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)


In poetry, the unsaid is vital to the production of meaning. In order to interrogate the theoretical framework of this theory and its practical application, my research methodology comprises a critical component, The Poetics of Reticence, and a research led creative practice, a book of poems, Boat of Letters. The critical study introduces to the field and explores what I term ‘the poetics of reticence’. The creative practice exhibits and challenges that poetics. Both the study and the creative practice identify two elements as being central to reticence in poetry: the scarcity of emotional language and narrative gaps.

Boat of Letters is a collection of poems which builds on my in-depth understanding of the nature of the poetics of reticence. The poetry collection emerges in relation to this poetics and generates responses to, transgressions against, and reflections on the two elements in the typology of poetic reticence. The poems imbue white space with meaning by absenting expected ‘feeling-words’ and significant narrative moments. The poems deliberately engage with emotional subject matter such as mothering, loss, marriage and spirituality (in the form of the laws and mystical underpinnings of Judaism), in order to test this reticent poetics with the question: how does power emanate from such loaded content without the use of emotional language and narrative tropes? The formal aim of the manuscript is to foreground the white space around language in order to explore the dynamic manner in which reticence communicates the complex nuances of emotion and narrative.

The Poetics of Reticence opens with an introduction that includes a memoir of my development as a poet in relation to reticence as well as an outline of the four chapters. The introduction is followed by an investigation in four chapters. The first chapter, a literature review, identifies and evaluates key critical texts about the unsaid in poetry, highlighting that theorists have failed to offer a system analysing the unsaid in a poetry. The second chapter presents my methodology. I argue that in poetry, withholding emotional language represents the speaker’s vulnerability while narrative gaps accentuate the poem’s otherness, producing a force-field of energetic meaning. The third chapter tests my framework against the work of poet Emily Dickinson, whose poetry has long been noted for its reticence. My original readings of Dickinson’s poems, in light of her reticent practice, are framed by tracing relevant scholarly responses, emphasizing what has previously been excluded from Dickinson studies: a technical analysis of reticence in her poetry. This chapter also calls attention to a subject ignored by scholars: the biblical origins of Dickinson’s reticent poetics. I argue that her practice constituted a deliberate artistic choice, and not an eccentricity, and is grounded in a canonical literary stylistic tradition. The fourth and final chapter reflects on my poetic practice by analysing the genesis and development of Boat of Lettersand highlights elements I identified in the works of Dickinson and other poets mentioned in the thesis that resonate with my own. I apply my methodology to my own work in order to illuminate how it functions in contemporary poetic practice from the point of view of a poet. The conclusion summarizes my research and discusses how my identification and exploration of how the poetics of reticence is both read by critics and generated by poets will produce more innovative readings and inspire further research.

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.