• Mags Webster

Poet Alice Notley once remarked, ‘like many writers I feel ambivalent about words, I know they don't work, I know they aren't it’ (Notley 2010: n.pag.). Over centuries, in both East and West, poets, mystics, philosophers, and worshippers have developed a semantics of negation—apophasis—to deal with what lies beyond language, to draw closer to uttering what cannot be said. As part of my PhD research I am experimenting with apophasis as a poetic strategy, exploring representations (in both poetic form and content) of absence through space, silence, and denial. Taking Notley’s statement as a reference point, this paper contemplates, from a practitioner perspective and through examples of my creative work, the idea that every poem is an attempt to write into the unsayable. 


Keywords: Poetry – Ineffability – Apophasis – Creative Practice


1. Coaxing the ineffable to speak

Ineffability: from the Latin ineffabilis (unutterable). ‘That cannot be expressed or described in language; too great for words; transcending expression; unspeakable, unutterable, inexpressible’ (OED, 2017) 

Poets try to do something impossible: coax the ineffable to speak. The unsaid is implicit in poetry, and every poem is, to a greater or lesser degree, an attempt to write into the unsayable: to express something ‘that goes beyond matter, form, and context’ (Jonas 2016: 6). Yet surely poetry is only intensifying and seeking to overcome what happens to most of us every day when we speak or write, whenas scholar William Franke puts itwe encounter the ‘common human experience of butting up against the limits of language’ (Franke 2014: 23).

In what follows I seek to show a little of what I have been discovering as I investigate the challenge of ineffability within writing, via my practice and research as a poet. To do this, I have been learning about and experimenting with apophasis—the practice and rhetoric of defining things in terms of what they are not, rather than what they are—which, since Platonic times, has been used by philosophers, poets and mystics in both Eastern and Western traditions, as a means of reaching beyond language into ineffability.

This paper is deliberately creative in concept and spirit, aiming to merge scholarship with lyricism, discourse with imagination. I offer a piece of hybrid writing in which I interweave my poems with passages of expressive prose and critical reflection. Of course, despite my best efforts, the ineffable remains … ineffable, yet I hope to show how, as a writer, my attempts to overcome this supposed ‘failure’ with words is leading me to a more profound and rewarding engagement with languagesemantically, technically, heuristically, poetically. In grappling with how to say the unsayable, I am actively experiencing how ‘something we cannot define … remains the unexpressed point and ungraspable motivation driving all that we can and do say’ (Franke 2014: 31). 


2. We started like a gasp in the heart

Long into the night she hears the chant of the rain. Her sleep fractures, and she unshells from her dream. There’s a storm somewhere, the ache of it presses in. The pillows bunch up like thunderheads, and she forks between them, white-hot, face down. She’s been dreaming again about words, their crazed electricity darting synapse to synapse, lighting the circuitry of her brain.  Before the brimming rinses out of her, this is what she writes:

I am sitting at my desk and something (me?) is pressing a fountain pen to my throat. With difficulty I manage to deflect the nib and lower it to the paper. Lines chase themselves across the page and I cannot keep up. The lines don’t say anything; they just rustle on through the pages, blindly searching for a full stop. There is a sensation of something suddenly giving way underfoot (sand? snow? cloud?), and when I wake up I find I am surrounded by scraps of poetry on the floor, and the furniture in disarray. When I look at them, I realise the scraps are lines from poems, some well-known, some not, torn from my collection of poetry books, some famous, some not. Lines by Borges, Milosz, Plath, Tennyson, Eliot, Lorca … more. Without thinking, I begin to arrange them in a sequence, or they start to realign themselves—anyway, no matter—a hundred lines emerge from chaos, shifting and repositioning until they are satisfied with how they fit. I don’t seem to have any say. I don’t even know who is doing this. Perhaps it is me or the not-me, the dream or the dream-me. I am aware of not caring. I cannot tell what this poem is about, because my night-self craves a different language to my day-self. Whatever this poem means is something I have been unable to put into words. If I could paraphrase it, there would be no need to for it to exist.



Nocturne: A Cento

In the beginning it was blindness and sleep,
fire as a whisper of wolves.

Somewhere on the other side of this wide night
the girl upstairs has again begun to cry, moves

in a wood of desire, forest of starving silences.
Hence my night-shift.

