Poet treats campus to readings and to rock 'n roll

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michael dyson Golden Auditorium was hear-a-pin-drop quiet Thursday night as Paul Muldoon, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, read selections of his work for audience members weighing his every word and inflection.

On Friday night, it was different.

Donovan’s Pub in James C. Colgate Hall was rattle-the-walls loud as Muldoon and fellow band members played guitar-driven rock songs infused with literate lyrics penned by the poet himself.

Paul Muldoon reads selections of his poetry and answers questions from audience members at Golden Auditorium. (Photo by Luke Connolly ’09)

The performance by Muldoon’s band, Rackett, capped a two-day visit to Colgate in which members of the campus and local communities were treated to a versatile testament of the power of the written word through Muldoon’s poetry and lyrics.

The 56-year-old native of Northern Ireland is a professor at Princeton, chair of the university’s Lewis Center for the Arts, and poetry editor for the New Yorker magazine. He won the Pulitzer in 2003 for Moy Sand and Gravel.

At a filled Golden Auditorium, Muldoon read poems that centered on his early life in County Armagh, including a poem — “Cuba” — that uses the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union as a backdrop to a young girl’s confession.

Muldoon also read poems that show his love of word play. In “At Least They Weren’t Speaking French,” he uses the refrain “fol-de-rol fol-de-rol fol-de-rol-di-do” and specific rhyme sounds as he explains the deaths of two young uncles.

For Jacey Heldrich, a senior taking a course on James Joyce, the opportunity to speak with Muldoon about the tradition of Irish literature was an important addition to her class work.

“One of the things getting us into the Joyce readings, which are difficult, is learning about the huge conversation and the business of criticism that surround them. So getting to talk to an eminent Irish writer about that kind of legacy is really interesting.”

Paul Muldoon (left) plays as part of the band Rackett during a show at Donovan’s Pub. (Photo by Luke Connolly ’09)

Heldrich said she loved hearing Muldoon read, particularly his song lyrics “Enough of Me” and “Sideman.” She attended a special dinner with Muldoon on Friday before he slung his guitar over his shoulder and performed with Rackett at Donovan’s Pub.

Carolyn Guile, visiting assistant professor of art and art history, organized Muldoon’s visit, which was sponsored by the Institute for the Creative and Performing Arts and the Department of English Living Writers Series.

“It’s a reality check, in a way, because students see that he’s a person with a body, a voice, and not someone they are only reading about in class. Having a chance to see him in action shows them what the possibilities are for poetry and lyric — not to mention the kind of work that goes into the process of poetry and music making,” said Guile.

Muldoon spoke about being on campus years ago after receiving an invitation from John McGahern, a widely acclaimed Irish writer who had been associated with Colgate for 37 years before his death in 2006.

“It was very moving to hear Paul talk about John because he was such an important member of our faculty,” said Jane Pinchin, Thomas A. Bartlett Chair and Professor of English.

Pinchin noted another connection to a prominent Irish writer — Seamus Heaney — who often has visited Colgate and who received an honorary degree in 1994 when he spoke at commencement. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1995.

“This connection to such significant writers is a big part of our tradition here,” said Pinchin. “It’s part of our DNA.”