‘Slight Return’

Paul Muldoon’s Poetics of Place

by Anne Karhio (Author)
Monographs XII, 260 Pages
Series: Reimagining Ireland, Volume 77


This volume examines the relationship between poetic language and place in the work of Paul Muldoon. Through a close reading of the formal and stylistic aspects of his poems, the book explores the question of how poetry as an art form can be engaged to map the complex exchanges between language and the material, phenomenal, personal and social dimensions of our sense of place. In particular, it demonstrates how various forms of repetition and return, in language and memory, are crucial to Muldoon’s approach to place and landscape. Each chapter focuses on a specific aspect of the poet’s work: the naming of place; the genre of the long poem; poetry, music and nostalgia; and, finally, the place of poetry in the information age.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction: Poetics and Place
  • Chapter 1: Mapping the Territory: Muldoon in Critical Context
  • Chapter 2: Place, Naming and Textual Cartographies
  • Chapter 3: ‘All too familiar’: Topographies of Crisis in Muldoon’s Long Poems
  • Chapter 4: ‘Slight Return’: Place, Music and Nostalgia
  • Chapter 5: The Place of Poetry in the Information Age: Things Worth Knowing?
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

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Thanking everyone who has in some way contributed to the completion of a research project and the publication that follows is always a somewhat overwhelming task. It is impossible to acknowledge all of the people who have in various ways contributed to the process, and many ideas were inspired by questions, comments and observations made at meetings or conferences, or in the course of informal discussions over coffee. At times small, even critical comments helped me adjust the arguments made in this volume in unexpected ways. There are a number of people that I want to mention explicitly, however.

First of all, I want to thank my doctoral research supervisors, Dr Sinead Mooney and Professor Sean Ryder at the National University of Ireland, Galway. Both offered their advice and guidance when needed, but also trusted me to find my own pace for writing, and my own voice as a researcher. Without the initial encouragement of my external co-advisor Professor Irene Gilsenan-Nordin from the Dalarna University Centre for Irish Studies, Sweden, the research project would never have been realized. Irene and my other colleagues in the Nordic Irish Studies Network have been invaluable in terms of ideas and support. In particular, I owe thanks to Charles I. Armstrong, Ruben Moi, Hedda Friberg-Harnesk, Anthony Johnson, Carmen Zamorano Llena and Britta Olinder for many inspiring discussions over the years. They helped me feel like part of a community of likeminded scholars at a time when I was still building up my confidence in reading and writing about poetry and Irish literature. Similarly, I am grateful to my friends and colleagues at NUI Galway and the University of Bergen, some of whom have continued their work in various institutions around the world. People including Val Nolan, Irina Ruppo Malone, Andrew Browne, Katrin Urschel, Katharina Walter, Ciaran McDonough, Hanne-Mette Alsos Raae and others provided me not only with new ideas, but also with moral support when it was needed. Alice Colombo, with whom I shared an office, heroically put up with my moments of crisis during the final ← viii | ix → months of writing. I am also indebted to Nessa Cronin, Tim Collins and other members of the Ómos Áite/Place and Space reading group at the Centre for Irish Studies, NUI Galway, for many insightful gatherings and discussions on key texts in philosophy, geography and other areas relevant to contemporary scholarship on place, space and landscape.

I owe a particularly warm thank you to Senior Commissioning Editor Christabel Scaife and ‘Reimagining Ireland’ Series Editor Eamon Maher at Peter Lang Ltd. Their extraordinary professionalism and even more extraordinary patience have been of utmost value, and without their encouragement, advice and experience this monograph would never have been completed.

Finally, I must thank my family in Ireland and in Finland, including my partner Seán Crosson, my mother Pirjo Karhio and my brothers Ilpo and Jaakko, who have supported me through the ups and downs of the research and writing process. Most importantly, my daughter Sofia Karhio-Crosson has made all of this effort worthwhile, and has shown remarkable patience with her mother’s not infrequent absentmindedness.

