What Does It Mean to Find Your Poetic Voice?
Daniel Brown Shares Some Lessons Learned from Philip Larkin
As late as his midtwenties—that is, not late at all as these things go—Philip Larkin was still feeling his way into his poetic identity. As is often the case, the process involved an imitating of adored models, first and, to put it charitably, not very well, of Auden:
There is no language of destruction for
The use of the chaotic; silence the only
Path for those hysterical and lonely.
That upright beauty cannot banish fear,
Or wishing help the weak to gain the fair
Is reason for it: that the skilled event,
Gaining applause, cannot a death prevent,
Short-circuits impotent who travel far.
–From “There is no language of destruction” (1940)
Then, and to little if any better effect, of Yeats:
Let the wheel spin out,
Till all created things
With shout and answering shout
Cast off rememberings;
Let it all come about
Till centuries of springs
And all their buried men
Stand on the earth again.
A drum taps: a wintry drum.
–From “All catches alight” (1944)
But when Larkin then takes a tumble for Hardy, whose constitutional dourness must have spoken to his own, he doesn’t start sounding like his latest master—though thankfully, he does stop sounding like Yeats: as Larkin himself put it, “the Celtic fever” had “abated.” He starts sounding, rather, like this (from the middle of his “Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album” of 1953):
My swivel eye hungers from pose to pose—
In pigtails, clutching a reluctant cat;
Or furred yourself, a sweet girl-graduate;
Or lifting a heavy-headed rose
Beneath a trellis, or in a trilby hat
(Faintly disturbing, that, in several ways)—
From every side you strike at my control,
Not least through those disquieting chaps who loll
At ease about your earlier days:
Not quite your class, I’d say, dear, on the whole.
Here’s the Larkin we know: now a master himself and one who sounds like himself. Why didn’t he take on Hardy’s voice as he had Auden’s and Yeats’s? At least in part, I’d submit, because he hadn’t taken on Hardy’s subject matter (as he’d taken on Auden’s and Yeats’s). When Hardy looks back at a young woman from his past, he sees her in a phantasmal vision:
As I drive to the junction of lane and highway,
And the drizzle bedrenches the waggonette,
I look behind at the fading byway,
And see on its slope, now glistening wet,
Myself and a girlish form benighted
In dry March weather.
–From “At Castle Botterel”
When Larkin looks back at a young woman from his past, he sees her in some snapshots. Larkin, that is to say, takes his subject from his upper-middle-class world: a world of graduations, trilby hats, disquieting chaps—and photograph albums. It’s only natural that when he commits to saying something about this world—his real one—he finds himself saying it in something like his real voice (a voice inflected, to his admirers’ everlasting gratitude, with his inimitably droll humor: “reluctant” cat indeed!). On this theory, Larkin may be said to owe the finding of his voice to the finding of his subject matter.
Of course, this is only a theory—which makes me want to recount a kindred experience I know to be actual. In my midtwenties, it was I who was groping toward a poetic identity. Like Larkin at that age, I had a model; unlike Larkin, my model was Frost (though in my youthful pride, I wouldn’t have confessed to having any model whatsoever). So it isn’t surprising that the poems I was writing back then had country subjects—until it occurred to me that I didn’t know the first thing about the country.
On recovering from this realization, I started writing poems about New York City, where I’d actually set foot. These poems emerged in a voice that no longer sounded like Frost’s (not that it sounded anything like my own). This was progress—stepping away from something was a stride of a kind—but a new problem arose: as damning and/or inexplicable as this may be, there wasn’t anything I really had to say about New York. This deficit led, for a time, to my not writing any poems at all.I was writing very few poems. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t coming up with ideas for poems.
Meanwhile, there was at least one thing I did have to say, if only to get it off my chest: that my lack of poetic production didn’t mean I wasn’t working on the problem (and that a solution might not be working itself out in me). At some point, it crossed my mind that this could itself be said as a poem. I undertook to execute on the idea—and found that I couldn’t. Every stab at the envisioned opus (and there were a number) seemed off somehow, seemed somehow too . . . elevated? I still remember the opening of one of these attempts:
What it never was, was indolence;
Not for an epoch all but given over
After some weeks of this futility, a kind of exhaustion reduced me one afternoon to just blurting out my burden the way I actually would, poetry to the side—whereupon the lines above had morphed into the first sentence of a little poem I was able to finish:
Indolent I wouldn’t know because
I never was that, forget how
It ever looked. What I was was getting
Ready, and the getting’s over now.