Cicadas ring loudest when you’re alone—
how difficult it is to remain just one person.

I think of the wind as the earth’s voice muscle,
I am a miner. The light burns blue.

The lambs all around, bleating.
All that’s left are a dozen copies of my elastic self

for always roaming with a hungry heart.
But best is this night surf,

a ring of unlikely, violet colours. 
Half asleep, we catch creation’s rustle.

Un-breathed, an ocean of sky.
I shall go, farther than the shipmates of Ulysses,
fog-hushed and aswim. 
The room is turning slowly away from the moon,
a dull head among windy spaces.

The ghost of your former self is biding her time
pale antlers barely stirring,
innocence crept into minerals,
prophetics of a closed book.

Like a lovers’ bed with the sheets stripped back
you keep dying and filling the nothingness, the silence.
The creatures of the moon sniff and prowl about their cabins
and invisible guests come in and out at will.

I do not want to go on being a root in the dark,
a kind of kiss, a coldness. 
Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing,
vaguely reminiscent of seasons.

I was fourteen, but you don’t forget the scorch—  
all of us blowing and blown under the sticky water,
souls that that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me—
how many more, I must ask myself.
Let us go singing as far as we go: the road will be less tedious.

It comes too fast, this shelving sense of home—
its spirit leans like a thin hook.
We leave when the sky is orange, the moon makes its cut,
sails lowered, waiting for the winds—
as if we started like a gasp in the heart.


3. Intelligent use of the white space

What do we do when we want to ‘say’ something that is beyond words, and maybe sometimes even beyond understanding?

How do we make silence speak for us, how does it shape our understanding of the unsayable? When all we have are words, and words are not enough, how do we speak? How do we write?

As scholar Silvia Jonas suggests, ‘the history of philosophy abounds with references to ineffability. It is a topic that has baffled philosophical minds for over two thousand years’ (Jonas 2016: 1). For example, this is how the ancient Chinese text (dating possibly from the 4th century BCE, and roughly contemporaneous with Plato) the Tao Te Ching begins: 

The way that can be spoken of
Is not the constant way;
The name that can be named
Is not the constant name (Lao Tzu 1963: 7)

Philosophy and theology seek to deal, in language, with what lies beyond language; they routinely ask questions of the unknown and the unknowable. The same goes for the literary arts, and especially poetry, though it is important to acknowledge that these disciplines encompass an additional dimension—the aesthetic—while philosophy and theology tend more towards matters of ontology and epistemology. 

‘We are the animals that use words and … complain rather often that they fail us,’ says philosopher Ben-Ami Scharfstein, who then elaborates:

Thinking of the effect we should prefer but fail to make, we say, ‘I can’t put it into words’. We seem to imply that if we were able to use words well enough or if words were a more faithful medium, we could transmit our experience exactly and be appreciated for what we know ourselves to be (Scharfstein 1993: xvii)

What Scharfstein seems to be saying is that were we to rely on our faith in what we believe to be language’s (hypothetically) inherent precision, or on our facility to ‘transmit our experience exactly’, not only would we be disappointed, but we would also stand to lose more than we would gain. Human experience cannot always be anchored to and by words: for example, the complexities and contradictions of this are well documented in trauma theory [1]. Sometimes there are good reasons why certain phenomena are beyond expression. Taken at face value, however, Scharfstein’s assertion seems counterintuitive.  American poet Alice Notley once observed that ‘like many writers I feel ambivalent about words, I know they don’t work, I know they aren’t it’ (Notley 2010: n.pag.). It seems an extraordinary thing to declare. Would a musician say something similar about music, or a dancer about movement?

As ‘the animals that use words’, how can failure—either of words themselves or our ability to use them—be preferable?

Yet far from being discouraged by Notley’s remarks, I am intrigued and strangely reassured. On first analysis, her assertion ‘words don’t work’ seems to imply an unthinkable impasse (for a writer) with the medium of poetic art. Is Notley suggesting that both method and material are flawed? Judging from her body of work, neither of these issues appears creatively inhibiting. In fact, the opposite is the case, and Notley’s output perhaps illustrates the whole point of what she is saying. If her poetics are founded on this ambivalence about the efficacy of words, this is to her creative advantage. ‘I want to live here, where nothing coheres’ (Notley, cited in Yohle 2016) says the opening poem in her latest collection, Certain Magical Acts. Notley mines uncertainty for its possibilities, and she makes poetry from her ambivalence.

