Many years ago, a poetry professor told me I wasn’t ready for grad school because I didn’t have a poetic voice. As a budding poet, that was difficult to hear. But once I got over my initial hurt feelings, I realized that what I didn’t have was a clear, working definition of poetic voice. So I set out to find one—with the goal of honing my voice and the hope that, with the knowledge I might gain, I’d land myself in a graduate program.
Turns out that poetic voice is difficult to define, but it has to do with the distinctive characteristics of a particular poet’s work. As readers, we often recognize a writer’s work before we see his or her name. After all, who can imagine reading an e.e. cummings poem and not knowing immediately that he wrote it? Sylvia Plath, Russell Edson, Joseph Brodsky, Phillip Whalen—they all have distinct styles that make their work uniquely their own.
Poetic voice is rooted in the use and repetition of specific elements—technical elements that make a poem recognizable as belonging to one poet. I’ve identified these elements as grammar and syntax, form, music, subject matter and, last, magic—the elusive connection between a reader and a poet that transcends the work. Let’s look at each element in detail.
1. Grammar and syntax
Cummings’ willingness to use grammar in unconventional ways defined his voice. Try to count how many rules he flouts in his poem the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls:
the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls
are unbeautiful and have comfortable minds
(also, with the church’s protestant blessings
daughters, unscented shapeless spirited)
they believe in Christ and Longfellow,both dead,
are invariably interested in so many things—
at the present writing one still finds
delighted fingers knitting for the is it Poles?
perhaps. While permanent faces coyly bandy
scandal of Mrs. N and Professor D
….the Cambridge ladies do not care,above
Cambridge if sometimes in its box of
sky lavender and cornerless,the
moon rattles like a fragment of angry candy
How do you use grammar in your poetry? Is your use consistent? Do you have good reasons for the things you do? What happens when you play with grammar in a specific poem—for instance, how does the poem read with no punctuation? Or what if you overpunctuate it? How do those changes affect the poem as a whole?
Syntax, the order in which words are arranged, can make a line read smoothly, or not. It can create distance or closeness. It can convey feeling. Langston Hughes wrote much of his poetry for a working-class audience. The organization of his poems, as well as his word choices (which often included street slang), was devised specifically to connect with that audience. Here’s an example from his poem Air Raid Over Harlem:
You’re not talkin’ ’bout Harlem, are you?
That’s where my home is,
My bed is, my woman is, my kids is!
Harlem, that’s where I live!
Look at my streets
Full of black and brown and
Yellow and high-yellow
Jokers like me.
How do you approach syntax and word choices in your work? Who’s your intended audience? How have these choices helped facilitate a connection between the audience and you?
Try substituting different types of words to see how they change your poems. For example, if you often use long Latinate words like perspiration, try using a shorter word like sweat. What’s the effect? Don’t worry if you don’t like what you see. No matter what changes and substitutions you make, you’re always free to return to your original choices.
Shakespeare’s famous for his sonnets. Basho wrote haikus. What forms do you most often use? Why? What binds the form, content and mood of your work? Try a new form. If you always write in free verse, try a sonnet or couplets—maybe some structure will be good for you. Do you always write in iambic pentameter? Try free verse. See what happens.
For a couple of great guides to poetic forms, check out The Teachers and Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms by Ron Padgett (Teachers and Writers Collaborative) and The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland (W.W. Norton and Company).
What can music do to support voice? Alliteration, rhyme, assonance, prosody and the actual sounds of letters all contribute to the music of a poem. The poet Stephen Dobyns points out that specific sounds evoke certain emotions. Consonant plosives (usually referred to as the sounds made by the letters d, b, p, c, t and k) lend themselves to a fast pace and explosive action. When making those sounds, the mouth exhales a puff of air, often with force. In contrast, the consonant sounds that are longer in duration (f, th, sh, l and wh) provide a softer sound and calmer feel.
Sylvia Plath’s poem Daddy illustrates these concepts well. Just reading the title, the reader finds his mouth making two plosive consonant sounds, for the first d sound and the second. In addition, the mouth is required to make the long e sound at the end of the word, emphasizing the sharpness of the consonants before it. Those sounds continue throughout the poem, as the first stanza indicates:
You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.
Read your poems aloud. How do they sound? Try taping yourself. What do you notice? Does the sound contribute to your meaning? What letter sounds do you often use? What happens if you change some of them?
4. Subject matter
Sharon Olds writes extensively about her father’s death. Robert Frost wrote about nature and mortality. Are you preoccupied with a certain subject? What draws you to it? Maybe you shouldn’t hem yourself in so much—try approaching other topics or ideas to write about. Or if your poems run the topical gamut, try writing a series of poems on a particular theme. Whichever approach you take, you’ll learn new things about your voice.
Once you become accustomed to playing with poetic elements, you’ll come to know which changes to stick with and which to file away. You’ll know because when a poem works, when its voice is right, some new truth is shared between reader and writer. The voice of the poem will transcend its parts. When that happens, you know you’ve succeeded as a poet.
Be mindful of your voice, play with it, and make careful decisions as you construct your poems. Your hard work will result in poetry that makes connections, imparts wisdom and is a joy to write and read.
My exploration of voice led to a greater understanding of my own abilities, and it taught me how to manipulate my own voice to get the most out of each poem. And by the way—not only did I get into grad school, but I had the time of my life. So there, Professor.