The Pleasure Of Their Company: Voice And Poetry
Beginning poets who interpret criticism of their poems as
criticism of themselves are onto something. However loudly we
proclaim the poem to be separate from the poet, people respond
to poems as if they are real people speaking. New Critics and
post-structuralists, unreliable narrators, personae, slipping
signifiers, and self-deconstructing "I"s notwithstanding, this
is true. The poetical is personal.
A good poem speaks in a voice I like to hear. Though not
entirely unfamiliar, the voice is like none I've heard before.
It inspires confidence, demands and rewards attention, offering
entry into a psyche that intrigues, and may delight.
T.S. Eliot was wrong to declare poetry "not the expression of
personality but an escape from personality."1
It's true that the speaker of a poem by X is not identical to
the X who orders chicken-with-chef's-special-sauce at Panda Inn.
It's also true that many bad poems lean too heavily on
personality. Yet where can poems come from, if not the poet's
pesonality? Poems don't spring, full-blown, from Language's
side—despite theorists who seem to think that their own wind
will breathe life into their inanimate god. To play Hamlet
effectively, an actor must locate the part of himself that
resonates with Hamlet. Similarly, a good poet writes from that
part of his/her personality able to inhabit the speaker of the
No poem can express the poet's entire personality; still, a good
poem conveys a fair-sized chunk. The poet's voice is that chunk,
expressed on the page.
The most learned among us has not spent more than a few decades
studying literature. Our ancestors, though, spent hundreds of
millennia evolving the ability to size up their own kind,
sensing whether to like them, trust them, hate them, follow
them. Hominids who could not accurately assess the character,
intentions, and competence of their fellows carried a big
handicap into the evolutionary games. Their genes likely did not
"A good poem speaks
in a voice I like to hear. Though not entirely unfamiliar, the
voice is like none I've heard before."
Poet Louis Simpson states, "I cannot explain my aversion to
[James Merrill's] style except as an aversion to the personality
it presents. The style is the man."2
Interesting, likable (or unlikable in an interesting way),
insightful, bright, truthful, pompous, preening, muddle-headed,
dull—all of these qualities and more are conveyed through a
poet's voice. People evolved to respond favorably to certain
voices—to accept their owners as leaders, experts—or in any
case, worth listening to. The success and proliferation of dull
poetry is at least partly due to the tendency to second-guess
and override one's "gut" response to voice.3
Poems that I like are spoken by voices that compel my attention
in some pleasing, primal way. I enjoy the poems' and, by
extension, the poets' company.4
If T.S. Eliot's personality did not come through in his poems—if
he lacked, that is, a compelling voice—no one would care what he
thought about poetry. To speak powerfully, as Eliot does, to
readers who can't know him personally, the poet's voice must be
compelling, and it must be unique.
The voice may shift as a writer changes points of view, and must
shift somewhat as the writer ages; yet, since personality is
quite stable after age five, a good poet's voice—however
wide-ranging—stays recognizably his or her own. Robert Lowell's
writing style shifted substantially between Lord Weary's Castle
and Life Studies. The controlling personality—and therefore, at
deep levels, the voice—stayed much the same.5
Gray hair and decades of practice notwithstanding, the poet who
lacks a unique and compelling voice remains a novice. Yet,
though every person has a unique, potentially compelling history
and genetic makeup, such voices are rare. This is partly due to
a lack of what we might as well call talent, and partly due to
restrictions caused by socialization. The overly socialized
voice may sound sophisticated, kind, efficient, even charming,
but it is rarely compelling, never unique, and always hollow.
personality is quite stable after age five, a good poet's
voice—however wide-ranging—stays recognizably his or her own."
A poet's voice may be said to consist of four major,
1) Diction includes vocabulary, rhythm, cadence, and
characteristic patterns of syntax. Tony Hoagland's diction is
pungent, down-to-earth, colloquial. Amy Gerstler's is
colloquial, too, but quirky, anxious, strange. T.S. Eliot's is
formal, learned, vatic, with colloquial snippets thrown in. Most
people mean "diction" when they speak of a writer's "style."
