From WTP Vol. V #2
By DeWitt Henry
I’d never seen or imagined vocal cords. Heard about them, of course—the voice box, the larynx. The word “cords” suggests string instruments, where a finger pluck or felt hammer causes vibrations at different frequencies, high notes, middle, and low. But here I’m about to have a medical procedure where the Ear, Nose, and Throat doctor, having first anesthetized my throat, so there will be no gag reflex, slides down a tiny camera on a wire. The relaxing spray stings at first, but not badly, and tastes tart like pineapple. There is a video console on a cart next to my examination chair. She asks me to lean forward, my mouth wide, and works the camera down inside me. She tells me to swallow; to say AAAAA, to say EEEEE. I do my best, although the wire in my throat feels in the way, and hard.
In the replay of my exam, I see a glistening pink cavern, reminiscent of my colonoscopy video. I don’t see any cords, so much as lumps of muscle. As the muscles clench and relax, they are attached to thin membranes, like wings, and the membrane edges have a thick, whitish fold. As the folds part they reveal a dark opening. The Doctor points and touches the screen. The thickened folds, like lips, are the so-called cords. Air, pushed out by my lungs and diaphragm, causes them to vibrate. My problem, she explains, one common at my age, is that my cords can’t close all the way. I see that. The rims have bowed outwards. Humming in different tones causes the membranes to open and close, like curtains. For my EEEEE sound, the curtains should close, but a remaining gap lets air escape. Hence my wavering and breathiness. Voice exercises will help, the doctor says, especially as I learn to work with vibrations in the mouth and lips. Another remedy would be Teflon injections, which puff up the vocal muscles and force the cords to meet; but this lasts only for three to six months. The condition itself can’t be fixed. I opt for the exercises, at least for now. I don’t need my voice to project or have normal clarity, since I’ve retired from teaching.
Only mammals have a larynx, which controls air pressure to the vocal cords, and hence volume— a dog’s bark, cat’s meow, cow’s moo, horse’s whinny, a whale’s moan. Instead of a larynx, birds have a bony structure called a syrinx at the bottom of the windpipe. It is surrounded by an air sac, filled from both lungs, and allows them to warble, trill, chirp, cluck, squawk, cry, and shriek. Parrots and parakeets, thanks to their thick tongues, curved beaks, long windpipes, specialized sets of neck muscles, and keen hearing, manage to imitate the complex sounds of human speech: “Polly wants a cracker!” In snakes, air fills an organ called the glottis, then when forced out, causes parts within the glottis to rattle, which produces the hissing sound.
What is it about voices? We recognize those of intimate others in the dark, or on the phone, whether near or far away. The first spoken syllable, its timbre, is as familiar as the speaker. “Hey, it’s me,” we say. Friend, family, lover, no one needs to say their names. Sometimes when I have a bad cold, though, my voice drops a register, causing friends to ask is that me? “That doesn’t sound like you,” they say. Electronic instruments can recognize voice prints, which, like fingerprints, are unique. Given a known voice sample, the squiggly graph on the audio file can identify me, or out of the babble of cell phone surveillance, Pablo Escobar.
I listen to my daughter’s voice, which I taped thirty years ago, and play back now for her daughters, aged thirteen and seven. Ruth had been born the year my father died. My mother lived alone in their four-bedroom ranch in Villanova, PA; and my tape was from our visit from Boston. Ruth was three, boosted by phonebooks in her chair, with me beside her, Connie across and Mom at the head of the formal, mahogany dining table, chandelier fixture overhead. Mom had served us a stew. I cut small pieces of sausage on Ruth’s plate and added a spot of ketchup. She ate the carrots, potatoes, celery, and peas with her fork, but wasn’t interested in the remaining slivers of sausage. I tried to make a game of cutting a sliver of my own, then spearing and holding it in front of my mouth as an example. “Hey, meat!” I said. “Hello, Mr. Meat. Goodbye, Meat,” and chomped it from my fork. My mother’s voice, meanwhile, is in the background, along with Connie’s. They’re discussing our return to Boston the next morning. Next, spearing a piece from Ruth’s plate, I held it in front of her. “Hey, Meat!” she sang in that ascending, high-pitched trill of hers. “Hi, Meat!” But she wouldn’t bite.
Even after decades, daughter with daughters now, mother long since passed, there is the shock of recognition in forgotten rhythms and timbres. I listen and go on later to imagine the other voices I know. Voices of my older brothers. My father. Close friends. I’m ready to hear and recognize them, though I haven’t heard them alive for decades. Some living voices, however, I can’t summon. The voices of schoolmates at our fiftieth reunion, for instance, have no print in memory. They could call, as two did afterwards, “Hey, know who this is?” I didn’t. Their breaths against their vocal cords.
My brother, Jack, having quit college, visited home when I was ten, with Lady, part collie, part something else, a dog that he had rescued from abuse in a Colorado logging camp. He left her with us as he returned to Colorado and I became her surrogate master. From time to time, he called long distance, I held the phone to Lady’s ear; Jack spoke and gave his special whistle, driving her beserk with joy, barking, whining, tail whipping. She recognized his sounds. Even five years later, hearing him long distance, the same excitement. She never forgot.
