Towards An Authentic Voice In Poetry:
by Stephen Morrissey
There are different definitions of “voice”, or “poetic voice”, but what concerns me here is an “authentic voice in poetry”. For poets, voice is the expression of the inner being, the psyche, the soul; it is an authentic, distinctive, individual voice in poetry. Voice is not “style”, style in poetry changes but voice stays more or less consistent over a lifetime of writing. After giving a formal definition of voice, M.H. Abrams, in his A Glossary of Literary Terms (1999), writes, “Critics such as Walter J. Ong. . . distinguish between the author’s genuine self or identity; as they see it, for a writer to discover his ‘true’ voice is to discover himself… the sense of a convincing authorial voice and presence, whose values, beliefs, and moral vision serve implicitly as controlling forces throughout a work, helps to sway the reader to yield the imaginative consent without which a poem or novel would remain an elaborate verbal game.”
Years ago I read Allen Ginsberg’s dictum for artists to “scribble down your nakedness, because it is the nakedness of the soul that interests people”. This statement was liberating for me as a young poet; it became part of my approach to writing what I later learned was “confessional poetry”. Frank Bidart defines confessional poetry as consisting of the “crucial events for the making of the soul” (from Bidart’s Introduction to Robert Lowell’s Collected Poems, 2007). I knew, intuitively, that the discovery of my authentic voice was necessary if I wanted to write poems that had any lasting meaning or significant importance to me.
It isn’t the sound of your voice or how well you read a poem out loud that is voice. It isn’t a poem for several voices. It isn’t slam poetry or performance poetry. It’s the essence of who you are as it is expressed in the way you write, your own individual voice. There is no way to “invent” one’s authentic voice, it’s a mysterious and ineffable combination of talent, work, and chance; discovering one’s authentic voice is the birth of the visionary poet.
I begin with the assumption that poetry is a medium for communicating the individual’s soul. William Blake emphasized that we find the eternal and universal in the temporal and personal; the geography of the soul is found in our immediate environment. The Irish poet, Patrick Kavanaugh, writes in one of his poems, “He knew that posterity has no use/ For anything but the soul…” Poetry that is authentic to psyche is poetry that people anywhere, at any time, will respond to; it expresses an emotional truth and people will resonate to this poetry.
What is the purpose of poetry in our present age? We need to define what concerns us as poets, we need to ask what it is that poetry can say better than the other arts. Poetry has a place in people’s lives but people won’t read poetry if the other arts have more to say and are more interesting than poetry, be it novels, short stories, visual art, photography, music, film, dance, and so on. Every age has its share of literary conformity but conformity and political correctness have nothing to do with poetry; our responsibility as poets is to find our authentic voice. People respond to an authentic voice in poetry—it is an expression of the poet’s vision, a part of the poet’s journey in life—and these poems become a part of the reader’s journey.
~Stephen Morrissey, April 2015
Stephen Morrissey was born in Montreal, Canada. He has published nine books of poetry; most recently, A Private Mythology, was published by Ekstasis Editions in 2014. His literary papers are archived at Rare Books and Special Collections, McLennan Library, McGill University.
Visit the poet at www.stephenmorrissey.ca