Poetic Voice Lessons
Lesson 1: Sharpen your ear
by Violet Nesdoly
This is our sixth column in Violet's "Poet's Classroom" series.
Chances are what attracts you to your favorite fiction writer, newspaper columnist, blogger, or poet has a lot to do with voice. Les Edgerton, author of an entire book on voice says, “The theory I’ve arrived at ... is that readers select certain authors to read in much the same way they select their personal friends: on the basis of the ‘voice’ (personality) of that person.”1
If voice is so important and having a pleasing one determines whether you’ll be published and read, a study of voice is worth a little time and effort. Let’s take a close look at voice, then, with a focus on voice in poetry.
In this first voice lesson we’ll ask ourselves what voice is. We’ll take apart the notion of voice by isolating its components and thinking about how each might contribute to a poet’s voice. We’ll practice listening by reading segments from poems by contemporary Christian poets. Finally, we’ll describe the voice we hear coming from each.
Finding a useful definition of voice was not as cut and dried as I expected it to be. The simplest said that voice was the revelation of a writer’s personality. That is somewhat helpful. But for the purposes of getting our teeth into the concept, I settled on John Drury’s poetry dictionary definition: “The characteristic sound, style, manner, tone of a particular poet or poem. On the page voice comprises diction (word choice), syntax (word arrangement), attitudes, subject matter, rhythmic proclivities, line lengths, punctuation, the presence or absence of meter and rhyme, and tone.”2
Let’s look closely at the elements in Drury’s definition (not necessarily in his order), to see what each might contribute to a poet’s voice.
A poem begins with subject matter. It’s an important starting point in developing voice, according to Michael Bugeja: “When they (well known poets like Sylvia Path) matured as poets, they began to write about people and topics that thoroughly consumed then.... Once they had discovered their subject matter, voice followed.”3
Another aspect of subject matter would be the imagery used. The world those images are taken from (for example nature, home, war, business), their originality and the aptness of the comparison all contribute to a poet’s voice.
Tone is a musical term that suggests the very sound of the voice coming from the page. It is also sometimes used interchangeably with mood. How writers achieve tone or mood brings into play other elements of voice like diction and syntax. A poet’s sensitivity to a word’s shades of meaning affect diction. For example it will dictate what synonym for “run” he will use in a certain poem, knowing that gallop, jog and flee each indicate, besides a different speed, a different mood. And the order of words (syntax) will be influenced not only by rules of grammar and which word sounds best at the end of the line, but also by the weight of the idea or thought that the end word conveys.
The length of lines, rhythmic proclivities of the writing, and the punctuation—in the way they imply pauses, places of emphasis, places to speed up, slow down, and stop—give us a glimpse into how the poet wants the piece to sound when read aloud. The use of meter and rhyme, and their way of satisfying us at a deep level, may leave us with the feeling that the poet sees things in an orderly, tidy-ending way, as opposed to the more random, loose-end feeling conveyed by some free verse poetry.
Other things that are achieved with these choices is writing that contains nuance and attitude. All the elements work together to become the writer’s voice or personality behind the words on the page.
One of the first things we can do to become aware of voice—our own and others—is to listen for it. To give you some practice, try the exercise below. Read each poem segment, then choose a word or words to describe how that poet’s voice sounds to you. My responses follow the poems—but of course, there are no right or wrong answers.
Just try it. If you dare,
I will hang you
from the highest tree
for the frail eyes
of this earth
(Read all of “Cursed.”)
Those months of infatuation
Our honeymoon is in pictures
boxed away somewhere.
It’s been rocky:
anger, a separation or two.
(Read all of “The Relationship.”)
O God, Your righteous judgments give the king
Who shall with justice judge the waiting poor;
And lofty peaks and tiny hills will bring
Peace, and by righteousness the calm restore.
(Read all of “The Reign of Messiah.”)
Sobs crack air
eyes, tumid map of veins
pulse a widow’s elegy
scan horizon flat as hope
(Read all of “Naomi.”)
I picked ripe
In a gentle summer rain.
(Read all of “This Evening.”)
I can’t help myself, caught up in your love. On my tip
toes dancing, side to side, round and round, dip,
swerve. Got to have a lot of nerve to dance so wild
No, not really, caught up in His love, seeing Him with
eyes like a child. All my senses absorb all they can.
(Read all of “Caught Up.”)
Wire-strung words transmit requests for prayer.
The assassin returns, aims, strikes vulnerability,
recalls your mother caught in the crosshairs.,
Sights daughter pain across soft milk flesh
targets an inheritance the size of a plum.
(Read entire poem “April Winter.”)
Here are my responses. Were they anything like yours?
1. taunting, disdainful
2. resigned, intimate, honest
3. dignified, elevated
4. hopeless, doleful
5. simple, direct
6. energetic, excited, joyful
7. intelligent, alert, violated
Do you want to sharpen your ear some more? Try this: Find a writer’s voice that you like a lot and a writer’s voice that you don’t like at all. Study them closely. How are they different? Similar? Try to find the ingredients that make one voice appealing and the other unappealing.
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Copyright ©2009 by Violet Nesdoly
 Les Edgerton, Finding Your Voice—How to Put Personality In Your Writing page 4
 John Drury, the poetry dictionary page 342
 Michael Bugeja, The Art and Craft of Poetry page 140