The Myth of Voice
Poetry workshops at the graduate and undergraduate levels as well as at writing conferences bandy about the term "voice" constantly, usually in some variation on the vapid "you have such a strong voice." Less often, participants address a specific poem: "This poem has such a strong voice." Uses of voice in this manner limit our understanding of verse and are my focus in this essay.
Broadly, voice functions as shorthand drawn from the history of oral metaphors used to conceive of written verse, applied to stylistic quirks or to a subjective lens. We also elevate this metaphor to a position of divine value, as sacred to some poets as the voices reported by Joan of Arc. Faced by inquisition, Joan of Arc began to elaborate on and personify her reported voices, eventually concluding, "The light comes in the name of the voice" (Warner 1081). Composition has become a similar process: the elaboration and personification of a voice to assemble a poem. What's more, we even treat voice as some kind of holy light. We desire it, and it fills young writers with purpose. It's absurd, however persistent, and this mode of composition often produces a staid verse.
Historically, voice-focused composition likely originates in the twentieth century, particularly in the second half, although it has roots in Browning's "Dramatic Lyrics" and in earlier narrative verse. The rise of the New Criticism, in particular of intrinsic critical practice and the treatment of the text as a unified mystery, an object to be unlayered with hidden meanings uncovered by the reader, coincided with the increased popularity of the dramatic monolog. Composition became the process of writing a unified text, relating an experience and titillating critics with abstract, figurative literary language.
Complicating that process was a belief in the lyric as mimetic speech, largely theorized by Barbara Hernstein Smith (Poetic Closure, 1968), so that composition became ideally the practice of disguising literary language in contemporary speech patterns. Smith's criticism echoes earlier commentary. That exact spirit led Frost to conclude in 1915: "And the sound in the mouths of men I found to be the basis of all effective expression" (qtd. in Parini 166). The idea took root and clearly blossomed.
This theory remains popular today. Rhyme, for example, as we are often told in workshops, works best when it's unnoticeable, hidden by the patterns of our spoken language. It's a dangerous and pervasive methodology. How many of us have considered rhyme in a similar manner, when of course rhyme successfully functions historically as a blatant, powerful, and obvious feature of rhythm? We're asked to consider even other rhythmic features similarly.
Voice somehow develops out of this paradox of language as simultaneously literary and mimetic. However, a compositional methodology relying on the characterization of voice often results in tired rhetoric, in an overuse of the dramatic monolog, and in uninspired criticism, privileging fictional dramatization over epideictic ritualism or other compositional processes (Culler 269). This methodology also lends itself well to the epiphanic, and it likely proves the cause of much vapid "workshop lyric," a kind of dramatic monolog popularized in the 1980s and characterized by non-sequiturs, narrative drama, and epiphany. Surely, we can write better than that.
One way to write better is to recognize the fallacies of popular compositional and critical practices. We can write better when we abandon voice-focused composition and readings of literature. As shorthand, the term "voice" elides and refuses to acknowledge those attributes we mean it to represent. When we say "voice," for example, we mean a subjective lens, or we mean intricately composed verse. It's always difficult to explain because the term elides so much. Furthermore, in reference to the individual poet, the term's use encourages homogeneity. Voice implies a sameness in a particular grouping of poems, an often ambiguous consistency, yet it fails to acknowledge the prototypical values it denotes. Celebrating a poet's voice encourages more of that ambiguous sameness. Our use of the term imposes limits on our understanding of recent and historical poetics.
The issue begins at the introductory level of definition. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics defines "voice" in the abstract as an "oral metaphor employed in the description and analysis of the written word" foregrounding one of the "fundamental distinctions underpinning Western culture: orality and literacy," more colloquially, "speaking and writing" (Richards). The editors admit the difficulty of defining voice. As a metaphor with a multiplicity of uses, the term eludes concrete definition. Even the term's signifiers defy straightforward categorization. Despite this difficulty, poets flood the critical record with definition. Sandra Beasley, for example, defines "voice" as an "aggregate, the delivery system for your craft decisions" aimed at expressing "an author's thematic, narrative, or formal concerns in a work" (76).
