Swansea University (7th September 2015): A Century On: Modernist Studies in Wales – The Inaugural MONC Conference

Report by Lucy Jeffery (Swansea University)

Conveners: Elaine Cabuts (National Museum of Wales/Aberystwyth University), Elizabeth English (Cardiff Metropolitan University), John Goodby (Swansea University), Emma West (Cardiff University), Diana Wallace (University of South Wales).

Modernist Network Cymru’s (MONC) first public conference was a great success. Held at Swansea University’s Singleton Park campus, this one-day conference entitled ‘A Century On: Modernist Studies in Wales’ dipped into the wide ranging research going on in and around Wales. With a Celtic aspect either directly, obliquely, or not at all apparent; MONC open-mindedly welcomed a variety of speakers to give an informative snapshot into the academic groundswell we all belong to.

Once name-tagged and conglobed we were all herded into an intimate lecture theatre for introductions and welcomes given by John Goodby, Martin Springer – the Pro Vice Chancellor of the University, and Emma West. Acknowledging RIAH at Swansea, BAMS, and the Learned Society of Wales, and then thanking everyone for attending, MONC’s humble beginnings were underway. Continuing the tradition of Modernism in Swansea, from Wittgenstein’s friendship with Rush Rhees to Dylan’s (that local enfant-terrible) first words in number 5 Cwmdonkin Drive; MONC opened its Twitter stream, opening the floodgates to a gush of aphoristic remarks. After a few housekeeping rules, the first parallel panels commenced.

Not pidgeon-holed into distinct niches, but broadly bracketed into panels where papers spoke to each other loosely rather than incestuously; each eighty minute segment was a nugget of wide-ranging, yet still coherent concepts. The predominant theme running through each of the papers, including Angharad Price’s Keynote Lecture, was the interdisciplinary perspective taken by literary specialists. Panel 1 ‘Modernism and war’ chaired by Matthew Jarvis consisted of the following three papers: ‘Tensions and tenses of Portuguese Futurism’ by Rhian Atkin, ‘The Ethics of Modernist War Poetry: Revisiting Mayakovsky’s War and the World 100 Years On’ by Connor Doak, and Luke Thurston’s ‘“Thought’s Broken Bones”: David Jones and Alun Lewis’. Atkin explored how Portugal’s past glories create a tension with the more conventional understanding of Italian Futurism exploring well-known figures such as Almada Negreiros and the less familiar paintings of Santa Rita Pintor and Amadeo de Souza Cardoso. Suggesting that in his poem War and the World Vladimir Mayakovsky set out to imbibe his text with the violence of the war; Doak’s paper explored the way in which Mayakovsky, as a non-combatant, wrote about the First World War. Thurston’s paper plunged into the divide between two non-Welsh-speaking Welshmen: David Jones and Alun Lewis. He argued that Jones saw poetry as a space for aesthetic revelry, whereas Lewis saw it as an abject rebuttal of Western rationality.

Panel 2 ‘National and transnational modernisms’ chaired by Daniel Williams consisted of Rachel Farebrother’s paper entitled ‘“The Congo is flooding the Acropolis”: Art and the Intercultural in the Harlem Renaissance’, followed by ‘Taking Tea with Yeats – Verse drama as modernist or national drama’ by Liza Penn-Thomas. Reminiscent of the ideas running through Montaigne’s Of Cannibals, Claude McKay’s Banjo (1929) explored the idea of a black Caribbean ‘getting on to civilized things’. Along with the writings of W. E. B. Du Bois and art of Archibald J. Motley, Farebrother set to work on tracing the vein of period, place, and context in racial representation. Exploring the possibilities of seeing visual art as a form of intercultural expansion, and the use of art to summon up the spectre of slavery, Farebrother explored how the museum space could paradoxically be seen as a place of self-fashioning and as a colonial vision of Western capitalist ideas. Penn-Thomas examined the lattices of relationship between a firmly Welsh and comfortably European theatre tradition in Wales. Penn-Thomas unpacked the effect meeting W. B. Yeats had on an impressionable Vernon Watkins and probed ideas of tradition, heritage, and nationality in Welsh theatre (both amateur and professional).

