essays on poetry

8 posts

“I Love Pretension” and Other Bits of Wisdom

socrates

Here is the last set of quotes I annotated in Mary Ruefle’s collection of essays, Madness, Rack, and Honey (recommended reading):

  • “I remember, in college, trying to write a poem while I was stoned, and thinking it was the best thing I had ever written.

“I remember reading it in the morning, and throwing it out.

“I remember thinking, If W. S. Merwin could do it, why couldn’t I?

“I remember thinking, Because he is a god and I am a handmaiden with a broken urn.”

Comment: Whether it involves an altered state (like Arkansas, which elected Tom Cotton a Senator) or not, we all can identify with this. Certain authors, be they poets or not, just make it look so damn easy. (See Hemingway comma Ernie, for one).

  • “I remember the year after college I was broke, and Bernard Malamud, who had been a teacher of mine, sent me a check for $25 and told me to buy food with it, and I went downtown and bought The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats.

Comment: A wise investment on Mary’s part, choosing food for thought over food for gut. And why didn’t I ever have a famous writer for a professor, one willing to send me checks, even? Instead, I had one that I handed a short story to for critique. He handed it back, saying, “I don’t have time for this.”

  • “I remember the first time I realized the world we are born into is not the one we leave.

Comment: And the corollary — we do not leave as the same person, either. Strangers, they’d be.

  • “They say there are no known facts about Shakespeare, because if it were his pen name, as many believe, then whom that bed was willed to is a moot point. Yet there is one hard cold clear fact about him, a fact that freezes the mind that dares to contemplate it: in the beginning William Shakespeare was a baby, and knew absolutely nothing. He couldn’t even speak.”

Comment: Finally, post-Disney, something Frozen we can embrace!

  • “Socrates said the only true wisdom consists in knowing that you know nothing. It is his basic premise, one from which all his other thoughts come.”

Comment: If only we could find a politician with such basic premises. Instead, we have the makings of a book: The Arrogance and the Ignorance.

  • “And I came to believe — call me delusional — that no living poet, none, could teach us a single thing about poetry for the simple fact that no living poet has a clue as to what he or she is doing, at least none I have talked to, and I have talked to quite a few. John Ashbery and Billy Collins can’t teach you a thing, for the simple fact that they are living. Why is that, I wondered. I mean I really wondered. I think it is because poets are people — no matter what camp they sleep in — who are obsessed with the one thing no one knows anything about. That would be death.”

Comment: And to follow through, living people know nothing about death. And to those who think my first two poetry collections are dark and depressing and overly fraught with the topic of death, I say, “Touché,” which is French for “So there!”

  • “Ramakrishna said: Given a choice between going to heaven and hearing a lecture on heaven, people would choose a lecture.

“That is remarkably true, and remarkably sad, and the same remarkably true and sad thing can be said about poetry, here among us today.”

Comment: Get it? (Me either, but I like it!)

  • “Short Lecture on Craft”

Comment: This the title of a short section in the book. I was so flattered to read this and learned so much about my name!

  • “I love pretension. It is a mark of human earthly abstraction, whereas humility is a mark of human divine abstraction. I will have all of eternity in which to be humble, while I have but a few short years to be pretentious.”

Comment: Very cool. Just keep your pretensions under a bushel because, while they may be fun, they look butt-ugly to lookers-on.

  • “On one piece of paper I had written ‘the difference between pantyhose and stockings’ and I had scanned the statement — with marks — and written ‘the beginnings of an iamb,’ which is bizarre because I can’t scan or recognize an iamb.”

Comment: Thank you. And please forward to all these Unlovely Rita, Meter Maid, poetry editors out there who take their beats so damn seriously and reject any poem not stinking of the Ivory Poetry Tower (ba-BUM, ba-BUM, ba-BUM, ba-BUM, ba-BUM).

  • “Insanity is ‘doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results.’ That’s writing poetry, but hey, it’s also getting out of bed every morning.”

Comment: Meaning we should celebrate getting out of bed each day as a new poem. Think about it. The bed you rise from, like fingerprints, never quite looks the same. Write  about it!