In so doing, she is surely following the example all the scholars, scribes, philosophers and mystics who likewise have wrestled with this difficulty. Whether their tussles with language have been for the purposes of ontology or theology, phenomenology or physics, all have been attempting to reach beyond what may be expressible in words. As Franke comments:

What we most strongly and deeply think and believe … inevitably escapes adequate articulation … nevertheless … this very deficiency of speech … forms the starting point for rich articulate discourses … about what cannot be said (Franke 2014: 23)

By maintaining that words ‘don’t work’, Notley is affirming that failure is implicit in any attempt to use them. She is touching on something which happens to all of us, our experience of the tension between what words are able to say, and how much (or how little) we are able to make them say that ‘what’.

One does not expect to infer from Notley’s argument that the people who struggle most with words—who experience the most resistance and push-back from language—are those for whom words are material and medium: writers. She is, however, far from the only person to suggest this. Jaime Alazraki, writing about Octavio Paz, observed ‘the poet is condemned to words but must transcend them’ (Alazraki 1976: 41; my emphasis). Susan Sontag commented that ‘language is the most impure, the most contaminated, the most exhausted of all the materials out of which art is made’ (Sontag 2002: 14).

It’s important to note that, poetically, ‘failure’ with words has as much aesthetic and epistemological value as what may pass for ‘success’. Even each line strives for an impossible telos: to express the inexpressible. The stakes are high, and not even poetry may measure up to them. Why this is so is complicated is partly due to the nature of language itself. As Terry Eagleton explains, poetry is

a kind of phenomenology of language—one in which the relation between word and meaning (or signifier and signified) is tighter than it is in everyday speech. There are several different ways of saying ‘Take a seat’, but only one way of saying ‘The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass.’ Poetry is language in which the signified or meaning is the whole process of signification itself. It is thus always at some level language which is about itself (Eagleton 2007: 21)

This reflexivity compounds the task of the poet. In ‘ordinary speech’, words and grammar, inflection and sound are our tools, from which we craft meanings. When we find these tools inadequate, or we reach the limits of our vocabulary and our craft, perhaps we can ‘fill in the gaps’ with a pause, a shrug, or a roll of the eyes. In dialogue, much may be revealed by evasiveness or emphasis, in hesitation over a word, or a lapse into silence, and this inarticulacy is rightly deemed eloquent. We may also come to understand that it is not so much our level of competence with language that limits utterance as it is our desire to speak lyrically of things language cannot adequately convey. 

A writer’s tools are black marks and white space. As writers, we cannot get the page to gesticulate, nor will it take on the imprint of our facial expression or resonate with our tone of voice. However powerfully phrased, a paragraph cannot indicate aggression in the jut of a chin. As British poet Glyn Maxwell observes, for writers, ‘intelligent use of the white space is all you’ve got’ (Maxwell 2012: 11).

If it's all we’ve got, is it enough?




it calls me
           to be surface
soft hail
into skin
           I blanch        solidify
am glazed 
           with quiet   
blind              the skies
           dumb hills
into  horizon


so long 
           under           I’ve been
but I can
           not      can not
ignore this
           slick chill 
icing me        up
           cell             by cell


till I am crystal     
it makes me
           surface        makes me
feel it             stop 
           me feeling


4. Bearing witness to the resistance of language

In pushing language to the extremes of what is ‘sayable’, poetry has a natural affinity with apophasis. TS Eliot and AR Ammons, Charles Simic, Robert Adamson, Wallace Stevens, Mark Strand, Emily Dickinson, Mallarmé, Rilke, Edmond Jabès, Paul Celan, Don Paterson and Charles Wright are among the many notable poets who, intentionally or not, have responded apophatically to the desire to write into ‘the unseen bulking in from the edges of things,/ Changing the frame with its nothingness’ (Costello and Wright 2001: 327).

