Poetry, risk and uncertainty
  • Natalie Pollard


Dominator culture has tried to keep us all afraid, to make us choose safety instead of risk, sameness instead of diversity. Moving through that fear, finding out what connects us, revelling in our differences; this is the process that brings us closer, that gives us a world of shared values, of meaningful community.

bell hooks, Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope


‘Poetry … must continually ask itself the question of its own knowing, constantly probe the truth it knows yet struggles to reveal’, writes Peter de Bolla (2001: 126). ‘This process cannot end, … we learn … to be at one with that knowledge’. For de Bolla, poetry undergoes a peculiar and generative linguistic crisis through self-questioning: the breakdown of ‘knowledge’ is also a prompt to learning. Yet in being befuddled, lyric texts not only ‘struggle’ to know for themselves. They also powerfully draw recipients into that quest. Poetry’s imperfect grasp is a shared predicament, as well as a permanent condition. ‘Continually’ asking, ‘constantly’ probing, ‘this process cannot end’. There is no solution to our efforts to ‘learn’, and no end of our learning how ‘to be at one’ with that struggle.

What might these observations about the need for ongoing questioning with others—and about learning as coming to terms with non-arrival—have to do with the ethics of poetic address? This paper explores what poetry can teach by chaperoning us down fumbling, inarticulate and uncertain verbal pathways. In particular, it considers how poems invite interlocutors into disconcertingly collaborative lyric processes, often by harnessing the instabilities of self and other, ‘I’ and ‘you’, knowledge and ignorance. bell hooks’ focus on risk, resistance and non-dominating collaborative contact is especially pertinent to such writing, which frequently reminds us of its (and our) vulnerability in a mutually-constituted verbal world.

An analysis of poetry written riskily against the grain might envisage it as working against dominant narratives, or against ‘dominator culture’. Yet such labour also struggles not to be hubristic. Deliberately oblique and counter-trending lyric language is able simultaneously to expose itself as partial and coerced; an inevitably imperfect struggle to acknowledge and work with forms of neglect, denial, silencing. One way poets have tried to engage ethically (and non-hubristically) with others—indeed to learn from and with them—is through closer attention to the unsayable (with all the ‘risk’ and ‘fear’ its paradox entails). And yet, given the difficulty involved in pinning down this absent presence, it remains uncertain how—or whether—its instructive power could be harnessed.

How do poems capture what is absent and what won’t go into words? The contemporary British poet Maggie O’Sullivan recently said of her poetry:

I have always been haunted by issues of VOICELESSNESS—inarticulacy—silence—soundlessness—breathlessness—how are soundings or voices that are other-than or invisible or dimmed or marginalized or excluded or without privilege, … given form and potency: how can I body forth or configure such sounds, such tongues, such languages, such muteness, such multivocality, such error … this is perhaps why the non-vocal in mark and the non-word in sound or language—make up much of the fabrics and structures of my own compositions. (O’Sullivan 2004: 159)

O’Sullivan directs attention to how the unsayable might appear in language. To go by the path of poetic ‘inarticulacy’ and ‘VOICELESSNESS’ is to pose questions about which kinds of sounds, voices and understandings have been excluded. It involves learning how to read the ‘fissures’, gaps and fragments on the printed page, as well as in identities and histories. O’Sullivan’s interest is drawn to places where we are not smoothly articulate. Rather, her focus is instances when poet or reader is struck dumb. To read her poetry is to experience moments when the tongue seems to be silenced, and to learn to listen to aspects of language that have become routinely unheard by others.

Poetry’s teaching may, by these lights, have everything to do with what we glean when we ‘body forth or configure’ absent presences; with what we gain in choosing risk, uncertainty, difference instead of verbal familiarity, safety and cogency. Focusing first on O’Sullivan’s poetry, I will consider the way the unsayable is bodied forth and configured in terms of a ‘lyric I’ that addresses us, and on how the language of presence is used to hide the self in full view, often through generating a dizzyingly multiplicity of selves. The second half explores the poetry of Denise Riley, shifting the focus to the instructively gap-ridden behaviour of speaking to ‘you’.

