Interdisciplinarity, innovation, inbetweenness – for better or worse, the work of WIGS postgraduates clearly reflects contemporary trends in arts research more broadly! Like recent Thesis of the Month authors Iga Nowicz and Eloise Roberts, I also try to bring together two academic spheres in my PhD project, which compares approaches to representing space, place and landscape in British and German poetry of the 1960s and 70s.
Comparative literature is, of course, a well-established discipline in its own right, and a growing presence in many universities, including Nottingham. Like many who work in this area, I’m continually surprised, intrigued and excited by the possibilities comparative study opens up. Choosing to read literature against or across national and linguistic boundaries can feel daunting at first: as the eminent comparatist Prof Svend Erik Larsen argued at a recent LINKS seminar, there’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach to successful comparison. Often, comparative study is as much about finding the right lens through which to look at texts as it is about doing the legwork of literary analysis.
This is certainly true in my case. What attracted me to 1960s and 70s poetry in the first place was the apparent lack of coherence, in both British and German contexts. Perhaps as a reflection of an era which saw enormous social and political change, poetic movements in both languages seemed chaotic and fragmentary: from modernism to post-modernism and late modernism, by way of vehement political polemic, conservative nature poetry, German hermeticism, Anglophone experimentation, and the rather dramatic-sounding British Poetry Wars of the mid-70s. Yet no one in either discipline seemed quite sure how to read this era of transition and conflict.
What I noticed – and this observation provides the impetus for my thesis – is that certain aspects of the representation of landscapes, spaces and places in the work of British and German poets during this period are strikingly similar. Perhaps looking at their work through the lens of space and place could help draw out some trends from the chaos, bring together work previously thought to have little in common, or highlight some shared responses to social and cultural contexts?
My thesis consists of a series of ‘case studies’ which test this methodology. I describe them in these terms because it’s clear that I can’t hope to provide a comprehensive analysis of all the ways of talking about space in both British and German poetry during the period in question. Instead, I wanted to test the usefulness of my theoretical and methodological lens by bringing together a fairly broad selection of poets who use space and place in wildly different ways in their work.
One case study compares representations of meta-textual or meta-linguistic landscapes in the work of Paul Celan and the Cambridge poet J. H. Prynne, for whom Celan is a key influence. Another looks constructions of home and belonging in the work of Sarah Kirsch, who moved from East to West Germany in 1977, and the Irish poet Derek Mahon. The final case study compares playful and subversive approaches to space and place in the work of two writers in ‘minor’ literatures, Ernst Jandl and Edwin Morgan.
What is beginning to emerge, now I am over halfway through my project, is a fascinating and much needed antidote to what might be called the Radio-4-ificiation of place in poetry. All of the poets I look at use space and place in creative and novel ways: to provoke, challenge and amuse; to subvert and complicate; and, above all, to undercut mainstream ideas of nationhood and national identity.
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