Towards An Authentic Voice In Poetry: 5 Statements by Stephen Morrissey

Towards An Authentic Voice In Poetry:

5 Statements


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

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

Posted on by urbangraffito Posted in Essay, Writing

6 Responses to Towards An Authentic Voice In Poetry: 5 Statements by Stephen Morrissey

  1. Gabor Gasztonyi

    Some very clear and important statements on poetry. The authentic voice is always elusive and yet absolutely essential. The true poet can only speak the truth.

  2. Lucille Friesen

    This is so true as I have found out recently going through all my poems and realizing that regardless of style or “subject matter” of the moment, even from my first dilettante attempts my inner most being is speaking. Even when trying to be clever, it still seeps in. Perhaps this comes from writing out of necessity rather than a will to be literary. Which is only enhanced by working on in this “craft and sullen art”.

  3. Marciai Goldberg

    Glad I found the Urban Graffiti posting (saw the graphics elsewhere–maybe on QWF post?) and gave your thoughts the time they merit to be read. Voice, coming into one’s voice, something beyond a “speech act” for sure — as you detect here, it is equivalent to the cle sherif, a sacred vessel like the mouth/tongue. Your fifth point made me wonder what the impact of text messaging, iCloud communiques, FB memos….the robotic/cyber swirl of new things has done to the voices of youth…..

    • Stephen Morrissey

      Hi Marcia, Hope you are well! I read your comments and appreciate hearing from you. Personally, my feeling is that as long as someone discovers what they think is their genuine poetic voice the technology–FB, text messaging, etc.–don’t really matter. What really matters is that they find their voice. Then, try to get beyond all of the distractions and ambitions of being a poet, that’s all peripheral to being a poet.

      • urbangraffito

        Stephen, I understand Marcia’s concern regarding the “impact of text messaging, iCloud communiques, FB memos….the robotic/cyber swirl of new things has done to the voices of youth…” especially surrounding social media. Facebook and Twitter are fast becoming avenues of the digital age’s new McCarthyism in which the voices of youth, the traditional voices of dissent, the authentic voice of poetry are bullied and shamed into silence by the online minions of political correctness and academic fascism. An authentic voice, particularly in the digital age, has a high cost.

        • Stephen Morrissey

          Just read your comment, Mark. Any time any of us stray from PC we are at risk of being vilified and told to shut the F.. up. The only fortunate thing is that people have very short memories, attention spans of about five minutes max, and they are quick to move on to someone else they can express their hostility and self-righteousness to… That short attention span saves us, as my Jamaican neighbour said (after putting up a seven foot fence between her and her racist neighbour) quoting from her mother, it’s about nine days before people either forget what they don’t like about you or reconfigure their impression of you. In either case, people’s self-interest usually wins out. For some of us, first discover the authentic voice and then it is impossible to stray too far from it or else risk losing one’s deepest source of poetry and thought. Yes, the digital age has changed a lot but it hasn’t denied us our integrity, but it has tried…