  • “Now I will give you a piece of advice. I will tell you something that I absolutely believe you should do, and if you do not do it you will never be a writer. It is a certain truth.

“When your pencil is dull, sharpen it.

“And when your pencil is sharp, use it until it is dull again.”

Comment: A fitting end to all of these quotes, though I wonder what the pencil equivalent is to keyboards? Cleaning the damn thing? I mean, really. What could be more disgusting than a keyboard and its lettered-cracks?

 

“Live the Questions Now!”

madness

More quotes — some hers, some others’ — noted in Mary Ruefle’s book Madness, Rack, and Honey:

  • “Robert Frost never wrote a nature poem. He said that. Meaning: there’s more to me than trees and birds. Meaning: there’s more to trees and birds and I know that, so that means there’s more to me, too.”

Comment: Clever, but Robert Frost wrote lots and lots of nature poems, and he can add all the linguistic frosting he wants (pass the ice cream).

  • From Thomas Tranströmer’s long poem “Baltics”:

Sometimes you wake up at night
and quickly throw some words down
on the nearest paper, on the margin of a newspaper
(the words glowing with meaning!)
but in the morning: the same words don’t say anything
anymore, scrawls misspeaking.

Comment: This is true in more places than the Baltics!

  • “I suppose, as a poet, among my fears can be counted the deep-seated uneasiness surrounding the possibility that one day it will be revealed that I consecrated my life to an imbecility.”

Comment: Ruefle goes on to elaborate, but I like the thought much better before any explanation is provided. Let the reader take it and run!

  • Nietzsche: “The degree of fearfulness is the measure of intelligence.”

Comment: Apparently Nietzsche hadn’t heard of FDR, who said, “The only intelligence we have to fear is intelligence itself!” Or something like that. Still, if you subscribe to the notion that fear requires imagination, then I’ll buy some stock.

  • “Shakespeare’s reputation as a god is enhanced tenfold by the mysterious circumstances of his being. As is always the case, the unknown raises the stakes and the stature and the flag of the formidable before which we bow and do worship in unaccountable dread.”

Comment: I’ll agree heartily to this — the unknown enhances everyone and everything. Growing up there was many a girl I fell in love with from afar based on looks alone. The personality and circumstances of her life I made up. If I was unlucky enough to get to know her, the allure disappeared and, with it, the attraction. Notable, then, was the role of silence and mystery, both mine to fill. The minute many of these girls talked especially, everything went poof. It was a no-go. In fairness, it was likely the same for any girls who saw ME from afar and built a suitable mate.

  • Rilke advises we “live the questions now.”

Comment: What the hell does this mean? That’s the question I’m living now.

  • “The wasting of time is the most personal, most private, most intimate form of conversation with oneself.”

Comment: Ruefle has much to praise when it comes to “wasting time.” After all, it’s essential to writing poetry. But you knew that.

  • The great sculptor Giacometti: “I do not know whether I work in order to make something or in order to know why I cannot make what I would like to make.”

Comment: More often, the latter.

  • Sung master Qingdeng, by way of the Vietnamese monk Thich That Hanh: “Before I began to practice, mountains were mountains and rivers were rivers. After I began to practice, mountains were no longer mountains and rivers were no longer rivers. Now, I have practiced for some time, and mountains are again mountains and rivers are again rivers.”

Comment: This is what’s know in the business as a koan. You don’t know. You know. You learn you don’t know. It just takes you 20 years to admit as much.

  • “Stanley Kunitz has said it gets harder and harder to write, not easier, because your standards and expectations — the limits of your endurance — become higher.”

Comment: If you are your own worst critic, getting better will only make you more critical still, a good problem to have.

  • Pascal: “Runaway thought, I wanted to write it; instead, I write that it has run away.”

Comment: This reminds me of the free-writing advice I used to give to my students: If you can’t think of something to write, write about your inability to think about something to write!

  • Kafka: “A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe.”

Comment: I don’t know if he meant the books he wrote himself or the books he read. In either case, incredible pressure on the author! I just like the metaphor of a frozen sea within me. It explains the cold look I give my wife whenever she says, “Let’s watch Sanditon together, shall we?”

