The speaker is the bridge between the poem’s experience and the reader, and similar to language, when it works best, it becomes invisible, cemented to, part and particle of the poem’s experience. Tone of voice is responsible for creating trust between the reader and the speaker, in seducing the reader to lose him or herself in the experience; it is responsible for letting a reader be enraptured by the poem.
In the introduction to the 2006 Best American Poetry anthology, the judge for that year, poet Billy Collins, explains the key role that a poem’s tone of voice played in determining which poems to place in the pile that left him “cold” and which poems to place in the pile that caught him “in their spell,” those that he would eventually consider for inclusion in the collection. Collins begins by elucidating how the voice of a poem took on a bigger role once Modern poetry began to experiment with free verse:
Once Walt Whitman demonstrated that poetry in English could get along without standard meter and end-rhyme, poetry began to lose that familiar gait and musical jauntiness that listeners and readers had come to identify with it. But poetry also lost something more: a trust system that had bound poet and reader together through the reliable recurrence of similar sounds and a steady dependable beat. Whatever emotional or intellectual demands a poem placed on the reader, at least the reader could put trust in the poet’s implicit promise to keep up a tempo and maintain a sound pattern. It is the same promise that is made to the listeners of popular songs. What has come to replace that system of trust, if anything? However vague a substitute, the answer is probably tone of voice. As a reader, I come to trust or distrust the authority of the poem after reading just a few lines. Do I hear a voice that’s making reasonable claims for itself—usually a first-person voice speaking fallibly but honestly—or does the poem begin with a grandiose pronouncement, a riddle, or an intimate confession foisted on me by a stranger? Tone may be the most elusive aspect of written language, but our ears instantly recognize words that sound authentic and words that ring false. The character of the speaker’s voice played an indescribable but essential role in the making of those two piles I mentioned, one much taller than the other.
It is interesting that Collins refers negatively to the “voice of a stranger” as aren’t all speakers of poems strangers to a reader? We do not know the poet, so how can we possibly know the speaker? Yet here, Collins suggests that there is something in us that does know something of the speaker, some credibility that “sounds authentic” rather than “ringing false,” and this has more to do with tone of voice than subject matter. After all, who believes someone who doesn’t sound trustworthy? It is like watching a play with bad acting—you can’t lose yourself in the story or character, you cannot transport, you cannot release yourself to get “caught in its spell.” We have trouble trusting our senses and giving our time to the speaker without suspicion, which acts as a barrier between the reader and the experience. It is similar to what poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge called a “suspension of disbelief,” in a sense: We need to be willing to be wrapped up in a poem’s experience and if we’re untrusting than we’re not willing. Tone of voice develops from the many moves a poem makes and can be considered, in another way, the stance the speaker takes, the relationship between the subject matter and the speaker.
Trust vs. Truth
How do we gain someone’s trust? We can build a reputation if we’re, say, a journalist or reporter. We can create a history of trust with a friend or spouse by being reliable. We can plead and swear on a Bible like we do in courtrooms, but even then there’s no guarantee someone is telling the truth. Maybe you remember from your childhood or teenage years what you needed to do to be believed even if you were fibbing. Much of it had to do with details. The more specific the details of a story, the more convincing the story. If we look at film and television, we see entire narratives based on deceit and maintaining a lie. The AMC hit series Breaking Bad followed the life of Walter White who had to constantly work to keep his family from discovering that he was involved in the world of crystal meth. In the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love, Gwyneth Paltrow’s character dresses as “Thomas Kent” in order to audition for a performance in which women are prohibited to perform. And in Ferris Beuller’s Day Off (1986), Ferris has to deceive his family and teachers in order to keep from being caught for skipping school—after deceiving his mom by convincing her he was too sick to go to school. Alternatively, in the 1979 Monty Python classic The Life of Brian, poor Brian Cohen, born on the same day as Jesus, cannot convince anyone he is not God’s only holy son. We can ask how these characters convince other characters (or not) of their stories, but the real question in regard to creative writing is more along the lines of why are we the audience so lost in these characters lives and swept up in their stories? And how can we, as the speaker of a poem, make our audience feel with that same intensity when they read our poems?
Like the stories in these movies, poems do not have to be factual or even based on fact to earn the trust of a reader and ring true. The experience poems create can be either real or entirely made-up. The speaker must simply, as Billy Collins says, “sound authentic.” The truth of a poem, like the truth in a short story or novel, need not be based on the author’s experience; it simply need be an experience that convinces us to lose ourselves in it and the voice that tells it.
