A Visit to Umeå (and some thoughts on Yeats' 'On Being Asked For A War Poem' 
Tuesday, March 8, 2011, 07:02 AM
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I’ve just come back from a very pleasant visit to Umeå, in the north of Sweden, pursuing research and teaching links with colleagues at the University. I enjoyed leading a seminar on As You Like It (and Lyly’s Gallathea) to a lively group of MA students, and also giving a lecture on English poetry to first year undergraduates.

Sometimes it’s hard to know what to talk about when given a brief as accommodating as ‘English Poetry’. But I looked at this book for inspiration, and came across this suggestive statement by Kathleen Jamie:

“A poem is an approach toward a truth. But poems can be funny, witty, quirky and sly. They can be mischievous, tricksterish. Their truths don’t sound like the truths of the court-room or inquest. Does this, then, show us something about the nature of truth? Can we say there are many truths, or rather, many aspects of Truth? That truth itself is a shape-shifter?”

This formed the basis for a discussion of the relationship between poetry and truth in short poems by Herbert, Wordsworth, Tennyson and Yeats.

It was the Yeats which puzzled me most. He was asked to write a poem in response to the first World War by Henry James and came up with this.

On Being Asked For A War Poem

I think it better that in times like these
A poet keep his mouth shut, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right;
He has had enough of meddling who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
Or an old man upon a winter’s night.

Although critics often read it ‘straight', for example this one, it seems very ambiguous to me. The ‘He’ of line 4 who has had enough of meddling seems at first to be the statesman, but is eventually revealed to be the poet. Is Yeats dramatizing self-censorship? To me, the poem feels unfinished, almost as though it were the opening of a sonnet (although the rhyme scheme isn’t one often used for sonnets) and might, like so many sonnets, then go on offer a quite different point of view, in opposition to the apparent message of the opening lines. But, as it stands, that different perspective has to be supplied by the reader.

I also very much enjoyed participating in the English Department’s Research Seminar, which focused on the last chapter of my book, a discussion of the familiar compound ghost in ‘Little Gidding’ and its sources and influences, which I had been invited to circulate in advance. The discussion was really challenging and stimulating, and has helped me think of ways of improving the chapter.

So thanks again to everyone in Umeå for their welcome and hospitality!

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UCU elections - have you voted? 
Saturday, February 26, 2011, 01:42 PM
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I've already blogged about this over on Harry's Place but thought I'd post something here as well in case I get any visits from academic colleagues over the next few days.

The UCU Independent Broad Left grouping has published a statement in which it sets out its own priorities, and its differences from (and with) the SWP dominated UCU Left group. Here's a useful extract.

"My key concern is the extent to which UCU has come to be dominated by the political aims and objectives, and the practical tactics, of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) which, through its wholly owned subsidiary UCU Left, dominates the national executive and drives through policies which are primarily those of the SWP.

This is an open secret – the aims and tactics of the SWP are easily discovered, and those standing on the UCU Left platform for executive do not conceal their allegiance. What causes the problem is (1) that this group is hugely unrepresentative, in my opinion, of the membership at large, and (2) that turnout in elections is now down to 10%, with few amongst the generality of members really aware of these political issues."

Some further useful background can be found here. But hurry - ballot papers have to be in by noon on 4 March.
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M. J. Engh's Arslan 
Sunday, February 13, 2011, 05:41 PM
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I’d never heard of M. J. Engh before, but bought Arslan (first published in 1976) because it had an arresting cover and was published as part of the Gollancz SF Masterworks series. It’s a powerful and unsettling novel – I was glad the extreme brutality of the opening chapter didn’t continue throughout the book, although violence and conflict are never far away.

The premise is an odd one, but is carried through with confidence. Arslan, a general from ‘Turkistan’, becomes the leader of a Soviet backed coup in which the US’s defences are disabled, allowing Arslan to take control of America. He makes the small town of Kraftsville his headquarters, and we, together with the citizens of Kraftsville, gradually learn more about his plans, which are partly driven by a (very dark) green agenda, and a wish to return humanity to a more self-sufficient way of life.

Arslan is compared with Tamburlaine, and the novel, like Marlowe’s play, is morally disorienting, and made me wonder quite how we were meant to respond to its ruthless but charismatic central character and his radical environmentalist agenda. It’s a really astonishing novel, and fully worthy of its place in the Masterworks series. However the second half is not quite as compelling as the first.

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Four Lions 
Saturday, February 5, 2011, 04:26 PM
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I’ve only just caught up with Four Lions. At the time it was released I didn’t read a great deal about the film, but, after watching it last night, I was curious to find out others’ views. It’s a subtly layered and satirical film, and (rather like Seven Jewish Children) seems open to different interpretations. It is very clear that Chris Morris, aware that he was tackling a sensitive topic, researched the film with great care.

It also seems (at first google) that there was no special outcry against the film. Muslim critics seem to have been relaxed about it, and found the satire amusing and sharply observed but not offensive. But I was surprised, given the care Morris took to get to know Muslim individuals and communities in Britain, that there seemed so little variety in the representations of Muslims in the film. There does seem some danger that the film might pander to the kind of anti-Muslim bigots Morris obviously doesn’t care for at all.

The only Muslim voice who strongly condemns violence in the film is the exaggeratedly devout Ahmed, and at one point it is revealed that he keeps his wives locked up in a small room. This could be explained as a kind of satire on bigoted perceptions of Muslims but if this is the point it doesn’t come over very clearly. One character, who pretends to be on the point of blowing himself up at a public meeting only to let off party poppers instead, is almost immediately converted to jihadism by Barry, a radicalised white convert. The implication is that all Muslims, including this silly young prankster, are potential terrorists, just waiting for a little nudge.

The most disturbing scenes involved Omar and his family. Omar is the cleverest lion and the ringleader. He is more three dimensional than the other characters, and less comic. His wife is charming and lively – there’s a potentially engaging scene when they make fun of Omar’s devout brother who feels uncomfortable being in the same room as a woman - she attacks him with a water pistol. It is therefore all the more disconcerting that she seems to fully support his plan to be a suicide bomber, and their young son has also internalised the idea that such a death would be glorious.

I found it strange to read here an enthusiastic account of how ‘Omar has a loving and respectful relationship with his beautiful wife Sofia (Preeya Kalidas) and their adorable son’ with no indication there might be something problematic about this family. My own response was much closer to that of hijabi in the city, who finds it disturbing that the intelligent and agreeable Sofia should take the part of Omar rather than telling him he is acting against Islam.

Clearly Morris’s intention is not remotely bigoted and there is some chilling satire of police incompetence and of state brutality in the face of terrorist threats – both the policeman and the interrogator target the wrong man. I am (for different reasons) surprised to find myself in disageement with both Moazzam Begg and Rosie Bell on this issue, but do agree with at least one part of Max Farrar's analysis - the film should indeed be able to spark off extremely stimulating classroom debates.

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Rereading Seven Jewish Children  
Wednesday, January 26, 2011, 09:36 PM
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I enjoy arguing about politics on the internet and I also enjoy reading and talking about literary texts. These two interests don’t intersect too often but Seven Jewish Children, as a play written in response to events in Gaza, combines the two. I have taught the play a couple of times, and have had fascinating discussions about its ambiguities – in particular those arising from the fact the play doesn’t assign lines to named speakers. As it’s a play which critics and commenters keep returning to I thought I’d post my notes about it (pdf). The executive summary? If people don’t agree with you about it – it’s just possible they may not be horrible, stupid or dishonest.
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