Poetic Voice

You may have heard the term 'poetic voice' before, but what exactly is a poetic voice? In this article, we will explore the meaning of poetic voice in a poem and the different elements of a poetic tone. We will look at some examples of the poetic voice used in literature - specifically poetry. We will also consider how the writer can use poetic voice in different ways to express themselves and the effects it could have on a reader.

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Table of contents

    The art of the poetic voice: principles and practice

    The poetic voice is not so hard to define!

    According to poet Tony Hoagland, poetic voice is the "distinctive linguistic presentation of an individual speaker." - The Art of Voice: Poetic Principles and Practice, 2019.

    Poetic voice is used to create a connection between the poet and the reader, helping the reader to understand the message of the poem and the thoughts of the speaker.

    In other words, the poetic voice in a poem refers to particular elements used by the speaker. Various changes in the poetic tone of a piece make it clear to the reader that the poem belongs to a particular person. Poets often develop or find their poetic voices by using particular elements in their poems.

    Poetic voice Image of a person writing a poem StudySmarterPoetic voice refers to poetic elements used by speakers in a poem - pixabay

    Poetic voice in literature

    In order to understand the poetic voice in poems, you will first need to know the key elements of the poetic voice. These are:

    • Grammar and syntax

    • Form

    • Literary devices

    • Subject matter

    Grammar and Syntax

    Grammar and syntax are closely related, but both contribute to poetic voice in poems in slightly different ways. Grammar refers to how sentences, clauses and phrases are constructed to create meaning. For example, we can take into account:

    On the other hand, syntax is a part of grammar that particularly refers to how words or phrases are arranged to form a sentence. We take into account the parts of the sentence (such as the subject, object, verb) and the order they are placed in. This determines the type of sentence that is used (such as a statement, question, or order).

    Example of the poetic voice in poems: grammar and syntax

    Let's look at an example of how the poetic voice can be analysed in terms of grammar and syntax. The following example is from Rupi Kaur's Milk and Honey (2015).

    "how do you turn

    a forest fire like me

    so soft i turn into

    running water " - Milk and Honey, 2015.

    Kaur uses neither punctuation nor capitalisation in this poem. She does this to make the poetic voice of the poem more intimate and informal - it is as if she is having a casual conversation with the reader. The lack of punctuation throughout could also indicate the constant flow of her thoughts, which could figuratively resemble the running water that she compares herself to.

    Further, the use of the adverb 'how' at the beginning of the stanza implies that there could be a question - but there is no question mark. This could be done to suggest that Kaur is asking it rhetorically, so is not expecting an answer but is simply reflecting on her words. In turn, the answer becomes open to interpretation for the reader, which creates ambiguity and intrigue!

    It is also important to note that Rupi Kaur rarely uses capital letters, giving herself a unique poetic voice and making her poems recognisable as her own.

    The form of a poem refers to the overall structure of the poem. When looking at the form of a poem, we take into account:

    • Line length

    • Stanza (verse) length

    • Rhyming pattern (or lack of rhyme)

    • Rhythm (the stress patterns of the poem)

    Different types of poems can follow different structures - some follow strict structures whereas others are free verse (meaning they don't follow a particular structure). The form is important to the development of poetic voice in multiple ways, such as:

    • Helping to convey meaning alongside the main content of the poem.

    • Emphasising a key idea that is significant to the poet, or something the poet wants the reader to remember.

    • Creating a more complex meaning - allowing the reader to read between the lines and interpret the physical appearance of the poem; not just the lexical choices of the poet!

    An example of a type of poem that follows a strict structure is the 'Villanelle'. This type of poem consists of nineteen lines, which is separated into:

    • 5 stanzas with three lines each (known as tercets)
    • 1 stanza with four lines (known as a quatrain)

    The first line and last line of the first stanza is repeated throughout the poem (this is known as refrain). The rhyming pattern of the Villanelle can be written as:


    This means the last words in the first and third lines of each stanza rhyme with one another. The second lines of each stanza also rhyme with one another.

