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.


  1. Oh I think I know the poet so I can't play the game. This poet has a certain style of biting I like and don't.

  2. Thanks for not using pronouns! I like the idea of "biting"--good adjective, too, for the voice in the poem.

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  4. David V said...
    I'm terrible at "guess the poet", so I won't try there, but the things that strike me are how the poem goes from an innocuous and bland first line immediately into the insult at the end of the first stanza - those abrupt changes often make a poem for me. I like the enjambment ending the third anad fourth stanzas permitting dual interpretations. I actually don't like the words "notwithstanding" and "ostensibly" because they seem out of place with their context, but they heighten the frustration conveyed in the middle of the poem - I look for consistency of vocabulary as an element of voice (one that distinguishes "voice" from "tone" for me).

    Now tell us who the poet is so I can tell myself to just shut up!

  5. Good thoughts, David! Okay, you don't want to play guess the poet, but how about guess the gender? As for the words "notwithstanding" and "ostensibly," I think they initially jar the reader. They're not poetic words, not the vocabulary of poetry, but that's part of why I do like them. They provide surprise, the unexpected. Also, I think they help to characterize the speaker who does use those words. They make the speaker seem arrogant and condescending.

    You're just going to have to wait another day or so for the poet's name. Be patient.

  6. Hello!

    I know that the post is over a year old, but I came across it while doing some poetry review before starting my homework. I haven't explored much, but I'll probably be back!

    tic tech tae


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