Friday, February 27, 2009

An Omniscient Voice in Ellen Bryant Voigt's Kyrie

Ellen Bryant Voigt’s linked sonnet sequence Kyrie narrates the impact of the influenza pandemic of 1918-19, allowing a variety of voices to relate its effect on individuals and families. Careful reading indicates that there are at least eight different speakers interwoven through the book, most of whom seem to speak more than one poem. The poems are untitled, so the only way to connect those in the voice of individual speakers is by the allusions he or she makes to events and family members, and, in one case, because the speaker’s poems are epistolary, addressed to a fiancé each time. In this way, the collection presents a challenge to readers, since though a coherent narrative is suggested (and in the poems in which we can recognize a recurring voice, individual stories are moving forward) we cannot always be certain who the poem’s speaker is. The reader’s inherent desire for linear structure is thus frustrated—the tantalizing pieces of discourse offered by each poem simply cannot be built into a coherent beginning, middle, and end.

In Voigt’s essay “Subverted Structure,” she posits that a narrative that reflects the way that “before/after, past/present, then/now continuously bleed into one another” in our lives can be as realistic as any more linear structure, and the frame on which Kyrie is built does just that, allowing the book to purposely intersperse fragments of many stories, making them subservient to the larger story of the widespread human catastrophe that the influenza pandemic became. Because the individuating voices are rendered as all but anonymous, we begin to hear them as pieces of a collective voice that tells a story greater than what happened to one person or family. But at least four of the poems in the collection are spoken by a voice that is omniscient, that seems to come from outside the narrative parameters of the characters whose lives unfold in the book. The tone of that voice is different from that of the other poems—there is no first-person singular speaker, for instance—and it often takes a long view, commenting on the action in somewhat the way the chorus functions in Greek drama. The book’s Prologue and Epilogue use this kind of voice as well, but the poems that will be the focus here are all much closer to traditional sonnet form than are those two poems, and are all structured using either an octave/sestet or a two quatrain/sestet arrangement. While the placement of these poems in the sequence does not seem to be important (again perhaps underscoring Voigt’s theory of disjunctive narrative structure), they serve as a kind of relief valve, providing a brief pause in the building tension that allows something like the voice of history to comment in the sequence.

The first poem that is identifiable as coming from that voice is “Thought at first that grief had brought him down,” on page thirty-four. At that first line, this poem seems to employ the same kind of colloquial address as those spoken by recurring characters, and the first quatrain seems to allude to the death of a character in the poem on page twenty-two: the man has dug his wife’s grave in bad weather, “under a willow oak,” and is dead himself by the next morning. The second quatrain details the death of this man’s cousin, who worked in town. But in the sestet, the poem suddenly telescopes its view, no longer presenting a list of individuals who have succumbed to influenza, but naming the victims by their occupations, suggesting the scope of the death toll: “Soon it was a farmer in the field-- / someone’s brother, someone’s father…then the mason, the miller at his wheel, / from deep in the forest the hunter, the logger.” Here the articles are specific, but because we know that the occupations named represent untold numbers of people in nineteenth century American culture, the list suggests the rapidity and lack of exclusivity with which the disease took its toll.

Having arrived at the sestet, we can go back to the poem’s first line and note the lack of the clarifying pronoun at its beginning (and note that the line would be perfect iambic pentameter if a pronoun were furnished there). “I” or “We” or “They” could be appropriate, and given the “local” focus of the poem’s first eight lines, either of the first two possibilities might be a good choice. But the formality that results from the knowledge suggested by the list of victims in the sestet, as well as the formal diction and larger scope of the imagery in the last line (“and the sun still up everywhere in the kingdom”), suggest that “They” might be the most appropriate pronoun with which this poem might open, a pronoun that implies a speaker with the distance from the events to comment on their totality and sweep.

The rhyme scheme and stanzaic structures of the poem also stand in contrast to the looser blank verse sonnet form employed up to this point in the book. While in many places the rhymes are slant, rather than hard rhyme (“down/ground,” “chill/boil,” “field/wheel”), there is a recognizable pattern: abab, acac, defdef. As will be seen, this blending of Elizabethan and Petrarchan sonnet structures is a trait that each of the four poems under consideration here shares. The formality of the structure, the lack of the first-person voice, and the sense that the poem is spoken by someone with greater knowledge of the pandemic’s outcome than those who speak elsewhere in the book, make this poem stand in vivid contrast to all of the poems we have encountered to this point in the narrative.

