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Poems by Ellen Bryant Voigt from The Atlantic Monthly:

Song and Story (1992)
Dooryard Flower (1999)

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Song and Story

by Steven Cramer

November 24, 1999

The Flexible Lyric "I want to bring outdoors inside," says Ellen Bryant Voigt in "Dooryard Flower," a poem published in The Atlantic Monthly last March. That extravagant, paradoxical, impossible wish gets at the heart of Voigt's poetic project. From her first book, Claiming Kin (1976), through each subsequent volume -- The Forces of Plenty (1983), The Lotus Flowers (1987), Two Trees (1992), and Kyrie (1995) -- Voigt's poetry has reflected her restless search for the means to unite two artistic impulses: to sing and to tell stories. And because she never rests satisfied with a form she's mastered, each time she strives to reconcile song and story, she does so in an unexpected way. Lapidary, emotionally charged lyrics; familial, mythic, and historical narratives; meditative poems linked to epigrammatic "variations"; a sonnet sequence scored for multiple voices -- Voigt's work as a whole recites the tale of one artist's "will to change." Her subjects are often local -- the woods, the backyard, the family plot, children, seasons -- but her overriding concern is universal: choice and fate, and the tension between them that constitutes human life.

This month Voigt publishes The Flexible Lyric, a collection of the critical essays she has been writing for the past fifteen years. The book is a passionate defense of the richness, variety, and ambition of the lyric mode, but it's much more than that. The Flexible Lyric offers a portrait of a reader's mind -- one that can reveal the textures of a poem with microscopic precision and derive aesthetic lessons informed by bracing common sense. And it's a celebration of poetic virtues that are also ethical virtues: clarity, strong feeling honed by intelligence, and what she calls a "relentless striving to be accurate."

Born in Virginia in 1943, Voigt grew up on a farm and, from an early age, was a serious student of the piano -- elements of her background that contributed to the vivid imagery and musical patterns in her poetry. She attended Converse College and the University of Iowa. She has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund. Kyrie was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award. Voigt has taught at Goddard College and M.I.T., and now teaches for the Warren Wilson College low-residency M.F.A. Program for Writers. She lives in Vermont, where she is currently the state poet. Her reputation as a generous, rigorous mentor is matched by her reputation as one of our most reliably memorable poets.

Richard Wilbur
Ellen Bryant Voigt   

You were trained as a pianist. You write poetry about music; you write about poems in The Flexible Lyric by paying attention to their musical structures, and you've often used musical analogies in making your own poems. Could you talk about how you became a poet when, for a while, you were quite serious about becoming a musician?

I started playing the piano because my older sister did. For a long time I wanted to be my sister, and the form that took was to want to do whatever she did. She started piano lessons when I was four, so I started piano lessons. She didn't ultimately stick with them, but I did. And I did so because essentially I'm a formalist; that's part of my makeup. I don't have much tolerance for disorder, and of course the world is full of disorder. But the impulse for order can't really take its form in language until you have language. So I was very lucky to have music.

Another thing music provided me was solitude. I grew up on a farm in southern Virginia with lots of relatives around from my father's family and my mother's family. It was exceedingly claustrophobic. Both of my parents loved music and had come from musical families. As long as they could hear the music coming from the piano, I was excused from other things. It was really about the only time I could be alone. Playing piano was an occasion for solitude that was socially sanctioned, which I think is really important in terms of my notion of music, or my relationship to it. Now that I've written poetry for this long, I can look back and see poem after poem that takes up the friction between that solitary individual and whatever that social unit is, be it small or large.

Negotiating the right relationship between self and world?

Exactly. When I decided I needed to escape from this little town, I thought music was going to take me out. My lifetime goal was to be a high school band director; I went to school to become one. Most conservatories trained for performance, and I discovered I didn't like to perform on stage. I loved playing for other people; in college, I played for the chorus and for voice and cello lessons, and I played for the swim team. But I didn't have the technique or the temperament to be a concert pianist.

In the meantime, what I was good at -- as often happens -- I didn't value to the extent I might have. I could sight-read very well, and play by ear -- only after thirty years of making poems do I know that my love of music was love of pattern, of harmony and theory. And those were the courses they kept "placing" me out of. Meanwhile I had various terrible jobs playing the piano, including one at a resort, playing junk all night. And then I saw that I was not suited to be a high school band director, because I didn't have enough patience. In the middle of this, a friend who loved poetry read me some poems, and I was stunned. In my high school, in the fifties, we read "The highway man came riding, riding, riding, up to the old inn door." That was poetry.