Hide and seeking I

‘Listen.            Hear’, Maggie O’Sullivan writes in a 1980s poem: ‘It’s me’, ‘Away from divisions & devices’ (O’Sullivan 1982). Declaring the self present, the poet deploys the language of authentic being, seeming to speak in the here and now: ‘It’s me’. Emerging into view with present-tense immediacy, the first person voice is used to hail an addressee. This self both attracts attention to itself and creates a sense of veracity by claiming to do ‘away’ with ‘divisions & devices’.

O’Sullivan’s lines, however, are also carefully exploiting the language of openness and directness that they deploy. The first lines of the poem conduct us through a sequence of gaps, hesitations, silences. Slowing down the reading pace, the poem gently reconfigures expectations about lyric space and sound:


                        Listen.             Hear.


                        Exactly.           The exchange.    This attempt to ask & say.

                        This talking from scratch, the rimmed indications of speech.


Puncturing vocal fluidity, this ‘exchange’ feels oddly truncated. Is this a dialogue in which one side has gone missing or has been erased? The single word sentences of the first line make the reading voice pause and linger awkwardly in the elongated spaces between the printed words. One ‘listens’ to silence here. This effect is maintained over the enjambment, where the clipped brevity of the three sentences—and the visual space opened up between each—tunes us in further to the dynamics of utterance that has measured out its absences and gap-ridden ‘talk’. The partial voice that the poem asks one to ‘hear’ is only ‘indicative’ of full speech (whatever that might be). The inked marks, as the title suggests, remain notational. ‘let the diffidence in’, O’Sullivan asks, or begs, or reminds the ‘I’ to do. To read ‘I’ is to listen for what is not (quite) there, what numberless absences ghost the margins, scratch themselves into partial presence.

To look more closely at O’Sullivan’ use of the first person voice is to see self-disclosure adopted as ruse and disguise. The poem announces ‘It’s me’, but the lines continue:


It’s me leaning from thrown windows to look at a rust

motor worn to bracken. Or I can alter the programme,

turn off the light, pull off the pen, refuse to reveal

a position


Such a speaker hides in the very act of self-revelation. The poem might throw open the windows to let ‘you’ look in while ‘I’ looks out. But this is only one available move. The poet-figure tries out a well-learned, established lyric gesture (of opening up) to discover how the semblance of genuine, convincing presence is verbally constructed. The speaker learns to sound as though she’s speaking as herself. This effect is quickly modified by casting ‘I’ as a series of chameleon poses: the use of ‘Or’ ‘refuse[s] to reveal / a position’ by disclosing so many alternatives.

It is precisely in order not to give the self away that O’Sullivan’s speaker tries out the idiom of self-disclosure, generating a confusing multiplicity of non-coincident ‘I’s. As the lines continue: ‘I pick such givenaways & broken / things with a careful greed’, ‘A regular flow and blur the search & run of pulling back / the pages.’ Openness is modified by obfuscation (‘blurring’) as well as by ‘pulling back’. The language of ontological pursuit and flight (‘search & run’) adds notes of danger to the metaphor of consumption: a sense of predator and prey stalks the lyric page. (The single valency of ‘a position’ might have good cause to self-protectively morph into multiple positions.) At the same time, O’Sullivan’s ‘I’ manifests as both predator/consumer and prey/consumed, greedily pouncing upon lexical ‘givenaways’. O’Sullivan’s verbal gluttony is ‘careful’ here, however, just as is the impulse to self-‘blur’. Even in these evasions of position-taking language, the poem is simultaneously self-suspicious, alert to being co-opted by the linguistic ‘givenaways’ it co-opts and regurgitates in modified form.

Here is a final example of O’Sullivan’s careful—self-scrutinising—reiteration of half-cogent fragments of revelatory language:


lie open. prefer. tighten a brimful,


              flex the nerves. bare the retina. haul the shells.

              appease the grain. measure away the drizzle. learn

              to implicate the splendid jumble.