The PhD research project that formed the basis of this monograph was completed with the financial support of The Lady Gregory Doctoral Fellowship of NUI Galway’s College of Arts, Social Sciences and Celtic Studies. The last stages of writing and editing were carried out as a part of a postdoctoral project funded by the Irish Research Council and the European Commission via Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions, under the ELEVATE international career development fellowship scheme. The volume also received financial support from NUI Galway’s Grant-in-Aid of Publications Fund.

No part of this volume has been previously published in its current form. However essays addressing the topics further examined in individual chapters and sections here have been published in edited volumes and scholarly journals. Chapter 2 focuses on themes previously discussed in ‘Place, Experience and Estrangement in the Poetry of Paul Muldoon’, in Hedda Friberg, Irene Gilsenan Nordin and Lene Yding Pedersen, eds, Recovering Memory: Irish Representations of Past and Present (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007); Chapter 3 draws on and further develops ideas first presented in the essay ‘Place, Narrative and Crisis in ← ix | x → the Poetry of Paul Muldoon’, in Anne Karhio, Seán Crosson and Charles I. Armstrong, eds, Crisis and Contemporary Poetry (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011); the discussion in Chapter 4 on Muldoon’s poetry and music was initially outlined in ‘In Search of St. Elsewhere: Myth and Popular Music in the Poetry of Paul Muldoon’, in Nordic Irish Studies 12, ‘Myth and Reality: Language, Literature, and Culture in Modern Ireland’ special issue (2013). ← x | xi →

← xi | 1 →

Introduction: Poetics and Place

In Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein famously asked, ‘But isn’t the same at least the same?’1 Isn’t anything at least identical with itself, can’t we at least rely on that one secure point of reference when trying to understand the nature of objects, words and concepts? Not so, for Wittgenstein. The question, for him, is itself based on a false premise, the presumption of an access to the thing itself, and its essence that we seek to grasp through language. Instead, the philosopher suggested, we should focus on our use of language, and on the praxis of engaging with the world around us. In her own investigation of Wittgenstein’s philosophy and poetry, Marjorie Perloff considers this realization as key to how we understand poetic language specifically. While Paul Muldoon is not one of the poets discussed in Perloff’s study, the preoccupation with identity (as sameness) and the possibility, or impossibility, of pinning down the identity of a thing through language, characterizes Muldoon’s entire poetic career. The importance of repetition, return and various forms of doubleness to this process has also been recognized by a number of Muldoon’s readers, including Fran Brearton, who has noted that the poet ‘habitually copes with having been born an only twin’.2 Against such a backdrop, this study on Muldoon’s poetics of place largely relies on the proposition that it is the use of repetition and the idea of return that are key to how we should understand the concept of place in his writing: place in poetry emerges through constant ‘slight returns’ in language and memory. It is through such a dynamic that the poet addresses the complex interactions between geographical contexts and specific locations, human experience and the language of poetry. ← 1 | 2 →

Approaching any particular aspect of Muldoon’s poetry throws up the challenge of contextualizing a new reading critically, and also acknowledging the specific literary networks from which his poems and their readings have emerged. Whether we understand Muldoon as a part of the poetic mainstream, or as an experimental voice in a somewhat conservative culture of poetic production and reception, may depend entirely on where we turn to for a point of reference. Alex Davis, in his essay ‘Is it really a revolution, though? Paul Muldoon and Linguistically Innovative Poetry’, a response to the debate on Irish innovative poetry between J. C. C. Mays and Edna Longley, considers Muldoon’s poetry alongside the work of Trevor Joyce, the experimental poet and co-founder of Dublin’s New Writers’ Press in the 1960s. In doing so, Davis discards the customary contexts for their reception and instead foregrounds the formal and aesthetic strategies of the two poets. As he highlights their interest in ‘rules and their violation’, Davis demonstrates how a critical recontextualizing of their poetry can reveal previously overlooked features in these poets’ writing. Regardless of shared interests with Joyce, for example, the reception of Muldoon as a representative of the Northern Irish coterie (to which Longley is also closely connected) has remained far removed from that of Joyce and the Republic’s other neo-modernist poets.3 Similarly to Davis, John Goodby also opens his discussion on Irish neo-modernism by using Muldoon’s dizzyingly complex long poem ‘Madoc’ as a starting point and arguing how, in Ireland, ‘the gap between the practices of some “mainstream” poets and certain neo-modernists is narrower than elsewhere’.4