As in that poem, “The barber, the teacher, the plumber, the preacher,” on page forty, employs the technique of naming victims by their vocations, or by the daily activities they were undertaking when struck by influenza. But unlike the poem just discussed (and unlike many of those spoken by other characters), this poem makes no overt reference to the disease, as if the speaker can assume that because it falls where it does in the book, the reader will be aware of what is affecting the people of whom it speaks—the voice seems tinged with the knowledge that historical perspective can bring. It begins with the listing of the victims, the predominant dactyls imparting a near-nursery rhyme tone that stands in contrast to the grimness of the tally: “The barber, the teacher, the plumber, the preacher, / the man in a bowler, man in a cap, / the banker, the baker, the cabinet-maker, / the fireman, postman, clerk in the shop.” Not only the quality of the listing, but the liberties this speaker takes with tone again put this poem in contrast with the more plain-spoken voices elsewhere in Kyrie. Following the dactylic metrical pattern in the first eight lines, the poem’s ninth line is even further out on the tonal spectrum in its level of address (“O, O, the world wouldn’t stop”), and the same kinds of risks are evident in the ways in which the poem uses repetition—“laid them down and never got up,” “laid them down and never did rise,” and in the closing couplet, “fell into bed and never got up, / fell into bed and never got up.” No other voice in the collection—the voices of common townsfolk—would be capable of mourning in such a voice without sounding ludicrous or even daft, yet we do hear this as a voice that mourns the dead, a voice that, because it speaks from outside the narrative frame, has a flexibility and range of which the actual characters in Voigt’s verse drama are not capable.

This poem employs a structure and rhyme scheme very similar to “Thought at first that grief had brought him down.” The rhyme scheme again relies primarily on slant rhyme (“cap/shop,” “tailor/lawyer,” “rise/wives”), and can be scanned: abab, acac, ddeeff. Again, we have two quatrains followed by a sestet, and again the blending of the traditional sonnet structures. The fact that the two poems are similar in so many ways acts as a kind of signal—our antennae are now perhaps a bit more active, having encountered a sister poem to the first that again is so obviously different from the voices we are accustomed to hearing.
“Sweet are the songs of bitterness and blame,” on page 45, again uses a two quatrain/sestet structure, though its rhymes are even further “slant” than the first two discussed. By this point, if one is reading the book straight through, this pattern begins to look familiar, and we more than half expect to hear a voice different from those common elsewhere. But three qualities distinguish this poem from the others with which it shares a similar voice. The first is that we hear a plural first-person speaker, though it doesn’t enter the poem until its sixth line: “which count the healthy strangers that we meet.” That trait might at first suggest that the speaker is one who has appeared previously, but that perception is belied by the ways in which the poem uses repetition to create an almost song-like atmosphere. In fact, the repeated phrase uses the word “song,” to open each quatrain and the sestet: “Sweet are the songs of bitterness and blame,” “Sweet are the songs of envy and despair,” “Sweet are the songs of wry exacted praise.” This repetition elevates the voice and foregrounds the speaker. Along with the fact that (besides the lines that repeat the phrase) all but two lines here are perfect iambic pentameter, it seems almost impossible to hear this speaker as the soldier or the schoolteacher or the doctor whose voices we’ve experienced throughout the book, whose poems rarely stay so close to the iambic ideal. In the syntax and diction, a lyrical quality is present here that is unlike informal speech—that might, in fact, be heard as more reflexively “poetic” than in any other poem in the book. And again, the way that each discrete piece of the poem (quatrain, quatrain, sestet) is opened by the repeated phrase brings to the forefront the fact that we are looking at a sonnet, on the surface at least a more highly polished structure than in most of the poems in the characters’ voices.

The third quality that distinguishes this poem is the fact that it is one of less than half a dozen in the collection that is spoken in the present tense. We’ve become accustomed to hearing the various speakers tell us (at least in bits and pieces) what has happened to them and their families and friends—the events are recounted after the fact, with apparently varying lengths of time having passed to afford the speaker the opportunity to have reflected on those events. As suggested earlier, these poems that seem to stand outside the narrative frame can be seen as functioning as did the chorus in Greek tragedy. One of the conventional functions of the chorus was to voice thoughts and emotions that the characters of the play—whether from fear or reticence—were unable to articulate. In this poem, the speaker is doing exactly that, admitting that “the songs of bitterness and blame, / against the stranger spitting on the street,” or “the songs of envy and despair, / which count the healthy strangers that we meet,” are “sweet.” Even the songs of “wry exacted praise” must be “scraped from the grave,” or be occasioned by “the neighbors’ misery brought near,” and even directed “to the god who thought to keep us here,” presumably to live in continual doubt as to whom the disease might strike next. These are of course thoughts that most people would suppress, but here the speaker brings them out with no apparent self-consciousness, in a poem that is as musical as any in the book, and the fact that the poem is rendered in present tense implies that the book’s other characters, through this “substitute” speaker, are experiencing the unspoken emotions with more intensity because they are unable to articulate them.

