The Multiple Voice of the Lyric Color Wheel

Eliot suggested that the first voice of poetry is that of the poet talking to himself, the second, his voice addressing an audience, the third, his attempt to invent multiple voices -- none his own -- which address one another. Anticipating the argument that a love poem is devoted to a private audience of one, he contends that good love poetry is always meant to be overheard; his flat assertion: when a lover wants privacy, he writes prose. He orders these verse modes into three valences: non-dramatic, quasi-dramatic, and dramatic. While they form a tidy triangle, the true shape may be hexagonal.

Valéry's single voice in La Jeune Parque is intense theatre. Moreover, most agree that the tormented girl ("And what shriveled leaf persists in quivering between you, islands of my naked breast?") is not a voice assumed or persona invented by the author for effect, but rather, his own affect breaking a fifteen-year silence. Of course, the theatre has forms of self-address or reverie ("Soft, what light through yonder window breaks?") overheard as soliloquy or solo aria.

Eliot likely would have allowed room for multiple voices to occupy the first and second verse modes as well, each speaking to and for itself, past or unperceived by the other. Conversely, multiple voices can speak as one: Eliot's chorus in The Rock. Adding these counterpart valences to his primary ones produces a six-sided color wheel of voices, all of them potentially lyric.

While even the general reader acknowledges the reorientation of novelistic voice from Jamesian talking heads to Woolfe's interior monologue, writers still falsely consign the lyric to balmy Wordsworthian pastorals or Frost's elemental Yankee loner, thus, the classic definition of a single speaker relating his experience of the world.

Collected since mid-century around a dominant source of imagery, we must make uncommon use of language to reach beyond it to the essential shared harmonics -- while those who insist on privacy write prose.

(From the LyR program, Spring NY, 1997.)

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