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Week Twelve


        I get down on my knees and do what must be done
        And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.

          ‘Ceasefire’ Michael Longley

Poets of the generations that coincided with The Troubles, and who continue to influence Irish poetry today as well as poetry in English elsewhere.


I would very strongly encourage you to read beyond the poems in this pack, and I offer many pointers. If you were to choose to perform the minimum of work on this score I would urge to read, at the very least, the entirety of Paul Muldoon’s ‘Incantata’, and Eavan Boland’s sequence ‘Writing in a Time of Violence’.


Each student will be assigned one poem for deep reading, although all students should also read all the poems as well as the entire resource pack before the seminar. If the number of students exceeds the number of poems then pairs of students will work together on single poems. You will be expected to read this poem at the seminar and comment upon it. Preparation, practice and thought are required; please do not come to the seminar “cold”. Spend about three minutes in class on your explication and appreciation. Apologies for any typographical errors.


The course pack presents poems by four poets of this period – Eavan Boland (pron. ‘Eev-een’), Michael Longley, Derek Mahon (pron: ‘Maa-Hon’), Paul Muldoon. None of these poems appear on the website version owing to copyright restrictions. Derek Mahon’s poem ‘The Hunt by Night’ should be considered alongside Paolo Ucello’s painting A Hunt in the Forest. Also included are: biographies and bibliographies of the four poets under consideration; recent very good articles about Longley and Muldoon by Nicholas Wroe; and an interview with Eavan Boland. I have also appended an assessment of the poet Tom Paulin for your interest, and in how he links with these poets.


You should never take a skim of poetry or knowledge from a period of time, place and history and feel that, like some tourist spending a day in the Falls Road, you now understand contemporary Irish art and culture.We are looking at only four poets; there are hundreds of quite brilliant poets working throughout this period from the mid-‘60s to the present (see ‘Opening Out’).

Obviously, the culture of these poets is vital to a clearer understanding of their work, but you should also look for developments in the use of form, for example, the rhymes of Muldoon and the classical poise of Mahon, and the use of myth and personal/domestic life in Boland and Longley.

Poetry in Ireland is not only a thriving cultural industry, it is treated with a certain amount of respect as a vocation. Yet it is also full of personal interactions and networks, not least Aosdana. It is also heavy with poetic infighting and factions, just like in other countries. The article on Longley is of especial interest (note the role of Philip Hobsbaum).

Do not be fooled into believing that the language issue is a quiet argument belonging to the ‘seventies or the Celtic Revival. It is still very much alive. The question of the “greenness” of your passport (pace Heaney and the Motion/Morrison Penguin anthology), and the role of The Field Day anthologies, are also subjects to pause over and research. The articles on Muldoon, Paulin and Longley will provide much to interest you in these regards. As Kavanagh had it: they ‘lived in important places’.


Although we are looking closely at Boland, Longley, Mahon and Muldoon, I would also want to draw your attention to the excellent work of poets who are either contemporaries of these, or are new to the scene, namely: Sebastian Barry, who is also a very fine playwright, Pat Boran, Conor O’Callaghan, Ciaran Carson, who has recently translated Inferno most effectively, Harry Clifton, Paul Durcan, a noted performer of his work, Michael Hartnett, in both his English and Irish poetry – his volume of poems A Farewell to English is an important document, John Hewitt, Rita Ann Higgins, Valentin Iremonger, Aidan Mathews, Peter McDonald, who is I believe the key critic of Irish poetry writing today, Medbh McGuckian, Paula Meehan, Sinéad Morrissey, Richard Murphy, Eiléan Ní Chuilleandin, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, whose work is of singular importance with regards to the Irish language, Bernard O’Donoghue, and Matthew Sweeney.


Not available on web


The Black Lace Fan My Mother Gave Me



The Ice-Cream Man



The Snow Party


Paolo Ucello, A Hunt in the Forest

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

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The Hunt by Night

A Disused Shed in County Wexford


‘He's a Troubles poet from the beginning, cautious from the start. And this is why the compassion in his work is so important. In a fraught world, the voice that shouts loudest is not necessarily the most creditable. There's a mock innocence in the poems, a disturbing way of reporting violence - horribly literal, half-humorous - that works as a shock tactic. It works as a way of conveying how shocking the violence is.’ – Bernard O’Donoghue


Why Brownlee Left



Eavan Boland was born in Dublin in 1944. She has published several collections of poetry including The War Horse (1975); In Her Own Image (1980); Night Feed (1982); The Journey (Poetry Book Society Choice, 1987); Selected Poems (Poetry Book Society Recommendation 1989); Outside History (Poetry Book Society Choice, 1990); An Origin Like Water - Collected Poems 1967-1987; and The Lost Land (Poetry Book Society Choice,1998). Since 1987, her work has been published by the Carcanet Press, Manchester, who published a new edition of Night Feed in 1994. She is published by WW Norton in the USA. Her recent collections are A Lost Land (Carcanet 1998); and Code (Carcanet, 2001). A collection of prose writings, Object Lessons, also from Carcanet, was published in 1995, and with Mark Strand she has edited The Making of a Poem, A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms (WW Norton, New York/London, 2000). She lives in Dublin.

Michael Longley was born in Belfast in 1939. His books of poetry include No Continuing City (London, Macmillan, 1969, US Dufour Editions 1969); An Exploded View (London, Victor Gollancz, 1973), Man Lying on a Wall (Victor Gollancz, 1976); The Echo Gate (London, Secker and Warburg, 1979); Poems 1963-1983 (U.K., Salamander Press; Loughcrew, Ireland, The Gallery Press, 1985); Poems 1963-1980 (US, Wake Forest University Press, 1981); Gorse Fires (Secker & Warburg, Wake Forest Press, 1991), for which he was awarded the 1991 Whitbread Prize for Poetry; The Ghost Orchid (London Jonathan Cape, 1995; Wake Forest University Press, 1996); Broken Dishes (Belfast, The Lagan Press, 1998); Selected Poems (Jonathan Cape, 1998/Wake Forest University Press, 1998); The Weather in Japan (Jonathan Cape, 2000/Wake Forest University Press, 2000), for which he recieved the 2001 Irish Times Irish Literature Prize for Poetry; and Snow Water (Jonathan Cape, 2004). He has also published an autobiographical work, Tuppeny Stung (Belfast, Lagan Press, 1994). He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a member of Aosdana, and of the Cultural Traditions Group, which promotes acceptance and understanding of cultural diversity in Northern Ireland. He lives in Belfast.

Derek Mahon was born in Belfast in 1941. His poetry collections are Night-Crossing (UK, Oxford University Press, 1968); Lives (OUP,1972); The Snow Party (OUP, 1975); Poems 1962-1978 (OUP, 1979); Courtyards in Delft (OUP, 1981); The Hunt By Night (OUP, 1982); Antarctica (Oldcastle, Co Meath, Gallery Books, 1985); Selected Poems ( Oldcastle, Co Meath, The Gallery Press, 1990); Selected Poems, (London & New York, Viking, and The Gallery Press, in association with OUP, 1991); The Yaddo Letter (The Gallery Press, limited edition of 350 copies, with a frontispiece by Barrie Cooke, 1992); The Yellow Book (The Gallery Press, 1997); The Hudson Letter (The Gallery Press, 1995, USA, Wake Forest University Press, 1996); and Collected Poems (The Gallery Press, 1999). His translations include The Chimeras [a version of Les Chimères, by Nerval] (The Gallery Press); High Time [a version of Molière's A School for Husbands](The Gallery Press, 1985); The Selected Poems of Philippe Jaccottet (London & New York, Viking, 1988); The Baccae of Euripedes, and Racine's Phaedra (The Gallery Press, 1996).Cyrano de Bergarac (The Gallery Press, 2004), a version of the French classic, was commissioned by the National Theatre, London. His screenplays include Summer Lightning [based on Turgenev's First Love] (RTÉ/Channel 4, 1985), and his prose is collected as Journalism (The Gallery Press, 1996). His honors include the Irish American Foundation Award, a Lannan Foundation Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, The Irish Times/Aer Lingus Poetry Prize, the American Ireland Fund Literary Award,The C.K. Scott Moncreiff Translation Prize for his translation of The Selected Poems of Philippe Jaccottet, and the Eric Gregory Award. He is a member of Aosdana, and lives in Dublin.

Paul Muldoon was born in Co Armagh. His main works are New Weather (London: Faber & Faber, 1973); Mules (London: Faber & Faber and Winston-Salem, North Carolina: Wake Forest University Press, 1977); Immram (Dublin: Gallery Press,1980); Why Brownlee Left (London: Faber and Winston-Salem: Wake Forest, 1980) ; Out of Siberia (Dublin: Gallery Press, 1982); Quoof (London: Faber and Winston-Salem: Wake Forest, 1983); Mules & Early Poems (Winston-Salem: Wake Forest, 1985); The Wishbone (Dublin: Gallery Books, 1984); Selected Poems 1968-1983 (London: Faber, 1986 and New York: Ecco Press, 1987); Meeting The British (London: Faber and Winston-Salem: Wake Forest, 1987); Madoc: A Mystery (London: Faber, 1990); The Prince of The Quotidian (Oldcastle: Gallery Press, 1994); The Annals of Chile (London: Faber and New York: Farrar Strauss, 1994); New Selected Poems 1968-1994 (London: Faber, 1996); Kerry Slides (Oldcastle: Gallery Press, 1996) with photographs by Bill Doyle; Hay (Faber, 1998); Bandanna (Faber, 1999); and Moy Sand and Gravel (New York, Farrar Straus & Giroux/London, Faber and Faber, 2002), for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize (2003). He has translated The Astrakhan Cloak by Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill (Dublin: Gallery Press, 1992) from Irish, and has edited The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry (London: Faber & Faber: 1986); and The Faber Book of Beasts (London: Faber, 1997). His books for children include The Last Thesaurus (London: Faber, 1995) with illustrations by Rodney Rigby, and he has composed an opera libretto, Shining Brow (London: Faber, 1993), music composed by Daron Hagen.



Where Poetry Begins: Eavan Boland in Conversation

This article originally appeared in American Poet, the biannual journal published by the Academy of American Poets for its members.

Elizabeth Schmidt: As a poet who has been involved in both Irish and American poetry communities, do you see many differences between the two? Similarities? In which world do you feel most at home?

Eavan Boland: Of course they're alike in some ways. But I notice the differences more than the similarities. They're separated, as poetry worlds, by their history and by their heritage. The Irish poetry world when I first knew it still had nineteenth century shadows on it. It was a small, unified, intense community, whose references to the past were a common language. The American poetry world is so much larger, more diverse. The common references are much less obvious, at least to an Irish poet. In terms of feeling at home, of course I feel at home in Ireland because I am at home there. But I sought out American poetry because of that powerful, inclusive diversity. I always remember I'm an Irish poet there, but at the same time some part of my sense of poetry feels very confirmed by the American achievement.

