Poet Ellen Bryant Voigt composes the music of poetry

Poet and musician Ellen Bryant Voigt
Ellen Bryant Voigt, former poet laureate of Vermont, and music maker. (Image via the MacArthur Foundation)

By Lauren Ball

Ellen Byrant Voigt smoked and hugged a light coat to her chest outside the Poetry Foundation in the crisp air on a recent autumn evening. Casually studying the cars as they passed by, she appeared poised, yet relaxed. Her reading was scheduled to begin in 20 minutes, and visitors began to crowd into the building’s clean, geometric courtyard, its beauty hidden in the details.

She radiated an undeniable sense that she’s accustomed to such performance rituals and relishes them. Writing poetry and sharing  it are, to Voigt, as seemingly organic as taking drags of the cigarette that rested between her fingers. From an onlooker’s standpoint, it all appeared second nature.

Yet Voigt projects a subtle and unassuming presence for such a renowned success in the literary world. The former poet laureate of Vermont, she founded America’s first low-residency MFA program (which doesn’t necessarily operate on-campus) at Goddard College in 1976 before receiving prestigious grants and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEA, and the MacArthur Foundation. From her humble tone and laid-back posture, her face resting in the palm of her hand as she read at the podium, one might never know it.

Though the room’s atmosphere initially felt tense — solo poetry-goers rigidly sitting one seat apart — the ambience melted into a congenial gathering as Voigt began “The Art of Distance, VI,” “…Whereas my friend ‘in nature’/ takes his glasses off so he/ ‘can think.’ When he says/ he thinks with his body – body/ grown substantial over the years,/ as has his thought –/ I don’t know what he means; or,/ if I do, I think thinking is not/ the body’s job,/ that the body gets in the way…”

Growing up on a small farm in Chatham, Virginia, her imagery traces back to the underbelly of the rural South.

“I don’t think the natural world is idyllic. It’s a fierce place. I grew up on a farm so all of that was present. Farm life is dependent on an awareness of the seasons, as well as the creatures and the demands of what that world is that you’re trying to conquer sufficiently. I don’t think of it as dark or gothic. I just think of it as realistic,” she said over a hotel landline the day before her reading.

Voigt’s poem, “Bright Leaf” (from The Lotus Flowers collection), also reveals her pragmatic outlook on nature and survival, describing the physical and psychological impact of a day of hard labor from the perspective of a farmer. “His crew is quiet in the pickup truck—did you think/ they were singing? They are much too tired to even speak,/ can barely lick salt from the back of a hand, brush at flies,/ hush a baby with a sugartit…”

After leaving the unforgiving world of farm life behind, Voigt studied music at Converse College in Spartanburg, SC, before her roommate introduced her to the work of four people who would end up changing the course of her life – Rainer Maria Rilke, E.E. Cummings, William Butler Yeats, and John Keats. Through her initial studies, music became a pivotal component of her writing.

“I’ve said before that poetry is truth set to music,” Voigt recalled before her reading. “(With music) you don’t have to worry about what something means or if it’s making sense. You just have the experience of listening to it. Poetry is also musical. For me, it’s the sound of it that’s a very generative and useful guide.”

As Voigt read her work in the Poetry Foundation’s glass-walled reading gallery downtown, blinding passing car lights left distorted shadows on the dimly-lit walls, and the musical rhythm of her poems echoed throughout the room. Her voice edged and swooped unexpectedly, almost as if in direct opposition to the words and lines themselves, but consistently landed on course. The avant-garde, free flowing jazz of Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman came to mind as Voigt made her way through her works – there was no set path, yet every utterance fell exactly where it needed to conclude.

Though the room mostly buzzed with the thoughtful sighs of those with graying hair and reading glasses, a few college-aged faces sprinkled the back rows. “The poem that really got to me was ‘My Mother,'” said Nick Anderson, a Northwestern University sophomore, “It’s unfortunate that it was at the end because it really put me in a position where I wanted to listen to her read and talk about her poetry, or even buy her book.”

Voigt has seen poetry and the public’s reception of the artform transform over the decades of the late 20th century. “The publishers of 40 or 50 years ago have changed. There’re more books (being published) now and more opportunities for voices that have never been heard before…which is due, in large part, to digital publishing. I think that’s fabulous and full of all sorts of energy and excitement,” Voigt said.

“Some of (modern poetry) is a reaction against what has gone before, but it’s not necessarily experimental. Sometimes those pendulum swings mean going back to earlier poets who have somehow fallen out of favor,” she said. “The young poets will decide where poetry should go next.”

Photo at top: Ellen Bryant Voigt, former poet laureate of Vermont, and music maker. (Photo/MacArthur Foundation)