Don’t Try to Sound Poetic
One of the mistakes I see beginning writers make frequently is using archaic or unnatural diction, or word choice, in a poem. Words like amongst, thou, thine, hath, thee, thyself, or adding an –eth to a verb: stoppeth, handeth, etc. Archaic words like these standeth out as thy sore thumb. They are of a different time and generation. When we use them it feels to the reader as though we are putting on a cloak, disguising ourselves, creating a voice that is untrustworthy—again, not because the story may not be true, but because it sounds like the speaker isn’t real. When we write, whether we write as ourselves or as someone we are pretending to be—like acting—we must sound like a real person.
Some of the thinking that is behind the use of archaic diction is that we feel that we need to sound poetic, so we use words that we are used to thinking of as being poetic. But the truth is that the reader comes to the poem wanting to be surprised by new uses of language, its music, its imagery, wanting to connect to a real speaker. Unfortunately, most high school English classes expose students only to writers who are no longer alive, who wrote at a time when poetry was expected to be formal in form and tone. We read Shakespeare, the British Romantics like Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Victorians like Robert Browning, and other writers from the 19th and 20th centuries neglecting the fact that today the United States is home to a thriving poetry scene and network of publishers. According to R.R. Bowker, over 10,000 new books of poetry were published in 2012. After the push by 19th-century poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge, and by 20th-century poet Walt Whitman to write poetry that reflects the “common man” and common experiences, contemporary poetry’s dominant style shifted to a poetry that possesses a less formal, distant, or elitist tone. Pick up a literary journal or book of poems today and you will find poems that are conversational, friendly, confessional, reflective, meditative, or serious, but what they all contain is a speaker who is knowable, or as Collins explains, authentic. Of course, there are many schools and styles of poetry. Language poetry, for instance, isn’t interested in a speaker’s voice or expression, but rather places more of an emphasis on the reader’s interpretation of how language is creating meaning in and of itself. A reference guide to schools of poetry can be found at The Poetry Foundation’s fine web site.
Part of the advantage of writing poetry in college is being able to expose yourself to new poets, living poets, including most likely the professor teaching this class. Do yourself the favor of reading widely and generously and you will see how many more ways of speaking and writing there are. Expand your repertoire. Ask your professor and other poets you hear read to make recommendations. Who should you be reading? What’s their newest favorite book of poems? Who are they excited about?
When you begin reading more poets, you will discover many ways of writing that you will want to experiment with. Don’t worry about sounding like other poets or imitating someone else’s style. This is another popular concern of beginning writers and it is, like worrying about finding your voice, completely unnecessary. Several writers and artists have said something akin to “Good writers borrow, great writers steal.” This isn’t implying you should plagiarize. Just that we build upon the shoulders of others and then we stand up tall ourselves. It’s unavoidable for others to influence us and inspire us—in fact, this is what we want as artists. Take in as much as you can and let it roam around and settle in your brain like compost. You will change it unconsciously into what suits you, what you need, and you will grow from it. And then, when you sit down to write your own poems, to thine own voice you will be-eth true.
Balance Sentimentality and Emotional Risk
Without emotional risk, a poem can lack tension, energy, and lose the chance of producing insight. If a speaker isn’t risking something in a poem, then why is it being written? It’s like getting into a car and driving nowhere. The poem is the vehicle we climb into as a reader and we want the driver to take us somewhere. Whenever we express ourselves and share our feelings, just as whenever we hop into a car and drive, we take a risk. A risk of being rejected, criticized, not believed. Expressing our true feelings makes us vulnerable and feel exposed just for that reason: because whether it’s love, anger, confusion, or joy, expressing how we feel exposes us and opens us to other people’s reactions. Being a feeling, thinking human is full of risk. In poetry, our aim is to bottle that risk in a condensed way and deliver it through a speaker to a reader.
William Wordsworth referred to a poem as “a spontaneous overflow of emotions … reflected upon in tranquility.” His definition suggests that a poem contains two possible sources of tension: one triggered by the poetic event (either real or imagined) that caused a surge in sensual and emotional intensity almost like a chemical reaction; and a second source (either real or imagined) that transpires when the speaker applies reflection, thought, or ideas to the first event and the reaction. The second part takes place after time distances an intellectual perspective from a frenzy of emotions. There is what we can call the first occasion for the poem—the event and the instantaneous reaction of the body—and then the second occasion: the speaker’s reflection which aims to make meaning of it all. In the first part, tension is caused by what could be considered a chemical reaction between the event and the speaker’s reaction; and in the second part it is a speaker’s thoughts, ideas, reflections which can cause tension. At one of these two points of entry, there must be some form of duality or complexity. If the poem arises from the first part, the poem will tend to be dramatic or narrative and focused on the sequence of events. If the poem arises from the second part of the equation, the poem will tend to be meditational or lyric, focused on the poet’s thoughts, perceptions, and feelings. Either way, the poem must still contain concrete, detailed images which anchor the sentiment of the speaker to an event, for if there isn’t the anchor, the poet risks drifting off into a world of oversentimentality.