After a brief caffeine-filled interlude, the troops were recalled to attend their chosen trio of talks. Chaired by Diana Wallace, Panel 3 was concerned with ‘Modernism, gender and sexuality’ and included the following papers: ‘“A Certain Unrestraint”: Narrative Strategies and Coded Desire in Kathleen Freeman’s Short Fiction’ by Michelle Deininger, ‘“Far-off distant things”: Reading Dorothy Edwards in the Female Modernist Tradition’ by Claire Flay-Petty, and Leonie Shanks’s ‘Beyond The Tangled Web: Dorothy Richardson, Bryher and the Borderlands of Modernism’. Deininger wagered to what extent the much neglected scholar and novelist Kathleen Freeman could be considered Modernist. In her investigation Deininger explored how Freeman encodes and camouflages desire within the text in the form of a fragmented short story cycle. Sitting Dorothy Edwards (author of the 1927 short story collection Rhapsody) in the company of women writers of the 1920s, Flay-Petty advocated for Edwards’ position amongst the better known female authors of the time such as Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, and Dorothy Richardson. Shanks navigated the tangled web of literary connections (friendships and patronages) around Dorothy Richardson and the wealthy Bryher. Drawing on the epistolary correspondence between these two rural Modernists, Shanks argued that readers should focus more on the impact locality and landscape has on a literary voice and community.

Panel 3 was counterbalanced by the ‘Modernist inheritances’ of Panel 4 chaired by John Goodby. Lucy Jeffery’s paper “‘Watt” About Beckett’s Artistic Legacy?’ was followed by Charles Mundye’s ‘Lynette Roberts’s The Endeavour: a generic adventure’ and Richard Robinson’s ‘Quoting Modernism in the Early Short Stories of John McGahern: Joyce and Yeats’. Jeffery’s presentation centred on Erskine’s circle and point painting in Samuel Beckett’s novel Watt. She used Merleau-Ponty to suggest that there was a pre-cognitive reaction to the artwork, Derrida to point to the painting’s deconstructing function within the novel, and Ernst Cassirer to acknowledge Beckett’s struggle with language’s ability to express thoughts on art. Mundye read Lynette Roberts’s The Endeavour as a fictional re-imagining Captain Cook’s first voyage to Australia in 1768. Reading passages and showing images of exotic flora and fauna, Mundye unveiled a world of exploration and discovery amidst a Modernist world of displacement, deracination, and migration. Robinson’s paper explored the moments of discrete literary assimilation in the early short stories of John McGahern, particularly Lavin, which recalls Joyce’s An Encounter. Robinson argued that this inheritance of a previous work is a form of genre memory (in this case the Irish short story). He highlighted that in McGahern’s work this outing of the subtle subtexts in Joyce’s work is a fascinatingly complex (and conflicted) process. Robinson also explored McGahern’s quoting of Yeats’s Gregory poems in Christmas to suggest that McGahern’s relationship with the canonical Irish Modernists is troubled. In these two examples Robinson exposed an uneasy misalliance with tradition within the intertextual jouissance and cunning interlacing of McGahern’s silently dialogic writing.

In her Keynote Lecture entitled ‘Germany: Cradle of Welsh Modernism’ Angharad Price took her audience through T. H. Parry Williams’s early foray with Modernism, German Expressionism, and the bright lights of Paris. Attending Freiberg University, Williams was a contemporary of Heidegger, Benjamin, and Husserl. During his stay he dipped into psychoanalysis, Henri Bergson’s philosophy, and paintings by Ferdinand Hodler. Price proposed that this fuse of modernity was reflected in the Modernist ‘straight lines’ of Williams’s Eliot-like poetry. Price went on to paint a picture of a pacifist academic (Williams refused to fight in the war), denounced by Wales for being out of sorts, both in terms of his conscientious objection to war and the conventional lyrical mode of most Welsh poetry of the time. A fascinating talk about a Welshman silenced by war and whose personal journal was left frustratingly sparse, Price’s portrait of Parry Williams was a memorable account.

