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Reading Holocaust poetry: singularity and Geoffrey Hill's ‘September Song’

Rowland, AC (2015) Reading Holocaust poetry: singularity and Geoffrey Hill's ‘September Song’. Textual Practice, 30. ISSN 1470-1308

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Abstract

During classes on an interdisciplinary module I taught for ten years, literature students sometimes pointed out to those from other disciplines that the reader needs the objective tools of close reading in order to understand Holocaust poems properly. Such a subjective/objective dichotomy actually demonstrates that non-specialists in the field may have something important to tell us about reading, as a potentially missed encounter in the classroom, and in professional practice. The latter has resulted in three different ways of reading Holocaust poetry in recent years: Susan Gubar responds to such poems as ‘stymied testimony’, and I have argued elsewhere for the consideration of ‘awkward poetics’ – in which writers self-consciously discuss the problems of representation within the texts – as well as lyrics as a form of testimony in and of themselves. This article takes these critical positions forward by exploring the interaction between recent theories of engaging with poetry more widely and the specific case of Holocaust poetry. Can the concept of the singularity of literature fruitfully account for the ‘events’ of Holocaust poems, or does it obscure the importance of the metatext, and possibilities of ethical response? Also, in response to Derek Attridge's work since The Singularity of Literature (2004), can the ‘objective’ close readings that critics engage in be too ‘powerful’ for Holocaust poetry? Can close reading be, essentially, an unethical enterprise?

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