This month’s essay on voice by David Kirby emanates the confidence and tone of an accomplished poet who is also a master teacher. Astutely aware of the collusion that occurs between sight and sound in effective “voice,” Kirby cites one poignant example after another of the audible magic he calls “direct speech”— speech he claims that “keeps talking” for reasons that are as cathectic and penetrating as they are informational. In straightforward yet lapidary prose that effects both a spoken and written style, Kirby identifies the common evocative quality in the different voices of such classic writers as Lehane, Hemingway, Woolf, Montaigne, Joyce, and Márquez.
Getting Stabbed Kinda Takes the Fight Out of Ya
This is about voice. I mean poetic voice, of course, but what’s the difference between that and any other? When someone speaks, whether it’s in a poem or a novel or on TV or sitting next to you in an airplane, either you listen or you don’t.
Voice is hard to define. It’s like love: everybody thinks they know what love is, but nobody seems to know how to describe or measure it. In the paragraphs that follow, I’ll work my way through the comments of half a dozen authorities and then give you my own recipe.
In fact, here’s the recipe: voice consists of a simple idea which the poet (or novelist or broadcast journalist or airline passenger) expresses by embellishing that idea with images. Another way to put it is to say the poet is like a jeweler making a brooch by gluing gems to a base that no one will see.
That’s most of what I want to say, so if you want to stop reading here, fine.
Otherwise, let’s get going. Let’s start with Gabriel García Márquez, who once said: “I learned a lot from James Joyce and Erskine Caldwell and of course from Hemingway … [but the] tricks you need to transform something which appears fantastic, unbelievable into something plausible, credible, those I learned from journalism. The key is to tell it straight. It is done by reporters and by country folk.’’
Márquez is not the first writer to say one should “tell it straight.” Before him, there was Hemingway, and before Hemingway, there was Emerson. One reason Montaigne is such a good writer, says Emerson, is that he sounds like someone who’s talking to the reader rather than dipping his quill in ink and setting words down on parchment. According to Emerson, Montaigne’s prose is
the language of conversation transferred to a book. Cut these words, and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive. One has the same pleasure in it that we have in listening to the necessary speech of men about their work, when any unusual circumstance give momentary importance to the dialogue. For blacksmiths and teamsters do not trip in their speech; it is a shower of bullets. It is Cambridge men who correct themselves, and begin again at every half-sentence, and, moreover, will pun, and refine too much, and swerve from the matter to the expression.
So Márquez praises the direct speech of country folk, and Emerson does the same with blue-collar workers. Directness—simplicity—is just the start, though. If fine writing were just a matter of showering one’s readers with bullets, then best-sellerdom would be every blacksmith’s side hustle. Márquez may have begun his studies with journalism, but he went to graduate school by studying under the literary masters. Here’s what Garrison Keillor says about the Chilean novelist:
[Márquez] learned to write short stories first from Kafka, and later from the American Lost Generation. He said that the first line of Kafka’s Metamorphosis “almost knocked [him] off the bed,” he was so surprised. In one interview, he quoted the first line (“As Gregor Samsa awoke that morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed into a gigantic insect”) and told the interviewer, “When I read the line I thought to myself that I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago. So I immediately started writing short stories.”
Listen to Kafka’s voice here as Márquez did. Kafka’s idea is simple: people change. But that simple idea is embellished with a blockbuster image: someone wakes in the morning after a night of uneasy dreams to discover that he has been turned into a big bug.
Keillor concludes with the first sentence of Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, which begins: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
See? Everybody knows that our lives flash before our lives at the moment of our death. But Márquez decorates that cliché with a firing squad facing a colonel who is remembering an afternoon when his father takes him to discover something, namely, ice. In both sentences, the images differ wildly: most are scarcely worthy of the name (morning, dreams, afternoon, ice), and then there’s a single stunner in each (a gigantic insect, a firing squad).
But the effect is cumulative. And powerful. And the voice we hear is one that will keep talking to us whether we want it to or not.
Simple ideas are always the same. You’re not going to impress anyone by buttonholing them and shouting, “People change!” But you will impress them if you can state that simple idea in a voice they can’t stop listening to.
Jeff Lindsay is the author of the six novels on which the Showtime series Dexter was based. Here’s what he says:
Good writing does not come from emulating. . . . It comes from saying what you mean in a way that no one else can say it. F. Scott Fitzgerald is not Charles Dickens, and the difference goes far beyond time and place and subject matter.
