Associate Professor

David Williams

DPhil, Oxford
MPhil, St Andrews
BA, Harvard

Extension: 28287
SJU Sweeney Hall 2208




My professional interest in twentieth century poetry was lit in my third year of university, in Helen Vendler’s course on Seamus Heaney. This led to a senior thesis on Heaney’s “poetic theory,” an idea I came back to when I returned to academia after a short stint working for an internet start-up in London, England. I completed a research MPhil on Heaney and T. S. Eliot at the University of St Andrews, on the North Sea coast of Scotland, and then moved on to Balliol College, Oxford to write a doctoral thesis on poetry and ethics in the twentieth century, centering on the verse and prose works of Heaney, the Russian and (latterly) American poet Joseph Brodsky, and the English poet Geoffrey Hill, who was recently elected Oxford Professor of Poetry. After a short time at the University of York (England), I came back to Oxford on a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship, this time to Hertford College, a pretty little place with a serene quad and a venetianesque bridge, situated just across from Radcliffe Square and the Bodleian Library. I came home to Canada in 2010 to teach modern and contemporary literature of the British Isles.

Selected publications

"All corruptible things: Geoffrey Hill's Etymological Crux." Modern Philology 112.3 (2015): 522-553.

"Method as Tautology in the Digital Humanities." DSH: Digital Scholarship in the Humanities (formerly Literary and Linguistic Computing) 30.2 (2015): 280-93.

"Poetic Antagonyms." The Comparatist 37 (2013): 169-85.

Defending Poetry: Art and Ethics in Joseph Brodsky, Seamus Heaney, and Geoffrey Hill. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

"Tête-à-tête, Face-à-face: Brodsky, Levinas, and the Ethics of Poetry." Poetics Today 30.2 (Summer 2009).

"Living Powers," a review of Denise Gigante, Life: Organic Form and Romanticism, in Essays in Criticism 60.4 (October 2010).

A review of Charles I. Armstrong, Figures of Memory: Poetry, Space and the Past, in Modern Language Review 105.3 (July 2010): 849-50.

"Low Risk," a review of Eleanor Cook, A Reader’s Guide to Wallace Stevens in Essays in Criticism 58.3 (October 2008).

"Book of the Week," a review of Geoffrey Hill, Collected Critical Writings in The Times Higher Education (20 March 2008): 44-45.

Current research

I continue to be interested in questions of poetic value, in the relationship between poetry and society, and in the good of poetry per se, but recently my work has led me to think more on a particular feature of contemporary poetry, which is its relationship to etymology and other stories we tell about words. My current project is a monograph on “word history and word fantasy” in modern poetry, starting in the period between the publication of Noah Webster’s American Dictionary in the US (1828) and the first full publication of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in the UK (1928), and continuing to the present day.

From time to time I carry on a one-sided discussion of topics in poetry, lexicography, language, and the Digital Humanities on my research blog, The Life of Words, which picks up from a previous blog, Poetry & Contingency, where I posted on similar topics for a couple of years.

Grants, fellowships and awards

  • Ontario Early Researcher Award (2015-2020)

  • Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Insight Development Grant: "Poetry and Contingency," 2011-13
  • SJU Faculty Research Grants (2011, 2012, 2013)
  • uWaterloo-SSHRC Seed Grant: "Applying search & stylometry techniques to OED2 & poetic text corpora", 2011-12
  • British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship, Oxford University, 2007-2010
  • Junior Research Fellow in English, Hertford College, Oxford, 2007-2010

Areas of graduate supervision

I would be especially interested in hearing from prospective and current graduate students wanting to pursue advanced research in some aspect of the poetry and/or poetics of the last hundred years or so.

University of Waterloo

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