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Part rhythmic dialogue, part intimate theatre, and part secret hymnal, poetry for two voices is a beautiful subgenre of traditional poetic form. In it the author writes two columns of text side-by-side. Each column is meant to be read aloud by a different person. Each corresponding line is meant to be read simultaneously. If one line is blank, that voice is silent. If both lines are blank, it indicates a pause.

Following is an example, Paul Fleischman's Grasshoppers, from Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices, 1989.

Sap's rising
                       Ground's warning
Grasshoppers are       Grasshoppers are
hatching out           hatching out
Autumn-laid eggs
Young stepping
                       into spring
Grasshoppers           Grasshoppers
hopping                hopping
Grassjumpers           Grassjumpers
jumping                jumping
Vaulting from
leaf to leaf
stem to stem           leaf to leaf
plant to plant         stem to stem
leapers                leapers
bounders               bounders
springers              springers
soarers                soarers
Leapfrogging           Leapfrogging
longjumping            longjumping
grasshoppers.          grasshoppers.

When it works, two-voice poems are terrific aural experiences to build with another person. Sharing them with a child is especially rewarding. I read some of Joyful Noise with my nephew when he was younger and they're some of my fondest memories. I've also read some of the poems with my significant other cuddled up in a warm winter bed. (Highly recommended).

When it works
Being read aloud implies some constraints on the form. Short lines with a repetitive meter help the readers maintain the same rhythm with each other. Simple repetitive structural form helps readers learn the cadence early and carry it through to the end. Short pauses give a feeling of interconnectedness rather than turn-taking. When the readers speak simultaneously, having them speak the exact same thing most of the time imparts a feeling of sharing the experience and assures them that they're synchronized.

Reading these poems involves your eyes and your ears at the same time. For this reason the use of alliteration, assonance, consonance, echoes, and the round is especially rewarding. I also enjoy the poems in which the two voices contrast two different viewpoints. For example, in Fleischman's Honeybees one voice speaks about the luxurious life of a queen bee, contrasting starkly with the hard life of a drone.


Being a bee            Being a bee
is a joy
                       is a pain
I'm a queen
                       I'm a worker
I'll gladly explain    I'll gladly explain

The most well known published author of two-voice poems is the aforementioned Paul Fleischman. Is he the first? I can't find any reference to poems of this nature prior to his 1988 Joyful Noise. Joyful Noise takes the world of insects as its topic, exploring themes of sharing, fairness, sacrifice, and transformation. That book was awarded the 1989 Newberry Award. Fleischman published a follow-up called I Am Phoenix: Poems for Two Voices in 1989 with a bird theme. IMHO it is less successful.

I could find two other authors who have published books of poems for two voices. David Harrison published the somewhat pedestrian Farmer's Garden: Poems for Two Voices in 2003. Theoni Pappas wrote Math Talk: mathematical ideas in poems for two voices in 1991. Math Talk is a horrible mismatch between topic, form, and agenda. (And with that title I can't read them aloud without devolving into the grating voices of NPR's radio program Car Talk, which only makes it worse.)


                       the word has been
to conjure up
love                   hate
delight                despair
recreation             anxiety
joy                    fear


...and so on. (Shudder.)

More voices?
In 1999 Fleischman published a "next evolution" in the genre with Big Talk: Poems for Four Voices. In it, he introduces color coded lines. Readers pick a color and read that color's lines. It tackles the complexity of four voices with some interesting information design, and his poetry is as interesting as ever, but it fails by just going too far. Two people can cuddle up with a book easily, but three takes some squeezing and four is nearly impossible. You might just purchase a second book, but you have to leave the intimacy behind. And really, isn't this direction a slippery slope to theatre? Hamlet: Poems for 40 Voices and 1 Ghost. (1601)

Nah, best to stick to two.

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