51. (William Wordsworth)

Those able to read poetry in silence are capable of imagining the sound of a poem’s voice; the comparison to a musical score is of limited, but only limited, help: even for the most musically attuned, it seems likely that the performance would be the fruition and culmination of the score, however well it could be summoned by the trained mind’s trained ear; for the poet, on the other hand, the culmination and fruition might be inaccessibly private to another’s experience: the imagined voice of the silent reader.

But there is nonetheless some resemblance between poem and score: the reader is not only responsible for tuning and adjusting the imagined voice to the poem, but the poem is also responsible for disciplining and liberating the acoustic quality of an imagined voice.

I do not only mean that poems relate sound to sense; I do not only mean that the qualities of tempo, rhythm, rhyme, and meter are indivisible from semantic content in generating whatever new understanding a poem offers.

I mean that a new contribution to poetry will ask that we imagine a spoken voice doing new things as it speaks–moving, tensing, and releasing in new ways, feeling in new ways, modulating and emoting and restricting in new ways.

The semantics and syntax are of course crucial for the effect: but the effect is not one that needs to be appreciated only as a contribution to the other parts of any one poem, to its particular understanding and insights and feelings…it might be that the creation of a new experience of the voice, the addition of a new sound of the imagined voice, is one of the great results of great poetry. And it might be that such a voice needs to be cultivated across many instances of particular understandings: not a personality, not an author, not even a cast of mind or way of world-making—but something more rawly infantile: the capability of imagining the distinct feel of a distinct and novel sound, or pitch, of speaking.

Here, I suspect, is something that diminishes as we age: it is not just words that wear down; it is voice that wears down, wears out. Not voices, voice; as in, what wears down is our capacity to imagine the possibilities voice contains, or the potential we possess for newly imagining and newly hearing the human voice, or for admitting into our imaginations that such novelty is possible.

How many times do we need to newly imagine the voice? Since there are so few poets (or novelists) who can manage the trick, we are hardly spoiled for opportunities.

The most disgusting experience in the experience of any contemporary literature (that is, an experience that must have existed always) is the sound of writers trying to write in the voice that is approved or special to them. We all are guilty of it; everyone, as Swift knew, shits; there is no other way to learn how to write. But when the effort over-reaches, when the effect is pathetically indulgent, or when certain words come in as predictable markers of sound, it’s grotesque.

Wordsworth, during the great decade, and probably even after, though we can’t hear it much, was I think as sensitive as any poet ever has been to getting the voice of his poems right; to get a new voice in the poems at all.

There is, as I’ve said, responsibility on the reader for how a poem is imagined, but Wordsworth knew that there was also responsibility for the poet: his objection to certain words, in Gray’s sonnet for instance, was an objection to the voice that they compelled or impelled. Gray had written:

In vain to me the smiling mornings shine,
And reddening Phœbus lifts his golden fire:
The birds in vain their amorous descant join,
Or cheerful fields resume their green attire.
These ears, alas! for other notes repine;
A different object do these eyes require;
My lonely anguish melts no heart but mine;
And in my breast the imperfect joys expire;
Yet morning smiles the busy race to cheer,
And new-born pleasure brings to happier men;
The fields to all their wonted tribute bear;
To warm their little loves the birds complain.
I fruitless mourn to him that cannot hear,
And weep the more because I weep in vain.

Wordsworth had objected to all but the italicized words; the others he said unjustifiably differed from prose. Gray’s defenders go out of their way to say: “Ah, but that’s the point…Gray is showing how inadequate the language of poesy is for what he feels.” Wordsworth wasn’t a fool; he would have seen this, and his response might be that it is beside the point, that Gray is whinging about the birds singing in vain in a a voice that is not only patently false, but abhorrently adulatory of an auricular experience that is lifeless. Gray might at least complain in words of proper pitch; the sound is not only all wrong, it is all wrong in the wrong ways.

I had wanted to write on Wordsworth by say how his description of the “emotion recollected in tranquillity” seemed the best description not only of how to summon the powers of composition, but how also to imagine a verse being recited, so as to let the poet’s distinct voice emerge: with distance, without special pleading on behalf of feeling, or idiosyncratic tone.

But Wordsworth is not talking about readers at that point of the “Preface”: he is talking about the process by which composition becomes possible. Nonetheless, I wonder whether we might hear in his words a description of his own efforts at preparing or retrieving a voice, the right voice, or the new voice, and see the preface as having more to do with voice than he says (the word does not appear).

That composition and voice would be closely related for Wordsworth should be no surprise: his habit of peripatetic composition, muttering to himself, is well-attested, most famously by Hazlitt.

“Language really spoken by men” is both the language that men speak, but also language “really spoken”—where “really,” if we read against the grain, can take on strange weight: what might it be to really speak, rather than just to speak? What might it be for words to be really spoken?

Wordsworth would not claim that poets alone can establish new voices; that would be high-minded and wrong-headed, since we do encounter new experiences of voices even into age, though the experiences become rarer, and our capacities for imagining or admitting new voices into our minds become more restricted. But he does, in my view, see it as a special responsibility of poets to establish those new voices on the written page. This they can only do by means of the words they choose, and by means of the arrangements they put in place.

At the same, the written page does ask something special of the reader, who not only encounters a new voice, as in life, but is asked to attend to words so as to imagine for himself or herself a new voice spoken, without being spoken, in the mind’s ear. The written words of a poem grant an opportunity for, and places a burden upon, the vocal imagination.

Which is not to denigrate or dismiss spoken performances of poetry; those can aid the ear, but ought not to ensnare it; they can attune the ear to the way that the voice on the page is being imagined by another, perhaps the poet, but they cannot compensate for the necessity of imagining it for oneself.

Wordsworth saw the challenge clearly, even if it finds only murky expression in the “Preface.” The poems themselves show his rising to meet it, in form after form. Among many reasons he is so difficult and so endurable a poet: Wordsworth’s unflinching will to invent a new voice, and the alien acoustics of the voice that he invents, in the strangeness of the language we encounter in silence.


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