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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 the idea I have coined ‘the poetics of reticence', a new term in the field. The creative practice exhibits and challenges that poetics.
Both the study and the poems identify the essence of reticence in poetry: narrative gaps, which can be defined as the white space left on the page when significant information is withheld from a poem. Significant information includes events and the naming of emotions in response to those events Narrative gaps activate the poetics of reticence which generates a poem's meaning.
Boat of Letters collects poems that build on my in-depth understanding of narrative gaps 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 manuscript thus generates responses to, transgressions against, and reflections on my definition of the poetics of reticence. The formal aim of the manuscript is to foreground white space around text 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 Reticence,' offers an overview of scholarly debates on this subject which identifies and evaluates important critical texts about silences and research. I discuss work by critics including Paul Fussell, Christopher Ricks, Alica Ostriker, Joanne Dobson, William Franke, Leona Toker, Robyn A. Warhol and Robert Alter. This summary of criticism on the subject supports my claim while also highlighting a gap in such scholarship: theorists of poetry have failed to offer a system for analysing this important aspect of poetics.
The second chapter ‘A Methodology of Reticence', presents my methodology, which combines both conceptual and textual analysis. Here I apply Emmanuel Levinas's ‘face to face encounter' theory to my argument that withholding significant information in the form of narrative gaps represents the speaker's vulnerability and otherness. Here I discuss poems Elizabeth Bishop and Charles Reznikoff with one section focused on Emily Dickinson's work in order to illuminate my theory. I consider in detail the ways in which such dynamic exchange between vulnerable and other produces a force-field of energetic meaning in poetry.
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. Poems by Paul Celan, Jessica Greenbaum and Dan Pagis are discussed in this chapter. I emphasize that reticence puts the reader in a position to step back and not ‘dominate' the text by attempting to fill in the gaps but rather to respect its vulnerability and otherness and not attempt to penetrate its fragile unknowability.
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. I am able to generate new ideas as I share how I made certain technical choices revealing the intentions behind my process. This last chapter offers an intimate and practice-based answer to my research question (how does reticence produce meaning?) further developing my responses to that question in the previous chapters.
In the Conclusion I review my findings and discuss how my research can extend to further investigations into connections between poetry and Levinasian philosophy, scholarship on the Bible as a reticent text, Dickinson studies, and women's writing. In addition, further discussions about the poetics of reticence can deepen and expand the landscape of contemporary poetry.
Eve Grubin is the author of Morning Prayer (Sheep Meadow Press), The House of Our First Loving (Rack Press), and Grief Dialogue (Rack Press, 2022).
She is a lecturer at NYU in London and a tutor at the Poetry School.
Morning Prayer (Sheep Meadow Press, 2006)
The House of Our First Loving (Rack Press, 2016)
Grief Dialogue (Rack Press, 2022)
Eve has published numerous poems, essays, and articles in literary journals, magazines and anthologies in the UK and the US.
Grubin, Eve (2023) 'Boat of letters' and the poetics of reticence : a creative and critical thesis. (PhD thesis), Kingston University, .
'The Poetics and Politics of Reticence', the Eccles Centre at the British Library (1 August 2016).
‘Emily Dickinson and the Poetics of Reticence' at Kingston University on 27 February 2018.
'The Poetics of Reticence: Discussion and Writing Workshop' at The Poetics of Reticence' at Re-enchantment: Techne Student Congress on 11 January 2022:
‘The Poetics of Reticence: Responsibility for the Vulnerable Other' at the Centre for Arts, Memory and Communities Annual CAMC Conference: ‘Creative Climates' at Coventry University (24 March 2023).
'Decolonizing the Classroom' at ‘Decolonizing the Liberal Arts Curriculum Symposium' at New York University in London (June 26-26, 2023).