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This item is taken from PN Review 59, Volume 14 Number 3, January - February 1988.

'Those who write as they speak, even though they speak well, write badly,' the Comte de Buffon wrote in his discourse on admission to the Académie française in 1753. A naturalist, he spent much of his time in his native Burgundy, developing his estate and assembling (with correspondents and collaborators) what grew into the 44 volumes of the Histoire naturelle. His style is described as clear, harmonious and majestic, his diction suited to the occasion, the authority of his delivery a result of his grasp of the subject and of a civilised desire to communicate it in an orderly and lucid fashion. For him there was no appreciable difference between the qualities required of scientific and literary writing.

Buffon is not a model for contemporary writers. But one can take up his suggestion that there is a real difference, a difference in construction, between the language of speech and that of literature.

One word commonly used in praising contemporary poets is 'voice'. 'A new voice', 'a distinctive voice', 'an individual voice'. It celebrates eccentricity of diction and syntax, elements of dialect or class usage which set a poet apart. 'Voice' is a word which, except from the pen of the few writers who understand its implications, ought to induce wariness.

It is more common in British than in other critical writings, for only here does a substantial prejudice in favour of a single-voiced poet persist, a prejudice which survived the formal and stylistic earthquakes of modernism and its after-math, but which abandoned the central contention of the romanticism from which it stems. 'Voice' is now seen as an element which individuates the poet, makes him unique, not a quality that lends him universality. 'Voice' becomes synonymous with 'identifiable personality' and the projection into the verse of that personality. The poem which evinces 'voice' is tethered to a speaking subject, and that subject displaces the ostensible subject of the poem. The consistencies such a voice achieves are not necessarily those of truth-telling, sincere statement or common witness.

Wordsworth's poet is 'a man speaking to men'. 'Voice' can be traced back to him; but, he adds, the poet's superior sensibility, and much practice, give him 'a greater readiness and power in expressing what he thinks he feels'. Wordsworth enunciates the creative principles of selection and refinement, the poet as translator. The object of poetry is truth, 'not individual and local, but general and operative'. Poetry, the poetry of 'voice' in Wordsworth's sense, is not intransitive, it does not end at the illusion of speech. From voice he passes to content, and this radically qualifies the notion of 'speech' from which he begins.

We can talk of distinctive dictions and registers. No poet is more various than Pound, and his ear is open to historical and literary registers as well as to the multiple social idioms of his time. He does write in propria persona, of course, individuating himself among the other voices of his poem, yet theirs qualify his. The universality of the Cantos is partly the result not of a voice but of a multitude of voices in juxta-position, contention, qualification.

We can talk of distinctive rhythms. Eliot uses voices, yet it would be hard not to recognise the underlying rhythms, less various than Pound's, even in the most demotic and vulgar passages, which mark them unmistakably as his. There is the same set of rhythms in Prufrock as in the plays. Possibly the technical impoverishment represented by Four Quartets results from Eliot's decision to settle for a limited range of voices, a deliberated continuity and inter-connection, rather than more complex, instinctive orchestration. What remains intact is the rhythmic character of the verse; but that is not what is currently meant by 'voice'.

Rhythms are not what critics generally mean when they speak of 'voice'. There is a gap between a poetry of voices and a poetry of voice, the very division between those poetries that have passed through modernism and those that have taken a detour around it. Between the 'main current' of contemporary British poetry and the poetries of other English-speaking cultures one can detect a divergence, and also within the British poetries that refuse to assimilate modernism.

Wordworth's sense of 'voice' still has heirs (some of them reluctant), several of the best poets writing today among them. For such poets 'voice' relates to diction, but the 'voice' of the poem and of the 'voice' of the poet's speech deliberately diverge. Several of the poets (and, incidentally, translators - since poets of this kind are often translators of the Mediterranean and other classics) who appear regularly in PN Review are of this kind. There are some - though fewer - exemplars of the other kind. Our preference seems to run to the poets of voices, and to the poets of voice in the older sense. There is much in common between them, not only in the themes they address, but in their attitudes to 'self'.

The poets easy to market are those with a 'voice' in the contemporary sense. Their work sells on the strength of defined personality as perceived in the poems and in performance. Their sense of form is an extension of their instinct for anecdote. There is little space between the language with which they introduce their poems and the language of the poems themselves. It is not that their speech is distinguished: it is defined, eccentric - recognisably eccentric. Their claim to universality is that they echo the prejudices of the day, preaching to the converted. Critics (like the publishers before them) can turn up among the converts.

This item is taken from PN Review 59, Volume 14 Number 3, January - February 1988.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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