The above comments by Davis and Goodby thus underline Muldoon’s interstitial position as an experimental voice in the contemporary Irish poetry scene on the one hand, and, on the other, his affiliation with the post-World War II generation of Northern poets that for decades has dominated the critical discussion on Irish poetry written since the 1960s. This ← 2 | 3 → places him in a peculiar role of representing both the innovative and the established tendencies in recent Irish poetry. Again, it is Trevor Joyce that helps illustrate the point. In her introduction to a recent volume of essays on his work, Niamh O’Mahony observes how Joyce’s first collections are still lacking critical attention, in contrast to the attention given to the body of writing by Heaney, Durcan, Mahon, Muldoon, Boland, Hartnett and Ní Chuilleanáin, all ‘well received and much-discussed in Irish Studies’.5 Elsewhere, Joyce himself comments on the notable variety in Irish poetry considering the size of the cultural industry and literary market on the island, and points to the Northern Irish poetry scene emerging in the 1960s as an exception to the rule. He explicitly mentions Heaney, Mahon and Michael Longley as advocates of the ‘English mainstream’, a direction already established, he argues, by Louis MacNeice.6 Muldoon’s inclusion on Joyce’s list is perhaps implicit rather than explicit, yet there is little doubt that his participation in the Belfast literary circle of Philip Hobsbaum in the 1960s and 1970s closely associates his work with the body of writing from the North that has taken centre stage in much of the scholarship on post-war Irish poetry.

The situation is again different in the US, where Muldoon has lived and worked for nearly three decades. He holds a position as a professor of creative writing at Princeton University and as the poetry editor for The New Yorker, and is undoubtedly a part of the official literary establishment. But here, too, the matter is complicated by the contrast between the poet’s ‘old world’ attention to traditional forms and poetic craft, and the similarities between his writing and the more avant-garde aesthetic of John Ashbery’s Language poetry, for example. There are, in other words, ← 3 | 4 → divisions in the critical contexts of the ‘American Muldoon’ that are not dissimilar to the Irish situation, although the underlying debates and contexts are also specific to the literary culture of the poet’s chosen home country. In her review of The Annals of Chile, Helen Vendler commented on how considering his poetics as experimental in the Irish context can be counterbalanced against the ‘formal sophistication’ that an Irish poet can bring to the US poetry scene.7 And while Marjorie Perloff has dismissed much of contemporary mainstream American poetry as tone-deaf, or at least inattentive to the potential of form and sound in poetic meaning-making, she has also acknowledged Muldoon as one of the exceptions to the rule.8 In short Muldoon is, in Ireland and internationally, a shape-shifting figure, at once a part of the establishment and the voice of the avant-garde, depending on the critical, geographical and institutional contexts within which his poetry is being read and evaluated. He has, as Peter MacDonald has suggested, ‘a highly visible, if in some respects still a slightly perplexing presence in the literary landscapes of Ireland, Britain and America’, and is an author who is ‘always on the verge of being understood, but never quite capable of being critically pinned down’.9

