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Jonathan Culler reviews On Voice in Poetry

David Nowell Smith. On Voice in Poetry: The Work of Animation. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.  202 pp.

Review by Jonathan Culler

The notion of voice is ubiquitous in discussions of poetry.  We hear a voice in a particular poem. We speak of a poet finding his or her voice and or of a poet’s distinctive voice.  In reading a poem we give voice to it, silently or openly, and we might say that voice is the medium in which the poem is constructed.  David Nowell Smith is the author of Sounding/Silence: Martin Heidegger at the Limit of Poetics, an excellent book that seeks to find in Heidegger’s reflections on poetry resources for poetics, despite Heidegger’s disdain for anything verging on poetic technique.  In On Voice in Poetry he aims “to reflect on this category and open up the concept of ‘voice’ for poetics,” but he makes clear that it is not a matter of defining the different uses of the term and the relations between them but rather of “inhabiting the fissures opened up by these conflicting configurations.”  The different senses of voice constitute the “between” of various oppositions.

There is, first, voice as a philosophical problem. Can one speak of “voice itself”? Adducing a wide range of philosophical and linguistic discussions, he explores how to situate voice in relation to noise, sound, cry, language. Is it always double: sound and yet meaningful, irreducible to either phone or logos? Another chapter focuses on the politics of voice, where voices may not have a voice (Jacques Rancière and Édouard Glissant are important references here).  If we could remedy our deafness to prosody, poetry could contribute to what Rancière calls “the distribution of the sensible” by its working to generate a collective subject.

The core of the book is the problem of voice in lyric.  Many splendid examples illustrate the vocal resources of poetry, poets’ attempt to capture something like language originating itself, but above all poems’ ways of animating language through rhythmic voicing.  This may take the form of apostrophic address, interjection, or exclamation, or prosodic structures that impart an impersonality to sound thus animated.  It is the dynamics of animation that particularly interest Nowell Smith, but after extremely shrewd, resourceful readings of passages from John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Charles Baudelaire, Paul Celan, and contemporary poets that illustrate poems’ animation of language, voicing as event, he turns in his final chapter to the concept of measure, which offers not the precision for which one hopes but yet further indeterminacy. Measure is another term with multiple meanings and a rich history in poetics and music, and as Nowell Smith does not try to narrow and define it but opens it up further—measure is the patterning through which a poet generates animation but also the means through which poems measure the world and we measure ourselves—it does not bring us closer to finding ways to analyze and describe the effects of voice and voicing but offers further speculative deferral.

This is a very rich, often difficult exploration of the workings of voice and voicing, but one can certainly wish that the author had sought to move toward defining more precisely the rhythms and prosodic techniques that he brilliantly explores in the final chapter rather than introduce yet another multidimensional term, another “between.”  Complication is not an unalloyed  good.