2) Subject Matter. Does the poet favor romance? Sexual
intrigue? Power struggles? Big game hunting? Children? Politics?
What are his or her passions and obsessions?
A poet's subject matter also includes, and depends on, the
memory pool which provides his or her imagery. David Kirby's
memory pool is full of scenes from a suburban childhood in the
South. Wanda Coleman's is full of South-Central L.A. Since
everyone's personal history is unique, the poet who effectively
taps his/her memory pool is well on the way to a unique voice.
3) Temperament—much of it genetically based
the poet's world-view, helping to determine whether he/she is
misanthrope or philanthrope, optimist or pessimist, wise-acre or
stern moralist. It influences, too, the poet's choice of forms,
since esthetics rise from temperament.
Barbara Hamby's poems seem optimistic, though with their ballast
of mortality, they are in no danger of floating off the page.
Mark Strand's work is darker and more pessimistic. Whatever the
poet's temperament, the poems reflect it.
4) Style of thought
7 concerns the workings
of the poet's mind. This includes the quality of thoughts—their
incisiveness, originality, cogency, lyricism, emotional charge,
and general esthetic thrust. Does the poet proceed by intuitive
leaps, as Dean Young often does, or more logically and
scientifically, like Lynn Emanuel? Does he or she favor realism
or flights of fancy, the sledge-hammer or the rapier? What does
the play of the poet's consciousness look like? And how about
As every human voice creates a unique pattern on an
oscilloscope, so every mind shows a unique pattern of
thought—the more unique the mind, the more unique, potentially,
WHAT ABOUT IMAGINATION?
Clearly, good writing need not come directly from the writer's
personal experience. Stephen Crane did not fight in the Civil
The Red Badge of Courage
is as convincing as any first-hand account. Still, Eliot is
wrong to declare, " . . . emotions which he [the author] has
never experienced will serve his turn as well as those familiar
Imagination can seem god-like in its ability to extrapolate,
embellish, generalize; but it does not create out of a void.
Crane knew well the emotions he depicts. A boy whose pet turtle
is crushed by a truck may grow up to write movingly about death
and loss. But a writer with no experience of passionate sexual
love could no more write Romeo and Juliet than a person
deaf from birth could write Beethoven's Fifth.
"Writing is not the
act of a language or medium arranging itself into permutations.
It is a purposeful act, driven by volition, which arises out of
Eliot contends that ". . . the poet has, not a 'personality' to
express, but a particular medium, which is only the medium and
not the personality, in which impressions and experiences
combine in peculiar and unexpected ways. Impressions and
experiences which are important for the man may take no place in
the poetry, and those which become important in the poetry may
play quite a negligible part in the man, the personality."9
This approaches Barthes' post-structuralist notion that authors
do not create, but only "draw upon that immense dictionary of
language and culture which is 'always already written.'"10
This is an interesting notion, but unsupported by empirical
evidence. While experimental writers may bypass the personality,
generating text by purely mechanical manipulations, few people
would rank those productions beside the best of Shakespeare, or
even Danielle Steele.11
Writing is not the act of a language or medium arranging itself
into permutations. It is a purposeful act, driven by volition,
which arises out of personality. Every successful liar knows
that the most believable lie uses what the liar knows to be
true. A poet who is cruel in private life can write convincing
poems of kindness and compassion by drawing on the kindness and
compassion that co-exist with cruelty in his/her personality. To
play King Lear requires an older actor, not for the physical
attributes of age, but for the years of experience needed to
under-gird the role, supporting it as breath supports the
singing voice. Musical prodigies amaze with early virtuosity,
but most require more living-time to play with conviction and
FAILURES OF VOICE
Failures of voice may be due to problems with talent, craft,
self-censorship, personality, or some combination of the four.
The poet with insufficient talent12
is like a center fielder who lacks the reflexes to chase down a
fly ball or hit a curve. No amount of practice will get that
player to the major leagues; and no amount of writing will give
that poet a unique, compelling voice.
