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This chapter shows that during the 1980–1988 period, interlocutors in warfronts, prisons, seminaries and hospitals undermined the state’s gender limitations and discrimination by deploying what I refer to as spiritual acts of citizenship – acts of citizenship geared toward preserving one’s status as a revolutionary citizen. Spiritual acts of citizenship were constituted through the broader ethical framework that political spirituality offered during the early days of the revolution (Ghamari-Tabrizi, 2016). I address the underlying historical contingencies and real-time creativity that enabled Islamic and leftist women to individually challenge national and transnational structures of power. Additionally, I show the different forms that spiritual acts of citizenship took during the 1980–1988 period. What follows offers a dynamic view of revolutionary citizenship as one interspersed with familial love, erudite poetry, and literature, significantly dependent on different avenues to self-care and contrasting approaches to self-preservation.
Meredith’s novels abound in sentences, understood not just as the verbal form that contains a subject and a predicate, ending in a period, but as sententiae or maxims, which express a general truth or opinion in striking and memorable terms. A long-time feature of argument and rhetoric, sententiae are intimately associated with the development of oral and written prose, though their presence in Meredith’s work has led to the accusation that his novels are excessively poetic. This essay adopts a genealogical approach to Meredith’s style by tracing the development of his earliest sententiae to their recognizably mature form. With roots in the “wisdom” tradition in ancient prophecy and philosophy, Meredith’s sententiae reflect an ideal of cultivated speech historically associated with intelligent conversation and drama, which he then assimilated to narrative fiction. The singularity of the Meredithian sentence – a metaphorically dense and syntactically complex assertion that blends idiosyncratic expression with judgments of common sense – thus arises from synthetic hybridity, overlaying didacticism with description and intellection with image.
One traditional solution to the problem of how modernist poetry began is to tell the story of a transition between Yeats’s early masterpieces and Eliot’s The Waste Land. This is a story which usually centres upon the rise of free verse and a growing urgency to represent the modern world. More recently, critics have looked to tell stories about neglected poets, in which less obviously experimental works are found nevertheless to represent that same modern world. Both approaches involve tracing continuities and ruptures, often with reference to the unprecedented ruptures and rapid developments which characterised life in Britain in the first two decades of the century. This chapter shifts the emphasis from deciding how poetry somehow made a miraculous leap from the fin de siècle to high modernism, to exploring how the poetic forms of diverse poets working at this time refract the very conception and experience of transition, and especially the experience of transition when no certain beginning or end is in sight. The aim here is thus to resist the logic of literary history’s usual narratives, and to show that the poems of this period do so too at the level of poetic technique.
This chapter charts the transition, in British literature of the early twentieth century, from the Decadence associated with Wilde and his generation to the modernism associated with Eliot and his generation. If criticism has readily acknowledged that London, as the locus of an emergent modernist sensibility, was bound up in geographically extended networks of transatlantic and European literary practice, the story of historical transition from Decadence to modernism has been less often told. With particular reference to the poetries of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, the chapter shows how the aesthetics of Decadence were reconfigured and repurposed by modernist writers, before turning in a brief coda to the counter-example of W. B. Yeats, for whom questions of Decadence and modernism were bound up with the national politics of a changing Ireland.
The poetry of the First World War would normally be seen in terms of a transition from the fantasies of war to the realities of war, or from the ‘pro-war’ to the ‘anti-war’, from immature Owen to mature Owen, from Rupert Brooke to Siegfried Sassoon. And yet some of the most important poetry to emerge during these years was arguably either unrelated to the realities of war or barely engaging with it: Edward Thomas’s poetry (published 1917 and 1918), for instance, does not easily fit into any critical approach that emphasises the blood and mud of the trenches. Or, as the title of Ivor Gurney’s collection Severn and Somme (1917) would suggest, any emphasis on the Western Front was seen in relation to home: an imagined home untouched by war, or a home of the past and future. This chapter shows how the poetry of the ‘war poets’ frequently has as much to do with Britain’s domestic affairs as with the fighting itself, exploring themes that all connect somehow to social inequality and social unrest: topics such as class, home ownership, poverty, the role of the Church, women’s careers, national identity, access to education, access to beauty, and the relationship between town and country.
This part of the book considers how to study the work of a poet. It uses the poets Emily Brontë and Srinivas Rayaprol as case studies to illustrate how to build up a picture of a poet’s career, how to get to grips with their central interests and their ways of addressing them, and how to develop a response to a writer in the context of the broader critical debate around their work.
This part of the book demonstrates the many ways in which we can come to understand and enjoy a poem. It takes the reader through a series of shorter sections, each of them showing how by asking a particular question of a poem – about its verbal effects, about its form, about its emotional impact, about its subject matter – we can start to develop an understanding of it. The sections offer accessible introductions to technical matters such as rhyme and metre, but they also show how questions of technique in poetry are inseparable from the questions of what a poem has to say and to show us. Examples from a broad range of poetry written in English are used to illustrate the different approaches.
