Poetry News

Christina Davis's Meditation on Renouncing Poetry

By Harriet Staff


At the Boston Review blog, Christina Davis explores the all-too-familiar concept of quitting the poetry game (much more eloquently). She matches the simple gesture of "leaving Facebook" with "gravitas of the renunciations . . . (those of George Oppen, Arthur Rimbaud, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Laura Riding, the list goes on)." From "The Not-Saying":

The Facebook-farewell is often more practical than philosophical: it is a way of protecting one’s decision from interference or reversal—a verbal phone-off-the-hook or digital Do-Not-Disturb. And, of course, for the most part these writers are signing off of Facebook in order to get some actual writing done.

Nevertheless, these two gestures do share a single striking affinity: namely, the use of language to say farewell to a specific linguistic arena, and (in some cases, particularly that of Riding) to call attention to one’s absence from a particular field of language through language and its equal-and-opposite signifier, silence. Riding’s gesture often reminds me of Marianne Moore’s observation about the nightingale: it is the silence (not the relentless singing) that provokes and unsettles the bird’s listeners. “Plagued by the nightingale, in the new leaves,” she writes, “[…] not its silence, but its silences.”

• • •

I often think of words as a range, within which some stand on the left of the word and some on the right and some have moved towards its center.

Which is why, perhaps, when people say “love” they are indeed veracious but at different stations of that word. Likewise, I first encountered the word “renunciation” and its provocative range during my undergraduate years. I was immersed in the work of a somewhat forgotten poet Alice Meynell, when I learned that in 1874, at the height of her renown, she had renounced poetry. To quote her biographer, her silence was “a deliberate, chosen, premeditated thing.”

I had naturally encountered poets before who involuntarily stopped writing for periods due to so-called writer’s block (one instance being Rainer Maria Rilke’s famous failure to write that led up to his blockbuster year of Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus). And, there were also countless poets who ceased to publish for certain periods or who were politically prevented from publishing. But not publishing seemed quite distinct from the very primary self-inflicted or self-asserted abstinence from the act of writing poems. A distinction Oppen makes clear in the following Q&A:
Interviewer: Is it true, George, that you stopped writing altogether, or is it more accurate to say you stopped publishing and being active as a poet?

Mary Oppen: He stopped writing.

George Oppen: I stopped writing, yes.

And here is Alice Meynell’s 1893 response to the same question:

Interviewer: And your poetry?

Alice Meynell: I never write poetry now.

During those early years of my writing life, such transcripts were unthinkable. Unless, as I began to consider, these renunciations—far from being acts of pure negation—carried within them the seed of an ideal. . . .

Originally Published: June 28th, 2013