Characters can make or break a poem. Just like a novelist or short story writer, the poet needs characters. The poet need not have character personally, as is often the case, but the poem itself demands living personages.
And just as in prose, it's often the minor characters that do all the heavy lifting. You can't have Hamlet without Ophelia. You can't even have Hamlet without Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. And most importantly, you need Horatio. He is the frame for the whole play, right down to Hamlet's demise.
For those of you who don't know your Shakespeare -- you can't have Frodo without Sam.
That said, what are some good ways to use minor characters in your poems?
Poe has a great one in "The Raven" and it's not even the bird. It's Lenore. She's as mysterious Mona Lisa's smile.
Plath has an entire cast of wonderful minor characters in "Lady Lazarus" -- ranging from adoring fans to probing psychiatrists. Robert Pinksy's poem, "The Questions," is full of mini-portraits and they give the poem life and blood and fever.
In fact, so many poets, from Sappho to Bukowski, rely on the presence of passing faces and personalities to give their poems depth and life, that portraiture and the principles of dramatic stage-movement should be learned by every aspiring poet.
They key is to let people move through your poems, as organically as possible. Try not to fixate on your subjective response to them, but capture their essence as it relates to the poem in question. Don't give us too much information, but paint colorful personalities and bodies with a few well-placed brushstrokes.
Here's something you can do just for fun that will really show you what I mean. Write a poem with no people in it. Focus on the setting. Now write a poem with he same setting, but add at least two people.
If your second poem is shorter than the first, there's a slight chance you may be staying in too much. It's perfectly fine to write a poem without people in it, but doing so makes a statement in itself and doing so a lot will make your poems seem abstract whether you want them to or not.
Using Big Famous people in your poems is like using big shiny words. If you drop a Big Name, there should be a good reason. Drop it and move on -- or just go ahead and write the poem about the famous person.
Last little hint: the more you use people in your poems, the more dimension you give yourself as an observer. This will make your vertical pronouns pop!
If you want to read more tips on how to write good poetry, check out my 7 Secrets of Poetry guide by clicking the button below.
OR if you'd like some direct feedback, polishing, or editing for your poems, click one of the buttons below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org