Special Issue "Modernist Women Poets: Generations, Geographies and Genders"
A special issue of Humanities (ISSN 2076-0787).
Deadline for manuscript submissions: 1 September 2019
Feminist scholars have crucially proved that female poets count in orthodox categories of High Modernism. We have demonstrated their centrality to intellectual Anglo-American [‘Eliotic’] experimentation that fed into and from the European avant-garde. Into the twentieth-first century, modernist projects shy away from the exclusions of a capitalized monolithic Modernism that was bound by a narrow interwar period, linguistic abstruseness, and masculinized cultural imperialism. Instead, modernist studies have been enriched by pluralizing chronologies, styles, and locations. We now have categorization through generations or a non-periodizing intermodernism, the anti-elitist middlebrow, and postcolonial geomodernisms. Accordingly, this Special Issue aims to discuss poets who enhance the breadth of modernist literary practices while maintaining modernism as a meaningful and identifiable aesthetic. Thus, we shall take as the cohering concept a complex relationship to gender and to modernity that manifests in a self-consciously complex treatment of language. We hope to explore writers across the generations that modernist histories now recognize: Gertrude Stein’s contemporaries, born around the cusp of the twentieth century and flourishing during the 1920s and 1930s; the next generation who came to their peak in the 1950s and include Elizabeth Bishop or Stevie Smith; and the third generation who published into the 1980s. While we welcome new gender-based approaches to the now prominent American innovators, Millay, Moore, HD, Lowell, and Loy, we hope for essays that attend to more explicitly female-centred work of, say, Denise Levertov or Charlotte Mew. We particularly want contributions that delve into intersectional identities and literature beyond the Anglo-American framework, by such writers as Anna Akhmatova, Angelina Weld Grimké or M. NourbeSe Philip. Each essay will take account of recent critical work and illuminate how the poet or poets fashion an aesthetic concerning their lives and professions as women writers in a turbulent time.
Dr. Jane Dowson
Manuscript Submission Information
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- Twentieth-Century Women Poets
- Modernist women writers
- Feminist literature
- Intersectional feminism
- Postcolonial poetry
- Gertrude Stein
- Marianne Moore
- Edna St Vincent Millay
- Mina Loy
- Elizabeth Bishop
- Charlotte Mew
- Denise Levertov
- May Sinclair
- Anna Akhmatova
- Angelina Weld Grimké
- M. NourbeSe Philip
- Edith Sitwell
- Stevie Smith
The below list represents only planned manuscripts. Some of these manuscripts have not been received by the Editorial Office yet. Papers submitted to MDPI journals are subject to peer-review.
The Poet in the World: Denise Levertov’s Letters.
Sophie Baldock, Harlaxton College
Abstract: Emily Dickinson famously wrote: “This is my letter to the world, / That never wrote to me”. For Dickinson, poems were a kind of unanswered letter, and letters were often a means to write poems. Dickinson used her correspondence, particularly with her mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, as a way of trying out her writing voice, circulating her poems and connecting to the world beyond Amherst. For the twentieth-century poet Denise Levertov, letters to mentors were also an important means of finding her voice as a poet and honing her craft. In the 1950s and ‘60s, Levertov struck up correspondences with key figures from the preceding generation of modernist poets including William Carlos Williams and H.D. She also began corresponding with Robert Duncan, a fellow “Black Mountain School” poet whose lyric poems were similarly indebted to, and in dialogue with, the previous generation. These correspondences, though different, followed a similar pattern. In the letters to Williams, Levertov ultimately disagreed with Williams’s emphasis on “The American Idiom”, placing emphasis instead on using language and sound, whether American or not, to express inner feeling. Similarly, in her correspondence with Robert Duncan, Levertov broke away from her erstwhile mentor after a heated disagreement over the role of the poet in a time of war.
