Rob Mackenzie has blogged about using personas and characters in his poetry. One of the points he discusses is the degree to which a reader is likely to equate the I of a poem written in the first person with the writer. Anyone who writes in a persona -- anyone who writes, I suspect -- knows that the poem can go places and say things its writer doesn't necessarily think or agree with. One way round that is to use the second person, but I don't really like that. I've tried to explore the reasons for that dislike here.
Is it, I wonder, more common for people to equate the first person with the writer when they're reading poetry than when they're reading fiction? I have to say I was once guilty of making that lazy assumption more often than not, but that time is long gone! Certainly, anyone properly familiar with the techniques and approaches of contemporary poetry is unlikely to assume automatically that, just because a poem is written in the first person, it directly reflects the experiences and/or opinions of its writer.
Of course, the reverse is also true: just because a poem obviously employs a persona doesn't mean it is no reflection of the writer's life. "The Apple's Song" by Edwin Morgan strikes me as a good instance: it is very much like his love poetry in tone and language -- so much so that I want to say, "his other love poetry" -- but is written in the voice of an apple in a fruitbowl. I don't know whether Morgan felt that affinity as he wrote the poem, whether it was intentional or one of those wonderful creative accidents, but the connection is undeniable. And there are several reasons why that love-lyric impulse might have been pushed through the monologue form, consciously or (more likely) unconsciously.
As readers, we have to make the judgment writer by writer and poem by poem. But we also have a responsibility to take into account the rest of the writer's work, as far as we can know it. For writers, the problem is perhaps less to do with the use of the first person for a (semi-)fictional persona and more to do with the publishing of individual poems here and there in magazines and, perhaps, anthologies, divorced from the context of the rest of their work. That's one reason why the poetry collection is such a good thing.
(Did I mention Rob's collection is also coming out from Salt? 1 March: it's this year's day, people!)