Schmidt: Is it possible to talk generally about how contemporary American poetry differs from contemporary Irish poetry? And more particularly, do you see a difference in how poets in each country are writing lyric poetry? By "Lyric" I have in mind Charles Simic’s recent statement that only the finest lyric poems communicate "the experience of the naked moment," that they are the only poems that leave "a lasting record of our naked humanity."

Boland: The contemporary differences go back, as I've just remarked, to some of the historic ones. It's very hard, even for a contemporary lyric poetry, to escape history. And the differences there are really striking. Irish poetry has a bardic history. The Irish bards lay down in darkness to compose. They wrote poems to their patrons that ranged from christening odes to the darkest invective. They were poets who were shaped by an oral culture and you only have to read a book like Daniel Corkery's The Hidden Ireland to know that long after they were abandoned by history at the end of the eighteenth century, long after their language was destroyed, they were remembered and quoted in Ireland. The drama of all that still backlights Irish poetry--the painful memory of a poetry whose archive was its audience. There is a sort of communal aspect to the identity of the Irish poet even now that has an effect on the contemporary Irish lyric. American poetry, on the other hand, seems to me very tied in with the rise of literacy. As soon as it existed it was read. Of course there are other poetries--I'm thinking of the Harlem Renaissance in particular--where I think the background is more similar to the Irish one, and more oral. But the American poet who traces a descent from Whitman or Emily Dickinson--I know this is a simplified diagram--doesn't have the intense oral, communal past to contend with. They have the exciting sense of a new language, not an old or mortgaged one. So I think, in comments made by Irish and American poets, you have this contrast where the American poet can feel isolated, and the Irish poet oppressed by the communal shadows that fall across the poem. It cuts both ways. Irish poetry draws strength from the bardic past. American poetry seems to me to have benefited, obliquely and maybe painfully, from that felt isolation of the American poet, because it has resulted in that tradition of experiment I admire so much. Irish poetry couldn't have produced a Wallace Stevens On the other hand, those communal tensions worked well to goad W.B. Yeats into poetry, and kept goading him to the very end of his life. So back to your question on the contemporary lyric. The Irish lyric poem is often strong, eloquent, accessible. It's the lingua franca of Irish poetry. But it's not experimental enough, in my view. Its ties to the old communal obligations of Irish poetry don't help it. The American lyric poem, on the other hand, has been experimental from the start. Look at Dickinson. She was instantly subversive in her lyric.

Schmidt: Having taught in Ireland and America, do you find differences in the way emerging poets write in each country? In how they work at becoming poets?

Boland: Travel and communication have definitely changed things. The gulf between poetic communities like Ireland and America is not as wide as it once was. I think there are real differences, but maybe less than there once were. There are starting to be workshops and creative writing degrees in Ireland. Trinity College started one for the first time this year, for instance. Young poets in both places are probably going to have more in common than they used to. But those differences of history can be seen here as well. Emerging Irish poets tend to feel at the center of things in Ireland. They give readings which are well attended. The poetry and writing festivals are lively and warm and very communally based. I think their equivalents in America feel that chill of isolation, not so much personally as through the impersonal sense that they are not quite certain where they stand with their society. Becoming a poet is not easy in either country, but maybe in Ireland it's still a less isolated process than in the States. Then again, at Stanford I teach the Stegner Fellows, which is a very distinctive and rewarding thing for anyone. These are very serious, very gifted poets, on a Fellowship that gives them the shelter of time at the very moment when they're preparing a first book. That's wonderful for me--it enables me to have a conversation about poetry which I particularly value, and couldn't have in that way in Ireland.

Schmidt: How has physically bridging two cultures--teaching in California, maintaining a home in Ireland--affected your own work? Has being removed, in a day-to-day way, from Ireland changed the way you compose poems? The way you come across inspiration for a poem? The imagery that's available to you?

Boland: It's not location, I think, that changes poems or poets. It's where they are in their own work, what impasse or forward movement is there, that makes the difference. For a long time, I've had a sort of dialogue going on in my mind--maybe even a quarrel--between those elements of poetic experiment and bardic inheritance. The tension is in my own work, and it's not where I am that adds or subtracts from it, but what I'm writing. I may outwardly bridge cultures as you say, but inwardly as a poet I stay in the same place I've always been, just trying to move from the unfinished business of one poem to the next.

Schmidt: You mentioned the lyric is the lingua franca of Irish poetry. To what extent do you feel, if at all, that your ideas about feminism--the way those ideas have infused your work--have created a transnational poetics, a sort of lingua franca that addresses, for example, the domestic visions that women of a certain class everywhere can share?

Boland: I'm a feminist. I'm not a feminist poet. I've said somewhere else that I think feminism has real power and authority as an ethic, but none at all as an aesthetic. My poetry begins for me where certainty ends. I think the imagination is an ambiguous and untidy place, and its frontiers are not accessible to the logic of feminism for that reason. So I don't really think it's created that poetics you speak of, in exactly that way. Where feminism has influenced and anchored my view of things is in the making of a critique. And it's one of the things I'm most uneasy about, looking back: that so much women's poetry pre-existed that critique. I think it needs a critique. Feminism is certainly a part of a book like Object Lessons.

Schmidt: Perhaps the notion of a "transnational poetics" conveys a sense of the generic that contradicts the intense feeling of place in your poems. Can you describe the process by which the particular and the intimate become paradoxically emblematic, if that's the right word, and therefore accessible?

Boland: T.S. Eliot has an interesting essay on Baudelaire that touches on this. He's writing about the way Baudelaire pioneered certain kinds of urban reference and imagery, certain ways of talking about the rain and dirt and downright squalor of a city. Then he stops and says--well, it isn't because he wrote about those images of the city; it's because (he says) Baudelaire raised them "to the first intensity" that they matter. And of course, that's what any poet writing about a particular place wants to do: to transform it, not just catalogue it. When I was in a suburb in Dublin, at the foothills of the Dublin mountains, surrounded every day by the same rowan trees and distances, I wanted to convey not just a place, but the sort of bodily knowledge I got from place.

Schmidt: In your books of poems and certainly in your autobiographical prose, certain ordinary images are repeated and lingered upon. Is this a way of making the ordinary emblematic?

Boland: It wasn't that much of a strategy. I just wanted to find a way of conveying how things change from the ordinary to the familiar, from the familiar to the known, from the known to the visionary. How the same thing can be seen differently over and over again. I was in a flat in Dublin when I was a student for a few years. It had a table in one room, a window over a garden. There was nothing remarkable about any of it, except that remarkable things happened to me there--I wrote my first real poems in that room and began to believe and hope I was a poet there. When you go back to find those feelings in memory, you can often only draw the map in terms of place and it has to be the perceived place, not the actual one. The way a room looked, for instance, the hour after you wrote your first sturdy poem in it.

Schmidt: In Object Lessons you mention reading Sylvia Plath at an early age, and later Elizabeth Bishop and Adrienne Rich. Is it possible to say something more about how each poet's work has influenced your own, and if their work shares qualities you see as either especially "American" or "feminine"?

Boland: It's an interesting question. Each of those poets has been very important to me. Each of them leads me back into the American poetry they were nourished by, and departed from, and returned to in certain ways. I can see Whitman better through Adrienne Rich at times, than I can through some of his own poetry. I wish a more exact and exacting critique had been made for Sylvia Plath. I think she was an American surrealist and is a too often discussed as a character in an American melodrama. Bishop interests me so much because she opened this fascinating space between voice and tone: her tone was so talky and throwaway in her poems. Her voice was so dark, so achieved. The poem you hear happens in the space between those two. Did she do that because she was American, feminine, a formalist who de-stabilized forms by using them in new contexts? All of the above, I'm sure. So it's hard to make the lines and draw the boundaries. They're also precious to me, I won't deny it, because they opened the identity of the poet up for me. They made that identity include their womanhood, and they found ways to explore and articulate their womanhood through that identity. One of the reasons I feel so confirmed by some of what has happened in American poetry is because of them. I found the courage to be a poet in Ireland and it was a given that I was an Irish woman. But they gave me the courage to believe that one identity need not limit or edit the other.

Schmidt: Do you feel that the intense discipline and technical mastery you concentrated on as a young poet was a necessary stage on the way to writing "the full report of the reality conveyed" to you? Do you feel that learning to write in particular forms helped you find the form that truly matched the later poem's inspiration? Or do you see those years of striving to write in a more traditionally Irish voice as some kind of false start?

Boland: No, definitely not a false start. Every young poet, to some extent, writes the poem in the air. And a certain kind of formal, well-structured poem was around me in the air when I was young. I laboured to write it, and I learned to write it. And for part of that time it was certainly someone else's poem I was learning and labouring to write. But an apprenticeship in poetry, like in any other craft or art, is not necessarily a journey in self-discovery. I struggled with issues of the line and the voice in those forms. I learned a lot.

Schmidt: Reading your autobiographical prose, it is possible to see your growth as a poet in cycles--from working at mastering traditional forms to working to find "that true meeting between a hidden life and a hidden language out of which true form would come--the form of a true poem?" Would you describe how two quite different recent poems, "The Pomegranate" and "Lava Cameo," reflect this growth? How did you approach writing each poem?

Boland: They're both important poems to me. "Lava Cameo" was written relatively quickly; "The Pomegranate" took almost a year. Yeats has an interesting essay on the different kinds of time in poetry, how English poems are meditative--he says they may be like "The Thames Valley"--whereas Irish poetry has a sort of crisis time. I think there's truth in that. "Lava Cameo" is about my grandmother and tries to compress a lost life into an image of something ambiguous--a profile cut on volcanic rock. I can still see the antique stall where I first saw a lava cameo. But the stanzas I used--fairly open, dissociated stanzas, capable of covering ground and changing voices--were something I could manage at that time. "The Pomegranate" was less easy. It's very easy to get a time fault in a narrative poem like that. By time fault, I just mean that the poem can go quicker in some places and slower in others. I had to struggle with syntax all the time, and go back, and go back again to get the consistency I needed. I've often thought that there's a difference between revision and re-writing. Revision is brisk and business-like. Re-writing can become addictive. You start again and start again. "The Pomegranate" seemed for months like a poem I was re-writing. Then eventually I went back to it, and picked up something that felt like a tune, and worked along with that. It's an important poem to me. It widens out to include things I loved and wanted to bring together: my teenage daughter, Sarah, asleep in a room full of magazines and Coke cans and cut apple. In other words, the disorganization of the beloved moment. And then that fearless, organized structure which is legend. I just wanted to introduce them to each other in the poem, the way they were already connected in my mind.