Beginning writers, attempting to instill intensity in a poem, often lapse into oversentimentality, exaggerated or overly simplistic emotions without just cause for them. As Oscar Wilde wrote, “A sentimentalist is one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.” Oversentimentality results in sappy, clichéd writing, and an inauthentic voice. Sentiment, a speaker’s emotional state, is not the same thing as oversentimentality. All speakers have some sort of emotional stance, or sentiment, in a poem—in fact, sentiment is required to produce a knowable speaker to whom a reader can relate. And this sentiment—this abstraction we as readers will be made to feel—must arise from the concrete particulars that justify the level of emotion produced.
In the following examples, the poem falls victim to oversentimentality:
- When I found out about Charlie’s new girlfriend, it felt like my heart exploded into a billion pieces. I cried so much I thought my tears would drown me. I would never love again.
- The poor, innocent, homeless boy tugged at my skirt. It wasn’t his fault he had no shelter, but the cruel winter and its roaring wind didn’t care about the fragile boy’s body or soul. It howled like a demonic coyote about to devour a frail fawn smelling delicate flowers for the first time.
Many times oversentimentality results from a focus on telling rather than showing, as is the case with the first example which tells us what the speaker was feeling rather than show us through actions or descriptions. The image of the heart bursting into a billion pieces is cliché and is used in place of a fresh image. The word “never” is extreme and unbelievable. In fact, when we write we want to avoid words with ultimatums as such—final, never, always, all, none. Usually they are simply not true and difficult to imagine.
In the second example, the writer uses extensive images to play on the reader’s emotions. Note the use of adjectives—small, innocent, cruel, poor, demonic, fragile, delicate. Remember adjectives tell instead of show. The example is so over the top that as readers we begin to feel emotionally bullied by the writer.
So, what to do? You cannot have a poem dodge sentimentality entirely; otherwise, your speaker will be robotic. But, one must be careful not to indulge in extremities and exaggeration either. There is a balance between the solipsistic rant, complaint, or laud and the raw, sarcastic, angry expression: for example, “Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb” (Ginsberg); “Boy, do I love America” (Dockins); “I hate them as I hate sex” (Gluck). It’s all about balance and anchoring the sentiment in concrete images and daring to expose a speaker or character’s vulnerability, their humanity.
To balance oversentimentality and emotional risk, take a cue from fiction technique and try to work in contrasts to maintain balance. If a character is a mean, selfish person, try to find or invent an occasion in his life when he was vulnerable. If a character is generous and giving, try to find or invent a time when she wasn’t. The contrasts will add tension and complication and make the character or speaker seem more human. You can see this contrasting and complicating approach made successful in film, television, and fiction where sometimes the main character may be despicable, but we readers or viewers can’t help but feel pity, empathy, or some sort of hope for him or her. In Breaking Bad Walter White is a selfish liar whose drug-making causes the deaths of numerous people, but when we see him hold his newborn, share a touching moment with his disabled son, undergo chemotherapy, or express over and over his reason for making meth—to support his family—we can’t help but soften our criticism of him.
Create a character that can be described as being one of the words in List A. Choose a word and create a list of ten images or actions that make the character such:
Then, create an event where the character does something that can be characterized as being one of the words in List B.
- Overly Indulgent
Alternatively, reverse the lists and create a character who is appalling but does something kind.
Let Objects Become Symbols
When your poems confront a speaker’s intense emotion, whether from a real or imagined experience, one thing you can do to stay grounded in real emotion is to turn to images and objects which can become symbols for emotion. Return to Jane Kenyon’s poem “What Came to Me.” Here is an example of speaker who feels an overwhelming sense of grief, but the poem focuses on the gravy boat and that drop of gravy to evoke emotions. The object becomes a symbol of grief.
When experiencing loss or healing from grief, what do people do? We often turn to people, objects, and actions for comfort—the company of our children, a cup of tea, handfuls of birdseed in the birdhouse covered with snow. At the same time, objects can deepen the grief—a pair of empty slippers under the bed, untouched knitting needles in a basket by the couch, the still mobile of stars and planets dripping from a nursery ceiling. These images set a mood for the poem and evoke emotions without the poet having to turn to abstractions and oversentimentality.
