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This academic term will be a busy one for the Humanitas Visiting Professorship programme.

Novelist and historian Dame Marina Warner will give her inaugural lecture as Visiting Professor in Comparative European Literature tomorrow (27 April). This will be the first in a series of talks by her called ‘The Sanctuary of Stories’.

From 9 May, historian and television presenter Simon Schama will give a public lecture and take part in a round table discussion with Craig Clunas and Margaret Macmillan on the past and its publics. He is Visiting Professor for Historiography.

He will be taking part in an in conversation with Craig Clunas and Margaret Macmillan on the 11 May.

Award-winning playwright Tom Stoppard is this year’s Visiting Professor of Drama Studies. He will give a public lecture on 18 May and a Q&A on 19 May.

Then on 25 May and 26 May respectively, renowned guitarists the Assad Brothers will give a talk and a recital as Visiting Professors for Classical Music.

Oxford University’s Professor Sos Eltis, the Academic Director for the Humanitas Visiting Professorship in Drama, says of Professor Stoppard’s visit: ‘Tom Stoppard is one of the greatest modern playwrights. He has delighted audiences worldwide with the wit, daring, wisdom, dazzling intellectual challenge and sheer theatrical fun of his plays.

‘He has pushed the boundaries of dramatic form and reinvented the play of ideas. These events will be a wonderful opportunity for schools, university students and anyone interested in theatre to hear an extraordinary writer offer new perspectives on his life and work.'

Professor Elleke Boehmer, director of TORCH, adds: 'We are thrilled to bring some of the world’s most inspiring thinkers and creative minds to Oxford for a richly diverse programme of workshops, talks and performances.

'This term we will be joined by leading figures from the spheres of theatre, history and music, including award winning playwright Tom Stoppard, world renowned historian Simon Schama and gifted guitarists Sérgio and Odair Assad. Exploring issues as wide ranging as public history and theatre making, the events are a rare opportunity for public audiences to join leading speakers for debate and discussion.’

Humanitas is a series of Visiting Professorships at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge intended to bring leading practitioners and scholars to both universities to address major themes in the arts, social sciences and humanities.

Created by Lord Weidenfeld, the Programme is managed and funded by the Weidenfeld-Hoffmann Trust with the support of a series of generous benefactors and administered by TORCH | The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities.

The events are free and open to all. For more information, including booking details, visit the TORCH website.

The website also includes a more detailed summary of the dates and content of each Visiting Professor’s visit.

Tower poetry

The winners of the 16th Christopher Tower Poetry competition have been announced at Christ Church, Oxford.

The competition, which was judged by Alan Gillis, Katherine Rundell and Peter McDonald, attracted more than 1,100 entrants born between 1997 and 2000.

Ashani Lewis, from The Tiffin Girls’ School, Surrey, was awarded the £3,000 first prize for her poem Flowers From The Dark. Her poem is published in full below.

The winner of the second (£1,000) prize Safah Ahmed (Newham Collegiate Sixth Form Centre, London) with ‘Accent’ and the third prizewinner, Sophia West (Oxford High School) won £500 with ‘The Awakening’. Their schools receive £150 each.

This year's theme of wonder for the 16th Christopher Tower Poetry competition attracted over 1,100 entrants (all born between 1997 and 2000) with many schools encouraging entrants for the first time. 

Poet Alan Gillis said: 'Reading through all the poems, I was struck first of all by the great range and diversity of work in terms of voice, style and subject matter. But overwhelmingly, I was impressed by the consistency of excellence.

'The experience of judging has been really uplifting because of the passion and daring, boldness and confidence of the poems entered. This is a wonderful competition.'

The competition is just one of the initiatives developed by Tower Poetry at Christ Church to encourage the writing and reading of poetry by young adults.

Other projects include summer schools (to which the first three winners are invited as part of their prize), poetry readings, conferences, an ongoing publication programme and website, which is used as an educational resource in schools.

You can see the winning entries for yourself on the Tower Poetry website where the young authors read their own poems. The winning poem by Ashani Lewis, Flowers From The Dark, is here:

She is quiet,
With skin as tight as the wheeling crows:
She kneels over the dirt and grows
The roses.
Your lawn chair holds a pale absence;
A tulip dies, falls back against the fence,
And decomposes.

