“Not-saying became language.”
“Man as the being who can say ‘No.’”
In 1938, at the tender age of 37 years old, Laura Riding published her Collected Poems, and shortly thereafter renounced poetry and what she called “the creed of poetry.” It’s at the same age that the speaker of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself announces his intent to celebrate himself and sing himself, and in so doing put “creeds and schools in abeyance.”
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.
When I first began to make jottings for this meditation on renunciation, I was 37, hesitating on the brink between Whitman’s robust affirmation and Riding’s seemingly decisive renunciation. (Beware the ides of Thirtysomethingness.) But, in the midst of my uncertainty, there was one thing of which I was convinced: a poet’s right to say “No,” to use the very language of his/her medium (and what Dickinson calls the “wildest word consigned to language”) to articulate a departure from it.
And, too I think to add, I began to consider how “No” in this context—instead of being the antithesis of poetry—might in fact have something in common with the genre. That is, that the giving-up of poetry (forever or for a time), could be driven by the very ideals and ideas, impulses and demands that drive certain poets to write in the first place.
I returned to this rather hefty subject recently due to the frequency with which I’ve encountered assertions of farewell or “not-saying” on social media—in the form of friends and fellow writers announcing on Facebook that they are leaving Facebook. I have been struck by the need to announce this, to consign this Silence to language: “I am signing off from Facebook for awhile,” or “I am on a Facebook fast,” or “I am about to take a Facebreak.”
In many ways this casual gesture has nothing in common with the gravitas of the renunciations I am thinking of (those of George Oppen, Arthur Rimbaud, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Laura Riding, the list goes on). 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. . . .
As I explored Meynell’s narrative of silence, I began to notice a pattern in the way in which her family and fellow writers came to refer to it. It’s a pattern I’ve come to see frequently in renunciation-narratives: one that presents the Silence as a virtuous standard against an encroaching societal (or literary) trend. In Meynell’s case, her renunciation is articulated as a conscientious objection to the Industrial era and to a daily-ness of production that was associated with the penny press. As literary critic J. C. Squire said of her, she refused to “become a machine,” a consistent producer like “the journalists we all are now.” Her not-saying was being given the same authority as speech: “She has reared … an unpriced precedent,” wrote Frances Thompson, “she has given them the law of silence.”
Given how many writers have been deprived of the right to create, given (in the case of Meynell) her context on the cusp of the Suffragette movement, and given what is gone through to become a writer (even in our age and our MFA-immersed culture), how could someone for whom “it is the instinct of my life to write, as it is the instinct of the fountain to flow” deny her or himself so essential an act?
Is there something about poetry—its always already somewhat extremis situation in Western society and its shifting but never settled relationship toward the truth (“the sought equivalence,” as Riding put it, “between poetry and truth”)—that would lead certain poets not so much to denounce poetry as to seek beyond it for something that might satisfy their extreme truth-instinct? As Richard Dawkins observes: “Some of us just go one god further.”
Is there something about poetry and how we (as poets) arrive at it emancipated from certain strictures of our respective cultures—the forces of utilitarianism, mass productivity, and financial gain—only to erect new hierarchies, new cliques, new you-must-produce imperatives that might drive certain poets to extricate themselves? If only to renew their original volition. “We did not find honesty or sincerity in the so-called arts of the left,” Oppen once observed. Leo Tolstoy seconds the motion, describing poets as revolutionaries who have “no sooner emancipated ourselves from the superstitions of the church,” than a new “superstition takes us in” debasing and dishonoring “the principles in whose name” we were formed.
So many of the renunciations I’ve encountered suggest a criterion for what the poet originally expected poetry (or the life of the poet or the larger cultural or civic impact of the genre) would be. The belief in poetry as “a higher Esperanto” (Paul Celan). Of Rimbaud’s renunciation, a biographer writes that his refusal to write was as dramatic as his “former faith” in poetry. Another biographer refers to the years between 1869 and 1873 as “the period in which Rimbaud believed in poetry.” Interestingly, many of the renunciations I’ve researched do not lead to inaction or despair but renewed action and engagement in another discipline or sector. For Riding, her renunciation was articulated as a return to personhood, a way of asserting the continuity of her humanity over the intermittent role of being a poet:
As a person who was a poet in the course of being the person I was. . . . What I had to say as a poet I had to say not because I was a poet but because I was a person.
