Boat of Letters and the Poetics of Reticence: a Creative and Critical Thesis

Dr Eve Grubin completed her PhD and passed her Viva in March 2023.

Eve won an AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council) award to write her doctoral dissertation at Kingston University.

The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;
not in silence, but restraint. (Marianne Moore)

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

If I could, I’d write in silence. (Jean Valentine)

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

The Poetics of Reticence: 

In poetry, the unsaid is vital to the production of meaning. In order to investigate the theoretical framework of this claim and its practical application, my research comprises a critical component, The Poetics of Reticence, and a research-led creative practice, a collection of poems, Boat of Letters. The critical study introduces and explores the idea I have coined ‘the poetics of reticence’, a new term in the field. I argue that narrative gaps are central to the poetics of reticence. The creative practice exhibits and challenges that poetics.

Boat of Letters collects poems that build on my in-depth understanding of reticence and emerges in relation to the theory I lay out in my critical thesis. The collection includes poems that are obviously reticent as well as those that may at first appear to be non-reticent. I intentionally experiment with both approaches in order to test my theory that the unsaid lies at the heart of poems.

The introduction to The Poetics of Reticence includes a memoir of my development as a poet in relation to reticence, defines key terms and concepts, and provides an outline of the subsequent four chapters. The first chapter, a literature review, ‘Critical Approaches to Reticence,’ offers an overview of scholarly debates on this subject and evaluates critical texts about reticence. The second chapter ‘A Methodology of Reticence’, presents my methodology, which combines both conceptual and textual analysis. Here I apply a Levinasian theory to my argument in order to illuminate the notion that withheld information in a poem represents the speaker’s vulnerability and otherness. This chapter includes a special section on Emily Dickinson whose work is explored as a test case to support my theory. In the third chapter, ‘The Ethics of Reticence, I maintain that narrative gaps invite the reader to accept the vulnerability and ultimate inscrutability of the poem and to turn inward and confront and develop the self, leading to a sense of responsibility. Dickinson is discussed here again, but this time through the lens of this chapter’s concerns regarding ethics. The fourth and final chapter, ‘Writing Boat of Letters’, sheds light on how the poetics of reticence functions in contemporary poetic practice from the point of view of a poet. I reflect on my own work in this chapter, supporting my assertions in the previous chapters, through an analysis of my writing practice. This last chapter offers an intimate and practice-based answer to my research question: how does reticence produce meaning? In the Conclusion, I review my findings and discuss how my research can extend to further investigations.

Eve received funding from TECHNE/AHRC to support the writing of this thesis at Kingston University. 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 provided funding for her travel within the U.S.