In her 2017 collection Stranger Baby, Emily Berry stages a dialogue between voices living and dead, a sort of haunted (and haunting) psychodrama, both intimate and fiercely private: “I wish you would put some kind of distortion on my voice,” says the speaker in ‘The End’, “so people don’t know it’s me.” This is poetry that skilfully, vividly explores the interplay of voices, including their curious or harrowing silences.
From the oral epic to lyric poetry, from contemporary spoken word performances to poetry readings from the page, poetry maintains a strong link to the bodily voice. In the absence of the poet’s physical voice we silently ‘voice’ the text of the poem in our minds. The cadences, rhythms and sounds of the poem reveal traces of the poet’s physical speech. Like the bodily voice, a poetic ‘voice’ is an expression of unique identity. But how do poets develop this individual ‘voice’? How can we find a way of speaking our experiences, our imaginations, and ourselves, through poetry?
In my upcoming course ‘Talking Back‘, we will be challenging the romantic idea of the poetic voice – and the lyric voice in particular – as independent autobiography, as what Mara Scanlon calls “‘subjective, personal, isolated experience, a transcendent and self-sufficient cri du coeur.” I think that the poetic voice, like the physical voice and like language itself, can only develop through interaction and through dialogue. In these sessions we will develop and hone our poetic voices by means of thoughtful and playful experimentation through dialogue. This dialogue will take many different forms: between poet and audience or addressee, between poem and poem or other artwork or text, and even between multiple speakers within a single poem.
The poetry of Frank O’Hara, for example, engages in dialogue with the visual art – and visual artists – of its day. W.S. Graham’s idiosyncratic voice might speak to his sleeping wife, or to a dead friend, or explore the dialogue between unconsciousness and consciousness, between language and “silence on the other side.” A poem is a social animal; like our everyday speech it can maintain and also disrupt social relationships, can affirm or challenge dominant cultural ideologies. In her collection Whereas, Layli Long-Soldier creates a powerful response to the US government’s language in its treaties and apologies to Native American peoples. She does this through a careful examination of dialogue, of what is spoken and unspoken: “Whereas I could’ve but didn’t broach the subject of “genocide” the absence of this term from the Apology and its rephrasing as “conflict” for example.”
A poet can use the lyric ‘I’ to give the impression of a single identity but they might also, through dramatic monologues, or by creating multiple poetic identities as Fernando Pessoa did, create and use multiple voices. They might sometimes, like Emily Berry or Stevie Smith, or like TS Eliot in The Waste Land (originally titled He Do the Police in Different Voices) avoid the single voice in favour of disrupted or multiple voices within the space of a single poem.
Poetry’s focus on the voice, combined with the more playful, ‘irrational’, less translatable, less informational aspects of poetic language such as rhythm and sound-patterning, can emphasise and celebrate the play of voices, highlighting what philosopher Adriana Cavarero calls the “reciprocal invocation” of embodied uniqueness or, to put it another way, social bonding via the voice. By enabling and celebrating dialogue between contemporary speakers as well as across historical, cultural, and geographic distances, disregarding boundaries of time, space and mortality, poetry can function as a space for all our voices – an extraordinary, ongoing conversation.