Voices under Pressure

MacPherson's play is set in a pub in a remote part of Ireland. Voices of people in a bar in any region will be influenced by their surroundings. Is there a pool table, wide-screen TV? Background noise, even background silence? Degrees of relaxation and tension influence speech, just as they do other types of behaviour. Talking never happens in the abstract. He said it on that day, in that place, and had these been different.. .who knows? This question applies to writers, too.

All writing is influenced by the conditions of its production. These conditions might be political or personal, close at hand, far in the background, almost invisible, unknowable, or very much in the foreground and invasive. Coleridge famously records how the arrival of an unwelcome guest—the 'person from Porlock'—interrupted the flow of his inspiration. Can we tell from a piece of writing anything about the immediate, practical conditions and pressures that helped or hindered, or at least influenced, the tone, form and content of it as a text? Might it encourage a certain reading by hinting (through its degree of formality/informality, its voice under pressure) at what might be called its implied circumstances? Can we tell if a poem was made spontaneously, in the moment, or heavily revised?

For writers and teachers of writing, such issues are quite specific and practical. A good many poets have developed the skill of writing as if in the presence of the scene, place, person they are describing, a style we might call responsive or expressionist. Ted Hughes' poem 'The Thought Fox' describes not just a subject but a method, and one he recommends in his book on writing, Poetry In The Making. Against this is the measured, careful phrasing found in the work of other poets—the 'midnight oil' of the study Yeats refers to in his poem 'Among School Children'. Poems such as 'The Thought Fox' operate by describing a physical location—snow, shadow, movement—in a way that makes the physical location so real it seems to replace the actual conditions under which the poem was written, conditions we don't actually know about unless we were there with the poet when he was writing. But in another sense we are there with the poet, looking at that landscape, that fox, through the transforming force of imagination. Certain poems appear to have been written all at once, in one sitting, with few corrections, whether they have or not, while others show a formal care that seems to rule against a sense of such immediacy. When Sylvia Plath in the title poem of her book Ariel writes the line 'The child's cry/Melts in the wall', was this a response to the real thing happening in an adjacent room as she was writing the poem? Do her poems carry a trace of being written 'Between five in the morning and the milkman rattling his bottles' as she explained in an interview? Was an alertness to sound in the predawn winter of 1963 a conditioning influence on her poems in Ariel? Or was she aiming, for the best of reasons, to give us that impression?

The English poet Sir Thomas Wyatt in the sixteenth century wrote under constant threat of imprisonment, possibly even execution, in the court of Henry VIII. Does his verse betray such conditions, or attempt to conceal them? Would a judicious degree of formality guarantee his survival, or should he adopt the disguise of careless spontaneity? In plays and films we expect physical and social conditions to influence the way characters speak. In David Mamet's play Glengarry Glen Ross, a real-estate salesman's loss of confidence leads to abusive, sexist slang, deformed, unfinished sentences. This is a voice under pressure:

LEVENE: I tell you why I'm out I'm out, you're giving me toilet paper, John. I've seen those leads. I saw them when I was at Homestead, we pitched those cocksuckers Rio Rancho nine-teen sixty nine they wouldn't buy. They couldn't buy a fucking toaster. They're broke John. They're deadbeats, you can't judge on that. Even so. Even so. Alright. Fine. Fine. Even so. I go in, FOUR FUCKING LEADS they got their money in a sock. They're fucking Polacks, John. Four leads. I close two. Two. Fifty per... WILLIAMSON: .they kicked out.

LEVENE: They all kick out. You run in streaks, pal. Streaks. I'm. I'm.. .don't look at the board, look at me. Shelly Levene. Anyone Ask them on Western. Ask Getz at Homestead. Go ask Jerry Graff. You know who I am. I NEED A SHOT. I got to get on the fucking board. Ask them. Ask them who ever picked up a check I was flush. Moss, Jerry Graff. Mitch himself. Those guys lived on the business I brought in. (Mamet, 1984:7)

In his book on writing plays, The Crafty Art of Playmaking, Alan Ayckbourn notes the importance of punctuation in speech: 'Sometimes the speeches are broken up (quite grammatically incorrectly) in order to give an indication to the actor of the preferred delivery' (Ayckbourn, 2002:62). He then quotes a speech from his play Woman in Mind as an example, and adds—the speaker is Susan—'her pattern is breaking up like her personality'.

A huge advantage of bringing the voice and voices to the fore in any piece of writing will be that readers engage with a text more sympathetically; also, they are going to connect with its verbal energy. If a character in a poem or play says something—to themselves or to somebody else, tells a story, reports or records an experience in their own words—there is a sense of human fragility, of excitement, danger, possible misunderstanding and risk. And it could well be that in creative writing this sense of risk, far from being a fault or a weakness, is the very stuff that makes us sit up and take notice.

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