Ted Mathys

There is a well-worn creative writing cliché that a writer must “find” her voice. The Internet drips with advice for the aspiring writer looking to do this, some of it reading like self-help lit for those trying to professionalize. In a blog post titled “Find Your Poetic Voice” on the Writer’s Digest website, for example, Laurie Zupan writes: "I realized that what I didn’t have was a clear, working definition of poetic voice. So I set out to find one—with the goal of honing my voice and the hope that...I’d land myself in a graduate program." Books on poetic craft also traffic in this language. W.W. Norton lures beginning writers to Kim Addonizio’s Ordinary Genius: A Guide for the Poet Within with the promise that "chapters on gender, addiction, race and class, metaphor and line invite each individual writer to find and to hone his or her unique voice." This idea even passes the Dead Poets Society test: in the crucial scene in which Keating first invites the boys to stand on his desk and then jump off to see the world differently, he barks at them, “Boys, you must strive to find your own voice! Because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all.”

Maybe this cliché is a by-product of the institutionalization of creative writing. Or maybe it springs from the ample well of American self-absorption. But it also provides a crucial backdrop against which to read contemporary poems, because the cliché recalls and reinscribes the Romantic idea that the lyric voice of the speaker is intimately tied to the author’s own perspective. If there seems to be distance between the authentic self and the vocalized or written self, it is only by closing this distance—by “finding” one’s voice and leading it back home—that the poet can fully tap into her potential.

In To Anacreon in Heaven and Other Poems, Graham Foust doesn’t find his voice; he totally loses it. The voice in these epistolary poems trills and wanders farther and farther away from the writer, addressing dead Greek poets, the muse, the reader, and the self, until a dizzying reflexivity takes over and, as Foust puts it, “My voice goes and loses me.” Anacreon pushes the epistolary mode to its breaking point. The result is a collection that offers an original and superbly slippery model of poetic address.

Foust is preoccupied with the mouth as a lyric instrument that possesses a scary sort of agency. The voice is, in turn, its disembodied sidekick. The mouth and the voice taunt writer, “speaker,” and presumed audience alike. In “To Graham Foust on the Morning of His Fortieth Birthday,” for example, the voice addresses the poet directly: “Who between the two of us deserves to be cursed with having only to do nothing or good? / Allow me to pull that mouth off.” Most epistolary poems have a rhetorical skeleton that can be sussed out with the question, “Who is saying what to whom and from what distance?” With Foust’s poems, though, I find this question nearly impossible to answer adequately. These are not traditional persona poems in which the voice is identifiably thrown, in the way that, say, Evie Shockley ventriloquizes Frederick Douglass in "from The Lost Letters of Frederick Douglass." Nor are they stylized epistles that perform intimate conversation in the presence of a reader, like T.S. Eliot’s poem to his wife, which begins “These are private words addressed to you in public.” Instead, Foust writes poems that address a second-person you, but his recipients are ciphers for the act of poetic utterance itself. In "Ten Notes to the Muse," for example, the speaker gets stuck in an echo chamber with the muse. Foust’s muse seems to be no more than an embodiment of the poet’s inspiration to speak, an externalization of lyric desire, which is to say that the speaker is speaking to speaking. This muse is part prankster and part superego, prodding the poet to elevate the quotidian through a kind of hyper self-surveillance: “I flicked a wasp from my juice glass – you said to write it down.” As these notes to the muse cumulate, the subject and object collapse into each other:

Thanks to me we’re lost in unison.

Thanks to you I can move without meaning to.

If I could I’d sing everything you sing to me to you.

