Voice In Poetry

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 b�te 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)
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 is eloquently expressed in the first stanza:
You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo. 5 (1-5)
But we could also make a case that the “Daddy” in the poem is not only her father (and perhaps a part of herself), but her husband, Ted Hughes, as well. For example, towards the end of the poem, various subtle references to marriage are made: “And I said I do, I do.” (67) The idea of two men (the two men in Plath’s life) is brought up again when we are told that “If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two…” (71), and a direct reference to the poet’s marriage is made at line 72: “The vampire who said he was you/And drank my blood for a year,/Seven years if you want to know” (72-74). It is almost as though Plath is being suffocated by the omniscient and omnipotent men who surround her – both alive and dead. We can only understand this because Plath has instilled her poem with her own ‘voice’ – had the poem been written in an impersonal, detached way, completely devoid of any discernible ‘voice’, the intensely personal sense we get of Plath being smothered would be lost.
But the strong and clear voice that comes through also raises issues about Plath’s identity: who she feels she is and is not. She says at one point that she thinks she “may well be a Jew” (35), when in fact she is not. This is echoed by her despondent, resonant cry in a foreign language: “Ich, ich, ich, ich.” (27) It is clear that the poem has a strong personality, and this personality is only made possible with the presence of Plath’s voice.
A link can be made here to another of Plath’s poems, “The Bee Meeting”, which also raises the question of identity. Unlike “Daddy”, this poem is not addressed or aimed at anyone in particular, but this does not mean that it is any less personal, and it still retains Plath’s ‘voice’ as she is again speaking in the first person. The poem reinforces the poet’s sense of abject loneliness in a world populated by well-to-do figures of society who (it seems) neither really care for, nor understand her. In “The Bee Meeting”, Plath joins various members of the parish to collect honey from the “white hive”(34). When the other figures don their veils and heavy outer garments for protection, however, their identities are lost, and this frightens Plath, who does not want to be lost in turn:
Is it some operation that is taking place? 30
It is the surgeon my neighbours are waiting for,
This apparition in a green helmet,
Shining gloves and white suit.
Is it the butcher, the grocer, the postman, someone I know? 35
Plath’s voice comes across most strongly, however, when she tells us of her fear and her nakedness while all others are clothed. We are told that she is “nude as a chicken neck, does nobody love me?” (6) and “Now I am milkweed silk, the bees will not notice./They will not smell my fear, my fear, my fear.” (9-10) Clearly, a tortured, lonely, forlorn voice is at work here, appealing vainly for understanding in the hopelessly detached way that abject melancholia brings. Her tired, sad, frail voice is heard at the end: “Whose is that long white box in the grove, what have they accomplished, why am I cold.” (55) The lack of a question mark at the end implies that an answer is not expected, perhaps because Plath knows that she will never receive one.
The subtlety in the image of the coffin-like “long white box” hints at hidden depths to Plath’s feelings – depths which are both limitless and moving. We could go so far as to say that Plath associates and identifies herself with the hive and its angry bees: confused, chaotic, and directionless. By putting the bees to sleep, the hive, “as snug as a virgin” (34), is violated. In the same way perhaps, Plath sees herself as violated or raped by the world around her. Once again, it is only through her powerful voice that we understand these emotions.
Problems of identity are strongly linked in both poems (the “Ich, ich, ich,” of “Daddy” and images of lost identity in “The Bee Hive Meeting”), and this question surfaces again in the poems of Linton Kwesi Johnson. In a poem like “Mekkin Histri”, Johnson’s voice is immediately clear and challenging: “now tell mi something/mistah govahment man/tell mi something.” (1-3) Johnson’s voice searches, accuses, demands:
how lang yu really feel
yu coulda keep wi andah heel 5
wen di trute done reveal
bout how yu grab an steal
bout how yu mek yu crooked deal
mek yu crooked deal?
` (4-9)
It is clear that the voice coming through here is a purely political one, and the colloquial language that Johnson employs reinforces his poems’ sense of ‘otherness’ and originality. The language is both alien and familiar, both intimidating and soothing. But it is also a collective voice – a voice of the people, but not all the people. It is a voice demanding complete and radical change, an alien voice that has become disillusioned with the society that surrounds it. The title of the poem, “Mekkin Histri” implies a time of great change, and this is exactly what Johnson was doing at a time when the British establishment was threatening to revert back to an entirely conservative, jingoistic and exclusive mindset. It is not surprising that Linton Kwesi Johnson has earned himself the nickname of ‘The Prophet’, who, with his eclectic mix of dub beats and chanting poetry, captured the political heart and soul of Britain’s black youth in the 1980s, and, many say, continues to do so today.
It is perhaps due to the African tradition for collective storytelling and music that Johnson’s voice is so much more powerful and raw compared to other poets/songwriters talking about the same thing, for example Gil Scott-Heron. Perhaps it also has something to do with the way the poems are written and their apparent inaccessibility to the ‘Western’ reader. What it succeeds in doing is creating, once read aloud, a true sense of Johnson’s voice – its rhythm and patterns, recreated in our own, individual voices. These are poems that cannot be read silently: they make no sense just as words on a page. For them to be truly understood, these words, seemingly unfamiliar at first, become familiar once we voice them ourselves. In a way, Johnson is raising the whole concept of ‘voice’ in poetry to another level – ‘voice’ is no longer something we get a sense of when reading words on a page; it is something we must enunciate for ourselves. When it becomes collective poetry (Johnson’s words through everybody else’s voice), it speaks for everyone, regardless of his or her colour. We cannot help but identify with the poet and his words because, essentially, they become our own.
