there is no cure for temperament it’s how
we recognize ourselves but sometimes within it
a narrowing imprisons or is opened such as when my mother
in her last illness snarled and spat and how this lifted my dour father
into a patient tenderness thereby astounding everyone
but mostly it hardens who we always were

if you’ve been let’s say a glass-half-empty kind of girl
you wake to the chorus of geese overhead forlorn that something
has softened their nasal voices their ugly aggression
on the ground they’re worse than chickens
but flying one leader falling back another moving up to pierce the wind
no one in charge or every one in charge in flight each limited goose
adjusts its part in the cluster just under the clouds
do they mean together to duplicate the cloud
like the pelicans on the pond rearranging their shadows
to fool the fish another collective that constantly recalibrates but fish
don’t need to reinvent themselves the way geese do
when they negotiate the sky
on the fixed

unyielding ground there is no end to hierarchy
the flock the pack the family you know it’s true if you’re
a take-charge kind of girl I recommend
house plants in the windows facing south
the cacti the cyclamen are blooming on the brink
of winter all it took was a little enforced deprivation
a little premature and structured dark



First published in Granta and Reprinted from Headwaters: Poems by Ellen Bryant Voigt. Copyright © 2013 by Ellen Bryant Voigt. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. Author Photo Attribution: CC- BY. Purchase Headwaters at the online booksellers: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo (ebook only).






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Ellen Bryant Voigt_Attribution CC- BY_11-9-15Ellen Bryant Voigt has published eight volumes of poetry, most recently Messenger: New and Selected Poems (2007) and Headwaters (2013). She also co-edited an anthology of essays, Poets Teaching Poets: Self and the World and published her own essays on craft in The Flexible Lyric (1999) and The Art of Syntax: Rhythm of Thought, Rhythm of Song (2009). Her collections have been finalists for the National Book Crit­ics’ Circle Award, the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and she has received recognition from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Academy of American Poets, the National Endowment of the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund, the Fellowship of Southern Writers and Pushcart. A former Vermont State Poet and Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, she lives in Cabot, Vermont and is a 2015 MacArthur Fellow.


Part 2: Tone in “Geese”

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor


Last week’s column discussed syntax and its relationship to the lack of punctuation in “Geese.” This week I focus on tone: why it’s important in poetry, how it’s established, and how it can help resolve questions of meaning.

 Ellen Bryant Voigt on Tone:

 In her interviews and essays, Voigt identifies clarity as “a first principle, as a life’s goal” telling of her discovery that clarity in poetry “had to do with tone, with a clarity of purpose and inference more than with the discursive prose elements” [“On Tone” in The Flexible Lyric, p. 74, 77]. In speech, tone is “the emotional content” independent of the words spoken and is communicated primarily through inflection, “what we hear behind the closed door.” [Id. at p. 78] In a poem, tone is the emotional content independent of the elements that merely relay information, argue, or reason. Whether in speech or poetry, tone depends upon context. By way of example, Voigt offers the phrase “Nice weather we’re having” said on a sunny day versus on a stormy day. Many things in poetry can convey tone; for example, form (think of the difference between elegy and limerick); diction (think of the difference between a “women” versus a “vixen”); and imagery (think of Eliot’s objective correlative), but a more clear and reliable communicator, Voigt says, is the poem’s music. “I have come to believe that the best poems, even discursive poems of narrative or argument, build tone primarily through sound.” [Id. at 89.] Finally, tone is also the most reliable way to ascertain a poem’s intent. “No matter how many meanings a poem may give rise to,” Voigt says, “its central meaning, or purpose, or identity derives from its ‘tone.’” [Id. at 79.]

Tone in “Geese”

The tone here is complex, by turns anguished, stern, resolved, blunt, precise, and ironic. Overall it is dark but not despairing, with zero self-pity or melodrama. It is a tone that sees us all—vegetable, animal, human—doomed by our temperaments and humanity as hierarchical and aggressive. This dark view is mitigated by the consolation of beauty (bloom, the sight and sound of geese in flight, and a father’s astoundingly large response to his wife’s suffering). I would also call the tone stoic and determined, that of a speaker who’s suffered but is damned if they’ll paper it over or let the suffering win.

How Tone is Established in “Geese”


Two images dominate the poem: one of the geese in flight, and another of cyclamen and cacti blooming out of season. The beauty of each image is undermined by its context: the lovely shifting pattern made by the geese when they fly, exactly balanced by their “ugly aggression” on the ground and the exuberance of flowers “blooming on the brink” undercut by a description of the deprivation necessary to force bloom. More will be said about these “mixed message” images below.


“Temperament,” “spat,” and “dour” are examples of somewhat old-fashioned, formal, even genteel words characteristic of an older, educated speaker, but also so multi-faceted in meaning that they contribute precision to what is being said. “Temperament” has secondary and tertiary meanings that describe the process by which glass and chocolate are rendered more supple (less apt to shatter) and also the process which tunes a piano so that it can be played in all keys. As we will see below, the word “girl” (as opposed to say, person or woman) is used to a very precise effect, as are the words “all it took” (line 25) and the repetition of “a little” (ll.25-6). Simple diction (of 231 total words, 178 or nearly three-fourths are monosyllabic) supports the severity and steeliness of tone.

