The Art of Voice Tony Hoagland

3 posts

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


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
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,
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).