A challenge every aspiring poet faces is how to find and establish a voice at the busy crossroads of poetry. This challenge is deceptive, because language seems to offer an immediate, intimate expression, and yet as soon as we put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, the raw material resists, and we are haunted by the voices of others who have gone before us. Language echoes with the voices of great talents; the colours we had chosen to paint a distinctive world of our own carry the trademarks and copyright notices of others.
An aspect of this problem is that one of the voices that get us started in many instances is the voice of ambition. This voice is not one we hear, but is part of our inner dialogue with ourselves, setting a target, framing a set of aspirations. Ambition in itself is not very interesting to anyone else; in fact, it is rather unseemly. However a poet might be driven, however deep the compulsion, there is a vanity in the desire to emulate, to compete, that interferes with the poem’s chance of unfolding in its own energies, on the page or in front of an audience.
In my limited experience of writers’ groups and creative writing classes, I find another impulse, which pulls in the opposite direction. That is, to lack ambition, to think of poems and jottings as private, as part of the dialogue with oneself. The very fact of coming to a writers’ group or class says how lonely and unsatisfying the dialogue with oneself must be. At the end of the day, the craft of poetry usually happens somewhere between too much and too little ambition, and holds its own line between them.
If language were only at the service of our privacy, it would not stand much chance of communicating anything. The fact is – and this is the miracle of language – that we engage with a medium that has its own history, its lineaments, and associations; in the case of English, both that history and its range across the continents are awesome in their potential.
Nowadays, we are probably poorly schooled in the sense of language as an instrument. The prejudices of language teaching insist on communication; we are supposed to ‘pick up’ foreign languages, as if they were litter on a street, and not systems of their own, with structure and codes of grammar.
Our approach to poetry as writers does not have to be formalised into a technical system, but an awareness of language as a set of tools, of our notebooks as rooms full of instruments can be helpful. This is a strange place, you might say, for a person to find their voice, in this lumber room of décor and device that we usually call ‘the tradition’. Still, even the most distinctive, self-driven poets have come from somewhere; many of our strongest poets wear the badge of their debts with pride.
In this way of looking at the problem, we are thinking of a poet’s language as a thing that is separate from the poet, a kind of apparatus, a weird, complicated machinery that is never fully mastered. You could use the analogy of a bicycle to picture this. The first attempts at keeping balance can be unnerving, but as you get the hang of it, you discover a new, thrilling sensation. The machine is not you, but as you get control of it, it becomes an extension of yourself: you are moving more smoothly, with more speed than before, and yet the power at your command is your own force pushing down on the pedals, translated into a new dynamic by the bicycle.
For some writers, the favourite bit of machinery is metaphor and simile, for others it’s rhyme, assonance, metre, and so on. This goes against the grain for convenors of poetry and writing classes who see communication or perhaps therapy as the heart of the craft. Be that as it may, there is a delight in working with the apparatus of language in poetry akin to the thrill of learning to ride a bicycle.
I’m not trying to enforce any standard weights and measures here, but I would make the case for rhyme as part of the stock-in-trade of the poet, at whatever stage in the craft. Finding rhymes is a basic pleasure in poetry at every level of the Muse-chain, from doggerel to Parnassus, and it is part of a common expectation. Rhyme can also be practised with a view to going beyond it, as Ted Hughes did, to find what Wallace Stevens called ‘ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds’. Even in the voice of the freest of poets, poetry has been burnished by its passage through different forms, structures and conventions.
And what of the voice? In poetry, there’s no direct line from the confused knot of desires and inhibitions we start out with, to the settled appearance of a book in print. But part of that journey is the discovery of other writers and our own tentative steps in the genre. As we write, recite, revise and publish, we commit ourselves to something bigger, to that network of implication represented by language. We approach new spaces and relations that we had not come across before. Stevens expressed this memorably in the final line of an early poem, ‘Tea at the Palaz of Hoon’:
And there I found myself more truly
and more strange.