Problems with craft are helped by practice. Still, just as few
violinists become expert enough for the concert stage, few poets
develop enough craft to write masterful poems. Failing to feel a
compelling authority in the voice, readers distrust and reject
Problems of self-censorship occur when the writer has talent and
a unique, compelling personality, but these qualities don't
reach the page. More than one poet whose voice is lively and
engaging in conversation, lapses into dull anonymity when the
poems begin. This problem—as if a V-8 engine were running on
four cylinders—is often due to a limiting concept of poetry. For
Billy Collins to change from a self-described writer of "bad
imitations" into one of the more original voices in U.S. poetry,
he had "to allow into my poetry aspects of my self—my
sensibility and my experience—that I had been unwittingly
The self-censoring poet may feel, as Collins did, that humor is
inappropriate in poems. He or she may believe that only certain
subjects and moral positions lend themselves to poetry. Such
problems may be corrected by a shift in attitude (though the
shift may take years). If the shift is consistently resisted,
the problem may lie with the personality. By problems of
personality, I don't mean the ones that drive people into
psychotherapy—anxiety, depression, difficulty bonding, etc. Nor
do I mean the poet is "mentally ill." The problems to which I
refer are qualities of personality that keep the poet from doing
his or her best work.
"Poets whose main
concern is pleasing the cognoscenti will write in styles and
about subjects which they think will find critical favor."
Psychological blind spots—for instance, lack of insight into
other people—show up as blind spots in poetry. A man's
unresolved anger toward women may show itself in poorly drawn,
stereotyped female characters. Areas of blocked emotion give
rise to emotionally flat poems. Psychic regions the poet has
explored insufficiently—sex, violence, anger, grief—reveal
themselves in a lack of clarity and penetration or in reliance
on conventional thinking and cliché. Even problems with
overeating may manifest in wordy poems, and difficulty in
trimming them down.14
To fix these problems, psychological restrictions15
must be loosened, allowing the personality to develop and
express itself more fully. The writer may become his or her own
psychotherapist, or may pay for the service. In either case, the
goal of therapy is not to alleviate external symptoms— these
may, in fact, provide good material for poems—but to increase
self-awareness and options for expression. Good poets may be
cruel, egotistical, sociopathic. They may be neurotic, or even
psychotic. But they must be able to see clearly from their
highly personal perspective, and to tell the truth of what they
see. Failure to do either of these things will cause the reader
to distrust and/or dislike, not the "speaker," but the poet.
Moralizers will sound pompous and fraudulent with their insights
and epiphanies, more interested in looking admirable than in
offering an authentic "take" on the world.
Poets whose main concern is pleasing the cognoscenti will write
in styles and about subjects which they think will find critical
favor. Their poems will be forms of social one-upsmanship.
Poets who fear self-exposure will write obscurely. Those who
fear being silly will write poems devoid of playfulness or fun.
Grown-up teachers' pets will grind out bloodless, proper poems
that merit A for effort and C for everything else.
Poets too impressed by what has been written before will repeat
it in inferior form. Poets who hate the past too much will write
nothing that lasts.
Poets unsure of the value of their perceptions may write timid,
waffling poems full of self-defeating contradictions, or may
disguise their timidity with obscurantism and gratuitous
Poets who fear that they are not original will write poems that
strain. Poets with a need to pose will write poems of empty
attitude. Poets writing just to write will write
inconsequentially. Poets who want to be shamans will sound like
quacks. Poets too proud of being poets will write every poem in
praise of themselves. Only the deluded, the masochistic, and
students under duress will read more than a little of such
QUALITIES OF A COMPELLING VOICE
A good poem, like a good friend, is a pleasure to be with. It
has special talents, amazing abilities, yet meets the reader as
an equal. It does not flatter or condescend. It illuminates,
encourages, entertains, and does not bore.
To write such a poem requires talent, mastery of craft, minimal
self-censorship, and a unique, compelling personality. The
personality must be risk-taking, adventurous, and confident (at
least in the mental sphere). It must be rebellious, dissatisfied
with received wisdom and the status quo.16
It must be strongly emotional, as well as highly intelligent,
imaginative, and original. If the personality has these
qualities, the voice will possess three qualities central to
good poetry: wit, passion, and impropriety.
