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Prof Ulrika Maude (University of Bristol), 'Beckett’s Obscene Body of Poetry and Other Precipitates'

Published in 1935, Beckett’s first collection of poems, Echo’s Bones and Other Precipitates, is characterised by an insistence on forms of bodily abjection, on imagery that is seldom associated with poetry. Figures such as “red sputum”, a “clot of anger”, “sweating” or “perspiring”, and phrases such as “breaking without fear or favour wind” permeate the collection, while in “Enueg II”, tulips seem to shine “like an anthrax”. In “Sanies I”, the title itself signifies the discharge of blood and pus from a wound, and the poem’s speaker has “hair ebbing gums ebbing”, while in “Sanies II” “a shiver convulses Madame de la Motte”. In “Malacoda”, written as a response to the death of Beckett’s father, the undertaker “felts [the] perineum” of the corpse and “mutes his signal”. 

The poetry, while having its antecedents in writers ranging from Ovid to Joyce, is obscene in the sense of being “offensive to the senses, or to taste or refinement” (OED), rendering it a type of anti-poetry that resists traditional conceptions of the aesthetic (as beautiful, as conceptual, as combining the sensory with the spiritual). The language and imagery of Beckett’s first collection of poems, with its refusal of metaphor and its lexical and syntactical resistances to interpretation—“scutal”, “malebranca”, “mutes his signal”, “ungulata”, “targe”, “divine dogday glass”, “stay Scarmilion stay stay” (all from “Malacoda”)—also resists the metaphysical consolations of poetry through its emphasis on metonymy and semantic opacity, and by insistently drawing attention to what is offensive to the senses and to sense. This paper will analyse the ethical demand of Beckett’s obscene body of poetry as a kind of anti-poetry. 

Ulrika Maude is Professor of Modern Literature at the University of Bristol, where she also directs the Centre for Health, Humanities and Science. She is the author of Beckett, Technology and the Body (Cambridge University Press, 2009) and Samuel Beckett and Medicine (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming), and co-editor of a number of volumes, including Beckett and Phenomenology (Continuum, 2009), The Cambridge Companion to the Body in Literature (Cambridge University Press, 2015) and The Bloomsbury Companion to Modernist Literature (Bloomsbury Academic, 2018). She is currently editing Key Concepts in Medical Humanities (Bloomsbury Academic, forthcoming). She is Review Editor of the Journal of Beckett Studies and Visiting Professor at the Institute for Advanced Studies, University of Turku, Finland (2020-23).

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