It is more than style, too. Style is the part that we can actually see, but it is just the surface. The real difference is underneath all that. It is a direct expression of who a writer is and why he writes.
It is The Voice.
Every writer must find a way of writing that tells the reader: This is me and no one else. The Voice can be idiosyncratic, but it cannot be obscure. It is a blend of style and content and intent and rhythm and pure personality. If it is done right, it is so intimately wired to you that it cannot be duplicated—although, paradoxically, the best Voices can be parodied.
The annual Bad Hemingway Contest is proof of that. Anyone can string together a series of short and forceful words, like “Drink the good coffee. It is rich and dark.” We all recognize it; that’s Ernest Hemingway.
But to put together enough of these words to make a novel, one that hits us with the sledgehammer force of “For Whom the Bell Tolls”? So far, only one person has turned that trick.
So to Lindsay, style, content, intent, personality, and rhythm are what constitute voice. He’s right about all that, especially rhythm.
Here’s what Virginia Woolf said to Vita Sackville-West on that topic: “Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words. But on the other hand here I am sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can’t dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it.”
To Lindsay’s list of what constitutes voice I’d add syntax, diction, and narrative.
In a sense, everything is narrative. When we read a difficult poem or look at an Abstract Expressionist painting or simply find a shoe in the street, we start to tell ourselves a story about it. Then, if that story is good enough, we tell it to someone else.
But of all the components that flow into that single concept of voice, I’d say images are by far the most important. Why? Because they work on us like no other tool in the writer’s toolbox.
Even people who think they are immune to artistry respond to images. As Emerson says, “some stars, lilies, leopards, a crescent, a lion, an eagle, or other figure which came into credit God knows how, on an old rag of bunting, blowing in the wind on a fort at the ends of the earth, shall make the blood tingle under the rudest or the most conventional exterior. The people fancy they hate poetry, and they are all poets and mystics!”
I’d say that 62% of voice consists of images.
No, wait—make that 83% .
Another thing is that, if you get your images right, everything else that makes up voice more or less takes care of itself.
But how do images work, exactly? In “Your Brain in Fiction,” Annie Murphy Paul says:
What scientists have come to realize in the last few years is that narratives activate many . . . parts of our brains as well, suggesting why the experience of reading can feel so alive. Words like “lavender,” “cinnamon” and “soap,” for example, elicit a response not only from the language-processing areas of our brains, but also those devoted to dealing with smells.
In a 2006 study published in the journal NeuroImage, researchers in Spain asked participants to read words with strong odor associations, along with neutral words, while their brains were being scanned by a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. When subjects looked at the Spanish words for “perfume” and “coffee,” their primary olfactory cortex lit up; when they saw the words that mean “chair” and “key,” this region remained dark.
What Paul says reminds me of what I’ve read about brain scans of people who are kissing. When a couple isn’t kissing, their brains look like North Korea at night. But when their lips touch, look out! Suddenly we’re in Times Square on New Year’s Eve.
The way the brain handles metaphors has also received extensive study; some scientists have contended that figures of speech like “a rough day” are so familiar that they are treated simply as words and no more. [Recently], however, a team of researchers from Emory University reported in Brain & Language that when subjects in their laboratory read a metaphor involving texture, the sensory cortex, responsible for perceiving texture through touch, became active. Metaphors like “The singer had a velvet voice” and “He had leathery hands” roused the sensory cortex, while phrases matched for meaning, like “The singer had a pleasing voice” and “He had strong hands,” did not.
Once again, science reassures us of something we already know, which is that readers like images. Why, though? I’d say it’s because, when the speaker in a poem or story or newspaper article is getting through to us, it’s because he or she is us.
Without really registering it, suddenly we find the speaker’s voice is inside our head, saying things we’ve always thought or want to think or are half-thinking without knowing we’re half-thinking them, only the speaker is saying things so much better than we could. But since we’re enchanted by the speaker’s voice – since, like the wedding guest in Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” we “cannot choose but hear” when the old sailor begins his riveting tale – it’s as though it is we who are doing the speaking.
In Proust’s words, “Every reader, as he reads, is actually the reader of himself. The writer’s work is only a kind of optical instrument he provides the reader so he can discern what he might never have seen in himself without this book. The reader’s recognition in himself of what the book says is the proof of the book’s truth.”
When you’re reading something good, it’s like singing in the shower. It’s still your voice, but it sounds a lot better.
But the speaker who has gotten into our head is not necessarily speaking in the voice of a genius or a prince or a queen or an atomic scientist. The voice that becomes ours is often that of someone who is as different from us as possible. He might be Márquez’s farmer or Emerson’s beefy teamster.