    Example of form and the poetic voice in poems

    A popular example of a Villanelle is Dylan Thomas' poem Do not go gentle into that good night (1951):

    Do not go gentle into that good night,

    Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

    Because their words had forked no lightning they

    Do not go gentle into that good night.

    Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright

    Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,

    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,

    And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,

    Do not go gentle into that good night.

    Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight

    Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,

    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    And you, my father, there on the sad height,

    Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

    Do not go gentle into that good night.

    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    - Dylan Thomas, 1951.

    What can the form of this poem tell us about the poetic voice?

    This poem was supposedly written for Thomas' dying father. Here, we can see that the repetition of the first and third lines is used to emphasise the speaker's feeling of anger and resistance against death (referred to as the 'good night'). This highlights the sense of desperation as the speaker wants their father to fight against death, which seems at first to be inviting. We can see that this shows the poetic voice, as the form is used to repeat emotions specific to the poet and give attention to the individual thoughts of the speaker.

    Literary devices refer to techniques used by the poet to develop the meaning of the poem and enhance the speaker's voice. There are many devices used in poetry to create different effects, such as:

    Example of literary devices and the poetic voice

    A good example of how literary devices are used to enhance the poetic voice is seen in T.S. Eliot's poem Preludes (1910/1911). This poem is separated into 4 parts. Below is the first part:

    The winter evening settles downWith smell of steaks in passageways.Six o’clock.The burnt-out ends of smoky days.And now a gusty shower wrapsThe grimy scrapsOf withered leaves about your feetAnd newspapers from vacant lots;The showers beatOn broken blinds and chimney-pots,And at the corner of the streetA lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.And then the lighting of the lamps. - T.S. Eliot, 1910/1911

    The literary devices used in this poem contribute to the poetic voice of the speaker. So how can we analyse them?

    Poetic voice analysis: analysing poetic tone for essay writing

    Eliot immediately makes use of personification within the first line, 'The winter evening settles down'. This gives a human-like quality to the evening, setting the scene and allowing the reader to gain an understanding of the time of year. Further 'settling down' could imply a state of rest or a calming nature. Here, the poetic voice is personal and relatable, as it creates a connection between a human-like 'thing' and the reader. It draws the reader in and brings the world of the speaker to life.

    Eliot then repeats specific elements throughout his poem to enhance his poetic voice and show the reader that the poem is uniquely his. This is achieved through the use of sibilance ('s' sound repetition), apparent in the line 'with smell of steak in passageways.' The hissing repetition of the 's' sound is used to add rhythm to the poem and keep the poem flowing. It could also be used to figuratively imitate the sound of a smell drifting through the air, adding to the imagery of the poem.

    Alliteration is also used, as seen through the repetition of the 'b' sound in the line 'The showers beat on broken blinds.' Like sibilance, alliteration is used to create a rhythm. But unlike the 's' sound, the 'b' sound creates a plosive stop similar to the beat of a drum. This creates a harsher rhythm which is used to imitate the sound of rain. Through the use of both sibilance and alliteration to create rhythm, the poetic voice remains steady and consistent. This could also imply the constant flow of the speaker's thoughts as he takes the reader on a journey and describes the world around him using his senses.

    Rhyme is used, but the pattern does not follow a strict structure. Although the poetic voice is steady in some ways, the lack of a consistent rhyme scheme could portray the unpredictable nature of life. This ultimately makes the poetic voice seem spontaneous but also realistic, as life is rarely straightforward.

    The subject matter concerns what the poem is about. It can be used to set the scene of the poem and let the reader know the main themes of the poem. Some subject matters are obvious, while others may be more abstract, so will be more difficult to interpret.

