Thursday, August 30, 2007

Voice Vs Tone

Do you make a distinction between voice and tone? For years when I was teaching AP English Lit to high school seniors, I taught those terms as two separate concepts. The text I used, Sound and Sense, made a distinction, so it seemed sensible for me to do so also. But truthfully, I found the distinction a bit of a haggling point--voice is the mood, attitude, emotional coloring we get from the speaker while tone is the mood, attitude, emotional coloring we get from the poet. (Or do I have that backwards?) How is voice created? Choice of diction, verb tense, line breaks, etc.--in short, a combination of other elements of the poem. And tone--same elements. And how often do voice and tone really differ from each other? It seemed to me then and still does that the difference was a difference only when irony came into play as in, for example, Auden's "The Unknown Citizen." I taught the concepts and then hoped nobody would ask me any hard questions.

After I started writing poetry, I felt more strongly that voice and tone were so similar that it was more useful to consider them essentially the same concept. And now I notice that the two terms seem to have become conflated. Sound and Sense, in its more recent editions, no longer has separate chapters for each concept. Now there's just a chapter on Tone. Voice doesn't even have an entry in the Glossary. In Real Sofistikashun Tony Hoagland, in his essay, "Sad Anthropologists: The Dialectical Use of Tone," uses the term tone but not the term voice, yet he seems to be talking about what I would call voice. I'm happy to pare down to just the one term, but I find the term voice more appealing, suggesting as it does a human speaker. Of course, what really matters is not what you call it but how it functions in a poem. Hoagland uses "Purple Bathing Suit," an excellent choice for illustrating the role that tone or voice plays in a poem:

Purple Bathing Suit

I like watching you garden
with your back to me in your purple bathing suit:
your back is my favorite part of you,
the part furthest away from your mouth.

You might give some thought to that mouth.
Also to the way you weed, breaking
the grass off ground level
when you should pull it up by the roots.

How many times do I have to tell you
how the grass spreads, your little
pile notwithstanding, in a dark mass which
by smoothing over the surface you have finally
fully obscured? Watching you

stare into space in the tidy
rows of the vegetable garden, ostensibly
working hard while actually
doing the worst job possible, I think

you are a small irritating purple thing
and I would like to see you walk off the face of the earth
because you are all that's wrong with my life
and I need you and I claim you.

I'm deliberately withholding the name of the poet and am hoping you don't know. I want to perform a little experiment, that is, to see if you can guess the gender of the poet by analyzing the tone or voice of the poem. On a first reading, this poem didn't knock me out, but after I read it several times and really zeroed in on the voice of the speaker, line by line, it did knock me out. In fact, it just about knocked me over.

In my next post I'll reveal the identity of the poet and have a few more things to say about gender and voice. And I'll have a prompt for you based on this poem.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Poetry Prompt with Google Tidbits

Like many of us, I'm sure, I find myself more and more relying upon the internet to locate material to use in my poetry. I often perform a search when I'm several drafts into a poem. For example, if I'm writing a poem about an artichoke, as I was a few years ago, I put "artichoke" into a search engine and find myself taken to a bunch of sites where I acquire bits of esoteric information about the artichoke as well as some diction I might not have thought to use. I then import some of the bits of information and the vocabulary into the draft. (Usually too much and then I have to ruthlessly chop some out.)

I also from time to time put my name into Google and do a search. (Don't pretend that you've never done that!) It's quite gratifying to the ego to see what pops up. Among the good stuff, however, I've found some really weird entries that don't have anything to do with me or anything I've written. For example, my name might be included in a list of other women named Diane. Or I might find something at a clothing site about red dresses. So recently I started copying and saving these strange entries. A number of the lines resonated and I found myself thinking about them as I went about the business of the day. You know what that's going to lead to! A poem! So yes, my work of the last week or so has been a found poem made up of these strange Google tidbits. I'm calling it a found poem, but I could probably also call it a flarf poem as I understand flarf to be poetry created using search engines.

So if you're looking for a fun prompt, search your name on Google, collect the odd pieces of information, and assemble them into a found poem. If you don't get enough material, use other search engines such as or You may rearrange the lines as you like. You may change verb tense, add or delete "s," truncate lines, or make a composite line out of several. You may also add maybe half a dozen words. Let the poem be as weird as it wants to be.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Blogroll and Interview

I've just added three new poets to my blogroll:
1. Nin Andrews who I've never met but whose poetry I greatly admire. In the summer of 2005, I was one of the guest poets at The Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching. For the afternoon session my job was to present poems I admired by other poets, to read them aloud, and discuss what I liked about them. Nin's "Red Blossoms" was one of the twelve poems I included. I wish I could provide you with a link to the poem, but it doesn't seem to be available online. It first appeared in The Paris Review and was later anthologized in No Boundaries: Prose Poems by 24 American Poets, edited by Ray Gonzalez (Tupelo Press). It's an exquisite, luscious poem and a wonderful example of how craftily repetition can be used.

2. Amy Lemmon I first met in cyberspace on the Wompo listserv. Later I met her in person at the West Chester Conference. She's just won the Sow's Ear chapbook competition and will have her collection, Fine Motor, published in 2008. I'm looking forward to it.

3. Ken Ronkowitz I mentioned in my last post. In addition to operating his excellent website and companion blog, he's a fine poet and a techno-wizard. And like me, a former English teacher who sought other pastures.