Beasley's definition epitomizes a vast majority of the term's popular poor use. Although still a metaphor, "aggregate" denoting metonymy, Beasley's definition simplifies readings of orality onto a text. Rhythmic, tonal, and other "concerns" can all be elided under an umbrella term. Beasley also adopts a theory of mimesis, of a poem as a speech-act, a framework critically popularized by Barbara Herrnstein Smith as I mentioned. Smith's theory has remained prevalent in American verse these past fifty years, and Beasley takes for granted the New Critical assumption of "lyrics as spoken by a persona" and the imposition, therefore, of a fictional world on a possibly lyric text (Culler 77, 109-119). In addition, Beasley catalogs a number of generic opportunities for authors to express or modify their voice in a poem, and she concludes absolutely, "A strong voice is the writer's best form of agency" (84).
A long history of lyric verse as well as innovations in Conceptual and post L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetics of the late 20th Century each problematize Beasley's definition despite her absolutist tone. These latter two movements situate themselves deliberately "in resistance" to the "expressive model" favored by the New Criticism, for example "constructing poems that frustrate attempts to locate a coherent voice" (Culler 77). Found poetry such as Day voices the language of non-poetic texts yet lacks a stable "voice" and "speaker" as Goldsmith catalogs his experience of the language of his everyday. In one example, Goldsmith transcribes the text of the New York Times:
Prime Minister Mario Frick of Liechtenstein acknowledged blunders in pursuing illegal assets but said the report showed that "Liechtenstein in not [sic] and never has been a criminal state." (29)
We find no fictionalized speaker here. We read the text, and we know from where it originates. Goldsmith's role begins and ends at presenting the text, at voicing it, but neither he nor a speaker-persona speak. They never have a voice, although the presentation of the text strongly implies agency. The lack of a broader context mitigates the expressive model; no speaker-character exists due to the lack of independent language, characterization, fictional setting, or similar narrative tropes. There is no voice in the poem as we popularly understand the concept because there is no speaker. Agency is neither only nor best determined by voice. Beasley's definition fails to hold up well to scrutiny.
On a related note, despite the myriad options available to authors operating within her framework, Beasley also never escapes the structuralist dogma prevalent in craft essays and arts education: an underlying assumption of systemic road-maps for success or literary merit. Beasley's absolutist tone contributes to that assumption. Ultimately, the term "voice" eludes straightforward attempts at definition, and it proves theoretically limiting as well. The constant reliance on voice in discussions of poetry proves a disservice to authors and critics.
Post-structuralist theory might approach the subject with an alternative reasoning. Paul de Man infamously deconstructs the oral conceptual metaphor to problematize popular treatments of historic "lyric" verse in his essay "Anthropomorphism and Trope in Lyric" (1984). Following a comparative reading of Baudelaire's sonnets "Correspondences" and "Obsession," de Man posits:
Any text, as text, compels reading as its understanding. What we call the lyric, the instance of represented voice, conveniently spells out the rhetorical and thematic characteristics that make it the paradigm of a complementary relationship between grammar, trope, and theme. (261)
This catalog of features of language ("grammar, trope, and theme") constitutes, for de Man, a treatment similar to our reading of voice. He would most likely recognize the term for what it is: elision. For de Man, lyric eventually figures as an oppressive metaphor, a term "of resistance and nostalgia" (262). By extension, voice figures similarly. Through de Man's logic, use of the term "voice" sets conservative limits on an otherwise radical act of assertion and assemblage (i.e. authoring a text). The term becomes conservative insofar as it masks whatever concepts it represents, contributing to the eventual conceptual erasure of those concepts.
