Aristotle used roughly 14,000 words for his Poetics. This article runs 500 words about poetics, specifically the works of Ellen Bryant Voigt ’64, whose trenchant poems earned her a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship. Mrs. Voigt could distill this entire story into a tweet.
The same way a jeweler chooses only the finest diamonds for each ring, Mrs. Voigt selects and arranges every word with “liquid precision,” as Publishers Weekly says; the bible of the book business echoes critics who, like the august Kenyon Review literary magazine, hail the 74-year-old Virginia native as the “quintessential American elegist.”
“The most important things Converse provided me were a liberal arts education and a context small enough for me to pursue it in an extremely roundabout way”
In turn, Mrs. Voigt offers “my sincere acknowledgment to Converse for its importance in my life and professional success.” Indeed, were it not for a scholarship that sent her toward music education, she might not have discovered poetry. It was at Converse where a friend introduced her to lyrical icons, Rainer Maria Rilke and E.E. Cummings.
Her most recent success: the MacArthur “genius grant,” which she won in 2015 along with 23 other creative luminaries, who received $625,000 each, no strings attached. Honorees are lauded for “pushing the boundaries of their fields and improving our world in imaginative, unexpected ways.”
As Mrs. Voigt said to a public radio station in Vermont, where she and her husband, Fran, live, music influences her writing entirely (her word). “I primarily write by my ear, I write by sound first.” “Poetry,” she said, “does its work through music.”
Likewise, her verses reflect “her restless search for the means to unite two artistic impulses: to sing and to tell stories,” The Atlantic wrote.
“The most important things Converse provided me were a liberal arts education and a context small enough for me to pursue it in an extremely roundabout way,” she says. “Like many, if not most, 16-year-olds, I didn’t know myself or the world sufficiently to make wise choices; in my case, this was additionally complicated by a life thus far de ned and absorbed in music, a willful temperament, and economic circumstances.”
As for said temperament, she describes herself nowadays as cantankerous (her word). In her eighth and latest volume, “Headwaters”, the poem, “Geese,” explains: there is no cure for temperament it’s how we recognize ourselves.
That’s just one example illustrating not only her economy of words, but her evolution toward eschewing punctuation, even capitalization—“as though she has burst in on each poem mid-thought,” as Publishers Weekly describes her constructions. But it’s clear, in her writing and in corresponding with her, that she’s rarely mid-anything, especially relentless learning. “In pretty much all of my work, and especially in “Headwaters”, I’ve been intent on trying to learn whatever it’s possible to learn about the inherent nature of humans, animals, individuals, and ‘collectives,’ whether families and neighborhoods, tribes, and colonies.”
In other words, her pen sings in words, verses, and even spaces, composing a conservatory of works, each poem a note rising from the music of her alma mater.
Written by adjunct professor, John Jeter, and originally published in The Converse Magazine.