Seeking Poetic Signature

After a couple rounds of workshop, it’s easy to tell which poem belongs to its respective poet. Even without a name or initials being printed on the page. Sometimes the telling factor is a recurring theme in imagery, a topic, or tone. I’d say that, as a group of poets, we’ve gotten to know each other’s voices really well.

Maybe it’s a result of inundating myself with great poetry [the stack of IDS books in my bedroom is getting out of hand (and that might not even be hyperbolic enough)], but I’ve been noticing how defined and developed these poet voices are. The characteristics show in a poem’s tone, structure, and syntax; some of these/we poets have a signature style that would allow me to quickly identify them even if we didn’t announce who was being workshopped on a given day. Consequently, I’ve been trying to figure out my own poetic voice. Even though I have considered myself a writer for over a decade, I’m not sure I have a signature style. For some reason, that bothers me. It creates, for me, the impression that I do not yet have a poetic identity.

So, over the course of the semester, I’ve been experimenting with different styles, voices, and forms. Workshop has inspired me to try to write in the style of X to learn whether or not certain forms or voices suit what I am doing. It’s tough, but it has taught me more about who I think I am as a writer. These experiments are so secretive for me that I don’t even put them in my Writing Exercise folder (where some of us like to peek for inspiration), because they don’t seem like me. Instead, the Writings folder on my laptop has recently become a kind of theatrical variety show, where each of these poetic voice experiments is an actor. Some of them get the hook. But some of them I’m interested in exploring, and they excite me, even when they don’t feel like my usual poems.

What does this mean, then, for the poems that don’t adhere to the style manual I seem to have set up in this and previous workshops? Is the stylistic departure worth exploring? Just how much does it matter to have an identifiable poetic voice, and how consistent must that be in order for readers to identify your poetic voice? Or should poems not adhere to a style and, in doing so, become universal?

These thoughts have been causing me internal conflict for a while now, so, please, impart some advice on this confused writer.

2 Replies to “Seeking Poetic Signature”

  1. This is a question that I think about a lot. For me, my poetic style changes so much (at least to me) that I wonder if I even have a discernible “poetic style.” I agree with you that for our class, it is pretty easy to identify certain poets’ poems, which speaks to the power of our poetic voices. But I think that there should be some room there. I think this is because we are only undergraduates, and young people, and– I assume– mostly new to poetry in some way (and I count first writing poetry in college as new.) Our voices do and will change, if we continue writing in any way. Even seasoned writers– or, any kind of artist– change their style overtime.

    Lately, I’ve been trying to be more orthodox about my writing exercises– i.e., actually following them– because it’s healthy to stretch our writing muscles. We don’t really know what we like– or what we’re even capable of– until we try it for the first time. I think this also applies to reading widely, even if a style may not seem appealing to us at first. I could definitely do a better job at this. But the point is that I think our poetic styles can and should change, just as we change and grow.

  2. This reminds me of that age-old, awful question, “Tell me about yourself,” “give 3 facts about yourself.” Biographical details are always the hardest to pin-point and identify. Just like it is hard to describe your own personality traits, it is hard to define the “personality” of your poems to.
    I, too, have thoroughly enjoyed being able to recognize my peers’ writing simply based on the images, structure, language and themes that they tend to use.
    I do believe that your poems have an identifiable quality; however, I think that it is very important to embrace your experimental poems. If we are destined to grow as people as we age, I think that our poems should be able too.

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