Notes on the voyeur poems
Two summers ago, when I started this sequence of “voyeur” poems, I was in a slump—I would either sit at my computer unable to write a single line, or I would force drafts that came out feeling wooden or trite. After I invented the voyeur persona, several poems came in quick succession. I realize, now, that speaking through this persona gave my poems a reason to exist and a sense of urgency—the speaker’s position as voyeur, the longing it creates in him, compels him to speech. And the fact that what he longs for is unreachable creates emotional intensity and complexity.For these reasons among others, the voyeur for me is a figure of the artist. Much art is about tension and release; longing, striving, and conflict are what make stories and songs and paintings engage us. And resolution must be delayed or resisted for that necessary tension to continue, for the story or song to go on. This theme of resisting resolution turns up in all four of these poems—at the end of “The Voyeur’s Gratitude,” the voyeur realizes that he and the object of his attention could in fact meet and talk but that doing so would lead only to “bitterness,” “a closing-up,” and finally to “ruin, then regret.” So he vows to “go on watching [her] work, loving the ache of it.” That “ache” is the ache that compels us in much good art. In a similar vein, in “The Voyeur’s Prayers,” he wonders, “Is it just the wanting / I want”? And at the end of “What the Voyeur Learned,” he knows she could “finish” him with her breath. That is, if they made contact, she could make him “shine,” like the car she is cleaning, with fulfillment and pleasure, but also she would “finish” him in another sense of the word—his longing and therefore his art would end.In writing “You Don’t Love the Voyeur,” I was thinking partly of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and the “observer effect” in physics. I’m no expert on these scientific principles, but I love the idea that science can prove that when we observe something that thing is fundamentally changed by our act of observation. In this poem, the voyeur claims that he changes her—for the better—by observing her, i.e., he “enlivens her skin.” So, she “needs him,” but, of course, he needs her, or more accurately, he needs to want her in order to make his art. I chose what I consider the hardest of all received forms, the villanelle, for this poem partly because after writing a version in free verse it seemed to call for refrains and partly because the difficulty of that form, like the tenuous argument he is making, is generative—it creates tension and challenges that generate things to say.
The few times I’ve read these poems in public, I’ve been surprised by the variety of audience responses. Some people, understandably, are creeped out by the voyeur. Working with a potentially taboo subject has been challenging at times, but the fact that the speaker engages in “deviant” behavior feels necessary to the project. There’s a tendency in our culture to view art as something frivolous or trivial, a pastime that distracts us from “real” or “important” work. I’m interested in the voyeur as a figure for the artist as misfit, as social deviant. By contrast, some audience members have found themselves sympathizing with the voyeur, interpreting the poems as touching or tender. One audience member told me that the poems made him feel like HE was being watched, and that made him think about the various ways that we are “watched” in our everyday lives (by the NSA, on the internet, on Facebook, etc.). That’s a theme that interests me, though I admit I wasn’t trying to engage with it as I wrote these poems. It’s something I’d like to explore as I continue to add to the sequence and find out what else this voyeur has to say.
During the summer months, when I do most of my writing, I’m obsessive about reading—I devote two or three hours a day to it, and I always have at least five books of different kinds going at once. I find that reading things unrelated to poetry—about art, or music, say—is just as important for inspiration as reading poetry. While I was writing the voyeur poems, I learned early on that I wanted most of them to use rhyme or meter or a received form. Because art is an important theme in the voyeur sequence, I like the aesthetic distance form creates in the poems, the way the rhyme and meter make the poems say, look! I am a made thing! A piece of art! So I turned to poets who write primarily in form. My main inspiration was the poet Robert Francis, but I found useful models by poets as various as Kim Addonizio, Elizabeth Bishop, Theodore Roethke, Patrick Ryan Frank, and John Murillo. And Yeats. I’m always reading Yeats.
Jeffrey Bean is Associate Professor of English/Creative Writing at Central Michigan University. Recent poems appear or are forthcoming in the journals River Styx, Southern Poetry Review, Cimarron Review, Crab Orchard Review, Smartish Pace, and Barn Owl Review, among others.