Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Poetic Voice Lesson 1 - Sharpen Your Ear

Chances are what attracts you to your favorite fiction writer, newspaper columnist, blogger, or poet has a lot to do with voice. Les Edgerton, author of an entire book on voice says, “The theory I’ve arrived at ... is that readers select certain authors to read in much the same way they select their personal friends: on the basis of the ‘voice’ (personality) of that person” -  Finding Your Voice, p. 4.

If voice is so important and having a pleasing one determines whether you’ll be published and read, a study of voice is worth a little time and effort. Let’s take a close look at voice, then, with a focus on voice in poetry.

In this first voice lesson:
  • We'll ask ourselves what voice is. 
  • We’ll take apart the notion of voice by isolating its components and thinking about how each might contribute to a poet’s voice. 
  • We’ll practice listening by reading segments from poems by contemporary poets. 
  • Finally, we’ll describe the voice we hear coming from each.
Defining voice
Finding a useful definition of voice was not as cut and dried as I expected it to be. The simplest said that voice was the revelation of a writer’s personality. That is somewhat helpful. But for the purposes of getting our teeth into the concept, I settled on John Drury’s The Poetry Dictionary definition: “The characteristic sound, style, manner, tone of a particular poet or poem. On the page voice comprises diction (word choice), syntax (word arrangement), attitudes, subject matter, rhythmic proclivities, line lengths, punctuation, the presence or absence of meter and rhyme, and tone" - The Poetry Dictionary p. 342

Let’s look closely at the elements in Drury’s definition (not necessarily in his order), to see what each might contribute to a poet’s voice.

A poem begins with subject matter. It’s an important starting point in developing voice, according to Michael Bugeja: “When they (well known poets like Sylvia Path) matured as poets, they began to write about people and topics that thoroughly consumed then.... Once they had discovered their subject matter, voice followed" - The Art and Craft of Poetry p. 140.

Another aspect of subject matter would be the imagery used. The world those images are taken from (for example nature, home, war, business), their originality and the aptness of the comparison all contribute to a poet’s voice.

Tone is a musical term that suggests the very sound of the voice coming from the page. It is also sometimes used interchangeably with mood. How writers achieve tone or mood brings into play other elements of voice like diction and syntax.

A poet’s sensitivity to a word’s shades of meaning affect diction. For example it will dictate what synonym for “run” he will use in a certain poem, knowing that gallop, jog and flee each indicate, besides a different speed, a different mood. 

The order of words (syntax) will be influenced not only by rules of grammar and which word sounds best at the end of the line, but also by the weight of the idea or thought that the end word conveys.

The length of lines, rhythmic proclivities of the writing, and the punctuation —in the way they imply pauses, places of emphasis, places to speed up, slow down, and stop—give us a glimpse into how the poet wants the piece to sound when read aloud. The use of meter and rhyme, and their way of satisfying us at a deep level, may leave us with the feeling that the poet sees things in an orderly, tidy-ending way, as opposed to the more random, loose-end feeling conveyed by some free verse poetry.

Other things that are achieved with these choices is writing that contains nuance and attitude. All the elements work together to become the writer’s voice or personality behind the words on the page.

Listening for and describing voice

One of the first things we can do to become aware of voice—our own and others—is to listen for it. To give you some practice, try the exercise below. Read each poem segment, then choose a word or words to describe how that poet’s voice sounds to you. My responses follow the poems—but of course, there are no right or wrong answers.


Just try it. If you dare,
I will hang you
from the highest tree
–on display
for the frail eyes
of this earth
You created.
(Read all of "Cursed.”)


Those months of infatuation
are over.
Our honeymoon is in pictures
boxed away somewhere.
It’s been rocky:
anger, a separation or two.
(Read all of “The Relationship.”)


O God, Your righteous judgments give the king
Who shall with justice judge the waiting poor;
And lofty peaks and tiny hills will bring
Peace, and by righteousness the calm restore.
(Read all of “The Reign of Messiah.”)


Sobs crack air
eyes, tumid map of veins
pulse a widow’s elegy
scan horizon flat as hope
(Read all of “Naomi.”)


This evening
I picked ripe
red, raspberries
In a gentle summer rain.
(Read all of “This Evening.”)


I can’t help myself, caught up in your love. On my tip
toes dancing, side to side, round and round, dip,
swerve. Got to have a lot of nerve to dance so wild
No, not really, caught up in His love, seeing Him with
eyes like a child. All my senses absorb all they can.
(Read all of “Caught Up.”)


Wire-strung words transmit requests for prayer.
The assassin returns, aims, strikes vulnerability,
recalls your mother caught in the crosshairs.,
Sights daughter pain across soft milk flesh
targets an inheritance the size of a plum.
(Read entire poem “April Winter.”)

Here are my responses. Were they anything like yours?

1. taunting, disdainful
2. resigned, intimate, honest
3. dignified, elevated
4. hopeless, doleful
5. simple, direct
6. energetic, excited, joyful
7. intelligent, alert, violated

Do you want to sharpen your ear some more? Try this: Find a writer’s voice that you like a lot and a writer’s voice that you don’t like at all. Study them closely. How are they different? Similar? Try to find the ingredients that make one voice appealing and the other unappealing.

Copyright © 2009 by Violet Nesdoly
First published in January 2009 at Utmost Christian Writers  in the Poet's Classroom series.


Maureen said...

Great post, Violet.

The wonderful thing about truly great poets is their intuitiveness, knowing instinctively what will create the voice they want a poem to convey. They have "great ear" that combines with all those other characteristics in Drury's definition to produce what only they can write. The combination of the intuitive and the hard work makes for what I think mostly cannot be imitated.

violet said...

So true, Maureen. And yet we try to sound like our favourite poets, don't we, in the hope that something will 'take'? I love what Gabrielle Rico says in her book Writing the Natural Way:

"We learn about 'voice' in writing by taking on many voices, by experimenting, by allowing our imaginations to express this voice, that voice. In the process, we find the writer's voice that is most authentically our own. It took me half a lifetime to discover my voice by allowing myself to become improvisational and by playing with multiple voices. Only by playing can you discover authenticity of voice. No one can do it for you" (p. 173).