Voice

I follow the Women’s Poetry Listserve (Wom-Po), and recently there was a discussion there concerning what poetic voice is. Can it be defined clearly? Does it differ, and if so how, from style? Is it personal, belonging to the writer herself–an attitude? Is it distinct from the creator of the poem, as the “speaker” of the poem arguably is in the case of poetic voice/persona?
A listserv member offered this quote from Kunitz:
“One of my convictions is that at the center of every poetic imagination is a cluster of key images which go back to the poet’s childhood and which are usually associated with pivotal experiences, not necessarily traumatic. That cluster of key images is the purest concentration of the self, the individuating node. You can tell the poets who are working at their center by the distinctiveness of their voice, their constellation of key images, their instantly recognizable beat.” … from Stanley Kunitz‘s 1975 lecture at the Library of Congress, “From Feathers to Iron.”

A constellation of key images may seem to be imagery, not voice at all; but Kunitz’s decision to connect distinctive voice with a recognizable beat and images, and to further suggest that these mesh to in the compositions of a poet who is writing with clarity and authenticity (my interpretation of what he means by “working at their center”), indicates that voice is a critical component of poetry. I have read the above-mentioned lecture, but Kunitz does not there elaborate on whether he means the writer’s personality, style, or attitude or whether he means, instead, persona. It seems to me, though, that he wasn’t talking about persona (the “speaker” or mask the writer uses in an individual piece). I interpret that the key constellation of images, the “individuating node,” would have to be personal experience of the actual writer–Roland Barthes be damned.

CH Chucrch

Gaston Bachelard’s phenomenological approach to poetics and, to some extent, psychology, appears to jive with Kunitz’s pivotal childhood images. It is easier to recognize one’s own key images in one’s work, of course…and I cannot help but recognize that Kunitz has nailed it for me, at least, if not for all poets (writers, artists, musicians, etc.). My own cluster of images, drawn from childhood, include the church. Also the beat of hymns and responsive readings and the King James and RSV Bibles. Also the bleat and wail of diesel engine horns, the progression of fields and trees and flowers, the hum of highways, the sluggish flow of certain rivers. To mention but a few that stay with me.

I am not an adherent to any particular style or form of literary critique, and I am not a whole-hearted phenomenologist, either–but I have to admit that these concepts (the individual’s key images, the individual voice and the persona voice, the rhythm or beat of a writer/speaker) intrigue me. I find them well worth exploring, mulling over.

See Dave Bonta’s Via Negativa post here for a mini-photo-essay that illustrates what I mean.

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Er – sur –

Mary Ruefle writes, in her book of “lectures,” Madness, Rack, & Honey: “I remember being so young I thought all artists were good, kind, loving, exceptionally interesting, and exemplary human beings.”

I was a child like that. It’s good to know there was at least one other. We grow up to know that such artists are far from common. But they do exist.

Each time I learned a “bad” thing about an artist, poet, or writer I loved, I felt a little deflated. Something was being taken away from my idea of the person who made such wonderful work.

Later, I rather empathized with Roland Barthes’ theorizing about the death of the author. Not because I was necessarily post-modern but because sometimes, I wanted the artist-as-person to be erased so that I could go back to loving the art-as-art. This was a juvenile way of thinking about both human beings and about art.

But: the lure of erasure…

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Ruefle muses about time, about art, literature, and the human being. Her assays to determine what endures among us often feel a bit cryptic or aphoristic at the first encounter. The wisdom in them, and the layeredness–and the awareness of what is “missing” in her texts–evolved in my own mind as I read her book, slowly.

She has used erasure as a means to expression and to beauty, as it happens. Examples of her erasure poems appear on The Poetry Foundation’s website here.

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The closing epigraph of Madness, Rack, & Honey (is it an epigraph if it falls at the end of the book?) is from Samuel Pepys’ Diary following the Great Fire “…an abundance of pieces of burnt papers were cast by the wind as far as Cranborne; and among others she took up one…which was a little bit of paper that had been printed, whereon there remained no more nor less than these words: “Time, it is done.”

Time.clock

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For Dave Bonta’s interpretation of erasure poems–based upon Pepys’ diary–see via negativa here.

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“Exhibit 13,” by Blue Man Group, follows an abundance of pieces of burnt papers cast by the wind, as well.