  • “A poem is a finished work of the mind, it is not the work of a finished mind.”

Comment: This is one of those aphorisms that, when first read, appears deep. On second reading it appears obvious, for but for the grave, when is a mind finished?

Next time we meet, the final installment of annotated text from this thoroughly engaging book. You know how Holden Caulfield wanted to call authors up after he enjoyed their book? I suffer that same affliction. Ms. Ruefle can thank God for unlisted numbers (though I would more likely text or email, and I may be using the “unknown, Shakespearean” aspects of her to make her more compelling than she is.

“No Poem Is Ever Ended…”

ruefle

I am perversely attracted to philosophy books, but the rewards are few. As a rule, they speak their own language, which runs circles around mine. Straight talkers like Marcus Aurelius are one thing; trying to divine Descartes, Kant, and Heidegger another.

Barring philosophers, a good substitute for musing on the meaning of life has been reading collections of essays, especially ones by poets. Give me a poet who is equally adept at prose and I am a happy man. Certainly this was true of a slew of Tony Hoagland books. Ditto Jane Hirshfield. And now, this week, I can add Mary Ruefle to the list.

Though I don’t know how she pronounces her name (is it “rueful” like a pot of rue?), Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey has been a relaxing and thoughtful exercise in reading this week. She especially enjoys embedding quotes.

The drill, then, goes like this: Mary adds quote to essay, Ken highlights and annotates said quote. What more could any writer (her) and reader (me) ask? Here are a few I have noted:

“Paul Valéry, the French poet and thinker, once said that no poem is ever ended, that every poem is merely abandoned.”

Comment: Any poet who has read his published poem realizes the truth in this. The itch to improve through revision cannot be satisfied.

“Paul Valéry also described his perception of first lines so vividly, and to my mind so accurately, that I have never forgotten it: the opening line of a poem, he said, is like finding a fruit on the ground, a piece of fallen fruit you have never seen before, and the poet’s task is to create the tree from which such a fruit would fall.”

Comment: There you have it. If you have tried but failed to write decent poetry, perhaps you should make like Johnny Appleseed and stop barking up the wrong tree.

The least used punctuation in all of poetry, Ruefle asserts, is the semicolon. Some poets think they should be all-out banned from poetry.

Comment: As noted by my faithful readers of these pages before, I oppose any banning of anything: dog poems, poems that use overused words like “dark” and “darkness,” even poems about cicadas (sorry, Sir Billy of Collins, but that rule is fit for fools).

Among the last words Emily Dickinson wrote (in a letter): “But it is growing damp and I must go in. Memory’s fog is rising.”

Comment: Those last four words are awesome. I wonder if she ever considered poetry?

Charles Simic once said, “The highest levels of consciousness are wordless.”

Comment: Strange for a man who makes his living with words.

“Keats said only one thing was necessary to write good poetry: a feeling for light and shade.”

Comment: I like words like these because they are so cryptic. I can fashion one meaning from them, you another. It’s like getting a pencil to trace the exact spot where light ends and shade begins, then returning to find it the next day.

“Pablo Neruda warns us: ‘We must not overlook melancholy, the sentimentalism of another age, the perfect impure fruit whose marvels have been cast aside by the mania for pedantry: moonlight, the swan at dusk, ‘my beloved,’ are, beyond question, the elemental and essential matter of poetry. He who would flee from bad taste is riding for a fall.'”

Comment: Neruda creates a rule against rules (good), but isn’t this itself a rule (bad)?

That’s good for today. It’s Sunday, and I’m supposed to be Sabbathing my day. There are many more, anyway, and many more days to share them here, too.

I write them down for you and me both. Books get lost, after all. The great cloud hope is that websites never will.

The Slender Sadness and Other Truths

nature

In 1907 the psychoanalyst Georg Groddeck wrote an essay called “Charakter and Typus” where he said, “Goethe’s short poems have a strange ring to them. They are entirely impersonal; in fact, you could say of them that they are not created by a person, but by nature. In them a person is not seen as an ‘I,’ but as a part of something else.”

