Vol 38 No 15
June 8, 2006
News & Notes
Out and About
June 29, 2006
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Oration honouring Paul Muldoon
To see, where others merely look; to listen, when most only hear; to sniff and taste the absent, and to be, withal, just a wee bit “touched”: such are the gifts, burdens, joys and obligations of the poet. Small wonder, then, that the Great Republican (Plato, not George “W”) saw little room for one in a well-ordered commonwealth. After all, he argued, unlike philosophers, poets speak with disorderly passion, rather than strict reason. Still worse, they have a broader audience! All told, he concluded, as fanciful deceivers who could “sell an alibi to King Kong on the Empire State Building”, they constitute a clear and present danger best left to the Guardians of homeland thought. We of the modern Academy, of course, might agree with Edmund Burke that ideal societies read better on the page than on the street. Even so, were platonic profilers on the prowl this very moment, their “Ideal Form” might well stand before you in the person of our honoured guest, Burke’s fellow Irishman: poet, Paul Muldoon.
Master singer from the Land of Song, this literary minstrel boy appears to have skipped learned lectures on formal boundaries while studying at the Queen’s University, Belfast. Or, perhaps, he was preoccupied, “flicking cosmic dandruff from his shoulders,” as the masters of form droned on. Whatever the case, throughout an incomparably prolific career, he has meddled with meter and harried haiku; reworked the sonnet, and re-imagined rhyme. Utterly unclassifiable, he is, to paraphrase one reviewer, a subversive who subverts subversion itself. Thus, while perfectly comfortable standing where “the Way of Seeming and the Way of Truth diverge”; while delighting in misdirection, multiple meanings and manufactured words, he also takes great care to remind us of the sometimes strange, sometimes grim, and occasionally benign, reality that no wordsmith, however tricky, can playfully spin away. He has, moreover, grown from a stargazer at the grave of Irish greyhound, Master McGrath, into a writer of international renown who ruminates on “the metaphysicattle of Japan.” Today, indeed, a reader
is as likely to encounter Philip Marlowe as Wolfe Tone when leafing through
Muldoon’s hefty corpus. Perhaps, this is why the Times Literary Supplement
has hailed him as the most significant poet of his generation, one whose works
have been translated into 25 languages and feature prominently in every anthology
worthy of note.
Poetic innovator, operatic lyricist, noted translator, editor, and essayist,
he is also, according to unimpeachable sources, a would-be rock star in waiting.
Meanwhile, he has had the great good sense to hold down a number of day jobs,
just in case. Thus, over the last 30-odd years, he has been, in succession,
a radio and television producer with the BBC who later turned his hand to teaching
at sweatshops, such as Cambridge, Columbia, Berkeley and Oxford. Since 1995,
he has earned his humble crust as H. G. B. Clark Professor of Humanities at
Princeton. In short, Chancellor, he has nervously busied himself while awaiting
the inevitable phone call from Rolling Stone.
Yet, busy as he is, he has always found time for others; Grenfell College not
least of all. Indeed, the now flourishing cultural exchanges between Newfoundland
and all Ireland, exchanges that so enrich the life of this college, university
and province, came to fruition in no small measure thanks to the early participation
and continued support of our celebrated guest. For this alone, he would merit
recognition on this day. Of course, it also bears at least passing mention that
this Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the American Academy of Arts
and Sciences has, among other things, won the T. S. Eliot Prize, the Irish
Times Poetry Prize, the Griffin International Prize for Excellence in Poetry,
the Shakespeare Prize, the Aspen Prize, and the 2003 Pulitzer Prize.
Chancellor, given all this, I feel myself on rock solid ground as I present
for the degree doctor of letters, honoris causa, Plato’s worst nightmare,
Dr. James G. Greenlee