Today, I’d like to spend a few moments speaking about “Voice” in poetry. I’m sure most of us have had the experience of reading a poem and recognizing the poet without seeing the byline or credit. When Luke Prater and his team had his critique site, they held several contests for participants. Entries were, of course, submitted anonymously. But I remember reading one of Claudia’s poems and having not the least doubt to whom it could be attributed. Claudia—and numerous other poets who participate in dVerse offerings—write work that just screams Here I am; it’s me! Poets of times present and past are recognizable in this manner: Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Shakespeare, Langston Hughes, Wallace Stevens, e.e. Cummings and (my own personal favorite) Mary Oliver to mention but a few.
As I understand it, voice or tone is what reveals the poets personal attitude about his or her subject. Extrapolate this idea, if you will, to other art media such as the visual arts or music. Van Gogh’s personal angst bleeds into his choice of subject, color and broad brush strokes that sometimes appear as though they were applied to the canvas in a passionate frenzy. Picasso’s need to deconstruct reality contributed to the importance of cubism in the first half of the 20th century. Visual artists turn to color, contrast, shape, perspective and other elements and principles of art to produce the effect that they are going for, to convey their moods and communicate their messages. So, too, do poets.
What are some of the tools available to those of us who write poetry to help us express our voice?
• Titles. Right away we can give the reader an idea of the theme we want to address by our choice of title.
• Alteration of sentence structure. Short sentences hurry the reader through the poem implying a sense of urgency. Longer sentences, in contrast, slow, lull, relax, induce reflection. Line breaks may or may not correspond with sentence length. (Refer to a previous article on enjambment.)
• Repetition. Repetition creates insistence as though the poet is saying Look, look, look! Don’t miss this!
• Rhythm, meter. Consider the formality of a Shakespearean sonnet juxtaposed to Eliot’s free verse. Which lends itself to a romantic poem? Which to social narrative?
• Sentiment. Some poets turn to effusive feeling, risking an almost-maudlin effect, while others create an intense emotional response, maintaining an almost chilling indifference. Take a moment if you like and compare Browning’s Sonnet 43 to Hardy’s The Convergence of the Twain.
Sonnet 43, Elizabeth Barrett Browning
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints!—I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life!—and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
The Convergence of the Twain
BY THOMAS HARDY
(Lines on the loss of the “Titanic”)
In a solitude of the sea
Deep from human vanity,
And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.
Steel chambers, late the pyres
Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.
Over the mirrors meant
To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls — grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.
Jewels in joy designed
To ravish the sensuous mind
Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.
Dim moon-eyed fishes near
Gaze at the gilded gear
And query: “What does this vain gloriousness down here?” …
Well: while was fashioning
This creature of cleaving wing,
The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything
Prepared a sinister mate
For her — so gaily great —
A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.
And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.
Alien they seemed to be;
No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history,
Or sign that they were bent
By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event,
Till the Spinner of the Years
Said “Now!” And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.
Imagine a reflection on the tragedy of the Titanic in terms of the marriage of the iceberg and the ship without any consideration of the lives lost! This creates a chilling effect that disturbs us. Hardy thrusts the reader into the stark reality of death without a mention of the word. No sentimentality here.
There is one additional point I’d like to make about voice—the importance of writing to our passion. I’m sure we all recognize in our own work the difference when we write of subject that inflames us compared to those about which we feel more neutral. This can be a risk when responding to prompts although, don’t misread this—I believe the exercise and discipline of writing “assigned” poetry is a valuable tool in developing our skills. For example, I’m not enamored of certain types of form poetry. The sonnets I’ve written aren’t going to win a National Poetry Award BUT writing sonnets has helped me become more comfortable with iambic pentameter and I love the challenge of a Sestina that does call for that meter.
Today, I’d like to share a poem written by Jamie Dedes, a poet who stops by dVerse on occasion. Her poem, Haunting, is a magnificent example of writing to your passion, using the tools available that help create voice. Take a few minutes on your own to analyze the skill she shows in expressing outrage without effusion. Try to identify the emotion, the passion that underlies this example.
When I die, don’t build a monument to me. Don’t bestow me degrees from great universities. Just clothe the naked. Say that I tried to house the homeless. Let people say that I tried to feed the hungry.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929 – 1958), American clergyman, activist, role model, and leader of the American Civil Rights Movement
i tell you, you know nothing of despair
of hopeless grief and the dialect of
anguish, cry when you can tell me
you’ve lived in the side of Korea that
mandates smiles and orders you to
be passionless as you watch the farmer
dead and dead and dead, shot ninety
times in the head, the poet says*, and i
believe him, cry when you can tell me
that your door is not a barrier against
the warped passions of the puppet
marble-eyed, pathological, when a good
night would resound with silence not
gun shots, and the only dreams a child
has are of food and water everyday and
the safety of parents’ arms long gone
i tell you, i’m not sorry i can’t sympathize
with your complaints, the kitchen you
can’t afford to finish, the spouse that
died after thirty years of loyalty and love,
of children who fail to please you, when
you could count the blessing of a child
grown and healthy and not stolen into
war at eight or starved by five, spare me
the details of your latest diet or how your
new manicurist disappointed you or your
Scrooge of an employer who won’t give
you a raise this year, your complaints
are a cough into the wind while theirs
hang heavy on my heart, haunting me
and would it surprise you if, between the
vapid and whiners, power brokers and killers
this mother earth revolted, throwing us into the
original chaos of her first great experiment,
like a writer tossing out her first draft,
like a prototype that doesn’t work . . .
scrap it and begin again
The poet referenced is Jang Gil-su, a North Korean poet who defected.
© 2013, poem, Jamie Dedes, All rights reserved
If you visit Jamie’s blog, you will notice that she does not accept comments. She told me that this is so she can concentrate on her writing. You will not be disappointed…her strategy seems to work well.
For today’s prompt, I’d invite you to take a few moments to think about your own passions—what is it that most inspires, excites, outrages, motivates you. Write a poem in which you let your convictions, your issues bleed onto the canvas of your keyboard. Allow your voice to thunder forth.
• Write your poem, post it on your blog or website;
• Copy the direct URL to your post and paste in the space that Mr. Linky (at the bottom of this post) offers you, along with your name or the name of your blog;
• Come back to the pub, leave a comment if you like, and take the time to visit and comment on as many of the other poets as you are able;
• Enjoy the process.
For dVerse Poets, I’m Victoria Slotto, preparing to leave the summer-like clime (It’s already in the 100’s here—Fahrenheit, that is) of the California desert to return home and enjoy spring once again. See you on the road.