The Language the Poet Knows

A new collection of essays attempts to lend some objective shape to a timeless-seeming challenge: the ongoing balance of voice and form.

Alexander Nemenov / AFP / Getty

It is one of writing’s oldest cliches: Find your voice. Developing this ineffable quality—unique to a given writer, derived largely from reflection and experience—can seem like an elusive goal. Particularly for poets, with their highly personal interaction with language and the challenge of adapting it to form, the quest can seem highly subjective.

We Begin in Gladness, a collection of new and reworked essays by Craig Morgan Teicher, attempts to lend some objective shape to this endeavor by surveying how poets grow in their craft and take on its challenges over the course of their writing lives. In these engaging studies—informed by Teicher’s considerable work as both a poet and a critic, and imbued with a sensibility that is as comfortable in the lyrical mode as it is in the critical—Teicher considers the idea of poetic voice, as well as its complement, form. Some poets in his accounts find stylistic breakthroughs toward the ends of their tragic, abbreviated lives, while others are able to develop their styles over many years of reflection. But his essays show that the ongoing effort to merge voice and form is the great but considerable labor common to them all.

In his compelling introductory essay, “We Begin in Anticipation,” Teicher makes a foray into what poetic voice means and why it’s so important to a poet’s work. “Poetry is a conversation,” he writes, “an extended one, occupying, perhaps, the span of an entire life.” This conversation—a process of refining, questioning, and translating one’s feelings, impressions, life influences, and ideas into language and form—is a sustained personal, as well as aesthetic, matter. Poets focus their attention inward, listening and searching themselves at length, only later to redirect their findings outward, clad in forms evolved to suit the refinements of voice.

Teicher remarks that “the poet trains to hear clearly and, as much as possible, without interruption, the voice of the mind, the voice that gathers, packs with meaning, and unpacks the language the poet knows.” While this description is somewhat abstract, Teicher’s concept of voice works because he situates it in large part in the poet’s experience of language and life. After all, the intangible “voice of the mind” only starts out that way. Through gradual, parallel refinements, voice and form grow closer to eventual convergence.

Teicher’s charting of a poet’s vocal and formal development might be most compelling in “Mirror Portraits,” an essay on John Ashbery’s poetry. In it, Teicher explores the iconic “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” the title poem of a 1975 collection and a high-water mark in Ashbery’s career. The poem, which engages with Parmigianino’s early-16th-century painting of the same name, doesn’t “succumb to extended stretches of wayward association, to mere accretion of material, to a great degree of randomness” that Teicher observes in Ashbery’s other extended works. Instead, “Convex Mirror” focuses the poet’s style, exemplifying the towering philosophical and aesthetic inquiry that brought Ashbery wide critical regard. Masterfully, Teicher illuminates the thematic core of the poem:

The mind, the self, the poem indicates, is subject to uncontrollable randomness, to its own memories and to what the body senses, but it orbits a somewhat stable self—“the whole is stable within / Instability,” Ashbery writes.

In the poem and the painting, a maybe inscrutable, maybe forthcoming reflection peers out while an artist peers in—the distance between the two seemingly close and far, the image elusive but real. It’s an apt metaphor for a poet’s efforts at self-expression. Ashbery’s poem relays the profundity, the unremitting difficulty, and the fascinating tangle of aesthetic implications involved in bridging the gaps between inspiration and execution, or between artists and their audiences. With this poem, in its way a contemplation of voice and form, Ashbery seeks (and just might attain) a grand synthesis.

But Teicher doesn’t just consider how canonical poets like Ashbery progress; he’s also keenly interested in contemporary poets, especially francine j. harris (whose name is styled in lowercase when related to her poetry). To Teicher, she exemplifies poetry’s potential to synthesize a wide palette of styles and sensibilities and revive old methods within new structures. “If contemporary poetry has a hallmark,” he writes, “it is variety: the best poets of this period are neither experimental nor traditional, neither formal nor free, neither political nor aesthete. They are all of these things at once, blending styles and modes.” As Teicher sees it, harris is among a group of poets writing today who develop original voices by pursuing new poetic forms of variegated beauty and expressiveness.

Teicher suggests that harris’s style reflects those of two American poets who each invoked marginalized perspectives: Lucille Clifton, who often wrote about African American experience, and D.A. Powell, who is deeply associated with the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. Teicher notes that social consciousness is inseparable from style; Clifton writes with profound economy of language, while Powell’s poetry is often made up of long, voluminous lines. Like Clifton, Teicher writes, “harris is a poet of icons and subtle undercurrents in her lines, but she is a poet of the internet age, so she has a lot more language to compete and contend with”; maybe as a means of situating all that language, harris takes after Powell, who often “gets more than one line into a line.” By marshaling diverse influences, harris crafts a new type of poetry—one that suits her unique voice.

Throughout their careers, poets carry with them a persistent sense of an ending. Teicher remarks late in the book that death “has always been poets’ home base, the ether or dreamscape where meaning originates and where poets hopefully live on through their poems.” By way of continued labor, poets attempt to craft language that can carry their ideas beyond the passing moment, reframing their experiments as steps toward the ultimate realization of their aesthetic visions. The poet’s will toward synthesis of voice and form is about having something vital to say and knowing time is always running out.