In his full conclusion, de Man asserts,
Generic terms such as "lyric" (or its various subspecies, "ode," "idyll," or "elegy") as well as pseudo-historical period terms such as "romanticism" or "classicism" are always terms of resistance and nostalgia, at the furthest remove from the materiality of actual history (262).
Perhaps the same holds true for "voice." However, it behooves us to note that de Man's total anti-generic radicalism has been sobered by the persistence of "lyric," "romanticism," and similar generic terminology these past three decades. A renewed interest in genre studies similarly balances de Man's radical stance. Nevertheless, the same remove de Man identifies as characterizing "lyric" and "pseudo-historical period terms" also colors popular understandings regarding voice. Unlike genres such as lyricism or romanticism, however, voice (as popularly used) implies a less adaptable framework, relying as it does on limited and limiting New Critical assumptions.
As it resists adequate definition and sound theoretical framework, we begin to recognize voice as a more fragile construct than even the generic terminology de Man considers. What's more, as elision, voice lacks a cohesive prototype. Using the term to elide so many varied concepts, from "craft features" to subjective lenses, its uses fail to conceptually cohere. Worse, it displaces more accurate terminology and conceptual understandings.
As already demonstrated, we cannot adequately define voice; however, neither may we exemplify the term in practice. Consider the dramatic monolog, the lyric structures archetypal of discussions of voice. Having once broached the subject of my discomfort at the use of "voice" in workshops with a mentor, we immediately and only launched into a discussion of how voice figures in the dramatic monologue.
It was all we spoke of, as if reliance on the form could solve any struggle with the concept. Due to the speaker's characterization, we project the simplified understanding of voice onto the poem. The form and the term go hand-in-hand. We assume that a dramatic monolog has "such a strong voice." The assumption of a fictionalized speaker highlights the orality we read performed within the poem. Dramatic monologs, more than other verse forms, perform and effect voice, yet even in this sympathetic model the term proves inimical to rather than supportive of our understanding of a poem.
One example to problematize readings of voice in the dramatic monologue, Browning's "Fm Lippo Lippi" emphasizes colloquial language:
I am poor brother Lippo, by your leave!
You need not clap your torches to my face.
Zooks, what's to blame? you think you see a monk!
What, `tis past midnight, and you go the rounds,
And here you catch me at an alley's end
Where sportive ladies leave their doors ajar? (1-6).
Addressing an apparently-specific and fictional "you," the insistent exclamations and questioning, employing the colloquial "zooks"—each of these traits characterize the speaker and underscore a reading of orality onto the text. However, such a reductive reading belies the carefully constructed design of the poem meant only to simulate orality.
Browning composes most of the poem in iambic pentameter. The fifth and sixth lines, for example, fit perfectly within the pattern of alternating stressed and unstressed syllables. Nevertheless, we fail to easily recognize the pattern because Browning refuses to meet our desire for regularity. Assuming an unstressed first-person pronoun, Browning's first line likely contains only four stresses: "poor," "brother," "Lippo," and "leave"3 . Centering "brother Lippo" between two anapests, however, forces a reading of the decasyllabic line as something akin to anapestic trimeter.
It's possible to read three accentual beats instead of four: "I am poor brother Lippo by your leave." The five stressed syllables of the second line, then, surprise readers. With a different number of stresses, and with those stresses in a different order, we fail to immediately observe a pattern. The second, third, and fourth lines function similarly; Browning refuses to introduce a stable metrical pattern, and no two decasyllabic five-beat lines feature the same pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables.
Only in lines 5-6 does Browning finally allow a regular pattern to emerge: two lines of perfect iambic pentameter, enjambed. Both by enjambing these lines and by varying the pattern of stressed syllables until this point, the perfect iambic pentameter of lines 5-6 simulates the stressed/unstressed pattern of accented syllables we often collapse into as we speak to one another in person. As mentioned, the entirety of these six lines aims to simulate speech, to simulate orality. The poem only seems speech-like because of its intricate composition.
