KA TA SEE Persona PART TWO

July 7, 2016

 

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KA TA SEE Persona PART TWO

Some persona poems are a double distilled poetic form. Basically a persona poem requires a voice speaking from a dramatic situation. Since the Modernist Period dramatic has diminished to a context that allows for a kind of oblique self-portraiture.  The poems require a literate, alert audience. Like wearing a mask, it requires the observer to know who is being portrayed and then appreciate the nuances of the delivery. If one arrives at a masquerade ball as Edgar Allen Poe, but is mistaken for Count Dracula the droll charm in describing one’s cocktail with sad alliteration is lost. The persona poem is both formally demanding, and imaginatively freeing.

Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues in iambic pentameter were the model of persona poetry for Ezra Pound. Browning revitalized the form by fragmenting the traditional epic into shorter dramatic monologues. Robert Frost wrote some wonderful dramatic monologues like “Witch of Coos” and “Death of the Hired Man”. They were traditional in that as readers we understand the voice is Frost, but not the persona. Pound discussed fragmenting the form into masks of portraiture with his colleague, T.S. Eliot. He also made some arrangements to have Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” published in Poetry Magazine and now millions of students know what to do with the bottoms of your trousers when you grow old. Prufrock is the Twentieth Century’s most familiar persona character. J. Alfred wasn’t T.S. Eliot and he was. Eliot’s favorite poet growing up was Byron, yet ironically Prufrock seemed his poetic antithesis.

Byron is an underappreciated master of the use of poetic persona. Byron’s masterwork, “Don Juan”, was considered scandalous, primarily because Byron himself was considered a scandal. Often the biographical character of Byron as the melancholy, erotic, wandering Romantic poet overshadows his craft and production as a poet. Judging from the behavior of graduate students frequenting cocktail lounges like Poison Girl, even today I suspect most would rather be Byron than be able to write like him. It’s a persona young poets like to adopt, it allows them to speak both as sexy, sophisticated, and world weary, when in fact they often studious, ambitious, and bookishly unworldly. Through the course of his career Byron was able to develop a poetic voice that was distinctively his, but wasn’t exactly him.

Although he was a historical character who didn’t seem to need much permission, he did need a poetic voice that allowed him to be heard without being the “Lord Byron”. Don Juan was already a literary mock hero defined as a womanizing, wandering scalawag whose life is complicated by paramours and their husbands. As a subject Don Juan is separated from traditional epic heroes and scalawags, like Odysseus, primarily by tone. Consider the BBC version of “War & Peace” and Woody Allen’s “Love & Death” plenty of death and suffering in both, but the introduction of satiric wit by Allen’s nebbish character relieves “Love & Death” of the gravitas of Tolstoy, and allows for the additional of a personal commentary.

The nebbish, or fool, descends to us from the European tradition of divine lineage. A fool was a persona given a dispensation to satirize royalty, that’s why he wears a mock crown. It was dangerous work. It’s worth remembering that during Byron’s life (and even Elliot’s) royalty and peers possessed genuine power especially in taste, literary matters and publication. We still classify much of English Literature by the monarch reigning during the time the work was produced. The fact that Byron was a genuine baron gave him education, class privilege, and entre that currently would make him one of the maligned “1%”. Nonetheless he became perhaps the world’s most fashionable rebel.

One of Byron’s poetic models was Alexander Pope, his poetry is what separates undergraduate from graduate literature students. Pope was one of the first writers who made a living from writing, subsequently he was very cognizant of who he offended and flattered. He had to publish his verse form “Essay on Criticism” anonymously. He translated The Iliad into heroic couplets and used the same couplet form in his mock heroic satires. Couplets both put an edge on Pope’s wit and extended him a certain amount of fool’s dispensation in powerful circles.

Know then, unnumber’d spirits round thee fly,

The light militia of the lower sky; (Rape of Lock)

 

Formal rhyme was, and still is, a verbal mask to draw attention to the fact that what is being said is both true and artifice.

Following the example of Pope, Byron’s gift for rhyme was initially topical and referred disparagingly to literary figures of his age. Not too unlike rappers who challenge each other’s skills, it was a way of representing, of demanding attention. Although he was facile in many forms, ultimately Byron choose to write his poem “Don Juan” in ottava rima, an Italian form often used in mock heroic epics. Ottava rima uses Cantos made of formal stanzas, each stanza end rhymes ab, ab, ab, cc.