Syntax and absence of punctuation

Except for one potential question (“do they mean together to duplicate the cloud”), sentences or fragments are declarative, one source of the tone’s strength and determination. Absence of pauses and end stops lends force and vigor to free the propulsive power of syntax and convey the sense of rushing water forced through a narrow channel—a cataract. Rejection of punctuation can also be read as a struggle against the hierarchy of grammar and syntax.

Repetitions of Sound

A remarkable aspect of “Geese” is the great number of repetitions of sound. Alliteration happens in stanzas one (my mother, snarled and spat, we always were), two (something/ has softened, flying one leader falling, cluster of clouds, pelicans on the pond, fool the fish, collective that constantly recalibrates) and three (“blooming on the brink”). Assonance is even more common. I counted at least 66 nasals (vowel plus “n” sounds) mimicking the honking of geese, with almost the same incidence of sibilant “s” sounds. One is the title word, “Geese,” whose slant rhymes track down the page through all three stanzas:

Stanza One


Stanza Two

glass/chorus/geese/has/nasal/voices/aggression/worse/pierce/goose/adjusts/its/cluster/just/ shadows/recalibrates/geese/fixed/is

Stanza Three


A special species of assonance—slant rhymes—also recur, both proximate (dour/father, mother/father, this/lifted, illness/tenderness, adjusts/cluster, fish/fixed, flock/pack, ground/end/kind), and also more distant across lines (as in “snarl” in line 4 and “girl” in lines 7 and 22). Occasionally the rhymes are full like in “do they mean together to duplicate” in line 14. Repeated words (geese, girl, fish) and phrases (“one in charge,” “kind of girl,” and “a little”) contribute to saturation of the sound pool. Syntactical repetition takes the form of parallel phrasing (“my mother/ my . . . father,” “no one in charge/everyone in charge,” and “flying/falling back/moving”). There is even rhetorical repetition—the strategy of making a broad statement then supporting it with an example occurs in all three stanzas. Meter, mostly iambic with about a third of the lines having feminine line endings, mimics the currents and eddies of everyday speech.

Using tone to determine meaning in “Geese”

In the first stanza, the speaker informs us “there is no cure for temperament,” but sometimes in response to extreme stimuli, temperament can “narrow” and “imprison” or instead “open” and “lift” into something more positive. How can temperament “narrow” or “open”? One answer lies in that word “temperament.” If something like glass or a piano can be tempered, then why not personality? In any event, the speaker provides two examples of what she means.

The first is a narrowing of what happened when her mother “in her last illness snarled and spat.” Note how those alliterative s’s enact a hissing sound mimetic of the bestiality of this unsettling image. The word “imprisons” adds sympathy to the speaker’s (and our) attitude towards the mother. The poem says nothing about the mother’s temperament before the illness, but it’s not hard to imagine traits that could be warped by suffering into enraged frustration; competent, energetic, outgoing temperaments, for example, tend not to go quietly into that last good night. Paradoxically, it is the narrowing of the mother’s temperament that “opens” the father’s into a “patient tenderness.” Aside from the fact that everyone found this “astounding,” the poem offers no clues about the father’s prior temperament, but could not qualities like endurance (or its less attractive siblings, stubbornness and meekness) “open” up into patience and tenderness?

Stanza two begins with a continuing past conditional, “If you’ve been a glass-half-empty kind of girl” and near the end of the stanza repeats this syntactic construction, this time in present conditional, “if you’re / a take-charge kind of girl . . .” What do these lines mean? To begin with, I assume the speaker is both talking about herself, using what is sometimes called the “first person you,” and also addressing a “you,” possibly the reader. Use of the word “girl,” a patronizing diminutive spoken by a mother to a daughter, makes me wonder if the speaker might have heard these phrases spoken to her when she was a child. If you’ve ever been accused of having a “glass-half-empty” temperament (God knows I have), you know how those words sting, implying ingratitude and a choice about whether to see the world as positive or negative, so that one is somehow to blame for one’s own sadness. Repeated by the speaker now, as an adult, the “half-empty-girl” phrase acquires a tone of irony. Continuing past conditional means the speaker is remembering a habitual action or condition from her past, that she in fact was (or was called) a “glass-empty kind of girl,” a child made forlorn by things others might find pleasing. The phrase’s present conditional parallel partner, “If you’re / a take-charge kind of girl” in contrast, is pure supposition. Was (Is) this speaker a “take-charge girl”? The line break between “you’re” and “a” suggests not, and I wonder if perhaps it was the mother who was a take-charge person who admonished her daughter to be one as well.

After establishing the notion of a glass-half-empty temperament and then giving an example of it in the girl made forlorn by the sound of geese overhead, stanza two branches out into an elaborate series of subordinate clauses describing how geese, hierarchical on the ground, transform in flight into a cooperative collective with “no one in charge [and] everyone in charge” (lines 9-12). The next few lines compare this transformation to that of other animal collectives (pelicans and fish) and then extend the idea to land animals and humans: on the ground “there is no end to hierarchy/the flock the pack the family” (20-21). This series, (with commas, “the flock, the pack, the family)” creates identity among its terms. Grouped with “flock” (connotations of “ugly aggression”) and “pack” (connotations of wild dogs or of wolves), “family” takes on a darker tone.

