Speaking in Voices


In the new, spring issue of West, my Poetic License column offers a discussion of voice in poetry, in introduction to the poetry of John Spaulding, whose The White Train was chosen by Henry Taylor for the National Poetry Series in 2004.

The first thing I look for in a poem is its voice. It is likely not the first thing I find. That may be an image, a sound, a surprising collision of words. These will help create the voice, but they are not yet it, and it is only once I hear the voice that I know if it is a poem for which I will feel passion, to which I will commit myself. How much more joy in the story if one loves to hear the storyteller’s voice.

With all its other virtues, there is the melancholic musical voice of Eliot’s “The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the grandiloquent heroism of Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” the sprung-rhythm energy, as much in despair as in joy of the Lord, of Gerard Manley Hopkins. It is no different for me in poetry than it is in fiction, with narrative voice. Do I want to travel with this persona? Will I be ever engaged, even thrilled, and wish to return to it? Began Auden in “September 1, 1939,”

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade.

A direct, blunt voice, ready to deliver plainspoken truths. Tell it to me, brother.

Concluded Larry Levis, in “The Poem You Asked For,”

And the poem demanded the food,
it drank up all the water,

beat me and took my money,
tore the faded clothes
off my back,

said Shit,
and walked slowly away,
slicking its hair down.

Said it was going
over to your place.

Any poem that’s going to say sheeeit to me is welcome to come on over.

Paul Zimmer opens “The Eisenhower Years” with similar vernacular, if not so streetwise, voicings.

Flunked out and laid-off
Zimmer works for his father
At Zimmer’s Shoes for Women.
The feet of old women awaken
From dreams they groan and rub
Their hacked-up corns together

The more eccentric the voice, which is to say a distinctive, of-an-only-kind, there-can-hardly-be-its-like voice, the more I like it. Here is Atsuro Riley, in “Hutch,” conjuring a rural Southern world as much in the voice as in any detail.

From back when it was Nam time I tell you what.
Them days men boys gone dark groves rose like Vietnam bamboo.
Aftergrowth something awful.
Green have mercy souls here seen camouflage everlasting.
Nary a one of the brung-homes brung home whole.

So it was that the first time I read this issue’s featured poet, John Spaulding, it was the voice right away that clove me to him. From his 1986 collection Walking in Stone, about the Native American-European contact:

We are the knife people, iron men, coat people
and he-lands-sailing.
Souse eaters, house makers, husbands
of kine and goat and swine, farm builders
and keepers of kettle and scummer, word
scratchers, corn stealers and bad sleepers.

As if towns could build themselves.
As if stumps jumped from the ground or
flesh of beasts fell into trenchers.
As if paradise prevailed on earth.

The magisterial earth tone stood me up straight. This was not just one more pome. This was poetry.

Read the whole thing, the poetry of John Spaulding, and more here.

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