Writing a conference report is always tricky, usually enjoyable, and never successful. Like a good poem, you might say, it isn’t possible to capture a conference in paraphrase. But it might just be possible to extend it, explore it, and, with sufficient luck and judgement, even add to it. And Irish Modernisms is the kind of conference that deserves to be extended, explored, and added to. It will live on, influencing the approaches and interests of all who attended it and helping shape the next steps in the now settled—perhaps too settled—field of Irish modernism. As co-organiser Paul Fagan suggested in his opening remarks ‘The time has come to cease announcing the rising of a new field […]. It’s time to test a field that is now firmly established. To look for blind spots, gaps, and new openings. To question its canon-formations and its borders’.
Where once Irish modernism could safely be defined entirely through Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett (it was either limited to them or by them), decades of important critical spadework has made it impossible to conceive of Irish modernism as a remnant canon, made up of those left behind (literally and metaphorically) by those who went into European exile. The ‘problem’ of Joyce and Beckett (and in a slightly different way, Yeats) raised its head at various points in the conference. Both were well-represented in the form of papers (Yeats, strangely, not at all) but the question of whether these three are beasts to be slain or boons to be celebrated came up time and again. If we can’t simply section some Irish modernists off from others as we did in the past (we can’t and we shouldn’t try to) then there is a danger in reintroducing these writers too simplistically into a broader narrative of Irish modernism. Not because they don’t belong there, but because this reintroduction risks distorting and overshadowing the work done by those writers who remained—whether proudly, ambivalently, or antagonistically—within the Irish context. They become, all too easily, ‘accompanying artists’, drawn into the teleological aggrandisement of Ireland’s authors of global standing.
This double-bind was by no means the central concern of the conference, but it was a point that begged constantly to be addressed. As Patricia Coughlan put it in the first of two excellent and inspiring keynotes: ‘Ireland has three of the greatest world figures of English-language literature; we need to get over that’. These figures will always, and simply have to, overshadow their contemporaries. Rather than fight against this, we must accept this as a fact and move on to more interesting discussions. For Coughlan, we might begin with someone like Elizabeth Bowen who ‘always seems to be caught in the process of acceptance into the canon of Irish modernism’. The point, she suggested, is to study these writers in the knowledge that ‘even without Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett, there would still have been an extraordinary flourishing of Irish modernism’.
Lucy Collins rather proved Coughlan’s point in the second keynote of the conference. There is, Williams showed convincingly, an entire generation or more of women poets who have been largely left out of the history of Irish literature. The point is not simply to place them, unresisting, into the chronology of Irish modernism—indeed, Collins’s cogent criticisms of chronological renderings of this history generated the most unexpected and perhaps most persistent of the conference hashtags, #thwartchron—but to understand the processes by which these poets were sidelined, exempted, and overlooked in the extended moment of Irish canon-formation. Key poets such as Eavan Boland, Collins suggested in response to a question from Michael McAteer, can be forgiven for aligning themselves with a soon to be critically re-discovered Irish Revival, rather than a more recent, but already dismissed body of women poets. Why battle to resurrect failed poets, when you could ride on the wave of resurrection that was already underway? But, now that the canon has been formed, it’s time to reform it, to do what these poets were unable to do in their own lifetimes and fight back against the gendered historical and canonical perspectives that have limited their appreciation. One of the most effective arguments Collins made was simply to display and read extracts from the work of Blanaid Salkeld, Rhoda Coghill, and Sheila Wingfield. The power and quality of the poems on display were a delight and a surprise to me, who, to my shame, had never come across this work before.
Irish Modernisms was packed full of probing, intelligent, and creative panels on, for example, Joyce, Beckett, ‘sensory modernism’, the Irish stage, and the ‘Geography of Modernism’. There were too many standout papers to list them all, but Michael MacAteer’s account of Standish James O’Grady’s marvellously bonkers tale of an Irishman transported through time to 22nd Century Argentina and back should get a mention. As should Daniel Curran’s reading of Thomas MacGreevy’s war poetry as imagistic, even as MacGreevy showed a cultivated disdain towards Pound’s poetics (MacGreevy responded to Pound’s How to Read with the words ‘God help the poor idiot’). Joe Brooker offered a virtuoso reading of Hugh Kenner’s masterful own reading of James Joyce, in which he showed that, time and again, Joyce’s writing obliges critics to write as Joyce. Lloyd Houston didn’t so much present as perform his extremely engaging paper on Synge and Irish discourses of degeneration. Ronan Crowley’s insistence on developing our understanding of the Roman a clef (including Ulysses) as perhaps the defining Irish form of the first half of the twentieth-century was convincing and eye-opening. And Paul Fagan’s analysis of Ireland’s proud history of ‘hoax’ publications—which he traced all the way through to circular and undermining uncertainties of Beckett’s prose—opened a new avenue for Irish modernist studies particularly, as well as, I think, modernist studies generally. All the organisers’ papers were fittingly excellent. I was lucky enough to share a panel with co-organiser John Greaney, who presented a fluent and engaging reading of Elizabeth Bowen’s attempt to negotiate a prose style that could capture the experience of living with Ireland’s traumatic history. I could only admire from an audience berth third co-organiser Tamara Radak’s excellent account of the flamboyant refusal of closure that occurs in Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman.
Indeed, the organisers deserve immense credit for all aspects of the conference planning, presentation, and execution, from the meticulous detail of their pre-conference, emails through to the timetabling of two-hour, schnitzel-filled lunch breaks. Not every conference can or should offer access to schnitzel, but anyone planning to organise a conference in the next five years should take note that I and every other attendee of Irish Modernisms will no longer suffer one-hour lunches in silence.
One last point: if you want to get a fuller, richer, better account of this conference than I have been able to offer here, simply load up Twitter and search ‘#irishmods2016’. While the most recent Joyce Symposium pushed it close, I can’t imagine that any humanities conference has ever been so well tweeted as this. As well as usually cogent summaries and analyses of the papers presented, it is here and only here that you will get anything like a true sense of how intellectually stimulating, amusing, and downright enjoyable Irish Modernisms: Gaps, Conjectures, Possibilities was to attend.
About the author
James Fraser has lectured at Cambridge and the University of East Anglia, and is currently a lecturer in the department of English at the University of Exeter. His first monograph, Joyce and Betrayal, will be published by Palgrave MacMillan this year.