Guest Blog Posts

Finding Your Voice – guest blog post Daniel Brown

In this excerpt from my new book Subjects in Poetry (LSU Press), I discuss how finding your subject can help you find your voice. I thought the discussion might interest Trish’s readers, and thank her for posting it.

As late as his mid-twenties—i.e., not late at all as these things go—Philip Larkin was still feeling his way into his poetic identity. As is often the case, the process involved an imitating of adored models: first and, to put it charitably, not very well, of W. H. Auden—

There is no language of destruction for
The use of the chaotic; silence the only
Path for those hysterical and lonely.
That upright beauty cannot banish fear,
Or wishing help the weak to gain the fair
Is reason for it: that the skilled event,
Gaining applause, cannot a death prevent,
Short-circuits impotent who travel far.

(from [“There is no language of destruction”] – 1940)

—then, and to little if any better effect, of W. B. Yeats.

Let the wheel spin out,
Till all created things
With shout and answering shout
Cast off rememberings;
Let it all come about
Till centuries of springs
And all their buried men
Stand on the earth again.
A drum taps: a wintry drum.

(from [“All catches alight”] – 1944)

But when Larkin then takes a tumble for Thomas Hardy, whose constitutional dourness must have spoken to his own, he doesn’t start sounding like his latest master—though thankfully, he does stop sounding like Yeats: as Larkin himself put it, “the Celtic fever” had “abated.” He starts sounding, rather, like this (from the middle of his “Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album” of 1953):

My swivel eye hungers from pose to pose –
In pigtails, clutching a reluctant cat;
Or furred yourself, a sweet girl-graduate;
Or lifting a heavy-headed rose
Beneath a trellis, or in a trilby hat

(Faintly disturbing, that, in several ways) –
From every side you strike at my control,
Not least through those disquieting chaps who loll
At ease about your earlier days:
Not quite your class, I’d say, dear, on the whole.

Here’s the Larkin we know: now a master himself, and one who sounds like himself. Why didn’t he take on Hardy’s voice as he had Auden’s and Yeats’s? At least in part, I’d submit, because he hadn’t taken on Hardy’s subject-matter (as he’d taken on Auden’s and Yeats’s). When Hardy looks back at a young woman from his past, he sees her in a phantasmal vision—

As I drive to the junction of lane and highway,
And the drizzle bedrenches the waggonette,
I look behind at the fading byway,
And see on its slope, now glistening wet,
Distinctly yet

Myself and a girlish form benighted
In dry March weather.[…]

(from “At Castle Botterel”)

—whereas when Larkin looks back at a young woman from his past, he sees her in some snapshots. Larkin, that is to say, takes his subject from his upper-middle-class world: a world of graduations, trilby hats, disquieting chaps—and photograph albums. It’s only natural that when he commits to saying something about this world—his real one—he finds himself saying it in something like his real voice (a voice inflected, to his admirers’ everlasting gratitude, with his inimitably droll humor: “reluctant” cat indeed!). On this theory, Larkin may be said to owe the finding of his voice to the finding of his subject-matter.

Of course, the above is only a theory—which makes me want to recount a kindred experience I know to be actual. In my mid-twenties, it was I who was groping toward a poetic identity. Like Larkin at that age, I had a model; unlike Larkin, my model was Frost (though in the blindness of youthful pride, I wouldn’t have confessed to having any model whatsoever). So it isn’t surprising that the poems I was writing back then had country subjects—until it occurred to me that I didn’t know the first thing about the country. On recovering from this realization, I started writing poems about New York City, where I’d actually set foot. These poems emerged in a voice that no longer sounded like Frost’s (not that it sounded anything like my own). This was progress—stepping away from something was a stride of a kind—but a new problem arose: as damning and/or inexplicable as this may be, there wasn’t anything I really had to say about New York. This deficit led, for a time, to my not writing any poems at all.

Meanwhile there was at least one thing I did have to say, if only to get it off my chest: that my lack of poetic production didn’t mean I wasn’t working on the problem (and that a solution might not be working itself out in me). At some point it crossed my mind that this could itself be said as a poem. I undertook to execute on the idea—and found that I couldn’t. Every stab at the envisioned opus (and there were a number) seemed off somehow; seemed somehow too…elevated? I still remember the opening of one of these attempts:

What it never was, was indolence;
Not for an epoch all but given over
To idleness[…]

After some weeks of this futility, a kind of exhaustion reduced me one afternoon to just speaking out my burden the way I actually would, poetry to the side—whereupon the lines above had morphed into the first sentence of a little poem I was able to finish:


Indolent I wouldn’t know because
I never was that, forget how
It ever looked. What I was was getting
Ready, and the getting’s over now.

This was the first poem of mine that sounded like me, or at least like the Lower East Sider in me. Not coincidentally, this was also the first poem of mine that said something I really had, in a couple of senses, to say.

Daniel Brown‘s poems have appeared in Poetry, Partisan Review, PN Review, Raritan, Parnassus, The New Criterion and other journals, as well as a number of anthologies including Poetry 180  (ed. Billy Collins) and The Swallow Anthology of New American Poets (ed. David Yezzi). His work has been awarded a Pushcart prize, and his collection Taking the Occasion (Ivan R. Dee, 2008) won the New Criterion Poetry Prize. His latest collection is What More?  (Orchises Press, 2015). His Why Bach? and Bach, Beethoven, Bartok are audio-visual ebooks available at Amazon.

1 reply »

  1. Contrary to Brown’s theory, I believe a poet has many voices, all of which, depending on their skillful handling, can be authentic. I also believe that old chestnut, “write what you know,” has led to the family memoirs chopped into lines that now dominate today’s poetry sites and journals.

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