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Stop Using 'Poet Voice'

Gregory Orr

If you’ve ever been to a poetry reading, the following scene will be familiar.

After being introduced, a poet steps onstage and engages the audience with some light social speech. Maybe they* talk about their forthcoming book, what they plan to read, how wonderfully warm it is for autumn here, how surprisingly cool for summer, how nice the people of this village and how prodigious the public works projects. During this banter the poet uses a slightly performative but mostly natural voice. It’s the voice they’d use to introduce you to their grandmother. Then they read the title of their first poem and launch into the first line. But now their voice is different. It’s as if at some point between the last breath of banter and the first breath of poem a fairy has twinkled by and dumped onto the poet’s tongue a bag of magical dust, which for some reason forces the poet to adopt a precious, lilting cadence, to end every other line on a down-note, and to introduce, pauses, within sentences, where pauses, need not go.

Maybe the poet is the great Louise Glück or the US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey. Maybe the poet is a close friend. Whoever it is, that person has just slipped into Poet Voice, ruining everybody’s evening and their own poetry because now the audience has to spend a lot of intellectual and emotional energy trying to understand the words of the poem through a thick cloud of oratorical perfume.

“Poet Voice,” is the pejorative, informal name given to this soft, airy reading style that many poets use for reasons that are unclear. The voice flattens the musicality and tonal drama inherent within the language of the poem and it also sounds overly stuffy and learned. In this way, Poet Voice does a disservice to the poem, the poet and poetry. It must be stopped.

Take, for example, this instance of Gregory Orr reading his powerful poem “Gathering the Bones.” Because he’s locked into the cadence of Poet Voice, his reading voice doesn’t productively reflect or play against the content of his lines, which introduces unnecessary confusion and reduces the power and depth of the poem. At :34 his uptalk on the second syllable of “rafter” makes it seem as if we’re questioning whether rafters exist at all, and at 1:54 he seems to sound wistful or romantically nostalgic about a gun accidentally going off and killing a boy. In the context of the poem, the wistfulness and absurdity are accidental tones that distract an audience member from the greatness of the poem.

He also makes an ominous poem sound even more ominous, which renders it melodramatic. This idea is best illustrated in the line Orr reads at 3:28: “This smoke turns people into shadows.” This line is beautiful and it’s doing a lot of work. At once the sentence nicely describes what people look like when covered in chimney smoke, recalls the gun violence from earlier in the poem, and in its symbolism suggests that the technologies we use for convenience (staying warm, acquiring food) also have the power to end to our lives. Smoke foreshadows our shadow. I love that. But Poet Voice makes him read the line (and the rest of the poem) as if he were afraid of it, spooked by its truth, and thus it feels overdetermined, sappy.

Poet Voice doesn’t just mess up the relationship between music and meaning at the local level of a poem. In the style’s unwavering wavering, it steamrolls tonal variation and charges every moment in a poem with the exact, same, energy. This sonic flattening happens in Natasha Trethewey’s poem, “Theories of Time and Space.” (Start at 11:00 to get a sense of the difference between her speaking voice and her reading voice.) When one reads the poem in the rhythm offered up by the sentences themselves, the tonal shifts that move us from the wise-but-jovial beginning to the foreboding-epiphanic conclusion are revealed. The Poet Voice rhythm doesn’t fluctuate with the poem’s nuanced tonal changes, but rather sets the poem’s metronome at “high lyric” and lets it tick away.

The chief injustice of Poet Voice is that the tone too accurately projects the kind of self-serious and highfalutin vibe that puts off potential audiences for poetry and gives fodder to writers who want to claim that poetry is dead, dying or has been dead a long time. (For the record, poetry is UNdead, motherfuckers. Do a page search of this article for “green face powder” or “Captain Eliot” and you’ll know what I’m talking about.) In its willowy whisperings, Poet Voice screams, I am The Oracle and you are a hotdog cramping up in a plastic folding chair. It’s condescending and it makes me want to expose the man behind the curtain.

I suggest poets look to the theatre for direction. If you’re a poet writing poems that have a speaker—no matter how reliable or fragmentary—do what actors do. You are on stage, aren’t you? Pick a character that makes sense with the poems, square your shoulders to the audience, and project to the back of the room. You’re not trying to talk down a bear; you’re trying to be the bear. Deciding on reading styles that suit or productively play with the content of your poems will add meaningful layers to the poems, which will make for a richer performance experience for everyone involved.

Another thing poets can do is just say no. Don’t read. These days, poets are expected to be very good not only at writing poems but at promoting those poems, performing those poems, sending those poems out for publication, networking and organizing tours. It’s a rare bear who can operate gracefully in all of those arenas, but not everyone can or has to be that bear. If someone’s not good at performing on stage, they can even get someone else to perform their poems for them or use one of the many social media outlets to promote the poems instead. Put it on Instagram! More people will see that than will go to a reading. 

Don’t get me wrong! Sometimes Poet Voice is an effective and affecting style. Quoting William Morris, W. B. Yeats once said before a reading, “I am going to read my poems with a great emphasis on their rhythm. That may seem strange if you are not used to it…It gave me a devil of a lot of trouble to get into verse the poems I’m going to read. And that is why I will not read them as if they were prose.” Then he proceeded to read his famous poem, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” in a Poet Voice to end all Poet Voices. He’s basically singing. It sounds amazing, and not only because he’s got a great tenor but because his employment of Poet Voice matches up with the style and content of the poem—they make sense together. 

I’m also not trying to tell anyone how to love poetry. If someone gets off on the mellifluous machinations of lyrical pulchritude (needle scratch), I envy that person more than anything. They’re the true humanist. Poet Voice has, in the past, been a good drum. It was Yeats’s drum. And E. E. Cummings’s drum. I’m just saying that in the land of free verse many poets use this drum in a way that isn't in conversation with the rhetorical movements of the poem itself, and that’s a missed opportunity.

In his 1961 takedown of Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, John Updike provides an instructive definition of sentimentality, and in it I see a corollary for the relationship between Poet Voice and poem. He takes the definition from the mouth of Seymour, a character in Salinger’s own Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters: “[Sentimentality is giving] to a thing more tenderness than God gives to it.” Poet Voice gives to the poem more tenderness than the poet gave it. Potentially wonderful poems are made cheesy and the outsider’s suspicion that poetry is a field full of weepy couch-fainters who don’t deserve the time and attention of busy people with real problems is affirmed.

It might be too late for the boomers and aging Gen X-ers to change their reading styles. But to the poets who are starting out and to the poets who haven’t settled on a style: Please think for a long time before adopting Poet Voice as your mode of lyric delivery. Luckily, there are amazing emerging and established poets whose reading styles serve as compelling alternatives. For my money, I like Heather McHugh, Tim Seibles, Mary Ruefle, Jane Wong, Ed Skoog, Lisa Ciccarello, Jessalyn Wakefield and Anthony Madrid. If you don’t like any of those folks, go to more readings and find more poets! They’re out there and they’re part of the solution.

Why is Poetry Voice ubiquitous in the US? Why do so many poets reach for it? Is it an echo from the era of received metrical forms? Is it the result of many poets writing lyric couplets with medium-length lines? Is it just that young poets hear successful poets using Poet Voice and so assume it holds the key to success? Do you know how Poet Voice came about? If so, point me toward your sources in the comments!

*I’m using “they” as the singular gender-neutral pronoun here to avoid suggesting that “Poet Voice” is a gendered thing (it’s not) and to avoid the clunkiness of “his or her.”

Photo: video still of Gregory Orr

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