Despite the oral familiarity of binary meter, however, metrical speech fails to really mimic the colloquial. We observe blatant artifice, and Browning's poem reads as no more speech-like for his contemporaries than nursery rhymes would read for us. To cite Culler, theorizing on historical and current lyricism: "The more such sound patterning is foregrounded, the more it evokes orality or voicing, but the less it represents any imaginable voice" (253). To exemplify the concept, when Noelle Kocot assembles her collection of counted verse, poems with lines of one word, we recognize the artificiality of her language. We cannot compare
If I pay you back in kind our betrayal will become our very grief
Although it reads as speech-like in the prose, the form of Kocot's poem exhibits an artifice that stymies any speech-like qualities in her language. Kocot emphasizes each individual word, an emphasis missing in the prose or spoken language. The iambs in Browning's poem function similarly. We recognize how emphasis is placed and meaning modified by the sonic rhythms: an artificial meter imposed on the language of the poem for effect. That effect, in "Fra Lippo Lippi," is to simulate speech, but simulation cannot equal representation. In summary, metonymizing the degree of technicality in "Fra Lippo Lippi" as "voice" ignores the intricacies of Browning's verse. We risk favoring the simulacrum over the simulation, and such rhetoric favors a reductive treatment of Browning's monolog. We do ourselves a disservice reading this composition as voice because we ignore the intricacies of the simulation.
The struggle with voice in the poem exceeds the monolog's use of craft to simulate orality, and further argument continues to problematize the popular definition. We need to consider, for example, both the speaker and the voice attributed to that speaker. We must ask ourselves: Does naming the speaker in "Fra Lippo Lippi" make this Lippi's voice that we identify? Is Lippi a character? Do the colloquialisms and speech-like simulation fictionalize Lippi enough to become a character? Is this a persona? (and) is it something else, the same voice of "My Last Duchess" or "The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church"?
We may forward endless questions along these lines of thought. Working within a framework of the speaker as a persona raises questions; it doesn't answer them. The questions are endless and increasingly insipid, a pointless inquiry yielding few results prompted by a New Critical methodology. Many critics, however, have grappled with these questions over the years, and their struggle demonstrates the futility of popularly using voice as a conceptual tool.
Specifically citing Browning, in fact, Eliot adamantly understands the voice in each poem as the poet's. He defines the voice of a dramatic monolog as "the voice of the poet speaking to another," rather than the voice of a wholly-formed character independent from the author and capable of interacting with others and her world diegetically. Browning "is speaking in the role of an historical personage," and may "only mimic a character otherwise known to us" (13-14). Browning, therefore, employs the same voice across several poems mimicking different personages. Eliot's use of "personage" becomes telling: this, the same term he used to describe Tiresias in The Waste Land more than twenty years prior to his lecture, The Three Voices of Poetry. In The Waste Land, Tiresias figures as "a mere spectator and not indeed a 'character' (23 n. 218) 4. Eliot, then, figures the speakers of Browning's poems, what we conceive of as the voices, similarly: effected simulations, mimicry performed by the poet.
Although he approaches the matter, Eliot never questions the speaker's role as a character-figure, fictional or nonfictional. The speaker is either the poet, nonfictionally, or a character, fictionally. As discussed earlier, this New Critical personified-speaker framework fails to provide an accurate model for a great deal of verse. Notably, Eliot's contemporaries considered his approach haphazard. Delmore Schwartz derided Eliot's criticism, how Eliot conceives of voice, as "deceptive when it is not false (232). Relating Eliot's criticism to Eliot's own verse, Schwartz terms the approach "inadequate and inaccurate" (233). Through Eliot's method, we arrive at no suitable answer on the matter of voice, further proving the difficulty of situating voice in a theoretical framework. As before, imposing arbitrary restrictions on our understanding of voice only continues to limit our understanding of the concept.