Elizabeth Schmidt is an editor of the literary magazine Open City, and has worked in the poetry department of The New Yorker magazine. The preceding article originally appeared in the Spring 1997 issue of American Poet, the biannual journal of The Academy of American Poets. Copyright � 1997 by Eavan Boland and Elizabeth Schmidt. All rights reserved.


Born in Belfast of English parents, Michael Longley began to write poetry as a student. After success with his early verse, he suffered a writing crisis and didn't publish for a dozen years. He worked for the Arts Council in Northern Ireland, facing criticism from both sides of the divide. In 1991 he produced a new collection of poems to critical acclaim and continues to win plaudits

Middle Man

Nicholas Wroe
The Guardian, Saturday August 21, 2004

When Michael Longley was offered the prestigious Queen's gold medal for poetry in 2001, he did not immediately accept. "I'm from Northern Ireland," he explains. "It can be a very complicated business. I asked if I could sleep on it and I thought about the Good Friday agreement, which I support, and the fact that two Shinners [members of Sinn Fein] were then sitting in a partitionist Stormont government. So on that basis I said yes. But thinking about it later, I think I accepted it mainly for my dad."

The ghostly presence of the late Colonel Richard Longley, who served in both world wars, haunts his son's poetry, drifting through his recurring preoccupations with nature, war, love and the classical world. When Michael went to Buckingham Palace to receive his award from the Queen, he was following in his father's footsteps: Longley Sr had received the Military Cross there from King George V for single-handedly knocking out a German machine-gun post. He later won a Royal Humane Society medal for gallantry when he saved two nurses from drowning. "I talked to the Queen about the first world war and I liked her a lot," Longley says. "She is an intelligent woman and said some very humane things about the war."

He had good cause to expect criticism for his decision. Twenty years previously, Seamus Heaney, Longley's contemporary and fellow Northern Irishman, had declined inclusion in an anthology of British poetry, pointing out that his "passport's green". While Longley, an agnostic Protestant of English parents, was not in quite the same position as the Catholic Heaney, his heritage has been an important factor in the production and perception of his work, with the editors of the influential Field Day anthology of Irish writing claiming in the early 90s that Longley had more in common with "the semi-detached suburban muse of Philip Larkin and post-war England than with Heaney or Montague".

Longley is still irritated by that "misrepresentation" but acknowledges that his work can present challenges to both Green and Orange pieties. "And in reality some of the time I feel British and some of the time I feel Irish," he says. "But most of the time I feel neither and the marvellous thing about the Good Friday agreement was that it allowed me to feel more of each if I wanted to. When the rugby is on I don't for a moment want England to score a try, but I'm not going to deny my father and my mother and the Britannic part of my background. There is a huge amount of Anglophobia here which I've always tried to counter and correct a little."

The poet Paul Muldoon worked at the BBC in Belfast when Longley was with the Arts Council there in the 70s and 80s. "Michael is a figure who represents the future of Northern Ireland," says Muldoon. "A future in which we try to make sense of each other and come to terms with each other and each other's places. There is an imaginative domain in which we can all move forward and Michael is emblematic of that."

Fran Brearton of Queen's University Belfast is writing a full-length study of Longley's poetry. She says he has always resisted being interpreted in any linear tradition. "He is obviously involved in an Irish tradition but he also builds on an English tradition. In fact he is in the tradition of dealing with tensions between traditions. He is constantly talking about Englishness and Irishness, urban and pastoral." Brearton says this can make him a more problematic figure to read, which partly explains why some of his contemporaries, poets such as Heaney and Derek Mahon, acquired reputations quicker. "It was much easier to recognise Heaney as rural Irish Catholic," she says. "And even someone like Mahon was more easily identifiable with his urban Belfast angst. Longley didn't fit either of those patterns and so it made it more difficult for him to find a niche."

Although Longley published four collections of verse in the decade from 1969, he was generally known as the "other" Belfast poet. A 12-year gap until his next collection saw him slip further from public view. Peter McDonald of Christchurch College, Oxford, has written extensively on Longley. He says: "In the critical history of Michael he has very seldom been attacked. But, particularly early on, he was read in a slightly condescending way. He was seen as a charming nature poet or a pastoral poet but somehow he wasn't a poet of the big ideas and the big issues. But in his second phase he becomes more assured and had the courage to increasingly boil the poems down till they become just a few lines or sometimes only one line, which results in an extraordinary intensity."

Poet laureate Andrew Motion says: "The first proper reading I gave was under Michael's auspices in Belfast. All these Irish poets were there who were already very well known by then and it was a wonderful and terrifying experience at the same time. When Michael came back after his silence it wasn't exactly with a roar because that denies some of the subtlety, but he was triumphant. He's one of my favourite poets and one of my favourite people."

Longley's comeback collection, Gorse Fires, won the Whitbread poetry award in 1991 and his subsequent work has been accompanied by a raised public, as well as poetic, profile. In 1994 he published a poem reworking a section Homer's Iliad in the Irish Times about the reconciliation between Achilles and Priam called "Ceasefire". A few days later the IRA issued a statement announcing their own ceasefire. The last two lines read: "I get down on my knees and do what must be done / And kiss Achilles' hand, the killer of my son."

Throughout his career, Longley has resisted the notion of the Ulster poet as a sort of "super-journalist" - a phrase that usually leaves him "embarrassed or irritated". He argues that an artist needs time "in which to allow the raw material of experience to settle to an imaginative depth". But McDonald notes that in the 90s Longley did "face up to the public world. And he did this partly through Homer and also through very private things; looking at flora and fauna in the west of Ireland, remembering his father, which began to take on resonance about contemporary Northern Ireland."

Longley's latest collection, Snow Water, was published to acclaim earlier this year, with poet Anthony Thwaite talking about its "haunting authority". It has been shortlisted for the Forward poetry prize. Longley says he is proud of the work but notes the "slightly alarming symmetry that I wrote four books from about 1963 to 1979 and then there was a crisis and I didn't write very much for a decade or so. I have now written four books since so I am hoping very much that the same thing doesn't happen".

He describes the two sets of four books as "movements" and says the impulse that brought about Gorse Fires has trickled on to Snow Water. "I like to think the new book carries forward those themes of love, war, death, friendship, art. I hope by the time I die my work will look like four really long poems; a very long love poem, a very long meditation on war and death, a very long nature poem and a playful poem on the art of poetry. And like a plant, I want the strands both to entwine with each other, but every now and again to emerge as separate."

Longley was born in Belfast in July 1939, half an hour before his twin brother Peter. Their parents had moved to the city from Clapham in the late 20s and between the wars his father had been a furniture salesmen. After returning from the war in 1945 he became a professional fund-raiser, first for a local hospital and then for the Northern Ireland war memorial. "His photograph was often in the local newspapers," says Longley, "and he was a minor celebrity although I didn't really appreciate that until years later."

He describes his father's character as "sedimentary" and his mother's as "volcanic". His sister, Wendy, who is nine years older and lives in Toronto, was a surrogate mother to the boys. "From an early age we all had to read my mother's mood so as not to ignite disapproval or spark off emotions we didn't understand," says Longley. "I spoke recently to my sister about this and we both still see in ourselves a strong desire to please."

He still lives in south Belfast, not too far from where he was brought up and went to school. His parents couldn't afford the private education they had wanted for their children and so he was sent to the local elementary school where he found himself torn between an English middle-class home life and the Belfast working-class culture of his classmates. He then went on the Royal Belfast Academical Institution where he was "headhunted" by a Classics master. "We went through the Agamemnon aged 16, which was mind-bendingly difficult," he recalls. "And we translated Byron and Keats into Latin and ancient Greek. That was also incredibly difficult but it has stood me in good stead since when working out syntax or finding the right word."

The poet Frank Ormsby, a friend of Longley's, has taught at the school for more than 30 years. He says back issues of the school magazine are "full of precocious poems from Derek Mahon, who was a few years behind Michael, but there is only a little prose by Longley." In fact, Longley was writing some poetry - "the usual teenage angst and sexual impulses" - but says it was forced underground by "the pressures of examinations, sport, girls, alcohol and cigarettes. But then it resurfaced at Trinity."

Longley went up to Trinity College, Dublin, to read classics in 1958. "I feel slightly guilty in that my parents couldn't afford to send both me and my brother to university," he says. "And as I was the more intellectual, but not the brighter, I went and I wasted my time there from a scholarly point of view. At 16 Peter became an apprentice engineer and he can't have had as much fun as I had." Peter lives in retirement in Newcastle-upon-Tyne after a career as a marine engineer.

Longley says although his father didn't understand poetry and didn't understand the classics, "to his credit he provided the money for me to do what I wanted to do. He died when I was 20 and half way through my course. I think both he and my mother would have expected me to get a good degree, but in fact I got a mediocre degree because I didn't work."

He says he had few ambitions at university apart from writing poetry. "Perhaps I had the vaguest notion of sleepwalking into teaching or the civil service. But I was bitten by the poetry bug. The first poetry I wrote as an undergraduate was splurges of emotion. But I remember taking one of these splurges and trying to make it into two sonnets, which took from about six in the evening until nine the following morning. That kind of challenge was addictive."

Mahon followed Longley to Trinity in his second year and they began to spur each other on. The writer Iain Sinclair, who was also there at the time, has disparagingly recalled them as "career poets", who even then were "in the system". Mahon remembers Longley more as a rugby player at school, "but I think he was also scribbling a bit in that slightly shamefaced fashion we all were. But it was in Dublin, where there was a very active scene, that we first got published. We gave each other encouragement, although it was rather abrasive encouragement." Together they began to read new work by Ted Hughes, Geoffrey Hill and Philip Larkin. And perhaps more importantly, Irish poets such as Louis MacNeice and Patrick Kavanagh. "The idea that people from around here were writing poetry was hugely important," says Longley, who began to publish work in the undergraduate magazine and even got one poem into the Irish Times, for which he was paid £5.

The first review Longley received was in the university newspaper, by a fellow student, Edna Broderick. She had been pointed out to Longley at the entrance exam where she was tipped to win a scholarship. "Everything she said had intelligence in it," he says, "whether you were talking about coffee or the weather or anything. I showed her my first awful splutterings of poems and after two years I made a move and I took her to a little arts cinema and we saw Les Enfants du Paradis. I think Sex and the City must spoil things for young people today. In my day I thought I was going to have a heart attack just before I held hands with a girl." They married in 1964, with Mahon as best man, and as Edna Longley she has gone on to become one of the leading literary critics of her generation. They have three children; Rebecca, 35, a corporate headhunter, Dan, 32, a molecular biologist and Sarah, 29, an artist.

