How do poets use ‘voice’ to instil their poems with personality? Consider with reference to three poets.

Authors Avatar
How do poets use 'voice' to instil their poems with personality? Consider with reference to three poets.

For poetry to be truly personal, a voice is needed. It is through the voice of a poet that the reader can glean some sense of that poet's identity and nature. Who are they? What are they trying to say? Why? One could even go so far as to say that the voice of a poem or poet is fundamental to its aesthetic value and 'readability' - without a distinct and clear voice, how can we distinguish a poem from the surrounding, ambient babble? It is the voice which endears a poet to the reader - without a voice, how can we identify with a poet? All these questions must be considered carefully. The voice of a poet can be a vehicle for political, personal, and social expression, as well as instilling a poem with a sense of personality - one might say the function of a poet's 'voice' is to stamp their poem with their identity.

It is the idea of an author's voice, rather than the voice itself which draws us towards the author as an entity - someone with whom we can identify, converse and understand. The actual process of reading may be, on one level, entirely one-sided, but in reading a poem (or any piece of literature for that matter) we bring as much to the work as we take from it. In this way, reading a poem is not one-sided at all, and is instead a rich progression towards a higher understanding from the reader. In the end, it comes down to the age-old question: do words on a page in a closed book actually mean anything until they are read, and even when they are, is it possible to be both 'voiceless' and meaningful?

It has been argued in Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory (Bennett & Royle, 1999) that every literary text has a voice, be it that of an omnipotent and omniscient 'god-like' authorial voice, or a character of the author's creation. According to this theory, even the Biology textbook - that most mundane and impersonal of publications - is infused with the voice(s) of its author(s). As Roland Barthes points out in his landmark essay "The Death of the Author" (Image, Music, Text, 1977), this is the sole reason why authors put their name on a piece of work. An author will lend their name to their novel/poem in order to distinguish it from other novels/poems. Ultimately, however, Barthes argues that this is meaningless: an author is nothing more than a product of his or her society and background, and therefore, the author cannot claim some sort of absolute authority over his or her text because, in some ways, he or she did not write it. In other words, it is writing that makes the author and not vice versa.

There are, however, flaws in Barthes' argument, which will be analysed further on. It is important at this stage, however, to make a clear distinction between the 'author' and the 'voice' in order to avoid any confusion that may arise. In many ways, the 'author' and the 'voice' of a poem or any work of fiction are intrinsically linked: the author is the voice and the voice is the author, in much the same way that Sylvia Plath is the voice in her poems or her work of fiction, The Bell Jar. There is no getting around the fact that we 'hear' Jean-Paul Sartre's voice in The Age of Reason and Nausea, or Fontane's voice in Effi Briest. The same can be said of the poets I have chosen: Linton Kwesi Johnson's voice is clear and distinct, as are those of Tom Leonard and Sylvia Plath. In this way, one might say, the author or poet and their voice are one and the same - indistinguishable from each other. In other ways, though, it is easy to trip up and become muddled in the literary thorn bush that blocks our path whenever we try to make a generalisation. A novel like Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange (1962) displays no apparent sign of the author's 'voice' - indeed it is written in a language entirely of his own creation (NadSat - the disjointed, disorderly jargon of a future jilted generation) and through the voice of the novel's protagonist, 'Alex'. Obvious questions arise. Whose 'voice' is Burgess speaking with? His own or Alex's? Can they be both? Of course, Alex is a creation of Burgess' mind and therefore the voice is ultimately that of Burgess himself - he thought of the character, put pen to paper, and put words in Alex's mouth. But how far does this go? To what extent is Alex his own entity, free to evolve and grow within the limits and boundaries imposed by his author? How far and to what extent is Alex simply a mouthpiece for Burgess' 'voice': moralising and ominous. In the end, we are never really sure whether Alex has been 'cured' or not, or (which is more interesting) whether the author even knows. The same theme is explored in Flann O'Brien's novel, At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), in which issues of 'author', 'voice', and even the idea of a character, are thrown into question.

But how does this relate to poetry and the issue of 'voice'? To start with, the same problems of discerning the 'voice' from the 'author' are present, but much more subtle, in the poets I have chosen. I have deliberately picked poets who 'speak' in their own 'voice' as it were, in an attempt to highlight the different motives with which 'voice' is used. For example, in Sylvia Plath's poems, 'voice' is used to express deep and intimate emotional feelings, and in some cases, psychological trauma as in her moving poem "Daddy". In this poem, Plath's voice is clearly enunciated, and the effect of this is to give the reader a powerful insight into the workings of the poet's mind. The poem deals with Plath's relationship with her dead father, and how she must reconcile his past and her roots in a post-war world. As the poem progresses, however, the reader comes to realise that 'Daddy' is not the bête noir we suppose him to be - and instead we understand that he is an integral part of Plath as a person. A part she has come to hate and associate with her father. A part she can never escape: "Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through." (80)
Join now!

Plath's voice comes through in a number of cunning ways here. It seems as though she is addressing her father, and therefore speaks in the first person singular for example: "I used to pray to recover you." (14) As a result, the poem seems all the more intense and personal - perhaps because we are listening in on a one-sided conversation which we feel we should not be listening to. The effect is akin to reading someone's personal letter, when feelings of guilt compete with an innate curiosity about other people's intimate details. In this way, her anguish ...

This is a preview of the whole essay