Contrast Browning's poem with those found in Tyehimba Jess' Olio. Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for "a distinctive work that melds performance art with the deeper art of poetry to explore collective memory and challenge contemporary notions of race and identity" ("The 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry"), Jess uncovers a black narrative within an historically privileged lyric tradition. As Jess put in one interview, "It's about deconstructing" African Americans' "received history and reconstructing it in a way through poems and through prose in a way that helps us better understand it" ("Unconventional").
If "olio" references a European minstrel's show, Jess narrativizes a Euro-American tradition of abuse, exploitation, slavery, and race. He parodies the European tradition and celebrates the survival and triumph of the abused, the exploited, and the enslaved. Although he presents what might be taken as a traditional narrative, with the "Cast of Characters" and other narrative elements, Jess presents a lyricism steeped in jazz. On a macro level, sonnet crowns and other sequences become polyrhythmic, interrupting and interrupted by other verses. Early in Olio, a crown depicting the tragic life of Blind Tom is interrupted, consistently, by dramatic monologs voiced simultaneously by multiple speaker-personas.
Many of these are also sonnets, albeit syncopated, and display Jess' riffs on and mastery of form. Jess assembles his collection while blatantly concerned with voice. He cites, "Patricia Smith's mastery of voice in her persona poems" as inspiration, and he consistently describes voice as critical to his composition ("Excavating"). He employs voices, narrativized speaker-personas, consistently throughout the book, but constant syncopation and other lyricisms refuse to allow this feature to function as readers might expect. Syncopation leads to innovations on both a macro and a micro level.
In "Millie-Christine's Love Story," part of the "McKoy Twins Syncopated Star," two speaker personas appear. For reference, I present the first quatrain,
Here—this is our story I want you to hear—
our own duet Listen to how they're bound in unison. Listen to the grave we have
—one body croon ng two notes. By God, ye' re
like sympathetic strings. Each sung sound Ringing within me and my other half;
and the final couplet,
I love this burden that we' ve been gi ven-
to ride the shared wake of one's bl ood rhythm . .5
These twin speakers' language merges and breaks, although in the first and final rhymed pairs, "hear" and "we're" and "given" and "rhythm" respectively, they speak together. It's a beautiful sonnet. It lyricizes a struggle within a narrative (in fact, nonfictional) that Jess has already shared:
The Creator consigned the McKoys with the grace and grit to be conjoined twins. To be born into slavery. To be regularly inspected by physicians to verify their combined condition; to be leased to travelling freak tours at the age of two. ("Cast of Characters")
Regardless, although this narrative may impact the sonnet, none of that appears. Language becomes a fragile construct in this poem, and we find no voice. For one, consider the language.
The artificiality (the syncopation) is clearly Jess' work. This is his language. Supporting that fact, it's absurd to imagine these twin figures as characters speaking together. Also, no "story" exists in the poem, despite the ironic title. Instead of narrative, the poem privileges meditation. No temporality exists within the poem. It could happen anytime, anywhere, and be repeated. It reads almost as a prayer, a lyrical construction in which fictionality proves largely coincidental.
The poem fails to adhere to our narrative expectations for a dramatic monolog, although evidence encourages us to treat the poem as such. We find no voice as the concept might popularly be understood. The characterized personas of Millie and Christine McKoy, the "Story" of the title, the general expectation for mimetic speech—all of these encourage us to look at Jess' sonnet as a dramatic monolog. But nobody speaks, per se. The lack of fictionality and non-mimetic qualities of the language distance the poem what we expect from a dramatic monolog. This poem work in other ways, and it works well, but it wasn't composed cohesively. Jess writes verse that wants to break apart, rather than present itself as a unified whole, and it is beautiful in that manner. I hold this poem up as an archetype for the work Jess assembles in Olio.
Other poems similarly complicate a reading of voice. The fourteen "Jubilee" sonnets culminate in the final fifteenth sonnet, "We've Sung Each Free Day Like It's Salvation." Jess tags several of the sonnets in the heroic crown with historical personas, such as "Jubilee: Jennie Jackson (1852-1910)." The poem narrates Jackson's escape from slavers and subsequent European education. Again, we find every indication of a voice in this poem. Jess voices a narrative of an historical personage, again parodying "Dramatic Lyrics."' Consistent reference to an "us" and an "I" also indicates the presence of a fictionalized speaker-persona.