This article will examine Denise Levertov’s letters to modernist mentors alongside poems that resulted from, or were part of, her correspondence. I will argue that Levertov's letter writing is an important and previously overlooked facet of her poetics, as well as a means of fashioning her own aesthetic in correspondence with, and at the same time distinct from, mentors including Williams, Pound, H.D., and later Robert Duncan. Part of this involved breaking away from male mentor figures and male-dominated poetry networks in order to create her own poetic style. It was through dialogue and letter writing, I argue, that Levertov cemented a sense of her own poetic project. Yet, unlike Emily Dickinson, Levertov’s poems were not written from the perspective of an isolated poet, circulating poems to a small, private network. Levertov’s verse, such as the anti-Vietnam war poems in To Stay Alive (1971), incorporated letters and diaries in a documentary mode that looked beyond a private network to a wider reading public, advocating her role as what she termed in her pivotal 1967 essay “a poet in the world”.
‘Bury your heart’: Charlotte Mew and the Poetry of Female Experience.
Elizabeth Black, University of Manchester
Abstract: Charlotte Mew’s strikingly original and passionate poetry remains under-examined by modernist critics, yet it holds great importance in presenting an alternative version of modernism that foregrounds issues surrounding gender, sexuality and otherness. Mew’s work explores key modernist themes such as alienation, fragmentation and psychological disruption from the perspectives of those on the margins of society, and in doing so challenges narrow definitions of the movement by highlighting the multiplicity and plurality of voices and concerns within it. Whilst Mew’s decentred position often informs painful reflections on shame, exclusion and powerlessness, the culmination of so many marginalised voices in the poems and Mew’s overriding compassion for the vulnerable creates a powerful challenge to the centre that contests traditional accounts of modernism as defined by white, European men. This article will explore how female experience informs Mew’s compassion for the marginalised and how personal experience of gender-based oppression inspires empathy for other vulnerable groups who suffer under similar power dynamics or social prejudices. It will consider how female experience shapes both the content of the poems and her choice of poetic forms that allow for concealment of self against the fear of exposure. It will also draw upon contemporary feminist readings of modernist literature to examine the ways in which gender informs Charlotte Mew’s treatment of key modernist themes and how this challenges conventional understanding of the movement.
Restless Subjects: Women Poets and the Spaces of Irish Modernism.
Lucy Collins, University College Dublin
Abstract: For Irish women poets writing between the foundation of the Free State and the end of the Second World War, the production of creative work entailed considerable practical challenges. Although women had made a significant contribution to the Irish literary revival at the turn of the twentieth century, neither the narrow-gauge nationalism that emerged in 1930s Ireland, nor the modernist intellectual networks forged by Irish writers abroad, were hospitable to them. Such exclusions made it difficult for women to gain access to readers, or to a public intellectual culture, and highlighted the close connections between the space of writing and the practice of aesthetic freedoms.
For these women, space was inherently political, setting boundaries to physical movement and determining intellectual choices. When representing space and place in their work, they often moved between real and imagined landscapes, rejecting both the practical and imaginative effects of containment. In eliding differences between interior and exterior space they prefigure Henri Lefebvre’s assertion of spatial continuity: ‘The space of a room, bedroom, house or garden may be cut off in a sense from social space by barriers and walls… yet still remain fundamentally part of that space’ (The Production of Space, p. 87). Irish women poets often construed this movement across boundaries in physical terms – their reflecting subjects may be found walking, driving, or flying as a means to mobilise creativity. In this essay, I will explore how poems by Rhoda Coghill (1903-2000), Freda Laughton (1907 - ?), Blanaid Salkeld (1880-1959) and Sheila Wingfield (1906-1992) signal restlessness as an important expression of their modernist aims, and examine how both physical and imaginative movement can test the boundaries set by the social and cultural restrictions of mid-century Ireland.
Muriel Rukeyser’s Dynamic Poetics: Modernism, Process and the ‘Life Entire’.