Groddeck was distinguishing between poets who bring “news of the human mind” and poets who bring “news of the universe,” which is the title Robert Bly would adopt for his anthology of poets who write not so much like Narcissus, but like poets aware of their inconsequential place in the universe.

And talk about going against the tide! Groddeck even dares criticize Shakespeare. Why? For the Bard’s strength is his incisive commentary on the human animal, one that seemingly acts and lives and dies among other humans with little regard or mention of the natural world around him.

“Only a person with really sluggish blood could put up with the average interior state of the human being without yawning, and to make art out of it is impossible, at least not in the way Shakespeare and Beethoven go about it…. The only poet who could make anything out of it is a man who sees in human beings a part of the universe, for whom human nature is interesting not because it is human, but because it is nature.”

Bly quotes a short Goethe poem here, one where a man gets “the news” that counts:

 

Wanderers Nachtlied II
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

There is a stillness
On the tops of the hills.
In the tree tops
You feel
Hardly a breath of air.
The small birds fall silent in the trees.
Simply wait: soon
You too will be silent

 

Bly goes on to write in greater depth about nature and writers / poets who make it their muse:

“The psychic tone of nature strikes many people as having some melancholy in it. The tone of nature is related to what human beings call ‘grief,’ what Lucretius called ‘the tears of things,’ what in Japanese poetry is called mono no aware, the slender sadness with the incessant wheel of of reproduction, going on without pause.”

As an example of a poet understanding nature’s predominant role in human life, Bly cites Yeats:

 

Fragments
W. B. Yeats

I

Locke sank into a swoon;
The Garden died.
God took the spinning-jenny
Out of his side.

II

Where got I that truth?
Out of a medium’s mouth,
Out of nothing it came,
Out of the forest loam,
Out of dark night where lay
The crowns of Ninevah.

 

As Bly explains, “When Yeats says, ‘Locke sank into a swoon,’ he is summing up sixty years of experience during the Industrial Revolution, in which the inventiveness of human beings seemed a prophecy finally come true.”

As a metaphor for human mastery over nature, Bly goes to William Irwin Thompson, who pointed out the Crystal Palace built in 1851: “… in this palace, for the first time in history, steel beams were used, with glass, to enclose living trees. That was a great triumph for the Old Position, because it said that human consciousness, now intensified and narrowed into ‘technology,’ had succeeded in its ancient war with the consciousness of nature, and won.”

And this is where we are today, Bly says. A land that brought us Augustine, the railroad and airplanes, the Nuremberg rallies, doctors’ “war on death.” Bly calls it “Locke’s dizzy spell.”

“To feel the contrast between our contemporary experience when we look at an object or a hillside, and the experience that is possible when an ‘opened’ human being does that, we have to go far back into the past of the human race.”

For Bly, Yeats’ second stanza in “Fragments” does just that, in the name of truth.

news of the univers

 

Why Death Is Literature’s Wingman

baxter

If you’ve ever taught literature, whether in college or in secondary school, you’ve surely come up against a common complaint from students: “Why is everything we read so depressing?” or, “Is every book, story, and poem about death, or is it just my imagination?”

Tongue in cheek, I always replied, “You’ll be happy to know that death is the great Muse, the inspiration, on some level, of much of the great literature we read and remember down through the ages.”

The students, few of whom would grow up to become English teachers, seemed less than impressed with that answer.

It all came back to me in reading Charles Baxter’s collection of essays on literature, Burning Down the House. One essay I particularly enjoyed is called “Regarding Happiness.” He opens it with an anecdote that I, as a poet and author of two books, could relate to. Let me share it:

“After a small press published my first book of poetry in 1970, I happened to be visiting my parents for a few days. On one particular evening late in my visit, my mother sat down with me during cocktail hour, a time when she often appeared to be emboldened. She held my book in her hand. Her martini was nearby, within easy reach. She studied me with a frozen smile and altered her position slightly on the sofa to give the impression that she felt relaxed; this impression failed.

