Writing The Unknown:
The Poetry of David Miller

Rupert M. Loydell






David Miller is a poet who is concerned with the process of writing, although he seems to have drawn on different writers to such contemporaries as Ken Edwards and Robert Sheppard for inspiration. (In a 1983 interview [Crouch, 1994, p 6]he mentions that he ‘started writing when I was fourteen or fifteen [having] discovered certain authors who excited me – writers as various as Arp and Dante and Henry Miller’, and later [p 6] says ‘In the years immediately after my first attempts as a writer, Nerval and Malcolm Lowry were probably most influential.’) He also seems to want to use process with more regard to the ‘content’ of his work.

     Later [p 9] in the same interview heis asked if he ‘could … say something about montage?’ He replies [p 9]


Montage – at least as I employ it myself – has to do with setting up relationships and connections – or with destroying familiar, conventional connections – in a direct way, by putting one thing next to another (or – to think of it in the sense of movement – one thing after another). The materials involved can be very disparate, or they can be more continuous in relation to one another, the juxtapositions more subtle


and goes on [p 9] to stress that


the main thing is that something is disclosed – some depth or ‘surplus’ of meaning, or some angle of vision – which was not available before, at least in quite the same way.


Whilst the relationships and connections Miller sets up may be complex and unfamiliar, and the reader may – as Sheppard has suggested – be asked to work harder and make the poem, Miller stresses, in a later interview with Andrew Bick [Bick, 1994, p 35] that


whenever you put one thing against another you’re establishing a connection, even if the two things are discontinuous


and also [p 35] that he is


both establishing connections between things and bringing meaning out of those connections, and also bringing things together in such a way that familiar connections are displaced



In ‘The Poetics of David Miller’, an essay in the same book, Robert Sheppard [1994, p 17] describes this way of working as ‘Broken Sequences’:


Not the regularity of building bricks, blocks structuring a facade, a barrier. Nor the almost seamless studio edits of Miles Davis … splicing like with like. But something like slow montage, fading and wiping, fading up again with a fresh image.


Sheppard [p 16] also quotes an earlier description by Ken Edwards [1988, p 269], where he describes Miller’s ability ‘to make the discontinuities and spaces in his work shine with the unsaid’, suggesting that the the links between these things are both spaces/gaps and connections.



This is shown well by a poem in Miller’s book Stromata [Miller, 1995]. ‘Moments’ [pp 39-40] consists of three short sections, which I shall quote in full:


                   Graph of durations: grid on which we move. Cut

              each line on the grid down, down to where thought

              stops. When a line is cut into many parts, no matter

              how many the parts, something will be left. One can

              never cut into the last unit.




                   ‘The hare will never conclude the race which is

              his love – each moment is divided, cut down further,

              close to impossibility. He runs and is still.’ Ah yes;

              my hand reaches toward you, reaches and will not

              reach. Yet even in the photograph, how evident that

              water has already bathed the wound.




                   Perhaps it’s that very moment when the child

              raises her head, with its shock of auburn hair, to

              look up at the sky; a look that’s immediately can-

              celled by the sun’s too-intense brightness.

                   Or perhaps it’s another selection of time, not an

          afternoon’s blue, but a dawn completely red, orange.

              Cry out in the midst of it.


The first part of the poem [p 39] sets up an abstraction, asks that we consider ‘duration’, time, as a grid, a graph against which we can be seen to move. It also instructs us to take this concept of time and consider where it becomes the smallest possible fragment, the moment where ‘thought stops’. He contrasts this with the geometrical concept of the irreducibility of line, here in italic, which states that the smallest possible line is still a line. The reader is left to come to the conclusion that perhaps the smallest moment of time, is still a moment of time.



The next section [p 40] begins with a quotation (whose source is not given) which continues to consider the concept of small units of time, but makes them specific to a hare racing. It suggests that if time is considered in this way, even though the smallest moment always exists, that a race being run in this way will never end – the moments of time are too small, the racing hare ‘runs and is still’.

     ‘Ah yes’ says the narrator, and drags us back into another time-zone where he ‘reaches toward’ an unspecified ‘you’. But again, in simlar manner to the racing hare, the hand ‘reaches and will not reach’, the moment under consideration is too small to allow the movement to occur.

     Then there seems to be a jump in both subject and time. The narrator considers a photograph, presumably of the narrator reaching out his hand, and draws our attention to ‘how evident [it is] that water has already bathed the wound.’

