December 3, 2004

Seminar: Irish Studies, 535

Meeting Date: December 3, 2004

Chair: Mary McGlynn

Speaker: Prof. Paul Muldoon
    Howard G.B. Clark '21 Professor of the Humanities, Princeton University

Rapporteur: Cóilín Parsons

Attendees: Frank Naughton (Kean University); Alice Naughton; Rita Loughlin (American Irish Teachers Association); Peter Leahy (CUNY Graduate Center); Ed Hagan (Western Connecticut State University); Bob St-Cyr (Blackwater Valley Museum); Diane Menagh (Fairfield University); Séamus Blake (WFUV/Fordham University); Michael O. Shannon (Lehman College, CUNY); Maria McGarrity (Long Island University); Beth Gilmartin (Monmouth University); Benjamin Mosse (Enterprise Ireland); Ramona Thomasius (Columbia University); Barbara Young (Molloy College); Charles Donohoe; Ken Monteith (Fordham University); Terry Byrne (The College of New Jersey); Patrick McNierney (Columbia University); Gertrude Hamilton (Marymount College of Fordham University); Fiona Wilson (Bard College); Frances Richard (Barnard College); Thomas Ihde (Lehman College, CUNY); Joseph Lennon (Manhattan College).

Poetry Reading:
Prof. Muldoon read a selection of new and old poetry.  The new poems he read were:
"At least they weren’t speaking French"
"The Coyote"
"Now pitching himself like a forlorn hope"
He also read the following old poems:
"The Sonogram"
"The Birth"

Q. In your poetry appears to be a constant trope of being in two places at once.
A. Yes, I suppose that is there.  I guess it can hardly be avoided, given the fact that I do indeed inhabit two spaces, being somehow both in Ireland and in the US.
Q. I can’t help but hear echoes of Beckett in "At least they weren’t speaking French," which ties into Mary’s question about bi-location.  I am reminded of Beckett’s famous answer to the question of whether he was an English writer--"au contraire."
A. I wasn’t really thinking about Beckett when I was writing that poem, though perhaps he should have been more at front of my mind.  I actually wrote it after my family went to Montreal.  We went to see a few films, and the first two were in French.  We walked out of the third one, and my son said, "at least they weren’t speaking French."
Q. Are you thinking of or using any particular devices these days?
A. I am really interested only in whatever the poem itself seems to be interested in.  In "At least they weren’t speaking French" the refrain doesn’t quite manage to turn over--it is very static.  As the poem got written it began to become formally strict.  It uses the same rhymes throughout, repeating and odd element, such as "summery down," "flummery down," "mummery down."  "Flummery" is a word that comes from the festival of Samhain, Hallowe'en--"sowans" is a word for Hallowe'en dish of porridge, and "flummery" is the same thing.  Incidentally, I was amazed to see the word Samhain turn up in the film Hallowe'en 2 or Hallowe'en 3—it was engraved into a plank.
Q. Do you always write in your own voice?
A. Sometimes a poem will set up a voice.  Voice is a very complex idea.  For example, when we speak of T. S. Eliot's voice we are speaking of the constancy of the character who wrote.  Neither Eliot nor Yeats sat down to write in his own voice--far from it.  Many of us have an idea that someday we will find our voice.  But then, having found it, one can't ventriloquise it.  One finds the voice that goes with the particular poem one is writing.  The question is really one of who is speaking in a poem, and how does the speaker relate to the historical person whose name appears on the top of the page.  One is, from time to time, lucky to find 2 or 3 elements that recur, which is both a great thing and a problem.  As readers we recognise a continuum of such elements.  For example, we will always recognise a Sylvia Plath poem, or a Yeats poem, and we will always recognise fakes too.
Q. You seem to have an ambivalence about poetry, at times almost disowning your own poetry.  Do you want to recognise the images, the recurring elements you create?
A. Yes I do, in order not to repeat myself; one doesn't want to go back over the same ground, but inevitably one will.  I think of myself as a medium--I am not completely passive, but I am passive in some profound sense--and it is only when I think of myself that way that anything interesting happens.
Q. Would you return to "At least they weren’t speaking French" and revise it, and is revising a passive or a critical activity?
A. It is not too late yet to revise that one, but it almost is.  The only thing I could revise would be the refrain.  I feel that it was not I who wrote that poem.
Q. Yeats revised obsessively, despite the fact that he also saw himself as a medium.  I never would have thought of revision in this way before.
A. Yes, one would have thought that he would have been the least likely to revise.  Why does a poet revise?  First, to correct mistakes.  Second, to overcome the feeling of looking like an idiot.  Part of Yeats' revision was about proving that he was in command, that he could revise.  Revision, therefore, has to do with a certain idea of personal significance.  Derek Mahon--whose poems are terrific, but whose revisions have not been great--corrected the poem "My Wicked Uncle" by changing "shit-burials" to "bone-burials," because dogs do not bury shit.
Q. When do you feel that you have finished, or do you?  Yeats, for example, was constantly revising, right up to the end.
A. I don't know much about Yeats' revisions, but I should.  His poems have survived the revisions, but that it is not true for all.  Think of "The Prelude"--do we think the final version better than the first?  When will I stop?  I don’t know.  Some poems are written in a very intensive few days.  I find it very hard to go back to those poems, but not because I think they are perfect.
Q. What is it like being an Irish poet living in the US?
A. Terrific.  I am, in fact, an American citizen, and I would like to think that the poems I write might reflect that dual position.  I don't think of myself as an Irish or an American poet.  I want to write poetry in which something of the two will combine.  As regards political issues, I find at the moment that I am much more concerned about the state of the nation here than I ever was in Ireland.  Things were complex in Ireland, but it looks to me that things are pretty simple here.