The Writer’s Voice: Part 1 – Poetry
A student recently asked me to write a blog about how a poet finds their own voice.
I must confess that I’ve been finding it difficult because ‘voice’ isn’t something I usually give much conscious thought to (though perhaps I should!).
What is meant by ‘voice’ in poetry? Personally I don’t think it’s easy to distinguish between ‘voice’ and ‘style’. Both are abstract terms that are concerned with the overall effect of a piece of writing rather than any specific technique, so both are the sum of all the other parts of the writing craft. In both fiction and poetry, ‘voice’ and ‘style’ are created from word choice, tone, use of punctuation and grammar, rhythm, choice of subject matter, choice of point of view, use of imagery, and so on. In poetry, specific poetic techniques also contribute to voice, including line length, line breaks, use of stanzas, rhyme and meter.
It helps me to think about voice in terms of its everyday meaning – that is, how someone speaks. We all have individual voices and we are extremely good at distinguishing between voices and identifying people from their speech. However, whilst we may only have one voice, we can manipulate our voices to express different tones and moods. We can speak assertively or romantically, persuasively or righteously, for example.
In the same way, a writer may have one voice, but they can vary it by writing in different styles. Voice is made from both style but something else too – what I’m going to describe as the writer’s ‘take’ on the world. Some writers are wry, some sincere; others are passionate, others cooler. Here are a couple of examples.
The poet Liz Berry’s voice is tender and precise, revelling in the beauty of everyday life. Writing about a hairdresser she says:
Yours is the halo of the hairspray
and the lovely silver can-can dancing scissors.
(‘Carmella’ in Black Country, Chatto & Windus, 2004).
Another poet, Hannah Sullivan, uses a less lyrical voice. Her voice is faster (the longer lines creates this sense of speed); it’s flippant and postmodern, rooted in proper nouns and contemporary references:
Your friends wear flannel and McDonalds’s name badges,
They talk about Ben Beranke and Isabel Marant wedges.
You are slightly disappointed in Obama’s domestic policy,
You think the great America novelist is David Foster Wallace.
(‘You, Very Young in New York’ in Three Poems, Faber & Faber, 2018).
It might seem that Sullivan’s lines are less crafted because they are less lyrical and not based on imagery, but in fact Sullivan’s lines are loosely rhyming couplets. Even though both poets are writing about the contemporary world, their use of different techniques creates their distinctive voices.
But this doesn’t mean a writer should aim to construct a voice for themselves and stick to it – far from it. Just as your speaking voice evolves throughout your life, so your writing voice can evolve too.
Editors emphasise the importance of getting the voice right, so given this importance perhaps it’s controversial of me to suggest that worrying about finding your voice is misplaced. If Liz Berry deliberately set out to write a Liz Berry-sounding poem, I suspect it might not be very good. But she doesn’t have to – by focusing on the other aspects of her craft, her voice is present. As long as you’re not imitating another writer, yours will be present too – just as every time you speak, you speak with your own voice.
Many of the best writers write as they speak, so that we seem to ‘hear’ their speaking voice on the page. Why not try writing something as close to your own speaking voice as you can? What issues of craft are you conscious of? Word choice, rhythm, tone and syntax will no doubt have a role to play. How is this different from your usual voice on the page? Think about why they’re different and which is the more distinctive.
I believe that by focusing on other aspects of the writing craft – mastering techniques, exploring the possibilities of form, stretching yourself in terms of subject matter – your voice will be present in your work and will evolve as you continue to develop your craft, without you doing a single conscious thing to ‘find’ it. But other people will have different opinions on this issue – which is perhaps why new writers find thinking about ‘voice’ so confusing.
If you’re interested in voice, a couple of books on the topic include:
Al Alvarez, The Writer’s Voice (Bloomsbury, 2006)
Ben Yagoda, The Sound on the Page: Great Writers Talk about Style and Voice in Writing (Harper Perennial, 2005)
In my next blog I’ll explore the issue of voice in fiction and how it’s related to point of view and the choice of narrator.