This sense of a collective poetry, of Johnson speaking for everyone, comes across strongly in all of his poems, and “BG” (his tribute to Bernie Grant, the first black Member of Parliament) is no exception to this rule:
yu woz wi cheef
yu woz wi choice
yu woz wi champian
yu woz wi face
yu woz wi voice 20
yu woz wi main man
But if Linton Kwesi Johnson is using ‘voice’ in his poetry to achieve a political end, then Tom Leonard is using his voice to represent a social one. Like Johnson, Leonard writes in the strong dialect he speaks, hailing from Glasgow. Like Johnson and Plath, his poems are infused with his own voice, and, by writing in his colloquial way, forces the reader to read the words aloud, or imagine how they would sound spoken. Thus, what seems to be an incomprehensible passage can be understood when read aloud in a broad Scottish accent:
ifyi stull
wurkt oot 35
thi diff-
rince tween
yir eyes
yir ears; 40
– geez peace,
(From “Unrelated Incidents” 33-42)
Not only does Leonard’s voice come through very strongly here, the form of this particular poem (“Unrelated Incidents”) adds to the overall effect Leonard is trying to achieve – namely by breaking up the flow of the writing, the reader is forced to ponder over and analyse individual words and phrases at a time. It seems also that Leonard is concerned with the subjectivity of language, and the way different words and different intonations mean different things to different people. It has been said that language is a slippery medium, and this is all too true in the cultural divide between England and Scotland. Although on paper both countries speak the same language, in reality, the different ways in which English is used by both the Scots and English themselves, suggests that this is not the case. Leonard points out the root of these differences in “Unrelated Incidents”, in an excerpt called “The 6 O’clock News”:
thirza right
way ti spell
ana right way 90
to tok it. This
is me tokn yir
right way a
spellin. this
is ma trooth. 95
(“The 6 O’clock News” 88-95)
Leonard seems to be highlighting here the discrepancy between ‘tokking’ (or talking) and spelling. There may be a ‘right’ way of spelling, says Leonard, but there is no ‘right’ way of talking (not in these days when ‘received pronunciation’ is an institution which is frowned upon and laughed at, anyway). Your right way of talking is not my right way of talking. Similarly, Leonard says, your right way of spelling is no longer my right way of spelling. “this/is ma trooth” (94-95). We see this most clearly in his poem “In the Beginning was the Word”, in which spelling and language is slowly corrupted and deconstructed, leaving in its place something new and startlingly clear:
. in the beginning was the word .
in thi beginning was thi wurd
in thi beginnin was thi wurd
in thi biginnin was thi wurd
in thi biginnin wuz thi wurd 5
n thi biginnin wuz thi wurd
nthi biginnin wuzthi wurd
nthibiginin wuzthiwurd
. in the beginning was the sound . 10
We can see, then, that these poets are all linked in the way they use their ‘voice’: Sylvia Plath uses hers to instil her poems with a sense of her own personality and intimacy; Linton Kwesi Johnson uses his to use our voice, in effect, in order to put a political point across; and Tom Leonard uses his to illustrate the subjective nature of language, and how we use it to achieve our own ends. In this way, we can see how these poets have all used their ‘voice’ in different ways – all to create the effect that it is their poetry and no-one else’s. These poets are distinct in their original and compelling use of their own individual ‘voices’.
Earlier in this essay, I mentioned Roland Barthes’ piece, “The Death of the Author”, and it seems appropriate here, now that I have highlighted the ways in which these poets operate concerning ‘voice’, to analyse his essay in this context. Barthes holds that an author or poet cannot be individual or original because he or she is merely a product of the society that surrounds them. This throws the whole concept of the ‘author function’ into question: is an author really an author? Have they really written what they have written?
I believe that the use of ‘voice’ in poetry proves that a poet or an author can be individual and original. It is true that a poet like Tom Leonard or Linton Kwesi Johnson writes in the dialect of his society, and is therefore (to an extent) a product of that society, but this does not address the fact that these poets are entities in themselves, bringing something original to their work, and they are not simply blank sheets which society has filled in. In short, these poets do not regurgitate their society: they regurgitate themselves. Every poet brings something new and original to the world of poetry and literature, and if this were not the case, then poetry and literature would never have advanced at all.
Wordsworth said that a poet is someone who is “pleased with his own passions and volitions, and who rejoices more than other men in the spirit of life that is in him; delighting to contemplate similar volitions and passions as manifested in the goings-on of the Universe, and habitually impelled to create them where he does not find them,” (“Preface to Lyrical Ballads”, 1798) and to this I would only add that today, a great poet should have a strong voice. The voice of a poet is his true identity – that which he is judged against, and that which compares him to all others. Ultimately, a poet’s voice is his defining feature: an existential monument to who he is – something entirely unique, and something that should be cherished.