The book’s final chapter, on the work of Phyllis Wheatley, considers the aesthetics and politics of imitation. Wheatley’s poems both enact and challenge assimilation, by performing a form of Christian whiteness and decorum through acts of imitation for which she has been repeatedly criticised by contemporary readers. But notes of resistance can be heard in her images of chains, oceanic voyages and flight from earthly constraint. Wheatley’s poems transform constraint into ornament, but in a way that ironises her own experiences of capture and enslavement. This introduces a productive incompatibility between the prevailing aesthetic and the experience of bondage that must be overcome if the poem can be written. The chapter argues against contemporary readings of Wheatley as only a ‘sickly little black girl’, for whom whiteness itself was a constraint, and shows how she manages with limited means to particularise dominant poetic traditions to her own experience of enslavement and the Middle Passage.
This chapter shows how the derangement of the senses and isolation of the individual that are idealised modes of Romantic and post-Romantic verse are hideously intensified in the contemporary supermax. Its focus is on solitary confinement in US prisons as a way of preventing the formation of solidarities. As such, it explores the conditions for producing poetry in prison: different models of the workshop, reform and revolution, and imprisoned writers’ relationships to the carceral and poetic institution. It discusses the trope of incommunicability in prison writing. It discusses the psychic and physical effects of life ‘in the hole’, drawing on writings by numerous well-known and lesser-known imprisoned poets. It ends with the claim that it is the contemporary abolitionist movement that is the true inheritor and defender of the Romantic imagination.
Dickinson’s inability to tell the story of slavery is contrasted with M. NourbeSe Philip’s lifework Zong!, a book that attempts to listen to the missing, those who have been obliterated from the judicial archive or murdered in the Black Atlantic. Zong! is derived from a set of procedural constraints, using a legal summary of the Gregson vs. Gilbert decision – a case that determined whether slaves thrown overboard could be claimed as insured goods – to produce sequences of dispersed poems, associated texts and performances. Philip compares these procedural constraints to entering the hold, and her acts of linguistic selection and discarding to those of the slave masters. This radical attempt to restage the violences of history and recover the lost are complicated by her contention that the lyric poet must act as a bridge between the individual and the group. This chapter consider how Philip’s practice moves from page-based experiments with formal constraints, through an antagonistic relationship to the colonial lyric, into collective performance. It considers the significance of re-enactment and ritual in Philip’s work to channel the voices of the ancestors and disrupt the silences of the archive.
Lisa Robertson’s feminist poetics engage with the histories of sexualised domination, and indulge erotic pleasures while committing to ‘return to the sex of my thinking’. Robertson’s poetry seeks to free feminised subjects from the constraints of poetic patriarchy, embodied by Virgil, Lucretius, Petrarch and Rousseau. Conflating Lucretius with the Story of O, she proposes a theory of reading as sensual pleasure and domination. But she explicitly rejects the imperial militancy of the Ovidian tradition, and inverts the gendered relations of domination and subjection associated with Petrarchanism in her book The Men. Her poems show how a feminised subject might resist the logic of domination and bondage that inheres in much classical erotic poetry through a ‘soft architecture’ – a term she borrows from Gottfried Semper. Robertson’s aesthetics of precarity (the shack, the blackberry) incorporates feminised embodiment into the patriarchal city (Rome) or the settler one (Vancouver). Through her art-historical and architectural interests in the fold, fashion and textiles, Robertson seeks to translate bondage into ornament, and release the lyric from the constraint of a singular ‘I’ into a more collective and transient impersonality.
Poetry and Bondage begins in the late sixteenth century, with a new reading of Thomas Wyatt’s lyric poems in the context of his multiple experiences of imprisonment and surveillance. Wyatt is often regarded as a key figure in the initiation of an ‘inward turn’ or lyric interiority, and of modern English lyric. While such readings are problematic, they tell us something about what we think lyric is. Wyatt’s poetry demonstrates the importance of prisons for developing English-language lyric habits of address, intimacy and conceptualisations of power and selfhood. The chapter focuses on the various nets, chains, clogs and fetters in Wyatt’s poems, in relation to the conditions of amorous and political servitude they depict. It discusses how that servitude is enacted and challenged through formal constraints, such as the rondeau or the sonnet. It relates Wyatt’s tropes of bondage to the depiction of human and animal life in his poems and to the akratic subject’s obedience and resistance to sovereignty. It includes close readings of two of his most famous poems, ‘They flee…’ and ‘Whoso list to hunt’.
