I’m currently teaching a research writing class, and this particular class is unique because it asks the students to explore and respond to various kinds of art (short stories, poems, plays, creative nonfiction essays, visual art, etc.) through their writing, all the while following MLA formatting, of course. It’s a fun class to teach, because, well, I love art, and it gives me an opportunity to introduce these students to an assortment of genres. For each genre, I discuss the various elements that are fundamental to that genre. For example, short stories employ setting, poetry relies on literary devices, creative nonfiction is based in fact, with a novelistic twist. And so on.
When it came to poetry, and I was putting my list of fundamentals together, I stumbled over whether to include character as a necessary element for this genre. Questions went through my mind: Does poetry require characters? What is the ratio of poems with characters to those without? What poems off the top of my head can I think of that include characters? What poems of my own have characters? What’s the virtue of adding characters? Is poetry more imagery based than prose? Who classifies what a poem is and what isn’t?
All of these questions led me to rediscover what the word genre means. In M. H. Abrams’ A Glossary of Literary Terms, it says that “Through the Renaissance and much of the eighteenth century, the recognized genres . . . were widely thought to be fixed types” and that mixing genres was considered abhorrent. Skip forward to today, and Abrams says “. . . genres are conceived to be more or less arbitrary modes of classification, whose justification is their convenience in discussing literature.”
So, basically, once the distinction and classification mattered, and now, not so much. Now, we exist in a more fluid space, where it seems that the writer determines what his/her piece is: It’s a poem, because I say it is! Never mind that the poem is novel-length, and doesn’t seem to observe other poem-y techniques, as is the case with Gabriel Gudding’s Rhode Island Notebook.
Or consider the six-word “short story” attributed to Ernest Hemingway: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Certainly, this would seem to fall more within the realm of poetry due to its brevity, and yet, these six words contain fundamental elements of the short story genre: characters, setting, conflict, plot, tone, etc.
Consider also Bruce Holland Rogers’ “Three Soldiers,” which is a triumvirate of mini stories, each with their own title, under the larger title. You can read the “short story” here: “Three Soldiers” This might seem more like a poem, in part because it follows a strict form (69 words per story), but Holland Rogers has classified it as a short story, and therefore, apparently, so must we.
So, back to my dilemma of whether the genre of poetry includes character . . . in the end I decided that yes it does, but not always, which seems to be the way we define genres these days: Sometimes. Maybe. If the author wants to.
Running alongside my questions as a teacher are my questions as a writer of poetry: Why include characters? And if I incorporate them, should I name them? In a lot of poetry, there seem to be implied characters: the “I” behind the words, or the vague hes and shes. And in my experience, the named character doesn’t appear as often in this genre. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot comes to mind with its “I” and “you” and its coming and going women. But would we call these characters, in the same sense that we would call Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice a character? Yet, Eliot does something interesting by naming his character in the title, but that name is never referenced in the poem itself. So, what’s the value of naming the character at all?
Look at any haiku poem, and what you might see is an “I” here and there, but more likely you’ll see elements of nature. Are the natural elements characters? Are the implied wind or the leaves characters in Buson’s haiku?
Blowing from the west
Fallen leaves gather
In the east.
And another question to ponder, when we think about the “I” in poetry, is that really character, or is it narrator? When E. E. Cummings says “and what i want to know is / how do you like your blueeyed boy / Mister Death” in his poem “Buffalo Bill’s,” is the “i” a character, or some omniscient eye (no pun intended)?
I certainly don’t think I know the answers yet to any of these questions. I’m not even sure I can articulate why I sometimes choose to name characters in my own poetry, and why other times I leave them murky and in the distance with generic hes and shes. But I think these are questions worth pondering, since writing is in part about intention, and understanding the reasons for our choices in whatever genre we are working in is crucial to good writing.
For all you poets out there (and non-poets, too), how do you deal with character? To name or not to name? And why?