The importance to poetry of wit—meaning quickness of perception,
ingenuity, keen intelligence—is self-evident. A poet who lacks
this kind of wit will evince a low quality of thought.
Wit meaning humor can be important too. People who lack a sense
of humor may, on first meeting, seem "nice"—even exceptionally
so; but frequently, they pall. Nothing about them strikes
sparks. Nothing seems fun. The imaginative leaps and unexpected
connections characteristic of a first-rate mind may be absent.
The sense of common humanity and the general uplift which
laughter can provide are absent in the humorless person's
conversation and poems.
Passionate writing makes the reader come to grips with strong
emotion—risky in a culture
embarrassed by emotion, and even riskier when judgements about
poems are made by critics and theorists who, with no first-hand
knowledge of the passions and wild enthusiasms of real
scientists, cultivate what they think is scientific objectivity.
To admit passion into poetry, as to admit love into one's life,
is to risk being judged excessive, undiscriminating, jejune,
ridiculous—especially if that passion is high spirited and
celebratory. To avoid such judgements, some poets cultivate
understatement, obliqueness, and dour depressiveness. They
proceed by indirection, fearing to call a spade a spade and be
told, "No, fool,, that is a club."
How dreary, though, to speak with someone who lacks passion.
Like humorless people, the passionless may seem agreeable at
first. But how to connect with someone who is barely there?
Eventually, we give up and go away.
Civilization is designed to shield people from, among other
things, unsettling truths. Biology being what it is, some
aspects of human life are sure to distress our "higher"
consciousness. In addition, since power seeks to maintain
itself, lies spring up to support the status quo. Standards of
propriety help to keep unpleasant, upsetting, dangerous
realities out of mind. Politeness, which means suppressing
anything that could make anyone uncomfortable, rules out much
humor and most passion.
Employed for its own sake, impropriety is as uninteresting as
strict propriety. However, since many truths are improper,
indecorous, or uncomfortable, a person who avoids impropriety
must also avoid truth. The proper person, like the humorless and
the passionless, will be dull. To escape controversy, such a
person must censor imagination (who can tell where it will
lead?), avoid penetrating insights (always potentially
shocking), and keep excitement controlled (lest all hell break
loose). Such a poet may create pretty pictures and
artfully-disguised homilies, but not compelling art.
VOICES I LIKE TO HEAR
MRI studies of people making difficult decisions reveal that,
though the subjects think they're being rational, they decide
based primarily on emotion, then think of reasons why their
decisions make sense. Similarly, readers of poetry may present
complex and lengthy rationales to justify judgements based
largely on emotional responses to the poet's voice. In "Dawn
Edward Hirsch expresses compassion, tenderness, and love.
Some nights when you're asleep
Deep under the covers, far away,
Slowly curling yourself back
Into a childhood no one
Living will ever remember
Now that your parents touch hands
Under the ground
As they always did upstairs
In the master bedroom . . .
The personality behind this voice seems modest, grateful,
honest, and vulnerable.
. . Cars
Too, are rimmed and motionless
Under a thin blanket smoothed down
By the smooth maternal palm
Of the wind. So thanks to the
Blue morning, to the blue spirit
Of winter, to the soothing blue gift
Of powdered snow.
Through apt metaphors, the voice conveys intelligence and
careful observation. It speaks gently, as if to soothe loved
ones to sleep. It is anxious, but the anxiety is reasonable,
born of the fear of losing those the speaker loves.
The voice is not neurotically fretful and self-involved. Nor,
for all its gentleness, is it sentimental or epicene. It is not
affected; it does not show off. Rather, it seems to speak
truthfully about the speaker's emotions. Since those emotions
and the sensibility behind them feel close to my own, it's not
surprising that I find the poem moving and beautiful. Where
Hirsch's poem is realistic and domestic, the voice of Brigit
Pegeen Kelly in "Song"18
is eerie, mythic, and wild.
