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Willy Maley's Reflections on April Conference Fifteen

Reflections on April Conference Fifteen, Humanity/Humanities, Institute of English Studies, Jagiellonian University in Kraków, 20-23 April 2023


This was my first visit to Kraków, a hugely impressive city where so much seems to have survived and flourished despite the traumas of recent memory. Jagellonian University is a great mediaeval institution, steeped in history, and it clearly takes its responsibilities as a leading-edge seat of learning seriously. The opening event featured distinguished American poet Rae Armantrout in conversation with her Polish translator Kacper Bartczak. Chaired by Michał Choiński with the poems read in English and Polish, there was a lively discussion around the nature of language and translation, as you would expect from one of the key figures at the heart of the language school of poetry. This was a lesson in language as/and performance. The closing lines of ‘Lions’ – ‘Now a thought/ is a watched pot’ – is a reminder that putting one’s head into the lion’s maw, as poets do, can be a perilous act. Armantrout’s poetry calls for a tight-fitting thinking cap. According to Chinua Achebe, ‘Writers don’t give prescriptions ... They give headaches!’ The poem exists to contain a thought, not to tame it. A watched poet never boils.


Armantrout’s poetry is backed up by some profound thinking about language, as she demonstrated the next morning in the first plenary of the conference. Her title was ‘DISQUIET’, and here in a time of crisis and trauma she dwelt once again on the depths of language with a richness and rigour that was quietly gripping. The beautiful surroundings of Aula Collegium Nova and the uplifting rendition of ‘Gaudeamus Igitur’ by the Jagiellonian choir that initiated the proceedings set the tone for what was to follow. It was a fitting prelude to three days of intense intellectual inquiry and critical debate, sometimes heated, but never boiling over.


Pot-watching may be a vain pursuit but timekeeping is essential at a conference and one of the achievements of ‘Humanity/Humanities’ was the space for discussion and exploration created by session chairs who kept time to the minute. The quality of the papers was consistently high, and so too was the quality of the questions and discussion. Having to choose between four different panels, each rich in potential, was difficult. On the first day I elected to sit in on the first session of the panel on ‘War in Ukraine: Stance identity, Leadership’, and the level of discourse and liveliness of debate compelled me stay on for the second session of this strand. Drawing on critical discourse analysis, a succession of presenters addressed a range of topics including comic culture, political speechmaking, the rhetoric of war, and the comparative plight of refugees. It was illuminating to get a sense of what war means for the whole region. There was a potentially chilling moment when one presenter’s eyes widened in alarm at something she could see at the rear of the room. We all turned. In silhouette through the blind behind us was a window-cleaner five floors up on a hoist, looking for all the world like Spider-Man. It proved to be a light moment in an otherwise heavy session. Feelings ran high, of course, as can only be expected in this time of great disquiet, but assiduous chairing, rigorous presentation, and robust conversation meant that there was more light than heat.


‘Humanity/Humanities’ showed itself to be a worldly conference, impressive not just for the sheer range of papers but for the ways in which so many of the speakers addressed issues of pressing importance and currency. Due to timings I missed a paper in another panel on ‘Trigger Warnings in Literature Classes’. My institution, the University of Glasgow, prefers the term ‘Content Advice’, but whatever the wording, the issue of oversight of the syllabus is of increasing concern for all who teach. Triggers are also key to trauma studies, and the conference organisers did not shy away from an afternoon of papers on Ukraine, hugely relevant at a time when so many are triggered and traumatised. The level and quality of discussion justified the decision to tackle such an urgent and catastrophic contemporary situation.



Finn Fordham’s plenary on the Declaration of War in 1939 was notable for its comprehensive engagement with the topic, its acuity in homing in on a single decisive year and its implications for humanity/humanities, his striking selection of slides amply illustrating the bibliographical insights and historical knowledge that underpinned the argument. It was also a timely reminder that war and crisis are constants and that the humanities can contribute to an understanding of such challenges, and, one hopes, lay the groundwork for more peaceful and progressive ways forward. In a conference that at times touched on the imagery of concentric circles and the spokes of wheels, I was reminded of a circular image invoked by W. B. Yeats, whose death in January 1939 marked the end of an era and ushered in the fateful year that Fordham interrogated with such scholarly precision. Yeats declared in ‘The Second Coming’ (1919), written in the wake of another war: ‘Turning and turning in the widening gyre/ The falcon cannot hear the falconer;/ Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.’ The poem’s subsequent lines, ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity’, were echoed by Achebe, whose debut novel, Things Fall Apart took its cue from Yeats, when he asked, ‘Why do the good among us seem so helpless while the worst are full of vile energy?’ This plenary, and this conference more generally, raised important questions about (hu)man’s inhumanity to (hu)man.


