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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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Chapter 2: Place, Naming and Textual Cartographies


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Place, Naming and Textual Cartographies


In his essay on ‘the poetics of place names’, Alan Gillis argues that in Irish and Scottish poetry (and particularly in criticism focusing on Irish and Scottish poetry) place names seem to mainly perform ‘two basic functions’. They may ‘create an effect of verisimilitude’, in other words, form a referential attachment to place as a recognizable location in the material world. Or, they may offer ‘a means of asserting the cultural validity of otherwise marginalized places and traditions’, making a claim for cultural authenticity and agency.1 Gillis’s own essay goes on to discuss how poems can incorporate place names in a number of other ways, perhaps most importantly through their engagement with sound, or the use of sound as referential in itself (I will return to this feature in Muldoon’s poetry in more detail in the fourth chapter of this volume). But his initial remark highlights the two main characteristics of many readings of place and place names in Muldoon’s writing: an emphasis either on a connection with a specific landscape, particularly that of the poet’s childhood home in rural Ulster, or on Irish tradition and identity, albeit one that is often questioned rather than simply affirmed.

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