What is poetry?
What is poetry?

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What is poetry?

4 Impersonation and imagination

Activity 5

Listen to Track 3, where Jackie Kay, Paul Muldoon and Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze talk about the importance of autobiography to their poems as well as the importance of using the imagination to harness other people's voices.

Click below to listen to track 3.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: The importance of autobiography
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Transcript: The importance of autobiography

You will now hear Jackie Kay, Paul Muldoon and Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze talk about the use of autobiography as well as other people’s voices as subject matter for poetry.
Jackie Kay
I often use my own life in my poetry, in the way that artists might paint pictures of themselves. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you are actually writing about yourself in an obvious way, in the way that an artist isn’t necessarily painting themselves when they paint. You can actually change your history, change your past, change your memories and alter it, but I like to use it a bit like a springboard to dive into the pool of my imagination; I use my own life like that.
Paul Muldoon
Oh, I think the fact that I’m from Northern Ireland has been a huge element in these poems. Of course, because never mind whether or not one might be writing poems simply to – as a citizen there – try to make sense of what’s going on, is a responsibility and I think it’s a situation in which we’ve all tried to make sense of things in so far as we’re able. So that is a feature of many of these poems. But mind you, that’s a feature of life in every part of the world. I mean there’s too often, I think, a feeling that, you know, if one lives in England somehow everything is settled and there’s no discussion; everything is cut and dried; everything has a sheen. Or if one lives in the US, everything’s kind of over in some ways. Well these ideas are blatantly false.
Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze
I think there is a private voice. I write many poems that I have published in my books which I never do on stage. The only time I do them is if I find myself in a very intimate setting with, you know, a few people and you can kind of talk and sit in a chair and say, ‘Hey, I was thinking about my daughter when I wrote this one.’ But there is a stage at which you need to kind of harness other voices beyond yourself.
Jackie Kay
Well, ever since I was a wee girl, I used to go to Burns’ suppers where there’d be all these really quite exciting addresses to the haggis. And it would be ... Poetry to me was initially something very dramatic, you know. The haggis would be stabbed with a knife, and the whole idea of having a poem to a haggis anyway is hilarious when you think about it for any length of time. And so I like that – the drama in poetry from going to Burns’ suppers, and I like the idea that you could find that, that poems could be voices really, real voices that could just come out at you from the dark. So I like to try in my own poems and create some sense of drama; that’s very important. And I am, I suppose, a frustrated actress, I used to always want to be an actress so, and the next best thing to acting is writing the parts, creating the voices.
End transcript: The importance of autobiography
The importance of autobiography
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Choosing or inventing another voice immediately changes how we write something. Immediately, the known and familiar is altered or invented anew by this change of perspective. Distancing yourself from what you are and who you know can be both a liberating and an enlightening experience. Using your imagination and specifically your powers of impersonation can be a powerful way of making your poems more interesting.

We can often get stuck in our writing because we forget how limitless the possibilities are. The imagination won't tolerate rules, even if its expression is bound by them. Isn't it convenient that writers can impersonate anyone they like without getting arrested? In fact, writers almost have a duty to entertain different perspectives, by imagining not just what but how others think and speak. By taking a different perspective you can get a broader view of the possibilities.

Activity 6

Now read 3 poems in which the writer takes on or entertains the idea of another persona:

‘Song of the African boy’ by Leland Bardwell (Item 3)

‘Selling Manhattan’ by Carol Ann Duffy (Item 4)

‘Cow’ by Selima Hill (Item 5)

Consider what the effect of this impersonation is and what you think the poet intended in each case.

Click on the link below to read the poems.

Song of the African boy, Selling Manhattan and Cow [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]


All these impersonations may reflect one side of the author's writing personality. They may be role-playing or entertaining the possibility of an alternative destiny. In many respects this questioning of possibilities, continually asking ‘what if’, is an essential fuel for the writing of poetry. Poems are preoccupied to a large extent with perspective and gaining a refreshingly new view of the world.

Activity 7

Jot down some of your own ideas for ‘role-playing’ – personae you can borrow. This may be simply the voice of someone you know, your ‘other self’, or the voice of a character: a policeman, a child, or a historical character, etc.


All writers keep notebooks, as W.N. Herbert says. The writer might jot down ideas, snatches of overheard conversation, odd stories; anything which sets him or her thinking. You should do the same: a word or a phrase, anything. You don't know what might be useful later. This is especially true in the context of impersonation and using your imagination to explore different personae. Sometimes you may hear just a few seconds of a conversation. This is enough for you to go on and ask questions of the character or characters. Sometimes you will know certain details about a historical figure. You can go on to ask more about the aspects of their lives that aren't generally known.

As we proceed to look at some poetic terms, tricks and devices – the sorts of techniques that underlie all poems – try to keep in mind all the ideas of what poetry might be, as well as some of the ideas about what poetry shouldn't be.


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