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Michael Simms: God, Poetry and Trauma

I’m 68 years old, but it’s only in the last few years that I’ve come out as being ‘on the spectrum’ as well as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Besides my personal reasons for going public with this information, I came out because I wanted to explore this subject in my poems, having been inspired by poets like Franz Wright and Nadia Colburn who’ve written bravely about their survival of childhood trauma. Of course, these kinds of subjects are not new to poetry. Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath, for example, wrote openly about their mental instability, and even Emily Dickinson, the most reticent of major American poets, begins a poem with The Soul has Bandaged moments and ends with the couplet: The Horror welcomes her, again, / These, are not brayed of Tongue— 

In a sense, including my experience of trauma in my writing has been part of a process that’s been going on ever since I started writing poems fifty years ago. When I was a teenager I learned to sit quietly and listen, gently pushing aside what I thought of as ‘the noise’ and what the Buddhists call ‘monkey mind,’ to find the exact word or phrase that evoked the mood I felt. My early poems were imagistic, influenced by translations of East Asian poetry, and I was always aware of the craft of the poem as I was writing it. Metaphor, tone, and rhythm were present in the first draft, and one or two drafts were usually sufficient to complete a short poem. I was composing by a process of exclusion, trying to capture a mood and leaving out everything that wasn’t a perfect fit. I strove to create a simple scene perceived through a veil of vision.

After a decade of writing in this way, I became dissatisfied with the narrowness of the approach, and I gradually began to include more in the poem. As the poems grew longer, narrative and argument became the unifying elements in the poem, rather than mood and imagery. Now, after decades of writing, I embrace virtually anything as the possible subject of a poem. Often a poem starts with a small observation about a plant or animal, or perhaps a personal situation, and then as I explore it, a flood of details washes over me. I’ve learned to trust the impulse and write down all the details I can think of. I dig through the layers of my awareness, especially the “noise,” for images, ideas and feelings, piling them on the page without any attempt at shaping them. They may be personal memories, scientific or historical facts, or simply a stream of images and ideas. These ruminations can accumulate quickly in one sitting, or they may add up over a number of days. At some point, I’ve said all I have to say on the subject, and I put the draft aside. After a few days, I come back to the draft and read it looking for the center, the main subject of the flow. There’s usually a starting point, a first line, buried in the words somewhere. Once I have that beginning, I treat it as the end of a thread, and I follow it wherever it goes, unspooling the thoughts as they move down the page. If I lose my way and don’t know what comes next, then I go back to the first spontaneous draft and pick up the thread again. Eventually, I come to a place which seems like the end of the experience. The story or the argument has been made, and I set aside the draft. After a few days, I start polishing, cutting and rearranging, sharpening the language, combining sentences, thinking about the rhythm, the tone, the argument, the narrative. But the whole process is intuitive, not nearly as formulaic as my description makes it sound; it’s all about the poet turning off the inner censor and letting the words flow.

As a result of this openness to my own thoughts and feelings, many of them undiscovered until I actually write them down, I’ve found myself writing about the violence, confusion and fear I experienced as a child. For example, The Dark is a recent poem which describes visiting Carlsbad Caverns when I was eleven years old; the experience of being enveloped in complete darkness changed me in ways I still don’t completely understand. Another poem Swamp Thing is about being sodomized by an older boy when I was eight and then retreating into comic book fantasies to protect myself afterwards. Writing about my childhood trauma has enabled me to own the experiences in a way I never did when I was hiding them. However, despite the healing that comes from speaking of traumatic experience, we need to understand that poetry is not therapy. Online, I often see a poem that is a sincere description of a psychological struggle, and perhaps a breakthrough in that process, but what is lacking is a rigorous attention to the art of writing. Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to share one’s feelings with readers, but there’s an important difference between an expression of feeling and a crafted expression of feeling. For example, Sylvia Plath’s Daddy is a great poem, but it’s of dubious value as therapy because the urgency of the poet’s situation is lost in the elliptical beauty created by the tension between sound and meaning. Although therapy and poetry may share a common root in a soul-damaging event, they have different purposes: one tries to help a person overcome suffering, and the other tries to create music out of experience.

In conversation with women, men will often say things like “I’m not that complicated. I don’t have the confusing contradictory emotions that you have. My feeling-life is pretty simple: food, sex, entertainment – that’s all I need.” However, I would suspect that the feelings of men are just as complicated, scary and overwhelming as those of women, but men do not acknowledge them, nor are they encouraged to express them. And if the man has experienced abuse or trauma – as most of us have – then his feelings have been buried for years. Men often turn to alcohol and drugs, or addictive behaviors such as gambling or watching pornography, as strategies to over-ride the emotions, turning to intoxication or excitement as a way of beating down the rage and fear. Of course, the emotions cannot be controlled this way indefinitely. They are bound to come out sooner or later, and probably in ways that are dangerous or destructive. 