Nevertheless, Jess again destabilizes voice. Framing this poem are the names of ten black churches gutted by arson in 1996. Jennie Jackson becomes a deliberate anachronism, likely intended to historicize the violence black communities continue to face. Similarly, we become consciously aware of the poem's artificiality, of Jess' craft at play, thus limiting the speaker and a projection of voice as it's popularly understood. Returning to the final sonnet, the fifteenth poem in the sequence also inhibits a reading of voice onto the poem. It remixes the language of the previous poems, citing from the first and final lines. This highlights the artificiality of the language, the speakers, and voice. Nobody speaks, because we recognize how artificial the language truly is.
Olio succeeds as a masterwork of sweeping historical thought and present consciousness. However, Olio also succeeds so well in part because it stymies the desire for cohesion, for unified voice. It exists in resistance to an expressive model of voice and voicing, to the expectation of speaker-personas and narrative popularized with modern hero-worship of the dramatic monolog.
My brief exploration of voice thus far demonstrates how the concept resists identification, categorization, and exact definition. It also demonstrates how verse can succeed by situating itself in resistance to compositional methodologies privileging voice. Nevertheless, we obsess over voice although in doing so we limit our understanding of the very features we mean it to metonymize. Consistent use of the term without recognizing both the implicit erasure and the inconsistent definition becomes increasingly more vapid and limiting. With this in mind, consistent use of the term voice becomes a serious danger.
The desire to find a voice has become a cliché, and expressions of that desire figure as one of the most common overuses of the term. Anecdotes abound. Once, I walked out of a graduate-level poetry workshop with a former friend. It was 10:00PM and dark. Waiting until we reached the parking lot, far away from the classroom and from other students, this friend turned to me. She said, "I wish I had a voice." She continued to insist that her poems lacked a stable voice, and what that meant she never clarified. She half-whispered, as though finding a voice necessitated conspiratorial paranoia, and then went on to summarize poets (all historical, all white, all male) whom she assumed her verse imitates.
Her continued description both of these poets and her imitations made no mention of the complicated rhythms and other elements comprising the poets' "voices." Nor do I believe that her work reflected an imitation of those traits. She wrote heavily-narrativized dramatic monologs with little fascinating language. I believe her use of the term "voice" as the feature she most intended to imitate contributed to the conceptual erasure of those implicit traits both in her lengthy confession and in her own writing. This obsession with voice insidiously obstructs our ability to recognize the elements of craft we claim to study and to practice.
Returning to the topic at hand, the constant overuse of the term voice, Mary Reufle summarizes the stereotype:
Young poets are always talking about voice. Do I have a voice? How can I get a voice? What is a voice? How long will getting a voice take? And then, voila: Now that I have a voice, I am terribly depressed by my voice, having a voice has kinda made me a robot, hasn't it? ("On Theme" 58-59)
For Reufle, the obsession with voice highlights the individualistic nature of an American sociocultural aesthetic best commented on by "a political analyst" (59). Although youth seems a poor prerequisite, finding a voice becomes the "young poet's" privileged individual achievement. It symbolizes a personal victory worthy of celebration that rapidly devolves into the banal. If we mean a voice to belong to an individual (be it speaker or poet) as the metaphor suggests, we ironically abandon our individuality in the collective obsession to find one. Yes, you can be unique. Just like everybody else.
Finding a voice? It’s like buying an iPhone. Screw that shit. To further that metaphor, we expect a voice to come with all kinds of bells and apps and whistles. But those bells and apps and whistles are objects of our own creation. We can’t just download them into our verse from an App Store. Nevertheless, as demonstrated in the term’s resistance to definition, finding a voice achieves little, and the workshop lyric it encourages has been consistently denigrated over the past half-century. The quest to find a voice becomes as vapid as the term itself.