Yet, as already observed by Alice Notley, a poet’s relationship with words is not straightforward. The poet finds that words do not always oblige; they are as resistant and immiscible as often as they are malleable.  Octavio Paz wrote that poetry ‘is at once the destruction and the creation of language, the destruction of words and meanings, the realm of silence, but at the same time, words in search of the Word’ (Paz cited in Alazraki 1976: 41). ‘“If a poem is to be pure … the poet’s voice must be stilled”’ said Mallarmé (cited in Bruns 1974: 105). The great Sufi mystic Jelaluddin Balkhi, otherwise known as Rumi (1207–73) ended his poem ‘A Thirsty Fish’ thus:

This is how it always is
when I finish a poem.

A great silence overcomes me,
and I wonder why I ever thought
to use language (Rumi 2004: 20)

The irony (of course) in attempting to speak of what cannot be spoken is that any form of words, negative or affirmative, that purports to express the inexpressible has already ruptured any hope of drawing closer to ‘expressing’ true ineffability. As William Franke observes: ‘… only linguistically is this “beyond” of language discernible at all. Language must unsay or annul itself in order to let this unsayable something, which is nothing, no thing at any rate, somehow register in its very evasion of all attempts to say it’ (Franke 2007a: 2). 

Ineffability, by definition, is the inexpressible, and even to refer to it means naming what is in essence unnameable. Jacques Derrida remarks that ‘even if one speaks and says nothing, even if an apophatic discourse deprives itself of meaning or object, it takes place. That which committed or rendered it possible has taken place’ (Derrida cited in Budick and Iser 1996: 27–28, original emphasis).

Such contradictions usually serve to entice poets to push harder at the limits of language, for it is the poet who, as Eliot once memorably observed, is ‘occupied with frontiers of consciousness beyond which words fail, though meanings still exist’ (Eliot 1953: 55). The challenge for a poem—and its creator—then, is to perfect itself into a kind of resonant silence, to embody a communiqué that reaches beyond words yet still ‘speaks’ and still makes itself understood, even if what is understood is fluid, subjective, and eludes definitive apprehension.

So how close can poetry come to saying the unsayable, and anyway what is ‘the unsayable in this context? Is it true, as Maire Jaanus Kurrik offers, that ‘our real constitutive and determining power is a negative one: we can only define, at least the absolute, by exclusion, by saying what is not’ (Kurrik 1979: 7)?  While this paper’s assertion is that all poems to a greater or lesser degree are an attempt to write into the unsayable, it is arguable that the poetics of negation cover a whole spectrum of inexpressibility, contending with not only the spiritually ineffable (what cannot be said because it is beyond knowledge, as practised by the mystics) but also what must not be said (censorship for political, cultural or ideological reasons); what physically cannot be said (the ability to articulate is blocked as a result of trauma); what ought not be said (because of taboo, or resulting from self-censorship for cultural, ethical or personal reasons), or even ‘that which does not want to be expressed’ (Grabher and Jessner 1996: 354, original emphasis). While I acknowledge these modalities, I cannot align my poetic practice with any of them (if indeed any are appropriate for me), until I have grappled with the ontology of the unsayable, and what that means for me.

And how do I grapple with it? With and through words.

It is on a basic syntactic and semantic level that my exploration of ineffability and the possibilities of apophasis begin: my ability to use language, and then to go beyond language. Like Notley, like all poets who share the feeling of being ‘condemned’ (Alazraki 1976: 41) to language, I engage with my ambivalence about words with words; at the same time I acknowledge the challenge implicit in what Gudrun Grabher and Ulrike Jessner suggest as ‘an awareness of the insufficiency of language to describe and capture the world’ (Grabher and Jessner 1996: xiv).

Jonas argues that it is important to distinguish ‘mundane moments of speechlessness’ (Jonas 2016: 3) from the less commonplace occasions where ‘ineffability … feels meaningful’ (3), which she asserts takes place ‘where it raises questions about its source’ (3). She contends:  

We remember those occasions time and again, and continue to feel puzzled by our inability to express what we experienced. For example, when we feel that a piece of music ‘tells’ us something … yet we cannot say what is was that we were ‘told’ (Jonas 2016: 3)

For me, poetry has never been about addressing Jonas’s ‘mundane moments of speechlessness’. Whenever I read it or write it, poetry is about reaching into experiences of ineffability that are meaningful precisely because of their enigmatic nature. Why else would Emily Dickinson write the following?

