Paul Muldoon at Winter Convocation. Photo by Matt Hembree (C’20).
By Mandy Moe Pwint Tu
On a cold and foggy night in Sewanee, students, faculty, and community members trooped into the relative warmth of Convocation Hall to hear internationally acclaimed poet Paul Muldoon read his poetry. A recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the T. S. Eliot Prize, Muldoon was scheduled to receive his honorary degree from the University the next day at Winter Convocation.
The Chair of the English Department, Dr. Jennifer Michael, introduced Muldoon as “a poet’s poet,” providing an overview of his life and accomplishments. At Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland, he was a student of Seamus Heaney, and published his first widely-reviewed poetry collection, New Weather, in 1973, at the tender age of 21. From then on, he has continued to write and to publish poetry, describing the art form as “bridges whose destinations are themselves.”
Now the Howard B. Clark Professor at Princeton University and founding chair of the Peter B. Lewis Center for the Arts, Muldoon read a selection of poems from his published collections as well as from his newer work. He began the evening with a poem that recounted his experiences in primary school with the roll call.
“My mother was one of the school teachers,” he quipped, “which meant that I went to school.”
Throughout the evening, Muldoon regaled the audience of literary aficionados with poems that varied both in emotion as well as topic. His poem, “Side Man,” which he dedicated to his wife, the American novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz, delighted with an effortless intertwining of classical and pop culture references, whereas his poem on Northern Ireland’s roundabouts, called “The Sightseers,” gripped with morbid gravity.
Muldoon broke tradition from most of the poets who read at Sewanee by refusing to stand at the podium that had been set up, surrounded by green potted plants. Instead, he moved around, performing and engaging with the crowd, spacing out his poems with the stories that inspired them.
Once, when the light over the podium went out, he remarked, “We lost the light? We bring our own light.”
While some members of the audience found it difficult to engage with Muldoon’s work, others enjoyed hearing the renowned poet speak.
“Paul Muldoon’s reading demonstrated his mastery of both the poetic tradition and the deliverance of his own work,” said Briana Wheeler (C’20). “It’s always a special occasion when you get the opportunity to witness an artist read their work aloud with as much power as the page conveys.”