Stanza two’s ending “if you’re / a take-charge kind of girl I recommend,” wrenches subject from predicate. That break creates the impression that what is said next is not said easily and contributes to the anguish I feel in the poem’s last stanza:

house plants in the windows facing south
the cacti the cyclamen are blooming on the brink
of winter all it took was a little enforced deprivation
a little premature and structured dark

Another source of anguish, a form of pathetic fallacy (some might call it objective correlative), locates pity and horror in the image of the flowers. The most positive expression of their blooming comes in the alliterative “blooming on the brink,” by itself expressive of glorious life force. In the context of what follows, though, those plosives communicate a huge expenditure of effort. Bulbs that are forced afterwards are what my mother used to call “shot,” spent and good only for compost.

The last stanza of the poem (lines 23-26) lays out the speaker’s prescription for pessimists who want to do something about their temperaments, and the irony I detected intimated in the “glass-half-empty” and “take-charge” girls, becomes more pronounced. How is this accomplished? First, look at the very last line, the chilling “a little premature and structured dark,” words that that sound like a form of deprivation torture. “Dark” is bad enough, but when it comes prematurely, it is tragic. And a dark that is both premature and structured sounds monstrous. These lines literally raised the hair on the back of my neck and did it at least partly by sound.

of winter all it took was a little enforced deprivation
a little premature and structured dark.

That run of short e sounds (enforced, deprivation/premature)—eh eh eh—sounds like a bitter laugh. Consonant “k” (or hard “c”) sounds assert themselves in “took, structured, and dark,” along with another run of sounds, a vowel before an “r” in enforced, premature, structured; depending upon your regional inflection those last two –r constructions fully rhyme. Something sharp and harsh is conveyed by these hard c and –r constructions, reinforced by a chiasmus-like construction that occurs in both “premature” and “structured”: r_  _ _tur. Somehow, perhaps because of the suggestion of other words holding this pattern—torture and rupture—these words convey horror. And who can read that last line without thinking of death, a thing that always comes too soon (is premature) and always comes (is structured)?

Against this grim backdrop, words like “All it took” and “a little” (repeated) are hyperbolic understatements that create irony, like the old joke about having “a little cancer.” In a lecture (“Double Double”) I attended at Warren Wilson in January 2009, Voigt distinguished between dramatic and literary irony, defining the latter as an incongruity or discordance between what one says and what one means or what is understood by the reader. So it is here: words say one thing—it did not take much—and mean another—what it took was in fact something very dark and terrible.

The past tense of “All it took” is important because of the way it does not quite match the tense of the whole force bloom “recommendation.” A recommendation sounds like this: I recommend plants in the windows facing south; all it takes (or will take) to accomplish this is X. In the poem, we’ve moved out of supposition and into something—“all it took”—that actually happened. What I’m suggesting is that either the speaker saw those bulbs forced when she was a child or that (maybe taking a page from her mother) she has already forced those bulbs and is looking at them, “blooming” now. A glass-half-empty girl might feel pity for the bulbs; I do, when I read these lines. Another possibility is that the forced plant image is a metaphor for the speaker herself, made to endure deprivations and disciplines that bring on bloom but also leave her exhausted and spent.

The image of the flowers in bloom is decidedly mixed, glorious on the one hand (“blooming on the brink”) and the product of an unnatural, even cruel procedure on the other. In the same lecture I mentioned above, Voigt identified a third (besides dramatic and literary) species of irony, what she called “empirical irony,” whose “crucial agency is paradox,” present in metaphors that show unexpected alliances and embody many (often contradictory) meanings. Like all irony, empirical irony means not to conceal but to reveal, and what it reveals here is tension, intensity and powerful depth and complexity of feeling. Hope comes in the form of limited consolations: deprivation can yield beauty, watching a loved one suffer can give rise to expansive emotions of patience and tenderness. Nasty, squabbling geese can take flight and create shifting patterns that dissolve hierarchy and mirror clouds. These cautious expressions of positivity temper the voice and keep it from tipping into bitterness, contributing to an overall tone that is richly complex, human, authentic, and deeply moving.



Paradise Drive book coverRebecca Foust’s fifth book, “Paradise Drive,” won the 2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry and was reviewed in the Georgia Review, Hudson Review, Huffington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Review of Books, and elsewhere. Recognitions include the 2015 American Literary Review Award for Fiction, the 2015 James Hearst Poetry Prize, the 2014 Constance Rook Creative Nonfiction Award, and fellowships from the Frost Place, MacDowell Colony, Sewanee Writer’s Conference, and West Chester Poetry Conference. “Paradise Drive” can be ordered at For more information visit

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  • Sue Ellen Thompson January 12, 2016 at 5:14 pm

    What a wonderfully profound and thorough exploration of Voigt’s excellent poem. A real gift to the casual reader of poetry as well as to the practicing poet.