‘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)
‘All who add really detract’. (Tractate Sanhedrin 29a, Talmud)
Eve received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to do practice-based doctoral research at Kingston University. Her thesis is entitled: Boat of Letters and the Poetics of Reticence: A Creative and Critical Thesis.
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 book of poems, Boat of Letters. The critical study introduces and explores what I term ‘the poetics of reticence’, a new idea in the field. 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 first is the withholding of emotional language, and the second is narrative gaps. Together this typology forms the foundation of the poetics of reticence.
Boat of Letters collects poems that build on my in-depth understanding of these two elements. The collection is divided, by subject, into three sections: ‘Grief Dialogue’, which chronicles a grown daughter’s experience of her mother’s death; ‘The Book of Love’, a series exploring the possibilities and complexities within marriage; and ‘Keep Not Knowing’, poems that ask questions driven by a daily engagement with Judaism and its laws. Each section combines poems that are obviously reticent (narratively fragmented and absenting expected emotional language) with those that are apparently non-reticent (seemingly narratively complete and more emotionally direct). I intentionally experiment with both approaches in order to test my theory that the unsaid lies at the heart of poems even when reticence is not immediately evident. The poetry collection emerges in relation to the theory I lay out in my academic thesis. It generates responses to, transgressions against, and reflections on my definition of the poetics of reticence. All of the poems, whether perceptibly reticent or not, imbue white space with meaning as they deliberately engage with emotionally charged subject matter (loss, marriage, spirituality). This process tests my theory by raising the following questions: how does power emanate from loaded content when anticipated emotional language and narrative tropes are not present? How does power emanate from such content when linear narrative and emotional language seem to be in place? The formal aim of the manuscript is to foreground white space around text regardless of the poem’s style, in order to explore the dynamic manner in which reticence communicates.
The introduction to The Poetics of Reticence opens with 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 the Unsaid in Poetry,’ identifies and evaluates important critical texts about silences in poetry, highlighting that theorists have failed to offer a system for an analysis of this poetics but also pointing to scholarship that supports my claim.
The second chapter ‘A Methodology to the Poetics of Reticence’, presents my methodology, which combines both conceptual and textual analysis. Here I apply Emmanuel Levinas’s ‘face to face encounter’ theory to the poetics of reticence: I argue that withholding emotional language represents the speaker’s vulnerability, and I maintain that narrative gaps accentuate the poem’s otherness. Both elements, at work together, produce a force-field of energetic meaning.
The third chapter, ‘Emily Dickinson, A Case Study’, tests my framework against Emily Dickinson’s poetry, which 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, emphasising what has previously been excluded from Dickinson studies: a technical analysis of reticence in her poetry. In this chapter I also claim that Dickinson’s reticent poetics has biblical origins, a subject that has gone unnoticed by previous scholars.
I reflect on my writing process in the fourth and final chapter, ‘Writing Boat of Letters’, where I apply my methodology to my poetry collection. This chapter sheds light on how the poetics of reticence 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 in Dickinson, Levinas, and Bible studies. This thesis will also inspire further research, for both poets and scholars, into how my original methodology and typology functions in contemporary poetry.
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.