Irralie Doel, University of Brighton
Abstract: In The Life of Poetry (1949), Muriel Rukeyser attests that poetry can be used ‘in time of crisis’ (The Life of Poetry, p.1). Living and writing through the Spanish Civil War, World War Two and the Korean and Vietnam wars, Rukeyser formulated a ‘dynamics of poetry’ (The Life of Poetry, xi) through which she could confront fear and promote peace, connection and communication. Rukeyser also explores personal crisis in this way, for example when sharing her struggle for articulation after suffering a stroke in her poem ‘Resurrection of the Right Side’. Her dynamics of poetry is, therefore, a flexible method of renegotiation and reorganisation which can create a ‘meeting-place’ (The Life of Poetry, p. 162) in the space of the poem, reinscribing ‘the parts of our lives in a new arrangement’ (The Life of Poetry, p. 3). Rukeyser acknowledges the modernist preoccupation with fragmentation but insists on moving towards a fresh vision that can restructure, rebuild and repair, resulting in ‘the life entire’ (Packard interview, 1979). Poetry can facilitate this because it is ‘made of change itself … the poem is a process’ (The Life of Poetry, p. 174). Rukeyser constructs her dynamic poetry through innovations in form, technique, and especially sound structures, including her ‘held rhyme’.
Through analysing a range of Rukeyser’s poetry in the context of her poetics as described in The Life of Poetry, interviews, essays and unpublished archive material, this article builds on the work of critics who have established Rukeyser as a modernist poet. I demonstrate how her work oscillates between adhering to modernist principles and extending them towards a dynamic vision of unity which simultaneously preserves difference and rejects universal values.
Who counts? Gender, mathematics, and address in the contemporary sequence.
Alice Entwistle, University of South Wales
Abstract: “Language is a form in which landscape can come alive.” (Tarlo, The Ground Aslant, Shearsman 2011)
Reputedly, it was Galileo who argued that the universe is written in mathematical language. Despite the growth of literary economics in recent decades, the ways in which literary texts in general deploy or comment on mathematical ideas and sometimes theories are only just starting to enjoy concerted critical attention. A new generation of scholars is, for example, mapping developments in early twentieth mathematics onto the shifts and strains associated with literary modernism. The areas of commonality seem inevitably to be inflected by gender. If mathematics as a discipline has been generally slow to acknowledge its dependence on the scholarship of women, the same might seem true – at the moment – of this new literary discourse. The only critical monograph exploring the connections between maths and literary modernism focuses on prose fiction by three male writers.
Among the women working at the heart of literary High Modernism, Gertrude Stein, Mina Loy, HD, Marianne Moore, Laura Riding [Jackson] and – later – Stevie Smith and Elizabeth Bishop can all be found pondering questions of a mathematical nature, however obliquely. That most of these writers are poets is surely no surprise, given the truistic significance of number and counting to poetry, aeons before the emergence of syllabics.
This chapter examines two deliberately innovative English-language sequences, both produced by women in the first decade of the twenty first century, in ways which negotiate with the legacy of radical Modernism, and both explicitly interested in the relationship between gender, mathematics and the (situated) subject.
The essay begins from the premise, recognised by both Frances Presley (in the fragmented textualities of ‘Stone Settings’) and Carole Burns (‘Zeta Landscape’), that any piece of writing is itself a place, in and of itself. It finds both poets finding and using mathematics, actually and metaphorically, in the suggestive paginary place-spaces which the poetic text – in each case a site-specific sequence – constructs and inhabits. ‘Stone Settings’ takes as its subject the quasi-geometrical Neolithic stone arrangements dotted across Exmoor. The sequence opens Lines of Sight (2009) a collection actively interested in the relationship between the visible features, or ‘forms’, of a landscape, and the poem’s effort to mediate those forms in language, on the page. Watts’ work-in-progress ‘Zeta Landscape’ uses the abstract mathematical theorem of its title to navigate the powerful cultural-politics charging the routine practices and economics governing a small farm in rural mid-Wales. Both poets find in mathematical ideas and language a resonant way of protesting the (gendered) geo-political complexities they address, as women, as writers, and as culturally situated subjects.
 Nina Engelhardt, Modernism, Fiction and Mathematics Edinburgh, 2018.
Memory and Mourning in M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!
