Poetry Speaks

By Moyer, Steve | Humanities, November/December 2010 | Go to article overview

Poetry Speaks


Moyer, Steve, Humanities


"Voice registers the weird sexiness of reading poetry, the illusion it enables of a private tryst between author and reader." So says Lesley Wheeler, an English professor at Washington and Lee University, where she has had her students don Japanese garb and read original haiku aloud to try to get at the slippery concept of voice in poetry.

Voice is so vague, Ln fact, that handbooks of literary terms tend to avoid discussing it at all. But, still, whether poets and literary critics discuss voiced text or textual voice (the first having to do with the interpretation of a reader reading aloud and the second, with that of a reader reading silently), one thing is dear: Voice has transcendence and spiritual power.

Wheeler's NEH-funded Voicing American Poetry: Sound and Performance from the 1920s to the Present, published in 2008 by Cornell University, delves into voice as metaphor, medium, pedagogy and politics, and genre. Voice, then, as metaphor can mean for creative writing students the struggle to find their voice. As a medium it can mean, as it does to critic Denis Donoghue, restoring "the words to a source." Donoghue, writes Wheeler, "values voice for its associations with community, stable meaning, and empowerment." Speaking of empowerment, there's the idea dear to many an underdog, that poetry's greatest purpose is to give a voice to the disenfranchised. Additionally, T. S. Eliot weighed in on the matter in his famous essay "The Three Voices of Poetry," in which he sees the first as "the voice of the poet talking to himself"; the second as a voice "addressing an audience" in dramatic monologue, one with "conscious social purpose"; and the third, one "in which," Wheeler writes, "the poet is subsumed into characters. …

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