The Power of the Word International Conference. Poetry: Word Made Flesh: Flesh Made Word. Gdansk, 12-14 September 2013

full name / name of organization: 
University of Gdańsk, Poland

The third Power of the Word conference, to be held this time in Gdańsk, Poland on 12-14 September 2013, focuses on the themes of revelation, incarnation and human embodiment in relation to poetry. It seeks to take further a dialogue inaugurated by Heythrop College, University of London, in 2011, where the first conference was held, and continued at the Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study (also University of London) in 2012, between theologians, philosophers, literary scholars and creative writers. The Power of the Word conferences explore connections and disconnections, continuities and discontinuities between religious experience, religious practice, theological reflection, biblical interpretation, ethics and spirituality on the one hand and poetry on the other. These explorations focus attention both on explicitly religious poetry and on that which is (sometimes emphatically) not. Central questions for this year's conference might include, for example: is poetry, as Eliot suggested, an instance of the word made flesh? And if it is, how and under what conditions is this so? Is this idea of poetry, if it is true, applicable only to explicitly religious or devotional poetry? In what sense and to what extent might poetry be said to partake, in a Christian perspective, of the mystery of the Incarnation, as poets and theologians have claimed? On the other hand, what of the view that poetry is nothing more (nor less) than an expression in words of our embodied selves and the material world? Are these two perspectives mutually exclusive?
The conference, interdisciplinary and ecumenical in scope, encourages theoretical discussion as well as analysis of specific texts and reflection on the work of particular authors, poets and thinkers of different countries, cultures and religious traditions. The beautiful Hanseatic city of Gdańsk provides a fitting setting for such reflection. Its rich cultural history involves diverse religious traditions, well evoked, for example, in Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum. The home of the Solidarity movement, it has always been a hospitable city that has welcomed visitors and enjoyed cultural variety; while its connections with literature in English go back to Shakespeare's time, when the city had an Elizabethan theatre stage that was used by English itinerant players. The University of Gdańsk is situated midway between the city centre and the spa town of Sopot, not far from the historic cathedral of Oliwa.

Confirmed keynote speakers: Revd Professor David Brown (Institute for Theology, Imagination & the Arts, St Mary's College, University of St Andrews), Professor Michael Edwards (Collège de France), Professor Angela Leighton (Trinity College, Cambridge), Professor Tadeusz Sławek (University of Silesia), Professor Andrzej Wierciński (University of Freiburg).

Call for Papers

The Conference will focus mainly on two perspectives: on the one hand, poetry as 'word made flesh', and on the other, poetry as 'flesh made word'.

Word made flesh. Claims that poetry has (or might have) a theophanic or revelatory value, opening up a connection with a transcendent reality, have a long history in the western world. The idea that spoken and written words are an expression of the human inner word, which is also a reflection of the Word of God, goes back in Christianity to Augustine. Later it became something of a theological commonplace and can be found, for example, in philosophers and theologians as diverse in time and outlook as Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Heidegger, Gadamer, Hans Urs von Balthasar and Karl Rahner. The Scotian idea adopted by Hopkins of "God sacrificing himself in matter" from the beginning of the world may serve as a springboard for reading poetry as an expression of divine immanence in matter, place and time. Among Christian poets, Dante, Donne, Tennyson and Eliot, each in a different way, suggested and celebrated the view that the written and spoken human word partakes of the sphere of divine revelation or Incarnation. ''I am one who, when Love inspires him, takes note, and then, writes it in the way he dictates within', wrote Dante; and Donne advised, 'To our bodies turn we then, that so Weak men on love reveal'd may look'. Tennyson believed that 'words, like Nature, half reveal And half conceal the Soul within'; while Eliot suggested that 'The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation'. Theological and poetic reflection on the concept of Incarnation allows us to speak about God as simultaneously hidden and manifest – in the suffering and the healthy body, in the dark nights and the joy of resurrection, in the face of the wounded and the restored other.

Flesh made word. Recent reflection on embodied human existence, in the work of philosophers Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Luce Irigaray for example, has highlighted and developed a phenomenology of 'flesh made word', an approach which represents a reversal of the metaphysical understanding of the word outlined above. Merleau-Ponty stressed that it is the body, not the mind, which is the source of knowledge, such that the perceiver and the perceived cannot be disentangled. Flesh ('la chair') is 'the mysterious tissue or matrix that underlies and gives rise to both the perceiver and the perceived as interdependent aspects of its spontaneous activity'. For Irigaray, likewise, 'flesh becomes word': the intelligible is rooted in the flesh, in the senses, in tangible matter; the intelligible (the word) corresponds to the 'sensible'. In this perspective, in which the body is the permanent condition of experience and understanding, poetry is seen to translate into words the self as embodied and in touch with the physical universe, such that in spoken and written words the corporeal is reborn, recreated through the human self. In the light of this, a question might be raised as to whether this perspective precludes the possibility that poetry, if it is concerned only with the material, may be theophanic. Or are embodied human existence and the material world themselves what Christians understand by 'sacramental', outward signs of grace, vehicles for or embodiments of the divine?
Whichever of these two perspectives one adopts, there also remain questions about poetry and the via negativa in speaking about the unfathomable holy mystery which religions call God. What is the relationship between poetry, whether as Word made flesh or flesh made word, and 'unsaying', the negation of all speech in the face of the mystery of God?

In the conference, theoretical reflection and historical surveys will provide a context for the discussion of individual texts and authors from different countries and cultural and religious traditions. The language of the conference will be English, but as this year's conference is being held in Poland, we hope that there will be papers which also explore Central and Eastern European poets, texts and traditions. We invite proposals (250 words in length) from creative writers and from both established scholars and research students in the fields of literary studies, theology and philosophy for papers (20 minutes to read plus 10 minutes of discussion) on the following or related topics:

1. Theological, philosophical and literary studies of poetry as word made flesh or flesh made word
2. Theoretical perspectives on the theme of poetry, revelation and embodied existence
3. The poetry of the Incarnate Word
4. Religious experience and theology in poetry
5. The poetry of the body in different cultures and traditions
6. Spirit and flesh in poetry
7. Poetry and the sacramental imagination
8. The 'sensible transcendental' in poetry
9. Poetry and the via negativa in speaking of God
10. Poet and priest: similarities, dissimilarities and case studies

The conference will also include a poetry reading event and a workshop/seminar on points of contact between English and Polish poetry in relation to the topic of the conference.