The Mysterious Distinctive Voice in Poetry

For years I read the same thing: editors wanted new and distinctive voices.

I always figured this was probably just shorthand for “good,” for whatever technical and subject-matter choices struck readers as appealing.

OK: I was wrong. I get it now. It took being a first reader and a finals judge for several book contests for me to understand something: a lot of poetry being written today, despite being technically proficient and sophisticated, sounds alike.

Mostly, the poems are first-person accounts about the daily life of the speaker. Usually, the poems are indirect and shown and have concrete images that nonetheless feel somewhat lifeless on the page. In other words, this is sophisticated and promising work that somehow sags.

Work that feels “different” stands out, even if that work is less proficient. In other words, a flawed distinct voice is more likely to generate attention than a more masterful familiar voice.

So how do you arrive at a more distinctive voice?

First, no half-measures. Study your work for whatever lines jump off the page, that cause a sudden sharp intake of breath. Then ask yourself a simple question: HOW CAN I MAKE ALL OF MY LINES HAVE THAT SAME POWER? HOW CAN I EXAGGERATE THE VOICE OF THOSE LINES UNTIL EVERY SINGLE ONE FEELS PURELY LIKE THAT AND NOTHING ELSE?

Second, make sure that something about your subject matter feels new or that something about your approach to a familiar subject matter feels new.

Third, don’t try to sound like someone else. It’s fine and natural, of course, to have poets you admire and wish you could sound like in your poetry, but don’t fall into the trap of actually trying to sound like them. The result will almost certainly be that your effort will end up a watered-down simulacrum. You want, instead, to sound like the most extreme version of your own best voice.

Fourth, push that voice to the point where you worry you have taken it too far . . . then push it farther. Taking risks means risking failure.

Fifth, send out your risky works for publication and see what editors say. If a lot of them seem drawn to the work, that’s a good sign that you are on the right track. So, push things farther. This doesn’t mean, by the way, that your poetry needs be “experimental” or “difficult.” It just needs to have a voice that readers will identify immediately as yours.

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