The fourth poem that shares this distinguishing voice is “Once the world had had its fill of war,” on page sixty. With its division into octave and sestet, this poem is the most immediately recognizable as a sonnet, though again it uses an abab, cdcd rhyme pattern in the octave to blend the Shakespearean and Petrarachan forms. And the poem is organized around the classical Italian sonnet design of introduction and development of the problem in the octave, then the volta at the sestet, which focuses on the war’s outcome for the soldiers, once more displaying the kind of tightly wound structure that most of the blank verse sonnets elsewhere in the book do not exhibit.

More so than any of these four poems, this one speaks with an overarching historical authority as it comments almost cynically on the way World War One finally came to an end, the way in which “at the hour of the wolf and vole, in a railroad car, / the generals met and put their weapons down,” and how the victors “sat in a gilded hall, / dividing what they’d keep of what they’d won.” In the sestet, attention turns to the soldiers, who “trickled home to study peace.” And as in the octave, the speaker comments on the war’s outcome for the soldiers and their families, noting that “the old lives didn’t fit as they had before,” and that “where there’d been the dream, a stranger’s face, / and where there’d been the war, an empty sleeve.” While the poems spoken by recurring characters in Kyrie often do portray cynicism or envy, they convey those emotions in regard to the immediate circumstances of their own lives, in contrast to the more global view taken by the speaker of this poem.

An interesting question that arises about this poem is why Voigt would want to have her omniscient speaker focus primarily on the war, when most of the book’s thrust is the largely forgotten human wreckage caused by the pandemic. In one way this poem is a counterpoint to those spoken by Price, who went to the European Theatre, and Mattie, his fiancé, who naturally focuses much of her attention on how Price is faring. But on a larger scale, this poem serves to point out that though the returning soldiers assumed that they would be able to pick up their lives where they’d left off, they discovered that “the old gardens grew a tough new weed,” a growth that would ironically prove more deadly for many of them than the bullets and poisonous gas that they’d faced in Europe. This dual focus underscores the ability to synthesize and comment that the omniscient speaker of these four poems possesses. Not only are these poems more formally arranged than those spoken by the other characters, and not only do they employ more formal diction, but they also allow what we might hear as a contemporary sensibility—whether of Voigt herself or another imagined cast member—to overlay the individual stories the characters tell with a kind of analytical and summary outlook that the people who lived through the told events could not have possessed at the time.

The speaker’s cynicism about the outcomes of the war is a late-twentieth-century attitude. Any history of World War One details the overwhelming sense of hope that the victors felt at the end of the war, “the war to end all wars” being the catch phrase of that time. They were convinced that the awful human sacrifice through which they’d gone would have a positive outcome. Voigt’s omniscient speaker, in this poem, is her way of injecting a level of “narrative” that dovetails with the stories of the actual events while also acknowledging that the world did not learn from those events, given the even greater cataclysm that engulfed Europe and the entire globe just twenty-five years later. And as the speaker points out here, again displaying a knowledge of history and a level of synthesis not possible for the other speakers in Kyrie, the soldiers faced a different kind of war when they returned home, a war in which they possessed no weapons to defend themselves. Because Voigt so completely interweaves the various voices in her book, she can insert these occasional poems that are spoken in a more omniscient voice with great subtlety, so that they blend seamlessly with the music that we’re already listening to.

In “Structural Subversion,” in partial answer to the question behind the essay (“How exactly does one avoid narrative?”), Voigt suggests that “One might start with a formal arrangement that counters the linear and sequential with juxtaposition: before/after, then/now, if/then, thesis/antithesis.” That sentence exactly defines her methods of arranging her material in Kyrie: the stories her characters tell are presented out of sequence (“before/after, then/now”), and the omniscient voice in the poems discussed here provides the book with the opportunity for “thesis/antithesis.” The invented people who lived (and died) during the events the book portrays give us the factual—what happened, and, more important, what it meant to them. This other voice, like the Greek chorus, provides the thesis and the antithesis—the voice of history—and its corrective and elaborative commentary on those events. Elsewhere in “Structural Subversion,” in analyzing a poem, Voigt notes that “the material of the poem—the true subject—is not what happened but what was felt,” a comment that rings true for the poems in Kyrie. Despite the disjunctive ways in which the multiple stories—and the overriding story—are told, we understand intimately what the various characters felt. Or perhaps it would be more correct to say that we gain that understanding because the story is told “subversively.”

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