A common observation in autobiographical studies today is that poetry, and in particular lyric poetry, has yet to be investigated to its full potential. The conference entitled The Self in Verse. Exploring Autobiographical Poetry, held at St Hilda’s College, Oxford from April 9-11 2017, attempted to responded to this desideratum, which may come as a surprise to some given the very personal and emotional sentiments that lyric poetry is supposed to communicate. A collaboration between the University of Oxford (St Hilda’s College, Oxford Centre for Life Writing, Faculty of English Language and Literature and the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages) and the Friedrich Schlegel Graduate School for Literary Studies (FSGS) at the Freie Universität Berlin, the three-day conference brought together some of the leading international literary scholars in the field. Amongst the participants were Jutta Müller-Tamm (Berlin), Patrick Hayes (Oxford), and Dieter Burdorf (Leipzig), who gave keynote speeches, as well as other scholars from the United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, and Poland. In the productive atmosphere of St Hilda’s College, the conference paved the way for further investigations into the topic of autobiographical poetry.
Poetry as a means of autobiographic self-expression has constantly fascinated writers across the ages and cultures. Early examples are ancient authors such as Catullus and Ovid, whose Latin poems Carmina and Tristia relate the stories of lives spent in controversy and exile. In the Middle Ages, French and German troubadours such as Chrétien de Troyes and Walther von der Vogelweide sought to cultivate a courtly mode of self-fashioning in their songs. Likewise, ever since the Renaissance, eminent writers have penned some of their most important works in the form of autobiographical poems. Dante’s Vita Nuova, Petrarch’s Canzionere, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Goethe’s Sesenheimer Lieder and Wordsworth’s Prelude represent just a few crucial milestones of the genre. As we can see, autobiographical approaches are located at the very heart of lyrical expression: attempts by poets to represent and narrate the self, and thus achieve ‘selfhood’ (poetically at least), have played as integral a role in historiographic and epic poems as they have in the more intimate domains of love and religious poetry. Since the nineteenth century, the boundaries of autobiographical poetry have been tested and pushed time and time again by modernists such as Arthur Rimbaud, Gottfried Benn and the Turkish poet Nâzım Hikmet (“Otobiyografi”, 1961), or via the confessional poetry of Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath and the multi-layered lyrics of certain modern singer-songwriter poets. Prominent examples of the latter are texts by singers like Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan, the 2016 laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature. The prevailing term “autofiction” and an increasing tendency towards self-expression, as well as self-staging through performance or various forms of trans- and intermediality, have broadened the artistic and aesthetic possibilities of the autobiographical genre not only for novelists but also for poets.
Within this broad historical frame, the conference participants presented on different forms of poetical self-portrayal from the medieval to the present time, with an emphasis on 20th and 21st-century literature. Over the course of the conference, autobiographical poetry was analysed and discussed amongst other things in relation to poetical multiplication of the self, paratextual references and functions, biographical facts, constitution of the lyrical self, the poem as an independent entity in an embryonic state, lyrical life-writing from a feminist perspective, autobiographical poetry as digital performance, and the emerging tendency of autobiographical and autofictional poetry. Collectively, the conference presented an initiatory mapping of the scholarly field of autobiographical poetry, which until now has been an underrepresented research area. Differences between autobiography in epic and lyric form were widely discussed, as well as the dialogic references connecting the different poems presented and analysed by the conference’s participants. What does it mean for literature, especially poetry, to thrive on unveiling and/or concealing personal matters and how do we as scholars tackle this literary interplay between author and text? Thanks to this successful collaboration between the University of Oxford and FSGS, these and other important questions of current literary theory were raised, revealing the plethora of potential that exists for future (diachronic as well as synchronic) investigations. A publication of the contributions is currently in preparation.
Friedrich Schlegel Graduate School of Literary Studies is a structured programme for doctoral candidates, which has been funded by the Excellence Initiative of the German Federal and State Governments since 2007. The Graduate School belongs to the Freie Universität Berlin and in 2012 Humboldt University joined the programme as an important co-operation partner. The FSGS promotes and supervises theoretically and conceptually outstanding PhD projects in the field of Literary Studies analysing texts of European and Non-European origin. The Graduate School strives for the advancement of genuine research perspectives of Literary Studies, which cross single-language borders and challenge the technologies of globalization, last but not least by locating past and present phenomena of cultural practice within a broad historic horizon.
With this imminent conference on autobiographical poetry, we are happy to have strengthened our partnership with the University of Oxford and our colleagues at the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages.
We would like to express our gratitude to Georgina Paul for her outstanding co-organisation and last but not least we would like to thank the director of FSGS, Jutta Müller-Tamm, for making this conference possible.
Marie Lindskov Hansen, was born in Copenhagen, and studied Scandinavian and European Literature at the University of Copenhagen and the Humboldt-University in Berlin. Currently she is a PhD-fellow at the Friedrich Schlegel Graduate School of Literary Studies at the Freie University Berlin doing research on Autofiction as a literary and theoretical construct.