A session on ‘Shakespeare 400 Years after the First Folio’ was an insightful in-depth discussion of the genre of tragedy alongside new approaches to John Donne’s relationship with Shakespeare and Coleridge’s Shakespearean drama. This panel’s closing paper, on Shakespeare’s arboreal world, was a reminder of the playwright’s rootedness in material culture and the natural environment. It made me think of how, in following Shakespeare from page to stage as a poet of ideas rather than a theatre practitioner, we often fail to see the wood for the trees. It seemed appropriate that throughout the conference we were never far from Kraków’s Planty Park, that spacious green ring around the old town that gives the city the feel of a great, fertile garden, with spring blossoms bursting into life around us. And that seemed a fitting metaphor for the conference itself, so abundant and varied in ideas.


For my own plenary, I had elected to speak on Milton’s Brief History of Moscovia, published in 1682, and the poet’s reception in Russia before and after the Revolution of 1917. That critical open-mindedness that had been the hallmark of discussion throughout the conference was again evident after my own paper. I was grateful for perceptive questions, especially one about a quotation I had failed to flag as such – I should have been clearer about my source – and, from the same astute questioner, an observation on the problematic looseness of the geographical framework I was sketching. In this case I was a slave to my sources since my opening gambit was to demonstrate the slipperiness of borders and boundaries in Milton’s period, and the ways in which the lines on the map were displaced or dissolved over time.


The penultimate plenary saw Barbara Seidlhofer revisit the question of ‘Exceptional English’. In a passionate plea she made a persuasive case for a creative approach that went beyond the constraints of any ‘standard’.  As a Scottish speaker of English, I found her argument compelling. The closing plenary took me back to my first conference, ‘The Linguistics of Writing’ at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow in July 1986. Henry Widdowson was a keynote speaker on that occasion and as a young graduate student I recall the buzz of a pioneering gathering aimed at breaking down barriers between literature and language studies. It was good to hear Professor Widdowson open his talk in Kraków with a backwards look at a paper he gave 25 years ago which in turn gestured to events a quarter of a century earlier. Whatever happens to language, history never goes away. Professor Widdowson spoke with his customary elegance and handled some difficult questions with courtesy, calmness and critical exactitude. His responses – inclusive, engaging and informed by years of experience and expertise – furnished an ideal ending for a conference marked by an enlightening warmth.


I had come to Kraków accompanied by my wife, Dini, and we immersed ourselves in the city when I was not on campus for the conference. Sunday afternoon was spent in the excellent company of Władysław Witalisz, Dean of the Faculty of Philology at Jagiellonian University, who had issued the original invitation, and Christopher Gullen, a former Visiting Professor. We were taken on a trip to the Kościuszko Mound and museum, fascinating and very memorable, though our ascent of the Mound had to be curtailed due to Christopher and me suffering from vertigo.


I missed Willard McCarty’s plenary on digital humanities on the first day of the conference but was delighted to spend some time with him and his chair, Jan Rybicki, on our day of departure, and to visit a great little coffeehouse where eavesdropping and interventions from other patrons  were welcomed. Sitting in the sun in a shady arbour, engaging in discussion that opened out to include other interlocutors, was a real pleasure. A conference in microcosm.


Humanity/Humanities brought together diverse intellectual perspectives to enrich our understanding of the value of the humanities and its vital role in upholding the highest ideals of humanity – the human ties that bind us. I tell my students from time to time that I come to school every day not just to teach but to be taught. April Conference Fifteen afforded me many important lessons. I listened and learned and left feeling better informed. As a conference organiser, past and prospective, I also gained a great deal from witnessing the smooth running of this event. Everything from programme planning, chairing, and timekeeping through to hospitality, accommodation and entertainment was very well thought through. Even apparently minor details like the conference logo and lanyard design were spot-on. The Organising Committee of Monika Coghen, Aleksandra Kamińska and Olga O’Toole deserve considerable credit for the work they put into making this such a memorable colloquium. I look forward to my next visit.


Professor Willy Maley, University of Glasgow