Do you remember the poems your friend read to you?

e. e. cummings and Rilke -- "The Panther." Having taken mainly music courses, I had a kind of intellectual hunger by that time. So I signed up for the sophomore survey in English literature where I discovered Beowulf; and this was it. I fell in love. I didn't have it in mind to write poems; I just wanted to read them. I took more and more English literature and less and less music. And along the way I started writing poems as an act of homage. They hardly made any sense, I can tell you.

Earlier you called yourself a "formalist." Could you explain what you mean by that term? When you say, "I'm a formalist" you don't mean simply "received" forms.

If you see, out of the corner of your inner eye, this shapely, delicate piece of pottery you want to create, and then you go to the store to get whatever materials you need, and you have an excess of them, but put your first allegiance to that palpable shape you have perceived -- even if it means that you will use hardly any of these materials -- if that's your first allegiance, then I think you are a formalist. The alternative is to have the materials there, and to see what can be made of them, with first allegiance to those materials: you are willing to compromise on what I think of as the balanced relationship of all the parts. That balance is what "form" means to me.

In The Flexible Lyric you write: "poetry's first allegiance is to music." And "Song and Story," the last poem in Two Trees, suggests a tension that figures persistently in your work: the lyric versus the narrative impulse. Can you talk about those two modes -- are they in conflict or do they collaborate?

That's the crucial question I've spent roughly ten years thinking about and trying to figure out. The problem for the poet, I think, is to determine what structure is available to accommodate the materials the poem is going to need. I came to see a huge difference between a narrative structure and a lyric structure. The lyric, of course, has always included various parts of what we think of as story. They're sort of "back story." They lie behind every lyric: that sense of an utterance, a character, a voice in a particular circumstance. But with the lyric structure, the arrangement of the materials is very different.

So how you deploy the elements governs whether it's a narrative or a lyric?

Yes, and the definition I finally came up with -- which I use in the essays and have used in teaching -- has to do with the order in which the materials are released to the reader.

One thing you can do when you finish a book is to set yourself some new challenge. When I started writing The Lotus Flowers I wanted to learn how to write a narrative poem, even if only to understand how a narrative differs from a lyric. I don't know that I succeeded in The Lotus Flowers. Narrative isn't the structure I see when I look at the world. What drives me most in the world are those things that join us, things we all have in common, which are not many. But they have to do with the emotional life. That does not fuel a narrative. What fuels a narrative are all the ways in which we are different.

But despite this, narrative could be thought of as the more sociable form. There are ways in which it's more accessible because it varies the intensity for the reader or the listener. "Tell me a story," we say, and then listen to the story because the storyteller has opportunities to vary again and again the story's rate of intensity. A lyric is entirely about intensity. It's about all of it spiraling in, and holding that intensity, and not relenting. And I think as the general population reads less and less poetry, that kind of attention is harder and harder to provide.

When I finished the poems in The Lotus Flowers, I came to suspect the orderly structure of narrative -- beginning, middle, and end. For about two years I wrote nothing but fragments. I came to think of them as "middles," as having anti-narrative impulses behind them. I also came to think of them as what a painter might produce, what Monet did when he went out to paint the same haystack every day in different light. For me, that meant allowing myself to take on huge subjects -- truth, or beauty, or innocence -- and go to that subject every day and have the variant be tone. What would be light for a painter would be tone for a poet.

The "haystacks" weren't necessarily specific perceptions; they were abstractions?

As starting places, yes. I wrote these fragments, or "middles," until I had about eighty of them, I think, and then, finally, I began to write full-length poems. One of the first was "Song and Story," which began as a fragment -- just the poem's refrain: "old woman by the well, picking up stones." Nothing else, and no context for it. Then the refrain connected itself to a couple of those concentrated narrative "summaries" -- the stanzas about Orpheus. And those concentrated narrative summaries occur inside a dramatic frame: the child in the hospital, in a crib, with a tube down her throat so she cannot speak. That frames the whole poem, which then tries to explore that occasion, but in neither a strictly narrative nor a strictly lyric way. A lyric would put the mother by the crib and have the mother speak. I have written such a poem. The narrative structure would follow how the child got there. It would bring the child to the hospital, raise the possibilities, then resolve them. And that would happen in time. What I wanted to do in "Song and Story" was some new third thing.

