Employing A Proper Voice

Consider how Bruce Weigl confronted me in the classroom. He was able to speak to me so directly because he was wearing the mask of teacher and I the mask of student. If he had confronted me in the street or the restroom, the topic of our conversation and his tone of voice would have been inappropriate for the setting. Thus the mask, or role a person plays, influences the type of voice that he or she uses to address somebody in a particular place.

On any given day, a person wears several masks:

• 6:30 A.M. You need to wake your spouse for work —we'll call him

"Tug" —and he is grumpy in the morning. You nudge him gently on the shoulder and wear the mask of wife, whispering to your other half in a voice that sounds loving, prodding and firm: "Come on, now, darling. Time to get up." You are playing the role of dutiful spouse and employing an appropriate tone at dawn in the typical bedroom.

• 8:15 A.M. You arrive at work and your manager summons you to his office, wanting to know the status of a report you promised to complete yesterday. "I ran into some snags with the budget," you say, "and worked them out last night at home. With any luck, I'll have it done by five." He replies, "I need it by noon." In this scenario, the manager wears the mask of boss and you, the mask of employee, using a tone that is confident, energetic and responsible: "I'll get right on it." Such a response is appropriate during hours in the office. But if you and your manager spoke to each other like this after hours, the boss would come off as arrogant and you as ingratiating.

• Noon. You met your deadline, and now you are having lunch in the cafeteria with a colleague. You are wearing the mask of friend and the colleague, confidant. Your colleague asks what is wrong, so you glance at nearby tables —you don't want other employees to overhear—and use a hushed, frustrated, serious voice to explain: "I'm putting in more than sixty hours a week, and my boss is a jerk." Such a statement may be appropriate with a friend in the cafeteria, but not with an upstart rival in the parking lot.

• 5:15 P.M. You are driving home when you see the flashing lights of a state patrol car. You have been caught speeding, realize it and pull over. The peace officer who approaches you is wearing the mask of trooper and you, law-abiding citizen when you ask: "Is there anything wrong, officer?" The trooper ignores you: "License and registration, please." You don't need another ticket so you use a respectful, ingratiating, innocent voice: "I know I exceeded the speed limit, officer. But I had to pass that truck — it was tailgating me — and I wanted to concentrate on the road." The trooper hands back your license, says your registration is expired, and writes up another ticket. You take your citations, roll up your window, and wait until the trooper is out of earshot. "Damn," you say, "they all must have some sort of quota!"

Your mask, as it were, has been dropped.

Wearing masks is not deceitful in real life or in poetry. We relate to each other by accepting or resisting certain roles. Instinctively you know what tone of voice is appropriate with each person and in each situation. Once you realize that you wear masks routinely during the day, you will be able to call upon that ability to compose poems in an appropriate or natural voice.

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