     We are left to make sense of this time slippage and secondhand information, but the third section [p 40] quickly draws us in with its ‘Perhaps it’s that very moment…’. We do not know whether it refers us back to the moment in the photograph we have just read, or the moment ‘when the child raises her head’ it goes on to describe, or – most likely – both, which may or may not be concurrent. Either way the time theme continues with the moment of the child ‘look[ing] up at the sky’ ‘immediately cancelled by the sun’s too intense brightness’. Is the photographic image over-exposed, does the girl turn from the bright light, or does the viewer of the event, be it the poem’s narrator or the reader? We do not know, and it seems the poem’s narrator does not want us to. The poems goes on to tell us ‘it’s another selection of time, not an afternoon’s blue’ – as we might assume from the ‘sun’s too-intense brightness’ – ‘but a dawn completely red, orange.’

     Not only has the frozen moment slipped from happening in the present tense to become a photographic memory, the moment of writing – and therefore us reading – has been altered, too. By a trick of writing we are moved from sunlit afternoon to the morning sun rising; or maybe even that is too specific, for ‘perhaps it’s another selection of time’? The poem’s narrator is perhaps keen to have us consider the moments of time he has introduced to us as a concept as interchangeable, or available, that we might be able to ‘both establish connections between things and bring meaning out of those connections’.

     The strange thing is that in the final sentence of the poem we are instructed to ‘Cry out in the midst of it.’ Is this a cry in the dawn light, an echoed cry of pain from the wound in the poem’s second part, or a cry of despair, or perhaps elation, at the discovery that time is fluid and elastic? All of these, I suggest. Miller has succesfully laid out several ideas and images and allowed us to link and consider them in various ways, and led us toward an epiphanic moment of release: the cry we are instructed to make.



In a review in The Many Review, Paul Green [1983, p 30] suggests that ‘Because the poetry of David Miller is so simple it must be approached with caution.’ Robert Hampson [1997, p ix] has also commented on ‘The simple language’, noting that it, along with ‘the collaging of sentences and phrases, the interplay between sentences and phrasal units remain a characteristic of Miller’s work.’

     What is interesting is that it is this simple language which Miller utilises within his montage process to try and enter, and presumably encourage the reader to enter, ‘into what, with regard to reason, can only be regarded as a darkness – where one doesn’t know.’ [Bick, 1994, p 36]. He equates this state of unknowing to a ‘negative theology’, where one can only discover anything about God by what we don’t know. In fact Miller says, again in his interview with Bick [1994, p 36], that his ‘interest in that tradition, or at least as it relates to art and writing, is specifically to do with notions of unknowing, of a process in which one suspends any sort of rational certainty…’. One can presume then that the tentative connections made as one reads ‘Moments’ [above] are deliberate, that Miller wants us to deduce for ourselves, to know by not knowing.

     Indeed, it seems that Miller considers the poems themselves as tentative. In a cover blurb written for an early volume of his poems, The Caryatids [Miller, 1975, inside cover flap], he writes:


These poems are a starting point: they try to remain open to the more complex compounds of vision, emotion and thought… many concepts and devices have been evolved from an interest in modern music, painting and cinema.


Interestingly enough, Tim Allen [1996], reviewing Stromata, suggests that ‘the more Miller does not tell us the more the reader seems to know’, suggesting that this tentativeness serves its purpose. Norman Jope [1992] agrees, asserting that Miller’s work ‘is a delicate, allusive web of perceptual textures, interspersed with flashing personal epiphanies…’ with a ‘painterly awareness of the passages of colour, light and shadow.’



I like the fact that Miller draws on personal memories, and ideas from painting and theology; I share many of his interests and concerns. I like his seriousness and purpose, too. I believe he is still ‘linguistically innovative’ despite the fact he has declared [Bick, 1994, p 37] that he doesn’t ‘see what [he is] doing as a writer as enclosed by language in any reductionist sense.’

     Douglas Messerli [1984, p 148] might, surprisingly, be seen to be in agreement, at the end of an interview:


Messerli: …Language is truth. Language makes meaning. Language is meaning. And that signifies that to write a poem is to shoulder immense responsibility. As a poet, can one afford to accept the world as it is? Musn’t one work with the reader to try to recomprehend it, to reshape it?


Interviewers: Is there something to which language – or language artifacts – should be faithful, responsive? Language itself?


Messerli: To language in action, which is life.


It might be argued that if ‘Language is meaning’ there can be nothing unknown as Miller suggests, or that ‘language is only made possible by the immaterial’ [Bick, 1994, p 36]. Interestingly enough, Language poet Lyn Hejinian, an author in fact published by Messerli, discusses this idea of knowing through language [Hejinian, 1994], and – to my mind, importantly – seems more tentative than an initial reading might suggest (my italics for emphasis):


Language discovers what one might know. Therefore, the limits of language are the limits of what we might know. [p 653]


Indeed, she goes on [p 654] to say


Because we have language we find ourselves in a peculiar relationship to the objects, events, and situations which constitute what we imagine of the world. Language generates its own characteristics in the human psychological and spiritual condition.