You watch her.
(And from her fair and unpolluted flesh)
The shadows on the windowsill – fresh
Violets Break up the clean square of light,
And, thoughtless, obstruct the sight
Of her silence.

She grows the flowers
For you. From loam and wombs,
The pits of eyes and empty rooms,
From hipbones,
Harpoons, moons and crows: everything dark –
Seaweed, oil, the time around stars;
And olive stones.

EPA Christophe Petit Tesson

In a guest post, Martin Conway, professor of Contemporary European History at University of Oxford, explains the underlying issues behind this week's attacks in Brussels.

'What we feared has happened,' remarked Charles Michel, the prime minister of Belgium, in the immediate aftermath of the horrible and violent attacks on Brussels airport and the Maelbeek metro station on March 22.

Yes, indeed. Nothing is less surprising than that the vortex of terrorism and repression that has developed since the November 2015 attacks in Paris should have resulted in these new violent attacks.

But that doesn't mean we shouldn’t consider how these circumstances came about. These events reflect several, much longer-term issues.

First of all, there is the ever more emphatic pursuit of a level of security that can never be achieved. European leaders from François Hollande to David Cameron are promising somehow to wipe away the threat of terrorism from Europe. That of course cannot happen.

Only those who believe most naively in the capacities of Europe’s current intelligence structures – hovering over the incessant noise of email, mobile phone messages and the twittersphere – will believe that what has come into existence can be willed to disappear.

There is indeed a police problem – one above all of capacity and coordination – but the solution to Europe’s security crisis can never simply be more security.

That has to be combined with more imaginative efforts to look at the origins of the problems. And that of course means that Europeans need to look at themselves and the societies they inhabit.

Brussels was not randomly selected for this attack. It is a prosperous, peaceful and predominantly secular city. In many ways it embodies the values that many in 21st-century Europe hold dear. But it is also home to radicalised minorities.

Most bars on most nights of the week within easy reach of the Maelbeek metro station will contain a cross-section of the successful young generations of Europe. They mix in those easily permeable domains between European institutions, lobbying and journalism.

But think also of those who are not present in those bars: the micro-communities of Europe’s margin. Some of those are well established and familiar; but others are emphatically more recent – notably the arrival in the poorer districts of central Brussels of populations from North Africa and the Middle East.

These are people with relatively little interest in the society they now inhabit. And indeed Belgium seems to have little to offer to them, beyond the immediate and insubstantial opportunities of transient employment. They are the expendable populations, and they know themselves to be that.

Which brings us inevitably to Molenbeek. That one commune of the 19 which constitute the city of Brussels should have come to symbolise all its problems is in many respects unfair.

What has happened in Molenbeek could easily have happened in the neighbouring communes of Anderlecht or Schaerbeek. But the wider reality is indisputable – inner-city communities often lack clear structures of governance, social solidarity and opportunity.

There is a Belgian and a European explanation for that. The Belgian dimension must focus on the manifold complexities of the Belgian state.

It is inefficient and simply lacks the capacity to provide effective governance to many of the most disadvantaged populations who now live on its territory.

Belgium is not, by contemporary European standards, a conventional state. It lacks an instinctive ethos of centralism. Belgians know themselves to be diverse and are rightly proud of the fact that they do many things at a local, rather than national level.

That works when the participants sign up to rather basic values of co-existence, but it fails when they contain populations who do not experience the basic amenities and opportunities which draw people into the European social contract.

But it is that social contract which has been stretched to breaking point and beyond, in Belgium and elsewhere, over the past 20 years or more. The replacement of structures of social solidarity with the relentless logic of the market, have hollowed out the ways in which the poorer communities of Brussels and many other cities across Europe have invested in their larger collective existence.

There are of course many reasons for that, most obviously the way in which the scale and diversity of migration has transformed cities into communities where there is no identifiable majority.

But the larger picture, in Brussels and elsewhere, is the degree to which social inequality has generated its own dynamics of marginalisation and radicalisation.

In Molenbeek, as in many other disadvantaged communities, the emergence of cultures of militant Islam has been less a stand-alone phenomenon than the product of wider phenomena of poor schooling, limited economic opportunities and consequent petty criminality.

Previous manifestations of terrorism in Western Europe have had immediate and tangible origins. The conflicts between communities in Northern Ireland and between Basques and the Spanish state are two of the most well-known causes of the 20th Century.

