Many years ago, at an arts residency set in the capacious grounds of a former country house in the north of Ireland, I attracted the ire of another poet. The poet was a senior poet from my country—someone whose work I admired. He seemed to ground his antagonism in what he inferred and imputed about my religious beliefs. The gist of his critique seemed to be that a religious person could not be an honest poet. The way he expressed this was in terms of self-censorship: you cannot, he told me, be an honest poet and an honest religious person at the same time, because your religion would be censoring your poetry, or vice versa. The implication seemed to be that either my poetry was dishonest or my faith was. When I asked him for an example, he cited sexuality: “No religious person can be honest about sexuality.”
This was news to me.
Eventually his antagonism became severe enough that I avoided locations where I might encounter him. It boiled over at dinner one night, at table. A painter from Belfast reproved him sharply for being a bully and a boor. He left his residency, early, a few days later.
Prior to that, I had protested that I had never knowingly censored any of my writing, on the grounds of sexuality or anything else. But his accusation stayed with me, as a question.
My writing is generally intuitive: I take dictation, in the Spicerian sense. I don’t plan poems. If I know where a poem is aiming more than a line or two ahead of the act of composition, that is—a lot to know. (And the more I know, or think I know, the more likely the writing will veer into prose, which is the idiom of knowing, as opposed to seeking or receiving.) Sometimes, I plan an experience that is meant, with any luck or grace, to foster poems: opting to spend a month at a former country house in the north of Ireland, for example. Only rarely do I set myself a topic and then try to work within that topic. Usually this results in my scholarly instincts kicking in—too many years working towards a Ph.D.!—and the results are prose.
For a poet who is a Christian—for any artist whose faith inheres within a prescriptive religious tradition—there is this nagging question, I mean about the uses to which we or others put the word. In Christianity we are admonished that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” That’s a heady amount of baggage for language to carry, since every word descends, on some real or imagined level, from that ur-Word.
We are also admonished to “try the spirits, whether they are of God.” In Christianity there are many spirits but only one Spirit. Discernment is called for.
So for me, as someone who hopes to be an honest poet as well as an honest believer, the question is not one of self-censorship. It is a question of trial. (Fortunately, one has a long run of guides, from Ephrem the Syrian to Mechthild of Magdeburg to Flannery O’Connor.)
For me, this trial is part of the revision process—often an integral aspect of that process. Yes, one is evaluating nouns, verbs, and images in terms of vividness, gestures in terms of music, form in terms of content, content in terms of form. But there is also the question of how a given poem is to be read, if not in the Spirit than in light of that Spirit, by me or by anyone.
There is a sense in which all poems are true, on their own terms. (I’ve never been persuaded by arguments concerning poetic “authenticity.” How can a machine made of words—Williams’s definition—be anything other than what it is? A machine is not “authentic.” Poets can be inauthentic, as human actors—and I suppose some are, at presumably the same rate as other human actors (although somehow we expect more, and better, of poets). But a machine is not “authentic.” It either works, or else it does not, or somewhere in between, depending on its design and handler.
Poems are “true” because they exist, as artifacts in language. Sharable artifacts. What we know about the poet, context, or circumstance may or may not enter into our reading of a given poem. Certainly I bring a different set of expectations, associations, and desires to a poem than you do.
A few years after my sojourn in Ireland, I had a heated conversation with another poet, a friend, who accused me of “not throwing enough away” (of my draft work). As this friend was, at the time, suspended between his first and second book with no outcome in sight, I suggested that perhaps he was throwing away too much. But then this question of self-censorship came up again. No, he told me, discarding mediocre work was not “self-censorship.”
What else could it be?
For the record, I set aside most of my writing. Because at some point, it fails the tests—the trials—of revision, the re-visioning that is an essential part of any artwork’s journey from the artist to the world. One of those tests (or sets of tests) is craft. But I also take the spiritual trial seriously. Is a poem speaking fully from or towards the most authentic expression of my experience—including my faith experience—that it can? (“Authenticity” used here in terms of congruence, not a static congruence but a quickened, even anticipatory congruence: certainly a communicable congruence.) If it isn’t, why not? Where’s the difficulty?
I’ve written elsewhere that I don’t write directly, that is to say in terms of discursive anecdote, about my life in a religious community. That’s because I take seriously the otherness of the lives of my coreligionists. They did not sign on to a high level of spiritual intimacy in order that I feature them as characters in poems. On the rare occasion someone or something recognizable seems to feature in a poem of mine, I always ask the other person(s) how they might feel about my representation of some shared experience. Mostly I avoid writing those poems, or I write them as honestly as I can from within my own limited perspective.
Is this censorship? Or is it deference? To me, it seems like a trial of spirit: a deference, to the irreducible otherness of others. And to consensual intimacy.
For me, the poem—the memorable poem, the valuable poem—not only recognizes that consensual intimacy: it extends it, as the poem moves from hand to hand, mind to mind, heart to heart. The poem is a consensual enlargement of intimacy and experience.
