All entries for Monday 25 September 2006

September 25, 2006

Oxford Poetry Conference: Panel on Muldoon

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After some people dropped out, my paper was pushed into this panel, which was actually pretty useful. You can see my abstract here on my eportfolio:

The first paper on Muldoon was by Jonathan Baines of Hertford College, Oxford, who talked about the parenthesis in Muldoon’s poetry. He gave an entertaining talk describing what he called Muldoon’s ‘philo-parenthesism’ and he asked what is not a parenthesis in this state of affairs? He compared Muldoon to William Empson. The points that I picked out from the talk were:
  • that there is a Muldoonian proliferation of meaning;
    *that parenthesis on parenthesis combine to combine to create something rich and strange;
    *that there is stress between the finite and the unbounded;
    *that the parenthesis can also be a whim.

Rachel Buxton of Oxford Brookes University gave a paper on the refrain in Muldoon’s poetry. She described how in much of Muldoon’s poetry, particularly Moy Sand and Gravel, a word, line or phrase is repeated to create a wearying monotony mimetic of tedium. Buxton thinks that this is an intentional part of Muldoon’s poetics which is useful and effective. She noted how the refrain that states ‘I give way to you’ in Muldoon’s ‘As’ is the only certain thing in the poem. She stated that she found this poem to be too much like an exercise.

The final speaker talked on translations, but he did not have much time . My notes for his paper are incomplete.

Oxford Poetry Conference: Helen Farish

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Helen Farish talks about the difficulty and confusion of ‘I’. She criticises the way that some poetry is dismissed as ‘merely personal’ or purely personal’. Thinking about the Confessional Poets, she notes how Lowell is praised for his prosody, syntax etc. while Plath is damned and her poetry is described, to use that phrase again, merely personal. Farish describes the case of Olds, a poet that she gave a talk on at the Poetry and Politics conference at University of Stirling this summer. She writes how male critics find the baring of the woman’s body in Old’s poems disgusting and how they identify the speaker in her poems directly with her.

Farish criticises the postmodern phenomenon of the subject-in-process. She cites Nancy Miller who suggests that the gap left by the unitary subject raises questions of agency for women. Did women writers have a self to begin with? Farish describes how in her own practice she has dropped the dramatic monologue and given herself ‘permission’ to use the lyric. She uses the example of her poem, ‘Resurrection’, from Intimacies .

Oxford Poetry Conference: Vicki Bertram

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Bertram suggests that woman writers are never able to transcend sex specificity and that this leads to anxiety about or avoidance of the lyric ‘I’. She cites Sarah Maguire who suggests that the ‘fiction of a desiring I’ is difficult for women and that it contradicts femininity. Wordsworth’s phallic ‘I’ is not the answer. Neither is the confessional ‘I’ that becomes distorted. Helen Kidd describes the lyric voice as ‘the great masculine ‘I’ ’ while Jo Shapcott thinks of it as ‘the ‘I’ as Roman numeral’.

Bertram believes that women writers find the lyric ‘I’ coercive. They question whether they agree with what their lyric is saying, if it is embarrassing or if it wants something from them. The lyric is sometimes seen as indulgent presenting a hungry self that does not have space for readers. There is also the problem of display – how can a woman occupy a public space, or ask to be listened to? Isn’t this also sexualised display and how does one assert one’s right to speak in the public sphere?

Luce Irigaray writes of our culture as founded on a repression of the feminine. ‘He’ is equal to all humanity. Women are always different and metaphors for human suffering often use women’s experience. Bertram suggests that as a result we should use the terms ‘male poets’ and ‘female poets’.

Irigaray writes of a female divine much larger than the feminine self. The male divine is made up of male stories and histories and a female version is needed. Bertram suggests that Carol-Ann Duffy’s Feminine Gospels offers suprahuman female subjects that fulfil Irigaray’s demand.

