Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” is a rhetorical exercise in self-promotion that functions almost exclusively via the profound expectations within its American audiences. Long trained in cultural narratives like American “exceptionalism” and “rugged individualism,” to hear triumphal notes in the voice of the speaker, these readers assume that the speaker triumphed over staggering odds: but not so fast, my friend.
This week has been mostly about the many different things to notice within poems. The three major concepts we played around with during Tuesday’s twitter conversations had a tendency to overlap, as many of you noticed: one student’s example of metaphor could easily bleed into another student’s example of ambiguity, or irony. This is because there are smaller and larger uses for each of these figurative strategies (I will call them “local” vs. “global” effects, here in this post and elsewhere). For example, the personification of the worm as a “fellow” in Dickinson’s “[A Bird, came down the Walk]” is a local metaphor: we need to decipher what the metaphor is substituting for, but it has little bearing on our reading except for that one line. But the metaphor of the flea for the speaker’s relationship with his beloved in Donne’s “The Flea” is a global effect: it seems to be what the poem is tasking the reader with figuring out, and it has ramifications for every part of the text. In fact, by convention we call this sort of global metaphor a conceit, and Donne’s poem is an oft-cited example of metaphysical conceits. But as time passes for the reader within the complex comparison of the speaker’s love to a flea, we might have good cause to wonder whether he is serious about the parasitic nature of the flea, or being ironic, and of course there might be times within the poem when the comparison seems one or the other, or even both (hence, ambiguity).
For this Friday’s blog post, I’d like you to pick a poem that is on the list for this week but not one of the three example posts that will follow this one, and perform a reading on it. Instead of being really prescriptive with my instructions, I’d like to leave the instructions minimal for what a reading is, beyond saying that a a close reading of a poem ought to include an argument about its meaning and to draw upon your recent acquaintance with textual analysis. Instead of assigning you to hunt for ambiguity, I’d like you to read my instructional pages carefully, pick a poem, determine for yourselves what you think the poem means, and then write up your reading in such a way that you support your claim with evidence from the text. This is a practice exercise for the types of writing you will compose on the exams, so although it won’t be graded I’ll offer direct feedback. It’s a low-pressure assignment to help you practice new skills, chief among which are precise use of defined terms, and robust explanations for your analysis (your glosses).
I think the first thing we need to be clear about is that arguments in English aren’t a free for all: not every claim is correct. Although I would agree that there are an infinite number of reasonable claims about a given poem, that’s like saying there are an infinite number of numbers between 1 and 2 in the set of real numbers. A number like “1.5” or “√2” are both reasonable members of that set; but 5 is wrong. So is i, because that’s an imaginary number. So you can’t, for example, argue that Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” is about the Apollo Space Program. That’s impossible! But other readings are readily available for a poem like this one, and will have the advantage of being supportable with evidence too.
Throughout Tuesday’s twitter discussion, I have been trying to get students to be more precise with their comments, and the reason is that you need to be precise about an observation before you can use it to prove a larger point. Consider: whether you’re saying something like “I think the Jabberwocky refers to some child’s nightmare confabulation of many scary things” or ““I think the Jabberwocky refers to snails,” even though the first statement is probably more correct and interesting, neither statement is persuasive yet as an argument because no evidence has been given. In order to argue persuasively about texts, you need to cite words (specific moments, events, character details, speech), and then demonstrate how you can manipulate those words (by showing how they are ironic, ambiguous, or metaphorical, or by linking them to other words through rhyme, or by proving the text emphasizes them through meter, or via enjambment, etc) by linking your evidence to your claim through reasons. Keep in mind that we all read the same text, but we all come up with different interpretations when left to our own devices. So you will have to be able to demonstrate the persuasive appeal of your claim precisely because poems trigger subtly different responses in all of us — we need to explain ourselves fully because there’s no guarantee we’re all thinking the same thing.
