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Finding a voice: influences of the past and present

The richest events occur in us long before the soul perceives them. And, when we begin to open our eyes to the visible, we have long since committed ourselves to the invisible.

Gabriele D’Annunzio

Poets are often advised to  ‘find a voice.’ This voice can only come,  I think, from the unique past and terroir of the poet.  In his essay, ‘Something to Write Home About’, Seamus Heaney describes growing up in Ireland between the Catholic and the Protestant communities, between a railway and a road, between the sound of a trotting horse and that of a shunting engine, between a variety of accents and dialects. One of the dialect words which lodged in his memory from that past was ‘hoke’.

‘The word means to root about and delve into and forage for and dig around, and that is precisely the kind of thing a poem does so well. A poem gets its nose to the ground and follows a trail and hokes its way by instinct to the real centre of what concerns it.’

Born in the middle of the Depression, money was short, but there was a freedom which now seems unthinkable, and I too grew up as an in-between: between two world wars; between a rural community and the chimneys of the nearby textile mills;  between the sounds of farm animals and shunting trains; between the speech patterns of my family and the rich Lancashire dialects of the neighbouring village and mill-towns; between a Catholic mother and a Protestant father and between their two gods: my father’s Our-Father-Which-Art, who had the  Power and the Glory, and my mother’s Our-Father-Who-Art, who did not.

Heaney (in his youth, a keen devourer of comics) proposes that the recitations of simple ballads and verses which children were, in the past, expected to perform at parties and to visiting relatives, gave verse, however humble, a place in the home, made it one of the ordinary rituals of everyday life.

We too learnt poems by heart and to recite them, learnt to sing hymns, folk songs and music-hall ballads. There were also prayers, the old fairy stores, Beatrix Potter, the Dandy and Beano comics, Churchill’s wartime speeches, English and Latin liturgies, the austere grandeurs of Gregorian chant; all of these fed me with an eclectic mix of words and rhythms to top-up the rhymes, singing-games and skipping  of the playground, and all became gloriously muddled in my head –

Bye, Baby Bunting, Daddy’s gone a-hunting  …  Introibo ad altare Dei, ad deum qui laetificat juventutem meum … Soldier, soldier, won’t you marry me, with your musket, fife and drum? … I  have loved, Oh Lord, the beauty of Thy house and the place where Thy glory dwelleth … as I were goin’ o’er Treacle Moor, I met me old sweet’eart, Mickey Plum; ‘e said, art tha goin’ t’funeral?  … one-pertater, two pertater, three pertater, four; five pertater, six pertater, seven pertater more … Vere dignum et justem est, equam et salutare… O. U .T  spells out, and out you must go  …

It is by ‘hoking’ about in this past that I grope my way into the future while stumbling through the present, where the reading of contemporary poetry has become a passion and a necessity, an essential  way to find a voice which, while still the product of the past, may also come to reflect my life and preoccupations now.

In this, poetry magazines are invaluable. For the price of a glass of wine in many London pubs, one can still buy excellent poetry magazines. Most of us have our favourites (usually those clear-sighted enough to publish us), but I have always had a particular affection for Magma.


This Post Has 16 Comments
  1. What an interesting and thought provoking article. I love the muddled up mixture of rhymes, chants, sayings, prayers. A perfect counterpart to the marvellous quotation by Gabriele D’Annunzio.

  2. Thanks for that. I spent some time heeding the advice to find my voice, and did, before successfully losing that voice in order to take up a multiplicity and duplicity of voices and styles.

  3. Fascinating, the mergings of ideas in the ether….I’ve written a poem (inspired by Paul Muldoon’s Twenty four birds baked in a pie poem (can’t remember title exactly) where I merge prayers with nursery rhyme lines, and also, only last night, my Anglican-raised (now heathen) partner and I (Catholic-raised, and now heathen too) were comparing our childhood versions of the Our Father. He didn’t know we didn’t have ‘the power and the glory’. So, very interesting to read this blog today!

  4. To stand alone and find your voice specially when you come from an ex- colonised country and yours is now a developing one. You have grown to believe that wealthy Europe and USA have the best writers and poets and hence the best voices. But to stand alone when you have nothing needs guts and finding your voice in the chaos of contemporary life is beautiful and worth it.
    Thanks a lot for the inspirational writing.

