‘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 collects poems which build on my in-depth understanding of the nature of the poetics of reticence. 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 reflect spiritual questions driven by a daily engagement with Judaism and its laws. Each section combines poems which are obviously reticent (narratively fragmented and absenting expected emotional language) with those which are apparently non-reticent (seemingly narratively complete and 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, and 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 and raises 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 language regardless of the poem’s style in order to explore the dynamic manner in which reticence communicates.

The Poetics of Reticence opens with a memoir of my development as a poet in relation to reticence. This 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 for an analysis of this poetics. The second chapter presents my methodology: I argue that in poetry, withholding emotional language represents the speaker’s vulnerability, and narrative gaps accentuate the poem’s otherness. Both elements produce a force-field of energetic meaning. The third chapter tests my framework against the work of Emily Dickinson, whose poetry has long been noted for its reticence. This chapter examines Dickinson’s withholding of emotional language and her use of narrative gaps. 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. This chapter also calls attention to a subject ignored by scholars: the biblical origins of Dickinson’s reticent poetics. I argue that her practice of reticence constituted a deliberate artistic choice, and not an eccentricity, as others have claimed, and is grounded in a canonical literary stylistic tradition, the Bible. The fourth and final chapter reflects on my poetic practice by analysing the genesis and development of Boat of Letters. I apply my methodology to the collection of poems in order to illuminate how it functions in contemporary poetic practice from the point of view of the poet. The conclusion summarises 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 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 is funding her for her travel within the U.S.