Ellen Bryant Voigt Critical Essays


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Ellen Bryant Voigt is known for finely wrought, compressed forms delivered with a passionate moral sensibility. Profoundly influenced by her extensive early musical training and formalism, her poems push the limits of lyric and narrative as she sets emotionally heightened moments out of time—singing—against the storied linear past and tries to unite them.

“Song and Story”

“Song and Story,” the concluding poem of Two Trees, Voigt’s fourth volume of poems, distills the chief concern of her artistic life. She gathers and articulates the two impulses that have driven her, that she sees driving human life. Music reaches from the nontemporal realm into story with its softening, easing rhythms; the singer has emerged from pain and reaches back to another who is immersed in pain. The impulse of lyric is thus hope, promise, choice to continue, and praise of the nontemporal or cyclical against story’s inevitable onward movement toward death of the individual. As Stephen Cramer has written, “Voigt’s work as a whole recites the tale of one artist’s ’will to change.’” Her own story encapsulates the story of human choice.

Claiming Kin

Voigt’s vision matured over two decades from discovery of the body’s music, its breathings and varied motions in the midst of life. The rhythms of family are set harmonically and then oppositionally, as in the title poem, “Claiming Kin.” Writing of her mother, the poet begins:

Insistent as a whistle, her voice upthe stairs pried open the blanket’stight lid and piped medown to the pressure cooker’s steam and rattle.

Other household objects the mother wields make their insistent noises, while the poet as a small child is a “pale lump blinking at the light” of her mother’s “shiny kingdom” of noisy “razzle-dazzle.” The mother has another, a night rhythm apposite to the poet’s self, a “Soft ghost, plush as a pillow,” who “wove and fruited against the black hours.”

In “The Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin,” the Madonna “Mourns . . . as if reaching for fruit,” and a priest’s blessing of young girls joins music and fruit, joy and hurt:

when the bells releasea shower of pollen,each mouth opens to rapturelike a wound.

Pain is the price of joy. Composed of loose iambics and snatches of ballad rhythms, these poems’ rhythms function to advance and constrain extremity let loose by often shocking images: the beheading of a hen, a jealous child wishing her older sister dead, a dream life of murdering, “stones/ with their mouths sewn shut.” Music reaches into silence to seed it, but each person remains isolated; song is not much help to any but the poet herself.

The Forces of Plenty

In her second collection, The Forces of Plenty, Voigt shifted toward narrative. Less concerned with capturing the intense emotion in a moment of time through lyric’s music, she renders small vignettes with people now listening to the sounds the world offers. The music is quieter, calmed by interludes of stopping the daily round to listen. In “The Spire,” a poem about the function of lyric and reminiscent of Marianne Moore’s “The Steeple-Jack,” a church on a mountain provides...

(The entire section is 1476 words.)