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,
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).
Prof. Muldoon read a selection of new and old poetry. The new
poems he read were:
"At least they weren’t speaking French"
"Now pitching himself like a forlorn hope"
He also read the following old poems:
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
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
Q. Do you always write in your
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
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
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.