Further refreshed, the final two panels awaited. Panel 5 ‘Space, place and land’ was chaired by Emma West. This series of papers included: ‘The materiality of language and the transformation of tradition in the writing of Lynette Roberts’ by Siriol McAvoy, ‘Panting becoming Poetry becoming Music’ by Anne Price-Owen, and Xiaofan Xu’s ‘“United in the Spiritual Flesh of Nature”: T. S. Eliot and British Surrealism in the 1930s’. McAvoy’s talk delved into the tensions between a mythic past and fractured present at work in the writings of Lynette Roberts. A paper which spoke to Mundye’s, McAvoy highlighted how Roberts’s ambiguous relationship with Wales placed her in an imaginary homeland, living in an inbetween space of oral-traditions and bardic memories, on the one hand and a woman’s place amongst Modernism’s literary elite on the other. Drawing on the theories of Homi K Bhabha, McAvoy located Roberts’s culture betwixt a Medieval time and Modernist space suggesting that ancient cultures took the form of ghosts haunting the pages of Modernist literature. Price-Owen proceeded to visually map Wales as a woman’s body through the work of contemporary Welsh artist Iwan Bala. Price-Owen also offered an overview of the musical moments that appear within David Jones’s 1937 epic poem In Parenthesis before moving on to show images of Bala’s Nigel Jenkins inspired works. Together these works demonstrated the historic legacy of Wales, recast in three different moulds. Xu’s interest in T. S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas was morphed into a discussion of Herbert Read’s 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition. Xu relocated British surrealism to the outskirts and borderlands to claim that it is where identities are in question that the disparate trajectories of Modernism and Surrealism converge and create.

Lastly, Panel 6 ‘Late and contemporary responses’ chaired by Luke Thurston contained the following presentations: ‘Late Modernism and the poetics of place’ by Neal Alexander, ‘Dada t’es plus dans l’coup? Memorialising modernism in the age of the avant-garde centenary’ by Elizabeth Benjamin, and ended with Michael Nath’s ‘Creative Writing, Modernism and the Life-World’. Alexander asked us to surge forwards and look at works published between the fifties and seventies such as Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts (1966) and Charles Olson’s The Maximus Poems (1953-1975). Seeing the poetics of place as something that has opened and expanded, Alexander considered how Modernism has burst its buttons, expanding from the local into the transnational. Between fetish and pastiche, for Benjamin Dada is still remembered and preserved, despite its intention to be short-lived and to self-destruct. Benjamin evaluated how Dada has lived on since the demise of its members and asked if a past movement could speak to a contemporary world. Finally, Nath asked us if one could write a modernist novel in today’s world. In asking this question alone, not to mention the plethora of Modernist voices that emerged out of MONC’s conference, posits that even if Modernism is a relic of the past, it is certainly not a forgotten one and its place is firmly rooted at the heart of numerous studies and approaches to literature and the arts. Indeed, a century on, Modernist studies in Wales is thriving.
Polished off with a quaff of wine in the sun, MONC’s first public conference was an informative and enlivened affair replete with good humoured academicism. After all papers, insightful and challenging questions were asked and pondered over by delegates to form lively debates and interesting spin-offs. In her welcoming comments Emma West spoke of how she hoped MONC would commence its university conference-crawl around Wales. After such an engaging and up-beat day, I think all attendees would support the continuing expansion of MONC.

The organisers would like to thank all those who attended the inaugural MONC conference, and particularly those at Swansea who made us feel so welcome. Special thanks go to Lucy Jeffery for writing such an entertaining and engaging report. Follow us on twitter @ModNetCymru or join our mailing list for further updates.

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