Longley describes Edna as "the best critic in these islands. Most of the critics that interest me have been poets, but here is someone who comes along and loves it as much as we do. She has a perfect ear and is the first person I show a poem to." Although she is an extraordinary in-house resource, he acknowledges her presence could be a disadvantage. "During my crisis I wasn't completely silent, and I would show poems to Edna and she would say they didn't work. She can't dissemble and at the time that was very hurtful. So if she likes a poem I don't really give a fuck what anyone else says. My joke is that if it wasn't for her, my oeuvre would be three times the size it is now and three times as bad."

Over the years the Longley home has been something of an artistic salon in Belfast and they have been active in campaigns, such as opposition to plans to scrap the classics department at Queen's. "But we've tried to avoid an Astaire and Rogers double act," says Michael. "So we seldom appear on platforms together and we have an unspoken rule that she doesn't write about me [although it is sometimes unavoidable in her studies of Northern Irish poetry] and I don't read love poems aloud if she is in the audience."

After leaving university Longley briefly taught Latin in Dublin and London. When Edna was appointed to a post at Queen's they moved back to Belfast where he taught English at his old secondary school. At this time he first came into contact with Heaney, who was one of a handful of young poets clustered round the academic Philip Hobsbaum. Known as "The Group", these early 60s meetings under Hobsbaum's auspices have entered literary legend, but Longley says Hobsbaum never really liked his poetry and "actually discouraged me. But I quite enjoyed the fight and it was great to meet Seamus and Marie Heaney. The whole coterie thing is very interesting in art. Moving forward with coevals and potential rivals has a key role and it's very seldom that someone flowers on their own."

Mahon goes further, claiming the myth of "The Group", "is a load of hooey cooked up by some journalists at the time. 'The Group' was not nearly so important as it suited certain people at the time to make out. They somehow tried to make out that Heaney, Longley and the rest of us were trying to become part of a British poetry scene when we were already part of an Irish scene. But Belfast was a fairly dismal place in those days and Hobsbaum was a nice and stimulating man, so it was somewhere to go and drink free whiskey."

Longley and Mahon shared the Eric Gregory Award for young poets in 1965 and after a series of small-scale publications, Longley's first full collection, No Continuing City, which largely explored urban themes, was published in 1969. In 1970, he joined the Northern Irish Arts Council as exhibitions officer and the following year founded its literature programme and edited a journal, Causeway, which assessed the state of the arts in Ulster and, importantly, took in traditional Irish art and music.

He says while there was an enormous amount of local artistic talent waiting to be brought to the surface, the prevailing view was still that "culture was Beethoven and the RSC coming to Belfast once a year. My ideas have modified slightly since then and I'm less opposed to the big artistic institutions as there is more fall-out from them than I gave credit for. Perhaps I was over-devoted to the notion of the lone fiddler, but it needed someone to overstate the case back then."

He oversaw literary, musical, artistic and publishing projects and, with Edna, put on poetry readings at Queen's, which attracted Robert Lowell and Hugh MacDiarmid. Longley's second collection, An Exploded View, came out in 1973 and was followed by Man Lying on a Wall in 1976, in which his attachment to the flora and fauna of County Mayo, where he often stays, was increasingly apparent. Throughout this period he and Muldoon were exchanging notes. "The thought that there was a reader with a name attached was an incentive to write," says Muldoon. "We'd often comment in great detail and there is a tradition of people being forthright in that part of the world and that is very healthy I think."

While Longley was a conscientious and able administrator, he was far from desk-bound. At a time of tit-for-tat sectarian murders - as he wrote in a poem called "Letter to Derek Mahon", "the stereophonic nightmare / of the Shankhill and the Falls" - he was organising tours of Irish musicians. "And my feeling was that you can't always preach to the converted so it was important for these musicians, and some of them are geniuses, to play in Protestant towns, although I would try to have some Protestant musicians on the bill as well." Astonishingly, the UDA once requested a private performance of traditional Irish music.

In the late 80s the novelist Glenn Patterson was asked by Longley to take part in the community programme. "There were musicians and artists as well as writers," he remembers. "There was no precedent for that sort of thing at that time and there was a bit of trepidation as certain towns had their reputations." Longley says he was aware of maintaining civil society in a time of war. "Northern Ireland deserved some arts and it also deserved to see what Northern Irish people were capable of producing." He received death threats from loyalists and complaints from the other side, which branded him a Protestant interloper because he was critical of the way official Irish artistic institutions had treated traditional artists. "It wasn't pleasant, but in a way I valued their disapproval. I think it meant I was getting something right if they were both unhappy with me."

McDonald says Longley was at the Arts Council "during some of the darkest days in Ireland and he got his hands dirty by staying in Belfast when the lure of the creative writing professorship must have been great. He did the front-line cultural work at a time when culture seemed like the last thing that mattered to anyone and while the toiling away took its toll, that work was in itself a creative act."

The Echo Gate (1979) was Longley's last collection for 12 years and, crucially for his reputation, his period of silence coincided with the growth of Irish studies as an academic discipline. The burst of critical scrutiny passed with no new work from him and he began to appear something of a peripheral figure. Increasingly unhappy in his job, he took early retirement in 1991 and even today the recollection of office politics from this period can provoke him to anger. However, with splendid synchronicity, Gorse Fires was published the very day he left his job and the positive response to it amazed and delighted him. "I thought everyone would have forgotten who I was as I felt I was falling off the edge of the branch. Derek and Seamus had gone on writing, which added to the panic, so it did make me very happy."

Patterson claims part of the reason for the success of his later work is that Longley is not predictable. "This is a place where it is all too easy and frequent for people to assume people will respond in a particular way because of their religion at birth." He singles out the Gorse Fires poem about a murdered ice-cream man, which opens with a list of ice-cream flavours and ends with a mellifluous list of 20 wild flowers. "I love the care with which he lists the flavours and the flowers and how that reminds us of the individual lives lost. It's very easy over here to get lost in the abstraction and the ideologies. But it is always necessary to go back to the humanity of the individual victims."

McDonald says Longley's current public standing - something that seemed unlikely 15 years ago - is due to the fact that "concepts like decency, honesty and integrity are in the bones of his artistry and he has never really deviated from the path. He never simplifies things as public poetry often does. For instance, that ceasefire poem includes what happens afterwards. It is only a ceasefire, not the end of the war. There is real, not reconciled pain at the end of the poem. To use the language of our time, he does not achieve closure."

Despite Longley's avuncular appearance and manner - one friend described him as a cross between Santa Claus, Ernest Hemingway and God - his work is not exclusively affirming. As Brearton points out, "it has the capacity to mourn, but deliberately doesn't say that it can console". Following on from The Weather in Japan, which won the 2001 TS Eliot prize, the theme of ageing runs through Snow Water. Longley has stopped drinking and smoking, but is diabetic and acknowledges he should lose some weight. "Great poetry is written by young men," he says. "Then comes middle age and all these crises which I have been through, like drinking too much. Then, somehow, if you can get through that middle stretch, you break through to something else and I feel that my last few books have been my best."

He says it has been a "huge advantage" to have faced all sorts of competition since the beginning of his career. "Even if you were on your own, you say to yourself that you are practising an art that Keats and John Clare and George Herbert had practised. But it is much better to have other poets around you. I had just got used to writing near Derek Mahon at Trinity when I came here and met Seamus. After a while we thought we had it sewn up and then along come Muldoon and Ciaran Carson and Medbh McGuckian. Now there is another group of very bright young poets. I believe we are all biological entities that respond to stimuli. The envy gland is there and one always fears it is visible. And praise is important and so is criticism."

Just before his father died, Longley had his first poem published in the undergraduate magazine. "It was called 'Marsh Marigolds' and I showed it to my father. He said, 'Michael, it's not worth the paper it's written on.' In a way he was right, but I wanted him to like it and he shouldn't have said that. When I was with the Queen I showed her the photograph of my father getting the Military Cross from her grandfather and I asked her where it was taken. She recognised straight away it was in the gardens and arranged for an equerry to take me there at the end of the interview. So I went out and stood on the same spot and I was really quite tearful. And I thought of my dad being there all those years ago and said to myself that perhaps 'Marsh Marigolds' wasn't so awful after all."

Michael George Longley
July 27 1939, Belfast.
1951-58 Royal Belfast Academical Institution; '58-63 Trinity College Dublin.
1964 married Edna Broderick (two daughters, Rebecca and Sarah, one son, Daniel).
1963-69 schoolteacher in Dublin, London, Belfast; '70-91 Assistant director, Arts Council of Northern Ireland.
1969 No Continuing City; '73 An Exploded View; '76 Man Lying on a Wall; '79 The Echo Gate; '91 Gorse Fires; '95 The Ghost Orchid; '98 Selected Poems; 2000 The Weather in Japan; '04 Snow Water.
1965 Eric Gregory award; '85 Commonwealth poetry prize; '91 Whitbread poetry award, 2000 Hawthornden prize, Irish Times literature prize; 2001 Queen's gold medal for poetry; TS Eliot prize.


The poet at play

Robert Potts
The Guardian, Saturday May 12, 2001

The first meeting between Seamus Heaney and the 17-year-old Paul Muldoon has bred a number of apocryphal tales. Muldoon was said to have sent some poems to Heaney, asking, "What's wrong with these?", to which the future Nobel Laureate apparently replied, "Nothing". In another account, Heaney is alleged to have said: "Muldoon has nothing to learn from me; I may have something to learn from him." As Muldoon himself recalls the encounter, his teacher, Jerry Hicks, introduced him to Heaney with the words, "This is the boy who'll be even better than you", which, as Muldoon says, "was inappropriate and very embarrassing". Hicks then added in a stage whisper: "Rara avis." Today Muldoon cheerfully says: "I don't know whether I'm an odd bird, but that's for others to decide. As are most things."

There's still something boyish about Muldoon, and still something birdlike; strigiform. Bespectacled, blinking eyes and a crop of wavy hair that always looks a little windblown, whatever the weather. Although he is 50 this year, he has a youthful appearance, and a youthful manner. And although Faber has just published, in one volume, his eight major volumes of poetry to date, Poems 1968-1998, which has brought him over to Britain from Princeton for readings and lectures, he is cheerfully bemused by the idea that any of this is of any importance; still less that he is of any importance. That is presumably something that others have decided.

What others have decided is that Muldoon is "among the few significant poets of our half-century"; "the most significant English-language poet born since the second world war"; that he has "enormous talent... off the map". "I don't think there's anyone writing at the moment with his range," says Michael Longley, who himself has recently won a clutch of major prizes and been awarded the Queen's Medal for Poetry.

In person, Muldoon is modest to the point of reticence, and while "grateful for the way the poems have been received - people have been very, very... nice", simply suggests he has been lucky, and leaves it at that. This reticence has similarities with his poetry, of which Alan Jenkins, deputy editor of the Times Literary Supplement, says: "He's like a schoolboy about to tell you a secret; as if he's saying, 'Look what I've got in my pocket', but never quite coming out with it."

