The Two Halves of Poetry – Craft and Voice by Eli Horan

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Elisabeth Horan is a poet, mother, and small press publisher living in the wilds of Vermont. She is the author of numerous poetry chapbooks and collections, and the Editor-In-Chief of Animal Heart Press. Elisabeth is passionate about discovering new voices and mentoring emerging poets. She is also a fierce advocate for those impacted by mental illness.

I often think of poetry in two halves… voice, and craft. You cannot be a successful poet without both, although I have seen some succeed to an extent with mostly one or the other. But to get to the big time, to be recognized and find longevity, you need both. I am sure of that. And you also need some luck.

Craft

Craft is the bones of your poems. It is the old world scratching at the base of your poem ideas. It wants you to rhyme.. It wants you to understand rhythm and meter; stanzas and odes and sonnets.

I don’t feel one must get a degree to hone and perfect their craft. For me, I needed the MFA to learn my craft, mostly because I am not good at managing my time. But all the resources one needs to practice and perfect craft are out there, in libraries, on the internet. The craft is learned from reading poetry. Every poem you can get your eyes upon, classics, contemporary, all of it, the ancient to the right damn now poems. Learn from them, parrot them, figure out what techniques you have a capacity for, and then make them into your own.

An example of this for me is rhyme. I learned about rhyme from reading a whole lot of Frost and Dickinson. I realize formal rhyme is not really “the cool thing” these days… but I think if you can learn how the masters did it, and then morph it into contemporary verse, it works out splendid. So for me, an experimental confessional poem, with slant rhyme tucked into the nooks and crannies when the reader isn’t necessarily expecting it, has served me well and using that technique gets me very excited when it goes well.

Voice

I think in many ways my poems sound like my voice – the way I talk, think, communicate with others, but also how the inside of my mind sounds. It’s the softness, or anger, the terror, the heaven which only your words can create. But for me, it has to be mine. I can write as Frida or Sylvia or Emily – but the voice must remain that of Eli, or the authenticity, the honesty of it, is lost.

person holding white book

Risk. To me this is part of the voice. How much of me – my heart, my past, my crazy brain am I willing to share? To me, trusting the reader and letting them into my world is taking risk. Trusting my reader that if they come along with me deep into the poem, I will hold their hand and they will hold mine. And if nothing else – if it becomes a terrifying free-fall, at least we will be falling together.

That je ne se quoi, which makes it yours and yours alone… when someone reads your poem and goes… oh, that’s an Eli poem. Sometimes I think it’s a combination of the voice and the risk which elicits that pow! That punch of power… I also think it can be the setting of your poem, something unexpected, a set of vocab which is super unique, using ekphrastic skill even for part of the poem… that something, that makes it stand apart and alone, all without being obvious or cliche… not at all easy to do.

It all takes practice. When I start to lose the voice, or feel the craft crumbling with un-use – I take my own best advice. I go back to the library, read the greats, read my friends, read poems on Twitter, study a new genre of poems, anything to help spark myself back into life.

With love and luck, Eli

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