Voice in poetry: on the page and in performance

by Hazel Smith

My third and fourth blogs will be on voice in poetry. This third blog is concerned with voice on and off the page, the fourth and final blog is about the digital manipulation of voice in conjunction with other literary and performance modes.

An engagement with the concept of voice straddles many disciplines: media and communication, music, literature, drama.[i] But the concept of voice in poetry has long been slippery and multi-layered.[ii] It is often used to talk rather vaguely about the distinctive presence of the poet in the text. This idea of voice as the authentic voice of the poet has been repeatedly questioned in the postmodern era by poets and critics who see poetic voice as mediated, multiple and ambiguous, rather than directly expressive of a particular individual. I agree with this critique, but I am also conscious that poets often have an overarching and recognisable way of inhabiting their texts, which exists both in combination with, and beyond, the voices they adopt. I like to think of this mode of habitation as ‘meta-voice’.

The word ‘voice’ is sometimes used to describe the spoken quality of some page-based poems, in which voices are implied and will be imagined by the reader, even when they are reading the poem silently to themselves. In addition, the concept of voice has often been invoked to talk about giving oppressed groups or minorities a voice to speak their position. However, there is a growing awareness amongst poets and critics that the voice of a minority group does not necessarily have to be direct or overtly authentic, but can also be oblique and multi-faceted.

phot01Burns-brush cover-front
joanne burns, brush, Giramondo Publishing

Voice can also refer to the actual voices of poets as they read and perform their poems. It can encompass their mode of delivery and vocal control, including speed, accentuation, dynamics, timbre, and microphone technique (changing the distance and angle with respect to the microphone(s) can, for example, create striking effects). Vocal control is particularly marked in sonic poetryiii] where throat, mouth or lip sounds may be a major factor in making meaning. More recently, the concept of voice has developed quite radically, because of the possibility of manipulating the voice through digital technologies.

Postmodern poetry has often played with, and subverted, the notion of voice. In the Australian context, the work of joanne burns is notable for the way it projects different types of social behavior through voice. burns (she prefers the lowercase) is in my opinion one of our most inventive and skillful poets: I have just started reading, with great delight, her new volume brush, which has recently been released[iv].

In the volume an illustrated history of dairies — the volume of burns’s work I know best because I taught it on a course at the University of Western Sydney where I work — the voice changes from one poem to the next.[v] In ‘pluck’ (p. 17)[vi], the speaker is a robot of undefined gender (robots can ‘perform’ any gender), who traverses the boundary between the human and non-human. Despite his/her/its computational origins, the robot displays the very human traits of vulnerability, desire, impatience and scheming, and enjoys a little retail therapy, tourism and self-improvement. The robot lives in a regressive society marked by divisions into masters and robotic slaves:

my new masters are due to move in at 18.10 but i’d
like to take a small vacation
to the easter isle, the brochure is still on the table in
the vestibule, i’m going
to do some cryptocomputs in my nanobrain; i am so
fed up with all my programs,
i think i wish to hatch a plan—

burns, ‘pluck’, An illustrated history of dairies p. 17.

‘my box office’ (p. 59)[vii] is another monologue that, like many of Joanne’s poems, combines satirical and surreal modes of writing. The (again gender-ambiguous, though likely to be male) voice is that of an obsessive office manager whose ‘business’ revolves round the organization of boxes ‘ i fold them up and i fold them down, i put them one inside the other like temporary secrets or coffins’ (p. 59). Yet the manager seems more interested in the form rather than the content. He is obsessed with the way the boxes are arranged and balanced rather than what is in them (if anything is in them, which remains questionable). Despite his attempts to convey his engagement with the tasks he carries out, we sense the loneliness and emptiness of his pursuits, as he substitutes the rituals of business for human interaction, ‘i am not unkind. i love the smell of boxes in the morning. i stroke them for their loyalty. they have served me well for decades. soon we will retire together’. Within the manager’s own voice we also hear the resonances of other voices — the bureaucratic forces that shape and restrict his life — through his tendency to see the boxes in terms of ‘status’, ‘fringe benefits’ and the position of ‘ceo’.

joanne burns
joanne burns: credit, Loma Bridge

This tendency towards a versatile ventriloquism, where a certain character type is projected through voice, was also very marked in earlier volumes by burns, such as on a clear day.[viii] She has often used a short monologue form to project character types who reveal more than they realize, seem oblivious to the limitations of their lifestyles or world-view, and adopt the jargon of the particular world in which they are trapped. Yet even as we navigate our way through the different voices, we are also aware of the meta-voice of the poet: cool, humorous, slightly campy, sympathetic, often self-debunking. In addition, Joanne is also an excellent performer of her work: her reading heightens the voices already intrinsic on the page.