So as you think about how you might prove a case to somebody about what a poem means, consider that a claim (thesis) usually is of a higher order of ambition than any of the body paragraphs. So the claim of a short analysis would tell the reader what (or why) the poem means, and the body paragraphs would generally set out to explain how you see the poem accomplishing that meaning, through the various methods we’ve talked about this week. I’ll be looking to see that every piece of evidence you use is linked to the claim in some way (so that there are no mentions of rhyme scheme or meter that don’t support anything in particular, beyond a student proving that they can identify rhyme scheme or meter). I’ll also be searching for signs that you can be thorough with your reading and organized with your presentation. You might consider simply constructing one paragraph per technique or poetic element I suggest, and sticking to that element as you prove the claim. Or, you might think of two or three holistic ways in which the elements we’ve discussed might be made to support that claim, and then take me through those reasons talking about all the suggested elements in each paragraph (this path is suaver, and I like it better, and I will prize the effort you expend more highly, but I admit it’s a harder path for beginners).
What follows are three (four with the mystery poem) example readings of poetry, each of which will start with an introductory paragraph that poses a problem of interpretation and resolves it with a claim at the end of the paragraph, and then analyzes the poem to support that claim. Note: I’m not suggesting my examples will be exhaustive! Not every reading will require analysis of every bit of evidence from the text to be persuasive. I invite you to add comments to these posts (or to tweet me your feedback, if you prefer that) to let me know if I’ve forgotten to mention data that could support my claim, or to argue against my reading altogether.
“Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” is a poem about a woman who, like Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey, takes to creating a tapestry in order to convey the inner pain she can’t express in words. There’s nothing in the poem that speaks to the cause of that pain except “the massive weight of uncle’s wedding band” — something about her marriage to Uncle Jennifer’s Husband is very oppressive (or he gave her a uranium wedding ring which is heavy and radioactive to boot). So what’s wrong with their relationship? There’s no evidence that she was mistreated in any way. But there is evidence that it’s not even necessarily Uncle’s fault: the institution of marriage (as such) is the thing that weighs so heavily upon her: the ring. And the formal evidence of the poem’s scansion and of is odd metaphorical habit of treating tigers as if they were horses is how I will prove that this is a feminist poem written against the expectation that women were made to marry. I’m assuming the speaker is Aunt Jennifer’s niece, since she seems so preternaturally sympathetic to Aunt Jennifer’s situation, although vastly preferring her artistic achievement to the oppression that served as its catalyzing crucible.
This poem is generally written in iambic pentameter, which means there are ten beats per line, and the stress gets put on the second of every two beats: the iambic “foot” of a conjoined unstress followed by a stress. Except, there are a large number of abridgements to that normal pattern: Jennifer, denizens, chivalric, fluttering, ivory, and terrified. All of these words provide an extra beat to the normal ten, and they all also follow the same pattern of one stress and two unstressed beats: they’re dactyls, and they are all examples of “dactylic inversions,” modulations of the overall meter in which the normal iambic line gets modified to include this three-beat foot instead. That’s the technical way of explaining what’s going on, but the point of bringing it up here is to demonstrate that the rhythm only functions to call attention to certain words, which are various enough that they may or may not constitute a pattern.
But the metrical evidence in combination with the poem’s imagery, figures, and diction point to a feminist reading. First of all, consider how often the poem gestures toward some concept, item, or person sticking out against overwhelming odds — the “bright topaz” of the tigers against the “world of green” of their backdrop, the lonely ivory needle “fluttering” through the mass of wool, her weakened fingers buckling under the “massive” band, and her dead hands outnumbered by the “ordeals” they succumbed to. In each case, one of these things is not like the other, and it’s Aunt Jennifer. The awesome thing about the tigers is that, although they seem out of place, they also seem untroubled by “the men beneath the tree,” who I suppose are there to capture and tame them and rid them of whatever makes them feral tigers, forces to be reckoned with and feared in their own right.
