Letting Go: Ellen Bryant Voigt


Raised in Virginia and a Vermonter since 1969, Ellen Bryant Voigt has always been stirred by the rhythms of rural life, family, and nature. The poetry in her Messenger: New and Selected Poems 1976–2006 treats these subjects with passionate earnestness, patient control of syntax, cadence, and voice, and a commitment to verbal and imaginative clarity. Of her deep-seated self-discipline, she has declared: “Essentially, I’m a formalist; that’s part of my makeup. I don’t have much tolerance for disorder, and of course the world is full of disorder.”

Keep this in mind when you read the four poems that follow. If not abandoning the poetic values for which she has long been known, Voigt is definitely testing their limits. The world outside her Vermont window and from her remembered Virginia is familiar from her previous work. But her new poems evoke these scenes with reckless abandon in unpunctuated, run-on sentences and nervous line breaks that express not simply a tolerance but an appetite for disorder. They boldly recast Voigt’s style.

“Headwaters” seems to comment on this new creative direction. It tells of a journey toward obscure and dangerous sources. (Voigt’s title suggests that these waters are, in part, in her head.) In this journey, there is a risk specifically of formlessness, of being lost where there are “no tracks in the snow.” And the poet is alone. Her “life-raft” is a very private craft: it has room “for only me.” Poignantly, nakedly, she calls to us onshore, asking, “don’t you think I’m doing better.”

The sources Voigt approaches in “My Mother” and “Sleep” are primal and parental. Rushing on, her sentences rush back to childhood. The poet struggles with her mother across the decades; a Lucky Strike, which she clutches and sniffs and clutches as a pervert would his fetish, conjures the vanished world of her father and grandfather. Ungovernable impulse appears as anger, as a wish for oblivion, or the unconscious wish to kill when, in “Larch,” Voigt remembers her parents’ friend who shot “an intruder it was his wife.” The world’s disorder comes flooding in.

But this doesn’t mean Voigt has become a different poet. Her technical control shows itself here in a willed letting go. About the fundamentally opaque nature of our intimate desires and relationships, she is very clear. The privacy of her vision opens onto general feeling. She comments on “the great paradox” of lyric poems: “the most singular, most limited position may be as close as we ever get to something we all share.” These poems arrive at that point of shared experience by going to a far place where thought is urgent, and poetic form must be discovered in the process, as if for the first time.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Langdon Hammer, the Niel Gray Jr. Professor of English at Yale, is the poetry editor of the Scholar and the author of James Merrill: Life and Art.


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