It is tempting to see the current waves of terrorism as very different – the result of the sudden invasion of militant Islam. But in many respects the origins of the current violence remain just as local.

They lie in the willingness of young men of immigrant populations to turn the quasi-criminal expertise learned in their formerly marginal lives to more political and violent ends.

For some, such radicalisation leads to Syria and back. For others, there is no need to travel further than across the cities of Brussels and Paris from the neighbourhoods of the marginalised to the bars, music venues and metro stations of the comfortable classes.

All of which suggests that the problems that we – a pronoun which is more exclusive than we are often inclined to recognise – confront today are not going to go away soon.

The current terrorism is so amorphous and so shallow in its political affiliations that it may fade away, as those drawn towards it today are attracted to the more immediate opportunities of tomorrow.

But it is more likely that the breaking up, arrest and imprisonment of particular networks of individuals will simply be replaced by other such groups, who will similarly find in particular languages of Islam the vehicle for their angers and their emotional rejection of wider society.

Putting back together Europe's social contract might take longer than any of us would like to think.

Professor Conway's article appeared in The Conversation.

Mount Stuart

Poetry experts mark World Poetry Day

Matt Pickles | 21 Mar 2016

Today poetry fans around the world are celebrating World Poetry Day.

To mark the day, we asked poetry experts from our English Faculty and Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages about their own research into poetry, and what poems they recommend we should read today.

Later in the article, Professor  Simon Palfrey of the English Faculty explains his collaborative scholarly and artistic project Demons Land: A Poem Come True.

Before that, Philip Bullock (Professor of Russian Literature and Music) and Alexandra Lloyd (Lecturer in German at St Edmund Hall and Magdalen College, University of Oxford) who lead the Oxford Song Network at The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH), give their take on World Poetry Day:

Arts Blog: What is the purpose and remit of the network?

PB: I think we say something on our website about the network – that it ‘explores the interaction of music and words in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century European song tradition’. But that’s incredibly complicated, as you might imagine. Trying to find a common language that brings together musicologists, linguists, historians and performers is one of the major challenges, and we’ve brought together a wide range of scholars from different fields in order to try to establish some common research questions and discuss how we each think about song (we’ve even pushed our period boundaries by talking to some classicists too).

We’ve also experimented with a number of different formats. We’ve had some more formal, conference-style events, often linked with the Oxford Lieder Festival, where people talk about their own research in depth. But we’ve also had smaller discussion groups in which we hear each other’s work in progress, and that’s a great opportunity to open things up for further discussion.

And this term, we’ve held a couple of workshops with current Oxford students and leading experts from outside the university – Helen Abbott from Sheffield, and Natasha Loges from the Royal College of Music – in order to explore the relationship, and sometimes even the tension, between poetry and music in song, to ask how we might translate song lyrics into English, and to explore what kind of knowledge and experience singers and pianists need to have in order to put across the meaning of a song to an audience that might not necessarily understand the language in which a song is sung.

A rather selfish reason for putting the network together was to get some feedback on a book I'm currently trying to write on Russian song, and I must say that I've always come away from every event buzzing with new ideas and angles to explore in my writing.

AB: What do you think of the way poetry is approached in schools and in the media? How would you change this?

PB: I think poetry can sometimes seem terribly formidable, and people think that studying it often involves learning lots about the complex meanings of words and all the hidden references and technical tricks that poets use to work their magic. That's all true, and it’s an important feature of how I teach poetry to my own students. But I sometimes think we forget the physical, embodied side of poetry – words that are spoken, or sung by a living, breathing human being.

We've rather lost the habit of memorising and reciting poetry (at least in the UK – Russians still do it with a passion), and with that, we’ve lost sight of poetry as a kind of performance, where sounds and sensations are as important in creating a relationship with the audience as the words on the page are. One of the exciting things about song is that it can bring poetry alive in the most intense way imaginable – we’re not just hearing a particular composer’s take on a poem, but a performer’s entire involvement with both the words and the music.

AL: I'd second what Philip writes about the embodied side of poetry. The expressiveness of sounds, and the feelings we encounter – emotional, but actually also physical – are part of the experience it’s easy to overlook sometimes. It's always a wonderful moment when students, for example, discover enjambment (the continuation of a sentence beyond the end of the line) – the breathlessness experienced by the reader roots the poetry in something beyond the intellectual.