Lisa Fink, University of Oregon
Abstract: M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!  mourns the massacre of 150 Africans thrown overboard into the Atlantic Ocean  so that owners of the slave ship Zong could collect insurance money on lost “cargo.” Deploying modernist formal disruptions—nonlinearity, polyvocality, linguistic fragments, and mixed registers and languages—the poem fractures the only publicly extant paper related to the massacre—a legal document describing the decision of the Gregson v. Gilbert case between the ship owners and the insurance company. The disordered pieces reconfigure that text simultaneously to create and frustrate meanings, producing distress and confusion. Zong!’s words spread across the page not only to derange the legal text but also to suggest jetsam floating in the sea. In the context of Zong!, this jetsam calls up the human bodies considered “goods” in the legal document. The poem tasks readers with drawing connections between dispersed and fractured words while remaining attentive to the ironic meanings that float up through this detritus of history. According to Philip, her practice of fracturing and dislocating language is necessary to decontaminate the English language so that she can find the right form for mourning the lost lives. Such an elegiac form refuses the imperialist logic that dehumanized Africans and made their destruction possible. What Philip calls, in the text’s notes, a “decontaminating process” attempts to heal both language and intergenerational trauma through memory and mourning. While linguistic disruption cannot ultimately decontaminate language, Philip’s modernist poetic practices do offer moments of semantic rupture that may temporarily suspend imperial contamination and make other “substances” attached to the language legible. In Zong!, contaminated and decontaminated meanings are in constant tension.
Gwendolyn Brooks and the Legacies of Architectural Modernity.
Jo Gill, University of Exeter
Abstract: This essay reads the work of poet, Gwendolyn Brooks, in terms of its engagement with the architectural modernity of her home city, Chicago. Taking the 1968 collection, In the Mecca, as a starting point, the essay traces the significance of Chicago style architecture on Brooks’ aesthetic. It was in Chicago that some of the first tall office buildings were designed; it was here that structural steel and glass were first used to distinctive architectural effect, and it was here, in 1893, that the World’s Columbian Exposition was held – an event that, for better or worse, was to shape American architecture well into the twentieth century. Little of this is visible or explicit in Brooks’ work. Yet it is the argument of this essay that the contemporary architectural context is everywhere present; that it shapes and informs poems from Annie Allen (1949) to Blacks (1987), and that in teasing out this architectural resonance we arrive at a better understanding both of her poetry and of the experience of modern architecture. In pursing the point, I draw on Adrienne Brown’s recent The Black Skyscraper: Architecture and the Perception of Race (2018) and, in particular, her argument that the rise of modern architecture was predicated on “processes of racial perception and apprehension” (3). Brooks’s poems, I suggest, trace the ways in which black subjectivity is negotiated in such a context. Her approach is often oblique (registered in metaphor, style, and voice) but nevertheless incisive in its rendering of the relationship between architecture, modernity, and power.
Place and Voice in Ruth Lechlitner, Lorine Niedecker and Muriel Rukeyser
Alex Goody, Oxford Brookes University
Abstract: Although less well known than either Muriel Rukeyser or Lorine Niedecker, Ruth Lechlitner shares their political, ecological and poetic concerns; this article explores the poetry of all three women modernists focusing on their antipatriarchal logics and their innovations in form and voice that reconfigure conceptions of community, subjectivity and natural place. A onetime member of the League of American Writers, Lechlitner’s poetry navigates the complex terrain of feminist and left-wing politics in the mid-century, presenting contact with nature and with a communal identity as a crucial redress to a mechanistic and exploitative American society. In the 1930s and 1940s Rukeyser too was active in the cultural politics of the American labour-left and generated a poetic that engaged with and criticised technologies of industrialisation and of vision. Niedecker’s poetry collates an ecological, historical and colloquial perspective in which a local and collective vision intersects with a feminist consciousness and critique of American consumer capitalism. What these women poets also share is an active engagement with their contemporary media ecology, drawing on forms such as radio (Lechlitner and Niedecker) and documentary (Rukeyser) to explore issues of witnessing and connection, to confront the language of crisis and to expose the constraints of the technological paradigms of contemporary America.
Exploring Rukeyser’s poetry of the 1930s and 1940s (including The Book of The Dead and The Theory of Flight), Niedecker’s Objectivist take on the rural poor and the Wisconsin environment and Lechlitner’s poems in Tomorrow’s Phoenix (1937) and Only The Years (1944), this article examines their rethinking of the natural and material world in terms that both critique and remediate the technological enframing of modernity. This article thus identifies a distinctive current in mid-twentieth century women modernists who explored the intersections of labour, gender and the environment. As I argue, the poetry of Lechlitner, Niedecker and Rukeyser engages critically and creatively with contemporary media forms to generate a poetry of place and voice framed through their particular lens of feminist and ecological concerns.