Except, they aren’t tigers, or at least they shouldn’t be. given the logic of the rest of the poem. For one thing, tigers stalk their prey rather than prance; even housekittens are playful without prancing. No, horses prance (that’s why in The Fellowship of the Ring Tolkein’s hobbits drink at Barliman Butterbur’s “Inn of the Prancing Pony” rather than the “Inn of the Prancing Tiger”), and horses are also the single defining feature of chivalry, the knightly code of conduct that gets an explicit reference in the fourth line (“sleek chivalric certainty”). In French the word for horse is cheval, and horseman is chevalier, from which UVA gets its official mascot. Add this to the slight hint to the trial by ordeal, a travail to decide guilt or innocence that had nothing whatsoever to do with justice and everything to do with the Middle Ages’ love of torture and brute physical violence, and you have a pretty medieval mindset being referenced:
The chivalric code was introduced in order to corral some of the rampant abuses that the armed bands of fighters who helped fight back the Vikings were guilty of, and to the extent that the modern equivalents for such quaint notions as “women = property,” like holding doors open for women or picking up the check on a date, substitute for automatic violence and rape, that is… better than the Middle Ages, yes. But it’s still enough to torment someone obviously possessed of artistic talent, if her niece’s judgment of her tiger tapestry is to be believed, and chivalry does seem to be the sole blameworthy agent in this poem. Jennifer is terrified because she is denizen in a world ruled by chivalry. And that last sentence incorporates most of the dactyls in the poem, so I’m pretty sure I’ve adduced the relationship between those metrical modulations and the speaker’s point in drawing out her aunt’s example: marriage to an unenlightened partner is a trap for thinking women. The best Jennifer could do, perhaps, was to transmute horses to tigers; she couldn’t escape the cage.
I love the pairing of Stevens’s “Emperor of Ice Cream” with this poem, since both of them have an ambiguous relationship with ephemerality (that which is disconcertingly fleeting). The speakers (We) are seven in number, if we take the epigraph to apply specifically to the poem’s situation; they’re at a fictional pool hall called “The Golden Shovel,” which if that is a pun for playing pool it’s a pretty bad one. On the one hand much of what the speakers claim about themselves is a running boast designed to establish their coolness. On the other hand, that coolness comes at a price. But you’d have to compare the speakers’ claims (and their tone of arrogant awesomeness) to the presentation created by the enjambment of each line and the rhyme scheme in order to have any chance of parsing whether that last line is ironic or not.
In other words, who is this poem’s persona? At first glance, it might be seven pool players, who dropped out of school, lurk late outside of a pool hall, often get into fights therein, admire those who break the law (“sing sin”) but not to the point that they do not wish to be caught for their own misdeeds — this is how I read “thin gin,” which is to pour water into a gin decanter so that nobody realizes you stole some. But even if it were possible for the seven of them to speak in unison, is it likely that they would admit their unsavory qualities (in however intimate a setting), or more to the point, that they would have the self-awareness requisite to realize they’re on a one-way trip to imminent dissolution?
I say no. It’s more likely that the persona is implicit, the person who imagined their claims to coolness and then set them up for examination. To this person, perhaps watching the seven of them from across the street, it would be far more plausible to call their cool strutting “lurking,” which is diction that has overtones of menacing loitering. She (let’s call her she, because why not) would also be more likely to call their actions sins than they would (they would call each of them “cool”). On the other hand, she would also need to know enough about pool halls to know what goes on inside them, to be able to recognize the seven of them as a type that she can impute thoughts to, to be able to sympathize or at least be half-drawn to their coolness, which she would need to be in order to romanticize at least some of their actions as “jazz June,” which I admit is a really cool phrase.