Poems are not, and should not be taught as, collections of printed words on the page, any more than music is. For instance, listening to different composers’ settings of one poem can reveal so much about the original text by drawing attention to its different parts.

AB: What would you like people to take away from World Poetry Day?

PB: Thinking just about music for a moment, I’d like to suggest that song represents a wonderful form of imaginary travel. Listening to a Schubert setting of Goethe, a Glinka setting of Pushkin, or a Debussy setting of Baudelaire allows us to imagine not just very different historical periods, but totally new linguistic and cultural worlds.

As a linguist, I worry that not enough people study foreign languages, whether as part of the school and university curriculum, or simply for pleasure and enjoyment. But it’s not true that we live in a monolingual culture – we’re surrounded by other languages, some of them spoken by people who’ve moved here and brought their culture with them, and others that have been imported in the form of subtitled films, surtitled operas or bilingual programmes for song recitals.

My first encounter with German was falling in love with Schumann Lieder as a melancholy teenager, and I first began to learn Russian by deciphering the texts of the poems that Shostakovich set to music – they were very much the passport to my later life as a linguist and every bit as important as the fat novels I also love reading.

AL: I'd like to emphasise the idea that poetry is ubiquitous, particularly in music. When David Bowie died in January I watched the video of his final single ‘Lazarus’, released just a few days earlier. I was struck immediately by echoes of Heinrich Heine’s poem ‘Wie langsam kriechet sie dahin / Die Zeit, die schauderhafte Schnecke!’ (‘How slowly she creeps along, time, the loathsome snail’) from his cycle ‘Zum Lazarus'.

As with Bowie's character in the video, Heine spent the last eight years of his life bedridden, suffering from paralysis and confined to what he called his 'mattress grave'. These two verses about mortality - one from the mid-19th century, one from the early 21st -  give us perhaps a sense of the connectedness of the human condition and the role of the arts and poetic expression in confronting that.

Would you like to suggest a poem for our readers to read today?

PB: I've recently discovered Japan, and although I can’t speak a word of the language, I’m really enjoying discovering its literature in translation. Basho’s frog haiku is terribly clever – and has been obsessively translated in an attempt to fathom its many secrets. It's also about sound, so ideal for someone like me, who’s interested in poetry’s musicality.

AL: I'm also part of the team that runs the Oxford German Network. Our national competition last year was on the theme of poetry and our website has a feature with lots of suggestions for reading.

For today, I'd suggest reading Lewis Carroll's poem 'Jabberwocky' - it's such a wonderful example of how 'nonsense' has meaning through sound and performance. There are also plenty of translations of it online - from the 'Jammerwoch' to 'Siaberwoci' to 'El Dragobán'...


Demon LandDemons Land

Simon Palfrey, Professor of English Literature at Oxford University, leads a collaborative scholarly and artistic project inspired by Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene, which Professor Palfrey describes as 'perhaps the single greatest poem of the English Renaissance'.

Arts Blog: Why is Fairie Queene significant?

SP: Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene is perhaps the single greatest poem of the English Renaissance. I see it as a hallucinogenic masterpiece, erotic, ravishing, strange, and frequently very savage. Inspired by militant Protestant zeal, the poem was written in Ireland during the 1580s and 1590s, when Spenser served the English crown during the most violent years of the Elizabethan conquest. It presents an unbuilt world, and asks on what principles we might create a virtuous person and a reformed society.

Spenser's mission in Ireland failed. His poem both reflects and tries to redeem this failure, offering a model of the necessary future as much as a diagnosis of the present. Hence the imaginative premise of our project: that subsequent global history, a repeating mission of conquest, education, and colonization, can be understood as a tale of this poem coming differently, imperfectly to life.  It has long been understood that the *Faerie Queene*, in its claim to change or to model lives, is an exemplary Christian humanist poem. In our project, FQ becomes the text of unfinished modernity.

Tell us about Demons Land?

Demons Land: A Poem Come True is a collaborative scholarly and artistic project telling the story of an island in which Spenser's poem comes beautifully and terribly to life. This is the project of the Collector, a Romantic who around 1800 vowed to remake an island at the bottom of the world into a poetic utopia. Demons Land becomes a shadow history of Britain's most notorious colony, the prison island called Van Diemens Land.