When emotions run high, turn down the diction and distance the speaker from the emotion. Rather than rely on hyperbole to describe the overwhelming, indescribable sense of emotion, turn your camera’s eye elsewhere, cool the feelings. Sometimes pulling away creates an odd contrast that makes the poem more emotional, as odd as that sounds. In the following poem, Kim Addonizio uses this approach:
I know my friend is going,
though she still sits there
across from me in the restaurant,
and leans over the table to dip
her bread in the oil on my plate; I know
how thick her hair used to be,
and what it takes for her to discard
her man’s cap partway through our meal,
to look straight at the young waiter
and smile when he asks
how we are liking it. She eats
as though starving—chicken, dolmata,
the buttery flakes of filo—
and what’s killing her
eats, too. I watch her lift
a glistening black olive and peel
the meat from the pit, watch
her fine long fingers, and her face,
puffy from medication. She lowers
her eyes to the food, pretending
not to know what I know. She’s going.
And we go on eating.
“Eating Together”, from WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED LOVE: POEMS by Kim Addonizio. Copyright © 2004 by Kim Addonizio. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
For five lines, we interpret “going” as maybe implying that the friend is leaving for another appointment or going home. When the friend leans over and dips her bread into the oil on the speaker’s plate, the action can seem like an inconvenience or intrusion. But the mood changes as we discover the friend is losing her hair and is eating as though she is “starving.” We begin to put pieces together until we understand that what’s “killing her” is cancer. Still, even with this knowledge, the tone of the poem remains distant, the speaker objectively describing the scene and actions through imagery. The food is described as “buttery” and “glistening,” which gives the food beauty and a sense of indulgence. In contrast, the friend’s face is “puffy from medication,” which strikes us as being unnatural. Although the speaker never says the words “death,” “cancer,” “loss,” “miss,” or “love,” the cool tone and images create these emotions in us as though the loss of her friend’s life is so devastating that the speaker cannot bring it to words directly. Like the tone, she remains distant from the fact of her friend’s impending death, which can be seen as the poem ends not on “She’s going,” but on “we go on eating.” They go on eating as if nothing is different or wrong. They go on eating because that is life.
In a poem of the same title, Li-Young Lee also adopts a distant tone in the beginning that shifts midway to something warmer:
In the steamer is the trout
seasoned with slivers of ginger,
two sprigs of green onion, and sesame oil.
We shall eat it with rice for lunch,
brothers, sister, my mother who will
taste the sweetest meat of the head,
holding it between her fingers
deftly, the way my father did
weeks ago. Then he lay down
to sleep like a snow-covered road
winding through pines older than him,
without any travelers, and lonely for no one.
Li-Young Lee, “Eating Together” from Rose. Copyright © 1986 by Li-Young Lee. Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of BOA Editions, Ltd., www.boaeditions.org.
For the first five lines, the focus on food sounds almost like a menu description or a recipe. The speaker’s tone is distant as we are given the images of food and who is eating. It isn’t until we reach the eighth line that states “the way my father did” that we feel a sense of absence and longing. The next line surprises us in that the father only disappeared “weeks ago.” We understand that this is a recent loss, and possibly death. The poem affirms that the speaker’s father “lay down / to sleep,” a metaphor for death. And that, further, he lay down “like a snow-covered road / winding through pines older than him, / without any travelers.” The snow evokes cold and the death that comes naturally in winter, and the pines place the father in a world that the old and ancient occupy, alone “without any travelers.” Yet, the poem ends with a tone of acceptance and satisfaction, an affirmation that the speaker’s father is “lonely for no one.” Though the speaker and his family feel loss, emphasized by the assonance of the emotional “oh’s” in the last phrase: “lonely for no one,” his father is content and “lonely for no one.” This last phrase offers complex feelings, both uplifting in acceptance and painful with mourning. There are two worlds now—life and death—and being “lonely for no one” translates differently in each world. Like Addonizio’s poem, Lee’s poem doesn’t contain the words “death,” or “sadness.” Only a cool tone that arises partially from the imagery produced by a speaker who stands outside the experience of the poem, the eye of the camera an observer rather than a confessionalist.
Write your own poem titled “Eating Together” in which you rely on images and a distant tone of voice to evoke a strong sense of emotion. Begin by thinking for five minutes about an emotional event you’ve experienced. This event could be anything as long as it affects your memory and emotions strongly. Then, write the poem without speaking about or referring to the event. Simply try to write a poem that details imagery related to the theme of “eating together.” How do your memories cause you to charge the language?