If I could tell how glad I was
            I should not be so glad – (Dickinson 1975: 681)

The whole point for poets—aesthetically, philosophically, psychologically—is to try to write into the impossible, and by doing so, to push language further and further, and—inevitably, tantalisingly—to fall short. For language, when pushed, will often push back.

This is entirely compatible with scholarship, irrespective of the perceived ‘success’ or ‘failure’ of the outcome, because in the pursuit of the ineffable, we are challenged to breach new boundaries of expression, and hope that new forms of experimentation or articulacy will emerge. ‘It is no wonder that most people experience poetry as a failure of meaning, but this failure is not a deprivation’ argues Gerald Bruns. ‘Poetry bears witness to the resistance of language’ (Bruns 1974: vii).



How to disappear

go out into snow     offer
           your tongue
to the vanish   and blur
           let flakes
melt  like vows
           un       saying 

go further    still
           when you hear
nothing          but whiteness 
            and     s         
efface your own

            every tr
the un                      
                      the utter
be        absence                        a






5. Enough to shake the mountain 

To help me write from and through this ambivalence with words, this delicious resistance of language, I am using the principles of apophasis. Experimentation with this approach is steering my poetry practice into a deeper and more difficult creative realm. Working into the relationship between language and space, sound and silence, is becoming ever more challenging, but this is what I had hoped for.

Poetically, apophasis is manifested in denial, feint, equivocation, and subversion. Negativity ‘constantly lures absence into presence. While continually subverting that presence, negativity … changes it into a carrier of absence of which we would not otherwise know anything’ (Budick and Iser 1996: xiii). Silence is also a carrier of that absence. As Grabher and Jessner attest: ‘the unsaid is as much part of the poem as are the words, thematically and technically’ (Grabher and Jessner 1996: xiv), and the poem’s silence ‘speaks’ in the interstices of punctuation and words, and their interplay with the space of the page.

Yet the space of the page is also an agent of apophasis. For Monica Carroll, the page/space is a phenomenon that could be thought of as ‘speaking back’, for as she submits, ‘space is more than an absence of black marks. It is a mark of its own, namely, the mark of space’ (Carroll in Hetherington et al 2014: 88). To the Egyptian poet Edmond Jabès, who writes a lot about white—‘color of absence of color’—the page/space is antagonistic; he experiences the ‘violence of the white page, all the harder to subdue for being silent’ (Jabès 1991c: 32). Having ‘nothing’ to say does not lessen this sense of violence. The blank page can be a site of conflict. Yet it can also be an ice rink, a clean sheet, a field of snow. It is receptive to marks, pressure, to intervention on its surface.

When I began exploring the idea of ineffability, I suspected that it might not be possible for poetry—or anything other than silence, in fact—to overcome the failure of words. As a result of my poetic adventures thus far, I’m more and more convinced of this impossibility, and I am increasingly persuaded of the value of failure, which is why I share Notley’s ambivalence about words from a practical as well as theoretical perspective. I cannot make claims for my writing as a revelation of trauma, or a breaking of taboo, or even an expression of dissent. I do not write as a political act. I write because I seek better ways of writing, and the more I write, the more I expect to fall short, both with my capacity for language, and with language itself. But, as I hope the creative work in this paper shows, this inadequacy is not the limitation it appears to be. It need not signify lack or clumsiness, but instead an opportunity for the poet to push for alternative ways of using words and space.

Yet, even if ultimately my poetry does not achieve the effect I strive for (artistically, aesthetically, technically), the experience I will have had in trying to engage with ineffability will have pushed my capacity to its limits, and like a well-exercised muscle, those limits will keep expanding. Poetry and apophasis both deal with what cannot be said in words, even though words are their key medium. If making a poem means ‘failing’ again and again with language, the result of this failure will still be verbal; there will be an artefact of words on the page, even if the poet desires those words to express more. Thus far, I am finding that applying the principles of apophasis to my creative practice opens up rather than closes opportunity for poetic expression. Though its purpose might be ostensibly to define things in terms of what they are not, apophasis offers multiple possibilities and interpretations for what things might be. As Jabès offers, ‘one step in the snow is enough to shake the mountain’ (Jabès 1991a: 24).

What might that first step look like?



Different latitudes here
air more rarefied

cannot carry sound
no ears

ossicles are icicles

No breathing no breath to speak
lungs do not hold oxygen

lungs hold only enough for life
do not have lungs 

words brim but do not spill
no mouth
I am all rim

The pout around proud flesh

Silting up becoming crystalline inside
I wake with frost on me
The thaw takes longer, daily.

