On Writing

Our poetic voice: the source of variety, nuance and meaning

Garry Knigh, CC BY-SA

Your voice carries your character. You might have a light, strained voice, or you might have a deep, rolling voice, but that is not your voice. It is the prop you were given, and you use it as any good actor would. There are some communications we make with the voice that only the voice can convey. The voice is not even the words you say. The voice is there in how you deal with the air coming up and out, the rhythms and resonances, the intonations, pauses and rushes it makes possible, and the way your muscles work in your body.

I used to imagine I could tell if a person was a someone I would like by looking at the shape of the back of their head. Then I became convinced that the shape of the hand tells more truth about character than any face can. I watched people’s hands carefully for generosity or meanness, for confidence or fear. But the voice is what carries nearly everything we wish to know about the value and meaning a person or a poem might have for us.

TS Eliot offered the poet three possible voices: a private one where she more or less talks to herself, or a slightly raised voice where the poet addresses those few people interested in hearing poetry; then a final possibility – when the poet imitates some imagined character’s voice (Berryman, Browning – many poets have tried this project).

But Eliot is too literal. In each of these instances we, the readers, are sharp enough to hear the poet, and not so respectful that we’re ever convinced a poet is truly talking to herself or adopting wholly another’s voice. Even in imitation of another’s voice there are many ways to do this – condescendingly, respectfully, satirically, attentively, broadly, badly and so on. That is where we hear the voice.

I have tried recently to produce versions of the voice of the dry, hardened wit of an outback man, and the speech of an Aboriginal tribal man showing white people (kartiya, pronounced gardia in the language of the Walmajarri people among whom I am living just now) some of his bush knowledge. I know that the poems I produced are entirely my own and still in my own voice though elements of ventriloquism are there for the reader to hear.

What I am writing about here might sometimes be called tone. But I want to call it voice, because I think it is what really matters in understanding what is said, particularly in a poem. Voice, tone – it is received as sound.

Robert Frost wrote in 1939 that, “the sound is the gold in the ore”. “All that can be done with words is soon told,” he wrote, reminding his readers that without what he called meaning (and what I am calling voice) there can be no variety, no nuance, no endlessness to poetry.

Listen to one of Frost’s iconic poems, The Road Not Taken. The poem is spoken as a memory and a prediction, perhaps in imitation of his walking friend, Edward Thomas, or perhaps in imitation of a person he found he nearly was (he wrote of seeing a man on a path ahead of him, and feeling that he was looking at himself).

He makes it clear, stanza by stanza, through the first part of the poem, that there was truly no difference between two diverging paths in a wood, yet he did take one of them, leaving the other forever unexplored. He imagines finally that in the far future of old age (he was 42 years old when the poem was published) he will be telling this story of how

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
and that has made all the difference.

How many have taken this poem as justification for the boast of an adventurous, individually vivid life? Yet these readers have not heard the poem in its tone, in its voice within the voice, the one that offers ironic comment on the way we do, all of us, compliment ourselves on decisions made, paths taken, risks embraced, when really there was little logic, wisdom, adventurousness or individuality involved.

It is the strange arbitrariness of life, its impersonal wildness, that such a person has failed to celebrate. Frost finds a voice in this poem that deals with this failure, not by directly parodying the self-satisfied conceit of the man who boasts he took the road less travelled, but by inviting us all in to hear a voice placing itself in the hesitation between the doubled “I” of “I—I”.

In 1916, the same year, he also wrote a poem titled Birches, where he complained, “life is too much like a pathless wood”, and he imagined being granted the wish of getting out of it for a while, then somehow returning to make a better go of life. Finally, though, he acknowledges,

Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better

A beautifully plain-spoken bit of home-made philosophy in home-made phrases, and one that manages to carry to us the tone of a voice that knows how do the plaintive, the plangent, the poignant and the yearning, and does it with enough of a twinkle in the voice to let us think, yes, but no as well. For we hear in this Frosty voice, just as in The Road Not Taken, the limitations of the comforts home spun philosophy offers.

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