Like Spenser's mission in Ireland, the Collector's dream failed: not because his world failed to be like the poem; but because both the poem and the land were other than he thought. They had indigenous energies, lives, untapped implications that his discipline hadn't imagined.

The questions we ask are very basic. We are all familiar with the idea that a poem might reflect or record history. But what if it predicts history? What if history is itself structured like a poem? And we can extend these questions to life itself: what if lives happen as they do in poems, where they only have existence if they are seen, or only matter if they are sympathized with?

What if each individual life is not a self-sufficient experience, but an allegory of something other? What if metaphors are true, or life is organized in rhymes, stanzas, endlessly repeating rhythms? The question becomes: what does it mean (for society, or history, or a life) for a poem to come true?

Questions such as these cannot really be tested in conventional scholarly forms. They need a correspondent creative experiment. So the Demons Land project explores how different crafts and disciplines - poetry, painting, film, music, masks, puppetry, and creative literary criticism - can combine to embody a poetic vision. All of this will come together in an exhibition/installation telling the history of the experiment.

How do their imagined worlds differ?

Demons land is at once a repetition, an interpretation, a subversion, and a radical modernisation of Spenser's poem. *The Faerie Queene* is notoriously unfinished. Demons Land continues the story, and purports to complete the poem, by means of a simple premise: that FQ is the prophetic text of western modernity, coming imperfectly, differentially true throughout the dominions conquered or settled by the English.

Demons Land is the epitome of this history, being the suppressed pre-history of Van Diemens Land, which itself echoes the earlier histories of Ireland and America. History is thus structured recursively, like a poem: Demons Land repeats itself to this day.

Hence the fictional postulate of our project: that a contemporary woman discovers a store of texts and paintings deriving from Demons Land, and undertakes to recover and publicize this unknown history. But then she repeats the story in less predicted ways as well - like the Collector, she begins to be possessed by it, and to identify in personal and even perverse ways with the figures in FQ/Demons land.

What will the product of your research project be, and when/where can we see it?

The main products will be the exhibition, its films and paintings, and a book I am writing telling the history of Demons land. As well as an online version of the exhibition, we will exhibit in locations whose own history speaks to our project, adapting our narrative to each host. The first showing will be in the gardens and temples of Stowe National Trust, designed in the early eighteenth century as an architecturalised Faerie Queene - like Demons Land, a place made in the image of the poem, as an act of political critique and fantastic idealism.

The second showings will be in Scotland, in the Gothic Mount Stuart house on Bute - another monument of beleagured idealism, and an island whose semi-disappeared history mirrors that of Demons Land - and in Glasgow, the great port of empire.

What would you like people to take away from World Poetry Day?

That poetry speaks directly to the possibilities - beautiful and terrifying - of life and history; that good poetry is always unfinished, awaiting and adapting to new readers.


Health and safety in Tudor England

Matt Pickles | 13 Mar 2016

Death is not a laughing matter. But an ongoing study into coroners’ reports into accidental deaths in Tudor England has turned up some deaths which do sound like something out of a slapstick comedy routine.

Professor Steven Gunn of Oxford University's History Faculty and Merton College is leading Everyday Life and Fatal Hazard in 16th Century England, a research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). He estimates that there are 9,000 accidental deaths to investigate in The National Archives in Kew.

Although the project has produced some entertaining stories, which have been well covered in the media and on this blog, it has also provided a valuable insight into the life and working practices of the time, and how these changed over the 16th century. 

The project has found that fatal accidents were more likely to take place during the agricultural peak season, with cart crashes, dangerous harvesting techniques, horse tramplings and windmill manglings all major causes of deaths.

Interestingly, it seems real efforts were made to manage these risks with 'health and safety' procedures. When mowing hay at harvest time, men would minimise the risk of hacking each other with scythes by walking across the field in a staggered diagonal line.

Tree fellers directed the tree to fall down in a certain direction to avoid being crushed by the falling timber.

Handbooks warned about the danger of climbing trees to get rid of crows' nests, because so many people died by falling out of trees to gather fruit and nuts.

'Reading about how people died in Tudor times, you might think that people must have been daft to have died the way they did,' says Professor Gunn. 'Actually people did make an effort to work out the risks and minimise them, but these methods didn’t always work.'

Follow the project and its latest discoveries on the website. Professor Gunn gave a TORCH bite-size talk at the Ashmolean Museum's DEADFriday event last year. A video of the talk is here.


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