Or he might be a thug. Once I heard novelist Dennis Lehane speak on the subject of voice. Lehane had spent his younger years in a rough part of Boston but went to Miami to study writing. There he missed the sounds of his neighborhood, so when he went home for the holidays for the first time, he looked up some of the old gang.
When he asked one of his buddies how he was doing, the guy said, “I, uh—well, I got stabbed” and then “I don’t know what you’ve heard, but getting stabbed kinda takes the fight out of ya.”
Lehane spent the next ten minutes of his talk unpacking this sentence. First there’s “I don’t know what you’ve heard,” as though getting stabbed is a common topic of conversation. Then there’s, not “it hurt like hell” or “I cried like a baby,” but “getting stabbed kinda takes the fight out of ya.” Finally, there’s that little modifier “kinda,” as though you’re just, you know, slightly discouraged. If you’d been clubbed with a baseball bat, you might have been disheartened, and if you’d been shot, well, that would probably take the fight out of you altogether.
But being stabbed just “kinda” takes the fight out of you.
In the introduction to his invaluable little book The Art of the Voice, Tony Hoagland writes that “in pre-1900s English poetry, the poetic voice tended to be rhetorically lofty, authoritative, wisdom-dispensing, and high-minded. As an example, Hoagland quotes the first four lines of Wordsworth’s “The World Is Too Much with Us”:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
The speaker here has a strong voice, says Hoagland, but hardly an intimate one. By way of contrast, he offers Eleanor Lerman’s contemporary poem “Ode to Joy” with its conversational voice, one that sounds like an ordinary person speaking to another. Lerman’s poem begins
Four drinks after nine o’clock at the
sports bar down by the river—the river
that is commanded by Newtonian forces,
or so they say. They also say that
particles collide, but I’ve never seen
that happen. And then, of course,
there is the theory that giant lizards
are patrolling outer space in spiny ships.
Hoagland notes that the Lerman’s voice is attractive because it’s educated yet unpretentious. And then he asks, “as a reader, on some level you might ask yourself: am I going to continue reading this poem? And if so, am I going to keep reading because of the story, or the voice? Probably the latter.”
And voice is mainly a matter of images. Tom Petty says, “A good song should give you a lot of images. You should be able to make your own little movie in your head to a good song.” The same is true of poems.
Another musician, Trey Anastasio of Phish, says a Phish song is something simple at the beginning and end with a whole lot of notes in the middle.
Plug in “images” where Anastasio has “notes,” and you’ve got this whole essay in just 16 words.
The only thing I’d add is that, when you’re writing, the images come first. When he says a song begins and ends simply, Trey Anastasio is describing the finished song, not the writing process. You discover your simple idea by playing with images, not the other way around.
Then you encrust that simple idea with all those chunky, crusty, chewy images the way the great artists of the pagan world and Judaism and Christianity and Islam stuck mosiac tiles onto the walls and ceilings of their patrons’ villas and synagogues and cathedrals and mosques and statehouses for thousands of years.
When you stand below one of these masterworks and gaze up at it, it looks as though it’s been there forever.
Anastasio, Trey. Between Me and My Mind. Dir. Steve Cantor. Trafalgar Releasing, 2019. Film.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Montaigne.” Selected Essays. New York: Penguin, 1982.
___________________. “The Poet.” Selected Essays. New York: Penguin, 1982.
Hoagland, Tony. The Art of the Voice: Poetic Principles and Practices. New York and London: W. W. Norton, 2019.
Lehane, Dennis. Talk at Nantucket Book Festival, Nantucket, MA, June 22, 2013.
Lerman, Eleanor. “One Joy.” The Sensual World Re-Emerges. Louisville, KY: Sarabande Books, 2010.
Lindsay, Jeff. “Only One Person Could Write That.” The Wall Street Journal, November 19, 2011.
Márquez, Gabriel García. On The Writer’s Almanac. Commentary by Garrison Keillor. http://www.garrisonkeillor.com/radio/twa-the-writers-almanac-for-march-6-2020/
Paul, Annie Murphy. “Your Brain in Fiction,” The New York Times, March 17, 2012.
Proust, Marcel. Swann’s Way: In Search of Lost Time, Vol. 1. New York: Penguin, 2004
Petty, Tom. Quoted in “Tom Petty Originally Wrote ‘Free Fallin’ Just to Make Jeff Lynne Laugh” by Cathy Applefeld Olson. Billboard, June 7, 2016.