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Noah Leznoff. "Between Being and Poetry" was published in the Winter 1997 issue of (muse)Letters — A Journal of the League of Canadian Poets in response to an essay by Steven Morrissey.



The word bites like a fish.
Shall I throw it back free
Arrowing to that sea
Where thoughts lash tail and fin?
Or shall I pull it in
To rhyme upon dish?

              —Stephen Spender

Steve Morrissey's "Self-Censorship In Poetry" raises some important questions for me as a young writer still feeling his way into voice and form. Although I generally agree with the importance Morrissey attributes to "truth", and with his assertion that "poetry is aligned to spiritual or psychic insight", I'm drawn for the sake of balance to play out the other side of the equation: craft, form, manipulation and well...artifice. This, knowing that poetics in general are rear-guard rationales for what we find ourselves doing, we hope, well.

So yeah, for me the thorn is the nature and primacy of "truth". Morrissey's argument, within the broader rubric of the transcendentalists, arrives ultimately at chi and Tao-practices / states of which I confess relative ignorance. But as I read it, the main idea ("not holding back") is that poetry, as a kind of pure essence, can only flourish once we peel away all the deadening fronts that obstruct acute perception, self-knowledge, and honest communication; stuff like ulteriorly-motivated rhetorics, easy or lazy associative sensibilities, restrictive structures — the traps that apply equally to aesthetic, interpersonal and social forms. We know what deadens the world — and we've all read bad poems that try to con us into being impressed; poems, that like self-serving politicians, would, as Morrissey says, "deceive the reader and betray our trust."

On the other hand, we've all probably written poems (I know I have) that are either dreadfully honest, or raw exploratory babble — in which the emotion hasn't been recollected in tranquillity, or at least brought closer to readability by aesthetic manipulation or a sense of what might actively engage a reader and move the piece beyond the purely personal. Morrissey's poetic touches on this:

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 persona. Writing at this level of truth-telling, without self-censorship, releases chi, is part of the Tao.

I agree as far as I understand it (though I'm not completely sold on "peoplekind" as an accessible audience, even remotely imagined or as working principle). But still there are the twin matters of "fashion[ing] it through art" and how this process — practically, we're talking about the aesthetics of re-vision — might undermine claims to pure "truth" of primary expression. Morrissey does contend with the issue, distinguishing "invention" [bad] from "imagination" [good] and "characterization" [bad] from "true persona" [good — and satori?], but on these points the argumentation, perhaps in the interest of space, remains relatively cursory. I mean, I'd like to hear more.

It's perhaps interesting, too, that Morrissey chooses Donne's love poetry as an example of, "poetic license" aside, "testimony to the truth of deeply-felt emotion". For me what's as engaging about The Flea, for example, is precisely the opposite of "inner revelation"; rather, it's the plying of the central conceit, the sense that the poet is deriving and can give pleasure from manipulation, from the self-conscious voice resounding against and within conventional motif and form — in short (no, long), not just the inner emotion, but the poem's tacit acknowledgement of the collective aesthetic sensibility (in which inheres a kind of "censorship", perhaps "self-censorship") and the poem's ability to play around in and redefine that space. And it's the same type of staged "mask" or "characterization" that makes Whitman so real and seductive for me.

So maybe there are at least two types of "poetic untruths": those that try to bullshit the reader by positing the poem beyond him/her, and those that would extend a hand and invite the reader onto a play-stage, into an artificial construction — the art is to conceal the art — where, in the process of enacting or singing, truths profound or small (and I prefer the ring of the latter), or ambiguities and irresolutions, are discovered. And maybe, too, part of that theatre space (for our purposes) is the evolving aesthetic, the poetic sensibilities, of any given epoch.

But forget the reader for a minute before we get sucked into pandering to either audience or trendy theory at the expense of inner self. Even at the level of personal truth then: the "art form" as an external but elastic inheritance and framework informs our sense of poetic and ontological "truth" — given, especially, that we discover and on some level re-define ourselves through the poems we read and write. (Why else art?) That is, if I want it both "real" and "poetry" I can only ply and understand my inner/emerging self-as-language in the context of collective linguistic-aesthetic norms — of which, for example, the current "standard of intensity" is just one. I mean, I want to write "good poems", not just "true" emotions, and much of how I define "good" (and define myself, partially, through poetic endeavour) comes, even if I hate to admit it, from "poetic culture" — late 20th century poetry — whatever that is (including inherent traditions), however that's authorised by magazines, books, cd's, awards — and however I internalize, albeit selectively and critically, some of that.

For me then: "universal" themes and "inner truth" notwith-standing, the voice and self I "find" on paper are never completely "mine" or "true" not because they tap into, or not, a universal "soul", not merely because I'm working (as did the earliest practitioners) meter or metaphor — but because how we ascribe and understand poetic virtue evolves in tandem with other changes in socio-political, technological and aesthetic culture.

And I wonder whether my work can really be "true" without recognizing that.

Ultimately, it may be a theological or at least metaphysical question of whether poems disclose a pre-existing god-space where everything is one, or whether they fumble to construct meaning and beauty on-the-fly; of whether truth exists a priori, awaiting revelation through, among other things, poetry — or whether it, truth, is no less liquid than the cognitive, linguistic or aesthetic forms though which it finds expression.

I figure though, differing emphases aside, most of us end up acknowledging on some level four interpenetrating fields of poetic consciousness: the inner self, the outer world, an imagined poetry reader (as social and moral sibling), and the map of contemporary aesthetics; that is, our shared understandings of what can make a good poem.

Noah Leznoff's works copyright © to the author.

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