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'...
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.