Another Friday, and this week I’ve been reading the old white guys. Mostly Seamus Heaney and Jack Gilbert. Smatterings of Frost, WCW, and Stevens. They may have been old and white but they wrote damn good poems, and prose, and had inspiring things to say about poetry and the writing life. Here’s some of it:
voice Can we talk about voice? About “finding” one’s voice? There’s a lot of talk about this in writerly circles, but voice seems generally undefined, or ill-defined. I was reading Seamus Heaney‘s essay “Feeling into Words” this week (from this book), and came across his definition of voice which struck me as one of the more helpful definitions I’ve come across. He writes:
“Finding a voice means that you can get your own feeling into your own words and that your words have the feel of you about them; and I believe it may not even be a metaphor, for a poetic voice is probably very intimately connected with the poet’s natural voice, the voice that (s)he hears as the ideal speaker of the lines (s)he is making up.” (parentheses, mine)
How does one find one’s voice? According to Seamus:
“In practice, you hear it coming from somebody else… . This other writer, in fact has spoken something essential to you, something you recognize instinctively as a true sounding of aspects of yourself and your experience. And your first steps as a writer will be to imitate, consciously or unconsciously, those sounds that flowed in, that in-fluence.”
Which reminds me of the other most-helpful-quote-about-voice I’ve come across, also involving imitation, which is from Kathleen Graber, passed on to me by fellow poet and dear friend Kelly Cressio-Moeller:
“At some point as an apprentice, you realize that you might finally possess enough skills to fashion a reasonably passable imitation of the artist whose work has inspired you, but something other than ability prevents you from achieving the perfect fake. The thing that will keep getting in your way will be your own voice. Ironically, then, in trying to write like the poets whose work I loved, I learned to write like myself.”
Please, to repeat: THE THING THAT WILL KEEP GETTING IN YOUR WAY WILL BE YOUR OWN VOICE.
heart I can’t seem to stop reading Jack Gilbert for more than a week or so at a time. Then, inevitably, his poems begin calling out to me again and I have to go back despite the fact that I should be reading other things, making dinner, or folding laundry. In fact, sometimes when I’m making dinner or folding laundry, I listen to Jack Gilbert’s Lannan interview and/or reading.
Besides his poems, which are amazing, original, and entirely in his very distinctive voice, I take heart in his approach to life and poetry. He was a fool for love. He eschewed the whole poetry world scene almost entirely (except when he needed money). About this, when asked if he thought it was a disadvantage to spending most of his life abroad and away from American literary circles, he said, “It’s fatal, which is all right with me.”
I re-read his Paris Review interview yesterday and was struck again by his commitment, in poetry and in life, to the heart; the real, human, visceral, vulnerable heart. Or as he called it, the conscious heart:
“The poem is about the heart… I mean the conscious heart, the fact that we are the only things in the entire universe that know true consciousness. We’re the only things—leaving religion out of it—we’re the only things in the world that know spring is coming.”
I find this true, comforting, and devastating. It’s why we write: because we know it all fades away.
a brief for the defense We know this—that everything fades away—every day, but most days we can gloss over it. Not yesterday, though. I have a list (ever growing) of poems for the grim times. Jack Gilbert’s “A Brief For the Defense” is one of them. “We must risk delight,” he tells us in this poem, “Not enjoyment. We must have / the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless / furnace of this world.” You can read the whole poem at this link (you’ll need to scroll down or read through the front matter).
May we all remember to stand in the prow, listening.