Voice, Reconsidered: On Fleur Adcock’s “Poem Ended By a Death”

Fleur Adcock’s poems often challenge readers to ask who is speaking, and why. Consequently, voice—the imagined aural performance captured in text—has proven a central attraction for Adcock’s critics. Summing the effect of Adcock’s voice on audience, Fiona Sampson notes:

. . . Adcock has a way of laying claim to her readers. A poet of wry observation rather than nebulous epiphanies, she often seems to be conjuring the kind of intimacy that comes from shared assumptions and experiences. (Sampson 2013)

One poem the voice of which especially has drawn scrutiny is Adcock’s “Poem Ended by a Death.”  In the work, a speaker (usually read female) reacts to receiving news that a former lover (usually, male) has died. Following a brief exposition in which the speaker imagines how her dead lover’s body will be washed, she quarrels with her own perspective:     

...Fuck that for a cheap
        opener; and false, too—any such traces
        you pumiced away yourself, those years ago
        when you sent my letters back . . .(lines 4-7)

This moment in the poem provokes an interesting question: If the speaker is changing perspectives on the run, will her performed voice change in kind? 

Fleur Adcock, Janet Wilson (2007) reminds us, is known “for her conversational voice and informal, colloquial style” (52). This poem’s point of view, however, proves elusive. As one critic notes, while the work seems a nuanced memory, it is “at least partly about communication itself—a self-conscious exploration of the use of voice and an expression of the difficulty of finding the right voice” for a given understanding (MacMahon 2001, 22).

In “Poem Ended . . .” that struggle with expression immediately is foregrounded when remembered erotic touching—suggested by an opening run of sibilants—kisses . . . [finger]prints . . .[tear]stains (lines 1-2)—is replaced by the imagined physical manipulation of a body for burial and the removal of medical technology—tubes, drips, dressings—implements of a harsher caress (9). The latter vocabulary, with its exacting consonants, marks a shift in the feel of remembrance: reality’s hard edges intrude.

This evolving shift in style of naming breaks around the expletive while runs of internal and mid-line rhymes push the message of the narration over line ends, shifting mid-line pauses highlighting insights acquired in passage: “They will, it is true, / wash you . . .” (10-11).  The effect of the speaker’s juggling appropriate labels for her understanding—even when comical, as in the remembered description “anecdotal ape” (8)—is of thought in flight.   She is discovering what she means as she goes.

All of which complexity is held in check by the simple stanza structure—double ballad-like measures, rhymed abcbdefe, stresses hovering around five per line. Ballads, one recalls, retell old stories, their topics common human concerns: love, loss; birth, death; desire, retreat; violence born of the bunch.  Ballads trek abbreviated plot lines, often focusing on key scenes, even as in Adcock’s poem. [1]

Readers now could well return to the beginning and start to assemble an overall sense of the poem’s voice.

For the sake of simplicity, voice can be understood as the perceived amalgam of content and timbre. So, voice is something like style, delivered. [2] Style itself might best be first addressed as a combination of essential elements: diction(word choice), syntax (grammatical structure), and tone (a narrator’s attitude). [3]

Adcock’s diction doesn’t shift much: about eighty percent of the poem is monosyllabic, with about half of the diction gathered around subject-verb groupings, as in most colloquial narratives. Nothing particularly arcane intrudes . . . at least until towards the end. 

Assessing the poem’s diction, that is, many readers might have to refresh their memories regarding laconic (13) and the pearled/purl (14,16) pairing. A laconic speaker is probably abrupt, concise—the Greek word root, the name of an ancient people famously taut in bearing. Pearl, of course, is usually related to the notion of shine, luster, and associated with the residue found in oysters. It also can suggest value, or a decoration associated with wealth. Purl, one will find, is to knit with a turning or twisted stitch, perhaps originally in gold or silver, and also is used to name the softly sounding movement of a stream of water. [4]  

Does this diction suggest that the narrator is concerned with two different modes of expression?

Syntax provides more clues. Broken by the expletive, the first stanza shifts in intent from statement to command to statement. The opener probably is going to be a simple sentence, but is interrupted by an imbedded aside. What follows is a summarizing compound-complex structure, followed by another simple sentence and a fragment. This pattern again suggests colloquial speech: statements adjusted, modified, while being generated.

