Recent poetry in English has a special role to play in researching the role of the past in the human experience of the present and in redirecting investigation to the classical texts and contexts and their interaction with those of the present. Poetry both stands independently as a strand in the Project and contributes to the drama research because of the significance of theatre poetry. It also enables comparison of poetry written for both public and private readings and readerships.
The poetry strand of the research project considers the treatment of Greek and Roman texts and themes in poetry in English in the last part of the twentieth century and the early part of the twenty first. As with drama, we are not rigid about dates but will follow the evidence and the argument where it leads. Material analysed so far suggests that we need to consider poetry written from about 1960 onwards. As with drama, the importance of the creative response is evident at all levels and ranges from Nobel Prize winners such as Derek Walcott and Seamus Heaney to regional and community poetic activity.
The variety of poetic registers and genres suggests a paradoxical relationship to the modernist poetry of the earlier twentieth century as well as to earlier classical receptions, thus provoking research questions about the intersections between different literary and cultural traditions and the relationship of classical referents to the sometimes partly classicized traditions in which the modern writing is embedded (for discussion of this in relation to earlier poetry in English, see K. Haynes, English Literature and Ancient Languages, Oxford, 2003.)
How Greek and Roman culture has been introduced, reworked and rewritten in contemporary poetry is not confined to the reception of the Greek and Latin texts themselves but also includes ancient artistic and material culture, themes, figures and myths. Genres include epic, lyric, parody, satire, dramatic monologues, film-poems, performance poetry and theatre poetry.
The project has used two main forms of publication for the results of the research. First is the preparation of detailed case studies that examine the formal, discursive and contextual relationships between specific ancient and modern texts. The case studies are useful in enabling combination of diachronic and synchronic analysis. They situate the examples both within particular literary traditions and within the modern author's work as a whole. Such studies will enable judgements to be made about the construction of the classical strand in the poet's overall development and its reciprocal relationship with the hermeneutics of the reception of the classical text, thus deepening and enriching readings of both ancient and modern. The project studies are published in conventional print media and on this website. (List of publications and Longley Case Study)
The second type of publication is a searchable database. This includes details of the major classically-related poems and analytic typologies for selected major poets. The database allows searching by ancient or modern poet, title of work, mythological or historical figure, genre and other key elements of comparison and we hope it will suggest topics for future research.
At this point in the research (2007), two main areas have emerged which require further research. The first is the relationship between ancient and modern poetic techniques and language at times of cultural change. Contemporary poets using classical material are refashioning the linguistic and metaphorical interfaces between the classical and the vernacular, affecting readers' perceptions of both. An example is the ‘braiding' of different kinds of English (e.g. Irish-English, Creole, Nation language, Anglo-Saxon derivatives, Scots, the dialects of the north and north-east of England ). The philological and contextual analysis undertaken so far has suggested further research questions in relation to target readership, reader response and the working practices of poets.
The second main area for further research arises from this and concerns the extent to which, for the modern reader who lacks classical knowledge, the ancient ante-text may, initially at least, be absent from the poems. We are researching how these ‘absent voices' may nevertheless be made present and be recreated in new ways by the modern poets. Thus the research will contribute to investigation of the creation of ‘new traditions', both in poetry and in English as well as to understanding modern perceptions of the ancient texts and of the ways in which they are mediated.
We acknowledge with thanks the research grant from the British Academy which funded the pilot stage of this research and the support of the Open University in allowing information about the research and its progress to be made freely available to other researchers via this website.