Modernist Poetry: A Report on Maverick Voices and Modernity, 1890 – 1939

Maverick Voices 1Koenraad Claes (Ghent University) reports on the conference, Maverick Voices and Modernity, 1890-1939. This report (the third of three) focuses on the changing scope of studies of modernist poetry.

The enduring relevance of conferences like Maverick Voices is one of the most fundamental issues in literary studies today. Few in the scholarly community will hold that any kind of clean break can be found between the literature of what is often called ‘the long nineteenth century’ (Romantic / Victorian / Edwardian / Georgian) and ‘Modernism,’ let alone that essentialist definitions could be found for either side of that imaginary divide. However, institutional compartmentalisation and pedagogical necessity often require us to stay within our neatly demarcated literary-historical niche. It is also clear that within studies of the literature of the early twentieth century, the pertinence accorded to studied authors still often depends on the degree to which they participated in a movement away from the legacy of the nineteenth century. Between the numerous sessions of the conference, it became clear that many delegates self-identified as ‘Victorianists’ or ‘Modernism specialists,’ and therefore felt inspired by this incentive to transcend such often arbitrary boundaries, and to reassess the diversity of literature published between 1890 and 1939. This resulted in new approaches to well-known texts, as well as the dust being blown off publications that are too often neglected because they fit but awkwardly in our standard accounts of the period. This following overview is by no means exhaustive, and will focus on the papers specifically on poetry.

The delegates were a balanced mix of aspiring, upcoming and established talent from all over the world. The panels were well-considered, and despite the welcome diversity of the addressed topics, usually found enough common ground for discussions. This was in no small part due to the beneficial approach of the presenters, who tended to thoroughly demonstrate the relevance of their specific case studies to the overarching conference theme. The delivered papers and the following discussions  gave interesting answers to several questions  pertaining to what it means to be a ‘Maverick Voice’ in Anglophone literature of that time: who was looking forward to ‘Modernism’ before and during the Great War; who is rather harking back to the nineteenth century; which aspects of canonical work are still understudied? The two plenary speakers were of such stature that their erudition could be taken for granted, yet it must be repeated that their lectures not only managed to give direction to the conference, but turned out to complement each other and together summarise the matter on hand.

“Michael O’Neill revealed surprising aspects of poetic subjectivity in familiar poems”

The first keynote speaker, Michael O’Neill, called attention to challenges in the contextualisation of the poetry of Thomas Hardy, Edward Thomas and Stephen Spender, three great ‘mavericks’ of British literary history. He did this by revealing surprising aspects of poetic subjectivity in poems that most audience members before probably considered themselves familiar with. O’Neill’s lecture not only deepened our insight in how these poets are to be situated in relation to their Romantic inspirations as well as their early-twentieth-century contemporaries, but also served as a splendid demonstration of how issues like this can be approached in the class room. The poets chosen for analysis by Michael O’Neill proved to be popular references throughout the conference.

This was particularly true for Edward Thomas. The recent rise in scholarly interest for this poet was reflected in an entire panel studying ‘Edward Thomas as a Maverick Modern’. Callum Zeff discussed Thomas’s late-Victorian roots by showing that several of his poems betray tenets of Paterian Aestheticism, although he is usually said to have shrugged off this youthful influence years before. Andrew Hodgson emphasised that an important aspect in Thomas’s dealing with the literary legacy of the nineteenth century was his disillusioned take on Romanticism. Thomas would furthermore have intentionally avoided the perceived artificial prosody and verbalism of the Victorian age in favour of everyday speech and song traditions, a preoccupation which he shared with Ivor Gurney. Yevheniya Chernokova illustrated where such developments would take British poetry, by comparing Thomas’s pivotal ‘The Long Small Room’ (1916) not only with the work of his older contemporary Hardy, but also with that of the much later Ted Hughes.

