Articles & Reviews

Self-Censorship in Poetry

By Stephen Morrissey
Museletter, League of Canadian Poets, 1995

When I was thirteen years old I dreamed I was in a room where the windows were covered with mud. Where once I could see outside, I was now enclosed and cut off from the world. I woke from this dream convinced that I must begin writing things down. Despite being an adolescent, I realized I had to remember the truth as I knew it—what people had done, what I had done—and write it down. I believed that only the truth would clear the windows; only the truth would save me from something I could not define but which carried with it a great foreboding and ill-will if I failed to record my life. In other words, I feared I would lose my inner self. It wasn't that anything "terrible" had happened that I wanted to record—on the contrary, I felt there was a bravery to life, and that people's ordinary lives needed to be remembered. I also felt that I was in danger of forgetting my own self and events in my life, if things were not written down. Overall, my wish to write and record the life of those around me, as well as the events in my own life, was experienced as a positive impulse. This may seem a lot for a young person to be aware of, but I place this dream at the beginning of my lifelong commitment to being a poet, and to recording my life experiences in both poetry and journals.

Censorship is not the same as self-censorship. Censorship suggests the collective morality of the community, a political and collective approach to what society, or government, will or will not tolerate. Self-censorship is concerned with how much the individual is willing or able to reveal about themselves, and the urgency they feel that motivates this inner revelation.

My own approach to writing is an attempt to never censor myself. I believe poetry can be an expression of what is significant at the deepest level of spiritual, emotional, and psychological truth. Poetry is not fiction; poetry is aligned to spiritual and psychic revelation. For what is the use of a poem that is not true? A poem that does not hold within it emotional, psychic or spiritual insight has lost its poetic essence.

You can use "poetic license" but you still have to maintain the poem's validity. What significance would John Donne's love poetry contain for each successive generation if the poet's original emotions were insincere, fabricated, or just an invention? What moves us centuries after Donne's death is how deeply the poet was moved by the original experience. The poem is testimony to the truth of that deeply-felt emotion.

Certainly we use the imagination in writing poetry but we use it in service of the truth. Invention is not the same as imagination. Self-censorship, holding back, inventing instead of revealing, posturing instead of being truly imaginative, creating a poetic "characterization" rather than a true persona—all are forms of not being truthful in oneÕs poems. The question: "Is this a true story?" should not apply to poetry. Every poem, as opposed to fiction, should be psychically or metaphorically true, if not literally so for both poet and reader. If a poet lies to us or turns poetry into untruth the poet deceives the reader and betrays our trust. Louis Dudek, in his Notebooks 1960-1994, writes: "What these fanciful writers do not realize is that untruth, or the confusion of untruth and fiction, can be fatal to their survival as writers. We do not read the work of writers we cannot trust."

I have tried in my poetry to merge the personal self and the archetypal self. This doesn't mean I divulge every private detail of my life but I share the essential parts that other people might find helpful in their own lives, or the parts that fall into some kind of mythopoeic shaping of experience that is both personal and beyond personal. I believe we need to be committed to why we are poets, because to write poetry is a spiritual encounter with life.

Basically all my poetry could be described as moral and life affirmative, despite a certain solemnity or sometimes outright bleakness that might be present in individual poems. In the art of writing, what I have experienced is no longer my private property, but belongs to "peoplekind," as long as I can fashion it (through art) into something that transcends the personal. Writing at this level of truth-telling, without self-censorship, releases "chi", is part of the Tao, and has become a source of healing and wholeness for some readers. If the poet is really committed to poetry as truth, and is not practising self-censorship, the poet is able to go beyond the divisive and time-imprisoned self and transcend their own ego. Surely the important poetry of our age deals with psychological and spiritual truth—what is valid about existence. This commitment to creating an essential poetics cannot begin in self-censorship; poetry may not always be the result of poets not censoring themselves, but there is also, finally, no lasting poetry born from lies or deceit.

Copyright © 2007 The author