Living up to her “own avant-gardism”: H.D. and the Senescence of Classical Modernism
Suzanne Hobson, Queen Mary University of London
Abstract: In a journal entry from 1957, H.D. writes that Adorno’s description of the aging of modernist music might easily apply to the fate of her own work in the post-war period: “Among other fascinating things, he [Adorno] says that Bartók “could not quite live up to his own avant-gardism” […]. I felt the phrase applied in a way to myself and my Helen sequence” (Hirslanden, 40). H.D.’s remark refers to her long poem, Helen in Egypt (1960) which, with its epic form, classical subject and conspicuously complex language, seemed to some to be a throwback to an earlier ‘high’ modernist period. What did it mean for H.D. to feel that her work had outlived its time, and to what extent did she share this feeling with other first-generation modernist women who continued to write poetry into the 1950s and 60s such as Djuna Barnes and Mina Loy? This article explores H.D.’s sense that her practice was at odds with post-war demands for poetry to answer to immediate historical concerns. It also considers her case against the critics in letters, unpublished writings and in Helen in Egypt which contains its own defence of the relevance of classical modernism to the post-war present day.
 H.D., Hirslanden Notebooks, ed. by Matte Robinson and Demetres P. Tryphonopoulos (Victoria, BC: ELS, 2015)
‘Always trembling on the brink of poetry’: Katherine Mansfield as modernist poet.
Gerri Kimber, University of Northampton
Abstract: Today, Katherine Mansfield is well known as one of the most exciting and cutting-edge exponents of the modernist short story. Little critical attention, however, has been paid to her poetry, which seems a strange omission, given how much verse she wrote during the course of her life, starting as a very young schoolgirl, right up until the last months prior to her death in 1923.
Even Mansfield devotees are not really familiar with any poems beyond the five or six that have most frequently been anthologised since her death. Very few editions of her poetry have ever been published. Mansfield’s husband, John Middleton Murry, edited a slim volume, Poems, in 1923, within a few months of her death, followed by a slightly extended edition in 1930, and Vincent O’Sullivan edited another small selection, also titled Poems, in 1988. Unsurprisingly, therefore, critics and biographers have paid little attention to her poetry, tending to imply that it is a minor feature of her art, both in quantity and, more damagingly, in quality. Yet, in a notebook jotting in January 1916, Mansfield made the following candid admission: ‘I feel always trembling on the brink of poetry.’ Even if Mansfield’s poetic output has been traditionally side-lined, readers of her notebooks, letters and reviews cannot fail to notice how poetry – both her own and that of others – remains a constant throughout her life.
In 2016, EUP published a complete and fully annotated edition of Mansfield’s poems, edited by myself and Claire Davison, and incorporating all my recent discoveries, including a collection of 36 poems – The Earth Child – sent unsuccessfully by Mansfield to a London publisher in 1910 – the manuscript of which remained unnoticed in the Newberry Library, Chicago. My discovery of it in 2015 affirmed how, at the very moment when Mansfield was starting to have stories accepted for commercial publication, she was still very much taking herself seriously as a poet. Indeed, had the collection been published, perhaps Mansfield might now be celebrated as much for her poetry as for her short stories. This essay will therefore explore the development of Mansfield’s poetic writing throughout her life and make the case for her reassessment as an innovative poet, and not just as a ground-breaking short story writer.
Tourism and Taxonomy: Natasha Trethewey’s Thrall, Marianne Moore’s “Virginia Britannia,” and Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia.
