Articles & Reviews

A POET'S JOURNEY: Notes on poetry and what it means to be a poet

Originally published in Poetry Quebec, 2009

My life long journey is writing poetry. The poet's journey is a calling, a mission, a commitment to creating a body of creative work; it is at the core of the poet's inner being. Being a poet is central to everything the poet does. If the poet is a person of spirit, then poetry is also an aspect of a life awake to the voice of the unconscious mind and an intimate conversation with the Divine. Every poet's journey is different and unique to the individual poet, but all poets have the same mission: to write their poems and express something of their vision of life.

I was born at the Western Division, Montreal General Hospital, at 6:23 p.m. on April 27, 1950. The Western Division was located in what is now the Montreal Children's Hospital, near Atwater and Ste. Catherine Street, in downtown Montreal. Across the street from the hospital is Cabot Park and a bus terminus, and a half block away is the Forum, the former home of the Canadiens hockey team.

Some of the factors that defined my existence include my parents, my brother, my extended family, my race, social class, genetic makeup, psychology, physical constitution, the historical time in which I was born, and my own free will and destiny. World War Two had ended and we were entering the decade of the 1950s. As well, astrologically, I was born with the sun in Taurus; the moon in Virgo; and my ascendant in Scorpio.

When I was about fourteen years old—sitting in Miss Poole's English literature class at Monkland's High School in Montreal—John Steinbeck's novella, The Red Pony, made a deep and lasting impression on me. In this book, Steinbeck describes one of his characters as feeling "collapsed inside." This phrase from Steinbeck was my first memorable and profound literary experience. I understood Steinbeck's description right away because at times I, too, felt "collapsed inside." This phrase opened several doors to my thinking. One door was to the power of literature—indeed, to the power of a single phrase—to communicate experiences or nuances of feelings that were familiar and moving to me. This made literature an experience that I was eager to repeat by writing poems of my own and by reading the work of other writers. The other door that opened was to psychological and spiritual truth; Steinbeck's phrase identified how I felt and became so much a part of my reflection on my life's journey that I am quoting from him over forty years later. I believe that this phrase from Steinbeck's story also contributed to opening the door to my becoming a poet of confession and witness. I wanted to do in my poetry what Steinbeck did for me in this single phrase: to accurately describe in words an emotional state that I had experienced and to find order in the confusion of my inner being by describing it in words.

My test of poetry has always been when hearing or reading someone else's poems, am I moved to want to write a poem of my own? If I am, then the poem is a source of inspiration for me. Inspiration means that the poem is inspiring, it breathes Spirit into the reader. The experience of writing poems is life affirming and it is always exciting to begin writing a new poem. Of course, it is a subjective test, but poems can always be analysed objectively and a critical and intellectual criticism of the poem formulated later.

What is the nature of writing poetry? For me, writing poetry has always been a way to find order and understanding in my life, a life that was not empowered and that was sometimes dispirited. I discovered that writing poems empowered me, returned me to Spirit, and gave me an experience that I have not been able to find in any other activity.

Inspired writing seems to have no ego involved in the writing and afterwards there is no ego-attachment to what has been written. Inspired writing comes from Spirit so the writing feels as though it has been dictated to the poet, but this in no way denigrates the writer's talent or hard work to produce a written text.

When I was an undergraduate at university I read Isak Dinesen's short story, "Sorrow Acre." This story opened to me the mythological dimension of literature. It gave me an approach to textual explication and literary criticism. I remember being touched very deeply by the experience of reading this story. It was an epiphanous experience, just as years before reading Steinbeck influenced me in a similar way. I was also reading the work of many poets, including William Blake (and Northrop Frye's writings on him), Walt Whitman, and Allen Ginsberg; however, it was in reading Isak Dinesen's "Sorrow Acre"—then learning about the Garden Myth—that I learned a critical approach to literature.

When I read Allen Ginsberg's statement, in a newspaper article published in 1967—"Scribble down your nakedness because it is the nakedness of the soul that people are really interested in"—I knew that this was my ars poetica and is basic to all of the poems I have written.

The experimental poetry that preoccupied my writing from age eighteen to my mid-twenties was an attempt to circumvent the ego. It was an attempt to write original poems by eliminating the ego's presence; to enter an oceanic, mystical, non-ego state of mind by either entering a trance state, or by doing experiments in randomness in which the ego couldn't intervene. That was my motive in experimenting in writing, that was my intuitive approach to writing poetry; it was never to be avant-garde, never to be innovative or daring, never to be cutting-edge, never to be popular.

