Friday, 24 July 2015

Poetic Voice

In Magma 52 Polly Clark wrote "Anyone who has taken a creative writing course knows about ‘voice’. This is the elusive, essential, treasured characteristic of a poem on the page, the one thing we must have, as a poet above all else. We talk about ‘finding our voice’ and we know when someone has found it and when they haven’t.". And in "The Writer's Voice" Al Alvarez wrote that "a writer doesn't properly begin until he has a voice of his own".

In pre-literate days, nobody experienced a poem without also hearing a voice and being in the presence of a speaker. However, by the time the New Critics had arrived, the inevitability of voice had gone. Paul de Man thought the tendency to seek a voice in lyric poetry "delusional". When people nowadays talk about poetic voice, I suspect several issues may become conflated -

  • Style - Poets used to have styles, but now that we're the offspring of Romantics and Confessionalists, modern readers seem to want to construct the person behind the words. Alvarez thought of style and voice as two very different things - he wrote that "in order to find his voice [a poet] must first have mastered style", but putative authenticity and distinctiveness seem to be what makes a style into a voice for him. For me, some styles associate easily with personality types and are more likely to be described as voices.
  • Therapy - Polly Clark points out that "Many of us became writers because we were silenced in some way, and the written self on the page speaks more authentically than we do as individuals". Once poets use poetry for self-exploration, their style will become more of a voice.
  • Authenticity - Eavan Boland considers it more essential than ever that poets should discover "a real voice, a true voice". Clarke also writes "A poet writing in their true voice can persuade you of anything, so authority is also an element". Believing that the poet's using their own voice removes some of the obstacles and distrust that hinder communication, encouraging the notion that the poet's speaking "from the heart". Of course, if a poet has more than one voice, authenticity is compromised.
  • Distinctiveness - It helps with marketing for the resulting voice to be easily identifiable, but that doesn't ensure quality.

Somewhere between the uniqueness of the person and the common currency of language, there's a negotiated voice. Some poets are like character actors, happy to explore different styles. They might do this via biographical poems, adopting historical personae. Other poets stick with what gave them their breakthrough role, in which case the person and the role are more easily confused with each other; as the person changes, the poetry-voice must change too, because a new voice can't be created.

How should that voice sound? I.e. how should a poet sound? The preferred type of persona is partly a matter of fashion. Over the years the prevailing voice has changed, some examples being -

  • Wise and all-knowing, controlled and thoughtful - Keats.
  • Colloquial - "Language and Creativity: the art of common talk" by Ronald Carter (Routledge, 2004) looks at the creativity of everyday speech. Examples include early Armitage.
  • Psychotic - one needn't be rational or stick to a single voice in a poem

I don't think that these types of characters were suddenly thought to be poetic in themselves, but they provided a platform for what was currently considered poetic - a voice was found that's "in character" for the desired style; a mouth to put the words in. The idea's not new -

  • "in order to write poetry, you must first invent a poet who will write it", Machado
  • "En somme, le Langage issu de la Voix, plutot que la Voix du Langage", Valery

The narrator's stance relative to the story is important too. The narrator can be -

  • a participant in the story
  • present, but only as an observer
  • completely outside the story

All of these can be used with a range of voices, though the first option is most common. Omniscience is an option too, though limited 1st-person PoV is most common when voice is an important feature.

The psychotic voice

When tangental, disjoint progress doesn't suit the aloof monologue of a voice like Wilbur's, another voice needs to be sought. Currently, with closure having low priority, surrealism always an option, and juxtaposition dominating over narrative, the psychotic character's useful.

I've had friends with severe mental problems. Their monologues had the strange connections, discontinuity and novelty that poetry sometimes has. I was impressed. Some of them wrote poetry. Lots of it. I sometimes helped to make it (in my opinion) publishable, trying not to edit out too much of the bi-polar quirks and affectations. In some ways their condition is only a more extreme version of the moods and bursts that many poets have. It's a matter of trying to balance surprise with control, individuality with communication.

Readers attracted to confessional poetry, unconventionality, or to reading about lifestyles they're unfamiliar with, can also be drawn to such texts, especially if they don't have schitzophrenic friends (or, as common nowadays, these friends are drugged). The novelty can soon wear off. One person's honesty is another's melodrama. Repetition can become unrestrained, and often there are simply too many words, too little control. There are complications regarding reviewing too - if one knows that the poet is (or even was) in therapy, it's difficult not to use kid gloves when commenting on their work. Also content can become too dominant - it's tempting to analyse the illness rather than the poem.

