Friday, March 3, 2017

What Is Voice in Poetry?

Next Tuesday evening, March 7, the Annenberg Community Beach House will roll out the red carpet for the Camera Obscura Poets—the first group reading by members of the workshop I've been leading as Writer in Residence at the Beach House. And what a marvelous group of poets it is!


Five of the twelve Camera Obscura Poets, with yours truly, from left to right: 
Rosie Freed, Maria Pavone, Mary Daily, Dinah Berland,Veronica Chavira, and Sheri Johnson

When you hear the work of these twelve poets, you will hear twelve very distinct voices—including those of two members who are out of town and whose work I will read in their absence. How can it be that you might be able to hear a writer's voice through another reader? And what is "voice" in poetry anyway?

In doing a little research on this often slippery question, I found that "voice" tends to be used in two quite different ways: (1) in the obvious sense of the identification of the author or the speaker of the poem (e.g., the writer as a child, another person, or even inanimate object); and (2) in the more subtle sense of the distinctive use of language, cadence, tone, rhythm, grammar, syntax, form, repetition, rhyme, or a range of other poetic elements that, together, are recognizable as the work of a particular poet. It is the second of these definitions that constitutes what most poets and knowledgable readers mean when they talk about voice. 

We might easily recognize the work of a number of famous poets, from Walt Whitman to Emily Dickinson to Billy Collins, by their unique voices, or their particular way with language—even in translation (and isn't that interesting?). Yet developing an authentic poetic voice oneself may take a while; indeed, it may even take a while for the poet to be able to identify it in their own work. It takes writing, lots of writing, before a poet can look at a particular poem and say, Yes, that sounds like me. But once such a poem is written, then the poet's distinctive voice becomes not only identifiable but also even second nature, even as it evolves over time.

That has certainly been true for me. I received my MFA in poetry in1995 and wrote poems for some years before that, yet only in the past year or so have I started to see that certain elements are necessary for me to be able to acknowledge that a poem sounds like my own. It's important to me, for example, that a poem is "dimensional," or exists on more than one level of meaning, before I can embrace its voice as my own. 

The hopeful thing to know is that most of the elements that constitute voice are no doubt present in every poet's work from the very start—in the same way as every child has natural dance moves from the first time they hear music, or how we can recognize a friend's speaking voice on the telephone the moment we hear it. So, in short, everything we need to have a "voice" is already within us, right here, right now. May you discover it with the next poem you write.


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