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“Words fail but meanings still exist”: Exploring the relationship of apophasis to poetic practice

Webster, Mags (Margaret) (2020) “Words fail but meanings still exist”: Exploring the relationship of apophasis to poetic practice. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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Since classical times, apophasis, the rhetoric of negation, has been harnessed as a means of writing about and addressing the ineffable in philosophy, literature and theology. This thesis is concerned with the dynamic relationship between poetry and ineffability, and specifically with how apophasis may inform a contemporary poetics that seeks to grapple with the unsayable. Arguing that language becomes more potent as poetic material when pushed towards engagement with the ineffable, the thesis thus investigates how poets might use the principles and techniques of apophasis to push at aesthetic and expressive boundaries. In order to trace the historical development, changing meanings, and interpretative possibilities of apophasis as concept and as practice, this thesis considers the writings, from ancient times to the present day, of key philosophers (such as Jacques Derrida); theologians (such as Dionysius the Areopagite); and poets (such as Rumi and Charles Wright), with a particular focus on apophasis in the work of poets Emily Dickinson and Paul Celan.

The thesis takes a braided form: toggling between critical and creative writing to reflect a mode of research whose creative component—a selection of original poems, lyric prose passages, and poetic asides—is deeply interwoven with the critical enquiry. The enfolding of different modes of writing has temporal, spatial, rhythmical, kinetic, visual, material and musical significance, which can animate language as a practice harbouring the known and unknown, said and unsaid, presence through absence, and perceptibility through imperceptibility. Moreover, by using critical and creative writing to demonstrate how poetry is the ideal medium in which to push at these boundaries, the thesis also identifies poetry as a way of knowing that is emotionally, intellectually, and aesthetically valuable.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation: Creative Media, Arts and Design
Supervisor(s): Surma, Anne and Webb, J.
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