In 1911, Bleuler (who coined the term schitzophrenia) quoted this passage from a medical report -

I always liked geography. My last teacher in that subject was Professor August A. He was a man with black eyes. I also like black eyes. There are also blue eyes and grey eyes and other sorts, too. I have heard it said that snakes have green eyes. All people have eyes

Compare that with some extracts from Emily Berry's "Picnic" that involve eyes, rain and the sea

If you are not happy, the sea is not happy
Watching the sea is like watching something in pieces continually striving to be whole
The mood of the sea is catching
Its colour became the colour of my eyes and the salt made me cry oceans
I started to be able to see in the dark
It hurt my eyes
          My, yes, salty, wet, ocean-coloured eyes
When the rain came after the drought they said it was not good enough
It would not change things
It was the wrong rain
The rain came out of my eyes

The first line in the "Picnic" extract associates "sea" and the self, the self affecting the sea, preparing for the 2nd line. The 3rd and 4th lines suggest that the sea affects the self. Rain and tears are conflated. Towards the end there's a suggestion that some cathartic release was merely physical - "the wrong rain" - but who are "They"?

In the extract below, towards the end of the poem, self and sea, tears, rain, language and other people come together. Language is a mirror aiding self-reflection, but can a moving self ever be captured in words?

Who are you. Who are you. Who are you

Stop, language is crawling all over me
Sometimes if you stay still long enough you can make it go.
If a person standing still watched another person minutely moving
          would it seem after a while as if they were watching the sea?
I remember just one thing my mother said to me:
Never look at yourself in the mirror when you're crying

By embedding the language in the voice of a slightly confused individual, the poet has managed to use many fancy/clichéd similes without coming over as contrived.

Voice-centred poetry

Here is another passage from Emily Berry's "Picnic", where switches come thick and fast.

I like curved things
     Apples, peaches, the crest of a wave
We once agreed the apple was the only iconic fruit

I like it when I am writing a poem and I know that I am feeling something
To be poised and to invite contact
Or to appear to invite contact

Once the "voice" is presumed to require a persona to produce it, the reader might go a step further, reacting as if in the presence of the person in a social situation (on a bus maybe)

  • Line 1: The speaker is telling us about their likes, communicating well, though it's a rather odd predilection
  • Line 2: Perhaps realising that the first line might not be helpful, more details are provided; again, a good sign. However, the list of 2 similar objects then a very different one is rather odd
  • Line 3: Using the apple as a link, another person is introduced. After having previously drawn us in, an intellectual albeit interesting conclusion is reported. The speaker's straying off the topic
  • Line 4: The speaker's telling us about another of their likes, in another line that ends in "thing[s]", (as if a self-revelation needs to be balanced by an abstract concept). How does this interest relate to the previous one, which it's connected to by anaphora? Should we take the second phrase of this line to mean that the persona needs to write poetry so that they know that they're feeling something?
  • Line 5: "Poised" = balanced. "invite contact" = ready to engage with others. These are socially desirable goals.
  • Line 6: The difference between appearance and reality is again emphasized - others don't know the real feelings of the persona, who may only be pretending to be sociable. Again, having approached the reader, the persona withdraws, without asking for comments.

Poems like these exploit readers' conversational skills, using their reactions to the persona as the pivots that articulate the movement within a poem in preference to using their ear for music. Because discourse-based poems emulate speech, they tend not to use sound effects (regular ones, at least), using register changes instead. In "Poetry, voice, and discourse analysis" I look in more detail at how changes of intimacy, intensity and evaluative approach can be used to add dynamism to a poem.


  1. Very interesting. This voice stuff gets more complicated (to me) the more I think about it. Because there's 'voice' as in an identifiable sense of the writer in the turn of phrase, and this sort of 'voice' isn't quite style, though must be style-dependent I THINK. Depending on what you mean by 'style', of course. Or what I mean, which is chiefly the way the person uses language to communicate on the page.

    And there's the voice of the individual poem. And even when the individual poem has a distinctive voice, that distinctive voice is modulated by the style/voice of the poet ('modulated' may not be the right word there). Because if the style/voice of the poet isn't hanging about the place somewhere, how will we carry the sense of who we are reading (with a sense of their authority -- for want of a better word) from one of their poems to the next? That's if we are to read them as a *poet*, as opposed to reading the one poem in its own singular context.

    Blimey. This IS complicated. But such food for thought here!

  2. Re style vs voice - There's not much difference. I think I'd say that you can have a style without a voice (Oulipo, say) but a Larkinesque style comes with a voice. A voice must have at least a linguistic style. To add to the fun there's poetry written by a computer, or by a collective, or randomly. And for each implied voice there's an implied addressee. Yes, complicated.

    I think that if you're going to compare tears to raindrops without losing one's reputation as a modern poet, it does no harm to use a mask. And faces are friendlier than dry concepts.