The New Poetic Voice
I have attended enough summer writing workshops, most of them hosted by universities eager to fill their empty dorm rooms off-season, to recognize traits among my fellow students. I recently completed a weeklong poetry course in Taos, sponsored by the University of New Mexico, and apart from that black widow spider I found crawling in the sink of my bed-and-breakfast my first night there, it was a conference absent any hazards or writerly bruisings.
Like all of these classes I have attended over the years (Kenyon College, Sewanee University, the New School), the group of students in my workshop ranged from undergrads in their early twenties to retired-aged men and women. I am middle aged—and that, not surprisingly, is the class clique to which I was immediately admitted. But unlike other such classes, this one was open enrollment, which meant that most of us were non-academics pursuing poetry more as an avocation. Even though I don’t ever know much about my fellow students prior to their reading their first poem, apart from those introductory remarks we convey about where we live and what we do in life, I can tell immediately, within one line of an uttered poem, if they are earning, or have already earned, their MFA in poetry.
I know this fact about them from what I call the MFA voice—fortunately, not often intoned in this latest class. Many an MFA student, male or female, young or not, involved in the endeavor to earn such a degree, possesses this voice. Whether their poems are good or impenetrable self-involved takes on failed relationships (I, too, am guilty of that theme), filled with punctuation errors they insist, once pointed out, are intentional, it is their reading of the poem that tells me of their academic status.
What does this voice sound like? The end word of every line, be it iambic or trochic, anapestic or blank, is intoned with an uptick, even when there is a period or if that final phrasing marks the end of a stanza or the poem itself. His or her voice rises with that last word, soars, whooshes, crescendos like the lark ascending in an orchestral piece of that name by Ralph Vaughn Williams. Perhaps MFA advisors are conveying this method of reading as a necessity for earning a degree, akin to mastering the right accent when speaking a foreign language?
I keep wondering why these students read these endlines with that flight of voice and I theorize that it’s perhaps because they cannot endure the thought that their phrasings are over once the poem is done, that what they have written and are reading aloud has reached its conclusion. Most of them are earning or have completed what is aptly called a “terminal degree,” and, maybe, to recite a line that feels complete is too close to referencing that academic state in which many are immersed. This mournful register, this reverential resonating moan akin to the bow being dragged on the diagonal across a cello’s bridge is not the music of poetry I prefer.
I see, too, how contagious this sound can be—not unlike a yawn, which when we see someone completing one, we, too, often indulge in it (just say the word to yourself and you will likely be yawning). Fortunately, I seem immune to the MFA disease, not just because I don’t have that degree, but also because it’s not how I read poetry or wish to hear it recited. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, a revered English professor of mine, Bert Hornback, would read poems by Thomas Hardy and Seamus Heaney and John Donne with that same voice-rising intonation, sometimes accenting the upward surge with a conductor-like flailing of his right hand in the air. And I would soon hear my fellow classmates do the same when called upon to recite a poem. A close simile to the sound in real life is that now-classic Valley Girl intonation in which every uttered statement ends as a question.
My class at the Taos Writers’ Conference was taught by Tomas Morin, a late- thirties-something poet and professor who, gladly, seems not to be infected with this poetic virus (but does he have tenure yet at his Texas institution?). When he recited his own poems from his book, A Larger Country, at one of the evening faculty readings, I never heard that curling-up voice that immediately makes me want to stop listening to a poem since it indicates a poet too conscious of his or her own sound. We spoke in class about certain poems having “a high register,” a reference to works in which the language employed is too highfalutin, a common symptom among many MFAers, but we never addressed this ascending lilt that results in no statement feeling complete.
Morin—wise, supportive, instructive, diplomatic, even elegant—carefully suggested, too, that “We need to create our own myths.” He said this in reference to the many poems in class that invoked the names of ancient Greek figures—Circes, Echo, Narcissus, among them—that young MFAers especially like to use, perhaps because they feel akin to such immortal figures or because such references suggest a well-read person in need of a teaching fellowship. Other lessons I learned from Morin included his suggestion that everyone’s favorite poetic pronoun, “It,” be used carefully. “’It’ can derail a poem and make it confusing.”
In enforcing the idea that every poet needs to be specific rather than allusive (and thus, elusive), Morin said that if we’re going to reference a bird in a poem that we need to name it by type. Good thing I didn’t submit in class my poem Bird in Chinatown, which I immediately retitled Sparrow in Chinatown (though I’m checking Wikipedia images now to see if the said bird was a starling). To put into practice this lesson, Morin had us leave class early one day to find a tree on the grounds of the resort/conference center at which classes were held. He instructed us to write a poem that not only named the tree by variety, but also described the way it smelled and felt (an interesting variation on tree hugging). We all scattered once we left the classroom, some of us wandering to the litter-strewn, traffic-whooshing median strip of Route 68, the main drag through town, lined with its Walmarts and Jiffy Lubes and Allsups (New Mexico’s version of 7-11), in search of trees. Others of us ventured to distant parking lots to see what we might find sprouting there, while some of us were content to pet the bowers hovering over the unused bocce courts or bawdily reach into hedges to feel around.
I walked to the back of the property, which ended at the desert and at which began a seemingly infinite landscape of undulating wilderness, akin to the snapshots of Mars sent by Curiosity (in the Southwest, much of Earth is a “separated-at-birth” brother to the Red Planet). I vaulted a wooden fence there and walked out into the expanse of baked earth and low-lying scrubby cacti, warily eyeing the holes in the ground for tarantulas or whatever lives in them, and, to my surprise, came upon a wooden cross, fronted by a pile of rocks marking the deceased. I had found my tree, or, rather, wood, for the class assignment.
The mound of stones wasn’t long enough to likely mark a human, so I assumed the grave was that of a pet dog. The cross, weathered and gray from its time in the desert sun, was adorned and draped with beads and other objects. In keeping with the assignment, I petted the T shape and, to my odd delight, earned a splinter for doing so, and I even smelled the wood, pretending that the resin I detected was somehow akin to my inhaling the deceased.
Later, I would discover, in having crouched in the desert to scribble my notes for the assignment, that a blond-colored spider had attached itself to my leg. But it had chosen to crawl fast toward my face during a later faculty reading, at which point I shouted in terror, eliciting a sound not so unlike that of an MFA voice.