Tony Hoagland’s ‘The Art of Voice’

Some years ago I watched the late Tony Hoagland deliver a talk entitled ‘The American Voice’ . You can watch this fascinating talk if you click this link.

Many of the ideas, insights and examples Hoagland touched upon in that talk now feature in a book, ‘The Art of Voice’, published posthumously in 2019 by Norton.

In the twelve short and very readable chapters, Hoagland explores the ways in which a writer might develop a distinctive poetic voice.

The opening chapter explores how a writer might use a range of techniques to ‘display the mind in motion’ or indicate ‘the mind changing direction as it speaks’ and suggests that when we ‘see a speaker changing his or her mind while actually in the middle of speech, it catches our interest.’

Hoagland demonstrates this effect by means of examples, and provides exercises at the back of the book that correspond to each chapter. I’m not very good at sticking to set poetry exercises, (this might be due to a lack of focused attention and/or a dislike of being prescribed ‘tasks’,)  but I imagine these could be very fruitful if approached with the right attitude.

The second chapter discusses the value of and skills involved in creating intimacy between poet and reader via the creation of a compelling and credible presence. This is as far as I have read, having had other writing and reading to do, but other sections cover a range of interesting subjects in Hoagland’s clear and concise style, including topics such as register (divided into high, middle and low) , what he describes as ‘Imported Voices’ (bringing other speakers into the poem) and skills that might be employed in order to create a ‘voice of authority.’

This paragraph, from Chapter 3, The Sound of Intimacy, I found particularly interesting.

‘Many gurus on the craft of writing declare that a writer should “make every word count”. Yet in poetry, often the charm of voice is more important than economy. After all, most of our daily interactions don’t convey information in an economical manner. When we say “What’s up?” or “Looks like rain,” our speech isn’t really about conveying information, but about signalling to the listener that someone is present and accessible- open to conversation. They are gestures of presence.’

Hoagland goes on to expand on this idea and gives examples of how technically “inessential language” can, if used in a poem, help create an atmosphere of connectedness and of relationality.

Being generally of the ‘every word counts’ school, I found this an interesting and refreshing idea. Whether this idea will influence my writing I don’t know.  I can only think of one example in my own work where an ‘inessential’ phrase was employed, this being in the poem ‘Digits’ , from my second collection ‘The Great Animator’.

Here is that part of the poem

Had the tendons not been
re-joined, what I’d have missed most,
now I think about it,
are the two that I pressed
into the frog-slack spot
under the jaw of a man
whose heart had stopped,’

I had just discovered Lunch poems by Frank O’Hara when I was redrafting the poem, and that is maybe how the phrase, offhand, an aside, employed (now I think about it) to increase the intimacy and naturalness of the voice of the speaker, came to be in the poem.

I look forward to reading more of Hoagland’s book.

You can read more about Tony Hoagland and find lots of his poems on the Poetry Foundation website.

Here is a link to one of my favourites.

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