Issue 71 |
Winter 1996-97

About Ellen Bryant Voigt: A Profile

When asked about her poetic influences, Ellen Bryant Voigt's answer is somewhat surprising, but delivered with typical certitude. "Bach and, later, Brahms." It was the pure forms of music from which she started; poetry was, as she tells it, a sort of accident, something she happened on to late in her undergraduate career at Converse College, where she was initially a music major.

Born in 1943, she grew up on a farm in south-central Virginia, in a culture she describes as now completely vanished. She played the piano everywhere as a girl -- at church, in school, and for her father's barbershop quartet. Her Southern Baptist family was large, extended, and close-knit; all of her cousins lived near enough to come to Sunday dinner, and summertime meant no fewer than three family reunions. Despite her evident participation in that world, Voigt says she found being so surrounded by family "extremely claustrophobic." The great thing about music, she says, was that "it was an accepted form of solitude," and perhaps it is in that detail we can see the life of poetry predicted. "As long as music was coming from that piano, nobody bothered you."

She attended the all-women's Converse College in South Carolina because it included a music conservatory. It was there she fell under the spell of literature, gradually taking more poetry and fewer music classes. Her professors, disciples of New Criticism, presented poetry as an art form transcending context, released from the "merely" personal. At the time, that suited Voigt.

That urge towards the purity of music, language for its own sake, is audible in all of her poetic work. Voigt, even in this epoch of the meditative narrative, unashamedly owns herself as a lyric poet, and any of her readers knows the value she places on tautness and compression. Her particular specialty is the phrase which indelibly combines austerity of mind and sonic richness. But as Yeats said, out of the quarrels with ourselves, we make poetry. And that dialectic, between the sheer spirituality available in music and the more circumstantially bound facts of life, between the beautiful phrase and the bloody body, runs throughout her work. Eventually, she says, "I needed a poetry that could accommodate the soul in the messy world of PTA meetings and sick children." Her first book,
Claiming Kin, is filled with the dense imagery of rural life, snakes and cornfields, decapitated hens and flowering vines, the fertile fallen world. And in one of her many poems about music, "At the Piano," Voigt describes a girl practicing, "driving triplets against the duple meter": "She knows nothing, but Bach knows everything. / Outside, in the vast, disordered world, / the calves have been taken from their mothers; / both groups bawled and hooted all night long -- " Those two chords of experience -- transcendent pleasure and earthly suffering -- are what Voigt has constantly sought to incorporate into
her music.

The journey away from the world of her family took her far afield, and also provided her a ringside seat at several singular chapters of American culture. One such experience was being a member of the Iowa Writer's Workshop. She recalls being one of only three women in a class of sixty, the whole group meeting in a Quonset hut on the University of Iowa campus. She remembers having just one poem workshopped that year, though her classmate Stephen Dobyns claims she may have had as many as three.

After a teaching stint at Iowa Wesleyan College, her next stop was the revolutionary Goddard College, then in the full fever of the Aquarian Age. The opening day festivities at that campus in 1969 included sliding, nude, down a mud slope created by the college fire truck.

It is hard to imagine, as she tells these stories with fondness and bemusement, that Voigt has ever
not had an unusually clear sense of who she is, and both feet solidly planted on the ground. In her home base of Cabot, Vermont, a town which she says remarkably resembles the town of her Virginia childhood, she has raised a family, stayed married, and, in a moment which has had great significance for American poetry, founded the Goddard M.F.A. creative writing program: six-month tutorial semesters in poetry and fiction, initiated by a two-week residency.

That program, of course, became the model for other "low-residence" writing programs at Bennington and Vermont College, and was eventually reincarnated, in 1981, at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. The point, as Voigt explains it, was not "community," a term she is still suspicious of, but
access for talented writers, particularly women, who had little opportunity to attend conventional graduate schools or were not served well by them.

Despite Voigt's suspicions of institutional communities -- it is notable that she is not a tenured member of any conventional college or university -- she seems to have created one. The list of early Goddard M.F.A. faculty is a roster of young powerhouses, including Robert Hass, Michael Ryan, Tobias Wolff, Louise Gl├╝ck, and Richard Ford. And both faculty and students speak of the program with nothing less than reverence and a sense of their own good fortune.

Of Voigt herself, the two adjectives most commonly employed by others are apparent contradictions: "fierce" and "motherly." Just mention Voigt's name to graduates, and their eyes get filmy; she is famous not only for knowing every student's name, but for possessing an apparently encyclopedic memory of their work, being able to discuss it at a moment's notice. This summer, at the program's twentieth-anniversary celebration in Swannanoa, North Carolina, colleague Heather McHugh dubbed her "the alloy of silk and steel."

Where the steel comes into play is in her tireless ability to administer, guide, and preside over the complex workings of the program as chair of its academic board, and to help make the highly intense residencies flow with purpose and balance. And in workshops, her rigorous standards for poetry are a daunting, incisive reminder of how much craft and knowledge are required before the word "art" can be uttered. At Warren Wilson residencies, publication is not a dirty word, exactly -- just an irrelevant one, belonging to the "outside" world.

In the outside world, Voigt has published five books of her own poems, won NEAs and Guggenheims, and taught, it seems, at every writers' conference in the country. Her most recent collection,
Kyrie, was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and her second,
The Forces of Plenty, has just been reissued from Carnegie-Mellon.

Art and life, community and privacy, immense practicality and the growth of the soul -- to meet Voigt is to recognize that you are meeting a person of remarkable integration, and to be heartened by the possibility. As this issue of
Ploughshares was going to press, she was en route to a house in southern France for several weeks (a gift from Warren Wilson alumni), to do nothing but read, write, and walk around. It seemed only fair that she should have her turn at the experience she has fostered for so many -- that moment when the writer turns his or her back on the world and begins to play, like the girl in the poem "At the Piano": "she pushes off in her wooden boat -- / she knows nothing, she thinks / no one could be happier than this."

Tony Hoagland currently teaches at New Mexico State University and at Warren Wilson College. His second collection of poems, Donkey Gospel,
will be published by Graywolf Press in 1997.