As readers and students, you may have heard someone refer to a writer and his or her “voice.” In many situations, we are able to spot a seasoned writer’s voice by noting the subject matter, diction, tone, form, and other aspects of style. It is similar to how we recognize a familiar voice in a crowded room, and then again, it is not the same at all. With writing we miss the timbre of a voice, the auditory sound as air jets pass the speaker’s unique body and vocal chords. Still, in writing, there are many ways to use grammar, syntax, and style to create a “voice.” Many young writers get caught up in the mission to find or discover his or her voice. But this is not such an important thing to worry about at any stage of writing—just write. Write about what you know. Write about what you don’t know. Experiment. Play. Don’t think, just write. Your style will naturally evolve, and if you write long enough, it might even change.
Your voice depends on a variety of elements that make up the poems:
Subject Matter: What do you write about? What don’t you write about? Sharon Olds writes frequently about her father; William Heyen about the Holocaust; Mary Oliver about nature and animals. These subjects are not all that these writers choose to write about, but they do have a heavy, repetitive presence in their collections. What interests you and often becomes the focus of your poems? It’s okay for these to change, too. William Wordsworth wrote about nature when he was young, and much more about God as he aged.
Tone and Mood: Are your poems serious? Humorous? Dark? Inspirational? When we read Billy Collins we expect to smile and laugh. How do your poems make us feel, generally?
Diction: Perhaps the most influential element that creates voice and tone is diction, a term we use for “word choice” or the vocabulary used in a piece of writing. There is a range of diction—formal, informal, conversational, slang—and the words we choose reveal the emotional coloring of the speaker and the stance of the speaker in relation to the subject. There are no two words that mean the exact same thing—regardless of what a thesaurus tells you; synonyms are simply related, not exact variants. At your little sister’s recital, did she look cute in her costume? Adorable? Pretty? Sweet? Diction can also reveal a speaker’s range of knowledge, education, culture, and regional influence. Do you say sneakers or tennis shoes? Soda or pop?
Write a list of synonyms for the following words:
Then choose one of these lists and use your crayons to draw a series of images that fit each. What differences do we see in these “similar” words. What are the similarities? Next, translate your drawings into writing using concrete, detailed descriptions.
Syntax and Grammar: Working hand in hand with diction is syntax, which refers to the order in which words are arranged. We make decisions every day about diction, prepare for phone calls by deciding what to say and how. Syntax is how we deliver our thoughts. If we have to tell someone something important or participate in an intense or touchy conversation, we might even rehearse how we are going to say something to someone before we do. For example, what do you say when you break off a relationship or tell someone you can’t make it to their wedding? We think about what we say, what words we choose, and how we deliver them to our intended audience. There’s a difference between telling someone, “I don’t think we should see each other any more” and “I don’t love you.” What we choose to say creates our character in more than one way. Some of what’s related to syntax and grammar are sentence length, fragments, and active or passive voice.
Types of Images: Like subject matter, writers tend to favor certain images or image types. Read through Michael Burkard’s collected poems and you’ll find frequent uses of trains, rain, and shadows. Some poets’ bodies of work are filled with birds, or flowers, or astronomical metaphors, or images of the body. What images do you gravitate toward? Do you frequently use similes or metaphors?
Go through your poems and note any patterns of images. What do you notice? Make a list of similar images and sculpt them into a poem.
Form: By simply looking at a poem on the page we may be able to identify a poet. Emily Dickinson’s short poems with stanzas and lines of equal length. Norman Dubie’s willingness to mix different stanzas and line lengths—a couplet followed by a sextet (six-line stanza), followed by a single line that stands on its own. e.e. cummings’s abandonment of punctuation and capitalization. Are there forms and structures you like to use? Do your lines tend to be long or short?
The combination of all these elements determines your style and contributes to the formation of your voice.
Choose a poet you like and identify what patterns you see in his or her poems in regard to the above elements. What does the poet frequently write about? What images are used? Is the mood and tone similar in his or her poems? What forms are frequently used? Next, try to imitate this poet’s style by rewriting one of your own poems to adopt the techniques. What different types of moves are you making that you normally don’t?
“A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence,” wrote John Keats, “because he has no Identity—he is continually in for—and filling some other Body.” In a letter to his brother, Keats famously wrote of the concept of “negative capability,” which he described as “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” A type of cognitive dissonance, in which one can peacefully hold two opposing thoughts in the mind at once, Keats’ negative capability is what allows us as poets to imaginatively and empathetically muse upon the subject of our poems, or to enter the world of another, to speak from an imagined experience as if it were our own. In a persona poem, the poet adopts the perspective of a character or speaker in a specific situation. The poet steps outside his or her own body and into the body of this imagined speaker.