“‘I’ve read your book,’ my mother said, digging for a cigarette in a mostly empty pack, having put down the book by now on the sofa cushion. She lit the cigarette, taking her time; she was in no hurry. She inhaled, and as she asked her question, smoke blew out of her nose and mouth. ‘My question is, when are you going to write a happy poem?’

“Thirty-seven years later, I cannot remember what I replied, but I hope I didn’t say what probably occurred to me: ‘Well, OK, when I’m happy, then I’ll write a happy poem.’

“Questions like the one my mother posed seem innocent, even comical, but after all, she was my  parent and was probably dismayed by my poetry and by the thoughts, images, and feelings displayed within it. Good! I wanted my poetry to dismay everybody. That was its purpose.”

Baxter’s memory resonated with me in particular because I have heard the same complaint about my collections of poetry. One GoodReads reviewer, who even took the time to cut and paste his review into Amazon, titled his review, quite simply, “Depressing.” He gave the offending depression 3 stars out of 5. I’m not sure what he gave the poetry.

As for my parents, unlike Baxter’s mother, they never directly spoke of my poems’ preoccupation with the great mystery of life (read: non-life), but I suppose the thought occurred to them as well. Why so much death? My parents place that topic in the same category as religion and politics and money: all verboten topics in polite company.

The Buddhists, among others, think differently. They counsel that we think about death and dying early and often. For them, it is a reminder of our brevity and insignificance, of our purpose while we’re here in the now, of our obligations not to desire stuff because that is the source of our misery.

Later in the essay, Baxter tells of assigning Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” to his undergraduates. Though the story unfolds in the shadow of death (a soldier returned to Michigan after WW I), it is surely as close to happiness as the protagonist, Nick Adams, is going to get. He is out in nature alone, doing what he loves to do (fishing), far away from his fellow man, far from the demons he met on the death fields of Europe.

When Baxter assigns this story to his undergraduates in college, they typically complain,”There’s no story!” and “Where’s the plot?” and “Nothing happens!”

Baxter writes: “To which my answer always has been: ‘Didn’t you ask for a story about  happiness? Well, here it is. You said you wanted happiness, but when I present it to you, you find it dull and empty’.”

You can’t win for losing, is the point. That and the fact that death, along with its depressing processional, always makes for better literature than happiness, which is best pursued without being captured (if it can be at all).

A final note. In his essay, Baxter shares a quote I quite like from Oscar Levant: “Happiness isn’t something  you experience; it’s something you remember.”

Reading this, it dawned on me that memory is like Loki the Trickster of Norse lore. It burnishes the past and makes it shine. It rids itself of any unpleasant dross. In hindsight, it looks so good that we realize we are not pursuing happiness, supposedly up ahead somewhere, it is pursuing us.

The best we can do is turn back and look at it like Orpheus or Lot’s wife, because there’s no going back.

Dead people? They say the same thing. Or would if they could.

 

 

How Voice Escorts Us into the “Interior of the World”

voice2.jpg

It seems fitting that Tony Hoagland’s farewell book to the world would tackle the concept of voice. If any poet knew of what he spoke, Hoagland was the man. Whether you read his poems or his sage essays about poems or writing poetry, you “heard” Hoagland and felt as if you were lucky to have found an open seat in his seminar.

The last seminar you can attend is The Art of Voice: Poetic Principles and Practice. The posthumous collection of essays stands as a short, “Hey, wait a minute,” on the matter of hard and fast rules about poetry writing. Chief among them? Your poetry must be as concise as possible to succeed.

The old adages sound logical, but Strunk and White weren’t poets, either. What about voice? With due diligence, Hoagland demonstrates that voice often requires colloquialisms, idioms, asides, etc. — the stuff that leavens our daily speech.

If executed with purpose, voice quickly bonds writer with reader, who is more than willing to forgive linguistic excess in exchange for a temporary soul mate capable of providing an insight or two on the world.

