Wednesday, October 29, 2003

# Posted 8:43 AM by Patrick Belton  

"Beannacht De ar an obair,"
-- "The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants," from Quoof, (1983)

As a brief, personal comment, one of the side compensations of becoming grievously overeducated in universities such as this one, as well as of serving time as a foreign policy hand in Washington and New York, is that you accumulate frequent opportunities to meet, and I quote, "Great Men." And so, in the last several years, like many of my friends, I have duly been able to meet a number of the United States's and Britain's leading scholars, chief legislators and public servants of the U.S. executive branch, and even, last week, HM the Queen. This is obviously due to coincidences of shared place rather than through any personal merit whatsoever, and I only make the point at all because I have never before yesterday had the opportunity to exchange words with anyone for whom I have for so long nursed such deep intellectual and personal admiration as I do for Paul Muldoon, our professor of poetry.

Along with Josh, Josh, and Rachel, we ended up brushing up against him before the lecture and having a quite nice chat with him. He's an amazingly nice man, and half-embarrassedly shook all of our hands and introduced himself to all of us as "Paul." I muttered off some Irish to him and must have in so doing by equal parts scared and amused him, so he very kindly talked with us until it was time for his lecture.

During which, some nutter blew a long whistle roughly 20 lines into Paul's prefatory reading of Dover Beach (ironically enough, right around the line about "there is no silence, no peace" &c), and stood up, while carrying a stuffed sheep, and shouted out seven or eight lines in verse, which segued into a denunciation of Jews and Tony Blair (who, as we learned, is the first PM not to be British, as he's Zionist), and ending with the memorable line "the Jews are the real separatists." He was finally convinced to leave, announcing that he was taking his friend, Larry the stuffed sheep, with him. After which our professor poetry announced, admirably without missing a beat, that coincidentally the election for the next Professor of Poetry would be in March of 2004, and that those who said Oxford was being a boring, quiet place would perhaps find themselves mistaken.

Josh and I may disagree slightly over whether it is he or Heaney should be classed the foremost poet currently composing in English. But it is the similarities between the two that amaze: both Heaney and Muldoon were born, obviously, in the North (Muldoon in Armagh, Heaney in Derry) they both attended Queen's University, Belfast; they both passed portions of their youth in the BBC's Northern Ireland bureau. Heaney is dedicant of Muldoon's "The Briefcase" (1990). They have both held Oxford's professorship of poetry.

The poetic output of the North in our generation has been prodigious: though, as Kinsella rightly points out, the Northern phenomenon is 'largely a journalistic entity' rather than a school in any real sense, that Heaney, Muldoon, and their too-neglected colleagues Ciaran Carson, Medbh McGuckian, and Derek Mahon would all hail from a beleaguered, traditionally philistine province simply astounds. This is a province, and a country, that poetically punches above its weight. Of contemporary poets in the Republic, Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill was reared in the Kerry Gaeltacht and composes in Irish at the highest levels that language has known, and Thomas Kinsella's corpus, including his verse translation of The Tain (1969), one of the starting points of the Gaelic literary tradition, are worth noting. Though they straddle an international boundary, all these contemporary Irish poets, whether from the Republic or North, betray great density of local reference. They all follow Kavanagh's dictum, in the sonnet "Epic," "I made the Iliad from such / A local row."

It is in his playful erudition, at times giving way to moments of haunting epic vision, and in his skillful knitting together of intertextual elements from an English-language literary tradition of which he is undisputed master that Muldoon distinguishes himself from the other poets of our day. He combines the incredible humour and inventiveness of, say, "A Half Door Near Cluny" (1998) (which has the appearance of a crossword puzzle), or of [Ptolemy] and [Euclid] in "Madoc: a Mystery" (1990), with the erudition and gift for textual allusion that he displays in the pyrotechnics of To Ireland, I. It is really only Muldoon who could compose a lengthy poem entirely in haiku: witness, "Hopewell Haiku" (1998). He takes, as their citizen, the Gaelic and English literary traditions seriously, but himself as an object he does not, permitting a tremendous sense of fun to run down across Muldoon's lines.

I also must confess here a small personal bias: he is, after all, to my knowledge the only poet who for accidents of natural circumstance links the social and geographic worlds that are also mine: Gaelic Ireland, Britain, the Judaism he comes to through his wife, and the American northeast and the New Jersey Turnpike which have been his residence since 1987. And these worlds are woven together in the spaces between his verses. Following Kavanagh, as he does in his A to Zed of the Irish literary tradition presented in To Ireland, I (based on his Clarendon Lectures in English, 1998), he could not do anything else.

I'll be attempting in the coming months to summon up the guts to invite our professor of poetry out, next term, for a pint with a group of Irish students and others sharing an interest in his work. And in the meantime, I will be off to buy my stuffed sheep. We all do need friends, after all.

UPDATE: For opening her blog with a quote from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and for linking to Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, Sheila O'Malley wins the highly coveted OxBabe "Blogosphere Babe of the Week" award. (Prior illustrious winners include Yalediva, and, of course, my lovely Rachel for the brief period she was posting on Nathan Hale). Also, Sheila might even go on a date with you, provided you live in New York and have an air conditioner.

Elsewhere, Josh Cherniss also comments on l'affaire sheep.
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