And check this out: Elizabeth P. Glickman interviews me in the current issue of Eclectica. The interview focuses on my new book and covers issues of craft and process.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Cool Poetry Site of Inspiration

I know that not all poets feel the same way, but I love poetry prompts. Just thinking about a day of poetry prompts makes me all tingly. I wish I had the kind of poetic mind that didn't need prodding, the kind of mind that was constantly flowing forth with new ideas. But I don't. Besides, I like the challenge of an idea that I would not have thought of on my own. I'll take the inspiration from any source and be grateful for it. Just the other day I tried a dictionary prompt that Deborah Ager posted on her blog. It didn't produce a poem for me--not all do--but it got me thinking about words. So I thought I'd recommend to you a site run by a friend of mine, Ken Ronkowitz. Each month Ken posts a model poem and a prompt based on the poem. Sometimes the poet provides the prompt; sometimes Ken makes it up. Ken always provides some good lead-in discussion of the poet and the poem. He also keeps a companion blog where he discusses the poem in more depth. Poets are invited to submit their poems for display in the coming weeks. All prompts are archived. Ken has been doing this for several years now, so the archive is pretty extensive. This month's prompt is based on a poem by Mary Oliver. Ken found the poem in Oliver's latest collection, Thirst. And in his usual manner, he prefaces the prompt with discussion of Oliver's work. Check it out: Poets Online: A Site of Inspiration

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Availability of Geniuses

Yesterday I finally broke down and bought myself an ipod. The Apple store was packed, so I had to wait in line to check out. Behind the checkout counter was a large monitor which provided little lessons and tips. The screen also periodically posted the list of names of customers waiting for service. Then the screen lit up with this:
Sorry, no more geniuses are available today.
Please come back tomorrow.
For some reason, that made me laugh. At the Apple store the upper level tech support people have the job title "genius." I almost think I'd like to apply for a job there so that when someone asks what I do for a living, I can say, "I'm a genius." And maybe some days I won't be available.

As I thought about this with delight the rest of the day, it occurred to me that part of my pleasure was in the poetic moment of it, the pure joy we poets take in words and how they are used and how we love to be ambushed by the unexpected word. The element of surprise that we strive for--there it was on the monitor.

And I recalled another such moment just a few weeks ago. Our electrical box blew up one Sunday night. Lots of action followed--cop cars, fire engines, flashing lights, sirens, all the neighbors outside waiting to see what disaster had come onto our street. But no burning house. Just a dark, dark house. The next day the electrician hooked us back up temporarily while he ordered parts. The following Monday he showed up with his son, maybe 14 years old, a boy he's training in the intricacies of electricity. I heard him teaching his son the names of things. And then I heard him call the boy "honey." I felt deeply touched by that. So sweet, so unexpected. I don't think I've ever before heard a man call his son "honey," so it surprised and delighted me. It seemed like poetry.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Meanness in Poetry

I recently read Tony Hoagland's collection of essays, Real Sofistikashun. I found a great deal to be learned from the book and did a lot of underlining. One of the essays that especially resonated for me is the last one, "Negative Capability: How to Talk Mean and Influence People." I have a soft spot for tough, hard-talking poetry, but don't recall ever hearing or reading anything about meanness as an aspect of craft. Hoagland says, "Meanness, the very thing that is unforgivable in human social life, in poetry is thrilling and valuable...There is truth-telling, and more, in meanness." Yet do we dare?

A number of years ago someone told me that a woman brought my poem, "My Husband Discovers Poetry," to read in a workshop. One of the other women said that the poet--yes, me!--had to be a "mean-spirited" person to have written a poem like that. I had a mixed reaction. One was to cringe a bit. I'd like people to think I'm reasonably nice. The other reaction was delight. I'd been naughty and my little dagger had found the right spot. A third reaction: why was that woman judging the poet rather than the speaker? That, of course, was part of the delight. The voice I'd created must have been convincing.

Created, yes. Hoagland goes on to say, "Meanness is also an aesthetic asset for its flavor of danger. Nothing wakes us up like menace—menace refreshes. When a poem becomes aggressive, it rouses an excitement in us, in part because we see that someone has broken their social shackles." He asserts that it takes some courage to be "thought ill of." To be unwilling to take that risk is to cut yourself off from a large body of subject matter. Poetry suffers from too much "nice-ism." I wonder why this might be more true of poetry than of other art forms such as film and the novel?

Two mean poems that knocked me out when I first read them: Stephen Dobyns' "Bleeder," from Black Dog, Red Dog, and Stephen Dunn's "Tucson," from Loosestrife.

Hoagland gives this example from Anna Akhmatova:

Twenty-First. Night. Monday

Twenty-first. Night. Monday.
Silhouette of the capitol in darkness.
Some good-for-nothing—who knows why—
made up the tale that love exists on earth.

People believe it, maybe from laziness
or boredom, and live accordingly:
they wait eagerly for meetings, fear parting,
and when they sing, they sing about love.

But the secret reveals itself to some,
and on them silence settles down. . .
I found this out by accident
and now it seems I'm sick all the time.

But this isn't entirely mean, is it? I feel a lot of pain in there also. And I think it is that mixture that makes this such a compelling poem.

Try your hand at a mean poem if you haven't already done so. And be sure to read Hoagland's book. I strongly recommend it, for both its content and its example poems.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

More Good News

Ed Byrne has posted all six VPR nominees for the 2007 Best of the Net anthology. Turns out I'm in very good company. Check out their poems.

From the fall issue:
Nick Bruno: Malinconia

Jared Carter: Prophet Township

Frannie Lindsay: Walking an Old Woman into the Sea
From the spring issue:
Michelle Bitting: The Exterminator’s Wife

Anne Haines: Swallowed

Many thanks to Ed for the honor and for publishing such a terrific online journal.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Backyard Birds

Goldfinch feeding. Imagine if you had to eat upside down! Birds have been feeding my poetry this past year.

Blackbird bathing. Can you spot him? Am becoming a bit of a bird nerd.
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