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Voicing an Opinion on Voice

A poet’s voice is a much discussed aspect of a poet’s work, but just how relevant or limiting it is being recognised by your voice provoked an interesting discussion by a panel of well-known poets taking part in Magma’s National Conversation about Poetry.

Last month Hannah LoweJoelle TaylorChris McCabe and Jon Stone participated in Magma’s Incorrigibly Plural live event in Clerkenwell, London where they performed their collaborative poems which you can read on the Magma blog.

Following the readings, the poets answered questions from the audience and the issue of individual voice provoked a strong response, with an argument for not pigeon-holing poets by their voice.

Joelle, who is a popular spoken word poet, believes there is a danger in being boxed in or categorised by voice.

“Thousands of people come to spoken word events – they are rammed, but there has been the idea that being a spoken word artist or performance poet is a dumbing down. Only recently have poems started being committed to the page,” she said.

All the poets felt it was unhelpful to be categorised by voice and that performance and the written word should be able to feed creatively into each other.

Hannah said the spoken word has helped with performance nerves.

“When I started out I was terrified of performing,” she said. “It is only now that I am more confident I can enjoy what I am saying and the performance.”

Joelle made the point that it is not just the voice that is speaking in performance, it is also the body.

“You have three minutes to change the rules. The body becomes a very important part of performance,” said Joelle.

Hannah made the observation that when Joelle delivered her own poetry, “it seemed as if at times you were doing sign language.”

Jon, who is editor of Sidekick Books and whose adventurous work includes collages from contemporary manga and poems that experiment with form and voices, said he avoids the ‘I’ in poetry, which gives him the freedom to take his poetry in diverse directions.

“As a cisgendered, white, heterosexual male, my work is more interested in being other things rather than about my own life experiences, otherwise I would feel I was grabbing attention which I would not feel I deserved. In terms of the voices that want to be heard, I want to express myself by my interaction with other things,” he said.

On the question of how the poetic voice has changed and the difference between the authorial voice and the poetic voice as a signature voice, Chris said he believes that between the 19th and 20th centuries, there was a shift as the radio allowed personalities to be recognised by their voice.

“Eliot argued for the disappearance of personalities, but signature style is still a big thing, but more contentious is a personality in poetry and a voice intentionally recognised,” said Chris.

Joelle said spoken word poets shy away from an authorial voice, but for some spoken word events, audiences go to hear a particular voice.

“There are positives and negatives about the scene. It can be like going to see a Take That concert in that you know what you’re getting. Particularly if you’re under 30, attractive and on Radio 1, you will pull in a crowd, but that is part of creating a scene and getting into that demographic,” said Joelle.

Picking up on the idea of the radio changing how the poetic voice is appreciated, she said that new technologies are doing something similar currently.

“There are all kinds of technologies that allow you to be heard and seen and support a wide range of voices to be disseminated,” she said.

Hannah said some voices from the spoken word scene are real stars, such as Kate Tempest, and a push to create poetry pop stars can be detected in the media.

“They do not necessarily have the broadest audience and don’t appeal to spoken word audiences. We have stars that are not stars,” she said.

Jon said there is a conscious effort to promote poets into stars because it makes good copy.

“You can tell a wider audience – this is a star, this is what poetry is,” he said.

The poets felt that the apparent divide between spoken word poets and page poets is unhelpful and often based on prejudice.

Hannah said there is an assumption that spoken word is not academic, which she attributes to the fact that spoken word is associated with working class voices.

“Spoken word poetry is not in conversation with an existing canon, and there are different venues, promoters and funding streams. The differences are institutionalised,” she said.

Chris said that other countries are more open to other forms of poetry and the cross-fertilisation between different strands of poetry.

“In Canada, Christian Bök’s poetry is centred on ideas and visual poetry that captures ideas in different ways. Diversity should be celebrated. Instead of asking people, ‘Do you like poetry?’ the question should be, ‘What kind of poetry do you like?’” he said.

Picking up on Chris’s idea: What kind of poetry do you like? Let Magma know and we will publish your answers on our blog.

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. All words have sound, shape, rhythm, and colour. Put together they can create something special. If you’re reading a poem, then you should be hearing the sound and rhythm, seeing the shape, colour and structure. If someone performs this, and you are hearing the spoken word, then this should truly enhance what you have read. So why should there be a division? Poetry in the first instance should be spoken!.

  2. I have read this posting a number of times. I have let the article sit before returning to it in order to attempt to hopefully let my confusion dismantle itself for the sake of finding some clarity. This last attempt I realized the import of what it is trying to say comes down to simply the opening statement concerning the “pigeon-holing of poets by their voice.” The statements following this all seem superfluous and in general make little or no sense concerning the concept of what the voice of a poet really is. I can only draw the conclusion that what is actually being spoken about and confused with ‘voice’ is the element of style by which an artist/poet uses to get their messages across. There are other issues spoken of but they seem trite and insignificant in talking about the issue.

    Style, the medium, the construction a poet chooses does not need to be consistent. I have been writing for over 50 years and am happy to say that when I look back on the body of my work—some good, some not so much—I can honestly say while I do have particular styles a poem has been written in I feel confident I have never been married to any particular one to get whatever the issue I am addressing across to the reader/listener. Many poets search tirelessly to develop a sense of style because they confuse it with developing a voice for their poetry.

