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: 

In this thesis I show that reticence is an essential component of poetry. In order to fully interrogate both the theoretical frameworks of my argument and its practical application, my research methodology is comprised of both a critical study, ‘Emily Dickinson and the Poetics of Reticence’, and a research led creative practice, ‘Boat of Letters’. In my critical research, I set out to define reticence in poetry, using the poetry of Emily Dickinson as a test case for the application of my theory, enabling me to locate reticence as residing at the core of the reader’s experience of the poem.

The two elements I identify as being central to reticence in poetry are absence of emotional language and narrative gaps. In order to illuminate how these elements function in a poem, I create and employ a Levinasian methodology: I draw on Emmanuel Levinas’s phenomenological model of a ‘face to face’ encounter between the Self and the Other and present an original reading of what I term ‘the poetics of reticence’.

Chapter One begins with a discussion of poems from different periods which assist me when defining the first of the two elements of reticence, applying Levinas’s term ‘Vulnerability’ to bolster my argument. My argument is developed in this chapter when I apply Levinasian ‘Vulnerability’ to an analysis of Dickinson’s poetry. Chapter Two considers the scarcity of emotional language in Dickinson’s poetry within the context of her time. Applying historical phenomenology to Dickinson’s poems, I compare her work to poetry by her female contemporaries and show that her language of emotional reticence originates not solely from pressures to conform to Victorian femininity as recent scholars have claimed but from her observation of the Bible’s lack of emotional language. Chapter Three sets out to define the other primary element of poetic reticence, narrative gaps, showing how the Levinasian term ‘Otherness’ describes the reader’s experience of encountering this element in poetry, laying the foundation for discussing the fragmentary quality (when it comes to narrative) in Dickinson’s poems. Chapter Four explores how Dickinson’s radical employment of narrative reticence engaged with the contextual restraints of culture and history and contrasts her work with the more linear writing of the women poets of her time arguing how this element of her poetics may have emanated from an anti-narrative quality inherent in the Bible.

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

The methodology of this thesis (reframing Levinas’s model and applying it to the phenomenological encounter between reader and the poem’s speaker throughout my analysis of poetry in this thesis) used to define a poetics of reticence is unprecedented. My critique of the universal claim by feminist critiques that reticence in women’s writing originates solely from patriarchal oppression and my argument that biblical reticence may be the key to unlocking the mystery of Dickinson’s radical poetics both break new ground. Finally, no research to date stands at the intersection of these four fields: Dickinson, historical phenomenology, Levinasian methodology, and Bible studies. 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.