Experiments in my early writing included William Burroughs and Brion Gysin's cut-up technique in which an original text is cut into pieces with a pair of scissors; it is then reassembled randomly, producing a new text. I was also interested in John Cage's work; simultaneous readings of different texts; sound poetry and concrete or visual poetry. I was interested in the Dadaists and the Surrealists. Eventually, however, I began to realize that these experiments, while interesting, did not address my deeper concerns in writing.

My experiments in poetry were part of my apprenticeship as a poet. In my early writing I was attempting to move away from the conditioned ego and I thought I could do this by altering my consciousness. In retrospect, I can see that these experiments are evidence that the psychological or spiritual has always been central to my work as a poet from when I began to write poetry to the present. Even then I was a poet of witness, a narrative poet whose approach to writing is shamanic.

I have never censored my writing. My purpose was to get things written down as closely as I could remember them. I am not saying that there aren't different versions of the same event, but what I write is faithful to the way I have experienced and perceived things at the time of writing. A rule that I have followed in all of my work—in poetry and prose—is to never censor what I am writing; this does not necessarily apply to publishing.

My father died in 1956 and my mother remarried in 1962; then we moved to Montclair Avenue, about a mile west of our old home on Oxford Avenue in Montreal's Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood. I was never happy living on Montclair, it was a place that was emotionally barren, a place where my stepfather, Graham Nichols, was sick and died. It was, for me, a bleak house, cold and Dickensian. My stepfather had a terrific sense of humour and was always very good to me; it was tragic that his last three years were spent in hospitals and convalescent homes. I spent a lot of time, from 1966 to 1969 when Graham died, visiting him in these places with my mother.

One of the first long poems I wrote (I was about eighteen years old) is entitled "Tumour City" (a dreadful title!), and it is about my stepfather's terminal illness. I began my writing career as a confessional poet, a poet of truth and revelation; my earliest poems were poems of witness, and I have always had a deep commitment to exploring the inner psychological being. The aim of the contemporary poet, in my opinion, is to write poetry that recognizes the importance of the unconscious mind and seeks to express a greater consciousness of life. The aim is the diminishment of the ego, not its enlargement.

Poetry is the voice of the human soul, speaking across time and distance. Poetry, whether written yesterday or thousands of years ago, is an expression of some aspect of the inner life and journey of the poet. A poem is a meditation and we know when we are in the presence of real poetry because we can feel a quality of spirit and soul communicating to us.

Writing a poem completes a meditation. It is possible to find the resolution to some inner conflict by writing. It is possible to become more conscious of one's existence and find its deeper meaning and significance.

Being a part of a community of poets is a wonderful thing, especially when you are young. In a group that is affirming and sustaining, it is not necessary to write poems that are similar to someone else's poems; to be creative is to write from your own voice, from your own vision. The important thing is that poets in a community respect each other. My community, when I was young, were other young poets who were later known collectively as the Vehicule Poets; they included Artie Gold, Endre Farkas, John McAuley, Ken Norris, Tom Konyves, and Claudia Lapp. There were others I knew as well, for instance Guy Birchard and Keitha MacIntosh. All of my poet friends from when I was young have a special place in my heart.

A community of poets includes the elder poets, people we respect for their dedication to writing and for the body of work they have created. It is the work of young poets to know the tradition in which they are working and to respect the older poets. But older poets must also mentor the young. It is a wonderful experience to receive the 'blessing' or acknowledgement of an older poet. I had this experience and it helped me to affirm this important part of my life—even now I am thankful for the kindness, affirmation, and teaching I received when I was young from people who were older, wiser, and more mature than I was at the time. Two older poets, both friends—Louis Dudek and George Johnston—were especially kind, generous, and helpful to me.

I am private and introverted by nature and yet I have also always been a public person. When I was a child the circumstances of my life pulled me out of the crowd; these included the death of my father and failing two grades at school. I write from the private depths of my being, and then I let go of what I have written, get it published, get up in front of a room full of people and read it to them.

If (as I believe) poetry is the voice of the human soul, then healing and poetry are connected in a fundamental way. Confessional poetry, poetry of witness and Spirit, is a form of healing, by revelation, by catharsis, by discovery of inner truth. Poetry can be healing for the poet and it can also contribute to healing the person who reads poetry. We denigrate this when we call it therapy.

The poet—who is also the wounded healer—brings psychological and spiritual depth to his work. It is the work of the poet to bring the unconscious to consciousness. Poetry is not therapy, it is poetry, but I believe that some emotional and spiritual healing can be a by-product of poetry. I refer here to either reading someone else's poems or writing one's own.