To “jazz June,” I expect, is to play the summer like a jazz piano — improvisationally, with virtuosic but always different music pouring from it. No two jazz sessions ought to be the same, and the summer is the time to do it, since that’s when the year’s energy peaks. There’s an art to the seven pool players’ performance of cool, surely. But it is known first and foremost for its one-time-only appeal, that when jazz is good it’s good in part because everything has come together in that one moment to produce a combination of riffs and extended showcases of different instruments, and you can’t guarantee that confluence will ever happen again. So the persona couples the rhyming “Jazz June” and “die soon,” which is an identification of the peak energy of cool with the ephemerality of an unusually short life. In that sense, the tone of this last line can either be seriously supportive of coolness needing a short life in order to constitute coolness, or ironically deflating the “we”‘s pretensions to coolness which will cut them off in their primes. There’s the poem’s essential ambiguity.
The enjambment of each line draws this out even further — the evidence of cool comes first in each line, from the opening claim of the seven players to the last line predicting their untimely deaths. Each line ends with an enjambed (and therefore interrupted) “We” after a slight pause following each claim sentence’s period. Their actions are more important, as a testament of coolness, than themselves; they are after all a collective “we,” an interchangeable group of seven players. The last line, of course, has no enjambed “we” at the end, in part because they’ve died by that point. As we miss what had up to that point seemed almost superfluous when compared with their awesome coolness, we recognize that we’ve now lost the possibility for any sort of specific knowledge about them: the poem is more specific about the pool hall than the loitering players.
Wallace Stevens’s “Emperor of Ice Cream” is a great example of a poem that, while limiting itself to a relatively small number of poetic techniques, is still a nice little thought puzzle. Almost every phrase is both metaphorical and ironic; it’s a great example of poetry as compression: the attempt to squeeze absolutely everything that can be contained in the most economical fashion into the shortest amount of lines. It’s also an awesome reminder of why persona is a necessary shield for poet’s voices; the things Stevens hints at in this poem are not necessarily what he might want associated with him for realsies. For the case of this poem, the relatively reasonable proposition that desire trumps all other responsibilities and authorities gets modified in the second stanza (after the turn between the first and second utterances of the refrain, “the only emperor is the emperor of ice cream”) so that we gradually become aware of the speaker’s complicated relationship to a recently deceased woman whom he loves.
The first thing to reckon with is the artful use of diction to suggest profound ways of thinking about why we act in the ways we do: who is the emperor of ice cream? And no, it isn’t Haagendacz Q. Breyers, inventor of the sugar cone. Something poetic and punny is going on! “Emperor” suggests somebody in authority, somebody who outranks generals and politicians and kings, and here the emperor of ice cream isn’t some historical person like Napoleon, Emperor of the France, but something akin to the sound that comes out of this vehicle:
As an example of the Defining the Genre illustration exercise, here is a lovely doubly-voiced poem by Richard Wilbur called “A Barred Owl.” There is a story being told here, but it is not the main emphasis of the poem. Were I to paraphrase what’s going on, I might say that a parent, having just consoled his daughter after a loud owl’s hoot came through the window, meditates on how words can give a human face to startlingly inhuman noises or events.
I know it’s not on the list of poems for this week, but it presents some interesting challenges for illustration that also happen to coincide with questions of genre.
As we found out for this week’s second twitter convo, we all think really differently about poems! If I had to choose one image to represent “Westron Wind,” I might choose a still from Tommy Boy, which is the one I tweeted. But while that got across the speaker’s frustration that the wind isn’t blowing, the scene features Chris Farley’s character and his lady friend, so it’s not a perfect image at all! In fact, it would probably throw off some of you if you were trying to guess.
Let’s say I illustrate “A Barred Owl” with an image of a barred owl, which is an actual animal, for realsies:
It’s not a bad image at all, especially if I were aiming to convey what scared the little girl in the first place. But the owl’s hoot happens before the poem begins, or at least before the voice starts speaking — he has already comforted his daughter, and is now just meditating on what happened. This picture doesn’t get at the pun in the title (that the barred owl has been “barred” from the girl’s bedroom by her parent’s comforting white lie), and it has nothing at all to do with the distinction that has been drawn between what happens outside, in the wild, and what happens inside (hopefully nothing, so that they can all get back to bed). And I’m not even sure I would want to affix it to the start of the poem (why the girl is frightened) or to the end of the poem (when her father notes to himself that although he told her the owl was really just curious about her personal chef, it actual is a merciless killer of “some small thing in [its] claw, / Borne up to some dark branch and eaten raw”).
