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What is poetry?
What is poetry?

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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.

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Track 3 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 2 poems in which the writer takes on or entertains the idea of another persona:

‘Selling Manhattan’ by Carol Ann Duffy

‘Cow’ by Selima Hill

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.

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.