Adopting a persona widens a poet’s range of subject matter. It allows us to explore different subjects and points of view. Rather than only writing from our experience, we can invent a new character or speak from a person in history or in literature. In his book-length poem Shannon, Campbell McGrath speaks from the perspective of the Lewis and Clark Expedition’s youngest member Shannon when he goes missing in the prairie for over two weeks. Based on history, McGrath fills in the events and details no one could ever know. Speaking as Shannon, he writes:
The rest of the day the country shimmers
In a haze, these buffalo
Have no fear of me
Their eyes loll & moon in the grass
& I must shout to start them from my path
& hurl a stick at one brute
Oblivious as if I were invisible
Or he aware of my absolute helplessness.
William Heyen, also inspired by history, in his book Crazyhorse in Stillness, speaks from many personas. In the following, he depicts the plight of the buffalo by writing in the voice of an anonymous man hired on the prairie around the time of the Battle of Little Big Horn:
I liked picking up the skulls best.
I could fling a calf’s by one horn
maybe twenty feet into the wagon.
It didn’t matter if it busted—
in fact, the smaller pieces the better.
But a bull’s skull took two of us
to twist it off its stem and lift it.
You each grabbed a horn,
or did it the smart way with a pole
through the jaw and an eyesocket.
All in all, it was good work,
but ran out, but you had the feeling
of clearing something up, a job
no one would need to do again.
Copyright ©William Heyen “Job” is licensed CC-BY-NC-SA.
Should you not be so ambitious to write a hundred-page persona poem, or a full collection based on a handful of specific characters in American history, consider writing from the voice of a character with your main focus on theme or circumstance. Here is poem by Traci Brimhall, whose poems in the book Our Lady of Ruins speak from the personas of multiple women ravaged by war:
Our Bodies Break Light
We crawl through the tall grass and idle light,
our chests against the earth so we can hear the river
underground. Our backs carry rotting wood and books
that hold no stories of damnation or miracles.
One day as we listen for water, we find a beekeeper—
one eye pearled by a cataract, the other cut out by his own hand
so he might know both types of blindness. When we stand
in front of him, he says we are prisms breaking light into color—
our right shoulders red, our left hips a wavering indigo.
His apiaries are empty except for dead queens, and he sits
on his quiet boxes humming as he licks honey from the bodies
of drones. He tells me he smelled my southern skin for miles,
says the graveyard is full of dead prophets. To you, he presents
his arms, tattooed with songs slave catchers whistle
as they unleash the dogs. He lets you see the burns on his chest
from the time he set fire to boats and pushed them out to sea.
You ask why no one believes in madness anymore,
and he tells you stars need a darkness to see themselves by.
When you ask about resurrection, he says, How can you doubt?
and shows you a deer licking salt from a lynched man’s palm.
“Our Bodies Break Light”, from OUR LADY OF THE RUINS: POEMS by Traci Brimhall. Copyright © 2012 by Traci Brimhall. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Choose a character from history and write a dramatic monologue in his or her voice. Either conduct some research to position yourself in a particular event, or place the person somewhere you know very well—your college dorm room or dining hall, your childhood bedroom, a favorite hangout, at your neighborhood deli, on your town’s Main Street or on one of your city’s main avenues. Give the speaker a concern—what does the speaker want, fear, need right now? Describe what he or she sees. Do not worry about being factually or historically correct. Rather, just pretend to be the person: human, complicated, flawed. Consider writing a diary entry for the speaker.
Alternatively, pretend to be someone you know well—a sibling, a friend—and place him or her in a specific situation that you yourself have never been in. Write a poem in his or her voice.
Alternatively, choose a speaker who you have nothing or little in common with: a terminally ill cancer patient, a middle-aged mother of three who works at a department store, a baseball card collector. Then, conduct some research and find a way to enter the speaker’s experiences.
Point of View
When we write we do so using one of three points of view:
First Person ● I/We ● I went to the store to buy milk.
Most poets begin writing in first person, taking their own experiences as subject matter. The first-person point of view is present in memoir, the personal essay, and in autobiography and it allows us to be very close to not only the speaker’s observations, but also with his or her thoughts. This is the point of view used in a persona poem or a dramatic monologue.
Second Person ● You ● You went to the store to buy milk.
When we use this point of view, we may be addressing a particular person in the poem, or we may be addressing the reader. We may even be talking about the speaker, attempting to make the reader imagine being the “I” which is really the “you.” This perspective can make the reader a character and it can also create a deep sense of connection between the reader and the speaker.