This chapter begins with discussions of two early accounts of the sorrow songs, by the African American activist Charlotte Forten and the radical abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson. These early accounts drew on both Romantic approaches to folk song and ballad and scientific or naturalist taxonomies to construct African American song-making as both historical and ahistorical. Folklorists were excited to encounter in these songs an example of a genuine ‘folk’ culture in the United States that exemplified evolutionary theories of poetic development. The chapter discusses the ‘primitive’ ballad and the ‘evolved’ lyric, and moves on to a study of the interactions between Howard Odum, a sociologist of the New South, and the Southern Agrarians, a group of scholars based at Vanderbilt University, many of whom later became part of the movement known as New Criticism. It argues that African American song is the repressed other of the New Critical idea of the lyric, and that many of those ideas are rooted in racist ideology about a pastoral, paternalistic South. It concludes with a close reading of a song whose roots can be traced to sixteenth-century England, adapted to the conditions of American chattel slavery.
This chapter offers a history of solitary confinement as a disciplinary technique, which emerged in the late eighteenth century as a replacement for the chaotic and degrading spectacle of corporal punishment. Key to that history are the ‘separate’ and the ‘silent’ regimes, whose most influential exponents were in the US, at prisons in Philadelphia (Eastern State) and New York (Auburn). The chapter uses the figure of the chaplain, and the inventive ways prisoners circumvented controls on their speech and inspection of their souls, to contextualise the solitude and introspection of the Romantic lyric. These contexts are rendered much more specific in readings of Wordsworth’s poetry of solitude and of penal discipline, and his evolution from the compassionate friend of ‘The Convict’ in Lyrical Ballads to the patron of capital punishment in his ‘Sonnets upon the Punishment of Death’.
The tropes of bondage that pervade Emily Dickinson’s lyric poems were significant to contemporary American accounts of the lyric and its relation to individual liberty. Dickinson is often held up as the paradigmatic lyric poet: reclusive, but unbounded in her imagination; pure voice, speaking on the other side of the door. Dickinson herself returns endlessly to tropes of the prison, chains and bonds. At times she even expresses a sadistic delight in imagining the torture of others. The chapter argues that, given the convulsions of her time and her family’s direct political engagements with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Fugitive Slave Act and the Civil War, it is surprising that slavery is almost entirely absent from Dickinson’s poetry. The chapter reflects on the tropes of incarceration or bondage in Dickinson’s poetics, to consider what the missing slave means for the model of lyric that she has come to represent.
While the first two-thirds of the book focus on the immiserating aspects of bondage, this fourth part recognises its pleasures. Looking back to the trope of the slave or soldier of love in Roman elegy as a rejection of the values of Roman imperialism, this chapter shows how relations of domination, bondage and resistance have infused amorous lyric for two millennia. It examines another lacuna – the missing foot in elegiac distich – in relation to castration, and the effeminisation of the lyric speaker. In Ovid’s elegies the female beloved is momentarily the triumphator who drives her captive lover before her like a slave, before the domination of the female beloved by the male speaker is reasserted through sadistic violence. An examination of Marlowe’s prosody shows how he re-queers this speaker, intermingling militarism and eroticism, masculine heroism and effeminate otium, paradoxically challenging the authority of Augustan and Tudor sexual norms through failure.
In Masoch’s novel Venus in Furs, three ‘Negresses’ magically appear at the moment that the speaker signs away his legal rights to life. This fantasy is an example of how actual bondage and historical slavery shape the sadomasochistic imagination. This chapter traces that imagination through poems by Algernon Charles Swinburne and Gerard Manley Hopkins, written at the height of Victorian sexology. It looks at the metaphor of the plough or the ploughman in relation to bondage and Hopkins’s class politics, and at the flagellation fantasies in Swinburne’s poetry (including his juvenile compositions), and the way that those poems fetishise the foot, mouth and ‘bum’. It discusses the theatricality and suspension of agency involved in masochism in relation to specific examples of colonial violence, to challenge the idea that the voluntary submission to constraint in radical sex practices can undermine forms of social domination.
This chapter turns to the sorrow songs, beginning with the famous passage from Frederick Douglass’s autobiographies. It focuses on the ethnography of African American song traditions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a period of professionalisation of folklore studies in the American academy. White folklorists claimed the songs were irrational, primitive, childlike, unmediated expressions of feeling; other qualities were discovered by African American ethnographers, including Zora Neale Hurston. The songs were also forms of exploitative labour. The chapter includes a reading of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem ‘A Corn Song’. Dunbar’s shifts between African American vernacular and ‘standard’ English illuminate the tendency of white folklorists to call attention to the failure of the printed and disembodied textual transcription to transmit the real power of the performed lyric. The chapter considers the attempt to secure an ‘authentic’ Black sound through recordings in prisons and labour camps. It also challenges the notion of authenticity through a reading of Olio by Tyehimba Jess, a work that seeks to recover – through a form of poetic ventriloquy – the thoughts and feelings of the artists whose work was appropriated by white critics, scholars and producers in this period.