Ellen Bryant Voigt, a poet who has been nominated for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, among others, read her work and lectured on the poetry of Randall Jarrell last Wednesday and Thursday as part of the Visiting Writers program. Her work includes “Kyrie,” “The Lotus Flowers,” “The Art of Syntax,” “Messenger: New and Selected Poems,” and, most recently, “Headwaters.” She teaches at Warren Wilson College and lives in rural Vermont.
In your most recent collection, “Headwaters,” you make an interesting editing choice for a writer interested in structure and rhythm: You avoid all punctuation. Why?
What I found when I started writing this most recent set of poems is that they had a very high degree of repetition to that extent that I thought was quite bad. So the first thing I went to cut out was that repetition, but when I did, there was nothing left. It wanted to be repetitive; it wanted to be full of refrain.
So that became a formal problem: How, then, can you maintain that degree of repetition without it being slack and boring? One way is to have a longer, compulsive line that does not allow the reader to stop on any of those units; don’t honor them with that normal rhythmic system of the punctuation mark, but drive through all the way to the end of the line. So what I wanted was not to eliminate punctuation, but to eliminate what we call caesura: any artificial stop in the poetic line created by punctuation. Take out all interruptions and the reader isn’t allowed to stop until the end of the line.
That’s what I wanted, that kind of propulsion that then allowed me to maintain a higher degree of repetition and also allow me to shift tones more quickly, so that I could go from something comic to something not so comic within the same line.
What do you think about trends in poetry that break with forms in other ways?
[Avant-garde poetry] doesn’t interest me. There’s been a mistaken interest in a sort of mimetic fallacy, which is to say that the world is disjunct and therefore a poem should be disjunct. But would you also say that the world is full of boring people, and therefore all stories should be full of boring people? I think what art tries to do is to bring some new insight into whatever our condition is. So to me, that doesn’t really justify itself. It becomes clever, and I’m too old to be interested in clever. I’m interested in shaken-to-the-soles-of-my-feet insight. I’m interested in learning something, being gob-smacked, bowled over.
Certain natural images and themes run through your poetry — trees and birds, for example. Why do you keep coming back to these?
My second book, I had a hard time putting it together because there was a tree in every poem. Every single poem has a tree. I said to myself, “Don’t do this again; leave the trees alone. Take the trees out and put some asphalt in there, or something.” But you’re drawn to the same things over and over again, because you’re trying to dig out something.
What mistakes do young writers make?
Right now, it’s a very divisive time, I think. And there’s a trend to ghettoize, to say: “I have the right to tell this story, and you don’t.” And the flip side of that is that I am compelled to tell this representative story, that hasn’t been told yet. What that does is deny the power of the empathetic imagination, which I think is one of the chief functions of the art, is to try to get us to understand a little better what other people’s experiences are like.
When you’re reading great work, there’s a resonance. And I think, then, to find those combined, where it’s a piece of work written by whomever, a Catholic monk [Gerard Manley Hopkins]: There he is, writing: “I wake and feel the fell of dark…” You kind of go, “Yeah, me too. Me too.”
Here’s this vastly different person, and there’s this commonality of experience. That, to me, is such a gift.
What advice do you have for those looking to develop their writing style? Do we all have to go through 50 or 60 drafts of each poem, like you do?
A lot of people begin writing poetry because they feel the need to express something. There’s something they feel, or have thought, or has happened to them, and they want to give it language and record it. And that’s perfectly noble. That’s a fine way to start. But that makes it an expressive art the same way a dancer performing in a ballet choreographed by somebody else is.
Creative art is to make it: the pianist who no longer wants to just play Bach but is starting to write the music. That’s the place at which, it seems to me, everything is focused on gathering the tools you need and enlarging the soul sufficiently to increasingly be able to accommodate more and more of the world into your poems.