Hoagland provides many examples of poems, some complete and others frustratingly not, to back up his words. Here’s an excerpt he uses from Lisa Lewis’s poem, “While I’m Walking”:

Once I saw a man get mad because two people asked him
The same question. The second didn’t even know of the
first;
Anyone would’ve called the man unfair, unreasonable,
He stormed at the person who approached him
That unfortunate second time, and it was nothing,
Where’s the restroom? or Where could I find a telephone?
He was a clerk, and the second person, a shopper,
suggested
He “change his attitude”…

But though it ruined their day it improved mine, I could rest
Less alone in anger and wounded spirits. That was long ago,…

Hoagland comments, “Lewis’s plain linguistic style might be described as ‘prosaic,’ that is, verbose and unpoetic, yet it compels us because her speaker tells more truth than we usually get, and she does so with a bluntness that tests the conventions of decorum. Lewis is a narrative-discursive poet in style, not a poet of lyrical language, but there is a rhythmic, businesslike terseness in her storytelling and thinking that is riveting in is purposeful informality. Her speaker captivates us for the duration of whatever she wants to say. That’s what a voice poet wants to do: hook us and then escort us deep into the interior of the poem, which is also the interior of the poet, which is also the interior of the world.

“In a world where, socially, we often feel stranded on the surface of appearances, people go to poems for the fierce, uncensored candor they provide, the complex, unflattering, often ambivalent way they stare into the middle of things. In a world where, as one poet says, ‘people speak to each other mostly for profit,’ it is exhilarating to listen to a voice that is practicing disclosure without seeking advantage. That is intimate.”

And so the book leaves practitioners with an oxymoron of sorts. For voice, the poet must practice her intimacy, plan her informality, execute her natural voice for a casually-preconceived cause.

There are some writing exercises at the back of the book, if you wish. And some reader-writers will dive in. But others, like me, will find the book’s encouragement enough. Rereading a 168-page book is an exercise of sorts, too.

Either way, you’ll leave the book realizing that there are more angles than you thought to “voice,” and more “types” of voice, too, such as “speech registers” and “imported voices” and “voices borrowed from the environment.”

Bottom line? Strunk and White were fine for your college freshmen writing course, but maybe not for your poems. Perhaps it’s time to make like Pygmalion and give voice to your art.

“The Charm of Voice Is More Important Than Economy.”

Tony H

In his new, posthumous book, The Art of Voice, the gist of Tony Hoagland’s message can be found at the opening of Chapter 3, “The Sound of Intimacy: The Poem’s Connection with Its Audience.”

If you’ve been browbeaten by writing teachers and mentors who insist on economy at all costs, you might by surprised by his words:

“A successful poem is voiced into a living and compelling presence. The convincing representation of a speaker may be created by force, or intellectual subtlety, or companionability, or even by eccentricity, but it must initiate a bond of trust that incites further listening. That presence in voice is not always ‘intimate’ in a warm, ‘best friend’ kind of way, but the reader must be impressed that the speaker is a complex, interesting individual who is intriguingly committed to what she is saying, and how she is saying it.”

So far, so good. And it holds true for all writing, I think. Even blog posts. Do I have a voice here? With words as your only camera, can you “see” me by dint of diction alone? Hoagland continues:

“Such presence is only sometimes created by brevity. Many gurus on the craft of writing declare that a writer should ‘make every word count.’ Yet in poetry, often the charm of voice is more important than economy. After all, most of our daily interchanges don’t convey information in an economical manner. When we say ‘What’s up?’ or ‘Looks like rain,’ our speech isn’t really about conveying information, but about signaling to the listener that someone is present and accessible—open to conversation. They are gestures of presence. How about them Seahawks?”

I love that embedded little quote in this paragraph: “Often the charm of voice is more important than economy.” You can hear more than one poet craning her chin to the sky to shout, “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, I’m free at last!”

“All day, every day, those ‘uhs’ and ‘ers’ and ‘likes’ pepper and salt our spoken interchanges. These ‘inefficiencies’ of speech serve a purpose in building tone and voice; they ‘warm’ and humanize poetic speech; and they have their own prosodic contribution to make to poems. These interruptives, asides, idioms, rhetorical questions, declaratives, etc., float through our sentences like packing material, which in a sense they are—they pack and cushion and modulate the so-called ‘contents’ of our communications. And this technically ‘inessential language’ creates an atmosphere of connectedness, of relationality.”