In The Flexible Lyric you make an interesting point about the opportunities for the artist who practices a marginalized art. As a writer, do you need to nurture or short-circuit a sense of your audience?

My sense of readership has changed over the years. I now imagine a reader -- maybe one I haven't found yet -- who is intelligent but perhaps thinks he or she doesn't like poetry, not having read it for a long time, and thinks of it as a kind of "clue hunting." That's the reader I'm most concerned about and would like to reach, to whom I could say, "Look, just read this and see what you think." So, increasingly, clarity has risen to a higher place in my pantheon of virtues. When I first started writing poems, I put musicality above clarity, although I didn't think of it as musicality. I thought of it as nuance. But how much do you risk in ambiguity? These are just choices every poet makes all the time, self-consciously or not.

For me, that need for clarity as a first virtue has continued to intensify, until by the time I wrote Kyrie, my first obligation seemed to be to create believably idiomatic voices, an accessible surface. If someone reads Kyrie one time through and thinks, "Is this all?" then fine. That's the risk, although I certainly hope he or she will read it a second and third time to discover other levels.

Could you talk a little bit about the historical event on which Kyrie is based, and how it provoked your imagination?

Because of my temperament -- I'm very earnest and I'm not sure earnestness is attractive once you're over fifty -- it seemed to behoove me to see if I could enlarge my understanding by trying to write from some sort of ironic world view.

The persona who occurred to me was this country doctor I'd heard my father talk about, who visited the farms in Southside, Virginia, during the Spanish Influenza of 1918, the greatest pandemic the world has ever seen. This event took on another coloration in my father's telling about it, because his mother had died in childbirth four years earlier, and all the children, my father being the eldest, had been farmed out to different relatives. In the fall of 1918 my grandfather remarried, bringing all the children back except for the baby. The family had not been together more than a week or two before they all got the flu. Then, during this terrible November snowstorm, all of them boarded up in the house, Dr. Reynolds came by on his horse and told my grandfather he didn't have anything to treat them with.

The figure of the doctor provided me a voice to explore irony -- what kind of world view irony conveys, and what kind of utterance it accommodates. I had no particular interest in the epidemic. But I had written a sonnet in which a young boy stands by his mother's deathbed. And having written that, it occurred to me that its circumstance -- my father's circumstance -- was multiplied thousands of times during the epidemic, its main victims being adults between the ages of eighteen and thirty-two. My father's was a generation of orphans. Once I made that connection, I began to hear other lines, or a sound that made for a fairly idiomatic line: "Oh yes I used to pray. I prayed for the baby." I thought, Who would have said that? The sonnets began out of that intense, heightened moment in the center of the epidemic: everybody's dying and there's nothing you can do.

I wrote sixteen or seventeen sonnets that satisfied me. Then I did some research about the epidemic. But aside from a book by the historian Alfred Crosby, the information wasn't there. I started reading military history. Wasn't there. How could it not be? More soldiers died of the flu than of war wounds. Bound to influence battles, yes? Not there. There are great novelists who lived through it. Surely it's in some of their books. I read everybody, and it's just not there. And I think that encouraged me to write more sonnets.

A book-length sequence had its own requirements -- I had to give the reader greater fluidity, and variation, and some overall sense of time. In the lyric you can stop time; you pick that moment of intensity and hold it. The narrative moves through time. I had to have some way to indicate that movement. I also had to have recurring figures, since I couldn't ask a reader to hold in mind as many as fifty-five different speakers -- one speaker for every sonnet. That's when I invented Price, the soldier who writes to Mattie, his fiancée. I could imply a timeline, because events happen to him that the reader will see come from the outside world as he ships off to camp, goes to France, gets wounded.

He's the anchor, in a way.

Yes. He also allowed me to enlarge the reference. Having Price speak periodically was a way of referring to the rest of the universe. We have our unnamed community where the disease takes place, and also the surrounding world.

In "The Waterfall," from The Lotus Flowers, the speaker says: "I think that art has ruined my life, / fraught as it is with what's exceptional," which calls to mind the Yeatsian conflict of "choosing between perfection of the life or perfection of the work." Is that conflict relevant to you as an artist?

Yes, but it has changed over the years as my circumstances have changed. Certainly I felt the struggle most keenly when my children were small. My answer was that there's a moral imperative that tells you children have to come first. For women, this has been a keen issue for centuries. And of course, the world does not want any of us to make art. But as poetry has come into the academy, it's increasingly possible to have both a job and your work. Teaching can drain some of the energies you would use on your poems, but at least somebody's paying you to read poems, think about them, and talk to other people about them. It's a great luxury.

