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)
THE POETICS OF RETICENCE
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 poetry, the unsaid is vital to the production of meaning. In order to interrogate both the theoretical framework of this theory and its practical application, my research methodology is comprised of a critical study, The Poetics of Reticence: Emily Dickinson, A Case Study, and a research led creative practice, a book of poems, Boat of Letters. The critical study introduces to the field what I term ‘the poetics of reticence’ and the creative practice embodies that poetics. Both the study and the creative practice identify two elements as being central to reticence in poetry: scarcity of emotional language and narrative gaps.
Boat of Letters is a collection of short lyric poems which build on my 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 mentioned above: scarcity of emotional language and narrative gaps. The poems use white space in tandem with the words around it, often absenting ‘feeling-words’ in order to highlight emotional subjects, and the poems frequently do not include significant narrative moments when telling stories. The poems deliberately engage with emotional subject matter such as mothering, loss, and marriage in order to test this reticent poetics: can one bring power to such loaded content without the use of the expected emotional language and narrative tropes? Spirituality, in the form of the laws and mystical underpinnings of Judaism, also permeates the poems putting even greater pressure on this question. 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 emotion and storytelling.
The Poetics of Reticence: Emily Dickinson, A Case Study is an investigation in four chapters. In the first chapter I present my typology and methodology. My typology classifies the elements of the poetics of reticence into two categories: scarcity of emotional language and narrative gaps. My methodology reframes Emmanuel Levinas’s ‘face to face’ encounter, which Levinas defines as an encounter between Self and Other whereby the Self surrenders to the Other’s vulnerability leading to the impossibility of Sameness. In my methodology, based on Levinas’s model, the Self becomes an imagined reader and the Other becomes a poem’s speaker. I develop a robust definition of the poetics of reticence, arguing that in a poem the scarcity of emotional language reflects a speaker’s vulnerability, and narrative gaps accentuate the impossibility of Sameness between speaker and reader, highlighting the speaker’s otherness. I apply this process to an analysis of various poems throughout history revealing how reticence produces a force-field of energetic meaning. The subsequent chapters test the theoretical and methodological framework set out in my first chapter, as I examine the work of poet Emily Dickinson, whose work has long been noted for its reticence and economy. Dickinson’s poetry, therefore, offers an exemplary case study for testing my typology and methodology on how the elements of reticence function in poetry. The second chapter will focus on Dickinson’s handling of the scarcity of emotional language, reading this practice as a reflection of the speaker’s vulnerability (the holding back of such language suggests that the words are too much for the speaker to bear) thereby creating an energetic forcefield in the poem. The third chapter will examine the other element in Dickinson’s practice: her use of narrative gaps, arguing that these represent a way to present the otherness of the speaker who can never be fully understood or known. In each of these two chapters, my own original close readings of Dickinson’s poems in light of her reticent practice are framed by tracing relevant scholarly responses to Dickinson’s work, emphasizing what has previously been devalued by or excluded from Dickinson studies. Here, reticence is placed under a microscope, at the centre of inquiry, and its inner architecture is seen as worthy of close and sustained scrutiny. The fourth chapter argues that Dickinson derived her unique reticent poetics from her engagement with the Bible. While the biblical influence on her work has been established by numerous critics, none have linked biblical textual reticenceto Dickinson’s poetics. This breakthrough hypothesis refutes the myth that Dickinson’s poetics lacked a literary source and challenges the notion that the reticence in her work had neurotic origins. I argue that Dickinson’s unique poetics constituted a deliberate artistic choice, and rather than an eccentricity, is grounded in a canonical literary tradition. This hypothesis has far-reaching implications about Dickinson’s relationship with the Bible, women’s writing, and the nature of reticence in all poetry.
My identification and exploration of how the poetics of reticence is both read by critics and generated by poets, 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.