Third Person ● He/She/It ● Her daughter went to the store to buy milk.
From third-person perspective, we can control the distance from which we observe the character by being an omniscient, limited omniscient, or an objective observer.
Omniscient Toby fastened his seatbelt and looked out the passenger side window. His mother, worrying about being late for the match, blasted the gas. Toby squeezed his hands into fists. He didn’t want to go. He thought himself better off at the playground. On the swings where he left her, Susan rebraided her hair. By the next day she’d forget what Toby had told her.
The omniscient speaker is powerful and godlike. As you see in the example above, the omniscient speaker isn’t limited by space or time. We can enter the thoughts of all characters—Toby, his mother, and Susan. We can be in the car, on the playground, and we can fast-forward to tomorrow. The omniscient speaker is flexible and can go anywhere, anytime.
Limited Omniscient Toby fastened his seatbelt and looked out the passenger side window. His mother, worrying about being late for the match, blasted the gas. Toby squeezed his hands into fists. His mother figured that he didn’t want to go. But she didn’t feel comfortable with him and Susan being unsupervised at the playground—especially with how much “in love” he might be thinking he was.
In this example, we are limited to Toby’s mother’s thoughts. We can observe Toby but we cannot enter his thoughts. As readers we ride alongside with Toby’s mother, struggling as she does, experiencing what she does, discovering things only when she does. We are limited to her interpretations of the world—even if they are incorrect.
Objective Toby fastened his seatbelt and looked out the passenger side window. His mother blasted the gas. “Now we’re going to be late,” she said. Toby squeezed his hands into fists and rolled his eyes. Through the rear window, on the swings where he left her, he could see Susan rebraiding her hair.
Here, the most distant of the perspectives, we can observe only what a witness could sense with his nose, ears, mouth, eyes, and skin. Any judgments we make must arise from the text and where the speaker directs our attention.
When you revise, try switching the point of view to see what difference it makes in the poem. If a poem is first person, try it in third. If it is objective, make it omniscient. The changes might alert you to new possibilities or make something stand out to you that didn’t before. If you don’t like it, you can always change it back.
Revise one of your poems in three ways using first, second, and third person points of view. What differences do the different perspectives make in your poem? What are the advantages/disadvantages in each?
In addition to point of view, another element that influences voice in our writing is psychic distance, or how intimate a narrator, what we call a “speaker” in fiction, is to the subject. For us as poets, it’s advantageous to consider the role of psychic distance in our poems, as well, since it affects tone.
In his book The Art of Fiction, John Gardner succinctly demonstrates differences in psychic distance, moving from farthest to closest:
- It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
- Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.
- Henry hated snowstorms.
- God how he hated these damn snowstorms.
- Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul…
In these examples, we see diction and point of view change tone and determine the distance from which we read the character of Henry. In the first example, Henry is just “a man,” an unnamed figure in winter in 1853. With each subsequent example we take steps closer moving into Henry’s thoughts and feelings and finally into Henry’s body.
Just as it can be useful to experiment with different points of view in our poems, it can be insightful to try on different levels of psychic distance.
Write a poem three different ways altering the speaker and his or her psychic distance. For example, write about a high school football game from the following perspectives: football quarterback; coach; newspaper reporter. Or about a car accident: driver; witness; police officer. Or at a restaurant: customer’s five-year-old child; parent; server.
Making Friends with Fictioneers
Although poetry and fiction are different in many ways, they do have points of intersection where mastering the skills of one can improve the other. Because it is so integral to narration, point of view is an aspect of writing that is more complex in fiction than it is for poetry. The same may be said of character; in fiction, the way a character changes is central to the form. But as different as they are, there are similarities and intersections where each genre’s elements can benefit the other. For fictioneers, the attention paid in poetry to condensing language and making it musical can contribute to stronger prose. Likewise, some of the approaches our fictioneer friends use, particularly for point of view, character development, and setting are especially helpful for poets when thinking about persona/character, voice, and tone.
Tips for Characterization, Burroway Style
In her classic text Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway lists tips for characterization that may be helpful for poets, too, when pinning down and developing a poem’s tone and voice. One of the tips she provides:
1. If the character is based on a real model, including yourself, make a dramatic external alteration.
She suggests changing the color of your character’s hair, or altering the gender. If we shift this advice to a poem’s speaker instead of a story’s narrator, we may alter more than just external appearances; we may alter memories, experiences, or stances, too. Just enough to give ourselves some distance where we can privilege the language instead of the facts.
