October 31, 2010

A Poet's Voice

What do writing teachers mean by "finding your own voice?" More than anything, one realizes the voice.  It's unmistakably you--your own words in the way that you would say it. Beginning writers often don't trust their voice, and they try to sound like other writers. It won't work!

Here's an example of a poem with a strong writer's voice:

Curtains by Ruth Stone

Putting up new curtains, other
windows intrude.
As though it is that first winter in Cambridge
when you and I had just moved in.
Now cold borscht alone in a bare kitchen.

What does it mean if I say this years later?

Listen, last night
I am on a crying jag
with my landlord, Mr. Tempesta.
I sneaked in two cats.
He screams NO PETS! NO PETS!
I become my Aunt Virginia,
proud but weak in the head.
I remember Anna Magnani.
I throw a few books. I shout.
He wipes his eyes and opens his hands.
OK OK keep the dirty animals
but no nails in the walls.
We cry together.
I am so nervous, he says.

I want to dig you up and say, look,
it's like the time, remember,
when I ran into our living room naked
to get rid of that fire inspector.

See what you miss by being dead?

from Second-Hand Coat (Boston: Godine, c1987)

The voice is so singular, so strong.   In the space of just a few lines, we are completely connected. It is intimate, immediate, and sweeps us into her world.  A memoir in a few associations.  In two lines, we have a history of a marriage and a widowhood. "Now cold borsht alone in a bare kitchen."  Stone has nailed the reader with an inescapably vivid detail. The taste is something the reader knows.  A stanza break and a question, "What does it mean if I say this years later?"  The stanza break here allows the writer and reader to make a transition. What does it mean?  I like that the question is not answered in the poem, but the reader is left to draw his or her own conclusions. The next stanza presents a dramatic scene and a memory of another scene. The final question nearly stabs the heart with its poignancy.    The title is so well chosen.  It begins by putting up curtains, but the shadow meaning of curtains, meaning the end in a drama, also comes in.

Each writer's voice is singular and unique.  It's important to preserve it through the drafts of the poem.  One's voice is made of the way that you talk, your word choice, the things you notice, the place you live, the intimacies you have. It contains your obsessions and passions and quirks.  Love those! Love your voice.

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