voices of poetry

I recently acquired a copy of Eliot’s lecture entitled The Three Voices of Poetry. It was a serendipitous acquisition, as it ties in closely to my interest in the dichotomy of writer and narrator.

Although the title refers to three voices, Eliot actually starts off by stating, “There may be four voices. There may be, perhaps, only two.” He then explains that the three voices referred to are:

  • the voice of the poet talking to himself – or to nobody.
  • the voice of the poet addressing an audience, whether large or small.
  • the voice of the poet when he attempts to create a  dramatic character speaking in verse; when he is saying , not what he would say in his own person, but only what he can say within the limits of one imaginary character addressing another imaginary character.

Personally, I think the first two of these can be grouped together: there aren’t many occasions when one speaks only to oneself, and, when we do, it’s often with the hope of being overheard. Even when we write a simple poem “which is neither didactic nor narrative, nor animated by any other social purpose”, a poem which is simply a reaction to an inner urge to write, I suspect we are motivated by the niggling idea that we’d like it to sound right for other people, as well as for ourselves. If the poet struggles to produce a polished work, I think we may infer a hoped-for audience, however small.

This would give us:

  • the voice of the poet speaking as himself.
  • the voice of the poet speaking as a dramatic character

The problem comes, of course, when there is no indication that the first person speaker is not the poet.

With poems like Fanthorpe’s Not my Best Side, based on the Uccello painting in the National Gallery, it becomes clear that there are three separate narrators, three separate dramatic characters created by the poet and into whose mouths she has put words.

In much modern poetry, though, we are attempting to express ideas which ring true for other people, and to do so we use a first person narrator to describe situations similar to those which may plausibly have happened to us in real life. If I speak in the voice of a battered wife, or as a kleptomanic housewife, it’s as unreal as Fanthorpe speaking as the dragon: I just have to trust to the reader’s capacity to recognise that not everything I write is autobiographical.

Author: don't confuse the narrator

Exploring the boundary between writer and narrator through first person poetry, prose and opinion

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