Sunday, December 01, 2013

Finding Voice in a Cacophony

"Its important to find your voice" - "one day you will find your voice" - "when you find your voice you will stick to it" - I'm wondering about "voice" in poetry; for, at the latest count, there were 6,532,391 poets currently writing. Amidst this cacophony how can you find "a voice"? Do the voices merge? I wonder how many distinctive poetry voices there are: and given how difficult distinctiveness is, how many manage to stick to their voice once they've found it? Les Murray is unmistakeable, of course, but maybe his booming "voice" has deafened us to all the other Australians? Ashbery is unmistakeable, but has he spread himself over a whole block of Ashbery-like ironic voices so that no others can be heard?

Whenever you have a collection or a collective "generation" it seems that the distinctions between poets are removed; and instead we have a commonality. In such a way, an orthodoxy develops, so that other voices don't fit in easily, a bit like trying to hear a Sebadoh record in between the other songs on mainstream radio. Imagine, if you can, how it must be to be a Northern Irish experimentalist? Can they even exist when Irish poetry has so much about voice? And as we see more and more citizens of the world - hyphenate poets, born one place, developed another, educated another, residenced another, you wonder about how that translates or transfers. Occasionally I'll read a British poet in "Poetry" and wonder whether their more quotidian style is nothing of the sort; just my familiarity with it. That said, would an Americanised English poet get very far - like an English rock and roll band trying to break America and never managing to even get their records all released there.

And what if part of why you write is not to find your voice, but to "do the police in different voices", as Eliot's first title for the Wasteland would have it. Are we less authentic as a result? And are we then trapped in persona as much as a long-forgotten Browning poem or one of Pound's Personae? Yet voice is, I think, wrapped up in language, particularly in poetry. In prose, I think that there are different lexicons that you can call on - depending on what you are trying to say - but in poetry we are already struggling with two voices, the one we hear ourselves (our inward voice, if you like) and the one that we are listening to (the outward voice, perhaps.) Depending on voice gives us challenges that our poetic resources only partly address.Have we even a shared language these days? And when we are caught between the competing cadences of the modern media hubbub and our own (ageing) inner monologue, do we get caught as much as earlier poets have got caught between "high" and "low" speech.

Hearing or reading a melliflous Heaney you struggle to imagine him talking about much of our technocratic presence; but then again, do we expect our poets to avoid subjects that are not easily accented? Safer, I think, to choose a middle-voice, some mid-Atlantic equivalence, that can relish both the lyricism and the stentorianism of contemporary English; allow for quiet passages and loud choruses perhaps. And unless you're Geoffrey Hill, avoid the higher registers of the King James Version. In a post-pulpit age, English becomes several languages, of an internationalised version that is easiest to the ear in an American accent; but which will avoid anything too flowery (or too Latin.)

No wonder experimental poets are drawn to sound works - vocalisations offering more scope to escape, not the inherent meaning of our native tongue, but its dead on the page nature. Our poetic voice is a way of avoiding as well as escaping history; but we find our voice sometimes at a peril to our facility with the language; are we drawing the outlines more boldly as we can't risk the colouring in blurring the lines?

And if your poem stands out amongst all the others, will it get pulled from the playlist? Better if when you're reading a few pages of a magazine and you come across your own words and hardly recognise them - or rather, have an echo of who that person was/is - without being entirely convinced that it is/was you at all.


Tim Love said...

But when people talk about voice do they mean something different from style?

Adrian said...

I think so; maybe its a particular poetry thing. Voice in poetry, style in prose? Poetry is a battle with form, with subject, and perhaps that is when you find a voice when those are in harmony?