How do you respond to what's now an often-heard attack on poets who teach, that teaching limits subject matter or their involvement in the world they translate into their poetry?

I think it's a spurious charge. The other arts have survived in the academy for a very long time -- music has, the visual arts have. I don't think that if you're a good citizen and also a teacher, it means your world shrinks. There are other occupations, like manual labor or law, that are antithetical to poetry. Teaching does have some disadvantages, though. If your students are good, you can expend some of the same energy needed for your own work on their work. If the students are not good, or not interested, you can have that deadening sense that none of this matters -- carrying that weight of needing to motivate them, especially undergraduates, to get them interested in poetry in the first place. Then this whole business of feeling there's no audience for poetry is shoved in your face every time you walk into the classroom.

What Thomas Lux has called "the great yawn."

The great yawn, exactly. That is a danger, and a subset is when you give up and give in to insularity. You think, There is no general audience for poetry, and so I will write my poems for other poets, because only poets are going to read them. I don't think it has to do with subject matter; it has to do with those other matters we've been discussing: clarity and audience.

Did you have poetic mentors whose influence you absorbed and then needed to overthrow?

I didn't really have that; I guess I was lucky. When I started writing there were not a lot of female poets teaching. The only real poetry teacher I had was Donald Justice. The year I worked with Don, he was writing the poems in Night Light, which are severely circumscribed. I was never any good at writing like that, although I tried very hard. I do remember quite vividly, a couple years later, when I wrote a poem with three adjectives in front of a noun, and I decided to keep them in the poem. I could imagine Don striking all three of them. But I don't know if that's so much "overthrowing" a teacher as simply moving forward in opposition.

It's interesting that you'd mention adjectives before a noun, because that syntactical figure is a kind of trademark of yours -- especially in the earlier work. But then you more or less give it up.

To move a narrative, to provide narrative information, I had to create a longer line with a different kind of momentum. When we speak, we usually don't put three adjectives in a row; we don't have that leisure to describe. Generally in writing, if you loosen the rhythms by reducing the number of strong stresses, you move closer to speech; tighten them, and you move closer to song. With Kyrie, because I was trying to create the illusion that these were actual people speaking, my obligation was to idiom.

Since that book I've gone back to something fuller, a kind of excess. "Dooryard Flower," for instance, tries to push a single sentence to its utter limit. It has a dramatic circumstance -- a first-person speaker out in a field picking flowers. Narrative information comes in, but there is no clear narrative structure, no specific passage of time. How much time goes by? Well, however long it took to pick the flowers. Really, it's an occasion to meditate, and to cry out -- an extended lyric, or maybe a private ode.

The chapters in The Flexible Lyric taken together explore quite thoroughly the tradition of the lyric poem. How did the essays evolve into the book?

All of the essays in the book started out as craft lectures on poetic issues very important to me. Each essay was an occasion to think hard and to then share whatever might be useful. Fifteen years ago, when I first started giving these lectures, "lyric poem" was almost a disparaging term, partly because of the whole "neo-narrative" movement, as well as the movement to open poetry up to greater discursiveness -- both healthy challenges that have produced fine work. But one tendency of these movements was to react against the intensely personal, "confessional" lyric, until the terms became interchangeable -- to write a lyric was to write a "confessional" poem. But that notion seemed to me to ignore the history of English-language poetry.

In the last paragraph of "Ruthless Attention" you write, "perhaps the emotional life is finally all that connects us"; elsewhere, you assert that the nexus of universality is the individual self. Yet often we hear that "there's too much self in poetry." You explore a much more complicated notion -- the lyric poem depends on a self, but also on the poet's ability to scrutinize that self.

What is a lyric poem without an individual utterance? Here's the great paradox of the lyric: the most singular, most limited position may be as close as we ever get to something we all share. There is a way, I think, in which the careful making of poems can distance or externalize the self -- the gaze remains steadily outward, and the self becomes another small part of the world. The point is not to prohibit the personal, but to examine it with utter ruthlessness. And resist any temptation to use the poem to make its readers like you, or admire you, or forgive you.

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More on poets and poetry in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

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Steven Cramer is the author of three collections of poetry -- The Eye That Desires to Look Upward(1987), The World Book(1992), and Dialogue for the Left and Right Hand(1997).

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