DON’T Express Yourself: On Reticence and Intimacy in the work of Eliot, Dickinson, and Madonna

T.S. Eliot was suspicious of the value of  “personal expression” in poetry. In fact, he wrote that poetry is an “escape from personality.” Eliot placed a profound significance on reticence, reticence of personality, reticence of emotion, and reticence of affect.

Imagine his disdain, his horror, his slow, contemptuous retreat into the shadows of his library if he had heard Madonna belting out “Make him express how he feels” in her hit pop song “Express Yourself.”

Even though the muddled ideas in the song are, as they say here in England, “total rubbish,” there is a heart message at its core, one of longing for intimacy.

“Come on girls, do you believe in love? ‘Cause I’ve got something to say about it and it goes something like this.” The song promises insight into “love” and intimacy.

However, this heart message is turned upside down by the song itself. The lyrics actually encourage behaviour that destroys intimacy: “Make him express how he feels and maybe / Then you’ll know your love is real.” Madonna encourages “girls:” pressure or “make” him talk about his feelings.

We can read on Wikipedia that “Express Yourself” is empowering for women: “The main inspiration behind the song is female empowerment, urging women never to go for second-best and to always express their inner feelings.” Again, as the English say, “This is total rubbish.” If looked at closely, the words diminish women’s power.

Again and again, we hear: “Make him express how he  feels!” although the song is calld “Express Yourself” (Emphasis mine). The confusion — is the song about women expressing themselves or men? — is telling. The lyrics spin in a tizzy of unconscious terror in response to what lies underneath them: a fear of having no control. As a remedy to this fear, the song encourages women to control the man and “make” him express how he feels. Only when she puts her “love to the test” will she “know” her “love is real.” It’s a song that encourages female insecurity and anxiety. Women are not urged here to look at what they want. Rather, the balm they are given for their anxiety is the delusion of control.

Many believe that if we write everything down then the poem will create the strongest impact on the reader. But I have watched my students immerse themselves in reading poetry and discover that removing the most expressive language is what creates the strongest poem. I often share with them Jane Hirshfield’s observation: “What is left unexpressed can affect the reader perhaps even more strongly than what has been explicitly stated.”

Stanley Kunitz’s students tell stories about how he often suggested that they experiment with removing the most expressive lines from their poems, especially the last lines.

And Mary Oliver’s advice: “Modesty will give you vigor. It keeps open the gates of prayer, through which the mystery of the poem streams on its search for form. Just occasionally, take something you have written, that you rather like, that you have felt an even immodest pleasure over, and throw it away.’’

When it comes to relationships many of us were taught by pop lyrics and even by some therapists that making the other person emote is what will lead to the most powerful connection. But it seems that reticence is the key to success in not only poetry but in intimacy.

Knowing she wants (vulnerability) and then saying it in a warm and positive and concise manner, without pressure, while not asking the other person too many questions about their feelings, is the most powerful ingredient for a woman who wishes to be close to her partner. I once heard the phrase from a relationship coach “concise is nice; once will suffice.” Concise expression gives intimacy room to grown and breathe.

As Eliot noted, the value of overdoing self-expression is debatable. The 19thcentury American poet Emily Dickinson seemed to agree: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” she wrote where was exploring the concept of not telling all, not giving oneself over to full throated self-expression; rather, she preferred something called “slant” and “circuit.” Expression is “too bright.”

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

Words can be used as an attempt to control. Or they can be used to create silences around them, easing with kind explanation, dazzling gradually.

Having the strength to relinquish control is what leads to empowerment. The real frightened message in Madonna’s song seems to be: dominate. If we dominate our partner then we can suppress our fears (and squash the intimacy that comes along with it). This aspect of the song surfaces in the music video where Madonna is dominating the men around her who are serving her.

The academics ignore the fear behind the song and rather twist it into a feminist celebration. They praise the “gender-bending” song and video, which depicts Madonna as a masochist woman dressed as a man with muscular men acting as her workers. One academic writes, “the video portrayed the deconstructive gender-bending approach associated with free play and self-reflexivity of images in postmodernism.”

Is expression a cover for a need to control? Is control the opposite of intimacy? If so, then does expression kill intimacy?

Is expression a part of the process of writing poetry? Or might too much expression take the life out of a poem?

Why might “slant” and “circuit” be more empowering than expression for both poetry and for women in relationships?

Why might embodying the opposite of expression– reticence–achieve intimacy as well as a successful poem?

In the middle of the song Madonna inserts a line that will surely cause the anxiety and fear that will lead even more to the urge to control: “satin sheets are very romantic. What happens when you’re not there?” Why Madonna, Why?

Perhaps intimacy is not what Madonna wants for herself or for other women. Perhaps it’s control and domination.

Intimacy and poetry depend on reticence and vulnerability. See Wislawa Szymboraska’s poem, for example, translated by Clare Cavanagh. Szymborska describes a terrifying event in “Photograph From September 11th” with very little description; it even explicitly states that she will not include an ending. The poet’s respect for the vulnerability of the subjects of the poem is palpable.

Photograph From September 11th

They jumped from the burning floors—
one, two, a few more,
higher, lower.

The photograph halted them in life,
and now keeps them
above the earth toward the earth.

Each is still complete,
with a particular face
and blood well hidden.

There’s enough time
for hair to come loose,
for keys and coins
to fall from pockets.

They’re still within the air’s reach,
within the compass of places
that have just now opened.

I can do only two things for them—
describe this flight
and not add a last line.

Dan Pagis’s vulnerabitly can be sensed as well in his poem “Written in Pencil in a Sealed Railway Car” as he attempts to write about a great tragedy by cutting off mid sentence:


here in this carload
i am eve
with abel my son
if you see my other son
cain son of man
tell him that i

Dorianna Laux writes openly in “Enough Music” about how the quiet in a romantic partnership might be what creates the most powerful connection:

Enough Music

Sometimes, when we’re on a long drive,
and we’ve talked enough and listened
to enough music and stopped twice,
once to eat, once to see the view,
we fall into this rhythm of silence.
It swings back and forth between us
like a rope over a lake.
Maybe it’s what we don’t say
that saves us.

More people are guided by Madonna’s songs and similar popular messages than by Dickinson, Kunitz, Laux and Pagis. Here is a call for dazzling reticence, intimate stillness, and the rhythms of silence. Could it be that reticence will save us? Who will write this  pop song?

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