  5. Hello Angela, all this is all true and beautifully written. Those who have a proper homeland (a speech territory ) possess a dialect, and they don’t know how lucky they are. I note that to this day Northern poets and the Scots also rely on some sort of dialect.
    If you were bundled off to school at an early age whatever remnants of home-speak are removed at an early age, and you have to make do with the language of your teachers (PR or snooty version thereof) and your classroom contemporaries. My dad was from the West of Ireland, and left our house to go to war when I was four. Whatever trances of Irish speak he had passed on to me were well flattened by the time he returned in 1947. Happily there are distinguished counter-examples: Louis MacNeice , WH Auden, even Larkin perhaps.and so on.

  6. Hello Patrick, thank you for that, good to hear from you. Being sent to boarding school at an early age can put one in an emotional straight-jacket from which it is hard to escape, and the pressure to ‘fit in’ can make developing creativity and an individual voice long and difficult.

    Like Henry Seltzer, I often use other voices now, but had to find my own before I could do that. As one ages, the voice changes and develops, but those early influences and the landscape of childhood still provide the underlying structure for much of my work

  7. Hello Patrick, thank you for that, good to hear from you. Being sent to boarding school at an early age can put one in an emotional straight-jacket from which it is hard to escape, and the pressure to ‘fit in’ can make developing creativity and an individual voice long and difficult.

    Like Henry Seltzer, I often use other voices now, but had to find my own before I could do that. As one ages, the voice changes and develops.

  8. Alovely, ‘ hoking’ comment – Quotations not only arrest attention immediately but are followed up.
    The whole piece resonates with its exploration of how a personal and a poetic identity comes to be constructed from birth/place,parentage, religion, languages – the management of critical, formative ‘differences’ one is born into and grows up in.
    This Interesting, thoughtful, warm, humorous and humane blog reflects the qualities I love in Angelas own poetry.

  9. Please stop using the word ‘teroir’. It’s only used by pretentious foodies and pompous idiots who think the more expensive a wine is the better it is.

  10. Dear Steven,

    I understand what you mean but if you can find me an English word that conveys all the subtle levels of meaning in terroir, I will be delighted to use it. I was a food writer for years and dislike pretentious food language as much as you do (‘pan-fried’ ? – yuck). My usual wine comes from a local shop and costs five pounds for two bottles. Care to join me?

    Angela

  11. What a fascinating and well written article. I love this:

    ‘The word (hoke) means to root about and delve into and forage for and dig around, and that is precisely the kind of thing a poem does so well. A poem gets its nose to the ground and follows a trail and hokes its way by instinct to the real centre of what concerns it.’

    I once read that ‘the past is pain trying to resurrect itself’ but if anything I have found that being brave enough to ‘face things’ as Ted Hughes would say enables us to pass through that pain and live beyond it. Uncomfortable at the time but it affords some clarity.

    I also love the thought of committing ourselves ‘to the invisible’ which makes me think of John Burnside’s poems, he is always reaching out for something that cannot be fully explained or held. I think that’s why I write, because of the mystery, the access to the unconscious, the absorption which is so freeing and peaceful despite the turbulence and wrestling!

  12. Do children learn poems by heart these days? When I was at school we had to learn one quite frequently then stand up in the class and recite it to prove we’d done it. Listening to the same poem said thirty times in different voices must have been a good grounding in the aural value of verse.

    Sadly I can no longer recall any of these poems, not even their titles.

  13. Angela,
    I have found much to think about in your writing. As I age, I have found many exraordinary benefits to my writing life, sometimes a little disturbing and strange, yet all grist to the mill. Being brought up in a working class household in Yorkshire, with Irish ancestry, my day to day sounds and language were embedded. I had a grandmother who could not understand her own father, as his Irish accent was so strong.
    Yet going on to leave this background when young and going to Grammar School, I made efforts to lose my accent and history, in order to”fit in”
    Now I find my mind often flooded with language, words and expressions from deep in my past. A childish hymn from Sunday school aged five with “me in my small corner and you in yours”, and the vivid foods and meals of my childhood, all illuminated by trailing about with my mother in the Victorian Leeds Market, a vocabulary of food that I feel is so deeply ingrained in my mind and writing that it urges me to answer the call. This is my small additional thought to add to your insightful piece; answering the call can be difficult,and sometimes unwanted as it pulls up painful thoughts, and sometimes seemingly so simple, we ignore it.

  14. Angela Dove’s comments remind me of why I have always found her work rewarding; moving and effective on many levels

    We share a northern childhood with all its riches; handsome industrial architecture, street markets, contrasting accents and the evocative names of local foods. In my case these included hot-pots, lamb’s fry (testicles), parkin, Goosenargh cakes and oven-bottom cakes.

    The older I get the closer the past becomes. Revisiting it is compulsive but can also be, as she says, painful.

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