Such work produces starkly condensed sentences (‘bare the retina’, ‘lie open’) that generate paradoxes between pairs and triads of words. In ‘lie open’ do the lines lie open, openly? Are they lying about lying open? Perhaps they occupy both sides of the contradiction at once: to lie, to lie open. Comparably, the anti-ordering impulse to ‘learn / to implicate the splendid jumble’ initially sounds positive (‘splendid’). But what does it mean that the desire to ‘learn’ is grouped with the actions to ‘appease’ and to ‘measure’ (both rational sounding acts applied to illogical ends ‘appease the grain’, ‘measure away the drizzle’)? What is added by combining such knowledge with the double meaning of ‘implicate’, both to indirectly convey one’s gist, and to have exposed one’s complicity in a crime?

Such questions are silently implicit in the poem: if the text lures you actively to formulate them, equally it does not allow you to answer or to solve them. The teaching that we engage with does not allow us to come to rest in our learning. We remain on the move, not able to be satisfied at having arrived at finalised meaning. Nor is one able to dominate other uninitiated persons with one’s newfound certainties or acquired knowledge. The absent presences and present absences of the poetic page are linked to acts of self-disclosure that are simultaneously evasive and uncertain, which suggest the subject’s movement is akin to the mortal flight of prey and the aggressive consumption of the predator, and which are themselves linked with both the creative delight in digesting and re-using circulating linguistic titbits, and the sense of having—in so doing—committed a verbal crime.


Space for you

the pain that teaching to transgress can inflict; a pain that might be desirable when seeking to liberate our desires from the symbolic order’s injunction to enjoy. the liberatory importance of inflicting that pain

bell hooks, Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope


points of undecidability are points of disruption, where change can no longer proceed incrementally and smoothly. At these points the system is forced to do something unprecedented … This introduces a discontinuity; a break or ‘cut’ with the continuity of the past. … It cuts into a new space of ‘being’.

Deborah Osberg, ‘Knowledge is Not Made for Understanding; It is Made for Cutting’



Section two considers bell hooks’ remarks about ‘teaching to transgress’ alongside Deborah Osberg’s sense that positively disruptive ‘undecidabilty’ can help us to ‘cut into a new space of “being”’ (Osberg 2010). My focus is the ethical potential of lyric address to ‘you’, which is often an interruptive, difficult, and even painful act.[1] In what ways might saying (and being) ‘you’ teach us to know identity in different ways, and with others? I’d like to consider poems that offer us a pronominally-ridden language that cannot ‘proceed incrementally and smoothly’, and explore the ways in which this cuts into new spaces of being. Such language is not the discrete domain of ‘I’ or ‘you’, but is mutually constitutive. In these processes, lyric poetry disruptively explores the perilously undecidable, ontologically overlapping agencies of writer and reader, teacher and learner, rule-follower and transgressor.

By way of example, let’s take section 6 of Denise Riley’s poem sequence, Marxism for Infants, published in the late 1970s. Like O’Sullivan, Riley gives us speaking voices that are alterable and uncertain, and which create ‘points of undecidability’ and ‘disruption’.[2] Yet Riley’s tone seems to be quite different from O’Sullivan’s:


Is this ‘me’ or ‘you’ talking? When Riley writes of ‘the speaking,      the desire’, who is the speaker? Who listens and who desires? In such lines, the agency of the vocal line is riddled through minimal pronoun use. There is no clearly defined ‘me’ or ‘I’. There are only ‘bits’ and ‘pieces’, ‘joints’ and ‘limbs’ of selfhood.[3]

Such work makes particular trouble for the idea of a poetic persona that is ‘really present’. Instead it plays a kind of hide-and-seeking activity with ‘I’ and other. Indeed, ‘you’ takes the place of ‘I’ as the active personal pronoun. Emphasising the self’s absent presence, vocal agency becomes porous or perforated: ‘a diffused / glowing extension’ of subjecthood. Even after repeated re-reading and re-interpretation it remains ambiguous who is doing what to whom. Indeed, the more one scours the spaces between the words—the absent presences—the more one finds oneself literally reading between the lines.  

