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from c.1970 to the Present

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The Poetry Strand


Lorna Hardwick (2007)


Recent poetry in English has a special role to play in researching the role of the past in the human experience of the present and in redirecting investigation to the classical texts and contexts and their interaction with those of the present. Poetry both stands independently as a strand in the Project and contributes to the drama research because of the significance of theatre poetry. It also enables comparison of poetry written for both public and private readings and readerships. As with drama the combination of public, community and personal receptions also makes possible links and contrasts with the most obviously ‘public' sphere of the project, the reception of historiography and ideas (which will be an additional subject of our research from autumn 2008 onwards).

The poetry strand of the research project considers the treatment of Greek and Roman texts and themes in poetry in English in the last part of the twentieth century and the early part of the twenty first. As with drama, we are not rigid about dates but will follow the evidence and the argument where it leads. Material analysed so far suggests that we need to consider poetry written from about 1960 onwards. As with drama, the importance of the creative response is evident at all levels and ranges from Nobel Prize winners such as Derek Walcott and Seamus Heaney to regional and community poetic activity.

The variety of poetic registers and genres suggests a paradoxical relationship to the modernist poetry of the earlier twentieth century as well as to earlier classical receptions, thus provoking research questions about the intersections between different literary and cultural traditions and the relationship of classical referents to the sometimes partly classicized traditions in which the modern writing is embedded (for discussion of this in relation to earlier poetry in English, see K. Haynes, English Literature and Ancient Languages, Oxford, 2003.)

The Project's analysis of how Greek and Roman culture has been introduced, reworked and rewritten in contemporary poetry is not confined to the reception of the Greek and Latin texts themselves but also includes ancient artistic and material culture, themes, figures and myths. Genres discussed will include epic, lyric, parody, satire, dramatic monologues, film-poems, performance poetry and theatre poetry. The emphasis will be on the movement from the ancient culture and language to English literature and on how the new work recontexualizes, re-reads and re-writes the ancient. In order to track this movement we shall also look at the impact of ‘double' translations, that is classical material mediated into English via other languages.

The methods used are determined by the research questions and cover four main areas:

•  Data: main ancient texts and writers that reappear in modern poetry: forms and genres used by ancient writers and in modern receptions (including genre cross-overs); other ancient texts and themes, written and material. In addition to work published in print we research archival and broadcast material.

•  Categorisation and Comparative analysis : We are developing a template that includes a broad range of headings in which to ‘map' the connections between ancient and modern (e.g. theme, allusion, situation, literary context, poetics, syntax, musicality, use of direct and indirect translation). These will be used as working tools to open up issues rather than straitjackets to close them down. We aim to draw out the distinctive features of both the ancient and the modern and to consider the extent to which they converge, diverge or join to create a new pattern.

•  Primary Sources : We are documenting and evaluating primary source material external to the poems, especially relating to the working practices of the modern authors, including questions about their use of original language texts, commentaries and translations, collaborations with academics and the reception of the work by critics (both classical and literary) and others (such as community groups). We are undertaking a programme of interviews with poets and translators.

•  Conceptualisation and Critique: We are analysing the extent to which the developments and trends in poetry can be explained by existing theoretical positions (e.g. in translation studies, post-colonial literature, gender theory as well as existing reception theory) and we are exploring possible modifications or different frameworks of explanation.

We use two main forms of publication for the results of the research. First is the preparation of detailed case studies that examine the formal, discursive and contextual relationships between specific ancient and modern texts. The case studies combine diachronic and synchronic analysis and situate the examples both within particular literary traditions and within the modern author's work as a whole. These studies will enable judgements to be made about the construction of the classical strand in the poet's overall development and its reciprocal relationship with the hermeneutics of the reception of the classical text, thus deepening and enriching readings of both ancient and modern. The studies are published in conventional print media and on this website. (See Hughes' poems, Longley's poems and Longley Case study)

The second type of publication will be a searchable data base that includes details of the major classically-related poems and analytic typologies for the work of major poets. When completed, the data base will allow searching by ancient or modern poet, title of work, mythological or historical figure, genre and other key elements of comparison.

As a preliminary to the publication of the data base, a work-in-progress pilot with outline information about the classical work of two poets is included as web pages (Ted Hughes and Michael Longley). This will be augmented in 2008 by the inclusion of analysis and critical comment on specific poems and by the addition of other poets. Users will be invited to comment by the e mail response link and to suggest further names for inclusion.

At this point in the research (2007), two main areas have emerged which require further research. The first is the relationship between ancient and modern poetic techniques and language at times of cultural change. Contemporary poets using classical material are refashioning the linguistic and metaphorical interfaces between the classical and the vernacular, affecting readers' perceptions of both. An example is the ‘braiding' of different kinds of English (e.g. Irish-English, Creole, Nation language, Anglo-Saxon derivatives, the dialects of the north and north-east of England). We are also considering the special case of Scots. The philological and contextual analysis undertaken so far has suggested further research questions in relation to target readership, reader response and the working practices of poets.

The second main area for further research arises from this and concerns the extent to which, for the modern reader who lacks classical knowledge, the ancient ante-text may, initially at least, be absent from the poems. We are researching how these ‘absent voices' may nevertheless be made present and be recreated in new ways by the modern poets. Thus the research will contribute to investigation of the creation of ‘new traditions', both in poetry and in English as well as to understanding modern perceptions of the ancient texts and of the ways in which they are mediated.

We acknowledge with thanks the research grant from the British Academy which is funding this research and the support of the Open University in allowing information about the research and its progress to be made freely available to other researchers via this website.