Linda A. Kinnahan. Duquesne University
Abstract: Marianne Moore's long poem "Virginia Britannia" (1936) visits historical sites marking Virginia’s colonial and early national significance, such as Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Charlottesville. This paper considers the poem’s engagement with history and taxonomies of race in relation to a cluster of poems by Natasha Thretheway's included in Thrall (2012) that also visit sites in Virginia associated with Thomas Jefferson, particularly his home Monticello. Through the experience of visiting historic sites during specific moments of socio-economic and cultural stress in America -- the Depression and the post-Civil Right ostensibly “post-racial” era of the new millennium -- these poems explore American racial identity through re-reading historical narratives as scripted in and by specifically material aspects of "place" and taxonomies of race. In reading Trethewey’s poems, with their direct engagement with taxonomies of race and American history, Moore’s own formal reliance upon an obsessive cataloguing that gestures toward taxonomic classifications comes into relief as a strategy of critiquing those taxonomies. Moreover, placing the two poets together, as each visit historical sites and especially as each invokes the sites of Thomas Jefferson, helps to discern how tourism’s engagement with historical place is imbricated with taxonomic processes of classification. How, for each poet, is the structure of the touristic encounter determined by taxonomies linking natural history and social organization? The touristic encounter with Jefferson’s home and university become opportunities to consider American racial attitudes borne of applying natural history taxonomies to social organization. Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia haunts both poems, Trethewey quoting directly, while Moore’s poem both echoes and questions the taxonomic approach that, beginning in the 17th century and accompanying the history of American colonization, essentialized and hierarchized “race.”
Modernist Women Writers and Whimsy.
Will May, University of Southampton
Abstract: T.S. Eliot wrote of the ‘several ways’ in which his book of Old Possums might be a ‘failure’, deciding there were more ways of going wrong with whimsy than going right. Yet for women poets, the stakes were much higher: Stevie Smith noted to an American publisher that having the word ‘whimsical’ in the blurb of a selected poems was ‘rather handing a gun to critics’. Since its first recorded use, the word has been used to measure or contain the intellectual role of women in society: even Margaret Cavendish’s utopian play, The Female Academy (1662), characterises female wit as whimsical and excessive. This essay considers the work of Dorothy Parker and Marianne Moore, exploring the ways their poetics contains and reframes debates about cultural value, gender, and form through the whimsical mode.
Lynette Roberts’s ‘naïve’ modernism.
Siriol McAvoy, Swansea University
Abstract: Born in Buenos Aires in 1909 to parents of Welsh heritage, Lynette Roberts was an enigmatic member of the late modernist scene in Britain; she collaborated with Robert Graves on his poetic myth odyssey, The White Goddess (1948), and was close friends with T.S. Eliot and Edith Sitwell. Roberts’s poetry – idiosyncratic, riskily experimental, stylishly artless – tells a fascinating story about the forgotten patterns of cultural transit and translation that connected Britain, Wales and the Americas during the 1940s and 1950s. This essay argues that Roberts innovates a ‘naïve’ modernism that presents vernacularity, folk art and creative labour – embedded, in her imaginary, in gendered and/or Welsh domains of culture – as a therapeutic response to war, and as a means of shaping a public role for the woman writer in the post-war world.
Combining Argentinian and Welsh cultural influences within the frame of a transformed Anglo-American modernism, much of Roberts’s poetry was written in and out of the rural Carmarthenshire location that was home to the Welsh modernist formation that gathered around Keidrych Rhys’s magazine Wales during the 1940s. The unstable dynamics of place and the complex connections of the local and the global are thus concerns explored in depth in Roberts’s poetry. This essay will suggest that her writing enhances our understanding of the locations (not just metropolitan but rural and marginal; not just English but Welsh and South American) and temporal reach of women’s modernisms in Britain, extending as her work does over the 1940s and early 1950s.
Roberts’s poetry also offers a critical reflection on the experience of being a woman in wartime: works such as Gods with Stainless Ears (1951) constantly probe the way war accentuates connections between gender inequality, imperialism, and the oppression of minority and/or rural cultures in capitalist modernity. Attention will therefore be given to the wartime writings collected in Poems (1944) (‘Low Tide’, ‘The Shadow Remains’ and ‘Lamentation’), but instructive links will also be drawn with Roberts’s ‘Argentinian’ poems. Archival research informs the discussion of Roberts’s development as a poet into the early 1950s, a time when her poetry was mostly published in ephemeral forms in Britain and North America.