Oxford Poetry Conference: Kate Clanchy

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Kate Clanchy spoke first about the difficulty for the woman poet or the male poet for that matter who writes about the female body. She read aloud Simon Armitage’s poem, ‘Roadshow’, from T-Rex Versus the Corduroy Kid . When asked by Clanchy, Armitage said that he intended this poem to be an account of a miscarriage, yet the review by Robert Potts in The Guardian read as follows:

In ‘Roadshow’, in a moment of (surely self-mocking) solipsistic hyperbole, ‘by pure chance, it’s precisely at this point / that the universe – having expanded since birth – / reaches its limit and starts to contract’, before the crowd ‘dopples past … inexhaustibly young and countlessly strong, / streaming away, always streaming away’.

Clanchy notes that the sections of the poem on the subject of the woman’s body are ignored: ‘We were heavy and slow, each footstep checked / by the pendulum of our unborn child – / a counterweight swinging from Susan’s heart.’

Another poem by Armitage dealing with miscarriages is ‘Birthday’ from The Univeral Home Doctor . However, Sarah Wardle has this to say in her review:

The book’s title comes from the scene in ‘Birthday’, where he finds his lover pouring over entries on infertility. It seems his infidelity has triggered her psychosomatic stony ground…’

The lines of the poem read as follows:

bent double, poring over
the Universal Home Doctor
that bible of death, atlas of ill-health:
hand-drawn, colour coded diagrams of pain,

chromosonal abnormaties explained,
progesterone secretion ,

cervical incompetance ...
Susan, for God’s sake.


The point of Kate Clanchy’s talk is that the female body is ignored and sidelined in the interpretation of poems and their reception, something that her collection Newborn suffered.

Kicking Daffodils: Panel On Voice

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The first paper on this panel is given by Renuka Rajaratnum of Manchester Metropolitan University and it is entitled ‘Contemporary poetics of inter-relationality and diversity in women’s poetry: A case for intertextual hermeneutics’. Rajaratnum asks how the woman poet ‘exists’ and her answer is that such existence is enabled by relationality and intertextuality. Rajaratnum traces the word ‘intertextuality’ through Bakhtin to Kristeva and drawing on Linda Hutcheon, she describes intertextuality in terms of dialogic or competing interpretations. She uses this model to analyse poems such as Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Standing Female Nude’.

The second paper by Sheree Mack from University of Newcastle concerns the border crossing poet, Patience Agbabi. Mack describes how by crossing borders in writing Agbabi manages to question the canon. Mack refers to Agbabi’s unusual upbringing in Wales by a Nigerian mother and notes how this enbaled Agbabi to move between cultures. Mack quotes Bernardine Evaristo on the difficulty for black women poets to gain critical approval. Interestingly, Agbabi was the only black or asian writer in the Poetry Book Society’s Next Generation promotion. For Agbabi, labels exclude and she becomes a ‘word kleptomaniac’. Ultimately, Mack demonstrates with flair how Agbabi crosses formal and cultural boundaries. Mack is a writer herself as you will discover if you see her website:

The third paper analyses Alice Oswald’s Dart and is entitled ’ “She do the river in different voices”: Lyric Democracies(?) in Alice Oswald’s Dart ’. Kym Martindale of University College, Falmouth suggests that the river here is both poet and muse and that the relation of the human to nature is revisionary. She notes that there are two River Darts in the poem, that of the east and that of the west and that when they meet they are full of other brooks. The physical boundaries of the two rivers can be seen at first, but not when they speak in the poem. Martindale turns to Romanticism to compare its view of nature with that of Dart . She cites McGann who argues that Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey begs us, ‘not to fill the eye of the mind with external and soulless images, but with “forms of beauty” through which we can “see into the life of things”, to penetrate the surface of a landscape to reach its indestructible heart and meaning’. Martindale argues that this is not found in Dart , where there is unity rather than understanding. The river provides no morals or lessons but simply exists. However, Martyndale does note that in imagery of the two rivers, the West Dart is dominated by the East Dart as if they were lovers (not gendered ones though). In Dart, the walker is a Wordsworthian character yet he is less resigned than characters in poems like ‘The Leech Gatherer’. He is defiant and closer to Wordsworth’s more personal persona. However the walker’s voice is interrupted by the embryonic Dart and the voices struggle for authorship. The answer to the query of isolation that appears in ‘The Leech Gatherer’ becomes a rebuke in Dart.


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