When Muldoon really was a schoolboy, in the 1950s and 60s, he lived in Collegelands, near the Moy in rural Armagh. His mother, Brigid, was a schoolteacher; his father, Patrick, who had done countless jobs throughout his life, became a market gardener and, near the end of his life, a mushroom farmer. Muldoon was the eldest of three children; his sister now lives in Northern Ireland, after spending some time in England, his brother in Canada. The territory of Paul Muldoon's childhood home is returned to over and over in the poetry. (Indeed, one line in "Yarrow" reads: "The bridge. The barn. The all-too-familiar terrain.") "It's a beautiful part of the world," says Muldoon. "It's still the place that's 'burned into the retina', and although I haven't been back there since I left for university 30 years ago, it's the place I consider to be my home."

Jenkins, who once visited the place with Muldoon in the 1980s, adds a perspective not available to the child, noting that the surrounding area had once been home to "some real hard men, people who'd been involved in various ways with the IRA", and recalling his shock, as a visiting Englishman, that even such a quiet part of the world was "grotesquely" connected with violent deaths. Muldoon doesn't recall any of this impinging greatly on him when he was a child, but the political tensions are there in the poetry. One of his early poems, Anseo, is about a schoolfriend who becomes an IRA quartermaster, applying the discipline of his schooldays to his adult troops.

"We were a fairly non-political household; my parents were nationalists, of course, but it was not something, as I recall, that was a major area of discussion. But there were patrols; an army presence; movements of troops; a sectarian divide. And that particular area was a nationalist enclave, while next door was the parish where the Orange Order was founded; we'd hear the drums on summer evenings. But I think my mother, in particular, may have tried to shelter us from it all. Besides, we didn't really socialise a great deal. We were 'blow-ins' - arrivistes - new to the area, and didn't have a lot of connections." In his teens, he was aware of the civil rights demonstrations, and the reasons for them; discrimination in housing and other areas, or "infringements of decency", as he gently puts it.

The young Muldoon had "a very powerful imaginative life", inventing "scenarios" with other children; in the backyard they would build "pirate ships, fortresses, trucks, lorries"; even, after seeing The Four Feathers, a camel. Some of these imaginary games, a blend of history and Boy's Own fiction, are evoked in his long poem, Yarrow. Jenkins suggests that Heaney's writing was a valuable encouragement to Muldoon as a teenager; it showed him that "he could write about his own life, even if most of it had been spent just walking through fields - which it had".

Muldoon was already writing at this time - "writing as only an adolescent can", he laughs. It seems strange now that a poet whose adult work embraces such a range of ideas and events, from colonial encounters through horticulture, philosophy, linguistics and literature to rock music and anthropology, should have had such a quiet, rural upbringing. Part of his enthusiasm for books may have come from his mother, though Muldoon, reflecting on this, says: "I'm astonished to think that. Apart from some Catholic Truth Society pamphlets, some books on saints, there were, essentially, no books in the house, except one set, the Junior World Encyclopaedia, which I certainly read again and again. People would say, I suppose, that it might account for my interest in a wide range of arcane bits of information. At some level, I was self-educated." He does, however, recall several great teachers at St Patrick's College, Armagh - Sean O'Boyle, Jerry Hicks and John McCarter - who taught him Irish as well as English, and introduced classes to Irish folk songs and poetry.

In 1969, Muldoon went to university, reading English at Queen's, Belfast. Here he met Heaney again who, in the 1960s, had been part of a writer's group set up by Philip Hobsbaum, who did so much to introduce Heaney's work to Britain. The "Belfast Group", as it became known, which had included Heaney, Michael Longley and Derek Mahon, enjoyed a second generation, in which Muldoon met the poets Ciaran Carson, Medbh McGuckian (later to become the first female writer-in-residence at Queen's) and Frank Ormsby, a consistent champion of the work of Ulster poets. Longley describes them as "a brilliant generation. I feel they set about deconstructing everything that myself and Seamus and Derek Mahon had so patiently put together, and it's great to have to remain on your toes, which this younger generation has forced me to do." Muldoon says: "I think it was fairly significant, certainly to me. It was exciting. But then I was 19, 20 years old, and at university, so everything was exciting, really."

During his time at Queen's, Muldoon had his first book, New Weather, published by Faber & Faber, a success only slightly marred by the fact that a printer's error resulted in the whole book being published in italics. Muldoon's undergraduate career, however, was not proving quite so emphatic. Longley merely comments that it "was completely undistinguished - I think he may have achieved an 'allowed fail'. He didn't shine in the examination hall." Muldoon admits that, by the time he graduated in 1973, "I had stopped. Really, I should have dropped out. I'd basically lost interest halfway through. Not because there weren't great people teaching me, but I'd stopped going to lectures, and rather than doing the decent thing, I just hung around. I don't know why I'm laughing about it - I'm not proud of it."

Muldoon still seems cross with himself for not committing himself, though there are several explanations. He had had a volume of poems published, had "discovered the joys of alcohol", and met his future wife, Anne-Marie Conway; they were both students, and married in 1973, after Muldoon had graduated. That was the year that his mother died, after a long illness, from cancer. It was also the year after Bloody Sunday, and the Troubles were underway. Muldoon remembers that his wedding coincided with an Ulster workers' council strike and he was "barely able to get to the church past all sorts of blockades. I wasn't able to get into the store to get my wedding suit; it was closed. So," he adds with a typical understatement, "it was a pretty grim time." Longley, who, like Muldoon, does not care to talk too much about the period, recalls that they became friends and would go drinking together - "serious drinking, as we call it up here" - and admits that "we spent a lot of time in pubs, and a lot of time watching the pub door".

Bernard O'Donoghue, a poet and Oxford don, and a friend of Muldoon's since the mid-1980s, points out that Muldoon "was one of the first Northern Irish writers to be published when the Troubles were in full swing. He's a Troubles poet from the beginning, cautious from the start. And this is why the compassion in his work is so important. In a fraught world, the voice that shouts loudest is not necessarily the most creditable. There's a mock innocence in the poems, a disturbing way of reporting violence - horribly literal, half-humorous - that works as a shock tactic. It works as a way of conveying how shocking the violence is." Jenkins remarks, similarly, that, "Paul hates violence. Yes, he thought the British army shouldn't have been there, but he hates all forms of violence."

Muldoon now thinks that his drinking was a way of becoming numb; to the political atmosphere, certainly, and perhaps to his mother's illness. What is notable is that, regardless, the poetry becomes infused with political imagery, or imagery that can be read politically; images of integrity, twinning and division, not to mention miscegenation (his second volume was called Mules). The rural idyll is there, alongside a number of sly, sexy poems about young love and liaisons, but there are also poems such as Meeting Pancho Villa, in which the relationship between politics and pastoral poetry is wittily problematised.

For 13 years after his undistinguished graduation, Muldoon worked for the BBC as an arts producer. About this, he is, as ever, humorous and self-deprecating, attributing his employment to the fact that the tea trolley arrived during his interview and "I'd been so well brought-up that I just naturally leaned over and said, 'Would anyone like a cup of tea?'. They must have thought, 'Here's a fine tea-bearer to the gods', which is basically what being a radio producer is." Longley, however, describes him as "by all accounts, one of the best arts producers the BBC ever had. He was punctilious. According to those who worked with him, even his paperwork was the best they'd seen. He worked with enormous efficiency and originality. Not what one would have been led to expect by his university career!" During this time, Muldoon published two further books - Why Brownlee Left (1980) and Quoof (1983) - and his marriage to Conway ended in divorce, after only a few years.

He later had a relationship for several years with the artist, Mary Farl Powers; they lived together in Northern Ireland, but broke up in the early 1980s. She died of cancer in 1992. Muldoon's poem, Incantata, one of the outstanding elegies of the 20th century, was written for her. He wrote it "in four or five days, in a complete state", yet it has a remarkable structure, in terms of rhyme scheme and syntax, and a plenitude of detail. One section refers to an incident when he and Powers were living in Northern Ireland and a priest visited to enquire whether they were living in sin. He writes: "of the hedge-clippers, /I somehow had to hand, of him running like the clappers/ up Landseer street, of my subsequent self-reproach." Jenkins was there that day; he recalls Muldoon "was absolutely white with rage... it was very funny, but looked as if it could have turned quite ugly".

In 1986, his father died. Muldoon has elegised his father repeatedly, most recently in The Epistle To Timothy; his mother is elegised, finally, in The Annals of Chile (1993). He gives the impression that it took time for him to come to terms with his feelings towards her, admitting that, "I'm sure we had some unfinished business", and noting his tendency "to valorise my father and, I'm afraid, to demonise her because of some of the tendencies she had: she was very harsh. That was a faint undertone to my 'idyllic' childhood, I suppose."

Jenkins certainly thinks that "there is some darkness in Paul to do with his mother, and I think in a lot of his more recent work, he has begun to exorcise that". In The Annals of Chile, Muldoon imagines his parents' graves in Collegelands: "in which, though she preceded him / by a good ten years, my mother's skeleton/ has managed to worm/ its way back on top of the old man's,/ and she once again has him under her thumb." As the elegies proceed, a subtly sympathetic portrait finally emerges.

Muldoon was now living with the woman who became his second wife, the novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz. They had met at an Arvon creative writing course, in which she was a student. Jenkins recalls her telling him that "the moment she set eyes on Paul she thought to herself 'that's the man I'm going to marry'". When asked about this, Muldoon's self-effacing response is: "I don't think so!"

In 1986, Muldoon decided to leave the BBC: "It had become harder - almost every month you had to persuade some of the powers-that-were that there was any point in doing arts programmes at all. It's just wearying, physically and mentally." An Irish arts organisation, Aosdána, gave him a stipend; this bought Muldoon a year in Dingle in Ireland, a place perhaps most famous for the fact that Ryan's Daughter was filmed there. (Muldoon has suggested in a poem that, affronted by the use of artificial rain in the movie, God has ensured that it's rained there ever since.) After that, he taught English and creative writing at Caius College, Cambridge, and the University of East Anglia.

His students at Cambridge included Lee Hall, the writer of the British hit movie, Billy Elliot. Hall recalls Muldoon's weekly writing classes: "I liked him enormously. I would take my gauche efforts to his weekly surgery and even sang a few songs, and Paul would take everything in his stride. I found him as mysteriously playful as his verse, entirely diffident towards the institution which was hosting him but without any of the posturing of resistance - distance was kept, and his blithe integrity preserved; he was amused, one suspected, but never self-satisfied. And although I remember almost nothing of what he said, I'd say he was easily the best teacher of writing I've met, because it was without a programme or method, and was as gentle as it has been long-lasting."

