Monday, 27 January 2014


n. 1 the act or an instance of restraining or being restrained. 2 a stoppage; a check; a controlling agency or influence. 3 a self-control, avoidance of excess or exaggeration. b austerity of literary expression...

A cliché, a pigeonholing or a stereotype isn't suddenly born. It starts off with a meaning that is then subverted, as in the case of restraint. I was happy, for example, to have it in the blurb on the back cover of Inventing Truth. Nevertheless, it's now joining the realms of those terms that Sphinx reviewers were instructed to ignore, such as unflinching, edgy, nuanced, promising, emerging, risk-taking, deceptive, brave, etc, etc..

In other words, restraint is in the process of becoming lazy critical shorthand. People think they can classify a poet as soon as they see it. As mentioned in my post on Rory Waterman's Tonight the Summer's Over, reviewers are investing the word with negative connotations of constriction and repression, both in terms of form and content, as if the poet in question were inhibited.

If we go back to the original definition at the top of this post, restraint refers to "austerity of literary expression". I understand this definition as the technique of emotion being distilled and compressed instead of being daubed all over the page, all as one of the many viable renderings of intense feeling.

The question at this stage is whether restraint can be recovered as a positive description of a poem or whether it's now destined to be consigned to that grim list of words to be dodged by any reviewer worth their salt...

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