AUGUST 25, 2019
THE LATE POET AND TEACHER Tony Hoagland admits early in The Art of Voice: Poetic Principles and Practice (written with Kay Cosgrove) that voice is a somewhat nebulous, mysterious element — “like the womb around an embryo,” a slightly uncomfortable analogy. Hoagland was a poet whose own writing was immersed in the vernacular, his ear tuned to the rhythms of everyday speech and the poetic possibilities of demotic and spoken American. For all his talk of the hardship in defining voice, Hoagland goes about it admirably, taxonomizing several aspects that cohere across 12 short, approachable chapters. This is a book written expressly for writing students, complete with writing exercises at the back to serve as homework, but it’s nonetheless worthwhile for a general, interested reader. The tone is, throughout, coaxing, benevolent, and enthused.
Hoagland breaks his discussion down along lines that seem eminently sensible and self-contained, no mean feat given how easily such a discussion might drift into condescending abstraction. He avoids this throughout, in fact, and if he’s guilty of anything, it’s of loving his subject too much. The language he uses to describe what voice can achieve in a poem is intimate and tender. His introduction frames the writer/reader relationship along the lines of an encounter or conversation: “When we commence reading a poem, we are starting a relationship, and we want that relationship to be with an interesting, resourceful companion.” He also flags up something to which he returns, at least allusively, later — the drift away from rhetoric or universality in modern American poetry toward a more intimate, conversational style, the “aliveness of voice” being “a special strength of American poetry in the last hundred years.”
It’s hard to disagree in principle with this feeling, or his contention that much modern American poetry has shifted away from the example he gives of Wordsworthian pronouncement — “The world is too much with us; late and soon” — toward “one ordinary person speaking confidentially to another” (Wordsworth seems an odd bête noire given the thrust of Lyrical Ballads was just such discourse). Only in the chapters that follow does one realize quite how much that phrase depends on the word “ordinary.” Hoagland tackles different aspects of voice in discrete units, from a discussion of voice as a way of showing the “mind in motion” and creating intimacy with an audience to ways in which writers “import” other voices, from additional speakers to the legalese and propaganda of political and marketing speak. He also dedicates chapters to the use of vernacular — perceptively — and to the use of register from high lyric to low chatter.
Despite Hoagland’s observations about the lack of rhetoric in modern poetry, he’s not above a little didacticism here. No one should argue against his right to do so; in fact, more steely pronouncements would have been welcome in what can at times become a rather too friendly tour, but there are moments when one questions particular assertions, such as “a good poem intensifies, increases, and then resolves tension.” This may be the case of some “good poems,” but it feels altogether too sweeping a statement to be thrown in casually during a discussion of a somewhat room-temperature list poem. Likewise in the chapter on intimacy in voice, Hoagland, on our behalf, claims that the “familiar flavors of speech” of a Mark Halliday poem, which operates on the lowest simmer, draws readers to it “the way that bees are attracted to the blue juice of a melting popsicle.” Of a Diane Seuss poem, he writes, “We know this speaker is a worldly person, and our recognition of that worldliness makes us trust her.” Here and elsewhere, Hoagland gives the selected poems too much credit, rushing to hand them our implicit good opinion when many feel less like illustrations of significant speech and more like mildly complacent journal-filler. This is especially true when they’re juxtaposed with powerful, sharply written work by poets such as Terrance Hayes, Mary Ruefle, and Adam Zagajewski.
Hoagland’s tendency to hand over gold stars by the fistful does not undermine the principles of his well-made and sensitively shaped discussion. He is perceptive about the dangers of the old adage “make every word count,” pointing to the benefits of “gestures of presence” or “packing material,” fillers, digressions, and apparently extraneous words, which help to humanize a poetic speaker. He is also good on the idea of the poem as a site for waging a war of sorts against an overwhelming surfeit of stimuli and of forging some connection to the material world. He also acknowledges how voice within a poem enacts multiplicity: “As English is a composite of many different regions and economic classes, many different source-tongues and a globally enriched vocabulary, the vernacular poem is capable of helping us access our own multicultural fluency.” Vernacular, in this sense, needn’t stand only for slang, jargon, or regional colloquialism, but also for high and low register or culture, all of which can culminate in a coherent voice.
This feels central to Hoagland’s overriding argument, and it’s a compelling one. He develops this line of thought in a chapter on “Voices Borrowed from the Environment”: “[A] poem can be seen as a natural form of political engagement, a supremely adaptable cultural instrument capable of much more than sounding off about a particular speaker’s inner life.” This assertion, unlike many of the poems he’s been content to overpraise, earns both our admiration and agreement, and is developed further in his clear-sighted conclusion:
[F]undamental […] to our claims about the dialectical turbulence of experience and poetic voice is the idea that the speaker of a poem, in the end, holds it together. What we see in the unfolding of the poem is a heroic struggle not to be blown away or destroyed in the boiling contradictions of time and phenomena. The self may indeed be an uneasy coalition of impulses, influences, misinformation, and truth, but it is stubborn to survive and, in the end, it is loyal to its body, its identity, and its desire to dance another dance.
This is an important, articulate summing up, but one wishes there had been a little more of the “heroic struggle” in the work used throughout to arrive at this point and a little less “sounding off about a particular speaker’s inner life.” Perhaps it’s unfair to expect a book aimed largely at newcomers to focus on voices operating nearer to the end of holding it together. One can’t help feeling, however, that the best poetic examples of Hoagland’s thesis have been left out, largely in favor of poets who are more easily accessible but who lack the captivating zeal or robust linguistic skill to counteract the modern “turbulence of experience” he diagnoses.
Hoagland’s sign-off helps explain his decision to opt for more approachable exemplars:
In the end, perhaps, each good poem is a kind of miracle birth, possessing a different ingenuity and metabolism. But poetry is a craft as well as an art, and the insights and techniques of craft, like carpentry, can be taught, learned, practiced, and relished.
This and the writing exercises that follow seal a sense that this is a gateway toward starting to develop voice and, in that sense, perhaps the tone of poetry as can-do conversational verbal labor is the appropriate one for what may be, for many of its intended readers, Woodwork 101.
One senses in flashes enough of Hoagland’s true feeling, however, that for all the talk of craft, there is also in the best work, crucially, some element of the “miracle” in that “miracle birth,” the inexplicable lurch of imagination. The best description I’ve found of this aspect of voice, one created when a synthesis of significant speech and linguistic patterning comes together to add something to thought and language, is from Hart Crane: “It is as though a poem gave the reader as he left it a single, new word, never before spoken and impossible to actually enunciate, but self-evident as an active principle in the reader’s consciousness henceforward.”
Hoagland, to his great credit, gestures as far as possible in a book of this sort toward the ineffable, even while providing advice and insight with enough clarity and openness to appeal to the beginner.