Ellen Bryant was brought up in Chatham, Virginia, by Lloyd Gilmore Bryant, a farmer, and Missouri Yeats Bryant, an elementary school teacher. Experiences of family, along with will and destiny, hard work and choice, natural order and persistence in the face of the unpredictable afforded by farm life, are at the heart of her concerns.
She credits her early and long training in music as her central artistic influence. Not only was it formative in her “impulse for order,” but also it contributed to her love of “solitude.” Surrounded by many relatives, Voigt found her life “exceedingly claustrophobic.” Playing piano was her time to herself:I can look back and see poem after poem that takes up the friction between that solitary individual and whatever that social unit is, be it small or large.
Music resounds in the body, eliciting sensory feeling. At the same time, it provides a sense of control through form, both constraining and fluid. Relating this to her writing, Voigt has said, “I make a musical decision before I make any other kind of decision. . . . If I can’t hear it, it just never gets written.”
Voigt’s music education began with piano lessons at age four and continued through a degree in 1964 at Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, where she discovered her dislike of performance, her love for music theory, and her passion for literature. While she was working a summer job playing lounge music at a resort, a friend introduced her to the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, E. E. Cummings, and William Butler Yeats.
Voigt earned a master of fine arts degree from the University of Iowa in 1966, studying principally with Donald Justice. She married Francis Voigt, a college dean, in 1965, and they had two children. Major concerns of her art are the family relationship, its disorders and orders, choice and fate, and opportunities for truth and moral reflection. She taught at Goddard College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before accepting a position at Warren Wilson College in 1981.
Each of her books explores the nature of lyric and narrative and their interaction as she strives to keep narrative in the background while plumbing the depths of lyric. Her 1995 collection, Kyrie, disperses narrative through a long sequence of sonnets.