When I started to read poetry I found that certain poets grabbed my attention, they possessed something unique. It took me a few months to figure out what that something was. I eventually figured out what set these poets apart was a strong and very recognisable ‘Poetic Voice’.
This was a eureka moment for me. And so like a terrier, I predictably went in search of my own Poetic Voice and ran smack bang into a brick wall.
I knew if I wanted to write honest poetry that I needed to define myself and to do that I needed to find and hone my ‘Poetic Voice’. But first I needed to define this magical characteristic. I needed to discover what a poetic voice was, I would need to break it down into its constituent parts and then rebuild it around myself.
So, what is the poetic voice?
Prosaically speaking it is the quality and unique voice of a poet that tells you immediately who is speaking. Examples of strong poetic voice for me were Charles Bukowski, Sylvia Plath and my fellow countryman Seamus Heaney. When I read their work I knew immediately it was theirs, I didn’t need to see their name at the bottom of a page to know it was theirs but I still had not identified the magic that made up the ‘Poetic Voice’ of these masters of their craft.
It took me some time and much research to define this mysterious characteristic but eventually I found what I believe to be the secret of a strong ‘Poetic Voice’
The ingredients are:
- Grammar & Syntax
- Subject Matter
- Magic (The hardest to define)
Grammar & Syntax
Grammar: the whole system and structure of a language or of languages in general, usually taken as consisting of syntax and morphology (including inflections) and sometimes also phonology and semantics.
Syntax: the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences in a language.
So we know the definitions of both Grammar and Syntax but how do they affect our work, or how did they affect the work of the great poets? I believe that firstly you need to know the basic rules of both and then, and only then, are you free to break them. Consider EE Cummings, a wonderful poet who broke each and every rule of both grammar and syntax and in doing so rewrote the rules of poetry. Cummings was such a master of language that he could do this. He flaunted the rules and in doing so set about defining his poetic voice.
Consider this poem by Cummings
[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]
E. E. CUMMINGS
i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)
My old English teacher (if he didn’t know the poet) would have decimated this poem with his red pen and yet Cummings wrote in this style and made it his own and in doing so became one of the most popular poets of his and our time.
In any discussion of poetic form we can not ignore the work of William Shakespeare, famous for his sonnets. An understanding of the tight traditional forms of poetry is important to any emerging poet and again, once we understand these rules we can go ahead and break them. We can find our own form. Form should be like an old pair of shoes, we should feel comfortable and familiar with our chosen form. Many poets will say that they ignore form but be assured, that the best poets only ignore it because they have a deep understanding and appreciation of it.
Perhaps the most important constituent of a poem is its musicality; poetry is first and foremost an auditory experience and so the flow and rhythm of words is central to a reader’s enjoyment of a poem. Consider how the use of assonance, consonance, alliteration, rhyme and prosody contribute to the sound of your poetry. Musicality and mood are influenced by word choice.
The poet Stephen Dobyns points out that specific sounds evoke certain emotions. Consonant plosives (usually referred to as the sounds made by the letters d, b, p, c, t and k) lend themselves to a fast pace and explosive action. When making those sounds, the mouth exhales a puff of air, often with force. In contrast, the consonant sounds that are longer in duration (f, th, sh, l and wh) provide a softer sound and calmer feel. Consider these staccato and legato sounds when composing your work.
Sylvia Plath’s poem Daddy illustrates these concepts well. Just reading the title, the reader finds his mouth making two plosive consonant sounds, for the first d sound and the second. In addition, the mouth is required to make the long e sound at the end of the word, emphasising the sharpness of the consonants before it. Those sounds continue throughout the poem, as the first stanza indicates:
You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.
Subject matter / Muse
This is where the real voice of the poet will start to emerge. Having learned and mastered grammar and syntax, form and musicality the final element is your subject matter. Yeats wrote about Ireland, Heaney also. Bukowski wrote about his life, Plath about hers. Langston Hughes wrote about the struggle of black Americans and the ghetto poor. A strong poetic voice comes, in part, from writing about those things you know well.
Writing from your own experience brings an honesty to your work, using your everyday voice and harnessing the power of musicality, form, syntax and grammar is what produces the magic.
Be protective of your voice, play with it as you write but remain true to it. Your work developing your poetic voice will result in poetry that connects with readers and in time perhaps will mark you as a master of your craft.