In Reufle’s rhetoric, the problem is robots—or, if not robots, then certainly the homogeneity motivated by both a superficial conceptualization of voice and the popular desire for one. Culler describes voice-focused methodologies as “extraordinarily limited and limiting”(2).
It’s a problem that experimental poets have struggled with for decades with varying degrees of (typically temporary) success. Commenting in 1983, Lyn Hejinian describes a “coercive, epiphanic mode in some contemporary lyric poetry that can serve as a negative model, with its smug pretensions to universality and its tendency to cast the poet as guardian to Truth” (“The Rejection of Closure”). This epiphanic mode, what might also be described as workshop lyric, results in tepid verse. Three decades later, Marjorie Perloff echoes Heijinian in her infamous “Poetry on the Brink.” An unsuccessful poem, she explains, will exhibit:
1) lines of free verse, with little to no emphasis on the construction of the line itself or on what the Russian Formalists called “the word as such”; 2) prose syntax with lots of prepositional and parenthetical phrases, laced with graphic imagery or even extravagant metaphor (the sign of “poeticity”); 3) the expression of a profound thought or small epiphany, usually based on a particular memory, designating the lyric speaker as a particularly sensitive person who really feels the pain, whether of our imperialist wars in the Middle East or of late capitalism or of some personal tragedy such as the death of a loved one.
Perloff’s essay suggests Conceptual verse as an antidote to that tepid verse. Conceptual poetics certainly stand in resistance to the expressive model we expect of voice-focused methodologies, as I’ve mentioned earlier, but other kinds of lyricism function similarly. There also exist many good poems written in the manner she derides. Perloff’s explosive rhetoric by no means provides a road map for success as one might assume from her tone. Neither Heijinian nor Perloff explicitly mention voice, but their criticisms target similar issues as my own(7).
The overuse of voice in criticism and composition likely encourages the exact verse these critics denigrate. Ultimately, our incessant concern with voice when discussing poetry lends itself to a vapid poetics, one consistently denigrated since such practice became common in American verse. It proves difficult to consider this methodological practice successful, yet it persists as we obsess over voice. The almost constant use of voice in regards to poetry vitiates discussions of verse.
Personal aesthetics and preferences aside, poetry should be whatever and however we want it to be, decided not as a homogeneous collective in the pursuit of ambiguous oral metaphors but as individuals in a current act of creation. Voice-focused compositional methodologies limit us. They prevent us from discovering everything that poetry is or can be. Anything less than a liberatory poetics actively limits literary progress, whether we choose in that poetics to compose a sonnet, a found poem, or some other structure. We can be better than robots, but we need to stop obsessing over voice.
The pursuit of voice, whatever we believe voice to be, insidiously contributes to the limiting of literary progress in at least two ways. First, the quest for a voice limits our understanding of the very craft we mean it to represent. Second, it perpetuates the collective erasure of that craft from our conceptual model of verse. Poetry becomes robotic, tepid dramatic monologues investing in mimetic speech. Both by eliding the intricate patterns and content by which we figure orality in a text and by collectively pursuing that elision, we begin the alarming process of limiting and of erasing our critical and creative faculties. We can do more than be scared into talking so much and so reverently about voice when discussing compositional strategies for verse.
“The 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.” The Pulitzer Prizes, http://pulitzer.org/winners/tyehimba-jess.
Accessed 20 July 2017.
Beasley, Sandra. “What We Talk About When We Talk About Voice.” Writer’s Chronicle, vol. 49, no. 4, 2017, pp. 75-84.
Browning, Robert. “Fra Lippo Lippi.” Poetry Foundation, http://poetryfoundation.org/poems/43755/fra-lippo-lippi. Accessed 1 July 2017.
