As writers step literally or figuratively beyond the national boundaries and cultures of their own country, they become citizens of a much wider world. And their work changes as a result. Poet and Princeton University professor Paul Muldoon, for example, is a native of County Armagh, Northern Ireland. He has lived in the United States for nearly a quarter century. “About half of my working life has been here and half there, and I think my poems reflect both those things. Some days one is trying to make sense of something in New Jersey, and sometimes in one’s home of origin 50 years ago.
“Ireland is a country that, like most countries, is constantly engaged in asking about the place it holds in the world, and the place those who live in it have in the country itself,” says Muldoon, who is the chair of the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton as well as chair of the university’s Fund for Irish Studies.
Ireland’s viewing itself in relationship to a wider world culture is relatively new, but has allowed it to move beyond the parochialism determined by its relationship with the English. “For too long, there was a sense in Ireland that things were bad and that the only group to which one might point a finger accusingly was the English,” says Muldoon. “It was all their fault, and there was a large amount of defining oneself in terms of the English.”
But for good or bad, Ireland is now intimately linked with neighbors beyond those next door. What has changed is that, even as Ireland’s ultimate geographical shape remains unknown, the country has been forced to grow up and acknowledge its broader connections, particularly in light of the current economic crisis. “It is a combination of having to take responsibility but also having to be bailed out,” says Muldoon. “It’s a bit like having a teenager in the house. The country has to learn responsibility but has been bailed out by the parents, the EU.”
The result of all these forces is an Ireland that is today in flux, looking both outward and inward to understand itself and its relationship to the world in new ways. “In other words, things are up for grabs,” says Muldoon. “Even if there are political settlements, there is a realization among the population that there is uncertainty.”
But uncertainty and instability, as difficult as they may be for the national psyche, also breed creativity. “Uncertainty is actually a wonderful basis for making art,” says Muldoon. “If you think you know how things are, the tendency is to accept that and relax into it. But this is certainly not the case in Ireland.”
From a literary perspective, Ireland may still be treating the old, defining themes, but its writers and artists are doing so in distinctive ways. “In a strange way, there is extraordinary diversity,” says Muldoon. “While from a geographical perspective, Ireland is a small place and its writers share many of the same concerns and obsessions — the usual home, family, and making new families — they do so in a very diverse range of ways.”
The Princeton community will have the opportunity to explore Ireland’s variegated literary canon at an exhibition of highlights from arts patron Leonard Milberg’s recently donated collection of the work of Irish prose writers. “The Cracked Lookingglass,” on view through July 10 at Firestone Library, includes two of Iris Murdoch’s working notebooks, letters from Elizabeth Bowen and Colum McCann, manuscripts of short stories by Liam O’Flaherty, and interviews with contemporary Irish writers. An opening reception takes place in the main gallery and Milberg Gallery at Firestone Library on Sunday, February 6, at 4:30 p.m.
A symposium takes place on Saturday and Sunday, February 5 and 6, with lectures and readings at 50 McCosh Hall, 101 McCormick Hall, and Richardson Auditorium. The gala evening of readings by contemporary prose writers on Sunday at Richardson includes Roddy Doyle, Emma Donoghue, Patrick McCare, and Colum McCann, chaired by Colm Toibin. (Toibin also appears on Tuesday, February 22, at Labyrinth Books, to read from his new collection of short stories, “The Empty Family.”) Both the exhibit and the symposium are free and open to the public but tickets are required to the symposium. Register at 609-258-9220. For a complete schedule visit fis.princeton.edu/milberg/irish-prose.
“It will be very exciting and visually engaging,” says Muldoon. “Often we have the sense that to go to an exhibition featuring literature, we are going to be looking at a few dusty old manuscripts or a limited edition of some book by James Joyce. My sense is that this exhibition is going to be very visually appealing.”
Muldoon was born in 1951. His mother was a primary school teacher, and his father was a laborer and truck farmer, skills his son says would have fit well in New Jersey.
Muldoon started writing poetry at age 15. “It was a common enough occurrence in the young, but most people have the wit to give it up,” he jokes. “Some of us don’t know when to quit.” Luckily he did not, given his numerous collections, starting with “New Weather” in 1973 through “Maggot” in 2010.
Muldoon is reluctant to comment on his own place as a writer. “I think one of the great things about the Irish tradition is that it is quite accepting,” he says. “For writers who are active, it’s probably not a great idea to think about how we fit in, but to try to write as well as one possibly can.”
Muldoon studied English, Celtic language and literature, and scholastic philosophy at the Queen’s University of Belfast.
From 1973 to 1986 he worked in Belfast as a producer of films and radio programs on the cultural life of Ireland for the British Broadcasting Corporation.
He moved to the United States to teach at Princeton after meeting his present wife, who is an American. “I was in the poetry business, and they were looking for people who might teach poetry,” says Muldoon. He started part time in 1987 and went full time in 1990. In 2007 he was appointed poetry editor of the New Yorker.
Muldoon is not the only Irish writer with a foot in two cultures. He points to other Irish writers who have set books in the United States. “When you look at writers like Colum McCann and Colm Toibin, as much of their work is set outside Ireland as within,” he says. Toibin’s “Brooklyn,” for example, is about an Irish girl who moves to America in the 1950s to earn money to support her family. The book captures the fraught circumstances of being uprooted from family and country.
In comparison to the long and arduous ocean trip Toibin’s heroine undergoes to return home after a family tragedy, today the flight connecting New York and Belfast is a mere five hours. “It gives you a whole new picture; a world in which you are able to do that,” says Muldoon. “You can fly halfway around the world in a few hours, and what that indicates above all is how small the world is and how connected we are.”
Muldoon sees the next two decades as a time of significant change in what it means to be an Irish writer. “I think if we were doing this exhibition in 20 years’ time,” he says, “I suspect that one of the features that would be to the fore is what we can guess at as being the next generation of really interesting Irish writers, who will probably be Nigerian-Irish and Polish-Irish. There are certainly writers in the making there who will show Ireland to itself and the world in a whole other way.”
For Muldoon, the proximity of all human beings to one another has transformed the context for writing and writers. “In the world we live in, it is important to have a sense of place, culture, and context, but I think it is more important for all writers that we have sense of the bigger picture.”
“The Cracked Lookingglass,” Princeton University Lewis Center for the Arts, Saturday and Sunday, February 5 and 6. Lectures and readings by contemporary Irish writers in conjunction with exhibit at Firestone Library on view through July 10. Gala evening of readings Sunday, February 6, 7 p.m., Richardson Auditorium. Free and open to the public but tickets required. For complete schedule visit fis.princeton.edu/milberg/irish-prose. 609-258-9220.