Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon explores rights of artist in public lecture

Posted on: 31 October 2018

The role of the artist in society was the focus of a public lecture delivered by Pulitzer Prize winning poet Paul Muldoon on Wednesday, October 30th, 2018 in Trinity College Dublin.

Paul Muldoon with Director of the Trinity Long Room Hub, Professor Jane Ohlmeyer.

Entitled ‘He Who Did Nothing: The Poet as Citizen’, Paul Muldoon delivered the fifth Annual Edmund Burke Lecture organised by the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute. The lecture celebrates Trinity’s strong connection with the 18th-century philosopher, historian and politician Edmund Burke who graduated from Trinity College in 1748.  Paul Muldoon used his lecture to discuss artistic responsibility by evoking the “wonderfully complex world of Edmund Burke.”

In a wide ranging lecture, he discussed a range of complex issues such as cultural appropriation, identity politics and race and asked “What are the duties, if any, of the artist? Does he or she have any rights?”

Paul Muldoon was born in County Armagh in 1951 and now lives in New York. He is the author of twelve major collections of poetry including Moy Sand and Gravel, for which he won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize. His most recent book is Selected Poems 1968-2014. He is the Howard G.B. Clark ’21 University Professor in the Humanities at Princeton University where he has taught for thirty years.

Coming back continually to his poem ‘My Father and I and Billy Two Rivers’, the celebrated poet sought to examine the role of language in our society, by touching on topics such as “the Civil Rights movements in both the US and Ireland, on Catholic dogma, doggerel, DNA, stage Irishmen, Popes and Popery.”

Language is always changing he said, and again referred to Edmund Burke’s take on language as that of  “the eye of society”, in a lecture he delivered at Trinity College Dublin in the academic year 1747-48:

“’Language is the eye of society. Without it we could very ill signify our wants for our own relief, and by no means could communicate our knowledge, for the amusement or amendment of our fellow creatures; and therefore without it the comforts and delights of life could not be enjoyed, no conveyance of learning, of chastisement, of praise, of solace, scarce virtue be practiced, friendship subsist, nor religion ever taught and defended.’”

Exploring accusations of cultural appropriation in poetry, theatre and literature, Paul Muldoon touched on what he described as a “culture of apology” in which the right to tell other people’s stories, and stories in general is under threat.  “If a racial purity test requires that only black people perform black music”…“then, by that logic, the celebrated white filmmaker Ken Burns had no right to make a documentary about jazz, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, an American with Puerto Rican roots, had no right to play ‘Hamilton.’”

He ended his seminal lecture with the poem ‘With Joseph Brant at Canajoharie,’ concluding that “just as the poem suggests that the US has it within it to right its recent jerks and joggles, I’d like to think that a more nuanced, less nativist view will prevail in some of these fraught matters I’ve been discussing today.”

During his visit to Trinity College Dublin, of which he is an honorary graduate, he visited the Library where assistant librarian Shane Mawe displayed a recently purchased selection of Paul Muldoon works printed by Enitharmon Editions who specialise in the publication of poetry, literary criticism and limited editions. The Library’s purchases include editions of Superior Aloeswood, Songs and Sonnets, Plan B and the Enitharmon anthology The Heart’s Granary.

Assistant Librarian, Shane Mawe, with Paul Muldoon and Director of the Trinity Long Room Hub, Jane Ohlmeyer.

The Trinity Long Room Hub Annual Edmund Burke Lecture is supported by a generous endowment in honour of Padraic Fallon by his family. Previous lectures in the series were delivered by distinguished historian Margaret MacMillan;  award winning writer and journalist, Robert Fisk; Professor Roy Foster, Chair of Irish History, University of Oxford and Baroness Onora O’Neill, former chair of the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission.

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