Listen: there was a goat's head hanging by ropes in a tree.
All night it hung there and sang. And those who heard it
Felt a hurt in their hearts and thought they were hearing
The song of a night bird . . .
Kelly's voice is shamanic, telling tales about a world of
violence and sorrow, of tenderness and forgiveness, but also of
The goat cried like a man and struggled hard. But they
Finished the job. They hung the bleeding head by the school
And then ran off into the darkness that seems to hide
everything . . .
What they didn't know
Was that the goat's head would go on singing, just for them .
Wake in the night thinking they heard the wind in the trees
Or a night bird, but their hearts beating harder. There
would be a whistle, a hum, a high murmur, and, at last, a
The low song a lost boy sings remembering his mother's call.
Not a cruel song, no, no, not cruel at all. This song
Is sweet. It is sweet. The heart dies of this sweetness.
Kelly tells her story with passion and verve, without
affectation. I find myself pulled into her mythic world, moved
by its horror and beauty. The personality which her voice
conveys feels different enough from mine to intrigue, but close
enough not to exclude me. Her voice carries the fascination of
the exotic, allowing me to experience her primal and compelling
James Tate is not a poet at all, some say; others claim that
he's among our best. Certainly, the voice in "To Each His Own"
conveys a personality either unconcerned with poetic convention,
or actively mocking it.
TO EACH HIS OWN19
When Joey returned from the war he worked
on his motorcycle in the garage most days. A
few of his old buddies were still around—Bobby
and Scooter—and once or twice a week they'd
go down to the club and have a few beers. But
Joey never talked about the war. He had a
tattoo on his right hand that said DEVI and he
wouldn't even tell what that meant. Months
passed and Joey showed no interest in getting
a job. His old Indian motorcycle ran like a
top, it gleamed, it purred. One night at dinner
he shocked us all by saying, "Devi's coming to
live with us. It's going to be difficult. She's
The language here is casual, chatty, even childish.There's
little concrete imagery. Lines show no metrical regularity and,
ranging from nine to fourteen syllables, seem broken with no
purpose but to make them roughly the same length on the page.
"Prose broken into lines," critics could easily say. Yet Tate's
voice strikes me as poetically sophisticated in its very
unpoeticness. The text contains only one simile, and that is a
cliché; yet the whole poem is an effective metaphor. Joey, who
loves an elephant, could be any star-crossed lover, whether a
Montague pining for his Capulet, or a gay man coming out. Tate's
voice does not convey noble feeling and high seriousness. The
consciousness at work in this poem evokes sympathy for Joey and
Devi, even as it makes fun of the whole affair.
Tate's voice conveys a wild and uninhibited imagination, and an
unabashed silliness which resonates with the most fun-loving
part of me. Someone else might find the voice flat, the poem
ridiculous. I find both voice and poem hilarious—refreshing,
entertaining, and curative. When I feel mentally waterlogged,
Tate throws me a life-line.
As controversial as Tate, Sharon Olds has been lauded and
pilloried for her willingness to go where few poets have gone
before. In "The Unjustly Punished Child,"20
she uses vivid metaphors to express an unvarnished truth about
The child screams in his room. Rage
heats his head.
He is going through changes like metal under deep
pressure at high temperatures.
When he cools off and comes out of that door
he will not be the same child who ran in
and slammed it. An alloy has been added. Now he will
crack along different lines when tapped.
He is stronger. The long impurification
has begun this morning.
This short poem strikes me as brave, hard-hitting,
thought-provoking, passionately felt, and absolutely true. I
love the strength of the voice, its sense of clarity, authority,
compassion, and unapologetic wisdom. The speaker seems a person
whose company I would seek out. It's no wonder that I admire
Walt Whitman states in his journal, "There is no trick or
cunning, no art or recipe, by which you can have in your writing
what you do not possess in yourself." If this is true, as I
believe it is, the only way to write with a unique and
compelling voice is to have—or develop—a unique, compelling
The best poets never cease to work at this. Whether they aim,
like Shakespeare, to broaden their consciousness, or like Philip
Larkin, to stake out a limited terrain and dig deep, these poets
learn to observe carefully the outside world, as well as the
inner, psychic one. They continue to experiment and try new
things—maybe not in their lives, but always in their art. They
don't stagnate. They strive to learn the truth and tell it,
however idiosyncratic and time-limited it may be.
