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).
Entitled Emily Dickinson and the Poetics of Reticence, Eve’s critical essay argues that reticence, or leaving something out of a poem, contributes to a poem’s success; however, reticence is more than a literary device. In fact, reticence defines poetry: notable evasions are found in all forms of poetry. Eve uses Emily Dickinson’s work as a test case to fathom the poetics of reticence, which was at the core of her work.
Eve defines the poetics of reticence and breaks the definition down into four elements: absence of emotional language, withheld narrative information, unstated messages, and unexpected breaks. She applies Levinasian phenomenology to the poems discussed in this chapter in order to sharpen her definition of the poetics of reticence.
In her thesis, Eve reclaims the word reticence. Feminine reticence was expected from nineteenth-century American women writers, but reticence was radicalized in Dickinson’s hands. Dickinson disrupted this expectation, not by writing non-reticent poems; rather, she unsettled symbolic (patriarchal) narrative conventions, creating an art of power through reticence. She challenges the critics who argue that Dickinson chose reticence to comply, as her female contemporaries did, with patriarchal Victorian pressures. She draws on late 20thcentury feminist theory to support her claim that Dickinson’s reticence came from a place of power rather than from submission.
Finally, Eve considers a possible stylistic influence for Dickinson’s poetics of reticence: she argues that Dickinson read the Bible (the translation she used of the Hebrew Bible) as a reticent text and that her poems reflect this reading of the Bible. Eve engages with scholarship that focuses on how the gaps in the biblical text generate meaning and shows how Dickinson brought this aspect of the Bible to her poems.
The critical essay is followed by the creative component of the thesis, a collection entitled Boat of Letters. The poetry collection experiments with the four elements of the poetics of reticence identified in the critical thesis.
DEFINING THE POETICS OF RETICENCE Eve brings historical phenomenology to her definition of the poetics of reticence. Levinas and contemporary historical phenomenologists deepen and sharpen her definition.
DICKINSON’S FEMALE CONTEMPORARIES
Eve’s research on nineteenth-century American women poets (research done at the British Library, immersed among the Eccles Centre archives) documents the context in which Dickinson was writing, revealing the radical nature at the core of her poetic style.
The nineteenth-century American literary world was filled with poetry by women. These writers lived in a culture that demanded “reticence” from women (eg. elimination of anger, sexual feelings, and ambition in their work). Feminist scholars have argued that just as Dickinson’s female peers placed contraints on their writing, Dickinson adopted her own unique suppressive literary strategies in order to manage the culture’s expectations.
Eve argues against this notion and reclaims the word “reticence,” used exclusively by feminist scholars to denote repression and forced modesty in women’s writing. In fact, Eve sees Dickinson’s ungrammatical poetics as turning the traditional female virtue of modesty on its head; restraint and discretion, a conscious “art of silence,” was the source of Dickinson’s poetic power and did not signal suppression. Dickinson’s work, which embraced the pre-symbolic semiotic realm, disrupted patriarchal conventions and foreshadowed the hesitations and ambivalences in modern poetry.
THE HEBREW BIBLE
Dickinson’s reading of the “Old Testament” may have led to her characteristic style. Although she read the Bible in translation (the King James translation covers up the literery manner of the Hebrew original) Dickinson still picked up on the original text’s unique quality, what Erich Auerbach has called the “lacunae” in the biblical text. Emmanuel Levinas’s hermeneutics is relevant here: Levinas understands the gaps in the Hebrew biblical text as an invitation to the reader to become actively involved in the production of meaning. Just as the silences in the Bible encourage reader involvement, Dickinson’s poems, with their pauses and interruptions, call upon the reader to participate imaginatively in their narrative context. Eve considers how Dickinson’s reticent style resonates with, and possibly from, the biblical text.
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.