In so doing, Riley’s text foregrounds itself as precarious material occurrence. The poem underlines the bringing-into-being of its printed lines, which is not the univocal domain of the existing authorial self, but of the enactment of each recipient (‘speaking’, ‘hearing’). Uncannily merging the site of ‘production’ with the act of reading/hearing, Riley’s published page reveals its incompletion: ‘the desire to be heard’, ‘the desire to be spoken’. Gaps and spaces abound, both in the middle of sentences, and between words within a line. The cuts opened up within immediate-sounding utterances ensure that reading acts come to feel disconcertingly integral to the act of poetic construction: ‘to you (shaking) / you (absence)’. The poem acoustically waits to be brought into being.

In this way, Riley’s text points to absence as a form of presence. What is not-quite-sayable (whether in parenthesis, unprinted, or hypothetical) is used as a point of contact with ‘you’, and the work’s futurity. Such poetry spatially gestures towards the encounter that is yet to come. It teaches ‘you’ to read what is precarious, incomplete, beyond the end of the sentence, or just out of your grasp. The underarticulated ‘scattered limbs’ of the poetic lines offer form to the reading eye they reach toward, structuring the gap-ridden learning encounter.

On the one hand, any expectation of a lyric ‘I’ speaking directly and fluently to ‘you’ is truncated. The lines mark out the ‘desire to be heard’, and ‘the desire to be told’, but refuse to satisfy either. Perhaps this is because what goes too easily into narrative flow—‘lubricants of social grace’—holds dangers. (Scare quotes around ‘articulacy’ indicate suspicion of any art that is too persuasive and cogent.) Rather, for Riley, it seems it is when the poet is not occupying the subject position lauded by ‘dominator culture’—that of a coherent, eloquent ‘I’—that tentative, emergent, and ethical encounters with others become available (a verbal ‘process that brings us closer’ as hooks might say). Riley’s printed gaps and fissures thus open up unstable spaces of shared potential subjecthood—between I and other, readers and writers, and between multiple changing, unstable speaking/silent agents. These cut voices teach us what we do not know, by being permitted to jostle and heckle us, to show non-agreement and confusion, and to remain imperfectly coherent.

But what are ‘you’ to do with these poetic spaces? As reader I might experience the gaps on the Rileyan page as a form of inclusivity and invitation. Perhaps I am relieved that the ‘meanings’ of the speaking and receiving acts are open and indeterminate; perhaps I feel that these voices avoid hubris; that the poem does not dominate its ‘you’:


to you   (shaking)

you   (absence)


At the same time, I might experience this call ‘to you’ quite differently. I might find it an imperious demand for readerly response, which I am not prepared to give. It is as if the cut voice is uncomfortably needy, and asking directly for a reassuring or empathetic gesture ‘through the page’ from recipients.

I do not know how to respond to this plea for direct engagement. Either way I feel summoned by it. Are such lines really offering the poem as a space of co-production? Is Riley gesturing toward these fissured speaking voices as that of mutual, hopeful co-authorship (with ‘you’, offered ‘to you’)? Is this, too, a ruse? Perhaps what the poem calls ‘a massy, diffused glowing extension’ is inclusive of all participatory readers, writers, speakers and desiring language users (me, you, and all the others). Even so, the experience is not innocently ‘liberatory’, and ‘you’ is being surreptitiously lured into a position. Who is performing this luring? The poem? The poet? The culprit might as easily be identified as ‘dominator culture’ itself, covertly reestablishing itself. (What, after all, would be more hubristic than a lyric claim to have resisted ‘dominator’ language entirely?) What the poem may be teaching, in part, is that readers as well as writers must remain vigilant, even when choosing risk over safety, ‘diffused glowing extension’ over secure subjecthood, transgressive diversity over sameness.

I am haunted by the questions left by these forms of the unsayable. Is there equality of address here in Riley’s lines? An inclusivity to the ‘unsaid’ and inarticulate spaces? What kind of teaching is taking place?