    Example of subject matter and the poetic voice in poems

    This example is from W.H. Auden's poem Funeral Blues (1938):

    Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,

    Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,

    Silence the pianos and with muffled drum

    Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

    Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead

    Scribbling on the sky the message 'He is Dead'.

    Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,

    Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

    He was my North, my South, my East and West,

    My working week and my Sunday rest,

    My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;

    I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

    The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,

    Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,

    Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;

    For nothing now can ever come to any good.

    - W.H. Auden, 1938.

    The subject matter of this poem is about the death of the speaker's close friend. So what can this subject tell us about the poetic voice? As death typically brings feelings of loss and deep grief, the poetic voice is negative and sombre. This sets the tone throughout the poem as the speaker reflects on the past and the impact of their friend's death on their own life. The subject matter can be further reinforced through the use of vocabulary and imagery. Particularly the use of metaphors in the third stanza which highlight the negative effects of losing someone so significant.

    Poetic voice and tone - What is the Difference?

    What is the difference between poetic voice and poetic tone? Poetic voice and poetic tone may often be confused with one another because they are both used to express thoughts/feelings. Let's look at what poetic tone means!

    Poetic tone refers to the attitude of the poet towards the speaker, the reader and the poem's message. When looking at poetic tone, we think about whether the poet has a positive, neutral or negative outlook on their poem.

    Simply, poetic voice concerns what is being said, whereas poetic tone concerns how it is being said by the poet!

    Poetic tone example

    This example of a poetic tone in a poem comes from Emily Dickinson's poem Hope is the thing with feathers (1861):

    “Hope” is the thing with feathers -

    That perches in the soul -

    And sings the tune without the words -

    And never stops - at all -

    And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -

    And sore must be the storm -

    That could abash the little Bird

    That kept so many warm -

    I’ve heard it in the chillest land -

    And on the strangest Sea -

    Yet - never - in Extremity,

    It asked a crumb - of me.

    - Emily Dickinson, 1861

    In this poem, Dickinson uses the extended metaphor of a bird to symbolise hope and the power it has. Hope is something that is constant and keeps people warm. It always provides for people in times of need, yet never asks for anything in return. It is clear, then, that Dickinson has a positive attitude toward hope.

    Poetic tone can be described using adjectives. The tone of this poem could be described as:

    • Hopeful
    • Positive
    • Optimistic
    • Grateful
    • Encouraging

    Poetic Voice - Key Takeaways

    • Poetic voice concerns the use of certain elements used by the speaker in a poem.
    • Poetic voice makes it clear to the reader that the poem belongs to a particular person.
    • Poetic voice is used to create a connection between the poet and the reader, helping the reader to understand the message of the poem and the thoughts of the speaker.
    • The different elements of poetic voice are: grammar and syntax, form, literary devices and subject matter.
    • Poetic tone refers to the attitude of the poet towards the speaker and the poem.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Poetic Voice

    What is a poetic voice?

    Poetic voice refers to particular elements used by the speaker in a poem. This makes it clear to the reader that the poem belongs to a particular person.

    How would you include poetic voice in an essay?

    If you are writing about the poetic voice of a poem in an essay, you should consider the different elements of poetic voice and how they are used to show the author's meaning. These elements are: grammar and syntax, form, literary devices and subject matter.

    What can you comment on about poetic voice?

    When analysing poetic voice, you can comment on the following elements:: grammar and syntax, form, literary devices and subject matter.

    What is an example of voice in poetry?

    An example of voice in poetry is shown through the form of a poem. E.g., in Dylan Thomas' Do not go gentle into that good night (1951), the first and last lines of each stanza are repeated throughout to emphasise the emotion of the speaker.

    How to find poetic voice?

    You can identify poetic voice by looking for particular elements used by the speaker in a poem. These elements are split into: grammar and syntax, form, literary devices and subject matter. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Every poet's voice is the same in a poem.True or false?

    Grammar and syntax is the same thing.True or false?

    Which of these isn't taken into account when talking about form?


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