But rim is lip and lip spills words

The brain discharged of sense and meaning
No brain

Rim is lip

Little black fences across a snowfield

What is the taste of words
Why can’t I taste my words
I hold them in my mouth
Why can’t I taste them

Hearing does not need a sound
Only silence

My nib a nematode in ice

Who decides on the horizon who draws the limit of the Earth, its vanishing
Who says, who says? That this is it, no further.

This is the end because I say so

Not everything is mapped there is unknown

What if I thaw
Will silence cease?

Will keening leach from me

Will I become all sound

Will every pore pour

Will this be kenosis

Trying to read the snow line

But these lines are unreadable

Crump of boot in face of snow
Full. stop.

What's an empty stop?

Bubbled in my kinesphere

Cleave means split and cling 

And that is what I do, I cleave

I cannot turn this into words

Where the light is leaking out


6. Fields of snow

What you have just read (above) was an attempt to subvert the violence of the white page, and turn it into a field of snow. It is something unvarnished from my ‘work in progress’ files, unedited, reproduced exactly as found while I was browsing files during the writing of this paper. The beginnings of what did not turn into a poem in its own right, it gave pieces of itself to other poems. To me it reads not so much like making prints on snow, and more like trying to find my way through a whiteout. Pressing through substance-less substance with my whole self, knowing direction only through one foot (one word?) being placed ahead of another. I can expand on how this feels only by offering a poem:



Outside the saying of it

not mine  not mine                       this body finite      
           flat-lined      clings             to tilt   of               slip    
to tilt of         slip & shift & 
           time    belongs where longing     is
invisible drift           horizon-blind
           no       sound no skin          this body finds
the here         unknown                 unreadable                      unlined
           the not-beyond       belongs          near-far
the air     more rarefied     all-where         is undefined
           not every-there      is mapped       aligned         
this no-body    is rift & rim    is primed
           between horizon-lines where rim  is lip    
&         brims with the


           is limbic          is         alembic         still  it brims
but does not spill        distils the distant   makes           
           the now here   mine    dispels the instant       to the                   outer
edge of time    unseen unheard unsaid
           the nowhere     of       unending borderline                    perimeter
of shift & sign   this body    shivers    limns     its longing 
           overlaps     its lines        not mine       not mine  
this body/mind                         so limitless    so                       finite


7. This “beyond” of language

What do these explorations into and beyond poetic and apophatic language achieve?

Franke argues that despite its antiquity as a ‘quasi-epistemic paradigm for criticism, as well as for language-based disciplines and practices’ (Franke 2007b: 2), apophasis, ‘as a newly emerging logic, or rather a/logic, of language in the humanities … can help us learn to read in hitherto unsuspectedly limber and sensitive ways’ (Franke 2007b: 2). So apophasis has the potential to deepen our engagement with and appreciation of every occasion where words fall short, or we attempt in vain to find language adequate to our purpose.

There is such value to this; by being arrested in the moment of searching for the right words, we pause, go deeper into that which cannot be expressed, and we register that internal struggle on a visceral level, a level that literally (and often entirely appropriately) is beyond words. But surely artists of every persuasion will not cease to push their particular discipline to the limits, in order to

[L]ook at the world, and reflect on it, respond and frame it … through intelligent attention, close observation, and the willingness to be led by the process into an understanding of what it might be, what it might say, and what knowledge it might generate (Webb and Brien 2008: n.pag.) 

And whatever these artists’ practices reveal may open up new pathways to understanding, or empathy, or learning. Our experiences of the world, of life, are not neat, not necessarily explainable, and we cannot know exactly how other humans—even those we are closest to—experience them. The world is fragmented, puzzling; it is full of non-sequiturs, silences, and noise.

As Plotinus (CE 205–270) noted in the Enneads V, life means ‘we are in agony for a true expression; we are talking of the untellable; we name, only to indicate for our own use, as best we may’ (Plotinus cited in Franke 2007a: 53). Centuries later, it seems this agony for a true expression still challenges us.

‘The text is my silence and my scream’ wrote Edmond Jabès (1991b: 45). In every poem I write, I strive for the space where scream and silence become one.