From there, Hoagland goes on to provide examples in poetry via poems that live and breath voice. Without the “inessential” verbiage, they’d sink. Start weeding out “unnecessary language” in these works (á la writing workshop feedback from the learn’d astronomers) and you’d have a poem that fails.

Fancy that. The unfanciness of it all, I mean.

But, as I said in part one (yesterday’s post on Hoagland’s book), this is not license to be sloppy and wordy in your writing. It is permission to consider the word “essential” hiding in “inessential,” especially if voice is the craft that you are working on as a writer.

Not working on that craft? Maybe you should be. And maybe Hoagland’s parting-this-world words will help you in that cause.

Tony Hoagland Gives His Blessing

art of voice

Yesterday I picked up Tony Hoagland’s posthumous book and, I assume, the last, The Art of Voice: Poetic Principles and Practice. The purpose of this 168-pager is to promote ways writers can add “voice” to their poetry, and it doesn’t hurt that the essays enclosed have plenty of voice themselves.

“Voice” is one of those literary terms that everyone knows but no one wants to define. Hoagland is happy to oblige. He calls it “the distinctive linguistic presentation of an individual speaker.”

In his opening paragraph, he goes on: “In many poems voice is the mysterious atmosphere that makes it memorable, that holds it together and aloft like the womb around an embryo. Voice can be more primary than any story or idea the poem contains, and voice carries the cargo forward to delivery. When we hear a distinctive voice in a poem, our full attention is aroused and engaged, because we suspect that here, now, at last, we may learn how someone else does it—that is, how they live, breathe, think, feel, and talk.”

Sound pretty awesome. Sounds pretty “I’ll have some of what he’s having.” And as Hoagland further proves, voice forges a relationship between writers and readers. Voice eliminates the very idea that a reader might discontinue reading your poem after line three or thirteen. At the mercy of voice, a reader can’t help herself. She’s yours. She. Must. Read. On.

“A poem strong in the dimension of voice is an animate thing of shifting balances, tone, and temperature, by turns intimate, confiding, vulgar, distant, or cunning—but, above all, alive. In its vital connectivity, it is capable of including both the manifold world and the rich slipperiness of human nature,” Hoagland adds. Clearly, then, it is a topic worth 168 pages.

For me, in the early going of this book (which I’m still reading and, no doubt, will write plenty more about here), it is a blessing. The late Hoagland’s blessing to me personally. Which just goes to prove his point—the fact that I would take the early messages in this book personally, I mean. It is all a product of voice.

In Chapters 2 (“Showing the Mind in Motion”) and 3 (“The Sound of Intimacy”), Hoagland says it’s OK to ignore the common poetry-writing rule of cutting to the bone (details in future posts). Why? Because, too often, all that economy kills voice.

Hoagland even goes to bat for colloquialisms like “Here’s the thing,” “Hang on a sec,” “Laugh if you like,” “Know what I mean?” and “Well, you see….” Use words like that in a poetry writing class and the instructor will have the scissors out in the first minute. Or imagine a workshop approach where you read a poem with any of those expressions. Your workshop classmates (competitive lovelies that they are) will have the polite daggers before you get to the last line.

“Writing like this is superfluous,” they would say. “Wordy!” they would succinctly (by way of example) shout. “Prolix” the show-offs would smirk.

But what if it is all in the service of voice? Sure, it has to be done right, but many beginning poets feel as if it outright cannot be done. Poetry must be concise at all costs. Adjectives and adverbs are guilty until proven innocent.

And all of that is true. Until it’s not.

For that thought, I thank Hoagland and will continue to thank him as I read (and then reread) this little book. He has given me his blessing to be wordy if it serves a purpose and if it bonds the reader to my work.

If all this sounds like a tightrope walk, welcome to the business. Still, it’s good to learn once again that there are no easy answers or recipes to success when it comes to poetry. Answers are merely opinions, and that’s what makes for horse races (and books about writing poetry).