We’d sit together at a small table, where she’d have me read my fresh, newly written poems out loud. It was an exercise to hear how the poems sounded, a way to help pinpoint any hiccups in the rhythm, line breaks and so on. (It also taught the regular caf-goers that, yes, poets gather over black tea and read poems about death, just like you imagined.) One particular night, I started reading a new poem but I only got through two lines before Catherine stopped me.
Without realizing it, I had been talking in “poet voice” — that affected, lofty, even robotic voice many poets use when reading their work out loud. It can range from slightly dramatic to insufferably performative. It’s got so much forced inflection and unnecessary pausing that the musicality disappears into academic lilting. It’s rampant in the poetry community, like a virus.
We might read poems this way simply because other poets do — we learn indirectly that this what a poem should sound like. Contemporary poetry, Tannen explains, can be quite conversational, so poets might use “poet voice” and intonation to frame what they’re reading as poetry.
“You want to sound like your peer group, and you want to sound like a person you identify with should sound,” Tannen says.
That poses a social dilemma, however. Poets span race, gender, class, sexuality — there’s no singular brand of poet to identify with. The poet Lisa Marie Basile brings this fascinating discussion to the table in a Huffington Post op-ed from last September.
“Poet Voice, if nothing else, is simply a regurgitation of someone else’s massive failings,” Basile writes. “It appealed to the literate masses (as socio-cultural trends do) and it crept up into our classrooms and bookstores and communities, like texts, ideas and expectations of white male power. It is not questioned often enough. It should be questioned with exigency.”
You can still hear a sort of affectation in Basile’s voice in the second version, but it’s less lofty, and more indicative of her own style. In her op-ed, she says the least poets can do is question why they use “poet voice.” “Decide for yourself. Hear the inherent — not forced — music in poetry. Give yourself the option,” she writes.
But when it’s intentional, assuming a unique voice can also give the poet more agency, power or emphasis over his or her own words. Tannen talks about W.B. Yeats, whose recording of “The Lake Isle at Innisfree” at the British Library moved her to tears. He used bizarre intonation, elongating and wavering the end of each line.
Whether you enjoy “poet voice” or detest it is personal preference. But I agree with Basile that it’s something poets should think about. I know I have been, ever since Catherine mentioned it that fateful Tuesday night. Read more…