writer’s block: the poetic voice

zamantungwa | February 13th, 2013 | current issue, Writer's Block | No Comments

A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.”
~ Robert Frost



Langston Hughes, Shakespeare, Sarah Jones, Lebo Mashile, Saul Williams, Tumi Molekane, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Lesego Rampolokeng…

Poets whose names, voices are clear, distinct and unmistakable. Each of these poets have had imitators but the followers have never been able to stand out. You can’t mistake these poets from any wannabe. Often, you don’t need to see the poet’s name before you know who the poet is.

This is where poetic voice comes into play.

Poetic voice is about personality. We’re talking about the way a poet selects words, uses grammar, syntax, form, persona, rhythm and rhyme. The use of these devices can set one poet apart from any other poet. Without a clear and distinct poetic voice, a poet is forgettable or sounds like an imitator, poetry then becomes boring, bland and fails to engage the reader.

Consider this:

“5 nights of horror and of bleeding
Broke glass, cold blades as sharp as the eyes of hate

And the stabbin’, it’s
War amongs’ the rebels
Madness, madness, war”

Five Nights of Bleeding, Linton Kwesi Johnson

“dis poem
shall speak of the wretched sea
that washed ships to these shores
of mothers cryin for their young
swallowed up by the sea
dis poem shall say nothin new” 

Dis Poem, Mutabaruka

Both poets are Jamaican and their work is influenced by dub, however, one can never confused LKJ and Muta. This is poetic voice.

Poetic voice is what gives us originality.

consider this:

“I wore you today
Like a raggedy coat
For the feel of how warm it used to be
I wore you ”

I Wore You, Lebo Mashile

If you love me, baby,
Help when I’m down and out,
I’m a po’ gal
Nobody gives a damn about. 

Down and Out, Langston Hughes

Both poets have written about love but through the use of persona (Hughes is a man yet the persona in this poem is clearly a woman – “I’m a po’ gal”), grammar – Mashile doesn’t use punctuation and the breaking of the lines flouts certain grammar rules.

So, in a world where everyone is a poet, how do you set yourself apart?

Subject matter is not the only thing that makes one poet from another – I could focus on political issues while you write about nature but we both need to do more in order to stand out as poets. Often subject matter is about what interests or moves a poet. While some poets work is clearly protest, activism other poetry are more interested in love, of human stories or nature or religion/spirituality. This of course doesn’t mean that a poet must pick one and stick to it. Poets often find inspiration in many things but you’ll find that there’s one or two topics that greatly interest that poet. For example, Lebo Mashile writes a lot about women and the women experience while Napo Masheane’s body of work has a strong body politic strand.

Some times the starting point is persona (speaker) – who’s voice are you using in the poem? As you’ve seen, Langston Hughes’ Down and Out poem is “spoken” by a woman. Hughes uses the female voice in a lot of his work. Sometimes even the “I” in the poem isn’t the poet. Kwame Dawes spoke about a writer’s ability to empathise:

I think the artist is always both inside the world that we are in and yet outside looking in. That’s what we call empathy. The ability to imagine what someone else is feeling so thoroughly that we can then act upon it. The artist is going to ‘feel with’ through the imagination and then be able to express that through language. (Poetry Potion 2012.01)

Inhabiting the “I” allows the poet to write from a point of view other than their own. So are all your poems just about you?

In school we learnt how to use proper grammar – punctuation in the correct places, words in certain order and spelling a certain way. These rules, the poet takes and reshapes in order to give deeper meaning. The poet uses syntax to rearrange words to make the lines read smoother, to bring the reader closer to the subject matter or put distance between the reader and the text. Poetry, even when simple, is never obvious or bland. Some poets deliberately break grammar rules in order to deepen meaning – to point to something else.

Form – poets that pay attention to form, do more than just express themselves. Because, you know, poetry isn’t just lines broken in an interesting way on the page and attractively exhaled on stage. While we don’t have the kind of preoccupation with form as the poets in the nineteen century or before had, we create better poems when we take form seriously. Wikipedia explains poetry as follows:

Poetry uses forms and conventions to suggest differential interpretation to words, or to evoke emotive responses. Devices such as assonance, alliteration, onomatopoeia and rhythm are sometimes used to achieve musical or incantatory effects. The use of ambiguity, symbolism, irony and other stylistic elements of poetic diction often leaves a poem open to multiple interpretations

If we are to take this an a useful definition then we realise that poetry is about interpretation, interpreting what is not the obvious because the poet has done more than just arrange words nicely for you.

The thing to ask yourself is “what is your style”. Often we only think about this when thinking about our performances but this also applies to our writing and to each poem we present. Remember that ultimately we want evoke emotion. Humans are driven by emotion – we all are. So all these devices while making your voice, your opinion, personality, distinct help to invoke something within the reader.

With consistency your voice becomes clearer, more distinct and stronger. What this means is that you don’t write each poem in exactly the same way but rather that you find something that becomes your distinct signature. Sometimes this may be, like Ntozake Shange writing in slang, or like Langston Hughes drawing strongly from Jazz music or like Audre Lorde who’s work is about the lesbian feminist experience.

The point of finding your poetic voice is – who are you and what are you about? You must answer those questions with your poems. Being able to answer these questions will lead the reader into being able to identify with you and therefore give your work relevance and resonance.



further reading:

Find Your Poetic Voice


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