Good poetry does not moralize, but there is a moral dimension at the very foundation of all poetry and literature. All great poetry, all great art, has a moral dimension. It is the nature of the psyche to seek wholeness out of psychic fragmentation, and to assert a moral response to life's situations. Morality—what is 'good' and what is 'bad'—is an archetype inherent in the human psyche. Poetry, like all great art, is an affirmation of morality.

Two dreams when I was young had a profound affect on me; they changed my life. The first dream occurred when I was around nine years old, and takes place at our Oxford Avenue flat where we lived from 1954 to 1963. Two men from an orphanage arrived to take me away; they were at the back door, standing on the grey wooden stairs leading to the lane below. They had come for me with a wooden cage in which I was to be removed. This scene of the two men, and that I am to be taken to the orphanage by them, frightened me very much.

My dream of being taken to an orphanage as a child was a nightmare. It was a dream of having my spirit depleted. However, my spirit was not depleted, stolen, or isolated. I found strategies to survive. Even as a child I knew that I was not the failure the school system told me I was. I wrote poetry. I wrote a diary. I lived a fairly solitary life for a child. I hid from or avoided those who would destroy my spirit. I was not taken to the orphanage; I affirmed life, creativity, and love. I saved myself by lying low, by not bringing attention to myself. I adapted to situations that other people would not have put up with. I was not lonely as a child, I was resigned to my life as I knew it. It did not take courage to survive; there was no alternative. I gained depth and affirmation of life. I lived in a kind of suspended animation. I created a new life in my writing, my thoughts, and my imagination. My home life as a child was spent being alone much of the time. I felt grief over my father's death that was never resolved. I attended many funerals, beginning with my father, and then my aunts, uncles, and grandparents; and I felt shame that I had failed two grades at school.

Another dream was also significant. When I was around thirteen years old I dreamed that I was in a room that either didn't have a door or I couldn't see the door. The windows of the room were covered with mud, although the room was still fairly bright. I remember being in this room and having, when I woke, the crystal clear awareness that I had to write down what was happening in my life or it would all be forgotten, that remembering had great importance for me or I would lose my inner being, my soul. I knew this intuitively. The influence of this dream was profound; it has resonated throughout my life: it told me that I have to remember my life, the alternative to remembering is confusion. As a young person I took this dream seriously and soon after having this dream I began writing both poetry and a diary. I have continued writing to this day.

There is the story of Scottish poets in the Western Highlands who, up to the seventeenth century, entered a "house of darkness" as part of their apprenticeship as poets. Alone, the poet entered a darkened room where there was no communication with the outside world. The room was windowless, it was a place of solitude necessary for composing poetry, a place also for memorizing poems and communing with the other world. These apprentice poets were Celts from Scotland, but the Celtic empire extended from Ireland on the west and across present-day Europe. It was a Celtic shamanic way to apprentice a poet, and it recognized the importance of dreams and the unconscious mind. When I heard of this Celtic way to initiate poets, I saw my dream of being enclosed in a room as an ancestral memory, a message to follow my path of poetry.

It is a mistake to think of my poetry as being negative because I have written about grief, death, and loss. The fact that I have written any poems at all is a celebration of existence. All of my work is an affirmation of life and the spiritual aspect of life. All of my work is a celebration of the Divine and a journey towards the Divine.

My life is a poet's journey, an affirmation of the life force, the triumph of spirit, and the survival of the individual despite what has been experienced. My whole life has been engaged with God, talking to God, God speaking to me through dreams, being separated from God, and then the return to God and Spirit in my late forties. An awareness of the presence of the Divine is one of the foundations on which my poems are written.

RR Skinner was my mentor and friend for many years. Our initial connection was a shared interest in the writings of J. Krishnamurti, but we also discussed other things. From August 1974, when I first met RR (Reginald Rice) Skinner, to the mid-1990s, when he died in his late eighties, we corresponded on an almost monthly basis. I also visited RR at his home, first at "Boisville," near Camberley, and then later at Felpham, near Bognor Regis, both in England. Felpham is where William Blake once lived and I would walk by Blake's old home on these visits. I heard RR's life story in considerable detail, and I also learned something of spirituality, healing, dowsing, and bee keeping from him. It was not uncommon that we would sit for ten hours and he would talk about his life and what he called "things appertaining" which referred to a spiritual and psychological understanding of life. Knowing RR, a mentor for me, has been a blessing in my life, one for which I am deeply grateful.