Such ambivalence also marks readings focusing on place, space and geographical contexts in Muldoon’s poetry. Irish Pastoral, Oona Frawley’s study on landscape and nostalgia in twentieth-century Irish literature, addresses Muldoon’s work with a mere passing mention (despite its frequent engagement with landscape), and Frawley simply notes how his writing ‘escapes easy categorization’.10 Most likely due to such challenges of ‘categorization’ and definition, most early reviewers and critics in particular approached Muldoon’s poetics of place and landscape by comparing and ← 4 | 5 → contrasting his writing with Seamus Heaney’s – a tendency that helped to explain certain characteristics of the younger poet’s verse but has left other aspects underexplored. Alongside Heaney, who had already established a role as a kind of genius loci of Irish poetry, Muldoon appeared culturally and geographically displaced and linguistically playful, or was seen simply as a figure resisting definition.

At the same time, this connection includes Muldoon among those writers who, at least thematically, reaffirm the continuing predominance of place and landscape as key motifs in Irish poetry. In other words, in this respect the idea of ‘mainstream’ is tied not only to poetic style, or the specific biographical/historical contexts of a poet’s reception, but also to the presence (or not) of what Trevor Joyce has termed ‘identifiably Irish furniture’.11 The recognizable vistas of rural Ulster, especially in Muldoon’s first volumes, no matter how radically reshaped by his complex and oblique poetics, certainly helped to secure and maintain a scholarly audience attracted to ‘identifiably Irish’ writing. This has guaranteed a wide, sustained critical attention to his published work, but has also labelled him as a part of the established poetry scene for those seeking to promote alternative contexts for writing and reading poetry from Ireland. Yet what largely motivates this volume is a desire to understand how Muldoon’s poetics of place transcends such established borders between the mainstream and the experimental, and between the ‘identifiable’ and the strange. Biographical contexts, literary influences or the recognizable settings of the Irish terrain should not distract our attention from how his writing can help us re-examine many of the existing paradigms related to language, poetry and place.

Any study seeking to understand the aesthetic and formal aspects of poetic language in the context of the nonliterary concepts of place and space also immediately faces the issues raised in some recent debates on ‘aesthetics contra “identity”’ in literary studies, as Dorothy J. Wang phrases it.12 ← 5 | 6 → These debates have been particularly heated in North American academia, yet they have also been mirrored in similar conversations in the UK and Ireland, for example (these will be discussed in more detail in the first chapter of this volume). Wang examines essays by leading scholars of poetry, published under the rubric of ‘The New Lyric Studies’ in PMLA in 2008, on the situation of contemporary scholarship on poetry. The starting point for the discussion is Marjorie Perloff’s 2006 MLA presidential address ‘It Must Change’, in which she called for a stronger emphasis on poetry’s (and more generally, literature’s) aesthetic and formal qualities, instead of the increasingly popular paradigms focusing on ethnic and gender identity, anthropology, history, or other extraliterary frameworks where ‘the literary […] is always secondary’.13 The approaches of the authors of the PMLA essays varied, some being more favourable towards reaching outside literary aesthetics for new perspectives than others. But what all of these scholars shared, Wang notes, is a general perception of the ‘sloppy’ and ‘careless’ nature of much scholarship, and a lack of critical rigour, that has followed from the shift of methodological framework from literary studies to increasingly interdisciplinary analysis. In the Northern Irish context, this sentiment has been echoed for example by Peter McDonald, who has suggested that for many, identity and politics have offered a means to avoid engaging with the difficult and complex particularities of poetic expression. In such cases ‘the agenda is set outside the poem’, and is according to McDonald motivated by intellectual laziness: ‘poems are hard to write about, while cultural identity is easy to discuss’.14

While a closer examination of Wang’s specific objections to the frequent dismissal of race, ethnicity or gender identity is not possible here, her views are a helpful way to illustrate the kind of balancing act that is required from anyone wishing to focus on the aesthetic dimensions of poetic discourse as well as the (at least superficially) nonliterary concept of place, and the scholarship around it. The following discussion on Muldoon’s poetry is to some extent an attempt to move away from the ← 6 | 7 → central paradigm of identity and Irishness in cultural studies. But this is motivated less by a conviction that such scholarship would be somehow intrinsically flawed, ‘sloppy’ or irrelevant, than by a view that the dominance of identity and cultural discourse has simply left some aspects of Muldoon’s work underexplored. This extends to the writings of those scholars who have specifically set themselves against the framework of Irish culture and identity, and forcefully argued for the primacy of poetry’s aesthetic independence. At times, the framework set by the polarized debate itself has taken centre stage.

