What is the connection between politics, poetry, John Ruskin’s theory of the grotesque, and apophasis, a form of rhetoric that is hundreds of years old? The perhaps surprising answer is the 45th president of the United States, Donald Trump. Since the days of his presidential campaign trail, media commentators have been linking Trump’s various pronouncements to ‘apophasis’ (or saying away), a form of rhetoric which poets, theologians and philosophers have used since Platonic times as a means of dealing with what lies beyond language. Yet is Trump actually following in this tradition? As a poet who is researching the relevance and advantages of apophasis to contemporary poetic practice, I suggest not. This essay draws on my research and on Ruskin’s definitions of the grotesque to argue that the media’s linkage of apophasis with Trump’s declarative style is in fact a misinterpretation of the term, and that both this misinterpretation and what Trump is actually doing with his speeches and tweets undermines what is of most value in apophasis.
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.