By Freddie Bruhin-Price
After a brief intermission for Christmas, the Humanities in Public (HiP) Festival resumed on Monday night. A large crowd assembled at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) for the inaugural lecture of the University’s Chair of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, Professor Antony Rowland.
Professor Rowland’s lecture was to focus on the topic of Contemporary poetry. Prior to the lecture, I asked the Professor what he thought the state of 21st century poetry was. “We don’t agree on what exactly contemporary poetry is, which is what I’m going to talk about this evening, but I think it is in very good health,” he said. “The Manchester Writing School is a great example of this.”
Before the lecture began, Dr Sharon Handley, who is the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, Law and Social Sciences at MMU, provided a short introduction. Dr Handley was delighted by the size of the audience for the event. She introduced Professor Rowland as a man who “brings together the creative and the critical.” Antony arrived at MMU in June 2014. When I spoke to him before the lecture, he enthused “it has been nice to join such a large and thriving English department” and alluded to a “new research group.” This group, as described in Dr Handley’s introduction, will link MMU with other poetry research centres at Universities across the UK, as well as in Leibniz, Germany and Columbia, USA.
Antony began by explaining that he wanted to “do something a bit different” with his inaugural lecture, by placing readings of his poetry and that of his contemporaries beside critical discussion on the state of modern poetry. The first section of the paper, “Innovative vs Mainstream” begun with the Professor’s reading of his own poem Pie, written in 2002. Rowland read with a flourish that brought the rhythm and sounds of the poem into new perspective for his audience. He described how, in nations such as Canada, innovative poetry constitutes much of the mainstream, whereas here in the UK the avant-garde is distinct from mainstream poetry.
This led into a discussion of the emergence of “cusp” poetry, a term used to describe verse which, in Rowland’s words “takes on lessons from the avant-garde” whilst retaining mainstream credibility. To illustrate the concept of “cusp” poetry, the speaker read a poem by Zoë Skoulding entitled Preselis with Brussels Street Map. Next was a reading of the deeply affecting poem How to Write a Poem After 9/11 by Nikki Moustaki, which was used to illustrate the lack of a post-9/11 poetry movement to mirror that which seems to have emerged in fiction with the likes of John Updike’s Terrorist. Coupled with the shortage of publishers willing to publish new poetry, the Professor asserted that this, along with the gulf between innovative and mainstream, makes for a strange situation for modern British poets.
The respondent to the lecture was Robert Eaglestone, who is Professor of Contemporary Literature and Thought in the Department of English at Royal Holloway. Professor Eaglestone described his duty to say “nice things, but clever things.” His response focused on MMU’s English Department whose “interest in creative writing, exemplified by the Manchester Writing School” and “interest in community” have allowed it to stay at what he termed “the international cutting edge.” Professor Eaglestone praised the poetry of Professor Rowland, and his commitment to his art. “In poetry, there are creators and there are preservers; preservers are responsible for thinking, explaining, understanding and shaping poetry. Antony Rowland is both.” As the lecture ended, the audience broke into applause.
The next HiP lecture is the first in the Human Trouble: Dis/ability series. The lecture, featuring Dr Sara Ryan (University of Oxford) and barrister Steve Broach. For tickets and further information visit www.hssr.mmu.ac.uk/hip
Freddie likes playing bass and drinking all kinds of tea.