Many beginning poets fall into the trap of writing directly from the facts of their own lives from which they refuse to deviate. Because the writer has chosen what to write about, or whom, the poem fails to grow organically, take risks, or create leaps and surprises. As Richard Hugo says, this type of poet is choosing to believe that “all music must conform to truth” rather than “all truth must conform to music.” “One mark of a beginner,” he writes, “is his impulse to push language around to make it accommodate what he has already conceived to be the truth, or, in some cases, what he has already conceived to be the form.” If you’re writing about your Uncle Matt who is a recovering alcoholic, whose daughter is your cousin you sit with on the bus every day on your way to school, it is going to be difficult to give precedence to the language in the writing process, and instead, thoughts and adherence to facts will make the writing seem forced and contrived. Worst of all, you will shut down opportunities to give yourself over to imagination and create art.
To counter this impulse, Hugo suggests inventing a town populated with residents from which to write. The town is fictional, but it is derived from your experiences and your imagination. In your town, your Uncle Matt can become Louie the neighbor or Mrs. Stover the English teacher, thereby creating enough of a distance so you can feel free to imagine as you write and go where the music of language takes you.
Another tip that Burroway provides:
2. Know what your character wants, both generally out of life, and specifically in the context of the story. Keeping that desire in mind, “think backward” with the character to decide what he or she would do in any situation presented.
In the context of poetry, this advice works well for persona poems. If you’re undertaking a persona and wearing a “mask” as a speaker, clearly you, speaking as that persona, should be a fully developed, complex human. If the persona is someone you know well, place that speaker in a situation you do not know well. If the persona is someone you’ve researched or invented, place that speaker in a circumstance you do know well. Always, some element of the strange and new for the poet will make for fresher writing. As Robert Frost has said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”
A third tip that Burroway provides is based on Aristotle’s concept of “consistent inconsistencies,” or conflicts within a character:
3. Identify, heighten, and dramatize consistent inconsistencies. What does your character want that is at odds with whatever else she wants? What patterns of thought and behavior work against his primary goal?
Complexity, complexity, complexity. When writing a persona poem, the voice should be based not on what the speaker should say or think, but on what the speaker potentially would say or think. Keep your writing surprising, and as Hugo says about language, don’t be a bully!
Who speaks? To Whom? In what form? From how far?
In fiction, these questions help a writer determine who the narrator is in a very precise way. The questions can also be useful in poetry to help us carve out a precise speaker and help develop a form. The following is based on the chart provided by Burroway in Writing Fiction with some alterations to make it more apt for poetry:
|The Poet||The Poet||A Character|
|In: Third Person||In: Second Person||In: First Person|
|Omniscient||“You” as Character||In: Second Person|
|Limited Omniscient||“You” as Reader||In: Third Person|
The reader, a character, the self
In What Form?
Dramatic monologue, narrative voice, lyric voice, meditative voice, prose poem, journal entry, letter, etc.
At What Psychic Distance?
Complete Identification versus Complete Opposition
If anything be taken from this chart, it is that a poet is offered a range of voices from which to speak. There are also different points of view to take, and even opportunities to speak as someone else, either real-ish or imagined, behind the mask of a persona. Experimenting with any of these can be fun and enlightening, and is highly encouraged.
Actors are Fictioneers Too
In her book Respect for Acting, Uta Hagen distinguishes between representational actors and presentational actors. Representational actors, constantly aware of their physicality, try to act like the character. They make faces, speak, and move like they imagine the character would. Presentational actors, on the other hand, believe the way to best capture their character’s essence is to find something about the character in themselves. The presentational actor embodies the character and takes risks in portraying him or her. Janet Burroway offers similar advice:
4. If the character is imaginary or alien to you, imagine a mental or emotional point of contact.
As poets, we strive to be presentational actors by finding ways to internally identify with the persona so we may portray him or her as convincingly human as possible.
To better embody your character, or in our case, our persona, Hagen provides a list of questions for the presentational actor to ask of his or her role:
Who am I? (Character)
What time is it? (Context, year, day)
Where am I? (Country, neighborhood, room, etc.)
What surrounds me? (Animate and inanimate)
What are the given circumstances? (Past, present, future and events)
What is my relationship? (To objects, characters, and events)
What do I want? (Character’s immediate and superobjectives)
What’s in my way? (Obstacles to objectives)
What do I do to get what I want? (Actions, words)
Notice how specific and concrete (country, neighborhood, room, etc.) the answers aim to be. It is much like writing when we position ourselves in our speaker’s space and state. We need to feel situated in a very specific way before we can create concrete images for the reader. Hagen’s questions are effective for not only acting, but for writing poetry, as well.