Sometimes a moustache is just black paint.
The character in the featured image for this post is Groucho Marx, of the Marx brothers. If you’ve never seen one of their many many movies, there is still time and you ought to, especially if you like insult comedy and/or harp music. Animal Crackers is one of my desert-island DVDs, assuming of course that I get shipwrecked on a desert island with only some coconuts, a DVD, a DVD player, a television (portable devices are too small for these aging eyes), a generator to supply power, an HDMI cable… you get the idea.
Groucho played one type of character in all of his movies. He was a loveable scamp, because although he made fun of everyone around him, he insulted the rich and powerful most of all. His most consistent foil was an actress named Margaret Dumont, who played stoutish, wealthy, regal women whom Groucho romanced and insulted in multiple films. The running gag was that she found Groucho irresistible despite his irascibility, and that she was never quite in on the joke. Most of the Marx Brothers movies came out during the Great Depression, during which millions of Americans were newly poor (or at the very least awakened to the extreme poverty of those around them) and vicariously enjoyed Groucho’s regular skewering of the Haves on behalf of the Have-nots. And if his lines of dialogue were not exactly what one said in polite company, well — it was really a Vaudeville stage character, this “Groucho,” who said those horrible and wickedly funny things, the character with that phony approximation of a moustache on his upper lip instead of hair. He can always wash it off and be his regular self!
I bring him up because this is a good example of a strategic persona: a mask that can allow a performer to say things that he might not feel capable of saying without it. It’s really, really hard to speak truth to power, or to appear ridiculous, or to lay your heart bare for all to see, without some sort of cover. Poetry is, like films and novels, an imaginative medium. What a novel’s characters say is not a lie, but then again it isn’t strictly speaking truth either. It’s somewhere in between reality and falsehood, and the same conditionality applies to poetry. Sometimes readers of poetry can get too hung up on the generic assumption of intimacy (that the lyric voice is right there in our heads, and would never lie to us) to believe that these voices are constructed and artificial. Poetic personae are both genuine and artificial. Treat the speaking persona as a voice that is unaware it is being overheard. Treat the author (or the figure of the author) as the mind that put that voice in front of you for your judgment. The poet may or may not endorse what the speaker is saying, just as the poet is not identical with the poem’s persona.
Here is a good example of how persona can get tricky when the voice within the poem looks less like a guy with a black-paint moustache and more like your imagined version of the author:
This is “Big Time” from Peter Gabriel’s album So (1987). The persona is an absurdly self-assured 80s man who thinks he has consumer culture all figured out: the goal is to amass as much stuff as possible and declare victory. The bigger you grow, the better you are. The poem takes this obsession with bigness to its logical conclusion. The persona of the song is deadly serious when he intimates that all of his success and all of his stuff will assure him entry to heaven, and he will be greeted by a God who looks a lot like himself. By the way, he is not alone in this sort of flawed assumption, and it is not a phenomenon isolated to the 1980s.
If I wanted to, I could resort to biographical information to prove that the tone of the song does not endorse the sentiment of its lyrics: that Peter Gabriel the performing artist is a much better guy than he comes across as being in this song and video, much more interested in using art for good causes (his “Biko,” for example, was an anti-Apartheid anthem that helped raise awareness and bring down the South African system of racial segregation) than for self-aggrandizement and macho posturing. Gabriel himself is also on record that the song tells the story of “what happens to you when you become a little too successful.” This is the sort of success that was in the process of happening to Gabriel with the great success of So, by the way. But I still think it’s unlikely that the actual guy Peter Gabriel would sincerely ask the universe to “think .. of the bulge in my big big big big big big big big big big” while gesturing at his pants.
Luckily we don’t have to settle for guesses, because we have textual analysis and evidence-based thinking! For example, the interplay between the video and the song gets across the text’s critique of the voice’s hubris. Early on in the song, a claymation version of the persona (at 1:53) tells us he is “on my way, I’m making it”:
But his legs are spinning in a circle, so he’s actually not making any progress at all. Other clues to the overall ironic tone of the piece depend less on trippy claymation and more on facial expression. In the third verse, for example, the persona tells us
My parties have all the big names,
And I greet them with the whitest smile
Tell them how my life is one big adventure!
And always they’re amazed
When I show them round the house to my bed
I had it made like a mountain range
With a snow-white pillow for my big fat head
Why exactly, if you’ve invited a huge crowd of famous people, would you show them your bedroom? Unless of course, you mean always to be reminding them of your sexual prowess (for which all of this display of wealth and stuff is a stand-in). But one of my favorite parts is when the persona actually smiles — it’s a smile that, as my mother would say, does not include his eyes (this is at 2:40):
He’s smiling to show how white his teeth are, not because he likes the people he invited — this only makes sense when we reflect that he invited them more because of their status than because he likes them. However, there’s still the little matter of his bed, built up like what must be a horribly uncomfortable mountain range in order to display how big his head is. This is just the sort of head you have when everything about you is larger than life (3:04):
Note that his hand and sport jacket still have color; it’s just his face that has gone to black and white. But while the persona of the poem may believe it’s a good thing to get a big head, the rest of us recognize that expression for unjustified pride, the kind that goeth before a fall. There is definitely something wrong with this sort of perspective, and anybody who sees this video and then thinks, “Yeah! I’m going out to buy myself a new big thing of stuff!!” is totally misreading the satirical point of the poem. It’s not that Peter Gabriel is a horrible person who can’t stop himself from recording songs that are all about how awesome he is. If anything, he is all the more awesome for writing a song that trusts his audience enough to realize his poem is ironic, and for being willing to publicly self-criticize whatever aspects of his private self do bear some passing resemblance to the oaf who sings this song.
So “Big Time” is unremittingly ironic, even though the persona is somebody who might at first look like somebody pretty close to our conception of what it must be like to be a rock star. We need to accept the idea that poems have personae because we need to give performers, musicians, artists, poets, novelists, and other creators the space to experiment with representing fleeting viewpoints that they might not wholly themselves believe without calling that a lie. This is what art does. It creates a space for experimentation and alternate representation. What if a guy like Groucho existed, and could really say what we were all thinking about the wealthy during the Depression? What if somebody like Peter Gabriel realized how absurd it is to be a rock star and lampooned everybody else like that by using the convenient target of himself? That’s what personae do for us: they allow for this sort of hypothetical speech.