Once negation caught my eye in poetry, I couldn’t stop seeing it. The prefix “no-” making bodies, things, and places disappear. The prefix “un-” undoing verb after verb. I was suddenly surrounded by a chorus of poetic speakers telling me what was not. I was early in my M.F.A. studies, a time I remember when I often felt like I didn’t know how poems worked. The choices of line break, stanza, form, and even language seemed myriad and mysterious, but the choice of negation bothered me more than the rest. The conundrum is right there in my first sentence: why would I tell you “I couldn’t stop seeing it” instead of just saying “I saw negation everywhere”?
The more I read, the more I began to realize that negation is an expression and a powerful one. Saying: “Nobody spoke” is not the same as silence. Silence in poetry is communicated through caesuras and white space; negation is built into the language itself to refute or invert the meaning of a word or phrase. Moreover, negation is rarely a straightforward binary opposite. When I write, “Nobody spoke,” I’m not just describing the opposite of a chattering room. I’m signaling that a room that could be full of chatter, that one might even expect to be full of sound, was quiet. I’ve built two worlds: the one that exists and the one that might have or should have existed. I became so obsessed with this one syntactical choice that it became an entire research paper, one that might someday become a whole book.
In truth there are many answers to the question of why to negate a statement in poetry. I was recently reminded of this profusion of uses again when I encountered Lucille Clifton’s poem “won’t you celebrate with me.” To write about the ways I’m captivated and inspired by Clifton’s use of negation though I must go back to the beginning. It all began for me with a poem by Robin Coste Lewis. When confronting the horror of incest in her poem “Lure,” negation served to help both writer and reader navigate the unspeakable. The poem begins,
At the end of the poem, Robin Coste Lewis writes,
The poem is framed by the negative statement, “I am not there.…any longer.” Inside this negation the poet nests a three-page list that reads as a series of excruciatingly detailed denials. Indented from and parenthetical within that statement, the list begins: “We are not in that room. I am not sitting in your lap…” While both denial and self-doubt are classic symptoms of long-standing or repeated trauma, labeling “Lure” as a denial poem overlooks the powerful reframing of the final phrase outside of the parenthesis: “any longer.” The use of negation here is not the simple refutation of the event.
Negation thus presents us with two worlds simultaneously: the counterfactual world of “We are not in that room” and the factual world of the room where incest occurred. This might well be the very thing that happens in our brains when it is presented with a negation. Think of the phrase, “I’m not an elephant,” the way it immediately causes you to think of an elephant. The mind must construct a world in which I am an elephant and then suppress it or mark it as false. The positive statement “I am human,” is more clear—it tells you what I am, out of all the animals—but only by telling you what I am not can I produce a sort of double vision in your mind.
Through this doubled vision, the poet allows us to see both the world that is (the one of very real traumas) and the world that should be (the one without the traumatic incident or in which the speaker is protected from it). Watch how both worlds are at work in Lucille Clifton’s poem “won’t you celebrate with me.”
The poem begins with an invitation in the negative, “won’t you celebrate with me” which acts as both an invitation and as a signal that the reader might already be hesitant to join the party. As the poem unfolds and the reader discovers what is being celebrated, we understand the tension. Clifton is asking us to celebrate her survival of a systemic and violent racism. Yet, through negation we also see the world as it should be for young black women. A world with models for them. A world where blackness is so much more than the absence of whiteness.
For this new world to emerge, it must both be imagined and given autonomy, which is gained piece by piece in negation’s stripping away so that something new can emerge. Clifton and Coste Lewis write in a rich history of apophatic poets, theologians, and philosophers in this regard. Lewis must strip away, negation by negation, the victimized child in hopes of revealing the survivor’s truth. Clifton peels back the assertions of a white supremacist culture, freeing herself to “make up” a new culture that could celebrate her.
While this sounds liberating—and it is—the shedding of the old world also includes loss. Specifically the loss of the known world and the sense of place in a known community. It is this function of negation, in building a new community, that I find most exciting. Clifton explicitly invites us to celebrate, but she also has written a poem that invites the reader into the meaning-making process. Lisa Nahajec writes in her essay “Negation and the Creation of Implicit Meaning in Poetry”:
Creating meaning through the use of negation is a cooperative process between speaker and hearer or writer and reader [which] operates to activate implied rather than explicit meaning.
Through negation the reader is pulled into a more active role with the text of the poem. We are drawn by the very cognitive process itself beyond whatever internal resistance we might have to the difficult subjects of the poem. Negation offers the witness an entrance into the work of re-imagining along with the poet. Won’t you re-imagine this world with me? Clifton asks us. This world that both fails us and fails to kill us—one in which negation can be the bridge to another world that both poet and reader can envision together.
Write a poem about a difficult or traumatic story in your life or in the life of someone close to you. Tell at least half of the narrative in the negative—tell us what didn’t happen, where we weren’t, who wasn’t there, what wasn’t said, etc. Begin the poem with a question or invitation. End with a failure worth celebrating.
“Fearfully Unmade” by Erica Charis-Molling was previously published in Redivider (vol. 17.1, 2019). Reprinted by permission of the author.
Erica Charis-Molling is a poet, educator, and librarian. Her writing has been published in literary journals including Tinderbox, Redivider, Presence, Crosswinds, Glass, Anchor, Vinyl, Entropy, Apricity, and Mezzo Cammin. Her poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Orison anthology. She’s an alum of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and received her M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Antioch University. She currently lives in Boston and works as Education Director for Mass Poetry.