Luckily, you’re not limited to one image. I suggest you make a bulleted list of the sorts of emotional responses the poem triggers, in the order that it triggers them, and then find somewhere between three and seven pictures to correspond to what you’re thinking. We’ll have lots of chances to get this right, and as the weeks go by I’ll be challenging you to find different ways of expressing your interpretations through illustration. Also, don’t forget it’s not the pictures alone that are conveying what you thought about the poem, but your words too — out of their interplay, if we do this correctly, anybody who comes along and views your blog ought to be able to understand what you were responding to in the poem, and why. No guesswork necessary!
In Hardy’s “Drummer Hodge,” the tone of the poem is hard to decipher. At times the speaker seems to be talking about a hopelessly naive boy who got in over his head in predictable ways; at other times, he is clearly upset about what happened and looking for somebody to blame. How should we read the speaker’s engagement with the subject of this slain drummer? One way of answering this question is to consider who the audience of the poem is, which we can really only arrive at by considering the diction of the poem. Because the speaker discusses places and names that Hodge himself never knew or understood, we can be pretty sure his readership had that same knowledge — therefore, the things that escape the speaker’s knowledge that Hodge does know (including what it means to die for a conflict you were sympathetically duped into fighting) are all the more ironic.
In terms of diction, “throw” in line one is a pretty rough verb for a burial: usually we lay or lower a body into a grave. In line two, Hodge is buried “just as found,” meaning they don’t change his bloody clothes or wipe off his face or follow any of the normal obsequies performed on the dead. This makes me suspect that “rest” in line one is ambiguous: that they have laid him to rest in the sense of shoveling dirt quickly over his corpse, but his body is not at rest because his unceremonious burial is missing the closure that English funerals impart.
There is also a major discrepancy between the Afrikaans words in this poem young Hodge would not have known about before the war (“kopje crest,” “veldt,” “Karoo,” “the Bush”) but that British middle-class readers would know well from the three Boer Wars and their domination of the newspaper headlines for a decade. In the same way, I can tell you that Afghanistan has cities like Jalalabad and Kabul, and its main crop is heroin poppies, even though I never expected to learn that kind of thing, because of the aftermath of 9/11 and the United States involvement there militarily. The fact that Hodge didn’t know any of these words is both a marker of his rusticity and his youth; or perhaps he’s a provincial rube; the diction doesn’t actually resolve the tone, but I do think it helps us link the speaker to his audience in terms of their familiarity with world politics and the British Empire’s overseas interests.
In the second and third stanzas Hodge’s innocence is compounded by ironic juxtapositions: he was “Fresh from his Wessex home,” meaning he had only recently arrived in South Africa, but of course is no longer fresh since he is rotting underground. His freshness also jars with the “dusty loam” he now inhabits and is being transformed into; in the same way, Hardy takes pains to contrast “his homely Northern breast and brain” with the “Southern tree” that is growing out of and being fertilized by his remains.
Hodge doesn’t, or shouldn’t belong there, and perhaps the conversion of English drummer into African landscape is unnaturally sped up by the cavalier way in which his body was dumped into a hole. And his “homely” self (however ugly) also conjures for us a vision of how out of place his grave actually is, or at least how strange it is for him to find this mound as his final destination. For now he actually is Africa; there’s no distinction to be made between him and the rest of the loam/veldt/mound/tree. And the constellations overhead, which are far from the sets of stars he usually sees, are no longer foreign to him. It’s only to the uncomprehending, detached speaker that the stars still look “strange-eyed” – Hodge no longer has eyes, and no longer can claim a home. It’s the speaker, then, who is made restless by the example of Hodge’s overseas fate, and who can’t get over the boy’s loss.
