Persona and Theory of Mind

This week’s instructional content is all about personae, so I’d like to start by strongly urging you to practice talking about the voice that speaks a poem rather than the author or the narrator. You can also refer to them as the speaker. When I ask you to describe a persona, I am referring to the voice that speaks the poem rather than the main subject matter, theme, or event. For the case of the Wallace Stevens poem for this week, the persona consists of the guy talking about the Emperor of Ice Cream, not the Emperor himself (or Wallace Stevens).

Any time you start to read a poem, you are encountering a mind for the first time, a bit like being introduced to somebody you’ve never met before. Your first task is to figure out who is talking and what they are talking about. Psychologists and cognitive scientists call the process whereby we conceive of other people “theory of mind”: our brain’s ability to size somebody up, interpret their facial features and inflection, and provisionally adjust our interactions with them according to our first assessments of the other person’s character. In other words, if I meet you on the street for the first time, we’ll start talking and I’ll make some initial assumptions about you. As we keep talking, I’ll adjust those assumptions based on how well my temporary model of your character matches your behavior as time keeps progressing. Interestingly, this is exactly the sort of process that persons with Asberger’s syndrome, one of the many conditions that fall within the autism spectrum, cannot perform: although often quite intelligent, people with Asberger’s cannot interpret other people’s emotional states, and must instead memorize facial features and mentally attribute them to what other people call “anger” or “sadness” in an after-the-fact sort of way, just as you or I might make up flash cards to memorize unfamiliar concepts. (A side note: if you want to know more about Asberger’s, but prefer to get your knowledge from a literary work rather than Wikipedia, you could certainly do worse than read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon, which is a first-person novel told by a teenager with Asbergers).

When I read a poem I have to develop a theory of mind for the persona that I am meeting. Except, unlike my example above for meeting you on the street, I can’t see your face. It’s more like cold-calling somebody you don’t know and trying to get to know them, something telemarketers have to do all the time and which must be quite exhausting. Except, we can’t hear the voice of the poem’s speaker. So it’s much more like reading an email, except without all the bubbly emoticons.

I’ve gone through this elaborate metaphor to convince you that you probably already have lots of practice with getting to know somebody for the first time in unfamiliar contexts. But of course, there are major differences too, so let me emphasize three related things to look out for:

1.)    Your assessment of the mind behind the voice is an evolving and provisional thing. If you change your mind about a speaker midway through the poem, or even many times during a poem, this is equivalent to a long conversation with a real person – a verisimilitude to be treasured rather than something to be frustrated or infuriated by.

2.)    Although reading a poem is harder than introducing yourself to someone you can see and hear, you actually have it easier than that momentary encounter because you can always reread the poem – PROVIDED you are willing to reread it with an open mind. That’s key.

3.)    Because your theory of mind is provisional, you have to take into account when and where within the poem the speaker conveys images and figures. Especially if you are attending to the emotional tone of the speaker, you have to pay attention to what has been said before a given point in the text, and how the situation behind the utterance conditions how we should receive its language. In other words, if you only were to look at diction and note that the words in a poem seemed, when stripped out of context, to conjure a given emotion, without paying attention to the possibility that the form and content of the poem might trigger an altogether different reading, then you risk misreading the text (or rather, of misconstruing its theory of mind). It’s best to try to take as much of the evidence into account as possible when you’re sizing somebody up – were I only ever to look at rhyme scheme or rhythm when I read poems, or to listen to the sounds of the words without paying attention to what the voice is saying, that would be as insufficient as if I were to only look at somebody’s shoes when I first meet someone new, and make all my judgments about them based on that. I could do that. But I shouldn’t.




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