Recently, a couple of weblogs from Kelli aka Leonardo and Jeannine Hall Gailey have been discussing the concept of persona and persona poems and are poems necessarily assumed to be autobiographical so that if you write outside your own exact experience you are somehow lying. That probably reveals my own bias in this conversation.
Where did this assumption come from in poetry? I'd bet that people did not think that Coleridge was an ancient mariner. Did it start with the confessional poetry? Did people come to think of poems as a literal metaphor into the soul as well as a literal one?
This led me to think of that divide between poetry and fiction. When you read a novel—even if it's in the first person—you don't assume that it's absolutely autobiographical (or, you don't unless the author is marketing it as a memoir). Example: I've been reading Everything Is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer. And even though the "hero," as he is referred to by the narrator, is named "Jonathan Safran Foer," I do not assume that this novel is autobiographical. Tiny parts, maybe larger parts—but no, not in its entirety. That is not fiction.
This idea of persona poetry also brought to mind an earlier conversation on Bemsha Swing about reading styles, and the question of prose readers being more interesting to hear than some poetry readers. (The complaint in that debate being primarily that readers of poetry tend to flatten the tone in an effort to remove inflection so that the words will stand on their own—and that's my interpretation of it and not everyone reads that way anyway.)
These two thoughts jammed up inside my head, and I realized that prose readers, when they are reading fiction, have characters! They have personas all over the place, and so they can read in the voice of that character, that persona. Hello inflection, tone, emotion—all that good stuff.
And perhaps every poem has a persona, has a character—maybe the poet, maybe partly the poet, maybe someone else entirely—and getting to know the poem really well is getting to know that character, and then the reading out loud is a way to share that person, and maybe a really good way to share the poem.
Just a thought.
P.S. I will not suggest memorizing "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" next week. Promise.