“The Chicago Train,” by Louis Glück, from The First Four Books of Poems, Ecco Press, 1990.†
As to the poetical Character itself,…it is not itself—it has no self—it is every thing and nothing—It has no character….What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the camelion Poet….[H]e has no Identity—he is continually in for[med]—and filling some other Body—The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women….
When I am in a room with People…, then not myself goes home to myself: but the identity of every one in the room begins [so] to press upon me that, I am in very little time annihilated….
– John Keats. Letter to Richard Woodhouse. October 27, 1818
As young poets meeting for evening workshop in the book-lined Browsing Room, we’d step outside the Hall of Letters during the break to smoke cigarettes under the palms and ask one another curiously—desperately—if in our poem just discussed (some bald lyric of sex or ham-handed surrealism, perhaps) we might have finally found our voice. Because Finding Your Voice was our quest, our syllabus. In those mythopoetics that the workshop creates by its own idioms (like the Puritan economy of a poem that earns its ending or the grace of a final image that creates a fitting surprise), we knew that in finding our voice we would graduate from apprentice to Poet. The achievement of singularity was everything.
These days, I might want to think that such a singular quest is the quaint Romanticism of the young poet. Yet this drive persists—I’ve heard it both coming from fellow poets about their own work and used by fellow poets as instruction to their pupils. Moreover, it raises a question of the persistent reinforcement of this kind of expression, that one-note “poetical Character” Keats would deride as the “egotistical sublime” (Keats 387). Here, unexpectedly, a pop emblem swims into my ken: four high-backed chairs turned away from a singer on stage in a spotlight while Cee Lo, Christina, et al, listen intently for “The Voice.” With singular focus, these experts blindly audition each singer, pressing a buzzer to affirm the one whose distinctive voice fits an empty niche in their stable of singers. The reality of this show may point to the apotheosis of the phenomenon, where the paradigm of singularity is raised to the level of a competition and originality is streamlined by commerce. And yet even if we could strip this narrative of its pursuit of commercial fame, we’d find the rubric of critique of these artists to exist at an intersection of self-actualization (“be who you are”) and refined technique (“use your range”). (Over at “American Idol” this season, Nicki Minaj regularly coaches contestants to work within “your comfort zone,” advice which leads us to the remarkable realization that Minaj has turned radical variety [of musical style, of wig style] into her one voice.)
Of course, poetry is not television (though a few, from O’Hara through some quicksilvered contemporary poets, might ask it to be more like TV). Still, we connoisseurs of poetry hold a similar ability to identify a poet by her voice and a tendency to take that voice as the marker of a career. Of course, there is something identifiable about an individual poet, and it is more than the trick of a party game or the GRE to be able to spotlight “a Bidart poem” or “an Oliver poem” or many others. To say that the work of these poets is one thing—“the extended meditation” or “the nature poem”—blurs their variety and subtlety in order to champion the original space they have created.
Onto this stage Louise Glück enters with the distinction of carrying a different voice in every book. Her public accounts of her process detail how after completing each book she engages in “a conscious diagnostic act, a swearing off” that often occurs at the level of language (“Education of the Poet” 17). So, for instance, after Firstborn she sets herself “the task…to make latinate suspended sentences” (often as one-sentence poems) that will be in contrast to the “little bulletproof poems” of that first book (“Education of the Poet” 17, Poetry in Person 53). Glück ruthlessly re-configures what she determines to be the “habitual devices” of each book (Poetry in Person 53). And since these habits are often the foundations of voice—diction, syntax, their collection in idiom—her work amounts to a re-pitching of voice. This may be where the poet can do what the singer cannot; we borrow the term of voice from the singer’s performative interpretation of song, but, for the singer, voice is more tied to the physical body and less able to undergo the radical transformation possible for the poet, whose variety of song can draw on the near infinite variation of the language to be able to be, as Keats would have it, “continually in[formed]—and filling some other Body” (Keats 387).
In invoking Keats here I’m considering voice as the craft of achieving negative capability, the way the poet creates his chameleon changes on the page. As I’ve suggested, voice is not one craft element; rather, it is a composite, allowing the poet a number of variables with which to orchestrate the complex. Most immediate of the components of voice is diction. Through a chosen vocabulary, the poet sets the sonic and political boundaries of a voice. Does the speaker prefer the sophisticated Franco-precision of “baize” to name the playing field of a billiard game, or does he chose instead the colloquial and pool-hall crack of the Anglo-Saxon “felt”? Next, syntax defines a voice by indicating disposition via the kind of sentences a speaker makes. Does he prefer the no-nonsense of the simple declarative; or does he show the skepticism (or ill confidence) of successive qualifying parentheticals; or is he the withholding sort who builds periodic sentences making us wait many lines for the predicate’s conclusion?