The second stanza feels more formal. Imitating the traditional literary figure anaphora (root: a “carrying back”), the openings of the initial statements are parallel. Here the voice sounds like someone being careful to make a point, not someone discovering a position. The voice builds a contention—then, in fact, circles back, in a simple sentence, to summarize: “This is my laconic style” (13).

Memory returns: The speaker acknowledges the lover’s praise for her own work and concludes that their two styles, concise and elaborate, once fused the two writers, as one body, across “the ribs of the world” (14-16). A closing ellipsis marks the thought as unfinished.

So, what, in sum, has happened to the speaker? 

Maybe the stylists can offer a leg up.  For instance, what would focusing on types of action (transitivity) expose? [5] Both stanzas mix material and mental behaviours, though the second adds verbalization. The poem opens with a performance, but an expletive (as sometimes in life) breaks the cadence.  Then, the speaker tries to sort out a more proper manner of labelling events—in the course of which, Janet Wilson (2007) notes, the speaker replaces the image of a relationship broken, with a “new aesthetic drawn from . . . symmetry and balance” (54).  Attitude shifts in the attempt.

One key development obtrudes, however. 

Among a group of suggestive images after the expletive-induced break, separated from earlier romanticized notions, readers encounter a dominant trope—the former lover is thought to have pumiced away evidence of their coupling (6). Is this description metaphor or a named literal physical action?  If physical, the washing certainly was brutal.  In the second stanza, we see another trope: the lacing together of two lives (15). Yet no physical sewing probably was involved—and this lacing is like embroidery, more refined than medical.

Something, thus, has changed. The poem opens with a professedly “false” (5), emotional description, which is challenged, then refined to become an evaluation born of a more realistic perspective. Following the acknowledgment of an abrasive parting, the narrator confesses: We were complements, part of something larger. And maintaining such a union, she realizes, is a skill.  Stark difference becomes poise, a linking “together” (15).

The closing attitude is new. Tone, though, is the most problematical element of voice and style, even the most meticulous approaches not fully pinning it down. [6] And precisely naming the tone of “Poem Ended . . .” is predictably tough. However, in her book-length meditation, Judith Roof (2020) offers tentative reprieve in basics: “The origin or source of tone is simple: readers derive a sense of a speaking persona’s attitudes in their audiation [imaginative hearing, x] of a written text” (20). Moreover, Roof warns, tone often is layered, creating a sense of “coexisting postures” (37). In just such fashion, Adcock offers a poem in which voice adapts as perception is rewrought. Tone evolves, becomes multiple, Adcock’s speaker discovers, as her recitation moves from performance to insight fathomed anew.


[1] For a standard background, see Gerould (1932).

[2] For discussion, see Elbow (1994).   

[3] See Holman (1972) for a traditional definition; then Bradford (1997) and Simpson (2004).

[4] Etymologies from OED.

[5] See Bradford for background; Simpson, pages 22-26, for transitivity.

[6] See, e.g., Stockwell (2014).

Works Cited

Fleur Adcock. “Poem Ended by a Death.” Poems 1960-2000. Eastburn: Bloodaxe Books, 2000. 97.

Richard Bradford. Stylistics. London: Routledge, 1997.

Peter Elbow, ed. Landmark Essays on Voice and Writing. Davis: Hermagoras, 1994. 

Gordon Hall Gerould. The Ballad of Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1932.

C. Hugh Holman. A Handbook to Literature.3rd ed.  Indianapolis: Odyssey, 1972.

Barbara MacMahon. “Relevance Theory and the Use of Voice in Poetry.” Belgian Journal of Linguistics 15: 11-34. 2001.

OED: The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971.

Judith Roof. Tone. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020.

Fiona Sampson. “Glass Wings by Fleur Adcock—review.”  The Guardian, 28 June 2013.

Paul Simpson. Stylistics.  London: Routledge, 2004.

Peter Stockwell. “Atmosphere and Tone.”  In The Cambridge Handbook of Stylistics, edited by Peter Stockwell and Sara Whiteley. Cambridge: CUP, 2014. 360-74.

Janet Wilson. Fleur Adcock. Horndon: Northcote. 2007. 52.

[NB: A longer form of this essay was presented at the 2023 conference of the Southwest Popular/American Culture Association.]

Robert Johnson lives and writes in Colorado, U.S.  His latest publications have been short stories in the online journals EAP: The Magazine and Drunk Monkeys.