Lecture, 3. February 2021

Guest lecture – David Malcolm: "Where the Sidewalk Ends: Modal Mixture and Its Functions in British Poetry and Prose"

3. February 2021, 16:00 - 18:00
Registration by mail to baharova@uni-trier.de
David Malcolm

The DFG Center for Advanced Studies “Russian-Language Poetry in Transition” (FOR 2603) cordially invites you to a lecture with Prof. Dr. David Malcolm streamed live via Zoom. Please register by e-mail with our coordinator Katja Baharova (baharova@uni-trier.de) no later than February 2nd, 2021, to receive the stream’s access data.


In this paper I consider the interweaving of epic and lyric features in a range of texts, mostly poetic texts and mostly from the last fifty years. Narrative and lyric modes are usually seen to be mutually exclusive. One involves a narrator and story-telling; the other is univocal and expressive. Such exclusiveness, however, is not the case, and the bringing together of the two modes is functional in any text that does so (and many do). I approach the issue through four exemplary categories.

First, narrative poems have always been a crucial part of English-language poetry in the last two centuries. The work of Browning and Tennyson is well-known in this respect. However, I discuss a less well-known example. George Eliot’s The Spanish Gypsy (1868) is a narrative text, largely written in verse, by a famous novelist. The juxtaposition of narrative technique and poetry make the text an innovative one, as befits its complex examination of issues of race and gender, and its grounding in non-English experience. Nor is the narrative poem dead in more recent poetry. Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Opus 7 (1931) is an example, while Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal (1938) is marked by strong narrative elements.

Second, although narratologists have rather neglected the presence of narrative in lyric verse (Hühn, Müller-Zettelmann, and McHale are notable exceptions), and writers on poetry have followed suit (the otherwise very useful Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Poetic Genre [2012] is a case in point), a great deal of lyric verse can fruitfully be considered in terms of narrative and narrative technique (especially narrative ellipsis), which can be seen to be both present and to be functional a great deal of verse that is rarely designated as narrative verse. Work by Stevie Smith, Anne Stevenson, Mimi Khalvati, and James Fenton are discussed in this respect.

Third – and this is a matter even more neglected – narrative prose can and does take on the features of verse – above all, phonological and rhythmic ones. This has been noted in the work of Virginia Woolf and Samuel Beckett, for example, but it is also a highly-functional feature of the work of contemporary writers, such as David Constantine (like George Eliot, a poet and a writer of fiction).

Fourth, as noted by Stahl, contemporary British poetry is marked by a tendency towards verse narratives, but ones that are differently constituted from earlier narrative poems. Christopher Logue’s War Music: An Account of Homer’s Illiad (in its several textual variants – from 1981 to 2015, although some parts date from the 1960s) offers a highly disrupted, disruptive, and fragmentary “interrogation” of its classical source. Alice Oswald’s Memorial: An Excavation of the Illiad (2011) implements a deliberate deactivation of the narrative of the Greek original, one in which story material is attenuated and lyric material rendered dominant. Equally fragmenting, disruptive, and questioning strategies can be observed in three contemporary complex novels in poems, Val Warner’s “Tooting Idyll” and “Mary Chay” (both included in the volume Tooting Idyll [1998]) and Robin Robertson’s recent The Long Take (2018). The latter further exists in a complex relationship with the narratives of the films noirs to which it often refers. Indeed, such texts put traditional narratives and traditional narrative under pressure and scrutiny through their deployment of verse.


David Malcolm is a professor at SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Warsaw. Before taking that post, he taught for twenty-eight years at the University of Gdańsk. He has also taught at Tokyo University, Fairleigh Dickinson University (Wroxton College), and Olivet College in Michigan. In October 2018, he was Professeur invité expert at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. He is author of books on Ian McEwan, Graham Swift, and John McGahern (all published by the University of South Carolina Press) and of The British and Irish Short Story Handbook (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012). He co-edited British and Irish Short-Fiction Writers, 1945-2000 (vol. 319 of the Dictionary of Literary Biography – 2006), The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to the British and Irish Short Story (2008), and On John Berger: Telling Stories (Brill Rodopi, 2016). His edition of Hubert Crackanthorpe’s Wreckage (1893) was published by Edinburgh University Press in 2020. He is co-editor of A Companion to Contemporary Poetry, 1960-2015 (Wiley-Blackwell, 2021). His translations from Polish, German, and French into English and Scots have been published in Britain, the USA, Austria, and Poland. He is a co-organizer of the Between.Pomiędzy Festival of Literature and Theatre, which has been held annually in Sopot, Poland, since 2010.