Good poets don't need to root out and "cure" character flaws,
but must be willing to explore fully and honestly those they
have. The best poets may be liars, but their poems don't lie.
The best poets may not live wisely, but they are wise in their
poetry. The best poets must be narcissistic enough to think
their words important, but not so narcissistic as to think all
their words are. Good poets may love their own poetry, but must
love Poetry more.
Should a poet achieve a unique, compelling voice along with
critical acclaim, he or she must battle with success from that
time on. Convinced of their own genius by prizes and reviews,
some poets start to go easy on themselves. When this happens,
craft deteriorates. The voice sounds self-indulgent and
self-involved—because it is. Success leads naturally to a wish
for more. This can become a need to please which, unchecked,
leads to self-censorship and fear of risk—qualities which damage
and distort the voice.
The poet must not try to change the voice in hopes of becoming
more popular. Even if popularity increases, the voice is
compromised; the poems decline.
If Shakespeare's voice resonates with more people than Larkin's,
so be it. Both voices are unique, compelling, and valid
artistically. Both express what their authors had to give.
Decisions concerning greatness versus goodness, major status or
minor, are made by readers, change with literary fashions, and
are not subject to the author's will.
The poet's job is to discover, develop, and express his or her
own voice fully and well. Then let the chips fall.
T.S., "Tradition and the Individual Talent," from
The Sacred Wood,
Metheum Publishers, London, 1920
Louis, "Reflections on Narrative Poetry" from
A Company of Poets,
Univesity of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1981, 346-355
suppression of this and other intuitive responses by the
rational mind is a mark of the educated person. It also helps to
explain the lack of "common sense" of which intellectuals are
is no guarantee that I will like the poets themselves.
Fernando Pessoa's noms de plume can be considered different
people, each with a different voice, it makes more psychological
sense to consider them the work of one man who, like
Shakespeare, had a capacious personality.
Steven Pinker lists five major ways in which temperament varies
genetically: openness to experience, conscientiousness,
extroversion-introversion, antagonism-agreeableness, and
neuroticism. Pinker, Steven,
The Blank Slate: the Modern Denial of
Human Nature, Viking, New York, 2002, 375
Gluck equates this with voice itself. "The poem will not survive
on content but through voice," she states in an interview. "By
voice I mean the style of thought, for which a style of speech
never convincingly substitutes."
T.S., "Tradition and the Individual Talent," from
The Sacred Wood,
Metheum Publishers, London, 1920
Widdowson, and Brooker;
A Reader's Guide to Contemporary Literary
Theory, 4th edition, Prentice Hall, 1997: 66
Eliot's own personality leaps out of his work, even as he denies
the importance of personality. "But of course, only those who
have personality and emotions know what it means to want to
escape from these things," he writes—speaking, I'm sure, about
himself. Eliot, T.S., "Tradition and the Individual Talent,"
The Sacred Wood,
Metheum Publishers, London, 1920
aspects of what we call talent can be learned; but no one can
learn to write as well as Shakespeare.
Billy, "The End of Boredom," New Letters Vol
70, #2, 2004, p 155
examples come straight from my private practice as a
caused by temperament or other biological factors constitute
failure of talent.
depends on the poet to witness something, and yet the poet can
discover that thing only by looking away from what society has
learned to see poetically."
Robert Pinsky, "Responsibilities of the Poet," from
Poetry and the World
(New York: Ecco Press, 1988) 83-98
Wild Gratitude, Alfred
A Knopf, New York, 1990, p 77
Song, BOA Editions,
Ltd., Brockport, 1995, 15
Memoir of the Hawk,
Ecco Press, New York, 2001, p 72
Satan Says, University
of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, 1980, 55