Published in Poetry Quebec, November 2009
By Stephen Morrissey
When I was young, I remember seeing a play on television that has stayed with me to the present; in particular, there was one scene in the play that I have never forgotten. This scene was of an elderly man sitting in a rocking chair on a porch while inside the house, behind the man, a woman was being beaten or raped. The man knew what was going on and feigned deafness, feigned not knowing what was happening only feet away. In fact, and equally disturbing to me, he seemed to find some twisted satisfaction in what was happening. Even as a child I found this scene to be both frightening and horrifying. To allow another person to suffer when it is in one's ability to help that person seems to me a terrible deed. I was horrified by this man's behaviour, but what also shocked me, even as a child, is that when I thought about the play later, I realized that I could do as this man did: I knew that there was in me the capacity to allow something terrible to be committed against someone else and to do nothing about it.
Once, years ago, I wrote a poem in which the first line was "An honest word was never said," about living in a home in which silence was the norm. I know what it is like living in a house where silence rules, where "an honest word is never said." I know a dark side to life and that "evil," or whatever word one chooses to use, exists even in the comfortable homes of average people. We all have a shadow archetype in our psychology and we ignore this at the expense of our own soul. As poets, we can work to understand this inner darkness and its outer manifestation, a darkness that can include terrorism, racism, random violence, and so on. Writing about the shadow is not something to be afraid of, but one must act with courage and strength. I have not written many political poems, but I have spent a lifetime as a witness to what I have observed in life.
What I believe is this: whatever else poetry may be, it is the breaking of silence that surrounds evil and allows it to be perpetuated. I believe that all artists are moralists, that we live in a moral universe, and that art requires a moral response if it is to have meaning. I believe there is one constant that gives us our ability to make moral judgments: it is to be conscious human beings. As such, it is not beyond the ability of average people to understand psychological complexity; it is also not beyond poets to articulate a vision of life that can help heal the divisions between people. Our silence in the presence of evil isolates us and denies us the fulfillment of the promise of life. The very nature of being a poet is to write our poems and to be creative and life affirming, to be a witness for our existence. As well, it is not only what we write as poets, but the very act of writing is an affirmation of love, creativity, and life; these things are in direct opposition to evil.