1. See for example Leigh Gilmore: ‘Crucial to the experiences of trauma are the difficulties that arise in trying to articulate it … the consensus position argues that trauma is beyond language in some crucial way, that language not only fails in the face of trauma, but is mocked by it and confronted with its own insufficiency. Yet even as the view that one cannot speak about or represent trauma prevails, language is asserted as that which can and must heal the survivor and the community. Thus language bears a heavy burden in the theorization of trauma’ (Gilmore 2001: 132).  


Nocturne Poem: Key to lines. Please see reference list for full sources.

Section I
In the beginning it was blindness and sleep Jorge Luis Borges, ‘History of the Night’
Fire as a whisper of wolves Simon Armitage, ‘Out of the Blue’
Somewhere on the other side of this wide night Carol Ann Duffy, ‘Words, Wide Night’
The girl upstairs has again begun to cry Leontia Flynn, ‘The Girl Upstairs’
moves in a wood of desire Thom Gunn, ‘Considering the Snail’
this forest of starving silences  Ted Hughes, ‘The Howling of Wolves’
hence my night-shift  Kathleen Jamie, ‘The Spider’
Cicadas ring loudest when you’re alone  John Kinsella, ‘Storm Cicadas’
how difficult it is to remain just one personCzeslaw Milosz, ‘Ars Poetica’
I think of the wind as the earth’s voice muscleAlice Oswald, ‘Interview with the Wind’
I am a miner. The light burns blue.  Sylvia Plath, ‘Nick and the Candlestick’
The lambs all around, bleating.  Sina Queyras, ‘Acceptable Dissociations’
All that’s left are a dozen copies of my elastic self   Jo Shapcott, ‘The Oval Pool’
For always roaming with a hungry heart   Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘Ulysses’
But best is this night surf   Derek Walcott, ‘Pentecost’
A ring of unlikely, violet colours   Morgan Yasbincek, ‘rainbow’
Half asleep, we catch creation’s rustle Fay Zwicky, ‘Wiping the Canvas’

Section II
Un-breathed, an ocean of sky Simon Armitage, ‘Out of the Blue’
I shall go, farther than the shipmates of Ulysses Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The Dream’
Fog-hushed and aswim Julia Copus,‘Impossible As It Seems’
The room is turning slowly away from the moon Carol Ann Duffy, ‘Words, Wide Night’
A dull head among windy spaces T. S. Eliot, ‘Gerontion’
The ghost of your former self is biding her time Leontia Flynn, ‘The Exorcism’
pale antlers barely stirring Thom Gunn, ‘Considering the Snail’
Innocence crept into minerals Ted Hughes, ‘The Howling of Wolves’
prophetics of a closed book  Mick Imlah, ‘Iona’
Like a lovers’ bed with the sheets stripped back Kathleen Jamie, ‘Doing Away’
You keep dying and filling the nothingness, the silence John Kinsella, ‘Storm Cicadas’
The creatures of the moon sniff and prowl about their cabins Federico García Lorca, ‘The City That Never Sleeps’
and invisible guests come in and out at will Czeslaw Milosz, ‘Ars Poetica’
I do not want to go on being a root in the dark Pablo Neruda, ‘Walking Around’
A kind of kiss, a coldness Alice Oswald, ‘Interview with the Wind’
Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing Sylvia Plath, ‘Child’
Vaguely reminiscent of seasons Sina Queyras, ‘Endless Inter-States’
I was fourteen, but you don’t forget the scorch Tracy Ryan, ‘Elegy for Luke’
All of us blowing and blown under the sticky water Jo Shapcott, ‘The Oval Pool’
Souls that that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with meAlfred Lord Tennyson, ‘Ulysses’
How many more, I must ask myself John Updike, ‘61 and 2/3’
Let us go singing as far as we go: the road will be less tedious Virgil, ‘Eclogues’
It comes too fast, this shelving sense of home Derek Walcott, from ‘Midsummer’
Its spirit leans like a thin hook Xue Tao ‘Moon’
We leave when the sky is orange, the moon makes its cut Morgan Yasbincek, ‘gimel’
Sails lowered, waiting for the winds Fay Zwicky, ‘Finding Focus’
As if we started like a gasp in the heart Fay Zwicky, ‘Wiping the Canvas’


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