As it happened, at the time I was sojourning in Ireland, I was plotting—literally—a long poem, a poem-as-experimental-libretto, based on the life of one of my great-grandmothers. She was born in a small town in Pennsylvania to a working-class family. She found she was pregnant shortly after her 14th birthday, was turned out of the house, and lived for some years roughly in Trenton, New Jersey. There is some evidence suggesting she worked as a prostitute. She certainly became the moll of a local gangster. He beat her, and eventually she fled—from a Hoboken tenement—embarking on a long odyssey that took her to many American cities. She marched for women’s suffrage in Minneapolis. She kept her child with her (often one step ahead of what passed for social services in those days). She worked as a milliner. She may also have continued to work the streets, which would explain how she met up with an older widower in the Boston suburbs who converted her to Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science. By the time I knew her—briefly, in earliest childhood—she was what one might call a dowdy Christian Science missionary woman. As far as we—me, my cousins, my mother and my aunts—knew, she had only one sibling. Later, one by one, we found out about the others.
I have some training as a professional genealogist, and after years of trying to work out the question of who could have been the father of her child (she, my great-grandmother, was a connoisseur of disinformation; she faked the family Bible entries), I nailed it. The Pennsylvania Department of Vital Statistics coughed up my grandmother’s birth certificate, which they’d been withholding for a century. Was it the Trenton gangster she later married, whose surname my grandmother adopted? Was it a neighborhood boy? Was it the older, better-off man in whose company my great-grandmother sometimes appeared in her hometown? Was it her own brother, her only brother, of whom she remained terrified all her adult life?
And I haven’t even told you about the murders.
It’s a good story, isn’t it? By conventional rights, it’s my story. I wanted to write my way, and in part imagine my way, into this story, dwelling on the question of who the father of her child was.
But it wasn’t just my story: it belonged to others, too. (There are always others.) My two surviving aunts asked me not to work on this. They agreed that these were interesting questions—a juicy storyline—but they said they were uncomfortable with the idea of my conveying this interest to others, on their behalf as it were. I interviewed my grandmother’s one surviving first cousin in the Philadelphia suburbs. She spoke hesitantly but remembered my great-grandmother’s brief, extravagant streaks across her childhood, the scandal those caused. She, too, asked me not to write about this. “Not until I’m dead,” she specified.
It is a poet’s job, first and foremost, to write. Never avert your eyes, we are told, in another context. But in not averting our eyes we don’t always have to speak. Or share.
I went to my bishop and expressed some of the concerns I was having, the question of whether laying this project down was a betrayal of vocation. His answer was, “If this is truly part of your vocation, then you will have a spiritual argument for the necessity of the work.” His instruction was to seek that argument and get back to him once I’d found it.
But my argument was lame. It was, essentially, “this is a really cool story I have access and some notional ‘right’ to through my family connection and it would be interesting to pursue it.” My bishop’s response was to nod and say “Is that enough?”
One of my aunts called back with a different question, or set of questions. “And if you do this, and I learn something new about my mother, my grandmother—what will that do for me, or to me? How will that change who I am, the life I led, the lives I could have led?”
Those are good questions, too. I ask them of myself every time I encounter a work of art or literature that seems powerful to me, that exerts power over my being. I ask them every time my experience—spiritual or otherwise—leads me back into the presence of my God.
I don’t use any of the names here for fear of doing, here, what I decided not to do, in the event, in the poem.
I could tell you I abandoned this project because of my bishop’s concern, or because of my relatives’. I could tell you that finally solving the mystery of my grandmother’s paternity—at least in the eyes of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania—drained some of the mystery and urgency away. I could tell you I didn’t get the grant I expected. I could tell you that about this time, a composer I admired released a song cycle (David Lang’s Match Girl Passion) which used the literary device I was planning to deploy as the heart and scaffolding of my own libretto, Andersen’s irreducibly horrifying account of a girl on the streets: and I didn’t want my work to seem derivative of his. I could tell you that I struggled with how to approach Mary Baker Eddy’s alarming (to me) theological propositions. I could tell you that I could not, no matter how hard I tried, evolve an argument to present to a jury in any spiritual trial.
All of these are true.
I placed my outlines and drafts and research notes in a file cabinet drawer. Now, I couldn’t even tell you which cabinet, much less which drawer.
Every past is a usable past, but not every past is usable, or necessary, or edifying, to every person, in every moment. Is one lesson, here.
Was this “self-censorship”? It certainly didn’t feel like self-censorship, if self-censorship is a process of obfuscation accompanied by guilt or blame. It felt like running a race—exhilarating, then exhausting, and then, finally, done, leaving me satisfied but with nothing to share, no artifact to pass from hand to human eye or hand. In this case the journey, the experience of the journey, began in me, and it ended in me. As some poems do.