Later [p 654] she suggests that we are often overwhelmed by our:


…experience of the vastness and uncertainty of the world and by what often seems to be the inadequacy of the imagination that longs to know it, and for the poet, the even greater inadequacy of the language that appears to describe, discuss or disclose it


Yet, it seems to me, Miller bypasses that with his ability to explore what is unknowable by writing about the known. I’m sure he is aware of the fact that, as Hejinian [1994, p 654] puts it:


The progress of a line or sentence, or a series of lines or sentences, has spatial properties as well as temporal properties.


and also [p 654] that


Language itself is never in a state of rest. … I mean both intellectually and emotionally active.


Miller has certainly put the concepts of spatial and temporal properties (or what we might in this instance call memory) to good use in his writing, as in this excerpt from an untitled poem [the twelfth, the book is unpaginated] in Appearance & Event [Miller, 1977]:


     If the images of friends have returned,

     returned, in public places, where & when

     they were not,       could I call this

     a superimposition       of two systems, two

     material planes?       Is it confusion,

     or some sort of clarity? – Certainly

     there was, in each case, light          attendant…


     This ghostliness may, in fact, be the very

     stuff of form – The light waves travel

     through completely empty space.     You

     make an appearance or               I appear:

     like a superimposition

     of single images,

     the shapes pile up      in a structure:


     but, instead, the movement is like a signal-beam

     travelling the length

     & the attraction grows.


     Wind – or the fiery mind.


Here, again, scientific phenomena are countered with memories, apparitions and mystical events to help the poet consider the idea of ‘two systems’ or ‘two material planes’ intersecting. Miller is interested in how we can bend, use and move beyond language. He suggests [1977, third poem] that


              Our strength is to transform

              the image

     a suddenness,

     is an endurance. We use a term

     like ‘water’ even when

     there is none, &

     the language sustains

     the meaning of the term.

     We build          situations,

     where we watch ourselves


     electricity through the images;

     talking, we built a house &

     we watched ourselves




Whether we watch ourselves via the medium of film or televison, as the ‘electricity through the images’ might suggest, or through poetic transformation, Miller [1977, eleventh poem] wishes to subvert both time and language, existence itself:



              our materiality is an endurance: void

              shot through with brilliant splinters of duration


Time, for Miller, is a series of epiphanies, ‘brilliant splinters’ in the dark/void; the tiniest moments of time and memory possible, stacked and built up in different juxtaposition for the reader to assemble his own meaning, help fuel their own ‘fiery mind[s]’.










Allen, T., (1994), (review of Stromata) in Terrible Work 6, p 47, Plymouth, Spineless.

Bick, A., (1994), ‘An Interview with David Miller, 1992’ in At the Heart of Things: the poetry and prose of David Miller, pp 35-41, Exeter, Stride.

Crouch, J., (1994), ‘An Interview with David Miller, 1983’ in At the Heart of Things: the poetry and prose of David Miller, pp 6-15, Exeter, Stride.

Edwards, K., (1988), ‘Some Younger Poets: An Introduction’ in The New British Poetry 1968-88, ed. Gillian Allnutt, Fred d’Aguiar, Ken Edwards, Eric Mottram, pp 265-270, London, Paladin

Green, P., (1983), (Review of Unity) in The Many Review 1, pp 30-31, London, The Many Press

Hampson, R., (1997), ‘Foreword’ in David Miller’s Collected Poems, pp viii-xxii, Salzburg, University of Salzburg

Hejinian, L., (1994), ‘from “The Rejection of Closure” ’ in Postmodern American Poetry, pp 653-658, New York, Norton

Jope, N., (1992), (Review of Pictures of Mercy and The Break) in Memes 7, p 35, Plymouth, Memes

Messerli, D., (1984), ‘Language in Action: An Interview with Douglas Messerli’ in Gargoyle 24, pp 136-148, Washington DC, Paycock Press

Miller, D., (1975), The Caryatids: Poems 1971-73, London, Enitharmon

Miller, D., (1977), Appearance & Event: 16 poems: 1976, Paraparauma, Hawk Press

Miller, D., (1995), Stromata, Providence, Burning Deck.

Miller, D., (1997), Collected Poems, Salzburg, University of Salzburg

Sheppard, R., (1994), ‘A Gap at the Heart of Things: The Poetics of David Miller’ in At the Heart of Things: the poetry and prose of David Miller, pp 16-20, Exeter, Stride.