Twelve-step groups can be helpful in that they encourage the development of honesty and personal responsibility, but these group meetings probably do not reach down far enough to help the man overcome his repression. Conversations with friends, especially male friends, are usually not helpful in dealing with this repression because the friend is probably experiencing the same repressions and the conversations can easily devolve in encouraging each other to continue the denial of emotions. (Hey, dude, shake it off. Man up. Do what you gotta do, you know?) However, a trained and dedicated therapist can be helpful in showing the man how to look at the traumatic experiences he doesn’t want to think about. The therapist can gently help the man peel back the layers of denial and evasion and discover a more authentic way of dealing with his contradictory and confusing emotions. 

One of my sponsors used to say, ‘It’s hell growing up at the age of sixty.” And indeed, it is, but if we don’t keep growing then we die. Growing up is not something we do when we’re children and then we are a finished, fully formed at the age of twenty-one. Instead, learning more about oneself and the world and the ways the two interact is at the very heart of being a good person.

I woke to hear an unsettled friend, who may be a voice in my head, confiding: “I am slightly autistic which means that for me the daily interactions with people are confusing, frustrating and fraught with social clues I don’t get because I’m paying attention to other kinds of signals the person is giving off. I often find myself not listening to a person, but instead seeing things about him or her that they think they are hiding. This super-power, as I like to think of it, enables me to interpret highly complex interactions between people while not believing a word they say. Instead, I’m acutely aware of small signals like eye contact, hand motion, posture, and speech rhythm. I often can tell a person is lying even though I don’t know exactly what they are talking about. So… in addition to being autistic, am I also insane? Probably. But people who are sane really should pay more attention to what insane people are saying because we are paying attention to things other people don’t see.”

A man I used to sponsor is almost certainly a genius. He has two PhDs from a world-renowned university, one in physics and the other in geology. He works as a consultant for energy companies, helping them to determine where they should drill for gas. He once said, “In the 19th century, if you asked a scientist whether he believed in God, he would have answered, ‘Of course, I don’t believe in God, I’m a scientist.” But if you ask a scientist today whether he believes in God, he would answer, “Of course, I believe in God, I’m a scientist.’” And indeed, if you study contemporary theoretical physics, you can see that the more we come to understand the nature of subatomic particles, the more mysterious the universe becomes. A human body, for instance, is made up mostly of empty space, and the particles that are solid are really not solid at all, but something more like locations that are vibrating at the speed of light… So, do I believe in God? Why wouldn’t I since I’m a little piece of God myself. As are you.


Copyright 2022 Michael Simms. Sections of this essay were first published in Cultural Weekly.

Michael Simms is the founder and editor of Vox Populi. His books include American Ash, a collection of poems, as well as a novel Bicycles of the Gods: A Divine Comedy.

19 comments on “Michael Simms: God, Poetry and Trauma

  1. Patricia A. Nugent
    November 23, 2022

    Brilliant – a mini-course in authentic writing. Thank you.

    Like

  2. Lisa Zimmerman
    October 31, 2022

    I love this essay. 💖

    Like

  3. Lex Runciman
    October 26, 2022

    These pieces make for eloquent testimony. Enough of them and you’d have a book!

    Like

    • Vox Populi
      October 26, 2022

      Well, Lex, this essay took 68 years to write, so at this pace, I’ll have a book in 500 years!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Lex Runciman
        October 26, 2022

        Keep the door open. Keep on.

        Like

  4. vengodalmare
    October 23, 2022

    Thank you. That’s the only response to your beautiful article.
    Thank you for sharing your life, the experiences that have characterized it, the description of your poetic art and your not considering poetry as a kind of self-therapy.
    And, again, thank you for existing.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. matthewjayparker
    October 23, 2022

    Great piece, Michael. I like the bit about spotting trauma in others. I used to do this in prison–it was so obvious there, as one might imagine. Of course, self-preservation kept me from pointing it out, which was and is a shame, really. Funny, I’ve never seen a therapist, and often wonders what he or she might dredge up. It did, however, meet Oliver Sachs when I was a student at Columbia, and got him to sign my copy of Musicophilia, which I then, some years later, mailed to Gabby Giffords when she was in recovery after being shot in a Houston hospital, and perhaps both events are therapy enough.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Vox Populi
      October 23, 2022

      Thanks, Matthew. I admire the work you’ve done in healing yourself. You’ve had a long and difficult road.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Martha Collins
    October 22, 2022

    Thank you so much, Michael. Lovely piece.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Barbara Huntington
    October 22, 2022

    This week, I found myself saying, “ Dear god I don’t believe in, am not Job. I have many flaws and don’t need to be tested, cuz I will fail. Cut it out already.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Robert S. Simms
    October 22, 2022

    Beautiful.

    Bob

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    Liked by 1 person

  9. Saleh Razzouk
    October 22, 2022

    A brave article. We tend not to confess. I learned from politics hiding the truth is very essential law.
    Trauma is not dangerous. It is an elementary way to defend your self from far worse things. It is another form of neurosis.
    But physics is witnessing new revolution.
    I was taught in Britain matter tends to economize energy expenditure. And this what determines chaos and order. Movements not interrupted is a byproduct of Marxism, and historical analysis of history itself- i.e. order of things in life.

    Liked by 1 person

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