Teaching Voice with Poetry

By Chrissine Rios, MA, Purdue University Global Writing Center

While we work with our students toward effective sentences, they (we!) create outcomes, and one of the most important yet least considered of these is voice.  In having spoken with my colleagues and writer-friends, one suggested that the quality of voice is both elusive and immediate, but not abstract—even if not easily taught.  He suggested poetry as a way to bring attention to voice and better writing.  By including poetry in our conversations with students between drafts or in a seminar or workshop, we can highlight voice as an element of style as important as every other academic convention.  Students could learn that within academic writing too, like poetry, there is freedom.   They only need to cultivate it with their unique writer’s voice.

When teaching and tutoring writing for business, nursing, IT, and the sciences, we stress uniqueness all the time, but more so, “originality,” and our emphasis is anti-plagiarism not the cultivation of an authentic voice.  While stylistic choices of vocabulary and syntax will align writing with a category or genre—formal or informal, academic or literary—voice is what makes a piece of writing uniquely a writer’s own:

Before any thought of writing takes hold, we speak first, day to day, toward morning and our lives.  We talk and move and make ourselves within the piques and lulls as our sound gathers, resonates, and becomes meaningful.  We don’t ask ourselves that it could be either crisp and bitter or welcoming—we rely on the sound we make, our voice. (M. Callaghan, personal communication, April 14)

Voice is intrinsic in our speech and should be considered just as powerful in our writing.  Yet most mentions of voice in tutoring writing will be warnings against the passive voice, which we describe as wordy and unspecific.  For the sake of clarity, brevity, and other rhetorical reasons rooted in audience awareness, we encourage academic writers to use the active voice.  Avoid the “to be + past participle” construction, we say.  Leaving it at that, we strip the idea of voice down to a part of speech or grammatical unit.  We want so much for our students to succeed that we instruct on what not to do instead of what to do or how. 

With all the other don’ts combined—don’t write in the first or second person; don’t write fragments; don’t say “a lot”; don’t be superfluous—writing academically can feel as oppressive as low carb dieting, yet we restrict language choices for good reason, yes?  Readability is paramount:  Writing needs to be clear, accurate, and concise, so a reader can read it.

Yet you know as I do that readers seek mountains more from reading than readability.  Good writing does not equate easy reading.  Along with economical language, we should be encouraging students to make language choices that reflect their authentic voices.  We wouldn’t have to abandon the tenet of readability to do so.  According to writing teacher and author, Donald Murray (2003), “Voice is the magical heard quality in writing” that makes readers keep reading and then read the same author again (p. 195).  Readability is about voice. Instead of verbal dieting, or in addition to it, perhaps, let’s help students to hear language and savor it like every word matters in the same way that it matters in poetry.

Reading poetry is a tangible yet intimate and joyful way to connect with language and fall in love with it or at least hear how language reflects voice.  April, 2016 is the 20th Anniversary of National Poetry Month, so now is the perfect time to read and (re)connect with poetryresources are plentiful. I encourage you to explore and enjoy and invite your students to do the same. I will as well in the Writing Center.  Let’s help our students learn to love writing and reading by connecting them with great examples and inspirational voices in poetry.


Poetry Foundation

Academy of American Poets (Poetry.org)

How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry by Edward Hirsch (1999)


Why People Need Poetry a Ted Talk by Poetry Critic Stephen Burt

Reading by Norman Dubie of “Fever” and other selected poems


Poetry” by Marianne Moore

A Blessing” by James Wright

“The Avenues” by David St. John (Podcast)

“Winter Stars” by Larry Levis


Callaghan, M. (2005). Epigram. The grace of the eye. Traverse City: Michigan  

Writers Cooperative Press

Murray, D. M. (2013). The craft of revision, fifth anniversary

edition. [Kindle version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com

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1 Response

  1. I loved writing on voice for this blog and bringing poetry into the conversation. We do not visit poetry often enough in the Academic Support Center, but just as playing music from time to time makes everyone raise their ears to the sound, poetry could do much to awaken our listening in how we use language. Already since beginning the drafting of this blog post, I’m reading aloud with students during tutoring sessions, bringing the sense of sound into the writing process and considerations for revision and editing. I think I need to follow this blog post up with a writing workshop on the same topic.

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