Giles Foden, the novelist and deputy literary editor of the Guardian, was also a pupil. "People now talk about Muldoon's obliquity in a critical sense, and in those days he was very much like that in person. You got a sense of a lot going on in the hinterland and it made you more attentive to what he did say. Like 'find a territory', for instance. Or: 'sometimes it's better to go for the small subjects, the delicate subjects, before bringing on the big guns'. He had just finished Meeting the British when he said something along those lines - and that was exactly what he was doing in that book: using fish-hooks and blankets to characterise a colonial outrage."

Meeting the British develops still further the allusive, playful and ambiguous style that Muldoon's poetry had from early on. Those who love Muldoon's work point to precisely this quality; Jenkins notes that "everything happens in the margins"; O'Donoghue talks of how the poems "set you up for a thump; there's always a sense of moment about Paul's poetry, something not said at all, that leaves you some thing to worry about". It is a poetry that, while on the surface is searching for precision, is careful about what it leaves out; there is never a sense that the poem is closed off, since it seems also to suggest what it cannot say or contain.

After Cambridge, Muldoon went to America with Jean, where he has lived ever since; he is currently director of the creative writing program at Princeton. He seems terrifically happy: happily married; two children, Dorothy Aoife, aged nine, and Asher, aged one; and a beautiful house. Certainly, this period has seen his most breathtaking work; though not to everyone's liking, these books have been the source of his reputation as the outstanding poet of his generation. Ludic, erudite, witty, complex, they defy easy summary or description. Madoc: A mystery (1980), for instance, the first book he wrote after arriving in America, stunned critics; for some it was an ambitious and remarkable book, for others it was rebarbative and wilfully obscure.

The bulk of the book is a long, narrative poem. The Romantic poets Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge conceived a plan to found a Pantisocratic (egalitarian) community in America; the plan came to nothing, but Muldoon imagines what would have happened if they had gone ahead. Encounters with North American Indians are mingled with political plots; there is a talking horse called Bucephalus; Southey's (genuine) poem, Madoc, based on a mythic early arrival in America by a medieval Welsh chieftain, is invoked; and, as if this wasn't enough, the whole narrative is actually being read from the dissolving retina of a man called South, caught in the distant future by feuding alien tribes, in a Dome in what used to be Ireland. On top of that, each verse segment of the long poem is surtitled by the name of a philosopher or thinker, from the early Greeks to Stephen Hawking and Jacques Derrida; the verses bear a greater or lesser connection to the life, work or name of the thinkers.

Such a precis cannot convey all that is happening in the poem; certainly not the wit, pun-making and joke-cracking that riddles the narrative. Here, perhaps, is one key to reading Muldoon. As Bernard O'Donoghue says: "He's like Beckett; he's funny. If you don't think it's funny, you're not going to get it. You have to tune into the way he's thinking and writing." Or, as Muldoon himself says, more cryptically: "I quite enjoy having fun. It's part of how it is, and who we are."

In subsequent volumes, Muldoon has written with increasing liberation. Shorter, lyric poems are still there, yet seem to echo or anticipate the design of the longer, accompanying suites of poems. Rhymes so slight as to be scarcely audible or visible rub up against repeated words and phrases; niggling distinctions between near-synonymous words are countered by the yoking together of similar-sounding but otherwise unrelated words and names. It becomes harder and harder to distinguish between design and serendipity; between seriousness and humour; between precision and indeterminacy.

Achillea millefolium: with its
bedraggled, feathery leaf
and pink (less red than mauve) or off-white
flower, its tight little knot

of a head,
it's like something keeping a
from itself, something on the
tip of its own tongue.

O'Donoghue sees this ludic side of Muldoon as a serious endeavour, relating it back to the Troubles: "It's a rhetoric that undermines certainty, because 'certainty' means someone getting killed." Jenkins and Longley take another line, on the whole preferring the earlier poems and the shorter ones. As Longley says: "For me, Finnegan's Wake is a wonderful waste of time, laying a paper trail for the academics. Sometimes I wonder if that's what Paul is up to. But I say to him, 'I like writing wee poems that move people', and Paul says, 'Believe it or not, I do too'."

Muldoon has said this before, and is taken as being ironic: "What I try to do is write poems that are crystal-clear and whose surfaces are pellucid and immediately tangible." It is possible - more than possible - that he means this. His comments on his own poetic process are self-confessedly confused and contradictory, but seem to boil down to the poet being merely a conductor or midwife to each individual poem; that he should be alert to what "the poem" is trying to do. This is an idea of poetic composition with a noble heritage, right back to Plato's Ion, but still jars in a technocratic age. As Alan Jenkins says of other aspects of Muldoon's work: "What you have to understand is that, for Paul, the supernatural is natural." The shamanism, folklore and other spiritual aspects in the poetry are not convenient games or references for Muldoon; they are treated with more respect than that. These are, perhaps, hard things for a contemporary audience to come to terms with, especially in the face of such linguistic fluency, technical virtuosity and architectural ambition.

In 1999, Muldoon was elected, unopposed, to the Oxford professorship of poetry; he gives a lecture each term for five years. In his lectures he is equally wide-ranging and allusive, making strange links and analogies between apparently unrelated texts and ideas, and disinterring etymologies which writers cannot have been aware of. O'Donoghue says these "are not meant to be persuasive; they're just one way of organising material. It's an intertextuality that, at one level, is mocking scholarship."

Even Muldoon's fans find some of the "difficulty" of this pyrotechnical erudition too playful, suspecting him of a Joycean desire to "keep the professors busy". The Oxford professor Valentine Cunningham finds his use of analogy "extraordinary and misguided, purely associative, with crazy, contrived jumps . . . I think that's the way his mind works, and it's deeply disturbing. I don't think ill of his poetry, except insofar as it has infected his lectures; and I like him as a person, but his literary criticism, or literary history, or cultural mapping - whatever you choose to call it - is no good. It's Bedlam; an associative madness."

O'Donoghue, though, points out that Muldoon is "a terrific communicator; the Oxford lectures are a popular success. Even when they are allusive or odd or untrue, there's a sense that everyone is interested all the time."

Muldoon doesn't consider his poetry to be "difficult"; he thinks that we have less of a sense of how to read poetry. "I'm struck, when teaching poetry, by the extent to which we are so well educated in watching movies; we understand, without realising how much we understand, the grammar of the film. And we understand the grammar of popular music, which is constantly drawing on all sorts of allusions, and on a wide range of very complex musical ideas - whereas, as a society, we have not developed our ways of reading to the same extent. If we did, there wouldn't be a problem. Well, I say that, but we do have to learn, on each occasion, how to read a poem."

No matter; Muldoon is unbothered by arguments over literary influence or reputation, untroubled by audience or its absence. There is a strong sense, especially among Irish poets, having seen the burdens of celebrity and fame on a talent such as Seamus Heaney that, as Muldoon himself says: "I don't want all the crap that goes with it; so much is so unnecessary." All are agreed that the weight of expectation that comes with any degree of literary celebrity can be detrimental to a poet. Muldoon is "interested in whatever the next thing will be. That's really all I'm interested in"; or, perhaps, to steal one of his own recent lines, he is, "walking on air, / bounding, vaulting, pausing in mid-career".

Life at a glance: Paul Muldoon

Born: June 20 1951, Portadown, County Armagh.

Education: St Patrick's College, Armagh; Queen's Univeristy, Belfast.

Married: Anne-Marie Conway, 1973-1977; Jean Hanff Korelitz, 1988 - (one daughter, Dorothy Aoife; one son, Asher).

Career: 1973-86 arts producer, BBC Northern Ireland, Belfast; 1987-1990 lecturer at the University of Columbia, New York, University of California, University of Massachusetts; 1990 - Princeton University (1993 Director of Creative Writing Program); 1999 - Oxford Professor of Poetry.

Books: New Weather,1973; Mules, 1977; Why Brownlee Left, 1980; Quoof, 1983; Meeting the British, 1987; Madoc, 1990; The Annals of Chile, 1994; Hay, 1998.

Awards: T S Eliot Prize, 1994; American Academy of Arts and Sciences Award for Literature, 1996; Irish Times Poetry Prize, 1997.

A poet of perfect poise

Stephen Romer

The Guardian
, Saturday June 16, 2001

Review of Poems 1968-1998
Paul Muldoon
494pp, Faber, £12.99

A well-known story has it that when the young Paul Muldoon, then still at school, sent a sheaf of poems to Seamus Heaney accompanied by the question "What is wrong with these?", Heaney replied with just one word: "Nothing." Heaney's instant recognition of "the real thing", and Muldoon's astonishing precocity, are by now the stuff of legend. He was just 21, and still at Queen's University, Belfast, when he published his first collection, New Weather , with Faber in 1973. Almost universally acclaimed by his immediate elders and his peers, Muldoon seemed to have sprung fully formed from the head of the lyric muse. Or (and since today is Bloomsday) from the head of one James Joyce, a writer with whom he shares a fascination with the transformative power of language.

Now, some 30 years on, turning to those early poems in this great volume, Poems 1968-1998 , that initial astonishment is renewed. The grace, the wit, the assurance; the absence of tonal wobble that afflicts most first collections; the sense of enormous resources lightly deployed; the parameters of a recognisable territory deftly sketched out and now firmly established as "Muldoon country" - all these qualities came together in poems like "Clonfeacle", "Kate Whiskey", "Vespers", "The Cure for Warts", "The Kissing Seat" and "Lives of the Saints". Take the opening stanza of "The Waking Father": ]

My father and I are catching spricklies


Out of the Oona river.

They have us feeling righteous,

The way we have thrown them back.

Our benevolence is astounding.

The apparent simplicity is made of subtle stuff - the use of the colloquial "spricklie", the fragment of "found" mythology in the name Oona, the complicity of father and son, the shrewd slant given to the words "righteous" and "benevolence", redolent of a whole religious lexicon. Above all, it is the conflation of a universally recognisable emotion with a local habitation and a name that strikes the reader. Like his early hero, Robert Frost, Muldoon seemed to grasp from the outset how, as he once put it, "a small place, a parish, can come to stand for the world".

His native Armagh, and his village of the Moy, which he dubs "Chez Moy", has remained the epicentre of his work throughout, and is the precious and apparently inexhaustible seam running through it. His immediate elders such as John Montague, Heaney, or Michael Longley have similarly worked their patches, but none, I think, has brought such resources - be they drawn from legend, folklore, old wives' tales, history or first-hand experience - to bear with quite such concentration on a single place. In the poem "Paris", an item on a menu in the French capital prompts the reflection: "Chicken Marengo! It's a far cry from the Moy." But even here, Muldoon's allusive genius is at work, for he takes delight in the unlikely fact that the ground plan of the Moy is based on that of Marengo, Italy.

