Campus News

Creeley lecture explores contemporary relevance of endangered medieval language’s political power

By BERT GAMBINI

Published April 5, 2018

“If you feel like language has been emptied out by social media, then this is an opportunity to hear how we might reinvigorate language by activating the potentials of a previously unexamined past.”
Judith Goldman, assistant professor
Department of English
Lisa Robertson

Lisa Robertson

Lisa Robertson, an internationally renowned Canadian poet, feminist and essayist, will be the featured speaker for UB’s third annual Robert Creeley Lecture on Poetry and Poetics at 5:45 p.m. April 12 in the fourth floor auditorium of Hayes Hall on the UB South Campus.

Robertson will also lead a roundtable discussion and reading at 2 p.m. April 13 in 420 Capen Hall, North Campus.

The roundtable features two fellow Canadian poets: Liz Howard, winner of Canada’s 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize, and Shannon Maguire, a poet who teaches English at the University of Calgary. An audience conversation follows the roundtable and brief readings by the featured guests.

The author of 10 historically and philosophically attuned books on politics, gender and nation, Robertson explores problems of form and genre in her elegant, subtle and sometimes elliptically presented prose poetry and lyrics prose essays.

She was the inaugural recipient of the C.D. Wright Award for Poetry from the Foundation for the Contemporary Arts in New York and was recently awarded an honorary doctorate in letters by Emily Carr University of Art and Design. Robertson was poet-in-residence at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2006, and in 2005 received the PIP Gertrude Stein Awards for Innovative Poetry in English.

Her poetry books include “XEclogue;” “Debbie: An Epic,” which was nominated for a Governor General’s Award; “The Weather;” “The Men;” and “R’s Boat.” Her prose essays have been collected in two volumes: “Occasional Works and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture” and “Nilling.”

“For her lecture, Robertson will focus on medieval troubadour poetry of the 11th-13th centuries composed in Occitan, a currently endangered language with dialects still spoken in parts of Italy, Spain, Monaco and France,” explains Judith Goldman, assistant professor in the Department of English.

Medieval Occitania had an extremely tolerant society. Christians, the Cathars (a heretical sect), Jews and Muslims dwelled peacefully alongside one another, but the political and religious independence and wealth of the region made it a target of the Church and French crown.

In the 13th century, these powers carried out a crusade and inquisition against the populace. The oral troubadour culture was among the casualties, though many of its songs were collected in books.

These songs had been an incredibly popular cultural form. They focused on courtly love and expressed a vision of political equality. Their musicality and new poetic techniques of stress and rhyme made them contagious.

This “power to affect” is what Robertson will zero in on, according to Goldman.

Goldman says we’re in a period of accelerated loss of culture, languages and certain kinds of literacy, but rather than lamenting their demise or lambasting our complicity with a system that permits those losses, Robertson is interested in uncovering lush past-practices and thinking of how they might be brought forward into the here and now.

“This lecture is for anyone with a sense of dissatisfaction with the present,” says Goldman. “If you feel like language has been emptied out by social media, then this is an opportunity to hear how we might reinvigorate language by activating the potentials of a previously unexamined past.”

That Robertson’s subject matter is not part of any dominant historical narrative provides an opportunity to re-inhabit the powerful political instruments found in Occitan language and poetry.

“She’s thinking in part about the power of orality,” notes Goldman. “Though in our highly mediated society we often think oral culture is at an end, it might be that instead it has totally proliferated, the oral mixed into the written vernaculars we use all the time. Thinking this through, we can ask what is our new orality and what can we do with it?”

Within Robertson’s talk are the possibilities we have today for a different world by returning to the intricacies of practices that we might not be aware of, Goldman says.

“She’s drawing on this alternative tradition to give us a sense of its texture. Why it was so efficacious; why it worked as a cultural form; and to see if its power can be brought to bear on our current historical moment,” she says.