    I ask the questions—What is the ‘voice’ of a poet? How important is it that they have one? What does it mean? To address this I am going to turn away from poetry in particular (which is kin to all other art forms in my opinion though I am well aware of its particulars), but there are times when a visual explanation can give more insight to an issue Let us talk about Picasso. When one looks at the body of his work from its nascent beginnings until the end of his productive career, we are struck by the different styles (some say periods) which his art work embraced. At first glance one might say that what he painted in his early years is so much different than where he finally ended his journey. Even though they seem worlds apart each piece of art he produced when seen in context embraced the same voice. It is the voice of the journey itself. Always he was striving regardless of his style used to find the roots of his art, what art meant to him. His amazement as he moved from classical to more and more primitive modes of expression continually tried to distill for him what art itself was and, using that, how to convey what he discovered through his own art, his interpretation. I am not saying that overall he was involved with ‘meta-art,’ though that is part of it—in the end all art is self-referential. Throughout though there is a ‘voice.’ It is what in the end makes his work so important to the world. Before Picasso the world had no need of him. There was no void he filled that humanity longed for. By creating what he did he also created the need for it. The world did not ‘need’ Beethoven’s music, nor did it ‘need’ the work of Michelangelo. But now the world could not do without it because all these things, the effort, vision and ‘voice’ these artists spoke with explained to the world the human condition.

    A poet does the same thing. Regardless of the style he or she utilizes, whether it be some form, or written or spoken (and here I must add poetry by its nature should always be considered an oral, audible art form) it is essential that the poet be involved in the craft, but more they should be absorbed by their point of view of the world.

    To gain a voice (which it seems this article posits is a detriment to one’s art) is the thing a poet must strive for. It is the inner voice that speaks to them, always in questions—what does it mean? Poetry more than any other art form because it utilizes as its medium the basic elements of communication—language—needs to be an art of explanation. I would go so far as to say that the definition of poetry is the art of explanation. Not through simply one poem but through a body of work—though some poems are more successful at accomplishing this. The poet in writing a poem should always be cognizant of the act of discovery, cognizant that the point of producing art, expressing themselves each time is simply a step on a journey that has no destination at its end other than to have attempted to explain their view about what life is.

    I believe the state of contemporary poetry is as it is because poets in general have lost sight of the bigger picture. This article in general points to this fact. What I read seem to be simply so much quibbling about an issue that is more based on individual poet’s insecurities about what they do than really talking about their art. To argue about a poet’s ‘voice’ pigeon-holing them in some way—an argument I am still at odds to understand its relativity to anything—is simply so much talk. The poet’s referred to in this article have been presented (their views) as not having achieved a voice as yet and for a lack thereof are ready to expunge the very essence of what a poet should attempt to achieve, be searching for at some point in their journey/career and that is finding their voice and making it be heard.

  3. I believe that to hear a poem read in the context it is written with a voice able to convey the feelings and essence of that work should be nothing more than sheer poetry to listen to. It would fill the audience, hold them captive to the theme and hopefully bring out the emotions that you are trying to bring out in others.

  4. I am a bit dismayed over what seems to be your editorial policy on the nature of feedback comments. I recently wrote a comment of some length wherein I addressed my opinion concerning this posting on “Voice” in poetry. I admit, my comment may have been, no was, critical of the opinions put forth in your post but that is the nature of dialogue when one is discussing anything. It was with great surprise that not only did you dismiss my opinons out of hand but I received no communication from anyone on your staff telling me why. I believe the points I made concerning the subject at hand were well thought out and merited being included in your comments section as at least a dissenting opinion. If all you want to hear are positive reinforcements about how you see the world–in this case the world of poetry–then I can only say that your lack of willingness to embrace opposing opinions is very much in line with what I believe is the problem with the state of affairs poetry seems to find itself in today. I suppose in the furutre I should confine my comments to mouthing plaudits for ‘your’ point of view and keep my honest thoughts to myself.

  5. I like poetry that touches me deeply: a squirrel munching a nut, street flowers, purple, blue flowers, scenes of everyday life, a digger who is proud of his hoe and determined to win his bread, the eternal beauty of nature which never changes. First World War poetry, the history of aviation, poetry to denounce Justice against women.
    Poetry that speaks about contemporary heroes who work in the shadows.
    Things that communicate with my soul, a dog’s joyful love, the boat and the oar, the magic of foam on the sea, the majesty of a tropical or snow-capped mountain.
    Poetry creates magic in the soul and makes you wonder there is Someone out there who has made all these little wonders to delight my soul. Poetry is giving life to words that burn your soul and will burn others in the process. Poetry is the voice of nature, the voice of the soul that thrills and captivates like a flowerdrop.
    The poet is a solitary being who hears the bark talking and flowers whisper in the wind and finds it very difficult to share such thoughts to people in everyday life.

  6. Kenneth – sorry, we didn’t mean not to publish your comment. It had slipped onto page 2 of comments at our dashboard due to a large number of spam comments and I only saw it today when I also read your second comment. Dissenting opinions are welcome on this blog as long as they aren’t personal attacks.

  7. Voice means two things. Physically, it is the actual voice of the poet. I know of poets who write excellent material but very poor at articulating them publicly; and poets whose work looks lacklustre on the page but it is effective in live delivery.
    From I suppose a literary point of view, “voice” refers to the “character” or “personality” of the apparent narrrator of the poem. One poet might write poems which would not be out of place sung to a simple tune in a wine bar, other poems which paint a portrait or landscape in rich tones and hues, or other poems again which have a measured, discursive, “lecturing” style of delivery.
    Given that many people do in fact write as they speak, it is not uncommon to see work of poets who write almost everything in the one voice: it is theirs, and that is what they are comfortable and confident doing. Others, to restate the obvious, like to select different voices for different kinds of statement.

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