Creating Characters in Poetry
I think it’s fair to say that character isn’t as essential to poetry as we understand it, as it is to prose. After all, one can find many examples of poems in which no identifiable character appears– no narrator, no other people, sometimes no living things at all:
framed against black rock
a single dead branch contains
a thousand poems
It would be difficult to find a novel, or even a short story, without characters.
On the other hand, many poems do contain well-delineated characters. However, because poems on average are shorter than stories or novels, the process of character development in poetry tends to be compressed. (Note that I said “on average.” Certainly there are book-length poems or poem collections, in which characters can be developed in a more novel-like fashion.)
Also, there’s little room in a poem for characters to evolve. If you’ve read The Three Musketeers and any of the sequels (and if you haven’t you’re missing a treat), you’ve seen D’Artagnan grow from a boy into a complex and interesting adult. Athos gives up drinking and assumes the responsibilities of a parent. Aramis quits the soldiering life and turns to Church intrigue. Porthos… well, Porthos just becomes more Porthos. You don’t get that in a poem unless it’s epic-length.
Character description and development in a poem tend to rely strongly on inference.
Romance on the Big Muddy. French doll
poised on a wrought-iron staircase among vines
drooping with heavy gourds,
her eyes bitter as eggplant flesh.
Her glossy purple lips are puckered.
You think you’ll pluck the fruit. Once that hook sets
there’s no extracting it.
All it takes is one kiss.
Poems often depict a moment. It may be a pivotal, or potentially pivotal, moment in the life of the characters, but the consequences of the event are left to the reader’s imagination.
Let’s look at some of the things we can infer about the woman in the poem. “Big Muddy” and “French” set the poem in a Louisiana location, most likely the French Quarter of New Orleans or a heavily French-influenced parish. “French doll” implies something about the woman’s clothing and demeanor, and also perhaps something about her self-perception: given the description of her eyes as “bitter,” we may conclude she feels used or objectified. This is underlined by the words “You think you’ll pluck the fruit,” which suggest a rather uncompassionate attitude on the part of the person addressed in the poem.
“Vines” and “gourds” emphasize the semi-tropical setting, while “drooping” and “heavy” place us on the boundary between lushness and decadence. Does this just describe the surrounding vegetation, or might it refer to the woman’s body? or her feelings? or her feelings about her body?
This layering of meanings is an example of the compression I mentioned above. It’s a useful technique in a confined space. But it has another benefit: it draws readers into the text, leading them to create these connections for themselves. Readers who engage a poem (or prose– there’s no reason these techniques can’t be used in prose, but it seems less common) in this way find the sense of discovery exhilarating, in the same way a whodunit reader thrills over figuring out the identity of the criminal before it’s revealed.