This mode of address is maintained by the poems’ strict reliance on sentences rather than verse lines or lengthier units of prose. Foust exploits the sentence’s capacity to accommodate the one-liner (“There’s nothing sexier than a wounded supermodel leaning on a cane.”) and the aphorism (“I sing as if I’m eating what I’m singing from a knife.”). Letters are written in sentences, of course, but Foust’s sentences mirror his larger feedback loops largely through their formal qualities. In lineated poems, where a sentence often breaks over numerous lines, the poem can generate energy in the interactions between line, syntax, and grammar. But Foust delivers sentences in toto and one at a time, and the reader finds energy in the natural propulsion toward a formal terminus (the period) and toward a recipient (as in the notes to the muse). The poems’ radical use of contractions and syntactical rearrangement, however, slows the sentences down, twists them into pretzels, and enhances Foust’s closed circuit of voice and self: “Wherever I am’s another place on the world from which whoever I could’ve been’s been banished.”

The poems in Anacreon do not travel unidirectional vectors from the poet’s interior life to identifiable external recipients, but neither does their self-reference resolve neatly into Narcissus leaning over the pond, about to go splash. Instead, we encounter a poet singing into the void (of creativity, of self, of other, of history) and follow the voice as it wavers and curves along a boomerang flight pattern, returning to him and to us, made strange: “In the rhythm of these things, I have to stop without saying, remember songs I would’ve had to’ve been said to sing.” The book reminds me of the passage in A Defense of Poetry where Shelley compares the poet to a nightingale and the poet’s readers to people who listen to the bird from afar. The nightingale, Shelley writes, “sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why.” Foust’s poems, like the nightingale’s song, are ultimately addressed to a hologram of the self, but as they travel his readers overhear. So for all of its performance on the page of something called “Graham Foust,” the book ultimately participates in a poetic tradition that sees self-annihilation as a route to lyric song: “They’re lowering me into me. / This is where I came in.”

Finally, there’s Anacreon. The title poem, which concludes the book, is a 54-page epistolary romp to this ancient Greek poet. But it’s more importantly an address to the lyric tradition in America. Because of Anacreon’s legendary skill at performing drinking songs, an eighteenth-century gentlemen’s club of amateur musicians in London named their group after him. The Anacreontic Society wrote a theme song praising him, called “To Anacreon in Heaven.” Society meetings featured concerts, puppet shows, and a lengthy supper, after which members, probably good and tanked, sang the theme song. In subsequent years, several other writers adopted the Society’s tune and set their own lyrics to it. One of these writers was Francis Scott Key, who wrote his patriotic poem “In Defense of Fort Henry” with the tune in mind. The combination of Key’s lyrics and the tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven” became “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Foust’s poem gestures toward the incredible fact that our national anthem is a drinking song in praise of poetry that has been warped beyond recognition and is now sung by military officers at football games with jets booming overhead. “To Anacreon in Heaven” investigates the resilience of song in the context of an ever-morphing American language bloviated with media chatter and instrumental speech. Sometimes the poet answers absurdity with absurdity, dealing zingers like “Oh say it’s just before brunch in America” and “Good call on the famine.” But more often we find him tying and untying linguistic slipknots: “It’s that time again, time for someone – in this case, you – to hear a poem in which the speaker – in this case, me – makes use of phrases like ‘It’s that time again’ or ‘This is a test’ or ‘This just in.’” Foust yokes together the various language impairments of poetry, nightly news, and emergency broadcast tests, and he dwells in false signification and representational deformities. To Anacreon in Heaven neither pretends to resolve these deformities nor fully yields to them. Rather, Foust has returned to Anacreon, to the poet as singer and poetry as song, and has written an anthem to the voice freed from the self:

My words aren’t half misguided if they’re music to my teeth.

They’re parts of thought like any others, draped in leisure.

I drag the poem through a heart that would explode in its own image. 


Ted Mathys is the author of three books of poetry, Null Set (2015), The Spoils (2009), and Forge (2005), all from Coffee House Press. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and has received fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, New York Foundation for the Arts, and Poetry Society of America. He lives in Saint Louis, teaches at Saint Louis University, and co-curates the Fort Gondo Compound for the Arts Poetry Series.

To Anacreon in Heaven and Other Poems
by Graham Foust
Flood Editions, 2013
$15.95 paperback; ISBN: 978-0-9838893-5-9
128 pages