Reconsidering Consolation in Twentieth- and Twenty-First-Century Elegiac Writing - NeMLA 7 - 11 April 2010, Montreal, Quebec

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Daniel Moore, Panel Chair, Northeast Modern Language Association (NeMLA)
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41st NeMLA Annual Convention
American/British Panel Category

One line from Wilfred Owen's unfinished preface to his posthumous Poems (1920) can be read perhaps as a synecdoche for much elegiac writing of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Anticipating the disconsolate tenor later elegies sound and the resistances they levy to socially and politically sustained practices of mourning, Owen warns readers the elegies in his book "are to this generation in no sense consolatory."

Scholars working in the field of American and British elegiac traditions tend to agree with Owen and also see his claim as a way of grappling with the intense psychical and political upheavals about which many modern and contemporary elegies speak. Like the soldier-poet, Jahan Ramzani (1994), Melissa Zeiger (1997), and Sandra M. Gilbert (2006) have each used consolation as a foil to the processes and strategies of grieving they find in writings inspired by loss from the current and the previous century (Ramazani 365; Zeiger 14; Gilbert 372). Ramazani's influential terms "anti-elegies" and "resistant mourning" and Zeiger's 1997 title Beyond Consolation imply the modern elegy continues to be read, defined, and conceived through a negative dialectic with consolation.

"Reconsidering Consolation" requests abstracts planning to carry on and to enrich this critical tradition. The panel's premise is that consolation has long been an essential term in the modern elegiac tradition—given express attention in Owen's 1920 preface—but also that there is still much ground to be covered in order to understand (1) what we mean by consolation and (2) how it might play a more active role in modern and contemporary elegies than extant scholarship suggests. The arguments made by the scholars above seem to risk taking consolation altogether out of critical discussions by insisting that modern and contemporary elegies are known best by their resistance to consolatory methods of coping with grief; however, these critics also imply modern elegists cannot do away completely with acts and languages of consolation since, at the very least, they usually write with them in mind, if against them.

But might we couple consolation and elegiac writing over the past century in British and American traditions in a less oppositional relation? How do postures, gestures, and dictions of consolation persist in elegiac traditions, even within politically daring and psychically distressing elegiac writing, after WWI? What kinds of ambivalent relationships with consolation do we find in elegies from the modernist period and later?

Other avenues to consider might include:

* Does consolation typify a specific conservative strain of the modern elegiac tradition? If so, by what kinds of logic—religious, political, social, or other—does this tradition validate consolatory mourning?

* Zeiger suggests that the "modernist crisis in poetry is particularly strongly marked in elegy through the failure of religious belief and consolation" (14). If recent scholarship reconsiders the secular spirit of modernity as in fact a failure to break wholly with systems of faith, does the corollary for criticism on mourning mean that we need to examine how the modern elegy might not fully eschew consolations offered, or imposed, by religious dogma and beliefs?

* Can new styles or forms of elegiac writing surprisingly imply efforts to offer those in mourning with consolation for loss? For example, when Ramazani says the "traditional mechanisms of elegy no longer afford consolation or closure" (4-5) he does not exclude the possibility that new modes of elegiac writing may also offer consolations for grief.

* Is resistant mourning (Ramazani 4-5, for example) always robbed of its potential for social change and political disruption if it allows itself, even temporarily, consolation after a grievous loss?

* Among the many nuances of 'consolation', Zeiger suggests it marks a temporary hiatus in the work of mourning (44). If so, does consolation provide another way of talking about the deferrals of mourning?

* Is there a way of reinvigorating critical discussions about consolation (as in solace, comfort, or relief) via recent emphases upon affects of grief in mourning literature?

Although this panel is primarily interested in American and British traditions of consolation, abstracts considering the influence upon these traditions from other countries or languages are welcome.

Please send 300-word abstracts before 30 September 2009 to Daniel Moore at