15th Modernist Studies Association Annual Conference, Brighton 2013

Roundtable Session: Modernist Poetry Criticism and the New Ethics

For the 15th Annual Modernist Studies Association Conference to be held in Brighton in late August 2013, and in association with the UK Centre for Contemporary Poetry, Dr Wrighton is bringing together seven world-leading scholars in literary ethics from across USA, Canada, and Great Britain, for a roundtable session entitled Modernist Poetry Criticism and the New Ethics.


he “turn to ethics” in literary criticism of the 1980s and 1990s branched into two often opposing methodological and political approaches: a neo-Aristotelian narrative ethics, on the one hand, and an Other-oriented, deconstructive ethics, on the other. But, in the wake of the interdisciplinary debate between literature and/as moral philosophy, and the critical reception of Emmanuel Levinas’s “ethics as first philosophy,” there has emerged over the course of the last decade a “New Ethics,” after Levinas, which is distinctive to the developments in modernist poetry criticism. Indeed, between 2002 and 2010, a series of studies may now be seen together to constitute a burgeoning critical concern at the nexus of ideas between modernist poetry through the twentieth century and ethics. Tim Woods set the terms of this engagement demonstrating how “modern art constantly alludes to the aporia, namely, the conditions of its own impossibility”; whereas Joan Retallack, as both practicing poet and essayist, advanced the “poethical wager,” “a passion of working through, transfiguring, the materials of one’s times [that] can involve all the word passion implies – ‘suffering’ (undergoing, enduring).” The emergence of the New Ethics recognizes that, as Robert Sheppard argues, Levinasian ethics disavows the possibility of a “poetry of pure saying” or, indeed, a poetry that is only ever “said,” but it seeks to work through (or with) this productive difficulty; R. Clifton Spargo, for instance, describes a poetics of “irremissible ethical meaning” specifically in “opposition to psychological resolution and to the status quo of cultural memory.” Scholars have developed the News Ethics in constructive alignment with the mapping of political themes or experimental traditions in modernist poetries (Jenkins, Williams, Wrighton, Zhou), whilst wider philosophical engagements are brought into synergy with Levinas by Gabriel Riera (Blanchot), Peter Nicholls (Heidegger), and Robert Hughes (Lacan and Badiou)

Despite the concentration of this critical concern with poetry and ethics, there has been only limited dialogue or cross-reference between these individual fields of poetic study. This session, however, will bring around the table the foremost scholars of the New Ethics in modernist poetry criticism to discuss the possibilities, blind spots, and points of literary, philosophical, and political, consensus and divergence.

The following questions will be addressed:

  1. Is there an ethics of reading for poetry? Can poetry be ethical? Is there a tradition within modernist poetry that is ethically motivated? Which ethical-political themes may be constellated?
  2. How does the modernist poem intervene in (or represent) the ethics of inter-human relationship? How does this poetic event (or cultural space) contribute to the ethical work between personal identity and wider cultural and global discourses?
  3. How does a Levinasian philosophy of ethics illuminate the ethical capacity of poetry, and specifically its rhetorical engagement in the everyday (in response to what Wallace Stevens calls, the “malady of the quotidian”)?
  4. What are the limitations and advances developed in the New Ethics, after Levinas? In particular, how does the New Ethics answer Levinas’s “non-instrumentality”; his contradiction of alterity and political collectivity; and, apply to other traditions of poetic imperative and form.

