Articles & Reviews

Poetry and the Shadow

This paper was originally presented at the League of Canadian Poets' Annual General Meeting in 1996 as part of the panel, The Poetics of Poetry as Shadow Work. This version of the paper also appeared in the League's publication, Museletter.

By Stephen Morrissey

Think back to when you began writing poetry. Why did you write and what were you trying to express? Why did you choose to write poems, or was writing no choice at all, but in some way a necessity? I go back to when I was 14 or 15 years old, sitting alone writing poems, not for any reason but for the enjoyment of writing, of saying things, of making up rhymes, images. I also wrote because it made me feel closer to my father who died when I was six, and in this way I could be like him: not that he wrote poetry, but he left behind many brown folders filled with expense accounts, business letters, blueprints for a summer house and newspaper clippings; I, too, with a child's reasoning, could fill folders with my writing.

That is why I began writing. It was a way of being like someone who was important to me; it was something I could do alone and which I enjoyed doing; and then, later, it became a form of self-expression, and there is great liberation in this, a great sense of empowerment. Then, I suppose I also wrote as a way of avoiding doing homework for school, as a way of doing something at my desk when I should have been doing math or some other subject that didn't interest me and about which I had a mental block. Every evening for years I would sit at my desk and write poems, then file them away in the two shelves on either side of my desk. It was not a question of making a name for myself, or making money, or even of being a poet.

Perhaps you can write for only so long-three or four years-and then finally you begin to look within yourself, especially if you have something that requires looking into. I would think we all have something like this that needs examining, but we don't all share the same urgency to look within. Isn't this soul work, this looking inside of oneself? I wrote poems about my father and school, and other things that bothered me, as many young people do. Then, one day-to be exact it was November 11, 1967-I was reading the Montreal Star and I read an article in which Allen Ginsberg said, "Scribble down your nakedness. Be prepared to stand naked because it is the nakedness of the soul that the reader finds most interesting." This statement made a lasting impression on me. To some degree I was already "scribbling down my nakedness", but now I did so with deliberation and with the knowledge that this kind of writing was permissible.

Years later I would read Robert Lowell's and Sylvia Plath's confessional poetry. For many, their poetry broke the taboo against self-revelation; although, personally, they didn't influence me except to confirm the validity of what I had already been writing on my own-what the critics named "confessional poetry". What I write breaks the taboo against self-discovery and posits an importance to inner work and poetry as soul-making. This does not place the writing of poetry in the realm of therapy, but rather allows for the importance of autobiographical content in poetry. In this type of poetry the personal is both intimate and universal at the same time, since certain facts of human nature or human experiences are common to all of us.

But confession, in a formalized religious sense, has not been a part of my life; in Montreal, school boards until recently were divided according to religion and I attended schools under the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal. It always seemed that Protestants, in general, didn't feel the need to confess anything. But poetry is the language of the soul and by its very nature it is "shadow work"; this is not the province of any single religion or race. My own confessional poetry-for want of any other literary name for it-is the language of the psyche speaking through me. Various people ridicule and condemn confessional poetry, but surely what they reveal in this condemnation is fear of their own inner processes. They aren't listening to the inner voice of the soul speaking through poetry. The language of the psyche is poetry, not prose, not fiction; prose and poetry are two different languages and often they are mutually exclusive. Poetry expresses a particular truth that can only be expressed in the form of poetry. The vocabulary of poetry is image, symbol, archetype, mythology, religion, psychology, and so on. For the most part we live in the material world, the world of rationality, but we also live in a subjective world of dreams, art, sexuality, the unconscious, the shadow, and the irrational. It seems to me that poetry is a bridge between these two worlds. What has always interested me in my own writing is the area of experience that Carl Jung calls "the shadow". This is a second way in which poetry is shadow work. Conveniently and coincidentally these two concepts of shadow work share the same name; shadow work, in relation to poetry, is both the unpaid and non-commercial aspect to being a poet as Sam Hamill would have it, as well as being exploration of the "shadow" in Jung's terms. The shadow is the nakedness of the soul; it is comprised of the very things about ourselves that we disown and reject. To explore the shadow part of the psyche is to release a great amount of energy, whether creative or physical; it is a primeval part of the psyche; it is darkness, that part of ourselves that we reject at our own peril, but it takes courage to examine and reveal the shadow.

It is my belief that the expression of the shadow in poems not only reveals shadow material, but it also liberates one from the content of the shadow. We become most fully ourselves in the creative act, most fully discover who and what we are, and fulfill our psychic destiny. My second book, Divisions (published in 1983) is my first serious exploration of the shadow. Charles Olson's poem, "As the Dead Prey Upon Us", was an important influence on that book although I doubt that anyone considers Olson a confessional poet; but he is a poet who speaks the language of mythology. I have published two volumes of "The Shadow Trilogy," The Compass in 1993 and The Yoni Rocks in 1995; the final volume, The Mystic Beast , will be published in 1997. All three of these books deal with Jung's concept of the shadow, and as I become more involved in studying mythology I can see how all three volumes follow a psychic journey that is universal.

Of course all poetry at some level is shadow work, and for the great majority of poets there is often little or no financial remuneration to writing poetry. Understanding ourselves, building a body of work, writing poems and publishing them in magazines, finally collecting these poems into books, we do this out of love for the work and if there is financial recompense then well and good; otherwise the writing of poetry must remain, as it has always been, its own reward. It is a boon to all of society, it is the voice of the few who are visionaries and possible spiritual leaders, the ones who create the culture of the future. Surely, in an age of mass entertainment and general diversion from facing who we are, where the other uses that poetry once had are now taken by the entertainment and high technology industries, the proper role for poetry is shadow work.

Copyright © 2003 The author