One of my poetry workshop professors likes to start fights—to see us all twist a bit in our seats. I generally like being bothered in his workshops—his righteousness even admirable at times.
He asks us to talk casually about our rhythmic values and tendencies. I say I value poetry as an oral/aural art. I say I value performance—the sound—what the physical voice does for the phenomenological experience of the poem.
He says, Poetry readings are the most boring of any artistic event.
He says, Your voice, paradoxically, doesn’t matter.
I squint my eyebrows so hard, my eyelids twitch. I mumble something about the lyric tradition, but I stumble over my words. He won’t accept disagreement, anyways—he crosses his arms, his petite-cut blazer bunching around the shoulder blades. The more he leans back, the shorter the legs of his pants become—flashing argyle.
I now recognize the value I place on voice is a product of my upbringing. I was born out of Music City, did my undergrad in English at a primarily music-based university, went to countless shows; all of my friends were in bands—moved to Nashville to “make it” in the music industry. I was never a musician in any concrete sense, but the culture of sound has embedded itself into my work.
Apart from my personal experience, though, is a much richer history of lyric poetry that I’ve just recently researched outside of the MFA program requirements. The lyric tradition of poetry was born out of epic poetry and the molipé (song and dance). Performers would embody the speaker of the poem—embellish as requested; the emotional effects lingered. The meter gave a framework for memorization, but the rhythm was adjusted through the performer’s voice and choices.
Too often, we assume an absolute divide between poetry “on the page” and poetry performed, spoken, or heard. Even the more empathetic of workshop leaders didn’t seem to “get” my aesthetic during my first term of graduate school until she heard me read. She pulled me aside after and said: Forget everything we told you in workshop; you’re a performer. As much as I felt validated then, I’ve been trying to make sure my poems can communicate emotional value both visually and sonically.
I’ve also been trying to think about why I even write in the first place—to push back on the assertion that voice doesn’t matter, because, to put it simply, I think…no, I know it does.
The performance—the experience of the rhythm, sound, content—is paramount for me even in the simplest sense of community. I’ve met too many people who are afraid of poetry or bored of rhyme; they “reject” it because they’ve been taught that poems are puzzles that they’ll never be able to fully access. Aloud, though, poems have the potential to be “gotten,” at least on an emotional level—through sound and body. In Lyric Poetry: The Pain and Pleasure of Words, a highly enlightening book that communicates the history and rhetoric of the lyric tradition, Mutlu Blasing asserts that the “I” in lyric poetry “sounds the ‘communal being’ in the act of voicing itself; it confirms and validates both personal and communal histories in language, and its intention to mean is heard as a speaking ‘voice,’ a rhythm, an emotion.” She goes on to discuss the lyric subject as an “acoustic event”—“the reason the lyric poet turns her back to the audience, without which she cannot exist, is that she must be heard. And she must first be heard by herself.”
On the page and aloud, a lyric poem creates a space to be heard, both individually and communally. From my perspective, the poet’s voice does, indeed, matter—if not for performance, then for linguistic choices that ring sonically true in any reading; otherwise, I have to ask—what’s the point of writing? What’s the point of writing poetry, particularly, if the writer has no value of voice, of being heard?
Hannah Baggott is a Nashville native pursuing an MFA in poetry at Oregon State University while teaching writing courses. Read her poem “First Samuel | A Namesake” in Contrary.