Different Voices in Poetry

6732501771_3e53e04dd5_bImage by Rusty Sheriff

Who is the “I” in your poems? Writing poems with more than one character can be tough. Here Caleb Klaces helps you write a poem in three voices.

Caleb originally wrote this to inspire poems for YM: Rumours. Now we’re re-posting his fantastic workshop as a challenge – see below for submission guidelines!

If a poet writes ‘I’ in a poem, to whom are they referring? Sometimes, it might be clear that they are referring to themselves. Sometimes, they might be referring to a fictional or historical character that they have taken on the voice of. Or, the ‘I’ might not be a character exactly, but a voice that moves along the action or thought, often called a narrator or speaker.

Over the course of a poem, an ‘I’ might change, referring to several different people. The ‘I’ might not even be a person at all, but an object or an idea. If, for example, you met climate change in the street, how would it speak? How would your house speak? Your own shadow; your future self?

The Waste Land, an influential poem by TS Eliot (1888-1965), was almost titled He Do the Police in Different Voices (a quotation from a novel by Charles Dickens that refers to a child doing impersonations while reading a newspaper). Eliot was a collector of voices. In The Waste Land, he took them from all over the place, using quotations from the work of other writers (some of them in other languages) and popular songs, and giving voices to the weather, mythical characters, people he knew, and himself.

There are lots of reasons for writing in many voices. Eliot was interested in making connections between people and ideas usually separated by time and space. Mixing up the ‘I’ might allow you to say things you couldn’t otherwise say. Different voices can also be like instruments in an orchestra, adding layers of sound and tone. And the pleasure of reading a crowded poem can be like the (sometimes guilty) pleasure of sitting in a crowded train station listening in on other people’s conversations.

Here’s a way you might experiment with voices.

Poem in three voices

1. Read ‘The Little Mute Boy’ by Spanish poet Federico García Lorca (1898-1936), translated by the contemporary American WS Merwin. Read it again.

How many voices do you think there are in this poem? The way I read it, there are three. There is a narrator, who says things about the little boy, then there is the little boy himself, who the ‘I’ refers to. And then there is another voice (inside the brackets), which seems to know things that neither of the other voices do, such as where the mute boy’s voice is. When I read the poem I feel like I’m sharing a secret with this voice.

2. Imagine three voices: (1) someone who has lost something important to them – either solid, like a watch, or abstract, like a voice or a memory; (2) a narrator telling the story about the person who has lost something; and (3) someone who knows where the lost thing is hidden, and who will tell the reader in lines put in brackets.

3. Spend fifteen minutes writing as if you were the person who has lost something important. Don’t worry too much about how it sounds at the moment, but do write as clearly as possible. How do you feel about the lost thing? What does it look, smell and feel like? What will happen if you don’t get it back?

4. On a new sheet of paper, spend fifteen minutes writing as the narrator. Do the same for the person who knows the secret.

5. Read through what you have written. Underline arresting lines. On a new sheet, write out lines from your three voices, arranging them together as a poem. Think about what you want the reader to know, and when. What story are the voices telling? Which voice should have the first line and which one the last?

6. When you are satisfied, put your new poem in a drawer. After a week, take it out again. Cut out as many words as you dare.

Submitting your poems

This challenge is now closed for submissions, though you could always write a poem in response to Caleb’s workshop and send it off to one of the opportunities on our Poetry Opportunities Page. Read through these poems for inspiration!

Forgotten by Isobel Sheene

The Escaping Breath by Maria Diss

The Pearl by Anna Leader

It Seems I’ve Misplaced My Sister by Saga Ringmar

The Boat Without an Ocean by Jack Little


Caleb Klaces

Originally from Birmingham, UK, Caleb Klaces’ poetry and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in publications including Poetry, Poetry London, The Threepenny Review and Rain Taxi. He is the author of the poetry pamphlet All Safe All Well (Flarestack Poets, 2011) and editor of Likestarlings.com.

Published October, 2012

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