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Speaking in Voices

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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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Eating Poetry (XLII) – Sunder

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I just turned in my “Poetic License” column for the upcoming spring issue of West. It’s topic is poetic voice. An extraordinary poetic voice is that of Atsuro Riley, featured here once before, just a short while ago. One is instantly aware of the the uniqueness of his voice. It diminishes that uniqueness not at all – the poeticized rural Southern diction – to remark on the reminiscence in the voice, in its clipped, energized rhythms and inventive syntactical arrangements, of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Note the opening “A last rock-skip hurlstorm” and the “In right lockstitch/ snared and split.” Note Riley’s delay of the verb and adverb until the end of a clause:

By dawn the older brother took to chucking
what bottle-frags he could find and crud-oysters across

and again,

Where it was they landed (why) nobody not them knows.

As always, there is the coiled emotive power.

Sunder
by Atsuro Riley

A last rock-skip hurlstorm (crazing river-glass)

the closest they ever were.

In right lockstitch

snared and split some fire-supper cooked on sticks.

By dawn the older brother took to chucking

what bottle-frags he could find and crud-oysters across.

The (high-pitched) younger blacked our waters

with a yowl.

Lord the sound such as rose from him

carried so—

Carved

into us. Clings.

Hadn’t they clung tooth and claw to branch and bark.

—Came a man (and truck) to take them off.

Dieseled those boys off

away

some say somewheres upcountry,

inland.

Where it was they landed (why) nobody not them knows.

No body not them knows

just how they humped and grubbled home

what road they’d graved what woods criss-crossed

which creeks which trains they’d hopped who helped.

Came safe home sure        but blank as houses.

Came safe home       —as him  —and him.

—as (evermore) not them.

Source: Poetry (April 2011).

 

 

 

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Eating Poetry (XXXIX) – “From back when it was Nam time I tell you what”

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Here is the vernacular as the purest verbal music, singing the culture from which it is pulled, clots of earth still clinging. You may find it hard to separate the units of meaning on first read. It will be easier on second, and if you listen here to the poet reading it, you will feel you emerged from a cave into sunlight. A better reading, I think, would be faster clipped, more energetic, but still, it is like learning a new language on first hearing.

Hutch

By Atsuro Riley

—by way of what they say

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.

 

Mongst tar-pines come upon this box-thing worked from scrapwood.
Puts me much myself in mind of a rabbit-crouch.
Is it more a meat-safe.
Set there hid bedded there looking all the world like a coffin.
Somebody cares to tend to it like a spring gets tendered clears the leaves!

 

Whosoever built it set wire window-screen down the sides.
Long about five foot or thereabouts close kin to a dog-crate.
A human would have to hunch.
Closes over heavy this hingey-type lid on it like a casket.
Swearing to Jesus wadn’t it eye-of-pine laid down for the floor.

 

Remembering the Garner twins Carl and Charlie come home mute.
Cherry-bombs 4th of July them both belly-scuttling under the house.
Their crave of pent-places ditchpipes.
Mongst tar-pines come upon this box-thing worked from scrapwood.
From back when it was Nam time I tell you what.

 

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