|This topic sheet was originally
devised for the Verse
Technique and Poetry course. There is a table
of links to other teaching resources towards the bottom
of this page.
THE VOICE AS SUBTEXT
The repeated emphasis placed on sound in this course
is perhaps ironic, since poetry is essentially a written medium.
Often there is much to gain by being able to study the written
- reading it at one's own pace,
- re-reading as appropriate,
- pausing for thought.
However it is perhaps worth considering what is
absent in written text: the true, spoken voice, with all its suggestions
- social context,
The reader makes the poem "complete" by
imagining elements of the spoken voice, in effect as part of the
DESCRIPTIVE TEXT vs SELF DESCRIPTION
Insofar as written words are the only truly inalienable
fabric of the poem, the meaning must be conveyed exclusively by
the written words. The characters in the poem (including the person
or object that is "speaking" the poem to the reader
as well as any characters created or evoked in the text) must
- either be described
- or else describe themselves through the things they say.
Descriptive narrative enjoys the freedom of being
able to explore situations at great length, using as many words
as it takes to create an appropriately detailed picture for the
Written speech, by contrast, must be concise, avoiding
explicit description of facts or emotions that would not normally
be explicitly expressed in speech. For example, readers would
probably not believe in a character who greeted another with the
words "Fancy meeting you here on the crowded pavement of
Oxford Street this rainy Wednesday afternoon when we haven't met
since we were at university together in Berlin in the late 1960s".
Such factual information must be conveyed elsewhere, whether through
descriptive narrative, true dialogue or subtext.
In short, writing for voices is a considerably more
challenging task than descriptive writing.
THE IMPORTANCE OF SUBTEXT
Because written voices must express their characters
concisely, writers must pay careful attention to the use of subtext
in written speech. The more tantalising the subtext, the more
likely the reader is to become engaged with the character, even
to the point of imagining the spoken voice with all its intonations
Convincing written voices are invariably underpinned
by convincing characterisation. For a character to be truly convincing,
the writer must have a detailed knowledge of the character: history,
motivations, emotional set, etc.
Dialogue in verse and poetry follows similar rules
to prose dialogue. Specifically:
- Convincing speech depends on depth of characterisation. Even
the most minor characters must be well thought through if they
are to be credible.
- The dialogue must flow naturally between the characters as
if they were having a real conversation.
- Dialogue may be progressed and "brought to a head"
by establishing and pursuing a conflict of objectives between
the characters. For example: A plans to seduce B while B plans
to rob A.