If you feel you’re still “finding your voice,” consider what Seamus Heaney says about his discovery of his own when he wrote the poem “Digging.” In his essay “Feeling Into Words,” he writes of it, “I had done more than make an arrangement of words; I felt that I had let down a shaft into real life”
“I wrote it down years ago; yet perhaps I should say that I dug it up, because I have come to realize that it was laid down in me years before that, even. The pen / spade analogy was the simple heart of the matter and that was simply a matter of almost proverbial common sense. On the road to and from school, people used to ask you what class you were in and how many slaps you’d got that day and invariably they ended up with an exhortation to keep studying because ‘learning’s easily carried’ and ‘the pen’s lighter than the spade.’ And the poem does no more than allow that bud of wisdom to exfoliate, although the significant point in this context is that at the time I was writing I was not aware of the proverbial structure in the back of my mind.”
I want to emphasize something Heaney says when he concludes this, which is “I don’t think any subject matter has particular virtue in itself — this is interesting as an example of what we call ‘finding a voice.’” Heaney says:
“Finding a voice means that you can get your own feeling into your own words and that your words have the feel of you about them; and I believe that it may not even be a metaphor, for a poetic voice is probably very intimately connected with the poet’s natural voice, the voice that he hears as the ideal speaker of the lines he is making up.”
How does a beginning writer hear the voice inside himself, or herself? Heaney says you hear it coming from someone else and wish it was your voice — he names poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins as ones he wished he had written. But he also names the voices he heard around him so often as a child, they got inside him, sayings like the one I mentioned above, and lists of towns in the weather forecast on the BBC, and lists of saints and phrases in the catechism of the Catholic church. He wasn’t conscious of them at the time, but he can still recall them easily and with delight.
What sounds have stayed inside you? What are some lists you can still recall with ease?
James Wright says something similar in a letter he wrote near the end of his life, to Robert Bly, about the uneasy peace he had made with growing up in Martin’s Ferry:
“If you ask a southern Ohioan where another person has disappeared to, and he doesn’t know, then as like as not he’ll answer — not “I don’t know”; but “Oh, he went to shit and the hogs eat him.” I don’t know where that fusion of the violently physical and the exquisitely witty comes from, but in a strange way I think it is beautiful, and it has been ringing somewhere in my head all my life. I suppose what I’m saying is that a person — like your young poets — should not be afraid to pour into his poetry all the phrases and sayings and rhythms that in truth mean the most to him, the sounds that he can hear outside of himself — because if he listens, he’ll hear them inside of himself, too. Everybody surely hears some kind of song inside of himself. How amazing if he could only be brave enough to sing it out loud.”
I think of that quote every time I read his poem:
Those old Winnebago men
Knew what they were singing.
All summer long and all alone,
I had found a way
To sit on a railroad tie
Above the sewer main.
It spilled a shining waterfall out of a pipe
Somebody had gouged through the slanted earth.
Sixteen thousand five hundred more or less people
In Martins Ferry, my home, my native country,
Quickened the river
With the speed of light.
And the light caught there
The solid speed of their lives
In the instant of that waterfall.
I know what we call it
Most of the time.
But I have my own song for it,
And sometimes, even today,
I call it beauty.