Diction and syntax, taken together, form the complex of idiom, that unique way of meaning-making that defines any speaker like a thumbprint, like a geo-tag marking a specific space, time, and dramatic predicament. Within idiom, the poet further creates voice through choices of pacing. The speaker who prefers multiple latinate adjectives and compound sentences may be exacting but also relaxed—in no hurry to get to the next noun or next period. Moreover, the poet creating voice also has the line. By “turning the line” (as Mary Oliver prefers it to “breaking the line”), the poet can confirm or cut across syntax (or even, thinking of Creeley, across the word) to further modulate the voice (Oliver 35). Consider the headlong rush and desperation of that speaker in Creeley’s “I Know a Man” compared to the grossly emphatic speaker in Marvin Bell’s “Dead Man” poems, who declares peculiar truths at the rate of one end-stopped sentence per line.
By tracking these components, we can locate the “tuning fork” of voice in the poem. Often the tuning fork is a place of resonant idiom where the voice clearly defines itself—and around which the whole of a single poem can align in matched pitch and harmony. In this way, identifying the complex of voice may be most of what we are doing when we say that a poem “teaches us how to read it,” regardless of whether the poem claims the distinctive voice of a defined persona or is instead presenting an equally identifiable speaker (who we may usefully or errantly equate with the poet).
All that I’ve said about voice so far suggests it as primarily a means toward alignment, not a method of the turn. That is, we’re interested in the voice that carries a single poem. Louise Glück’s virtuosity with turns of voice goes further. In even her earliest work, she will finesse turns into distinct voices not just between books or between poems but within a single poem. The result is a remarkably complex music and an intricate play between characters in the dramas and politics of the poems—and an astonishing linguistic play between their idioms. And the poet? She surpasses singular character to achieve Keats’s own byword: annihilation.
Fittingly, Glück announces this virtuosity of voice in the first poem of her first book, “The Chicago Train.” With an economy that prevails through all of her lyrics, Glück immediately fits us into a tight and charged (if also nuanced and quiet) dramatic space of this poem. She accomplishes this by first announcing the location of the encounter dispassionately in the title. Then, what seems an accommodating adverbial to help further establish scene within the train (“across from me”) also establishes the drama of separation of the speaker and her fellow passengers in this small compartment. Moreover, this first line places all of the initial perception of the poem in relation to the speaker: across from me.
But as quickly the point of view shifts from immediate scene placement to the speaker’s summary perspective of “the whole ride,” and she gives slight suspense to the ride’s outcome by deferring the predicate across the first line break. Upon reaching that predicate, the mild inflection of the adverb, “hardly,” indicates a voice of precision—while also hinting at the dramatic promise that something will yet stir here. These first eight words have defined this speaker’s voice, ringing a tuning fork of balanced syntax and gentle modification (the brief introductory adverbial, the single adjective and single adverb) in a simple sentence. In many ways, there is little of note here in a voice of fairly plain style. Still, a plain style is distinctive—and deceptive if we think it to be inert. Here, plainness also signals cultural privilege, and we’re about to realize how this is the heart of the drama and emotion of this poem.
The first swift and arresting turn of voice comes mid-line after this introduction, the hint of some potential stirring immediately comes to bear with the exception of “just Mister” actually stirring. If the aspect of this adverb, “just,” aims to temper the situation, the impact of its tight fricative combines with a consonance and the intimacy of “Mister” (lifted up to the place of proper noun) to sharply tune a new, “other” voice and present a drama of voices: me and Mister across from one another. What follows is a nearly three-line run of this second voice, though this command of the space of the poem is mitigated by the fact that syntactically it’s still dependent and within the perception of the primary speaker. In addition to “Mister” addressed as someone known, “the kid” is likewise named from within, as an intimate. Even when the possessive of “his mama’s legs” reminds us of the point of view, the choice of “mama” in the kid’s own vernacular keeps us on that side of the train car. Likewise the specificity of “skull” and the nonstandard “got his head” declare a distinct voice unlike but not necessarily at odds with the speaker’s. Still, Glück insists on a sympathetic experience with this other voice, perhaps drawing it out a bit longer so that we’re sure to reside there. Intriguingly, she also builds a poem that initially segregates within tight quarters, as might two groups on an El, with that colon in line two marking the aisle.
Meanwhile, this dialectic of voices complicates. This second voice enters with an abruptness and a hissing aspect (“just Mister”) that becomes a sense of risk when that “barren / Skull” is laid out in the open. Yet that noun, “skull,” firmly inhabits the rougher (and more bodily) second voice, while the adjective, “barren,” seems to return to the register of the first (also echoing an “rr” consonance with the earlier “stirred”). We seem to be, for the moment that these two notes strike through the linebreak at line two, in both voices and both points of view. Is “barren” the speaker’s voice intervening in both diction and judgment? Or in considering that as the explanation, are we mistaking characterization with caricature and the tuning of voice with monotone such that we can’t believe that Mister or mama is capable of naming a bald head as “barren”? I’m reminded of Noam Chomsky reminding us that intelligence surfaces in every realm and in many forms. The fact that Glück places this moment of vocal ambiguity on an enjambment before returning squarely to two lines in her second voice suggests she means to heighten the tension of a speaker who may want to draw clear boundaries while we readers, hearing both as voices other than our own, encounter our assumptions about singularity of voice.