Maverick Voices 4Though he was usually not directly treated as such, Thomas was not the only ‘War Poet’ under scrutiny at the conference. Later panels too anticipated the profusion of studies on War Poetry that we may expect in the next few years due to the upcoming centenary. Mark Sandy discussed how Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, whose disenchantment is even more manifest than that of Thomas, still show strong residual Romanticism, and not only in the form of ironic dismissals. Echoes of Shelley, Keats and Clare in fact abound. Hannah Copley revealed how a sense of ‘rootlessness’ pervaded the poetry of Isaac Rosenberg. His struggles with anti-Semitism in the trenches, as well as his own uneasy relationship with the Jewish literary community and the upcoming –isms of the wider literary scene, would make him an inspiring figure for some later poets who picked up on his unwillingness to commit himself to any specific movement, in particular Jon Silkin and others writing for Stand Magazine. Though not discussing poetry, Christopher Dineen should be mentioned for suggesting new scholarly approaches to Rose Allatini’s neglected novel Despised and Rejected (1918), a fascinating pacifist text that was originally suppressed under the Defence of the Realm Act.

Another panel, dedicated to sundry ‘Poetic Voices at the Fringes of Modernism’, was not in the least hampered by the variety that it provided in its discussed subjects. Antonio Jimenez-Munoz argued for greater scholarly attention for the poetic subtlety of Charlotte Mew, who effectively lampooned the ideological and aesthetic background of unfashionable Romantic and Victorian conventions by means of clever irony and intertextuality. Ragini Mohite has researched what enthusiasts like Yeats found so inspirational in Tagore’s Gitanjali (Song Offerings, 1912), and concluded that this appreciation was rife with Orientalist conceptions of the colonial mystic, which are reductionist at best. In the following paper, Amy Finch added to the earlier discussions of War Poets of the First World War her reappraisal of the lesser-known Northern-Irish ‘airman poet’ of the Second World War, W. R. Rodgers.  Though publishing his first collection in 1941, Rodgers demonstrably continues on the path of earlier authors, above all the ‘Thirties Poets’ who were his mentors.

“Chris Baldick showed that periodization does not usually happen in the period itself”

The second keynote address was delivered by Chris Baldick who gave an encyclopaedic but entertaining overview of how ‘Modernism’ has been understood throughout the past century. He showed that periodization, and the canonisation of authors and texts which comes with it, does not usually happen definitively in the period itself. It is to a larger extent shaped through post-hoc research models that zoom in on certain aspects, and ignore others. The unstable nature of definitions for literary-historical concepts is a given, yet these are not only necessary for any research to be possible, but naturally have always been at the centre of literary studies of the respective periods in which that research took place. To understand the difference between ‘Modernisms’ is thereby to understand evolutions and trends in literary criticism and academic scholarship. In the following discussion, the audience appeared to agree on the point that although the inevitable definitions may favour those authors who seem to have written by the book, they can at the same time invite closer inspection of the ‘mavericks’ who did not fully participate in the fashions of their time.

Several other delegates presented aspects of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century literature that have been strikingly disregarded, and that do not primarily involve problems of periodization. Alasdair Menmuir gave most members of the audience their first introduction to the poetry of David Gascoyne, who like his fellow British Surrealists never permanently made it into the Modernist canon. Gascoyne, like other leftist Surrealists, would have sought to promote the philosophy of dialectical materialism through his work, forcing him to address issues of corporeality and politics in striking ways. The other papers in this panel on ‘Literary Modernism and Philosophy’ addressed more general, though not less fascinating topics. Kate Hext demonstrated that Walter Pater’s late-nineteenth-century reaction against the academically dominant school of British Idealism played an important role in the development of what would become Modernist aesthetics and poetics. John Ryder linked important features of Modernist literary techniques to the rise of philosophical Pragmatism, referring to the vast influence exerted by brothers Henry and William James.

An entire panel on ‘Comic and Parodic voices in Modernism’ showed that the scholarly disregard for laughter in Modernist literature has obfuscated several of its most important aspects. The only presenter of three to directly discuss poetry was Michael Shallcross who showed how rising ‘High Modernists’ like T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound dismissively treated G. K. Chesterton who was not interested in the innovations of the avant-garde, and in turn gave them tit for tat with parodies that illustrate where the poetic differences between both parties lie. Michael Rodgers applied the theories of humour of Aristotle, Bergson and Bakhtin to the often grim humour in novels by Wyndham Lewis and L. F. Céline. Calum Mechie also made use of Bergson’s theories, and applied these to the novel Coming Up For Air (1939) by George Orwell.

We may conclude that Maverick Voices was a success. Its major achievement was to bring together a wide array of specialists who do not often attend the same conferences, yet who discovered instantly that they nevertheless have a lot to talk about. It is to be expected that important scholarly work will come out of this encounter, and we should make sure that more such events will follow regularly in the future.

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