Muldoon has called himself "the Prince of the Quotidian"; he is also the prince of ellipsis, obliquity and surprise, of the pun and the trouvaille . He is certainly the undisputed master of tone. Peter Porter once used the adjective "friendly" to describe it, and it is the mot juste . But one of the paradoxes of Muldoon's tone is that we are so lulled by this affable, clubbable, amiable voice that we sometimes overlook the darkness and violence in so many of his poems. It is a siren voice, and deliberately so. The poet once explained that his aim was to reassure readers, and then to leave them "high and dry, in some corner at a terrible party" from which he has "nipped out, leaving by the bathroom window".

The reader is initially entranced by the way Muldoon says things, and it is only later that the dark matter of the poem comes to impinge. This might include hints of sexual violence or abuse in pieces such as "The Ducking Stool", "At Martha's Deli" or "Big Liz" from his second book, Mules ; or, from his third, Why Brownlee Left , the muted personal anguish of the ending of a relationship. In a poem from that book, "The Princess and the Pea", he imagines the "older sister" of the fairy-tale princess

stretched on the open grave

Of all the men she has known.

Far down, something niggles. The stir

Of someone still alive.

Then a cry, far down. It is your own.

Muldoon's first four "Irish" collections - those written before his permanent move to America in 1987 - are inevitably shot through with allusions to the Troubles. It is in this connection that he developed, initially at least, his gift for analogy and obliquity, perhaps most famously in "A Trifle", where the poet, ordered to evacuate a building "when the Tannoy sounds // Another bomb alert", finds himself blocked on the stairs by a woman carrying a tray on which he sees something riveting - and here the aesthete in him becomes oblivious of any danger - "a plate of blue-pink trifle / or jelly sponge, / with a dollop of whipped cream on top". This sonnet - a form that, along with slant-rhyme, Muldoon has made almost organically his own - is an example of what Heaney has called "the poetic equivalent of walking on air", an exercise necessitated, he suggests, by the younger poet's "swerves away from any form of poker-faced solidarity with the political programmes of the Northern Catholic minority". Like Derek Mahon, another poet from the North of Ireland, Muldoon has always been aware of having to steer between the Scylla and Charybdis of, on the one hand, "engagement", with its risk of cashing in on the situation, and, on the other, playing the ostrich.

In Quoof (1983), probably his most powerful single collection, all Muldoon's gifts are turned upon contemporary politics, in a mode that ranges from ironic scrutiny to very black humour. The approach is often anecdotal: "The Sightseers" begins with typical bonhomie and a family outing to see the "brand-new roundabout at Ballygawley", and ends with a chilling memory of the bullying B Specials. At other times, he conflates Irish literary genre with contemporary references to hunger strikers and venereal disease, as in the brilliantly sour "Aisling".

In the extraordinary bravura piece "The More a Man Has, the More a Man Wants", trickster mythology is intercut with a cinematic-cum-cartoon technique and a host of literary allusions. It is here that the violence is most squarely confronted, in the faintly comic figure of Gallogly, a terrorist on the run. Written in racy 14-liners, it contrives to present images of gruesome brutality in a kind of deadpan Chandlerese. At one point a local councillor is blown up by a car bomb:

Once they collect his smithereens

he doesn't quite add up.

They're shy of a foot, and a calf

which stems

from his left shoe like a severely

pruned-back shrub.

The multilayered complexities of this long poem pave the way for the great virtuoso orchestrations of the others that follow, in the four subsequent volumes collected here, mostly composed in America. In some of these, Muldoon becomes drunk, or high, on words, disappearing - like Joyce - behind the smokescreen of his own ingenuity. The case against this poet has always centred on his "knowing" literary cleverness, and in a poem such as "7, Middagh Street" - chiefly memorable for its far-fetched rhymes, including "waggon/ Oregon", "Ottoman/ Whitman", "telephone/ Chamberlain", "Goebbels/ Saint Paul's" - he does lay himself open to this charge.

But then, in The Annals of Chile (1994), we stumble upon his great "Incantata", an elegy written in the Yeatsian "stadium stanza". In its passionate grief, but also in its tempering humour and humanity, this poem is one of the pinnacles of Muldoon's art - the utter delight of language-play galvanised by the urgency of the commemoration.

Describing his work as a teacher of creative writing, Muldoon has spoken of the adventures his students "might have with language, if they allow themselves to be taken over by the possibilities of language and if they are humble, as it were, before language". It seems to me that this is a key aspect of his own practice. Muldoon has enfranchised a whole generation of poets, by freeing them into his own brand of linguistic euphoria. But what sets him apart from his imitators, and raises him above them, is his imaginative scope and daring, which is never overly dependent on personal experience - he is almost never confessional. His anecdotes are always slippery and sidelong, just as the names he chooses - Faith or Grace or Joseph Mary Plunkett Ward - deftly mythologise his local occasions. Nor is he postmodern, except in the loosest sense. His language is too focused and his miraculously sinuous syntax too bindingly tensile for that kind of openness. Paul Muldoon is a fabulous poet, and Poems 1968-1998 should win him a host of new readers.


’Literature’s Loose Cannon’

Raised in Belfast, this headmaster's son with a passion for poetry and politics went on to become an academic. Now based in Oxford, he has built up a high-profile career as a poet, polemicist and controversial critic. His latest project - an epic about the second world war - is his most ambitious yet. Nicholas Wroe reports

The Guardian
, Saturday March 23, 2002

In his 1998 book on William Hazlitt, The Day-Star Of Liberty, Tom Paulin drew attention to the changing meaning of the word "nervous". While nowadays it signifies timidity and anxiety, he explains, in Hazlitt's time it meant, "sinewy, muscular, vigorous, strong". When applied as a critical term, he adds, it carried "connotations of a lean, fit republicanism". Paulin's stammery and fidgety manner, particularly as seen in his regular television appearances, could fool people into thinking his nervousness was of the modern variety, but as soon as he expresses an opinion it is clear that in this, as in so much else, he has more of the 18th century about him.

Mark Lawson's habitual introduction of "the critic and poet Tom Paulin" on BBC2's Newsnight Review is largely correct - Paulin has also been a respected academic for 30 years. But when he is described by anyone else it is a variation on "acerbic TV pundit", or, as one reviewer, with a nod to Paulin's often expressed admiration for Milton recently put it, "the curmudgeonly Samson Agonistes of the Late Review". A recent on-air spat with fellow panellist Germaine Greer about the role played by British paratroopers on Bloody Sunday - "they were thugs sent in by public schoolboys to kill innocent Irish people; they were rotten racist bastards" - precipitated a flurry of publicity and a further strengthening of the Paulin cult.

"We get letters from viewers telling us they have little shrines to Tom by the telly," says series producer Mark Bell. "And we get others telling us he is the most appalling man and shouldn't be allowed on air. Even though you kind of know where he's coming from - he was a firebrand who came up through the 60s and 70s when people tended to really care about things - you still don't always know what he's going to say. But even when he takes you by surprise, when he sees some hidden radicalism or references in a seemingly formulaic Hollywood spy film or something, it still seems to fit with his artistic and world view."

Paulin has published five collections of poetry, edited several anthologies and next month publishes the first volume of a hugely ambitious verse project about the second world war. Over 30 years he has also provided literary, cultural and historical criticism in books, reviews, essays and lectures. Most recently, in the wake of September 11 and the subsequent outbreak of renewed violence in Israel, he has been involved in an acrimonious public argument about Israeli policy towards Palestinians. But over the years he has also precipitated high-profile rows defending Milton's place in the literary canon, attacking establishment tolerance of TS Eliot's anti-Semitism and Philip Larkin's racism, and complaining about the deleterious influence of critical theory on the teaching of English literature.

"I do think culture is an argument," he explains, "and that was part of the way I was brought up. People at a social occasion in Ireland will start shouting and arguing. When the Yeats family lived in Bedford Park they had to go round to the neighbours to say 'you might think we are fighting, but this is the way we talk to each other'. I think ideas should be flying about and banging into each other. It is a kind of energy. If you occupy static positions then things sort of ossify. If you read Milton he says again and again that anything that has congealed or is fixed is wrong."

Bernard O'Donoghue, also a poet and critic, was a fellow student with Paulin at Oxford in the early 70s and is a fellow teacher there now. He notes that Paulin is "quite a glamorous figure here and has a great following. But he hasn't changed at all. He is a through and through democrat and is the same with anyone." O'Donoghue says Paulin's desire for a wider audience is an honourable and coherent aspect of his wider philosophy. "He is a communicator. I was reading his book on Hazlitt the other day and what he admires about Hazlitt, along with the protestant republicanism and the Unitarian left-wing principles, is Hazlitt's impulse to communicate and the idea of conversation being everything. Tom is a great conversationalist both in principle and practice."

Paulin says "if you spend your life with academics, when you step outside you realise there is this huge general readership that is almost impossible to reach with critical writing. It is a rare critical monograph that gets a general readership and if you spend your life as a teacher the central value is communication. And there are different forms of it." In fact Paulin's book on Hazlitt was an intellectually rigorous and scholarly work that did attract a significant audience. And even though he wel comes a wider readership there is no evidence of him making any academic allowances. "The book was called William Hazlitt's Radical Style and while it was meant to look like a critical study," he says, "I also intended it as an epic of the critical imagination. I did it in 12 chapters [a classical epic format] deliberately. Only a few people noticed, but there you are."

As he was finishing the Hazlitt book and was bogged down with the drudgery of fact-checking and compiling the bibliography he started writing poems about the second world war. "Then I spoke to a friend in Belfast who told me about a man who had spent 25 years writing a poem about the second world war. I thought 'I could do that'. It would keep me occupied until I was 73, and in a way it was the idea I had been looking for all my life."

To undertake such an ambitious project Paulin has taken leave from his post as GM Young Lecturer in English at Hertford College, Oxford, a move made possible by receiving £75,000 over three years from the lottery-funded endowment controlled by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts. He says he had written quite a long poem on the second world war, called The Caravans on Luneburg Heath, in his 1987 collection Fivemiletown. As well as being set where Montgomery accepted the German surrender in 1945, the poem was also about the Thirty Years war and the Northern Ireland troubles.

"I tried to bring them all together," he says. "It took a lot out of me and it is probably an impenetrable poem." It indeed is an example of what the distinguished American critic Helen Vendler has called "Paulin's grittiness of surface", but among the history, the politics and the challenging manipulation of syntax and lan guage are glimpses of Paulin's own biography and his motivation for approaching the subject. In the poem he describes his old school which had been, literally, built with detritus of the war effort:

one story partitioned
tacked out of hardboard
and scrap fuselage
this aluminium school
is split in four sections

He goes on to explain that the four school houses were named after the four Ulster field marshals of the war; Dill, Alexander, Montgomery and Alanbrooke. "When you grow up in the post-war generation you live with all the stories," he explains. "I have never been interested in soldiers, but that sort of thing was planted in you. And also my parents had met in Belfast and served in the war." His father had joined up the day war was declared. "He used to listen to Radio Moscow so I guess he was pretty left-wing but he'd never admit it," he says. "He became a major and he told me about being in the officers' mess when the 1945 election results came in. He and the only other officer who voted Labour just kept quiet and winked at each other. That must have been a great moment. I sort of grew up on moments like that."

