A Lesson In Voice And Tone

I generally share my poems with a few friends before I mail them out.   A sample audience, as it were.   Because of this, I’ve been asked how I came to write the enclosed, as the voice and tone are different from poems I’ve written lately.   Perhaps the following note, written to a friend and editor, Mike Simms, may be of some interest.  I enclose my poem, and the influences to which I refer.

In the immediate, I was responding to Mike’s comment that my poem sounds “like Charles Bukowski goes to Vietnam.”


It’s funny you should say that.   I was just reading Bukowski early this morning.   I wanted to find and forward a poem of his, “The House”, to my wife, Phoebe.   She counts Bukowski in a category she denominates “Literary Pigs.”   Henry Miller.   Gregory Corso.   And like that.   Anyway, I sent her one of his poems.   Phoebe is perfectly comfortable with the concept of loving the writing and shooting the writer.

Maybe something in that working class thing stuck.   As I wrote my poem, I had to decide which way to go with the voice, middle class or working class.   For example, the original read “nonetheless”, which I finally decided to change to “anyhow”.   And so on.   Something about the situation seemed to call for the working class voice — but with a specific requirement.   The voice needed to couple a tone that carries a certain dignity with a crude vocabulary.   A requirement that just cries out for The Tieman Touch.

At the very end, I was actually thinking of the ending of Stanley Kunitz’s “The Portrait”.   Thinking ‘How does he make that 50 year shift in two or three lines?’, to which question I just answered ‘He just does.’   So I just did.

I also just watched last night the 1979 movie version of All Quiet On The West­ern Front.   For a long time after my war, I couldn’t bring myself to read that novel.   I think I finally read it toward the end of my junior college days.   I still think it’s one of the great anti-war pieces.

The situation in my poem is, of course, a real memory.


there was this guy I used to talk to
in Nam a Vietnamese
corporal just like me only gook

most the time I couldn’t understand

a word the fuck said but for all

his accent I liked his slant

eyed ass anyhow

so this one day

he disappears so I figure

he’s in the bush

hunting the little evil people until

the next month

I see he got hunted

shows up without a left leg

nobody talks to him

I mean me too

all I could do was for a second

just stare and go

forty years after the war

and all I can do is still stare


Filed under: John Samuel Tieman, Prose