Ellen Bryant Voigt
Gregory Orr in his essay “Four Temperaments and the Forms of Poetry” describes a poet’s innate temperament(s) as being story, structure, music, and imagination. Ellen Bryant Voigt’s poetry suggests a possession of equal
gifting within these four classifications. Her recent publication in 2013, “Headwaters”, is a showcase for her mastery of syntactical manipulation. The entire book is without punctuation though each poem has its own rhythm and
musicality. The following paragraphs discuss how one stanza of GROUNDHOG within “Headwaters” uses a variety of poetic tools to create a unique cadence and, more specifically, the use of alliteration in this way.
Alliteration, a phonic echoing device, is the repeated use of an initial consonant sound or consonant cluster in the stressed syllables of words close enough to each other to affect the reader’s hearing. Alliteration has the ability to
create cadence, to act as a pseudo structure for meter, as to make the line move in a musical fashion.
in Vermont natives scornful of greyhounds from the city
self-appoint themselves woodchucks unkempt hairy macho
who would shoot on sight an actual fatso shy mild marmot radiant
as the hog-nosed skunk in the squirrel trap both cleaner than sheep
what we’re called words shape the thought don’t say
rodent and ruin everything
Before beginning to explore Voigt’s use of alliteration and its effect on cadence, it is important to note that this poem is done in syllabic verse that also effects cadence. In fact, Voigt uses a multitude of poetic devices to effect
rhythm. All but the last two lines of this stanza are between 13 and 15 syllabic beats. The final two lines are 9 and 7 syllabic beats, respectively.
The first two lines of this stanza do not employ alliteration but do offer some rhythmic effect in the rhyme of ‘natives’ and ‘greyhound’. Throughout the stanza Voigt uses dissonant lineation or enjambment to effect cadence. In
the first line the final word “city” creates a slowing with the ‘s’ and then ‘ty’ sounds, as it is similar to the word stop, and offers an additional sonic break beyond the line itself. The second line uses repetition with the words
“self-appoint themselves”, sliding the cadence into the clunky sound of “woodchucks”. This compound word and its harsh ‘ch’ and ‘ck’ create a medial caesura within the line before going on to “unkempt hairy macho”. The
next five lines are where alliteration and its effect on cadence are most prominent. In line three, Voigt expertly uses what could be considered a tongue-tie (possibly slowing the cadence) in such an exacting fashion that the words
zip along increasing the cadence. The ‘w’s of “who would”, the ‘s’ sounds of “shoot on sight” and “actual fatso shy”, and finally the ‘m’s of “mild marmot” move the reading quickly in a rising tempo. The phrases “who would
shoot” and “an actual fatso”, both in triple meter, are connected by the short dimeter phrase of “on sight”. Voigt ends this line with the “mild marmot”: a triad of ‘m’s to rush toward the lines final word, “radiant”, where the ‘t’ of
‘radiant’ creates its own sonic stop. The fourth line uses alliteration with “skunk” and “squirrel” and finally “sheep” (the sh being an off-alliteration). The triple meter of “hog-nosed skunk” skips along into these easy ‘s’ sounds,
offering a natural cadence and leads into the fifth line where the ‘f’ sounds of “fur fluffy” are not as simple, therefore slowing the cadence. Voigt again uses caesura after “maybe he is a she/ it”. This play on pronouns, their
rhyme scheme, and their subsequent brain teasing effect creates a stop at “it” and allows the cadence to slow for Voigt’s final conceit. This ‘it pause’ allows the reader to break the final two lines into syntactical chunks.
As mentioned above, the last two lines of this stanza (and the poem) are syllabically shorter. These shorter lines along with the alliteration of “what we’re called words” slows the cadence and allow the reader to digest the
conceit. I would argue that the ‘ought’ sound of “thought” at the end of the sixth line can be tied sonically into this ‘w pattern’ as the reader’s mouth moves similarly (and so their brain feels) the continuation of the alliteration
pattern. The reader moves smoothly into the final line from the use of “say”. The alliterative uses of ‘r’ in “rodent and ruin” are a playful end to a sobering conceit.
Ellen Bryant Voigt renders magic with a musical baton in “Headwaters”. Her mastery of poetic devices offers each poem an individual melody and, when presented together, a cohesive score that is the entire work of
“Headwaters”. If one stanza of one poem offers such lessons, one should consider a reading of the whole work.
Orr, Gregory, Ed., Voigt,Ellen Bryant, Ed.,. Poets Teaching Poets: Self and the World. University of Michigan Press, P.O. Box 1104, Ann Arbor, MI 48106; (paperback: ISBN-0-472-06621-8, $17.95; hardcover: ISBN-0-472-
09621-4)., 1996. Print.
Preminger, Alex., Brogan,T.V.F.,. The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993. Print.
Voigt,Ellen Bryant,,. The Art of Syntax : Rhythm of Thought, Rhythm of Song. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2009. Print.
—. Headwaters : Poems., 2013. Print.