My own recorded voice has never sounded like me to me. My pitch is higher than I hear from inside, and more quavering and monotonous.
Some of us have singing voices, trained and untrained. Voices with volume, sweetness, clarity, and range. Others, tone deaf and unable to carry a tune, improvise in the shower or in our cars. From recordings, at least, we know the opera voices of Caruso and Pavarotti, the resonance of the Irish tenor John O’Sullivan, the blues of Billie Holiday or Nina Simone, the crooning of Frank Sinatra, the folk singing of Joan Baez and Judy Collins. A gifted singer speaks for all: magnificently different, yet the same. We also blend our different voices, bass, soprano, mezzo, tenor, in choral singing, and nowhere more wonderfully than in Beethoven’s ninth symphony, as instrumental music yields to voice and lyrics: “Alle Menschen werden Brüder.”
We recognize the individual voices of actors (regardless of roles), public figures, newscasters and weather people, voice-over narrators, and other celebrities. Think of Richard Burton, Olivier, James Earl Jones. Churchill. Martin Luther King. Think of broadcasters like Edward R. Murrow or Barbara Walters. The thunder throat of Don LaFontaine, who recorded 5,000 movie trailers. Sometimes their delivery impresses us more than content; or content more than delivery. Our presidents often need voice coaches or spokespeople or both. In most cases, natural voices are amplified and modulated, if not distorted, by electronics. Of course, purely depersonalized machine voices have their uses too: “No one can come to the phone right now.”
We delight in impressionists who evoke well-known speakers, somehow capturing their inflections. Likewise we applaud the ventriloquist, as she throws her voice, and with her hidden hand opening and closing her dummy’s jaw, convinces us that the dummy speaks and has its own voice and personality.
Signing is voice for the speech-and-hearing-impaired, and each speaker expresses his or her emphasis through the vocabulary and rhythms of common hand signs. A song in signs looks like ballet, at least from the waist up. When a cast of deaf actors performs an entire play in signs, their audience raises its hands and shakes them for visual applause.
If we speak with a common voice, we agree in will, agenda, or opinion. We may even chant in unison. The people may have a voice through elected or paid representatives (“My lawyer voiced my concerns”), the press, or social media. Give me your voice, says the politician. All in favor, say aye. Speak now or forever hold your peace. “What she said,” he said. On the individual level, in a babble of dissent, only the loudest voice gets heard. Cup your hands, grab the microphone, or bull horn, or megaphone. Or sometimes, a picture or action speaks louder than words. The Buddhist monk, doused in gasoline, strikes his match.
“An authentic/fresh/original new voice,” proclaim publishers of first novelists. But what is a writing voice? There is no audible sound, except for recorded books. Our librarians whisper, “Silence, please!” Children are read to at first, then learn to sound out words, to read out loud, and finally to read to themselves. Words on the page, sentences, syntax, diction, punctuation, stresses and rhythms: all somehow combine. We make sense of them.
Experienced authors tell their students to find their own voices. F. Scott Fitzgerald advised his daughter: “You learn by trying the sound and stance of other writers. You develop an ear, through your reading and imitating, for how good writing is supposed to sound.” But if we absorb the manners of other writers and follow only their eyes, ears, and values, we end up doing impressions, if not deliberate parodies. Hemingway warns his acolyte Arnold Samuelson: “don’t ever imitate anybody. All style is, is the awkwardness of a writer in stating a fact. If you have a way of your own, you are fortunate, but if you try to write like somebody else, you’ll have the awkwardness of the other writer as well as your own”—a lesson Hemingway may have learned from sounding too much like Sherwood Anderson in “My Old Man.” As Anne Lamott puts it in her writing manual, Bird by Bird: “The truth of your experience can only come through in your own voice.”
“Voice” for some critics refers to style, Cicero’s or Seneca’s, ornate or plain, although A. Alvarez warns us about mistaking “mere style for voice” (The Writer’s Voice). Still other critics equate voice with vision, or persona, or the “implied author.” For Wayne C. Booth, “A work of fiction has the sense not only of timbre and tone of a speaking voice, but of a total human presence.”
Along with the individual, whole populations, otherwise submerged or marginalized, can be voiced as literature. One such voice represents and encourages others, speaking for and to, and granting due regard: Zora Neale Hurston’s, say. Working class voices, women’s voices, immigrant voices, a new generation’s voices; the formerly unspeaking or unheard.
And have I found mine? Does it matter, or is it lost in the crowd or in a wilderness?
EEEEE, AAAAAA, I practice, hoping to improve. Yawn, relax the throat. Try to hold middle C. Use a kazoo-like sound and keep the sound in front of my mouth. Practice up the scale using the kazoo sound and then breathe and slide down. Exclaim, “Hey, you!” Slow down my rate of talking in order to better coordinate my breathing and phonating.
This viscera of self. This living flesh, pink and animate, glistening. Speak your mind. Look in your heart and write. These neurons. Synapses. Feelings. This wonder and this enterprise.
DeWitt Henry is the founding editor of Ploughshares literary magazine and was awarded the Commonwealth Award in 1992. His novel The Marriage of Anna Maye Potts won the Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel, and his short story “Witness” was awarded the Pushcart Prize. His short works have been published in Brevity, Solstice, The Harvard Review, and The Iowa Review.