One of the last books the late American poet Tony Hoagland left us with was his slim volume of essays and writing exercises called The Art of Voice. In its contents, he says a convincing poetic voice, “can be embodied through a kind of stuttering hesitation, or by a spontaneous uncensoredness, or as a deepening tangle of psychology. It can be performed as anxiety, or carefree light-headedness, or as overconfident swagger, or as steady, painstaking thoughtfulness” (9).
This quote really speaks to me as my own growth as a poet has changed drastically over the course of twenty years and six books. During my difficult apprentice years, I wanted to exude “a steady, painstaking thoughtfulness” like Hoagland mentions. Look at this poem of mine “Domestic Wages” from my first book Bonfires and you will see what I mean:
Five dead snails lie in the saucer of beer I filled last night from
the bottoms of four cans of Kilkenny, dregs my dog didn’t want,
and left out near the strawberry patch where they’d been wreaking
havoc with this year’s crop—but now dead, sent into the darkness
their shells grew from, and the sun is high in the afternoon skies,
making it difficult to believe in notions of infinity, something beyond
my own limited understanding of the word, its virtues and vices,
where killing snails in one’s garden seems a great injustice to
a God who is neither in the world, nor makes himself known to it,
so that we must invent other rituals: rising each morning to face
the drive to work; the queue at the coffeeshop, office parties,
then home again to empty houses, and memories of ex-lovers
falling into the arms of new loves, things we’ve struggled, worked
our whole lives for—and could rightly call domestic wages,
for we earn them through our luck and our labour, all of time
pushing through us, and beyond us, making it harder each day
to separate the divine from the trivial—or what meaning might
be found in a few snails lying dead in a pool of amber beer.
The authority this poem conveys stems from the physical details of the strawberry patch, the dead snails lying in a saucer of beer, but also the idea of time passing–the queue at the coffeeshop, the office parties, and ex-lovers falling into the arms of new loves – these ideas all furnish the poem with a sense of world-weariness that give the poem’s its identity, or sense of authenticity.
So why does one’s poetic voice change? Aye, there is the rub. My recent books are full of rapid-fire phrases, or that “spontaneous uncensoredness” quality Hoagland spoke about earlier. How did this happen? Part of it for me grew out of my anxiety to try new things. I wanted to write poems better matched to the way people now read poetry in a post-smartphone, cloud-based technological world. Here is the poem “Time’s Atlas” from my latest collection Midlife Action Figure:
Some people treat each day like IKEA instructions.
Others look for a higher dimension in church pews.
Hot yoga studios. Time is an atlas. A Fisher-Price
View-Master of first kisses and “no return” policies.
I wish this were even more poetic. Throw in the phrase
in medias res like a trial balloon. A benediction. A spark plug.
Another celebrity has overdosed on booze and benzos.
Every story deserves a splashy two-page spread. Despite
Old Navy ads and toothpaste for sensitive teeth, the heart is
a scourge. My spirit-animal is a scarecrow. The first-person
singular feels wrong here, but the hive mind, all that buzzing,
overwhelms me. How many different ways to say Hallelujah?
I think we would all feel better if we were allowed to fall apart
one day out of the year. If only we could burn the briefcases.
I miss the sound of cicadas. Electric dusk. What do they care
about the end of post-modernism? Birth of narrow-casting?
Everyone has a few words they would like to bury forever.
I am losing landmarks as I get older, but thankfully we can
google it all. The little white house on a hill overlooking
the highway needs a new coat of paint but it is still there.
The uranium mine, the miners, are gone. If you feel yourself
going crazy, you probably are. Only a little. Young men
in black and white photographs, wearing soldier uniforms
or baseball attire, stare out stoically from the back wall
of dimly lit bars and taverns. Today, wellness programs
preach resiliency like they are selling hamburgers. I keep
turning the pages of time’s atlas. I trace its illustrations
with my fingers. The contoured lines. The last pages
blank, then something, new shapes, a lost continent,
new ports of call. A secret harbour, or a penal colony.
I mark a big X where the future will make landfall.
What is so interesting about comparing these two poems is they feel like they are written by two different poets, and in some ways, they are as the latter poem is written by a more experienced poet willing to take greater risks, and who has had the benefit of twenty plus years of reading more poetry which adds to his overall arsenal of approaches.
I guess what I am saying is there no one right way to “voice” a poem. You either believe the speaker of the poem or you do not. It’s a credibility thing. Young poets spend years trying to find the right voice for their poems. I don’t think you really can teach voice. You have to find it on your own through reading and writing and failure. But finding one’s poetic voice will happen if you stick with it long enough. That is a certainty.
As Hoagland explains, “The truth is, a writer’s voice is made from other writer’s voices. Pieced together, picked and chosen, stumbled into, uninformed: influence seems like an involuntary series of contagions that eventually turned into a sort of vessel or transportation system. As we acquire a sense of taste, and perhaps a sense of vocation, our reading becomes more directed and targeted, but we are bent and shaped and destined to be changed by the genius of others” (52).
I like this idea of poetic voice as a transportation system. Once you find it, the poems become easier to write and the subject matter more varied. The images and metaphors become more distinctive and trustworthy. Voice is what ferries meaning from the poem’s speaker to the reader. Remember, the poets we honor most are those whose voices we still hear long after they are gone.