Verse & Adversity: Reflections on the 2017 Princeton Poetry Festival

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Standing: Professor Paul B. Muldoon. Michael Longley is seated to his immediate right.

The biennial Princeton Poetry Festival,  a series of readings and panel discussions organized by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon, was held this past Thursday and Friday in Berlind Theater, Princeton, NJ. I was fortunate enough to attend both days of the festival. The panel discussions, moderated by Princeton University Professor Paul  B. Muldoon, centered on the issue of adversity in poetry. The conversations were stimulating. Professor Muldoon is to be commended for his efforts. The readings by the dozen or so poets in attendance were a pleasure to experience, as were the introductions spoken by our current poet laureate, Mary K. Smith.  The complimentary refreshments were also tasty and much appreciated.

One issue raised during the panel discussion was this: Should poets write about politics? Should their work be didactic or simply reflect the daily goings on of the human condition? This led to a corollary question: If poets should indeed make political observations, should only those poets living in the country concerned be the speakers, or might outsiders comment as well? In respect to Northern Ireland, both Muldoon and Longley grew up during The Troubles and were of the opinion that the poets should write about the human condition but avoid political commentary in the process.

Prior to reading his poem “Ceasefire”, Michael Longley introduced himself not as a citizen of Northern Ireland but as a man of “Ulster”, the inflection of which brought a shiver to my very being. His “Ulster” is not The Six Counties. His “Ulster” is the loyalist province. In contrast, Muldoon referred to the north as Northern Ireland. And, of course, Longley made the mandatory Orangeman’s allusion to the Battle of the Somme.

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Above: A mural commemorating the Battle of Somme locate din a seaside park north of Cloghy. Not he diminutive stature of the Irishman in contrast to his “Ulster” counterpart.

“Ceasefire” was originally published in The Irish Times and was written as commentary on the “IRA ceasefire” (his words, not mine, as though the UVF, UDF, etc. had no hand in the violence), so there goes any notion of no-poetry-of-a-political-vein. So one might ask after reading the poem, who is  the counterpart in Northern Ireland of the King Priam in this sonnet? The answer is plain to see. King Priam is analogous to Ulster (Loyalist Ulster) kissing the hand of the murderer (the IRA) of his son(s). I should mention in passing that when noting the nearly three thousand casualties of The Troubles, no mention was made that many of those deaths were the result of vigilante acts of terrorism in an effort for the locals, loyalist and nationalist alike, to maintain order in their neighborhoods, order which the RUC failed to maintain. In a sense Longley’s analogy is a valid one, since Priam’s son violated the rules of hospitality and thus incited a war with Greece much as the English did in Ireland. If anyone is adept in the art of violating the rules of hospitality, it is our friends the English.

To address the second horn of this bull, do outsiders have a voice in writing about the internal affairs of any given country,  I argue that we do and that task is what I have undertaken in my novel Six Counties Seven Sins. Over the course of my frequent visits to The Six Counties during the heyday of The Troubles, it became increasingly clear to me that the natives could not see the forest for the trees, partially due to the censorship of the press. The stranger often notices nuances of a society that the natives fail to see. Also, the stranger fails to grasp may of the nuances of the natives. Both of these factors make for an interesting and sometimes comical point of view for first person narration of a story. The protagonist of my novel sees events in the Six Counties in a far different light than does the native population.

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Professor Paul B. Muldoon leads the panel discussion. Michael Longley is seated to his immediate left.

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