In trying to understand the relationship between poetic language and place in general, and Muldoon’s poetics of place in particular, this volume will draw not only on the writings of established voices in the study of Irish (and Northern Irish) poetry, but also scholars in other fields, occasionally representing seemingly contradictory perspectives. Marjorie Perloff, whose work provides an reference point for much of the discussion, might not entirely agree with the company she keeps here, for example the scholarship of humanistic and phenomenological geographers including Edward Relph, Edward S. Casey and Yi-Fu Tuan, or the number of sociologists and musicologists discussed in Chapter Four. Inasmuch as she objects to reading poetry ‘instrumentally’, and to considering poems as mere ‘windows through which we see the world beyond the text’15 (interestingly, a metaphor Muldoon himself has used to describe the different contexts of his writing), geographical or sociological frameworks might be seen to encourage just this kind of functional understanding of literature. Yet I would argue that Muldoon’s poetry is a particularly suitable meeting ground for these seemingly conflicting approaches. The lack of agreement on how his poetry should be positioned in terms of mainstream versus avant-garde themes and aesthetics, the poet’s dual citizenship in (English-speaking) Europe and North America, and his close attention to form as well as historical, cultural and geographical contexts test the sustainability of the persistent division between literary aesthetics versus interdisciplinary studies of poetry. Understanding how poetry can address place as an ← 7 | 8 → extraliterary dimension of human experience should hardly be considered a threat to its own value or distinctiveness. Neither is this distinctiveness an ahistorical phenomenon (poetic forms, too, emerge in specific social and cultural contexts). With no relevance outside its own expressive form, poetry would be reduced to mere craft, and a poem would be little more than a pleasurable artifact relying on a trained professional’s technical mastery.

Consequently, the following chapters will address the relationship between place and poetic discourse in Muldoon’s work, but in a manner that moves beyond a primary focus on place, space and landscape as markers of cultural specificity, or cultural identity. Instead, attention will be paid to the specific stylistic and formal, as well as thematic, features that constitute the dynamic exchanges between place and verbal utterance in his poems. This reading will be partially informed by scholarship in humanistic and phenomenological geography, sociology, and music studies, as well as literary studies. Existing work on place and space as dimensions of human experience, and the role of language in registering, recording and mediating this experience is crucial, the following chapters argue, for understanding Muldoon’s poetics of place outside the established and at times repetitive critical debates mentioned above. Such a framework also helps demonstrate how those suspicious of his poetry’s purported disregard for the contexts of historical, cultural and personal experience have often failed to recognize his writing’s alertness to the complexities of such experiences in place-formation. Many of the features that characterize Muldoon’s literary aesthetic and technique, including intertextual reference, dense allusiveness and repetition are emphasized as key to understanding how poetic language can engage with the processes constituting place and landscape.


XII, 260
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (October)
Irish poetry Literature and place Space Contemporary poetry
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2017. XII, 260 pp.

Biographical notes

Anne Karhio (Author)

Anne Karhio holds a PhD in English from the National University of Ireland, Galway. She has published a number of critical essays and journal articles on Irish poetry and co-edited Crisis and Contemporary Poetry (2001). She is currently a holder of the Irish Research Council’s ELEVATE International Career Development Fellowship, co-funded by the European Commission via Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions. Her research project Virtual Landscapes: Poetics of Place in Recent Irish Poetry is being carried out at the University of Bergen and NUI Galway.


Title: ‘Slight Return’
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