Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter  (John Keats)

Saying what can’t be said, period, is what I’m interested in. What literally can’t be said […] If I could, I’d write in silence.  (Jean Valentine)

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —  (Emily Dickinson)

All who add really detract.  (Tractate Sanhedrin 29a, Talmud)


Eve is the recipient of an Arts and Humanities Research Council / TECHNE scholarship to write a practice-based PhD thesis (Kingston University): “Boat of Letters: Emily Dickinson and the Poetics of Reticence” (Spring 2018) with the support of supervisors Patricia Phillipy, Hannah Lowe, and Meg Jensen.

U.S. Studies Online, The British Association for American Studies, published her essay, “The Poetics and Politics of Reticence,” in December 2016, which was based on her talk for the Eccles Centre at the British Library (1 August 2016).

Eve Describes Her Research Here: 

It is well known that silence is a vital aspect of the poetic process. I explore this territory and suggest ‘reticence’ as an alternative to ‘silence’. I define the term and argue that reticence resides at the very core of a reader’s experience of poetry. In order to interrogate both the theoretical frameworks and its practical application, my research methodology is comprised of a critical study, ‘Emily Dickinson and the Poetics of Reticence’, and a research led creative practice, ‘Boat of Letters’. The critical study and creative practice introduce to the field what I term ‘the poetics of reticence.’

In my critical study I identify two elements as being central to reticence in poetry: scarcity of emotional language and narrative gaps. In order to illuminate the anatomy of these elements and their impact on the reader, I draw on Emmanuel Levinas’s phenomenological model of a ‘face to face’ encounter between Self and Other where I reframe the Self as reader and the Other as the poem’s speaker. Levinas argued that in a ‘face to face’ encounter, the Self is always aware of the vulnerability and otherness of the Other. I argue that scarcity of emotional language in a poem alerts the reader of the speaker’s vulnerability, and that narrative gaps call attention to the speaker’s otherness.

I apply this reframing of Levinas’s model to a discussion of Emily Dickinson’s poetry, a test case for the application of my theory that reticence is the crux of poetry. My argument is further substantiated by looking at Dickinson’s poetics within the context of her time and especially next to the more emotionally verbose and linear writing of her female contemporaries. Scholars have claimed that the reticence in the writing of Dickinson and the other women writers of her time stems from nineteenth-century expectations of feminine modesty. While I agree that Dickinson also had to manage writing within a patriarchal system, I argue that she chose reticence from a place of power rather than from submission and that her poetics has a literary source: I argue that Dickinson derived her unique poetics of reticence from the Bible to which she was regularly and deeply exposed in many contexts.

My thesis refutes two myths surrounding Dickinson: that Dickinson’s poetics had no literary source, which is a common attitude towards the woman genius; and that the reticence in her work had biographically neurotic origins (the claim by feminist critics that she felt compelled to repress emotion and narrative in her work furthers the tendency, always present in Dickinson studies, to pathologize Dickinson). I argue that her reticence comes from a literary tradition, is intellectually based, and is a deliberate artistic choice.

The poems in ‘Boat of Letters’ that follow the academic essay build on this understanding of the nature of the poetics of reticence as fundamental to poetic practice. The poetry collection emerges in relation to this poetics and generates responses to, transgressions against, and reflections on the two elements listed above.

The methodology of this thesis (reframing Levnias’s model) to define a poetics of reticence is unprecedented. And my critique of feminist critiques sheds light on the limitations of their perspective. My argument that biblical reticence may be the key to unlocking the mystery of Dickinson’s radical poetics breaks new ground. Finally, no research to date stands at the intersection of these three fields: Dickinson, Levinasian methodology, and Bible. My identification and exploration of how the poetics of reticence is both read and generated, will ensure further innovative readings, while also illuminating the methodology of contemporary poetic practice.

Eve received funding from TECHNE/AHRC to support the writing of this thesis. She is also receiving funding from the TECHNE Training Group (the Study Support and Work Placement Fund) to cover her flight to the U.S. (2017) to conduct her research at the Emily Dickinson Museum, Amherst College’s Dickinson Archives, and Harvard’s Houghton Library’s Dickinson Collection. The AHRC RTSG is funding her for her travel within the U.S.