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Occasional Poetry in the World

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Organizer: Elliott Colla

Co-Organizer: Emily Drumsta

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It is an understatement to say that most modern poets and critics have looked upon occasional poetry as a minor mode of expression, a petty or antiquated concern. For many, occasional poems come off as merely ornamental; they smack of anachronistic pomp. Others reject the category of occasional poetry as imprecise and unuseful: all poetry is, in one sense or another, occasioned. While modern skepticism toward the classical conventions and norms of occasional poetry is warranted in many cases, the fact remains that occasion-specific poetry persists across a wide range of modern literary traditions, often as a major rather than marginal mode. While epithalamic, genethliac, and epinician verse may have faded during the modern period, the panegyric, elegy and epigram all remain vibrant. Modern English verse contains many major examples of occasion-bound poems by poets from Dickinson and Whitman to Yeats and Auden, yet occasional poetry remains even more central in non-Western traditions such as Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Japanese, Korean and Chinese. To consider the occasion of poetry is to remember poetry’s role not only as private meditation or inspired genius, but as a public discourse of contestation or cooptation, as lament or rallying cry, as chant, as social thread.   This seminar seeks to revisit occasional poetry in at least two ways: first, through close readings of specific performances and/or poetic texts that are occasion-bound, with an eye toward how occasion and text inform one another in a mutually constitutive way; and second, through comparative and theoretical reflections on how occasional poetry works across historical periods, languages and cultural traditions. We invite papers that consider how the poetics of the occasion raise questions about: the relation of texts and authors to their direct and indirect publics; the way specific occasions impress upon and (literally) shape poetic forms and structures; the contingency, even ephemerality of literary meaning and value; the dynamic, fleeting nature of oratory performance; the modernist recycling of pre-modern occasion in a vein of parody, homage, rebellion, or pastiche; and the poetics of the timely (rather than timeless) and particular (rather than universal). The relevance of these questions is not limited to occasional poetry and might inform an understanding of poetry more broadly.

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