Might we consider some literary renunciations to possess a continuity of cause and of criterion, such that only real rupture is the means or material of engagement?
Does the act of renouncing the art-form exercise the very muscles of heightened “aspiringness” (as Riding put it) and self-inflicted criticism that writing a poem requires? When editing one’s own poems, the capacity to say “No” is native to the very act: one is constantly having to stand apart from one’s poetry and assess it from afar, choosing as if against oneself. “Renunciation,” writes Emily Dickinson, “is the Choosing against itself.” Does renunciation draw upon poets’ training in the rigorous getting-rid-of, the selecting of this-word-over-that? Is the act of renunciation simply an extension of this practice for certain poets, the ultimate hybrid of criticism and idealism—“an ars poetica of the anti-poetic” as Charles Bernstein once put it?
Is there something about the attraction certain poets have to manipulating language, structuring temporality, forming and reforming experience, that would make them more inclined to control the larger narrative of their own writing lives, to define its ebbs and flows decisively? Any poet who has ever faced the uncertainty of writing again can probably feel some kinship with this decision, this way of putting an end to the intermittent and replacing it with an absolute: “I am renouncing poetry,” instead of the more ambiguous “I haven’t written a poem in awhile.” Perhaps renunciation is a part of the narrative-instinct of the poet: a way of informing time and giving even the fallow periods (the not-writing, the not-saying) an assertive form of Authority.
Is it too much to suggest that renunciation is a literary equivalent of the construction of the good-death–a way of using language to construct the ideal departure? A way of wresting control over the unknown, and (as Hopkins wrote) electing silence?
Given these potential reasons, what might cause a poet to subsequently return to poetry, after, in the case of Meynell, a 13-year hiatus when her work grew so well received that she became the first woman to be considered for the poet laureateship in England? Or, in the case of Oppen, to emerge to write one of the great, integrative serial poems of the 20th century (Of Being Numerous) or to experience a “miracle year” of poetic creation in 1877 (as in the case of Hopkins)? Riding herself returned to literature to write “prolifically until her death in 1991.”
Are the poems that emerge thereafter altered by the experience? Do they, as Robert Duncan writes, “include the night in what [they] find … include the silence”? And is it really silence, after all: are these renunciations in fact absolute? Or are they just a little bit murkier?
As Paul Mariani writes of Hopkins’s renunciation, “If for the past three years he has given up writing verse as incompatible with his vocation, certainly his journals have not gotten the message. In fact, they have become a way of writing a prose that captures in its language and rhythms the poetry he has foregone, lifting words to a new level of intensity and precision.” In other words, sprung-rhythm emerges in the supposed vacuum of verse.
Here’s Guy Davenport’s description of Robert Walser’s final years: “This renunciation of writing by so gifted a genius is one of the tragedies of our time, to be put beside the loss of Walter Benjamin, Mandelstam, Khlebnikov, and Federico Garcia Lorca. And yet we have just learned that Walser did not entirely quit. His friend Carl Seelig […] discovered that Walser had written, in a tiny hand, on the back of calendars and scrap paper elegant and fanciful little paragraphs, which have been published as the Micrographia of Robert Walser.”
Does it really matter if indeed these poets did pick up the pen during their purported renunciations? Aren’t renunciations themselves a sort of artifice, a self-deposited parenthesis, a decidedly poetic gesture, one that establishes its own reality, its own ethos, its own terms?
I have found that an attentiveness toward renunciation—both the meaning it holds for the poet at the time and over time, as well as the role it plays in shaping a counterpoint narrative to our era of perpetual “projects” and workshops—has helped me to honor the original volition that precipitated my becoming a poet. Beyond outcome, beyond reception. Contemplating this gesture, this gain-saying of writing, returns me to the native right to say at all.
To begin from nought anew.