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You Are Your Voice - Speak It

The annual Ways With Words literary festival at Dartington Hall in Devon is a feast of words and voices.

In 2009, two events on the life and work of Poet Laureate Ted Hughes delivered his words in his own voice and in someone else’s. The difference to meaning was thrilling.

A documentary from producer/director Noel Chanan, ‘The Artist & The Poet’, presented Hughes in unrehearsed dialogue with his friend and collaborator, sculptor and artist Leonard Baskin. They talk freely of friendship and artistic collaboration, ideas, imaginings and creativity, their voices distinct and opposite. 

An American son of a Lithuanian Rabbi and a White Russian mother, Baskin’s fluid tones weave between the punchy gutteral stakes of a ‘Yorkshire Englishman of ancient lineages’. 

As I listened, I began to hear Hughes’ poetry spring to life; the drilled ‘d’s and ‘t’s, the coughed ‘g’s, the pared-down speech, punching words with meaning into the air. Like strata in the earthy tones. Each voice resonating at such a different pitch so that when Baskin refers to the uniqueness of their ‘invigorating, inspirational’ relationship I really hear the vibrant, resonant, echoing creativity of it. In their own voices.

I shall never forget the thrill of hearing Hughes read his poem ‘Pike’. This poem had always stayed firmly on the page for me. It now leapt to life and swam, menacing, into my being as he recited it. 

Each consonant, each vowel intentioned. It was his poem, his voice, his words. His experience and creative spirit evoking both pike and fear. Each alive in my imagination out of the thought, sense, awareness, and transmission in his imagination of his experience.

Wired to sense and meaning, and how words shape our experience and authentic voice, I rushed to the next event, the Ted Hughes Memorial Lecture. And here I met another voice. Andrew Motion, recent Poet Laureate, discussing the opposing voices of Hughes and Philip Larkin in their worlds, their lives, and their work. There was little 'inspirational, invigorating' relationship between Larkin and Hughes. Inspirational be-littling, perhaps…

To me, it felt flat. Thought-provoking yes, yet firmly in the rational. Motion’s smooth, educated tones seemed soft, his diction rubbery, after the punctuating consonants of real-life Hughes. As Motion recited ‘Pike’ I wondered that these could be the same words that had just set me alight. I felt a sense of Hughes closing back into two-dimensional black and white. It wasn’t that Motion lacked passion in recital, or in his voice, presence, or body language. 

Simply, he was not the poet who felt the experience and wrote the poem. It wasn’t his authentic voice; it didn’t fit his voice. And so it sounded wooden, hollow, put-on even. It sounded wrong, in comparison.

Hughes’ framing of poetic experience, his distillation of a powerful moment and its impact on him were written in a language and from a cultural reference which were not Motion’s. In any work of art, the frame affects how the art it holds is perceived. 

‘Pike’ still held power, was still a work of art, resonant and image-rich. Yet its frame did not hold it firm, so the edges blurred and seeped meaning. Its voice was smaller, diluted, faded, although still clear. There were no punchy gutteral stakes to hang the meaning on, so the life had gone out it. It was not the reciter's own rhythm or experience. Only the performance of its recital was that.

Voice. Authentic voice. No wonder we fear our voice. Fear our words being read, being read aloud, or recited. We write in our own unique voice and are read in the voice of the reader. In one crisp, clear second I understood this for real. We each stand alone in our voice. 

So, in order to communicate any of our authentic voice in our frame of reference, or to reach beyond the frame that the reader is superimposing, we need to be clear. Clear, congruent, authentically and strongly present; comfy in our skin, even comfy with the discomfort of it. It will always be diluted by the voices of our readers and listeners. 

Be bold and brave – and I mean this as an encouragement for myself too. It is thrilling, inspiring, exciting, and invigorating to hear a distinct voice unambiguously speaking its unique truth and experience in its own tones and rhythms. 

If in doubt, listen to Ted Hughes reciting his poetry.

Ted Hughes & Leonard Baskin in conversation - audio clips from Exeter University – permissions cleared.  

The Artist & The Poet – Noel Chanan. For further information and copies of the DVD see  

Ted Hughes Reading His Poetry – Ted Hughes. HarperCollins Audio, Audio CD. ISBN 0007202644

© Christine Cooke 2010

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