This essay demonstrates how Roberts’s engagement with the ‘naïve’ serves her aim of bridging the public and private, and illuminates the role of gender in a consciously ‘ex-centric’, anti-colonial form of late modernism that engaged (and reflected critically on) an array of Welsh and British traditions, while looking to America and South America for its influences.
The Tyranny of Appearance: Identity and Voice in the Dramatic Monologues of Charlotte Mew.
Nelljean McConeghy Rice, Coastal Carolina University
Abstract: Using a framework based upon the theoretical paradigms of Immanuel Levinas, Judith Butler, and queer and disability studies, this essay will explore Charlotte Mew’s poetry, foregrounding her as an important Modernist. Exploring the critical sites of the culture of performance and performance as culture will allow for an examination of the effects on Modernism of the dramatic monologue. Using a multiplicity of articulations enables Mew to “Do the Police In Different Voices,” before T. S. Eliot, and to expand the embodiment of her own voice, which, because of Mew’s physical appearance and sexual orientation, needs to be as diffuse and as disruptive of gendered binaries as it can be. In several ways, Mew suffered from a tyranny of the body that had a profound impact on her work. How she fashions an aesthetic designed to disguise, while, at the same time, explicate the disjunctions among the expected, actual, and imagined bodies of her self and her personae, illustrates her preeminent place in the Modernist canon. To demonstrate her deliberate manipulation of her persona’s speech acts so she can shape an oeuvre that explicates a gendered Modernism, the essay will employ a close reading of several key poems from among her dramatic monologues such as “Madeleine in Church,” “In Nunhead Cemetery,” “Ken,” “On the Asylum Road,” or “The Changeling.”
How Modern Can You Get? Back to the future with four women poets, “Scottish by formation”’: Hope Mirlees, Helen Adam, Muriel Spark, Veronica Forrest-Thomson.
Dorothy McMillan, University of Glasgow
Abstract: The four poets that provide the material for this chapter did not know each other and they probably didn’t know each other’s work. But they had an important formative experience in common: they were all educated in Scotland and they all left Scotland after that early education. Yet they all retained special, although different, ties to that country, to its history and its writing. They were all in their poetry ‘modern’, sometimes bizarrely so: of each of them it could be said, ‘There was no one like her.’ This strangeness they also share, just as they share a willingness, even a desire, to shock, and a muddling of contemporary and archaic, of the real and legendary. Thus, Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s ‘Hold on to your seat-belt Persephone’ is an indicative phrase. I aim to show that these serially inimitable modern writers have complicated and intertwined Scottish and international connections.
‘Gay Girl to Good Girl’: Poetry, Modernity, and Female Sexuality
Margery Palmer McCulloch, University of Glasgow
Abstract: This essay will explore issues relating to female sexuality and gender relations in the work of a range of women poets from the early twentieth century to those first publishing in the 1970s and later decades. The poets included will principally be Scottish writers, but the discussion will be book-ended by two poets of dual national identity: the English Muriel Stuart, now inexplicably forgotten by English critics but adopted by Hugh MacDiarmid in the 1920s as a contributor to his modernist ‘Scottish Renaissance’ movement as being ‘far more modern than most of her sisterhood in Scotland’; and Carol Ann Duffy, the current English Poet Laureate, born in Scotland but brought up and educated largely in England. Scottish writers will include Marion Angus and Willa Muir from the earlier period, Liz Lochhead and Janet Caird who began writing in the 1970s (the latter in her own later years), and Elizabeth Burns and Jackie Kay from the 1990s onwards. All these poets are ‘modernist’ in the sense that they are, in their different ways and times, making things new in poetry by exploring sexuality and gender relationships from a fresh and uninhibited female perspective, while also finding new forms of expression relevant to such themes and perspectives and their place in a changing social world. As the quotation in the essay title might also suggest, this changing social world can itself produce a transformation of meaning in relation to common linguistic terms previously used to describe it. Reference will also be made in the essay to relevant recent critical writings in relation to the topic.
