In literary circles, you'll hear a lot of talk about famous poets finding their voices after years of struggle and apprenticeship. You'll read juvenalia — the early work of Sylvia Plath, for example—and discredit it because, as someone is bound to say: "She had not yet discovered her voice." You'll hear the same arguments about the early work of such poets as Theodore Roethke and James Wright who, like Plath, wrote formal poetry before turning to free verse later in their careers. Generally speaking, it is more difficult to compose in a natural voice if you are employing rhyme and meter, which, if poorly executed, can sound artificial or ornamental. But that wasn't the case with Plath, Roethke and Wright. When they matured as poets, they began to write about people and topics that thoroughly consumed them and, to convey their complex truths, relied on the vehicle of voice.

Once they had discovered their subject matter, voice followed. On the other hand, some poets — the late poet and writer Raymond Carver comes to mind —based their early work on epiphanies and experience: highs, lows and turning points. They began with a subject matter and didn't lose sleep waiting to find their voices.

I like Carver's poems because they demystify the issue of "voice." Consider his lyric "Margo":

His name was Tug. Hers, Margo.

Until people, seeing what was happening, began calling her Cargo.

Tug and Cargo. He had drive, they said. Lots of hair on his face and arms. A big guy. Commanding voice. She was more laid-back. A blond.

Dreamy. (Sweet and dreamy.) She broke loose, finally. Sailed away under her own power. Went to places pictured in books, and some not in any book, or even on the map.

Places she, being a girl, and cargo, never dreamed of getting to.

Not on her own, anyway.

That easy-going, conversational voice is Carver's trademark, and it explains, in part, why he's still widely read as a writer. In a word, he relates.

I wish I had read his poetry earlier in my own career.

Like many young poets, I had developed a Shakespeare complex, assuming when I wrote verse that I, too, was speaking to the ages. This is romantic nonsense. Poetry speaks to people, and people decide whether it is good enough to share with future generations. But nobody had explained this to me. So instead of writing poems in the voice of a sassy, savvy, streetwise teenager, I used a formal, objective, Anglo tone when, in actuality, I was informal, subjective and all-Mediterranean.

The result was artificial writing. The issue, then, was not finding my voice —I always had one!—but losing it.

For years I composed awkward-sounding poems that nobody wanted to read. Then I met Bruce Weigl, whose war poems appear in chapter five. At the time, Weigl was promoting his first collection in Oklahoma where I worked as a journalist and studied English. He was a guest in my poetry class, and my work was up for critique.

I have since lost the draft of a poem that Weigl analyzed that night. But I recall that I had cast it in blank verse —the meter of Hamlet's soliloquy— intending to reflect upon a sensitive topic: infidelity. (The piece was about my mother suspecting that her husband was having an affair.)

As you might expect, Weigl began his critique by focusing on the voice in the poem. He said it sounded artificial. "Come on," Weigl taunted me. "Tell us what it was like —in your own words."

I looked down at my poem. Didn't it contain my own words?

"Put the poem away," Weigl said. "Look at me and explain why you want to write about your mother."

"I often think about this," I began. "I know it happened — "

"Stop," he said, putting my words on the board. "You just wrote your first line."

I was amazed. Poetry was supposed to be difficult.

"And lose the blank verse," Weigl added, as if reading my mind. "For the time being, just make your lines as long as they need to be to express an idea."

At first I was put off by Weigl's critique. He was assaulting my notion of what a poem should be and that was a big hurdle for me to overcome. But I decided to trust him rather than cling stubbornly to my beliefs —a turning point in my career—and revised the piece according to his instructions.

In a few days, I had a final draft:


I often think about this. I know it happened: My mother comes to me, crosstown before breakfast, the look of "someone's dead"

in the Maltese black eyes. She cries

Mickey — my nickname —an E-vowel perfect for Mediterranean sorrow.

She won't tell me what's wrong.

She repeats my name, getting softer while I get the brandy. I pour myself a drink, too, and we sip like it's Sunday dinner minus Father.

I ask what I suspect is too hard for her. "Is Papa dead?"

She focuses on me with eyes drier now, breathes deep for the words.

"Papa. Another woman."

I cradle her against the cotton of my pajama top. She leaves two wide stains, much larger than eyes.

Later that year I entered the poem in a university-wide competition, and it won first place. The judge praised my "voice." Being a savvy lad, I knew that I had not found my voice . . . but had reclaimed it. Let's see how you can reclaim yours.

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