Saturday, July 22, 2006

Ellen Bryant Voigt: Poet as Professor

Although her other collections are powerful and incisive, KYRIE by Ellen Bryant Voigt has become the work she teaches regularly at the summer Advanced Placement Teachers Institute in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. One reason is the structure: nearly 50 poems of sonnet forms, deliberately crafted and varied, in construction, volta, rhyme, voice. Voigt as professor leads the teacher/readers into this. Voigt as poet blazes with passionate response to queries: "Is this part supposed to mean something or did it just come out that way?" "Nothing just comes out! I write fifty to a hundred drafts of every poem!"

Voigt as professor also carries a flame of light and heat into the sustaining foundations of modern writing. She quotes, for instance: "Ezra Pound said that an image is a complex of emotions in an instant of time -- an instant of time." She draws into the conversation shreds of other fields that demonstrate how the brain receives and unpacks poetry, too: From her take on Steven Pinker's writing, she posits that syntax in the brain is lodged next to music, and both depend on "chunking" for us to grasp them. "Poetry can reinforce the chunks."

Fiercely committed to lyric poetry within this understanding of what it is to be human, she concludes that "The interest of the lyric poem is in stopping time, so that it can examine all that feeling" -- the emotions are where we people are most connected, most of the time -- "That's why I'm most interested in the lyric poem."

KYRIE narrates a village's dreadful losses and struggles during the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918, that death-loaded conclusion to the period of World War I. One of the sonnets concludes:

After the paw withdraws, the world
hums again, making its golden honey.

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