American poet, Charles Bernstein —whose work works well in dialogue with that of burns — is also a past master of adopting different voices, again often with underlying satirical intent. His poem ‘Thank You For Saying Thank You’[ix] mocks the very idea of voice as authentic:

This poem
has no intellectual pretensions. It is
purely emotional.
It fully expresses
the feelings of the
author: my feelings,
the person speaking
to you now.

(Bernstein, ‘Thank You for Saying Thank You’, Girly Man, p.7)

Bernstein often adopts official voices, or takes over the voice of an inanimate object that is, nevertheless, designed by a human being. This often leads to a questioning of the role of the first person and its relationship to the personal. In the poem ‘Warrant’, the first person is not autobiographical or even personal, but in fact the legalistic voice of the contract to which the poem is subjected. That voice then becomes the poem’s subject matter:

I warrant that this
poem is entirely my
own work and that
the underlying ideas
concepts, and make-up
of the poems have not
been taken from any
other source or any
other poem but rather
originate with this poem

(Bernstein, ‘Warrant’, Girly Man, p.57)

In ‘Questionnaire’, (p. 67),[x] the voice is that of a multi-choice questionnaire. Here Bernstein uses the supposedly neutral voice of the questionnaire to query the possibility of such neutrality, ‘For each pair of sentences, circle the letter, a or b, that best expresses your viewpoint. Make a selection from each pair. Do not omit any items’ (p. 67), and also to humorously poke fun at the commodification of identity and personal philosophy. Important and complex opinions about the nature and significance of life and art are reduced to easily ticked off choices, dictated by the voice of the questionnaire. In other poems Bernstein slides from voice to voice, within the poem itself. But again there is a meta-voice at work: a style that, though very variable, is characteristically Bernstein.

Voice has also been a preoccupation in my own poetry. In ‘The Poetics of Uncertainty’[xi] I use my own name, direct address, and the monologue form to problematize the relationship of the poet’s voice to her identity and to poetry:

Hello. My name is Hazel Smith. I am not a talk-show host, poetry’s answer to Oprah Winfrey. I don’t like public speaking and I can’t crack jokes. I am probably not even your idea of a poet, since I can’t hang onto metaphor or hold a monolithic voice.

(Smith, p.31)

As the poem progresses the poet (ostensibly me, Hazel Smith) adopts a number of different voices, but my/her identity becomes more and more problematic, culminating in an interrogation of the audience, and a blurring of poet/reader/listener boundaries:

If I am not, who is Hazel Smith, since she is definitely down to speak on this occasion. Are you Hazel? Or you? Or you? Or you? Come on my dear audience, own up. Despite all our claims neither of us is what we deny or seem. No I am not Hazel Smith, I am not Hazel Smith,

But I can spot all the Hazel Smiths amongst you.

(Smith, p. 33)

Though it can be read on the page, ‘The Poetics of Uncertainty’ is fundamentally a performance piece, and a rendering of it is on the CD-Rom that accompanies my volume The Erotics of Geography.[xii] In performance poetry the role of voice is more concrete and physical than on the page, though it also can take many different forms. Performance poetry embraces a huge range of styles and approaches, ranging from popular and slam poetry through to sonic poetry and experimental cross-genre forms that draw on theatre, music and the visual arts.

We have a strong and varied history of performance poetry in Australia in the work of such very different poets as komninos, Myron Lysenko, Jas H. Duke, PiO, Amanda Stewart, Chris Mann, Richard Allen, Romaine Moreton and many, many others. However, a non-Australian performance/sonic poet who has particularly interested me recently, because her poetry is cross-genre, cross-media and cross-cultural, is African American Tracie Morris. Unusually, she has spanned the range of performance poetries from slam to avant-garde. Her sound poetry is impressive for its brilliant wordplay, its vocal virtuosity, musicality and improvisatory skill, and its connections with both avant-garde poetry and the African American gospel, jazz and soul traditions. It is highly political but in a playful way.

