WITS Voices: The Persona Poem and Fourth Graders
By Kathleen Flenniken, WITS Writer-in-Residence
One of the most important attributes of art, and especially poetry, is the way it opens a door into another person’s life experience. A poem—a mere few lines sometimes—can create a more empathetic reader for life. My fourth grade students at View Ridge Elementary had the chance to “pretend” to be someone else when I brought in a print of Rene Magritte’s painting Golconda last week, and we wrote persona poems.
A persona poem is a first-person poem in the voice of a character who is not the writer. This trying on of another personality can be very challenging for some students, and it can be freeing too—no need to worry about our own limited experiences or reveal our private lives. It’s interesting for children to occasionally experiment with the weight of adult responsibilities—what might it feel like?
To begin, we took a careful look at Magritte’s painting, and the students pointed out the obvious similarities among its suspended men. We talked about whether we thought the men were floating, falling, or rising, and what they might be hearing, smelling, feeling.
Then, I challenged the students to choose one man to “be”: they would write a poem in his voice, and he would be different than all the other men in the painting—on the inside, where it really matters. Then, in order to maximize the chance for imaginative leaps, I introduced a brown paper sack filled with little strips of paper. On each strip I had printed a sentence starter. They ranged from, “I remember,” to “My heart is the shape of,” to “I never told anyone,” and several more. These each provided the beginning of a sentence, but the student needed to complete the thought. The bag contained many duplicates of every sentence starter, and I instructed each student to pull out eight randomly and then use them in order. I let them know there might be repeats, but that was okay—it introduced a random element to their poems.
I added one more element: my bag of words. These are verbs, nouns, and adjectives on slips of paper (very much like those old “poetry magnets” but without the magnets). These words are optional, in case a student wants to look at them for inspiration. Some students find them helpful and some find them distracting.
In all my instruction I emphasize concrete detail (things! particulars!), sensory language, strong verbs, and metaphor-simile. This lesson was no different—many encouragements to use specifics and complete images and similes.
Then, they were off.
I am always surprised by how much elementary-aged students enjoy trying on sadness, especially if it’s just make believe. Many of the poems my students wrote were sorrowful, filled with longing and regret. They took special care with tone, and I noticed its greater consistency throughout the exercise—which signaled to me that my fourth graders took the opportunity to be someone else seriously, even if what they wrote wasn’t serious.
Poems from View Ridge Fourth Graders, December 2015:
The Man in the Middle
I’m the only one who knows which one I am
Inside my coat pocket, my collection of small toy horses crashing together like pebbles at the edge of the waves on the beach
I’m the one who took my tap shoes with me when I started to rise that one afternoon
You will never find my horse Pepper, white with black spots on her flankYou will never find my top hat, black as night, silky as a kitten
No one can tell me I’ve never been a bubble
Tomorrow, I will be a regular man walking to work on the sidewalk regretting coming down
Yesterday you found me covered with feathers and pennies
From here I can see the stables, with 36 oak trees in all.
The One by the Window
My mind is the color of blank
I’m the one who’s not as ignorant as the rest
I am rising toward the daisy fields
I know I was born in a flower
There is only one way for me to be cheerful
There is only one way for me to fall
Last night I dreamed of home
I remember hacking the truth out of my parents and their permanent talk.
When I was a child I believed in bluebells’ scent and fairies of my wildest dreams.
I remember snowflakes skating outside and children playing while I worked.
Yesterday you found me famous in front of a busy crowd.
No one can tell me who I am and what I do.
I’m the one vacuuming up all of my own happiness.
I’m the one glaring and growling.
I remember frowning at my own happiness.
4th Up, 3rd to the Left
My mind is the color of a fading rainbow after rain
Inside my coat pocket I have a notebook full of my dreams
There is only one way for me to push out my sadness but I can’t
My heart is shaped like the tears that run down my face
I remember the time when I thought I was free but was not
When I was a child I believed that rainbows were slides with gold at the end
I could tell you about my hands that shiver when I see black
Tomorrow I will land in the unknown
Maybe I will meet some color or maybe not
I am rising toward candy heaven.
My mind is the color of ice cream and chocolate, extra dark.
Tomorrow I will be sucking on multi-flavored lollipops.
Tomorrow I will be smelling fruit-flavored gumdrops.
I never told anyone I have a green thumb for growing bubble-gum trees.
Yesterday you found me swimming in a tub of hot chocolate with marshmallows.
My heart is shaped like a tiny crystal of sugar.
You will never find my hidden hoard of candy, sunken under the sea.
Going Center and Up
There is only one way for me to get down from floating to space and the bright stars
My hands that feel like I am pulling a million dragonflies the colors of the planets
From here I can see the big forest by my work building and the wild water rushing through the ground
I am the one of the million frightened men that wants to do this
I remember trying to fly to the bright bold moon when I was young
I never told anyone that I wanted this for my whole life
My mind is the color of the bright stars and planets just up there somewhere
Up or Down
I’m a sweet man waiting
Floating not falling not rising
Waiting for my family
Though you will never find me crying
When I was a child I believed my family would take me home
I remember my mom, dad, sister, and brother hugging me
Yesterday you found me
I’m a sweet man waiting
I’m the one who wears a fake face
I know nobody knows me
I never told anyone I’m a bird
There is only one way to keep disguised, to keep wearing the mask
From here I can see nobody knows it’s me
No one can tell me who I am
No one can tell me where I live
I’m the one who is me
In My Briefcase
Yesterday you found me being fried.
Last night I dreamed of cantankerous motorcycles.
I’m the only one who flexes my GUNS.
There is only one way for me to be reclining.
From here I can see vines attacking loud-mouth people.
I’m the one who forgot his umbrella.
I’m the only one who is as old as Yoda.
My heart is shaped like Miles Gasken.
I stand by the third window, that is my job.
My heart is shaped like a triangle, three points.
I know every inch of my window, clean glass, with lacy curtains and a slightly faded pattern.
I’m the one who guards it 24-7. It’s my home.
I’m attached to the ground my back to the wall.
I could tell you about the smells and tastes I long for, but I was born here, meant to be here.
I am a tree rooted to my spot.
I can’t rise up, I’m rooted to my spot. It’s where I belong.
Some wonderful lines:
My mind is the color of a pure white fox looking down on me, guarding my feelings.
Three times I heard bluebells singing their sad song.
I remember the day gravity broke its promise.
You will never find my inner voice.
My mind is the color of a gray wolf on a winter evening.
My hands that are scared are making me fall.
Inside my coat pocket my imagination roams free.
Once I heard beliefs are stories in disguise.
I’m the only one who isn’t just a man but a mystery no one can solve.
Last night I dreamed I must change into wind.
No one can tell me that we’re all the same.
I know my shoes don’t fit.
Kathleen Flenniken is the author of two poetry collections, Famous, named a Notable Book by the ALA, and Plume, winner of the Washington State Book Award. She was the 2012 – 2014 Washington State Poet Laureate.
WITS Voices features posts by SAL’s WITS Writers-in-Residence, our core of professional, local writers, who share their experiences working with K-12 students. Through our Writers in the Schools Program, WITS Writers teach creative writing in public school classrooms throughout the Seattle, Highline, Port Townsend and Shoreline Districts, as well as at Seattle Children’s Hospital.
Top image: René Magritte, Golconda (Golconde), 1953, Oil on canvas, 31 1/2 × 39 1/2 in. © C. Herscovici / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Image from The Menil Collection.