Poets can be insurance salesmen, janitors, lawyers, teachers, be unemployed, or unemployable and living on welfare or family money, but these are all ways of surviving on a day-to-day level. The commitment of a poet is to writing poems, and this requires vision, dedication, single-mindedness, and determination in order to do the work the poet was born to do.

Over a three-day period in late April 1977 I wrote a long poem, "Divisions." I wrote about things that had deep emotional meaning in my life. I had married the previous summer, in August 1976, and the wedding was immediately followed by marital turmoil. Writing "Divisions" was a catharsis, a purging of emotions. When I wrote "Divisions" the form of the poem was also important. Form is the container of content and they must work together, must be congruent for the poem to be effective. This is part of the process of finding one's voice in poetry, of finding a voice that speaks with authority and clarity and is true to one's inner being. I accomplished this in "Divisions."

Soon after I married for the first time, I knew that the marriage was something to be endured. I lived a dispirited existence, not a life-affirming and expansive one, just as I had before the marriage. Then, for several years in my thirties, I didn't write much poetry at all; that was why I turned my attention to writing book reviews and essays on poetry. Much of the poetry I managed to write reflected my spiritual emptiness and unhappiness. I am not blaming the marriage for this; I take responsibility for the mistakes I have made in my life and in my first marriage. I was dispirited before the marriage, and the marriage itself only emphasized my emotional and spiritual condition.

In my late thirties my life as I knew it ended due to a series of events. Years later I discovered that I had gone through what astrologers refer to as a Pluto transit over my ascendant, an experience that eliminates one's old life. This Pluto transit lasted several years and during this time I got divorced, ending of my thirteen-year marriage; I went to court; there was a cult murder next door where I lived; and other things happened that contributed to the ending of my life as it had been lived up to that time. I remember lying down in a country field and crying out "God help me, God help me." I was not the same person at the end of this period as I was at the beginning. It was my descent into Hades.

In the 1990s, I wrote "The Shadow Trilogy" (The Compass, 1993; The Yoni Rocks 1995; The Mystic Beast, 1997; all published by Empyreal Press, Montreal), books that came from an awareness of the shadow aspect of the human soul. The shadow is an important archetype in Jungian psychology, it is made up of what we reject in ourselves and then project onto other people. 'Owning one's shadow' refers to being aware of one's dark side, being responsible for one's psychology instead of projecting its negative aspects onto other people. Writing these three books was an important part of my life's journey. It was a time of understanding the first half of my life.

As a woman brings to life a man's potential, CZ has animated me to live more fully and deeply. She is a person of compassion and intelligence who has helped me fulfill my talent and destiny. She is a brilliant poet who has also worked as an editor and publisher. We met in June 1991 and we've been together since December 1991. She is my life partner, my creative partner, and my friend and partner in family affairs.

Family history is a quest that can take up years of one's life. You don't necessarily go on a quest knowing you are on one; it is something that gradually preoccupies much of one's time. My quest was to find my ancestors, to list them genealogically, and to find information about them: who they are, their dates of birth and death, where they lived, and some facts about their lives. Writing poetry is not a quest, it is a calling; family history has been a quest. You can turn down a quest and get away with it; if you turn down a calling you do your soul irreparable harm.

When I was a child I knew, intuitively, that the stories I heard my relatives tell about the family were important. I felt there was heroism to life, not the traditional heroism and bravery of the battlefield, but heroism involved in everyday life by everyday people. I felt that remembering the past was important. I recorded the stories I heard about my relatives and ancestors. Even as a child I always felt that the real heroes were average people, the ones who survive and who go about their lives with dignity. It is the ordinary people among us who I found to be of great interest.

I often think about the ancestors. I think of all the generations of my family, beginning with the first family members to move to Montreal. My great great grandfather, Lawrence Morrissey, moved from Ireland to New Brunswick, Canada in 1837 in the company of his parents (my great great great grandparents Patrick Morrissy and Mary Phelan) and his six siblings: John, Michael, Mary, and Patrick who were all older than Lawrence, and Catherine, the youngest of the children. The whole family uprooted themselves from where they lived, possibly in Mullinahone, County Tipperary, and moved as a group to Canada. Patrick, Lawrence's father, was a saddler by profession and not a young man when he moved here; he may have been as old as fifty years. What caused them to move, whether by necessity or the desire to improve the material prospects of the family, isn't known. I believe Lawrence married within months of arriving in New Brunswick and a few years later he and his wife, Johannah Meany and their son, or perhaps two sons, moved to Montreal.

