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‘Slight Return’

Paul Muldoon’s Poetics of Place


Anne Karhio

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.


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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:...

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