This was the first poem of mine that sounded like me, or at least like the Lower East Sider in me. Not coincidentally, this was also the first poem of mine that said something I really had, in a couple of senses, to say.
Serendipity alert: Just this morning, in reading the Paris Review interview of the poet J. D. McClatchy, I encountered this: “It’s not that I tried deliberately to disown or disfigure [James Merrill’s] influence, but after a while I became less interested in his mannerisms (or so they seemed in my hands) and more interested in my subject. Or, less interested in what I was doing, more interested in what I was saying.”
The Chance to Choose a Subject
Before I wanted to write poems, I wanted to write music—a calling for which I had, talent excepted, all the necessary equipment. In the years since, I’ve asked myself more than once if I wouldn’t rather have composed, had I been able to, than written poetry. An answer that sometimes comes to mind takes the form of another question: Wouldn’t anyone? (Wagner looked forward every morning to sitting down at what he called “the incredible loom.”)
But sometimes I’m fine with being a poet rather than a composer. On a good day, I can even feel lucky that this is how things turned out. If there’s a main reason why, it’s because writing a poem gives me the chance to choose a subject.
Like many poets (though by no means all), I have a list of prospective subjects. Which one should I take up next? Sometimes I’ll choose the most recently added one, this being the one most freshly charged with discovery. Or I might choose a subject that differs markedly from the last one I chose, the driver here being not discovery but variety. On rare occasions, I’ll choose a subject not because it’s different from the last one I chose but because it’s different from all the subjects I’ve ever chosen. The motivation here feels larger than variety; feels more like what might be called growth. (Yeats offers a look inside such a development in “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” in which he writes of his need to find a theme not among the “masterful images” of his prior work—“Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot, / Lion and woman and the Lord knows what”—but in the source of those images, “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”)
And then there are times when I choose, from my list of potential subjects, the best one. Best can mean, in this as in most contexts, any number of things. I’m thinking here of best as in “of greatest moment.” Poetry being a human enterprise, the best subject on my list would be the one likeliest to mean the most to the most people. To choose a subject on this basis is to find one’s choice expanding beyond purely aesthetic considerations into a consideration of life.
The opportunity to engage with life in choosing a poem’s subject is the main reason I sometimes feel fine—maybe even better than fine—about writing poetry instead of music. Choosing a subject in light of life calls upon every faculty we have: intellectual, moral, spiritual, and, yes, aesthetic, to the extent, not always paramount these days, that we want our subjects to underwrite poems whose virtues include beauty. This call for all we have, that we might offer all we can—to what summons would one rather respond?
Which leaves my old feeling of being called to composition… where? I remember being shocked to hear myself say, in speaking with a music-loving literary critic, that I thought music was “thin soup” compared to poetry. What I meant was that the matter of poetry—life, language, and the outer and inner worlds these inhabit—was richer, thicker, than the tones and interrelations thereof that constitute music. My interlocutor was content to let the look on her face bespeak her discomfort with this view, but it’s easy to imagine the terms in which she might have objected to it: that the “grain” of music is finer than that of poetry (she might have adduced Mendelssohn’s assertion that the meanings of music are not too vague but too precise for words); that, considerations of “thickness” or “thinness” to the side, music affords access to emotional depths otherwise un-plumbable.
I wouldn’t want to dispute these objections outright—not least because part of me participates in them so wholly—but I don’t find them quite conclusive either. I was taught music theory in college by a professor who understood music as deeply as anyone I’ve ever known. He’d studied viola (that very voice of depth) and composition at one of the major conservatories.
In a pensive mood one day, he told me that as indebted as he was to those studies as a person and an artist, he regretted their leaving him without the broader knowledge that a full liberal arts education would have provided. To go by this admirable man’s feeling of inadequacy in this regard, his lifelong immersion in music might have especially equipped him to understand, and even sympathize with, a view of music as being “thinner” than poetry. (Perhaps music and poetry can be seen, to borrow a concept from mathematics, as “different orders of infinity,” with poetry being the larger, as the infinity of “real numbers” is larger, in being more densely populated, than the infinity of integers.)