Brave men were living before Agamemnon[22]

And since, exceeding valorous and sage,

A good deal like him too, though quite the same none;

But then they shone not on the poet’s page,

And so have been forgotten:–I condemn none,

But can’t find any in the present age

Fit for my poem (that is, for my new one);

So, as I said, I’ll take my friend Don Juan. (Canto I, 5.)

 

In the first six lines the poet refers to Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek forces at Troy who returned home to be murdered by his wife’s lover, and claims he can find no contemporary. He roughly rhymes the name with the word “none” twice. In ottava rima the final couplet also serves to undercut, joke, satirize or re-address what has come before in the stanza. The couplet then re-introduces the mock hero (self) with a forced two syllable rhyme, new one/Juan, that introduces his friend, Don [jew one]. The couplet end rhyme changes the Spanish name to an Anglicized pronunciation. He cleverly identifies the character as both the Don Juan and English.

Ironically, this convoluted and extended verbal construction of “Don Juan” is often described as the truest voice of George Byron, who was neither Don nor Lord. Byron employed this form and proceeded to narrate the invented adventures of Don Juan for over two hundred stanzas per Canto, with seventeen cantos completed and more planned at the time of his death (that works out to approximately 3,500 stanzas, so a kind moment to consider Browning’s genius in concision might be in order.

Although to poets of the 21st Century considering a persona in the cantos of “Don Juan” seems incalculably far off, they were published less than a hundred years before Prufrock, which itself is now over a hundred years old. Byron/Don Juan as a persona continues to survive. Perhaps it was best exemplified in my generation by Jim Morrison. He adopted Byron’s dark, troubled, jaded, Romantic persona down to the flowing opened collared shirts and sadly early death. As a poet and performer he was able to inhabit a parallel Byronic construction as a persona to speak through, a possession with obvious risks.  Unlike some of his musical contemporaries like Miles Davis or David Bowie he didn’t invent his artistic persona and subsequently couldn’t re-invent himself as a periods of artistic invention evolved.  I have friends whose son-in-law makes a living portraying Jim Morrison in a Doors tribute band, Strange Days (not be confused with other, inferior, Doors tribute bands). Jason Tosta impersonates a person inhabiting the persona of another person. He recreates an image of Jim Morrison in studious detail, even attempting to have Frye make him replica boots, but he is an actor. His audience pays to watch him re-present a performance of a completed act. He doesn’t (I hope) allow himself to try to speak through the late Mr. Morrison.

My professional introduction to the dramatic monolog/persona poem came through the generosity of Richard Howard, the poet, essayist, and translator. At 86 he is still a master of the  literary style of the persona form, a style that employs formal precision, intimate historical erudition and poetic revelation. His literary maestro was Henry James who didn’t write persona poetry, however Richard did serve a sort of apprenticeship with W.H. Auden whose “The Age of Anxiety” used four characters in barroom to poetically explore their failure to actualize.

Since the publication of Untitled Subjects in 1969, Richard Howard has populated poetry with dramatic conversations between, about, with and from a humbling variety of personae both real, fictional and fictionalized. Richard anticipates a salon of sophisticated, literate readers to participate in his invented conversations. Using his encyclopedic knowledge of culture and translator’s apprehension of belle lettres he produces poems that express his view of the world as paradoxically sad, unpredictably revelatory and elegantly disconnected. One may hear the voice of Goliath speaking from the severed head cast in the Donatello bronze, listen to a peasant’s description of the poet Holderin found worshiping ancient gods in his garden, eavesdrop as Oscar Wilde gives Walt Whitman a copy of Fleurs de Mal, submit a letter composed by gifted fifth grade students asking for a cure for coitus, or read the response written by the Envoy in Browning’s “Last Duchess”. They are ballet-precise, intelligent poems drawn from a life of conscious immersion in art and culture. They’re designed to be performed aloud to an audience capable of appreciating the nuances of the dramatic situation, as well as the poet’s wit, consummate craft and unashamed genius.

That stylistic braggadocio is part of the style. It is a demonstration and a proclamation. Howard sees himself as a poet in the tradition of Pope, Byron, Eliot and Auden. A formal tradition carried on through today by other poets like Rita Dove, Frank Bidart, and my friend Veronica Golos. These variations of persona poem are poems bound to literature in form and existing characters, and allow the poet to speak only within those structures. They can ask the questions their persona answered, but they can’t extrapolate to resolve questions beyond the text. The poet willfully imprisons their life in the persona figure and performs a dramatic escape act.

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