Tracie Morris: credit, Charles Bernstein

It is fascinating to hear the three different versions of Morris’s sound poem ‘My Great Grand Aunt Meets a Bush Supporter’ (the title varies slightly with different versions) on the PennSound site.[xiii] Each version involves considerable wordplay, often repeating a phrase in such a way that it slightly changes and generates new words (‘save you’, for example, can become ‘save ya’ ‘savior’ or ‘say you’). Morris also employs throughout a range of highly expressive voice techniques, common in African American singing and some contemporary classical singing.

Each version is different, however, showing how Morris has varied and developed her performance. In the first rendering (the WPSI reading performance), there is considerable sound play on the phrase ‘save you’ repeated over and over again with different emphases. The sounds of the words slide between different realisations (sometimes the phrase sounds like ‘say you’ ‘age you’ or ‘ate you’; sometimes the sounds create ‘in-between’ words or phrases). There are also some throat sounds, including a long growl at end. In the second version (MLA Offsite Reading series 2006) there is still word play, but also more emphasis on the voice itself, with larger pitch fluctuations, growling, sustained notes, vibrato effects and high notes. This version creates a more anarchic effect, and seems more ‘activist’ in stance. The third version (University of Pennsylvania, October 28, 2008) has some elements in common with both the first and second one, though different words come through (‘thank you’, ‘save your soul’). However, this version is notable for its heavy vibrato, and gives the most historical impression in its strong emphasis on gospel and blues singing.

Tracie Morris: credit, Charles Bernstein
Tracie Morris: credit, Charles Bernstein

In such work the emphasis on the contours of the voice is related to the demise, or partial demise, of the idea of the fixed text, since the voice guides the text in different directions on different occasions. This kind of improvising is rare in poetry, as poets often tend to rely on a written script and do not deviate from it: the unusual confluence of cultural and aesthetics influences in her work seem to make Morris much more comfortable and skillful in this sphere.

The extremities of the voice can be pursued even further with the emergence of new audio technologies. In the next blog I will look more closely at digital manipulation of the voice and its cultural effects, in conjunction with a variety of literary and performance modes.

[i] See for example Ross Gibson, Norie Neumark, and Theo Van Leeuwen. Voice: Vocal Aesthetics in Digital Arts and Media Massachusetts: MIT, 2010.

[ii] Lesley Wheeler. Voicing American Poetry: Sound and Performance from the 1920s to the Present. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2008.

[iii] For me, sonic poetry is an outgrowth of sound poetry, but much more wide- ranging. It is less unilaterally committed to the reduction of semantics to sound, may include narrative or theatrical elements and may be enabled by sophisticated technologies. See Hazel Smith. ‘Sonic Writing and Sonic Cross-Dressing: Gender, Language, Voice and Technology’. Musics and Feminisms. Eds. Sally Macarthur and Cate Poynton. Sydney: Australian Music Centre, 1999. 129-34.

[iv] joanne burns. brush. Sydney: Giramondo Publishing, 2014.

[v] joanne burns. an illustrated history of dairies, Sydney: Giramondo Publishing, 2007.

[vi] joanne burns. an illustrated history of dairies

[vii] joanne burns. an illustrated history of dairies

[viii] joanne burns. on a clear day. St. Lucia Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 1992.

[ix] Charles Bernstein. Girly Man. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

[x] Charles Bernstein. Girly Man

[xi]   Hazel Smith. The Poetics of Uncertainty. Tinfish, http://tinfishpress.com/?page_id=515. Also in Hazel Smith. The Erotics of Geography: Poems, Performance Texts, New Media Works. Book and CD-Rom. Kāne’ohe Hawaii: Tinfish Press, 2008.

[xii] Hazel Smith. The Erotics of Geography

[xiii] There are three different performances by Tracie Morris of the piece on the PennSound site http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Morris.php: the WPSI reading; MLA Offsite Reading series 2006 and a reading for the 3rd Annual Caroline Rothstein Oral Poetry Program at the Kelly Writers House, University of Pennsylvania, October 28, 2008.


1 thought on “Voice in poetry: on the page and in performance

  1. Voice is also that which is transferred and translated from poet to reader to readers through the artefact of the written work. It entails a mimetic transaction, shared potentially by all human readers, and perhaps in our age faintly imitated by machine. The postures are never truly identical, and share merely undertones and overtones of postural iterations of the work. Once released, it is never the poet’s again; his, or hers, or its voice, just one iteration, the glottal touchstone if you will.

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