Call me; or, On Hoagland and Cosgrove’s book of Craft on Voice

What a nice gift Tony Hoagland left us before he departed: The Art of Voice: Poetic Principles and Practice, with Kay Cosgrove. It’s a great little craft book that focuses on ways we can use and hone how a poem “speaks,” whether we’re using our own daily, casual “voice” or borrowing from other people or times or ways of speaking. In such chapters as “The Sound of Intimacy: The Poem’s Connection with its Audience” or “Voice as Speech Registers: High, Middle, and Low,” or “Imported Voices: Bringing Other Speakers into the Poem” he invites us to pay attention to not just what we’re saying in a poem, but how we’re saying it — what vocabulary, what level of intimacy or distance, what tone.

With each chapter comes a section with sample exercises, but often also with a little mini-post-script to the chapter that often is as rich as the chapter itself. But what I like most about this book is the number and variety of sample poems he uses, many of them from poets whose work I’m unfamiliar with or poems I had not encountered before.

I had not known of Lisa Lewis’s work, but the “voice” of the first line of her cited poem “While I’m Walking” made me almost laugh out loud: “Sometimes I like to tell people how to live.” I had not known Grace Paley’s poem that says: “what a hard time/the Hudson River has had/trying to get to the sea…” and starts with the Hudson’s rise up out of Lake Tear of the Clouds and traces its wandering lust toward the sea, and then “…suddenly/there’s Poughkeepsie…” which also made me laugh.

I don’t know honestly that I learned anything new, but I appreciated the opportunity to spend time consciously considering the options and tactics of using the various ideas within the overarching category of “voice” as tools of poem construction.

Plus he had some lovely things to say along the way. Here’s one: “A good poem can shape experience into a kind of tango that makes facts dance and shape-shift until we find we must…concede one more time that we are vulnerable to wonder, grief, outrage, and reflection.” Or, as Lou Reed put it, there is “a lifetime between thought and expression,” which to me means that the mode of expression can, and should, contain some thread of the complexity of a lifetime. A poem can be multivocal or can contain the many notes of a throat singer or can be one, high lonesome thread.

Here’s another Hoagland thought: “Experience is many great conversations happening at once. A good poem orchestrates such conversations in a way that makes graceful theater of them.”

And this: “A poem is a little movie, cut and shaped from the fottage of ordinary life. Its vibrant familiarities please and entertain us to draw us inside. Then, if the poem is good, its artful intensifications change our experience when we walk back out the door.”

I think this would be a fine craft book for a writing course of any kind, and was a very engaging read for this short-attention-spanned practitioner.

A note on Tony Hoagland, may he rest in peace

I never really met Tony Hoagland, was just another face in the crowd of a small poetry conference he was a guest author at, but when I had occasion to read a little bit of my work there, I got from him a “That’s what I’m talkin’ about” that I will take to my grave as the highest compliment. At that conference he talked interestingly about being conscious of how we get the reader into a poem. Do we throw open the front door, or do we slide the reader through a side entrance? Do we make her crawl through a window, or drop him down a mine shaft? Be aware of the access route, he counseled. So I pass that very useful bit of writerly consciousness on to you, in his honor. Thank you, Tony.