Works cited:

Hughes, Robert. Ethics, Aesthetics, and the Beyond of Language (New York: State University of New York Press, 2010)
Jenkins, G. Matthew. Poetic Obligation: Ethics in Experimental American Poetry after 1945 (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2008)
Nicholls, Peter. George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)
Retallack, Joan. The Poethical Wager (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003)
Riera, Gabriel. Intrigues: From Being to Other (New York: Fordham University Press, 2006)
Sheppard, Robert. The Poetry of Saying: British Poetry and its Discontents: 1950-2000 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2005)
Spargo, R. Clifton. The Ethics of Mourning: Grief and Responsibility in Elegiac Literature (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2004)
Williams, David-Antoine. Defending Poetry: Art and Ethics in Joseph Brodsky, Seamus Heaney, and Geoffrey Hill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)
Woods, Tim. The Poetics of the Limit: Ethics and Politics in Modern and Contemporary American Poetry (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002)
Wrighton, John. Ethics and Politics in Modern American Poetry (London & New York: Routledge, 2010).
Zhou, Xiaojin. The Ethics and Poetics of Alterity in Asian American Poetry (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2006)


JOHN WRIGHTON is Subject Leader and Senior Lecturer in English Literature, in the Faculty of Arts, University of Brighton. He is the author of Ethics and Politics in Modern American Poetry (Routledge, 2010). During 2011-13, he was seconded to Ryerson University in Canada as International Research Fellow at the Modern Literature and Culture Research Centre. With a PhD in English from Aberystwyth University in 2009, he is the author of scholarly articles devoted to literary ethics, ecocriticism, Dada, avant-garde, and modern poetry.


GRANT M. JENKINS is Associate Professor of English at the University of Tulsa. He is the author of Poetic Obligation: Ethics in Experimental American Poetry after 1945 (U. of Iowa Press, 2008) and has published essays in Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, Journal of American Studies, Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, Sagetrieb: Journal of the Objectivist Tradition, and in Poetry and Pedagogy: The Challenge of the Contemporary.

PETER MIDDLETON is Professor of English at University of Southampton. He is the author of Distant Reading: Performance, Readership and Consumption in Contemporary Poetry (U. of Alabama Press, 2005); with Tim Woods, Literatures of Memory: History, Time, and Space in Postwar Writing (Manchester U. Press, 2000); and, The Inward Gaze: Masculinity and Subjectivity in Modern Culture (Routledge, 1992). He has a collection of poems, Aftermath (Salt Publishing, 2003) and with Nicky Marsh edited Teaching Modernist Poetry (Palgrave, 2010).

ADALAIDE MORRIS is John C. Gerber Distinguished Professor of English at University of Iowa. Her recent books include How to Live / What to Do: H.D.’s Cultural Poetics (U. of Illinois Press, 2003, 2008) and a collection of essays co-edited with Thom Swiss, New Media Poetics: Contexts, Technotexts, and Theories (MIT Press, 2006).

ROBERT SHEPPARD is Professor of Poetry and Poetics at Edge Hill University. He is the author of The Poetry of Saying: British Poetry and its Discontents (Liverpool U. Press, 2005) and Iain Sinclair (Northcote House, 2007). He coordinates the Poetry and Poetics Research Group which was founded in 1999 and meets at Edge Hill University, and he is editor of the Journal of British and Irish Innovative Writing.

STEPHEN VOYCE is Assistant Professor of English at University of Iowa. He is the author of Poetic Community: Avant-Garde Activism and Cold War Culture (U. of Toronto Press, 2013), the editor of A Book of Variations: Love – Zygal – Art Facts (Coach House Books, 2013), and the Director of the Fluxus Digital Collection at UI Libraries. His work also appears in Modernism/modernityCriticism: A Quarterly Journal for Literature and the ArtsPostmodern Culture, and Open Letter.

DAVID-ANTOINE WILLIAMS is Assistant Professor of English at University of Waterloo. He is the author of Defending Poetry: Art and Ethics in Joseph Brodsky, Seamus Heaney, and Geoffrey Hill (Oxford U. Press, 2010). His work also appears in Poetics Today, Essays in Criticism, and Modern Language Review.

TIM WOODS is Professor in English and American Studies and Dean of Faculty of Arts at Aberystwyth University. His recent books include African Pasts: History and Memory in African Literature (Manchester U. Press, 2007), The Poetics of the Limit: Ethics and Politics in Modern and Contemporary American Poetry (Palgrave-MacMillan, 2002), and Beginning Postmodernism (1999, 2002; Manchester U. Press, 2009).