Academic journal article Hollins Critic

Ellen Bryant Voigt: Preserving the Rural Landscape

Academic journal article Hollins Critic

Ellen Bryant Voigt: Preserving the Rural Landscape

Article excerpt

As America becomes more and more urbanized and less the agrarian society it once was, we are left to wonder about two important things: One, how much will ultimately be left of the old farming communities? And two, what value will be placed on artistic efforts to remember those communities in terms of what they actually looked like in the early years? One person, and he certainly was not alone, had serious reservations with regard to the prospect that poetry could be a stand-in for the natural world, and he expressed those reservations quite vehemently. I refer specifically to the German writer Gotthold Lessing who, in contemplating a poem about flowers, conceded that "it might be very pleasant to hear the lines read," but only pleasant "if we had the flowers in our hand." Otherwise, argued Lessing in Laocoon: An Essay upon the Limits of Painting and Poetry (1766), the poetic words would be unpleasant. And not only unpleasant, but also meaningless since what was being described would be something that we, in spite of our willingness to suspend disbelief, would still be "unable to see."

Lessing placed virtually no stock in the prospect that poetry, or even visual art for that matter, could adequately portray the natural world; however, as we consider what the contemporary poet Ellen Bryant Voigt had to say about the issue, we become privy to a different perspective. Writing in 1991, for New England Review, she laid a crucial theoretical foundation when she declared that "the sister art to poetry is painting." The likelihood of such an artistic relationship existing becomes all the more viable when we consider that while Voigt was writing about poetry, or in other words language, she was writing about it under the auspices of an essay that she entitled "Image," the title in itself suggesting that words, flowing from the pen of a gifted writer, provide us with not just what we can read and hear, but with that which we indeed can see.

In her very first collection, Claiming Kin (1976), she begins the poem, "At the Edge of Winter," with the lines:

   Vacant cornstalks rattle in the field;
   the ditches are clogged with wet leaves.
   Under the balding maple, toadstools
   cluster like villages.... 

Reading those words, and reflecting back on the poem'stitle, we become aware that a plethora of other words, besides"edge," might have been used to introduce us to thepoem's basic meaning. A lesser poet might have used a word alongthe lines of, say, "outset" or "beginning"or "start" or "initiation." However, for hertitle, Voigt settled on the word "edge," and in doing soshe immediately achieved what, in "Image," she explainedas that which can be accomplished "when poetry aspires to mirrorthe world" and, as a consequence, "the image is valued forits representational power." With "edge," we areprovided with a vision or, as Voigt put it, a "mirror"that, though not able to actually become the subject, is such a precisereflection of the subject that we must marvel at the poeticpresentation, it being a gift that we are fortunate to receive eventhough we are forced to function in a society that does not pay nearlyenough homage to such gifts that may one day be all we have for evidenceof a beauty that once existed.

"At the Edge of Winter" is a 29-line poem withvivid images of everything from rosebushes, brown grass, and tulipbulbs, on one hand, to a cat, a rabbit and even a worm laying down a"restless track" through the snow on the other. Toelaborate on all of that might well have consumed the bulk of my essay,but suffice it to say that in just those four lines of the poem that Ihave presented here, the details of the "edge" begin toget painted, so to speak, as we are told not of shorn cornstalks, butthe "vacant cornstalks." Not of a leafless maple, but the"balding maple." Not toadstools that have grown under thatmaple, but "toadstools" that "cluster likevillages." Be it adjective, verb, or noun that Voigt employs asshe fills in the imagistic details of her nature scene, the paintingassumes such an intense clarity that we feel we are right there in theplace that she is describing. …

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