Here is an example illustration for this week’s focus on persona: a poem by H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) called “Oread.”
I’ll return to this poem in a few weeks when we talk about the literary-historical school of “imagism,” but for now I want to pose this as a problem text that can really only be read if you are willing to divorce the voice of the poem from that of the author. At least as a thought experiment, we’ve got to allow for the possibility that the speaker is not Hilda Doolittle the poet, but an oread.
If this is allowed, then we have a problem beyond the normal task of distinguishing between a poem’s persona, what somebody might feel strongly in the moment but not necessarily all the time (a passing emotion rather than some fundamental identity, the sort of thing lyrics convey quite well), and their day to day reality, which would be better expressed, perhaps, as a summation of moments. For this poem at least the speaker is not only an extreme version of a momentary human perspective, she’s not even human. She’s an immortal mountain nymph from ancient Greek myth, an etiological attempt to make the rocky landscape more comprehensible by personifying it. In some versions of the myth, the oread lurks in rocky dells and cliffs when she’s not out hunting with Artemis, but pretty much looks like other nymphs:
But on the other hand, those mythological stories often ended with sympathetic Greek hunters being overcome with desire for the sexually desirable but unattainable nymphs and ending tragically (for the men). I don’t see any of that in this poem, so I think this oversexualized picture is a bit off for our purposes here. However, I do see evidence that the oread has a mountainous perspective, and as I note in the caption above even in the picture above her head is made of mountain. As a personification of a frightening and inhuman landscape, it might make more sense to think of her like this:
What do I know about this speaker? I know she’s pretty confident: all of the sentences of the poem are commands in the imperative mood. She also seems to have a desire for the sea, one that doesn’t seem to be achievable; I assume this must be because she’s bound to her mountain (in the same way that a dryad is bound to a tree or a naiad to a particular pool or spring) and can’t leave to take a dip. Gazing out at the sea, she orders it to leap onto the mountains so she can feel what it’s like to be somebody else — a sympathetic goal, and one that a reader of this poem is already experiencing by reading about somebody with a totally alien perspective.
I also know that the speaker mostly knows about mountains, and might therefore have some trouble describing things that are outside of her experience. So for someone who knows much more about rocks and the sorts of trees that grow on mountains, gazing out at the sea during a storm, which might actually look like this:
But it might appear like this to her:
Perhaps the weirdness of her command to the sea to “cover us with your pools of fir” is due, in other words, to her not having language for waves except in terms of trees. But here is another way of thinking about it: for somebody with an immortal perspective, normal time might seem to move more slowly than our perspective of the passing of time, considering we only have a few measly decades before we depart the Aegean shoreline forever. But this speaker has all the time in the world. It’s also possible that the sea’s green becomes the fir forest in her eyes, but the command wasn’t made with the alacrity we usually associate with commands: in 80 years or so, cover us with your pools of fir. Then the “pools of fir” could refer to a forest encroaching upon the slopes of her mountain, which she welcomes.
My daughter (7) has unexpectedly developed a love of the Billy Joel of Storm Front (1989), which though good in its way is surely not his best work. Anyway, in talking with her about the singer and what he’s all about in that album (as opposed to the Joel of Piano Man (1973)or The Stranger (1977) or even the retro Innocent Man (1983), it occurred to me that I could use this as an object lesson in both personae and the distinction between a poem that appears to tell a story and a lyric poem that, in James Phelan’s terminology from Experiencing Fiction (2007), either describes and emotes about what is or meditates on what has been. Many various attempts to define narrative have made their way into poetry theory and criticism, which is great in the sense that comparing two genres is always likely to yield new insight into both – just so long as there’s never an assumption that one genre is better than others (at which point my poetry hackles start to rise).
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 the better. 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.