I honour and respect the ancestors by remembering them. I am in a direct line of ancestors according to family dates of birth and death. I was born on April 27th, just days before the first day of the Celtic season of Beltane, which is on May 1st, and which for the Celts is the first day of summer. Beltane, with Samhain, winter, is the time when the other world is closest to our material world. Samhain, which begins on November 1st, is the first day of winter for the Celts, and is a time when the days grow shorter and the fabric between the material world and the world of the ancestors and spirit is at its thinnest. This is when the ancestors communicate with us the most, whether it is in dreams, or by their presence.

One November night a few years ago I sat in a restaurant with some friends. After we ate our dinner a band played music. While the others listened I was filled with deeply moving memories of my father and later that night wrote a poem about the final days of his life, of his journey to a hospital in Boston where he died a few weeks later. The next day I discovered it was the forty-seventh anniversary of my father's death. The ancestors visit us if we listen to them. I have walked on the street and felt the presence of the spirits of ancestors walking with me; I have felt them pressing against me when they have numbered in the hundreds.

I love all of the ancestors, no matter how elevated or how lowly their social position when they were alive. Some of them are a daily presence in my life, as though they were physically present. I believe I have a connection, extending across my whole life, with the ancestors. I loved my grandmother, Edith Sweeney, who died one month short of her ninetieth birthday, on April 23, 1965, and who was buried the day before my fifteenth birthday. My great grandmother, Mary Callaghan was born on my mother's birthday, March 1st, and died in 1906 on my birthday, April 27. Mary Callaghan's father died on my birthday, in 1905. My great great grandmother, Johannah Meany, died on April 26th, 1880. Out of all the dozens of dates of family members' births and deaths that I have recorded, these are some of the ancestors I feel are the closest to me, all are in a direct line of family members. I have in my own way and to the best of my ability honoured seven generations of my family.

This is what is important in my life: writing poems; loving my wife and giving time, care, and love to our family; honouring the ancestors; and loving God.

When I heard that a friend's sister, living in New York City, was a shaman, I thought it was mildly humourous. Then, by chance, I read a transcript of one of her shamanic healing journeys. I found it fascinating. I said, "I can do that." It is not really hard to journey, but I also had years of foundational work before I began exploring shamanism. It is now clear to me that I began my shamanic work when I was a child and had dreams that changed my life.

The shamanic journey is not the product of imagination and it is not a guided meditation; it is also not 'active imagination.' What you do on a journey is watch, observe, and later record what one experiences. You cannot influence what happens on the journey, it is not dreaming or lucid dreaming in which you attempt to control your dreams. The intentionality of the journey is the shaman's; the details of the experience are only discovered when they are happening.

When I read that shamans believed that being dispirited—losing one's spirit, the loss of spirit, the diminishment of spirit, the attack on spirit—is one of the causes of spiritual, psychological, and even physical illness in people, I knew that they were right. Shamanism is the original spirituality, mankind's common experience of the numinous before the advent of organized religions.

The language or imagery of the shamanic journey is made up of archetypes and symbols, both are found in the collective unconscious. Oral poetry is the original art, mankind's first expression of the spiritual. What one perceives during a shamanic journey is what is literally experienced, not as archetypes, not as symbols, but as fact. The poet's journey is not the same thing as the shaman's journey, but there are some similarities.

Marriage between a man and a woman—the expression of male and female energy—is a basic archetype of life. In archetypes we discover universal laws that govern life. To deviate too far from the archetypes is to lose touch with what connects us to humanity, wisdom, and the eternal.

In my late forties, for no apparent reason, I became interested in the Holy Spirit. I read the bible—in several translations—for the first time. I made notes and studied what I was reading. With some effort I remembered the words to the Lord's Prayer, which I had forgotten. It seemed incredible that I could have wandered as far from God as I had, because I felt very close to God as a child. I believe it was at this time that God called me back from the wilderness I had inhabited for many years.

The root meaning of the word "enthusiasm" is to be "filled with God." To be "filled with God" is to have a spirited approach to life. Dispirited people drag themselves through their daily existence, they aren't "filled with God." To have lost our enthusiasm is to be dispirited at a very basic level. As a child I knew what it meant to feel "collapsed inside"—"The days of my youth rise fresh in my mind, / My face turns green and pale," as William Blake describes someone looking back on his youth. I created a new life for myself, and I always affirmed life; this was accomplished, at least in part, by writing poems. The spiritual, for me, is nourished by and manifested in the poems I am writing.

Stephen Morrissey
2003 - 2009
Montreal, Canada