Poetic Voice Lessons
Lesson 2: Expand your range
by Violet Nesdoly
This is our seventh column in Violet's "Poet's Classroom" series.
Nothing spells disaster for a singer like a case of laryngitis. A close second is a limited range—above and below which notes are strained and pitch is off key. Did you know that writers can also suffer from laryngitis and a limited range? In this second voice lesson, we’re going to work at developing voice. We’ll look at some things that cause poetic laryngitis and suggest exercises to help you find your writing voice and expand your range.
1. Mental and emotional permission
When poet Sheila Bender began writing poetry she described her voice as “rusty from disuse.” Under the teaching of poet David Wagoner, she explored reasons for this and found they were mostly mental and emotional. She realized that her family looked on art as superfluous. Furthermore, when she wrote about deep feelings, she felt like she was betraying her parents and husband. In order for her to “sing loudly and at greater length,” like her teacher instructed, she needed to give herself permission to write, and to write about certain subjects.1
The same may be true for you. You may feel strongly about some things, yet when you write about them you worry about betraying those close to you, disappointing those who have ideas of what you’re like, or even compromising your own ideals. The permissions and taboos we impose on our writing are personal. It’s important to realize, though, that these self-imposed rules will affect voice, perhaps even our ability to sing at all.
2. Bombast Complex
After spending some years in jail before becoming a writer, Les Edgerton occasionally returned to visit his former mates and encourage them to believe that life could be turned around. He soon began getting letters from inmates that were “rollicking and exhilarating.” They told of car chases, lawyerly ineptitude, shootouts, judges they were convinced had been fixed and more.
So impressed was Edgerton with what he called the “literary gold” of these letters, he invited the writers to send him stories they had written. But did he get back writing of the same quality? No. The stories they sent were “writerly”—poor mimics of Zane Gray or as stiff as school essays.2
The same thing can happen to you. If instead of being yourself on the page, you write to impress the reader, your voice can get lost in Thesaurus-hyped purple or academic stiffness and bombast. Natalie Goldberg says, “Learn to trust the force of your own voice. Naturally it will evolve a direction…but it will come from a different place than your need to be an achiever.”3
Voice Exercises: Find your voice and expand your range
Before we go any further, let’s make sure we’re on the same page by reviewing what we mean by voice in poetry. In Voice Lesson 1 we used John Drury’s Poetry Dictionary definition of voice: “…the characteristic sound, style, manner, tone of a particular poet or poem.”4 We examined the elements he named in his definition—diction, syntax, attitudes, subject matter, rhythmic proclivities, line lengths, punctuation, the presence or absence of meter and rhyme, and tone—and explored how each contributes to a poet’s voice.
Keeping that definition in mind, here are six things you can do to help you re-discover your voice and expand your range.
1. Find your subject matter.
What matters to you? What affects you deeply? To discover what these things are, make a list of high points, low points and turning points in your life. These subjects will probably lead to your most powerful poems.
In addition, always carry a notebook with you to record ideas. As poet and teacher Michael Bugeja says, “If you record your muse, you’ll increase your output as a poet. You’ll also become more aware of epiphanies and experiences.”5
2. Imitate the poets you admire.
Artist Pablo Picasso believed that the very attempt to recreate another artist’s pictorial voice ultimately led an artist to his own. Writer Gabriele Rico says, “…we grow into our own voices by trying on many voices, not just the voices outside of us, but the multiple voices within us…. All the voices you try on are aspects of yourself.”6
To mimic a writer, pick a written passage (poetry or prose) you admire and read it several times. Choose a word from that passage. Prepare to write by doing an idea-generating exercise from that word such as brainstorming a list or making a word cluster.
Now do a timed free-write, keeping the sound of the model passage in mind as you write. Return to your free-write later and refine what you have written into a poem or salvage one or two lines to use later in another poem.
You could also do a poem echo. Copy out a favorite short poem. Below it write a poem of your own (any subject) using the same line, sentence and punctuation structure as your model poem.
3. Use the four-step voice process (developed by Michael Bugeja7).
In relation to any specific poem ask:
i] With whom am I speaking (myself, child, parent, society at large, etc.)? The listener may never make an appearance, but having him in your mind as you write will help you determine the voice of the piece.
ii] Where is this conversation taking place? Again, the setting may or may not make an appearance. But even if it is only in your imagination, it can affect your tone.
iii] What is the nature of the epiphany I wish to share? A self-deprecating poem that makes fun of a quirk of yours will surely have a different tone than one in which you realize how unforgivness has shriveled your spirit.
iv] What voice is appropriate for i, ii and iii above? List the adjectives that describe the voice you’d like people to hear from your poem. Now go through your poem again and substitute words that best convey the voice you are after.
4. Explore your own various voices.
Identify the voices you use throughout the day e.g. spouse, parent, employee, child. Do a free-write on any topic in the voice of each of these personas.
5. Get into character.
Reread a favorite Bible story. Rewrite that story from the point of view and in the voice of each main (or minor) character.
6. Read your poem aloud.
Read your poem aloud to determine how your poem’s voice comes across orally. Adjust the physical elements of your poem—line lengths (short lines slow the reading, long lines speed it up), punctuation, stanza breaks etc.—to reflect how you would like others to read/hear it.
Vocalists work on scales and exercises regularly and for years to bring their voices to full potential. Voice training for the poet takes time and practice too. But unlike the rote repeating of scales and exercises that train a singer’s voice, a writer’s voice training is far more varied. Each day can be a foray into new territory. Gabriele Rico calls it play: “We learn about voice in writing by taking on many voices, by experimenting, by allowing our imaginations to express this voice, that voice. In the process we find the writer’s voice that is most authentically our own… Only by playing can you discover authenticity of voice. No one can do it for you.”8
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Copyright ©2009 by Violet Nesdoly
 Sheila Bender, Writing Personal Poetry (Writer’s Digest Books, 1998), p. 13
 Les Edgerton, Finding Your Voice (Writer’s Digest Books, 2003), p. 2
 Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones (Shambhala, 1986), p. 37
 John Drury, The Poetry Dictionary (Writer’s Digest Books, 2006), p. 342
 Michael Bugeja, The Art and Craft of Poetry (Writer’s Digest Books, 1994), p. 19
 Gabriele Rico, Writing the Natural Way (Tarcher / Putnam, 2000), p. 171
 Adapted from The Art and Craft of Poetry, p. 144
 Gabriele Rico, Writing the Natural Way, p. 173