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).


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