.
2. React to Something as Your Persona
Your persona poem isn’t just about your persona’s voice, it’s also about their reaction to something. You’re not monologuing. You’re experiencing the world through the eyes of your persona.
Take a look at the persona poem examples we shared. Each poem is reacting to something. “Zelda Fitzgerald” reacts to other women. “The Herdsman” reacts to nature. “Pasadena” reacts to the birthday of an innocent niece, and “Pigeon Man” reacts to the loneliness of being a street pigeon in New York City. Each of these poems deliver the experience of being each persona through the things they react to.
This allows each poem to build towards a theme. When we experience the world through another’s perception, we inevitably come across ideas that challenge, provoke, or align with our own ideas. Persona poetry isn’t about “conveying a message,” but it’s inevitable for a theme to develop as the poem navigates the world.
3. Give Us the Highs and Lows
As you write your persona poem, you will inevitably tell a story about your persona’s life. Showcasing both the highs and lows of that life can help us better understand the perspective of your piece.
Notice how this is done in “Zelda Fitzgerald.” There are plenty of contradictions, little highs and little lows piling on top of one another to form a broader sense of ennui in the piece. Zelda praises her talents, but bemoans the boredom it’s given her; she hates the women around her, but loves the stories of their daily lives.
When you zoom into the poem, you see minute descriptions of the persona’s life that tell us how she feels and how she observes the world. When you zoom out, you see a bunch of highs and lows and form a picture of her life. Juxtaposing those highs and lows creates a sense of movement and tension in the piece, while also charting the consciousness of the persona herself.
4. Your Word Choice, Their Eyes
The persona poet achieves something beautiful in their work by lending their poetic mind to their character’s eyes. A good persona poem is born from the melding of the poet’s word choice and the persona’s point of view.
In other words, the persona of a poem is not likely to be a poet. (While I would love to meet a pigeon who writes poetry, I’ll have to settle for “Pigeon Man.”) What the poet does is lend their attention to language, image, poetic form, and metaphor to the persona they’re writing from.
In “Pasadena,” the speaker says:
“Life is a rock in my shoe.
But sometimes, like tonight, I can put my body away.”
In real life, that speaker likely wouldn’t come up with such evocative lines. Ledesma has lent her mastery of language to the speaker, allowing her to express powerful ideas in eloquent language.
5. Revise With An Eye Towards Language and Character
When you’ve finished a first draft, pore over every word you’ve used. Does this sound like my persona? Would they use this word to describe this object? Does this image represent their psyche, their (un)consciousness?
A good persona poem should feel authentic to the persona themselves. It should feel like it comes directly from their pen, even if, in real life, they weren’t nearly so eloquent as the poem is. Great persona poetry tells us something new about the person you’re writing about; often, this will lead the reader to discover something intimate about themselves, something they didn’t know they shared with the persona.
And, if you’re at a loss of how to revise, ask yourself what’s missing from your piece. What hasn’t yet been said? What do you want the reader to hear before the poem ends?
Master Persona Poetry at Writers.com
The persona poem is a millenia-old art form that is difficult to write and harder, still, to master. Tackle the persona-in-verse at Writers.com. Take a look at our online poetry classes, where you’ll receive expert feedback on every poem you submit.
Wonderful read, Sean is our tour guide through the dense Jungle of language