Voigt, Ellen Bryant
VOIGT, Ellen Bryant
Nationality: American. Born: Danville, Virginia, 9 May 1943. Education: Converse College, Spartanburg, South Carolina, B.A. 1964; University of Iowa, Iowa City, M.F.A. 1966. Family: Married Francis George Wilhelm Voigt in 1965; one daughter and one son. Career: Technical writer, College Pharmacy, University of Iowa, 1965–66; assistant professor of literature and writing, Iowa Wesleyan College, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, 1966–69; teacher of literature and writing, 1970–79, and director of writing program, 1976–79, Goddard College, Plainfield, Vermont; associate professor of creative writing, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, 1979–82. Since 1981 faculty member, M.F.A. program for writers, Warren Wilson College, Swannanoa, North Carolina. Visiting writer, Newcombe College, Tulane University, 1996, Virginia Commonwealth University, 1996–97, and University of Cincinnati, 1997. Faculty member, Aspen Writers' Conference, Breadloaf Writers' Conference, Indiana Writers' Conference, Napa Valley Writers' Conference, and Rope-walk Writers' Conference. Advisory editor, Arion's Dolphin, 1971–75. Also professional pianist. Awards: Vermont Council on the Arts grant, 1974–75; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1976–77; Guggenheim fellowship, 1978–79; Alice Fay Di Castagnola award, Poetry Society of America, 1983; Sara Teasdale award, Wellesley College, 1986; Gretchen Warren Poetry award, New England Poetry Society, 1986; Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest award, 1999–2002; Vermont State poet, 1999–2003. Address: P.O. Box 128, Marshfield, Vermont 05658, U.S.A.
Claiming Kin. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1976.
The Forces of Plenty. New York, Norton, 1983.
The Lotus Flowers. New York. Norton. 1987.
Two Trees. New York, Norton, 1992.
Kyrie. New York, Norton, 1995.
The Flexible Lyric. Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1999.
Manuscript Collection: Middlebury College, Middlebury, Vermont.
Critical Studies: "Pain and Plenitude: First and Second Books by Maria Flook and Ellen Bryant Voigt" by Carolyne Wright, in Literary Review (Madison, New Jersey), 30(1), fall 1986; "Air and Earth: Recent Books by Jorie Graham and Ellen Bryant Voigt" by James Ulmer, in Black Warrior Review (Tuscaloosa, Alabama), 15(2), spring 1989; "Four Salvers Salvaging: New Work by Voigt, Olds, Dove, and McHugh" by Peter Harris, in Virginia Quarterly Review (Charlottesville, Virginia), 64(2), spring 1988; "The Free Verse Line" by Jonathan Holden, in The Line in Postmodern Poetry, edited by Robert Joseph Frank and Henry M. Sayre, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1988; "Speculations on a Southern Snipe" by Dave Smith, in The Future of Southern Letters, edited by Jefferson Humphries and John Lowe, New York, Oxford University Press, 1996; by Ernest Suarez, in Five Points (Atlanta, Georgia), 3(1), fall 1998.* * *
Ellen Bryant Voigt's poems concern themselves with separation and connection. She is a careful observer of both nature and human behavior, and her vision is clear and compassionate at the same time.
Her first book, Claiming Kin, seeks parallels everywhere between human life and nature. It is nature, for example, that gives us a model for hope. Perhaps we, like the snake, may "rise up in new skins /a full confusion of green …"("Snakeskin"). On the other hand, nature's more ominous lessons are acknowledged as well. The black widow spider, for example, ties sensuality and fertility to death. Voigt's nature poems complement the poems in which she attempts to claim and come to terms with her human kin. Many of her poems concern the family, which she characterizes as "the circle of fire." In the long poem "Sister" the speaker returns to her family to deal with her mother's illness and finds herself reexamining the tangle of feelings that comprise her relationship with her sister:
When we were little
I used to wish you dead;
then hold my breath and sweat
to hear yours
release, intake, relax into sleep.
In The Forces of Plenty, her second volume, Voigt examines many of the same themes, but whereas her writing has become more confident, her stance has, perhaps wisely, become less so. She moves away from the exuberant lushness of Claiming Kin, with its "… thick pythons, /slack and drowsy, who droop down /like untied sashes /from the trees" ("Tropics") and its emphasis on what joins, to look more closely at what separates. Ironically, as the speaker remarks in "January," it is our very ability to reflect on nature that separates us from it:
If I think I am apart from this, I am a fool.
And if I think the black engine of the stove
can raise in me the same luminous waking,
I am still a fool,
since I am the one who keeps the fire.
A sense of mortality pervades the book, which includes several elegies, making life and happiness more precious and more fragile. In "Year's End" two parents' relief at their own child's recovery from illness is tempered by the knowledge that a friend's child has just died, and they listen to their own child's breath "like refugees who listen to the sea, /unable to fully rejoice, or fully grieve."
The Lotus Flowers incorporates and finds salvation in some of the hard truths first observed in The Forces of Plenty. In "The Farmer," for example, a man stung by a swarm of bees is saved by "… the years of smaller doses— /like minor disappointments, /instructive poison, something he could use." These poems, however, are even more deeply rooted in personal experience and in Voigt's rural southern background. There is a tinge of melancholy about the past, a lament for the loss of innocence, as in "Nightshade," in which the daughter cannot forgive her father for accidentally poisoning the dog and says that "without pure evil in the world, /there was no east or west, no polestar /and no ratifying dove …" In its concern with place and pattern, the title poem is a culmination of this book's themes. The shape made by the girls on their pallets—"spokes in a wheel"—echoes the shapes of the constellations they study, and the stars in these constellations mirror the lotus flowers, now "folded /into candles," through which the girls had earlier rowed. In this poem the opposition between nature and humanity, innocence and knowledge, individual and community seems temporarily resolved.
The resolution shifts, however, in Two Trees, the most austere and foreboding of Voigt's books. Although, like her previous volumes, it contains poems of family and nature, it is most concerned with the spiritual aspects of the subjects, and music and myth provide its major subjects and metaphors. The emphasis here is on what separates—the music that "keeps the girl apart /as she prefers …" ("Variations: At the Piano") or "beauty that divides us" ("First Song")—and on the loss of innocence. The title poem retells the expulsion from paradise and the eternal longing that results: "while the mind cried out /for that addictive tree it had tasted, /and for that other crown still visible over the wall." A sense of resignation pervades the book. What makes us human is not an ability to control our fate but our need to struggle and reach out to one another: "The one who can sings to the one who can't /who waits in the pit, like Procne among the slaves, /as the gods decide how all such stories end…" ("Song and Story"). Her innovative adaptation of musical variations, in which three sets of poems called "variations" expand aspects of a titled poem, skillfully merges theme and technique and makes of this collection a haunting whole.
Voigt's style has grown more flexible with each book in order to accommodate her increasingly complex vision. Her subjects range from the intimacies of daily life to the exploration of our place in the universe. She is a poet who dares to say that "nothing is learned /by turning away …." ("Talking the Fire Out" from The Forces ofPlenty).