Someone once told the great choreographer Mark Morris that he seemed more passionate about music than dance. Morris’s response? “Music is more interesting than dance.” (After all, he went on, “there are only so many things a dancer can do.”) I don’t see how my own love of music could be greater than it is, and yet—and if I were a practicing composer instead of a failed one, this might not be the case—I can at least imagine myself saying (when Bach isn’t listening) that poetry is more interesting than music.
The Chance to Ponder a Subject
When I was struggling to find my poetic “voice,” I was writing very few poems. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t coming up with ideas for poems. They circled overhead like planes in a landing pattern, waiting for me to talk them down when I felt ready to. And I knew which one I was going to talk down first.
As a little kid, I’d come into a certain comprehension of death. After all, didn’t I already know how it felt to be dead? Hadn’t I already been nonexistent? I remember how at night, in bed, I’d try to talk myself into a reexperiencing of this state. “Think of how you felt before you were born,” I’d say. “Before George Washington was born. Before Columbus was born. . . .” And suddenly I’d be seized with the realization that I was going to be nothing again, and this time forever. In “The Old Fools,” Larkin limns this likeness of postexistence to preexistence with his usual, unusual directness where death is concerned:
It’s only oblivion, true:
We had it before, but then it was going to end,
And was all the time merging with a unique endeavour
To bring to bloom the million-petalled flower
Of being here. Next time you can’t pretend
There’ll be anything else.
On those childhood nights, I’d pound the wall beside my bed in a rage at the unappealability of this permanent return to oblivion.Pondering a subject is a practicum in the examination of life.
When, twenty-odd years later, I was ready to start applying my newly found poetic voice to my backlog of subjects, the subject I felt I had to tackle first was my dread of death. The others could wait—would have to wait—until I’d given this dread expression.
So I set to work on my “feeling death” poem, as I thought of it—and found myself failing to get very far. The problem wasn’t that I couldn’t articulate this feeling but that I felt insufficiently authentic in doing so. It was as though I’d, if not outgrown my dread of death, at least grown somewhat out of it. As the pain of a tooth extraction is, if not eliminated, at least dulled by laughing gas, so my dread of death, while still there, didn’t hurt as much. (Or to say this differently and perhaps more precisely, I couldn’t take the pain as seriously.)
Did this lessening of death dread spell the end of my “feeling death” poem? If so, so be it: I had other subjects waiting to be taken up. . . . Though not so fast. If I’d to some extent outgrown my dread of death, might there be some value in writing about the outgrowing? (A similarly “meta” tack is taken by Yeats toward his struggle, mentioned earlier, to find a subject for “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.” Having “sought a theme and sought for it in vain,” he makes the search itself his theme.) As things turned out, a poem about outgrowing one’s dread of death was a poem I could write:
When I think about how
We deal with our mortality
I think about a sense in which it’s like we
Deal with an injury.
About how, on first
Comprehending the ultimate
Hurt, we harrow it more nights than not:
This at the behest of that
To reckon at its maximally grave
Any injury we have.
How, years having passed,
We find ourselves assessing it
Far less frequently, and more by rote
Than necessity: our purpose not
To sound the wound so much as
To remind ourselves it’s still there.
How one day we’re suddenly aware
Of its no longer being there.
I seem to recall someone—Emerson?—saying that writing a poem is a lever that can lift a person to a higher plane of life. And damned if I didn’t feel, upon completing this poem, that I’d in fact been so lifted. In the intervening years, I’ve refined this feeling. It now seems clear that the elevation in question had occurred before I’d even begun the poem, that writing the poem “merely” made me aware of a change I’d already undergone in growing up a little. What also seems clear is that I came to this awareness not during my execution of the poem but during my pondering, prior to execution, of its subject.
Here endeth this little parable—and true story—of what pondering a subject can do for a poet. The case in question was admittedly extreme: such pondering doesn’t always abet elevation. But it often abets understanding. I said in the last section that in choosing a subject, a poet engages with life. I’ve tried to show in this section that in pondering a subject, a poet examines life. It was Socrates, Google tells me, who said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Pondering a subject is a practicum in the examination of life.
Excerpted from Subjects in Poetry by Daniel Brown, published by LSU Press. Used with permission.