There is much I want to say about voice, but the subject is varied and, in its own way, inexhaustible. I hope to return to it as the month goes on. But for the moment, I want you to consider just how many ways a voice can make its way onto the page, and to consider your own voice.
NaPoWriMo: April is National Poetry Writing Month!
When the writer encounters the page, what the pen reveals is a mixture of several elements, all swirling or steaming about in one’s head, ingredients that combine to make something greater than the whole. Poetry differs from prose in that it uses a kind of music to deliver its thrust, its zing. Words are a salt bomb, that twinge of tart or umami that the palate cannot miss. And, just as with actual cooking, it is often the order in which the ingredients go in, and the time they simmer, that create the finished product.
What distinguishes one writer from another, beyond the obsessions that make their way to the page, are the choices they make, and one of the most important and controlling choices will always be how the writer decides to present their ideas, how they communicate. Poetry is told in words, but the medium differs from prose, and not just by line breaks. It is entirely possible to write a broken prose. There is a sense of cohesiveness, togetherness, that coalesces into a distinct sum; and a major determining factor will be the delivery of the emotion/idea.
Poems are like jokes: they are impossible to paraphrase. To get at the marrow of a poem, you must read it in its originality. (Of course, this makes poems in foreign languages far more difficult; you’re thrown back on complete trust in the translator.) And just like with jokes, it is pace, the emphasis, the vernacular, that sets up the tension and lets it resolves.
In The Poet’s Companion (pp. 115-116), Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux explain:
In poetry, the term voice has been used to describe that sense of a unique presence on the page—an unmistakable something that becomes the mark of a writer, a way of saying things that is the writer’s own. . . . We want a presence that convinces, one that engages and seduces a reader into the world of our poems, a voice a reader will want to listen to. When we fail to produce this voice, the poem fails. The reader laughs when we want her to cry, or turns away disinterestedly when we passionately want his attention from her. The poem doesn’t communicate what we meant; the voice is garbled, confused, talking to itself.
Intrinsic to the modulation of voice is word choice, also known as diction—the vocabulary of a piece. The first words of the first line are very important because, just like in a game, one’s first moves delimit the rest of your available choices. They set tone. (Tone operates like mood in fiction, though mood is usually connected to setting, which is not a necessary element in poetry.) While tone can certainly shift as the poem expands, if the poem drops or switches tone without warrant—without earning that change—the reader will be wildered and often will step out of the poem to see what they missed. This is dangerous territory—the reader may lay the poem aside and never return.
So it’s important to pay attention to one’s initial word choices to see what they can offer as a springboard for the universe of words the poem is first permitted. Diction necessarily narrows one’s pool of availability. As the poem grows and utilizes more words, that universe expands (or, just as often, becomes more fine-tuned and specialized).
Style, too, becomes tangled up in this process. “style is really interchangeable with voice, in this sense, and it’s useful to remember that style in a writer is revealed by the characteristic choices a writer makes,” Addonizio and Laux advise us. Over time, over the course of the writer’s entire span, that writer’s style makes itself known through trial and error, as well as accumulation, the reservoir the poet reflexively revisits. “Writing and reading are the only ways to find your voice,” they tell us.