In any case, this hesitation or overlap of voices anticipates another like moment at the end of line four. Given the message of the vulnerability of the body communicated in the bare skull of one man and in a child seeking refuge in the legs of his mother, we’re likely to consider the implied threat of “The poison,” hanging off the end of the fourth line, as a continuation of that risky situation and therefore still within the poem’s second voice. But since neither the specific diction of “poison” nor any sonic echoes distinctly tie it to that voice, we reach the end of this line with some vocal ambivalence. Only when that clause continues (“The poison / That replaced air took over.”) with the kind of summary declaration reminiscent of “the whole ride / hardly stirred,” do we realize the poem has again turned to change back to the first voice, which the next clause (“And they sat”) confirms by underscoring “they” as separate from the speaker.
This short clause is followed with another broad summary—“as though paralysis preceding death / Had nailed them there”—that turns into bi-vocality, the poem using the cleaving of linebreak to at once confirm and lose its stark segregation. That initial summary engages the poem’s speaker in a distant, intellectualized depiction of the poem’s central scene, where “paralysis preceding death” is her best expression of concern. Yet this clinical regard draws our attention to how that same scene, when inflected by the second voice, is more a physical mesh of bodies at once vulnerable and loved. Crossing through the linebreak at line six, it is as if the speaker has herself confronted this disparity, and with her chosen verb, “nailed,” the suggestion of vulnerability (really a pervasive outside threat of violence) returns. As quickly as this note of the second voice interrupts the speaker she recovers, although a neutral clause completes this line (“The track bent south”), both voices quieted while all the bodies sway in one direction.
The last line makes the most unexpected turn of the poem—not neutral, neither aligning with one nor the other of the poem’s two voices. Rather, in drawing on each voice in pirouettes of turns, Glück performs a final annihilation, a move of radical sympathy that diffuses the politics of point of view without naively dismissing the debate these perspectives create. Glück finesses these turns in her verbals and verbs. The final line is the first and only explicit owning of the first person, “I saw her,” and one that at first seems to too neatly segregate subject-I from object-her. Here, too, is the dominant first voice with its diagnostic tendencies identifying the specific ailment of “lice.” But then this voice also moves very close to her fellow travelers, her fellow humans, and becomes more raw. The speaker approaches the mother’s body, seeing specifically, intimately and adopting the rough vernacular of “her pulsing crotch,” which is pulsing both with life and to the speaker’s horror, lice (themselves a threat in their violent “rooting” on the child’s body). But where this child had been off-handedly but endearingly “the kid” within the perspective of the second voice, now, in its culminating intimacy, the poem renames “that baby’s hair,” the distancing demonstrative eroding into softness. With the tour de force of this final line, we understand that finding voice in the poem—and for this poet—is no sole accomplishment but is instead an activity of greater and lesser turning into “every thing and nothing.”
American Idol. Fox Broadcasting Company. Season 12, Spring 2013.
Bell, Marvin. Book of the Dead Man. Port Angeles, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 1993.
Chomsky, Noam. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon, 2002.
Creeley, Robert. For Love: Poems 1950-1960. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1962.
Glück, Louise. “The Chicago Train.” Firstborn. 1968. In The First Four Books of Poems. New York: Ecco Press, 1995. 5.
Glück, Louise. Proofs and Theories: Essays on Poetry. New York: Ecco Press, 1994.
Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats 1814-1821. Vol. I. Ed. Hyder Edward Rollins. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958.
Neubauer, Alexander, Ed.. Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversation with America’s Poets. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.
Oliver, Mary. A Poetry Handbook. New York: Mariner Books, 1994.
The Voice. National Broadcasting Company. Season 3, Fall 2012.
Gary Hawkins writes poems; writes on Modern and contemporary poetry; and writes and presents on the scholarship of teaching and learning. This work has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, born magazine, Emily Dickinson Journal, and Teaching Creative Writing in Higher Education, among other places. He teaches in the undergraduate writing program and serves as associate dean at Warren Wilson College, an innovative liberal arts college with integrated work and service programs, where with students immersed in books and riding on tractors mean workers are everywhere. He lives with his wife, the poet Landon Godfrey, in Black Mountain, North Carolina, one of poetry’s most enviable addresses.
†As we were unable to attain reprint permissions or find a link to an accurate online version of the poem, we offer a citation in lieu of the poem itself. We encourage interested readers to consult the print version.