Elsewhere, Riley performs another kind of ‘cutting’ from subjecting the body of the text to metaphorical violence. In ‘A Shortened Set’, one encounters a self-lacerating poetic ‘I’, whose fears about becoming too glib are balanced against its declarations of self-interest and self-regard:


my body was cut. This cut

my memory half-sealed but glued

the edges together awry.

The skin is distorted, the scar-tissue

does damage, the accounts are wrong,

And this is called ‘the healing process’.

Now nothing’s aligned properly.

It’s a barbarous zone.

The bad sutures

thicken with loss and hope –

brilliant, deliberate


steady me against inaccuracy, a lyric urge

to showing-off.

The easy knife

is in my hand again. Protect me. (Riley 1993: 16–24)


Again, Riley’s use of address (‘steady me’, ‘Protect me’) suggests an interlocutor who is present in the poetic space. Deixis creates a meeting-place between reader and writer: here and now on the page. Yet rather than producing a liberatory cutting of ‘dominator language’, these dialogic techniques are used to co-opt listeners into the predicament of the subject’s self-creation. Even as ‘I’ reveals its perforation, and its resistance to the well-documented ‘lyric urge for showing off’, it cannot avoid ‘me-centric’ language. ‘The easy knife / is in my hand again. Protect me.’

Many twentieth-century and contemporary poets have drawn attention to the fraught material of their work’s production (shared language) as it needles and buttonholes or silences us. Refusing passively to offer their work up for appreciation, such a poetics insists on the non-neutral (often violent) participatory and collaborative act of showing the unsayable. This is not to ‘reveal’ what is unsayable. Rather, it is to use the body of the lyric page to point to underappreciated gaps, silences, neglected agencies, buried histories, ghostly and erased presences. Performing ‘a self’ at the margins of place and space, at the blurred borders of me-ness and you-ness, presence and absence, both writers create potent dissonances through disorienting alterable, journeying, and heckling ways of hiding emergent ‘I’s and ‘you’s in full view. Riley’s and O’Sullivan’s approaches to questions of verbal access, vocal privilege, and (dis)possession offer key examples of the lyric struggle to ‘cut’ through modes of dominance. Such work indicates its desired non-conformity with power discourses that privilege stridency and articulacy, unity and wholeness.


[1] Elsewhere I have discussed at length the complexity of poetic uses of the second person pronoun. See Natalie Pollard, Speaking to You (2012: 1-39).

[2] I discuss the relationship between Denise Riley and WS Graham further in a forthcoming monograph entitled Fugitive Pieces: Poetry, Publishing and Visual Culture from Late Modernism to the Twenty-first Century; see chapter 5, ‘Reverberation: Denise Riley, Ethics, and Spatial Poetics’.

[3] See Riley’s prose analysis of the experience of being a ‘garrulous split self’ in which ‘there is talking within us as if we are spoken from elsewhere … words race across me in polyphone brigades’, in The Force of Language, Riley and Lecercle (2004: 19-20).

Works cited: 

hooks, bell 2003 Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, New York: Routledge

de Bolla, Peter 2001 Art Matters, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press

O’Sullivan, Maggie 1982 ‘Notes & outings’ in Concerning Spheres, Bristol: Broken Ground Press. Also at: http://eclipsearchive.org/projects/CONCERNING/html/pictures/concerning0016.html

O’Sullivan, Maggie 2004 ‘In conversation with Andy Brown’, in Andy Brown (ed), Binary Myths 1and2: Conversations with Poets and Poet-Editors, Exeter: Stride, 155–160

Osberg, Deborah 2010 ‘Knowledge is not made for understanding: It is made for cutting’, Complicity: An International Journal of Complexity and Education 7.2: iii–viii

Pollard, Natalie 2012 Speaking to You: Contemporary Poetry and Public Address, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Riley, Denise 1977 Marxism for Infants, Cambridge: Street Editions 

Riley, Denise 1993 Mop Mop Georgette: New and Selected Poems 1986-1993, London: Reality Street Editions

Riley, Denise and Jean-Jacques Lecercle 2004 The Force of Language, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan