voice in poetry

3 posts

“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 (√° 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).

 

“To Enchant Someone Meaninglessly…”

mininis

Reviews, Yesterday I mentioned how they can draw you in, make you want to click to cart on amazon dot glom, run to your local bookstore, or — if your biblio-habits are bankrupting you — enter a hold on your interlibrary loan system.

This happened with Chelsey Minnis’ new book Baby, I Don’t Care, which I could not secure due to all the holds. So I reserved instead Poemland, an older book with no holds. And no holds barred.

As a poet, it’s always interesting to read a wide swath of different voices and styles, and boy, howdy, is Minnis’ voice and style different. In Poemland, she elopes with the ellipsis. The exclamation point doesn’t scare her, either! And the single-space thing is for more conventional types. (Check the mirror, friends!)

Although the poems are not named, they are spread out between black divider pages, so I’ll take that construct as a “poem, ” Minis-style, and give you a sample from Poemland here. Have fun! (I think that’s the point, Jeeves.)

 

I want to sit very calmly with my bangs curled…

But my pet monster has bitten my hand!

 

Life makes me sad.

So sad that I walk down the street etc.

 

When I read poems I don’t like them…

But I like them like pouf-roses…

I like them like gilt saws…

And I like them like dark brown ram shearling!…

 

To enchant someone meaninglessly…

Is like getting insulted and kissed by your riding instructor…

 

This is when your hair sticks to your lipstick and it is so cuckoo…

You close the bedroom-dividing curtain…

 

Gold smudges…and a gemstone powered engine!…

A great devalued thing is a plain life…

But I like it like a venus-fly-trap pried open with tweezers…

 

I like to live a hard life but I know I shouldn’t do it…

I should live an easy life or I am a fool!

 

The sea-crabs try to cling onto anything.

 

The crab fishermen don’t even want all the crab…they want

money…

Even though their mustaches are covered with ice…

 

If you are a person you can also be someone’s goat…

I can tell you all about it for free…

 

I can long remember a nastie thing…

If it is well done..

 

This is a present of tiny pretty scissors…

Which you must use to cut your beast hair…

I am a vile baby…

Look, death, I have so much delicious vulture food within my

chest cavity…

 

I look to the left and right with my eyes and then I swing the sharp

thing…

As you rise out of a cloud on a mechanized ¬†contraption…

 

If you open your mouth to start to complain I will fill it with

whipped cream…

There is a floating sadness nearby…

 

Don’t try to walk away from a little girl like me!

 

This is a recollection of flopped happiness…

And it is a fistfight in the rain under a held umbrella…

 

There is a way to smoke your cigarette and look out the window

but you’ll never get enough of it.