Culler, Jonathon. A Theory of the Lyric. Harvard UP, 2015.
de Man, Paul. “Anthropomorphism and Trope in the Lyric.” The Rhetoric of Romanticism. Columbia UP, 1984, pp. 239-262.
Eliot, T.S. The Waste Land (1922). Norton, 2001. The Three Voices of Poetry. Cambridge UP, 1954.
Goldsmith, Kenneth. Day. The Figures, 2003.
Hejinian, Lyn. “The Rejection of Closure.” Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69401/the-rejection-of-closure. Accessed 1 August 2017.
Jess, Tyehimba. Olio. Wave Books, 2016.
“The Unconventional Poetry of Tyehimba Jess.” NPR, 15 July 2017, https://npr.org/2017/07/15/537381252/the-unconventional-poetry-of-tyehimba-jess. Accessed 11 September 2017.
“Tyehimba Jess on Excavating Popular Music Through Poetry: Exploring the Sustenance
of Song and Historical Clapbacks.” Lithub, 5 May 2016, https://lithub.com/tyehimba-jess-on-excavating-popular-music-through-poetry. Accessed 11 September 2017.
Kocot, Noelle. “Quotient.” Phantom Pains of Madness, Wave Books, 2016, pp. 87-88.
Parini, Jay. Robert Frost: a life. Henry Holt and Company, 2015.
Perloff, Marjorie. “Poetry on the Brink.” Boston Review, 18 May 2012, https://bostonreview.net/forum/poetry-brink. Accessed 1 August 2017.
Richards, E. “Voice.” The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, edited by Roland Green, et al., Princeton UP, 4th Edition, 2012. Credo Reference, http://credoreference.com. Accessed 5 June 2017.
Ruefle, Mary. “On Theme.” Madness, Rack, and Honey, Wave Books, 2012, pp. 53-72.
Schwartz, Delmore. “T.S. Eliot’s Voice and His Voices: III.” Poetry, vol. 85, no. 4, 1955, pp.
232-242. JSTOR, https://jstor.org/stable/20585575. Accessed 12 December 2016.
Smith, Barbara Hernstein. Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poems End. U of Chicago P, 1968.
Warner, Marina. Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism. 1981. Oxford UP, 2013.
1 Anne Carson’s fantastic essay on untranslatability, “Variations on the Right to Remain Silent”
involves Warner’s narrative of Joan of Arc, the voices Joan reported, as metaphor in the meaning
making process. Notably, for Carson, meaning exists in the unsayable. Joan of Arc’s voices, and
her rendering of them, proves only one method of rationalizing meaning. It’s not necessarily the
2 I distinguish between the verb, to voice, and the noun, voice. The former acknowledges the
intended performance of a lyric, whether orally or on the page. I consider this usage appropriate.
The latter term denotes the language spoken within the text of a poem as inherently spoken, and
it proves particularly problematic insofar as it fails to genuinely characterize the text’s
3 The Italianate name is pronounced “Lee-po.” Stress falls only on the first syllable. The word
cannot be read as a spondee.
4 Eliot contradicts himself in his notes. Tiresias’ parenthetical aside, “(And I Tiresias have foresuffered all / Enacted on this same divan or bed...)" suggests a more active role than passive observer. Although Tiresias’ experiences occur outside of the poem, Eliot connects those to the typist’s rape. Tiresias becomes an active participant in the trauma.
5 Both the smaller font and the italics are Jess’ own, copied from the text.
6 The majority of Browning’s dramatic monologues in the collection parody historical personages, rather than fictional entities.7 Hejinian was published in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and remains closely associated with that movement. Perloff is close friends with Goldsmith and champions Conceptual verse, as in “Poetry on the Brink.” That each author comments negatively in some way on the “workshop lyric” resulting from an over-consideration of voice is telling. I am indebted to John Beer and his essay, “To Write the Larger Scene: Notes on the New Political Lyric,” for connecting Hejinian’s and Perloff’s comments. In the essay, Beer reviews Olio and other texts.