Columbia University Seminar in Irish Studies (#535)
Minutes of the meeting held Friday, December 6, 2002

Chair: Professor Mary McGlynn, Baruch College, CUNY
Rapporteur: Dermot Ryan, Columbia University.
Submitted: Jan 27th, 2003

Attending: Brian Hanrahan (Columbia University), Diane Menagh (Fairfield University), Robert St. Cyr (Blackwater Valley Museum), Edward Hagan (Western Conn. State University), Steve Burke (American Irish Teachers Association), Joanna Cheetham (Columbia University), Coilin Parsons (Columbia University), Martin J. Burke (CUNY Graduate Center), Rita Loughlin (American Irish Teachers Association, Peter Leahy (CUNY Graduate Center), Terry Byrne (College of New Jersey), Seamus Blake (WFUV, Fordham University), Joseph Lennon (Manhattan College), Maria McGarry (Long Island University), Alexis Logsdan (City College CUNY), Michael Malouf (Columbia University).

Speaker: Professor Tom Paulin
Title: “The Influence of Robert Frost on Irish Poetry.”

Professor Paulin warned his listeners that his presentation would not be a formal talk, but rather a series of readings with some commentary. Professor Paulin had been on something of literary pilgrimage since he’d been in the United States. In a sense, he was in search of the roots of the vernacular in Irish poetry. Without Lowell, Bishop, the Beats, Frost and Whitman, modern Irish poetry would be significantly attenuated.
He confessed that he had his own personal reasons for zoning in on Robert Frost: this presentation was, in part, an act of reparation. He remembered vividly how his English teacher, Eric Brown had brought in a recording of Frost reading “Apple Picking.” This was his first introduction to the American vernacular and he was completely bowled over. Some time after this, his aunt sent him James P. Scully’s collection of modernist poets writings on modern poetry. Frost’s contribution was on sentences in which he argues that the best lines of poetry draw on the vernacular. Indeed, one sometimes gets the impression that Frost is so immersed in the vernacular, he’s trying to get out of it. In this particular piece, however, Frost states that a sentence from vernacular speech is a sound in itself and Paulin felt there was some truth in this claim. If one considers a piece of vernacular from the North—“Get ye and shut that door”—one senses that it is a complete entity. Everything hangs together as a single sentence sound.
Seamus Heaney first came across Frost at Queen’s University, Belfast. In Armagh, Paul Muldoon had a teacher, Gerald Quinn, who introduced him to Frost. As a result of this early exposure, Muldoon is an acute and complex critic of Frost. Paulin proceeded to offer some readings of Heaney and Muldoon to illustrate the affinities between their poetry and Frost’s. Heaney’s “Churning Day” displays some of that linguistic provincialism that one can find throughout the North: Northerners seem proud of the Elizabethan roots of their hiberno-English. The poem is particularly tuned to early English poetry. One might consider the predominance of the “gh” sound throughout the poem. While the poem appears idyllic, on a second reading one can begin to detect something more unsettling and disturbing.
There is a healthy strain of the gothic in Frost and Heaney emulates this here. Like Frost, Heaney can say two things at the same time. There is a lot of imagery of battle here. The scene smells acrid “like a sulphur mine.” The poem is full of body parts. On closer inspection, there is something grotesque and terrifying about the poem. Once again, in “Sunlight,” things turn disturbing. There’s an unbearable heat and tension in the poem. Heaney is a great poet of anxiety. This delicate balancing of the rural idyll and the gothic derives, in part, from Frost.
Professor Paulin suggested that this double-edged quality can be found in Frost poems like “The Vanishing Red.” It is also present in Frost’s poem, “Genealogy.” Frost discovered that his ancestor had been an Indian hunter. These two Irish Catholic poets—Heaney and Muldoon—are fascinated and disturbed by this American Protestant recognizing aspects of a Protestant manifest destiny in his history. Frost’s “The Woodpile” is a wilderness poem. The narrator is out in a place with no names and, amidst the apparent wilderness, discovers a woodpile, wrapped round by a swathe of ivy. Paulin found this a striking evocation of the “fasces,” the symbol of fascism. Frost is describing a log cabin White House. The frontier and the polis blend. Frost referred to the United States as a “Senatorial Democracy” and there is an unsettling ruggedness to Frost’s idea of American democracy and of how one should protect it.
Turning to Muldoon’s poem “Anseo,” Paulin claimed that Muldoon is picking up on Frost’s “The Axe Helve.” Both poems use a wooden tool to meditate on the passing on of a tradition of violence. Muldoon wrote “Meeting the British” in Amherst, on one of Frost’s farms. In both poems, Muldoon has excavated a profoundly violent impulse in Frost’s poetry.
On the level of language, Paulin wondered whether Frost gave Muldoon the confidence to trust his own language and overcome the cultural cringe that so many writers in the North felt about their cultural inheritance. “Quoff” consider the experience of taking words from speech (like the Northern expression “spaldy,” for instance). Heaney’s poem “Broagh” indulges this fascination people in the North have with etymology that derives from different places and different languages. Paulin concluded that Frost may well have been the key figure who allowed these poets to reassert their vernacular and dialect words. In their work, one can trace the movement from an embarrassment and awkwardness in relation to these expressions to an assertion that they may signify a supreme sophistication. Professor Paulin answered questions from the floor. A sampling follows.
Q: You referred to an elder tree in Muldoon’s poem. The elder tree is also called the Judas tree, because tradition has it that Judas hung himself from it. I wonder if Muldoon might be playing on this association.
A: That’s interesting. I wasn’t aware of that association. It would be pretty difficult to hang yourself from an elder tree. The branches are like twigs; they break very easily. The only other thing I know about the elder tree is that if you open the branches they have a really acrid smell. Maybe that accounts for the tradition.
Q: Many younger poets in the generation who came after Frost were turned off by Frost’s rhyming. Do you think a poet like Muldoon might have been drawn to Frost precisely because of Frost’s combination of the vernacular with an exacting formalism?
A: The Irish poetic tradition itself embraces formal complexity. I’ve always felt that the terrible moral temper of literary criticism—all this Arnoldian rot with no sensitivity to form—comes out of English non-conformism. In a sense, the attraction to form and rhyme can be seen as a refusal of this moralism. Somebody like Joyce is saying “no opinions and no rhetoric, all you have is art.”
Q: What distinctions would you make between Frost and Yeats as national poets?
A: Yeats had to live off prose. Thus, he makes many more explicit statements about the relation between his work and the larger nationalist project. Frost was canny. He didn’t publish much prose and thus, kept his own counsel. Muldoon considers Frost’s poem “Directive” as a reply to Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” If so, it’s a rare intervention in debates about what appropriate national poetry might look like.
Q: Can you expand on your comment that Frost is so immersed in vernacular, he sometimes tries to get out of it?
A: In some ways Frost is like Burns. They both vacillate between the vernacular and a more polished standard. In this regard, it’s interesting to think about Muldoon’s language. Muldoon moves from vernacular to perfect iambic pentameter and then back to the vernacular. Yet, in the process, the returning vernacular is elevated, transfigured.