‘Letting the verse go loose’: Edna St. Vincent Millay’s experiments with masculinity
Sarah Parker, Loughborough University
Abstract: Edna St. Vincent occupies an uncomfortable position in relation to modernism. In the majority of criticism, her work is considered the antithesis to modernist experimentation: as representative of the ‘rearguard’ that rejected vers libre in favour of fixed poetic forms. Indeed, most critics concur that whilst Millay’s subject matter may have been modern and daring – voicing women’s sexual independence, for instance – her form was decidedly traditional. Millay also troubles notions of modernist impersonality by writing seemingly autobiographical lyrics that showcase feminine emotions.
In this paper, I aim to challenge this view of Millay by focussing on the two avant-garde works that mark the outset and the zenith of her career: Aria da Capo (1921) and Conversation at Midnight (1937). These works are both formally innovative, blurring the boundaries between poetry and drama, causing Edmund Wilson to complain that Millay had ‘gone to pieces’. Moreover, both works engage in performances of masculinity, with women all but absent. Aria da Capo, first performed by the Provincetown Players in 1919, dramatises the conflict between two shepherds as an allegory for the First World War. Conversation ventriloquises an all-male dinner party, ranging through the political issues of the Depression era and foreshadowing the war to come. I use both works to argue that Millay has a more interesting relationship to masculinity and modernism than has been hitherto captured by critics. Millay voices men in innovative ways, radically challenging constructions of both gender and poetic form in the process.
‘The Paradox-Imperial’ in the poetry of Mina Loy and Bhanu Kapil poetry
Sandeep Parmar, University of Liverpool
Abstract: Mina Loy’s autobiographical works focus on racial hybridity and anti-imperialism in tandem, especially in her poem ‘Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose’ and her unpublished prose narrative ‘Goy Israels’. Likewise, Nancy Cunard’s transnationalist prose and poetry as well as her anti-colonial political editing and writing, inform a poetics of engagement with a nomadic subjectivity that resists borders of form and nation. This essay will read Loy’s and Cunard’s conscious dualism (multiplied across form and subject) alongside Ban en Banlieue and other works by Bhanu Kapil. Resisting techniques of reading that imply lines of influence between Loy, Cunard and Kapil, this chapter sets out fields of empathy and dislocation across Britain and its (post) colonial subjects. I will also draw from Aime Cesaire and Frantz Fanon as well as work by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and M.NourbeSe Philip. Attention to space and embodiment via modernist flaneurie and postmodern psychogeography will inform the ways that subjectivity, in particular Rosi Braidotti’s (Deleuzian) figuration of nomadism, as well as lyric fragmentation permit a reading of how modernist women’s writing transgresses authority and fixed ideas of identity.
Christianity and Intertextuality: Modernist themes in the poetry of Stevie Smith
Judith Woolf, University of York
Abstract: Stevie Smith, one of the most productive of twentieth century poets, is too often remembered simply as the coiner of the four word punchline of a single short poem. In this paper, I shall consider how Smith employs what she calls ‘the talking voice that runs on’ in her wry exploration of the major themes which – in addition to ‘death by water’ – she shares with T.S. Eliot: Anglicanism and the modern reworking of classical literature, with a strong, and in her case often autobiographical, emphasis on female figures. Unsurprisingly, these similarities involve marked oppositions. Where Eliot manages to make even the fractured idioms of modernist poetry sound lapidary and authoritative, Smith shows a ventriloquist’s skill in creating a range of speaking voices to portray or embody the characters who people her poems. In contrast to Eliot’s adult conversion to Anglo-Catholicism, Smith becomes a convert to agnosticism, engaging in a passionate poetic argument with the faith of her childhood. And where the female figures in Eliot’s The Waste Land are seen as parodic and diminished contemporary versions of their classical originals – Cleopatra, Ophelia, Spencer’s nymphs, Wagner’s Rhine-Maidens – Smith enters and reimagines her classical sources, testing the strength of the narrative material which binds Antigone, Phèdre, Helen of Troy and Persephone to their fates. She brings these themes together in poems celebrating, and ultimately invoking, Thanatos, ‘the only god/ Who comes as a servant when he is called’, who puts an end to all stories by ‘scattering … the human pattern altogether’.