Politics and discussion were important parts of the Paulin family regime. They didn't get a television set until That Was The Week That Was started in 1962 - "my mother still wouldn't know who someone like Esther Rantzen is". His parent were moderate unionists and supporters of the Northern Ireland Labour Party, and he remembers "we talked a lot about politics and history and so on. The theme was 'we have these terrible dreary politicians called Unionists. They are a bad lot, it's a one-party state which is corrupt and badly run with discrimination.' It wasn't from a vehemently left-wing position, but more a moderate, centrist British Labour Party position." He thinks his parents thought he should be doing literary criticism not poetry, but he doesn't really know, "although my father once said he liked one I wrote about Jim Magennis, the only Ulsterman to win a VC in the last war".

His mother, a GP from Belfast had worked in London hospitals during the blitz; his father was a teacher from Tynemouth near Newcastle. Tom was born in Leeds in 1949 and four years later the family moved to Belfast when his father was appointed headmaster of Annadale, one of the first post-war working-class grammar schools in the province. "I remember Leeds vividly and with great affection," he says. "I also have this memory of standing on the deck of the boat in the dark, and arriving at Belfast and seeing this strange city with yellow street lights getting nearer."

Paulin was the oldest of three boys. His middle brother, Oswyn, is a lawyer in the Northern Ireland civil service. The youngest brother, John, died in his early 20s having lived most of his life in a specialist home for people with cerebral palsy. Last year Paulin wrote a poem about his brother which he read at the House of Commons during a lobby of MPs by the charity Scope. "My brother was in hospital for most of his life, but I met cerebral palsy sufferers who were much more disabled than him, although with all these electronic gadgets and things they could communicate and even run businesses."

Paulin's primary education was "terrible. I went to a grim Victorian school with classes of 40 or 50 children. It was a very rigid and unimaginative education but it did teach us the three Rs." His secondary education, under his father as headmaster, was much better. Eric Brown was one of Paulin's teachers and is also a family friend. He says Tom was part of a very good year. "There were a few of them that liked poetry, and I'd hear them asking each other whether they could invent a new word. Most people of that age wouldn't think of that, but they were a bit ahead of their time and you'd certainly have said he was going to have a future of some literary cast."

Paulin says the quality of his education has left him "time-warped. I think A-level history is still a very good subject, but English is very watery now. Alan Bennett is on the curriculum, for fuck's sake! Imagine giving an 18-year-old Alan Bennett's monologues."

Douglas Paulin, his father, is a much-respected figure who still gets old boys, some now in their 50s and 60s, dropping in to see him. Eric Brown says father and son "both got on very well at school. Tom's father did guide him, but never directly, because Tom wouldn't have accepted it. His father was very tactful and shrewd like that." Paulin acknowledges that he and his father came to a tacit accommodation over the set-up. But like Graham Greene - whose father was also his headmaster - who has written about the green baize door that divided school and home life, Paulin acknowledged some tensions. "I actually read Graham Greene a lot when I was 14 or 15 and I know all about the green baize door. Of course, Greene went on to play Russian roulette," he muses, "but I never had a revolver handy."

Paulin remembers 60s Belfast as "a great place to grow up. When I was an adolescent everyone seemed to be reading Rimbaud or Dostoyevsky." He joined the Trotskyite Socialist Labour League. "It was another part of the city's intellectual life for me. At 15 I was reading Isaac Deutscher. Eventually I realised that all this Trotskyite analysis was beside the point because it was all about national identity. But it was a great education."

Paulin's early literary tastes were influenced by poets Robert Frost and Edward Thomas. "An aunt sent me an essay by Frost on sentence sound and the use of vernacular in poetry when I was about 17. Frost says you have a vernacular, so use it. He says don't think there is a better more polite term or standard term, you go with what you and the people around you talk like." Frost was also an influence on Seamus Heaney, and Paulin remembers the major literary event of his adolescence being the publication of Heaney's debut collection, Death Of A Naturalist, in 1966. "The day it was published was for me like a public holiday. You could see a star in the sky. Nobody from Northern Ireland since MacNeice had published in London with that éclat. Then we had an English teacher who had been at Trinity, Dublin, with Derek Mahon and Michael Longley and he would bring in copies of poems by them. Michael Longley would come in to read in our school when I was in the sixth form, so when they published that was also a huge inspiration."

By the time Paulin left school he knew he wanted to write, and when he went to Hull University to read English in 1967 it was with the express intent of later returning to Belfast for a teaching job that would allow time to write. "But I didn't get anywhere with my writing at Hull," he explains, and describes his early unpublished work as "inchoate". He later burnt it all. "Maybe I am not so happy about that now. It was something I did in my 20s. You go through a bad time and think 'where am I going?'. And I thought I would just clean everything out."

At Hull, Paulin met the poet Douglas Dunn, who was a mature student and on the verge of publication. "Tom used to come round to my flat with some of his poems - very interesting for a man of his age," says Dunn. "But the poems were very different to the work he subsequently published. There was quite an influence of Larkin." Paulin says he was "terrified" of Larkin, who was librarian at the university. "I met him years later and he was charming, but it was like meeting a great knight of the theatre; the presence, the way he spoke, the jokes and so on. He was a shy man, but master of the situation."

One of Paulin's rows came when he objected to the editing out of Larkin's more unpalatable racist views from his collected letters. "I had a go because I think there is a tolerance of prejudice in the culture. For instance, if you talk about Eliot's anti-Semitism you are accused of not appreciating the poetry, which is ridiculous." Friends speak of Paulin's hostility to racism being more than theoretical, pointing out that his children are mixed race. He met his wife, Munjiet Kaur Khosa, called Giti, at Hull, where they were on the same course. She had grown up in Northern Ireland's small Sikh community and had attended a Catholic school. She is now a schools adviser for the Local Education Authority in Oxford. They have two sons, Michael, 21, who is studying at Leeds University and Niall, 20, who is at Sheffield.

After Hull, Paulin did a two-year BLit at Lincoln College, Oxford, where his work on Hardy's poetry later became his first published book, in 1975. Andrew McNeillie, the writer and publisher, was a contemporary. McNeillie says of Paulin, "He was very intense and a little scary. He was always quite staggeringly serious about his work and he had, and still has, this extraordinary lateral vision to see how things connect. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don't, but he can snatch things out of the air."

Another contemporary, David Williams, now teaching at the University of Reading, remembers Paulin even then as being combative. "He was always interested in argument and debate and controversy. And he has always been concerned with injustice and racism. I think that makes his recent interest in the plight of the Palestinians, for instance, that much sharper. He sees it as one of the responsibilities of a writer, and he probably finds some of the evasiveness of English culture not quite to his taste. He is more used to taking a stand and he sometimes finds that people fudge the issues in England."

After Oxford, Paulin applied for a job at Queen's University, Belfast, in 1972 but was turned down. Instead he accepted a job teaching at Nottingham University "where I got stuck for the next 22 years", he laughs grimly. Despite some dissatisfaction with his career, it was at Nottingham that he first felt his verse was of a sufficient standard to publish. Although even some of his closest friends didn't know he was writing poetry, Bernard O'Donoghue says with hindsight "he was so clear on the whole poetic enterprise it was quite logical that he would try to do the stuff as well".

It was Douglas Dunn who recommended Paulin to Faber and Faber, and in 1975 he was published, along with seven other poets, including poet laureate Andrew Motion, in an introductory volume. The following year Faber asked him for a collection and A State Of Justice was published in 1977. O'Donoghue notes that the early poems, like Settlers, about protestant gun-running, were already socially rooted in Northern Ireland.

They cross from Glasgow to a black city
Of gantries, mills and steeples. They begin to belong.
He manages the iceworks, is an elder of the Kirk:
She becomes, briefly, a nurse in Carson's Army.

"And they were also more formally normal," says O'Donoghue. "The wild language and the rather more broken up and adventurous syntax came later. But his poetry was always political. Looking back it was more ahead of its time than at first it seemed. When he became more experimental it wasn't a radical departure, it just increased one aspect of those early poems."

Paulin says part of the reason for his frustration at Nottingham was, from the mid-70s, the rise of literary theory. "The subject I taught - English - had a nervous breakdown and began to question its own existence. It was a crazy time to live through." He was again turned down by Queen's in 1984, and had to wait 10 years before being appointed to his present post at Oxford. But he says he has always enjoyed teaching. The poet Jamie McKendrick was taught by him at Nottingham. "He didn't go out of his way to be friends with students, but he was very illuminating about the subject. As a teacher, students treated him slightly with awe. I still remember people quoting things he said in conversation, obviously not something they'd do to everyone."

"I get ideas now from under-graduates all the time," says Paulin. "I started giving all my tutorial students short research papers to do after I was once teaching George Herbert and I made some introductory comments about him being a member of the Anglican Church. Then one white, English student asked 'what is the Anglican Church?' I thought 'you can't teach like that if the level of general knowledge is so low', so I used to ask them to go off and find bits and pieces of information. It makes teaching a collaborative exercise."

In 1980 Paulin published a second collection of verse, The Strange Museum, and three years later Liberty Tree, which was marked by more adventurous use of language and increased reference to the values of 18th-century republicanism. The critic Clair Wills, in her 1993 study of politics and sexuality in Northern Irish poetry, Improprieties, identifies Paulin as the Northern Irish poet "who most consistently espouses a political vision derived from the classical and secular republican ideals of the 18th century".

These influences have not been to everyone's taste. Critic Edna Longley has questioned the effect Paulin's critical ideas have had on his poetry and criticism. Paulin happily owns up to being "an occasional subscriber to the loose-cannon school of criticism", but Longley, in an essay called Tom Paulin: Wild Irish Critic recently reprinted in her book Poetry & Posterity (Bloodaxe 2000), regrets his "reductionist flourishes" that can too often label "uncongenial voices and aesthetics 'unionist' or 'loyalist'. This is how Irish debates become polarised and repetitive." Longley also slyly suggests that "it is for Hazlitt scholars to decide whether The Day-Star Of Liberty makes Hazlitt sound too much like a contemporary Northern Irish writer who founds his creative and critical project on Ulster Presbyterians whom the French Revolution turned into United Irishmen."

Paulin says of his political development, "if you supported the Northern Ireland Labour Party, although you never would have realised it, you thought the border was permanent and you thought the state could be reformed. When Bloody Sunday happened I was horrified, but it was seven or eight years later that I belatedly came to the conclusion that the Northern Ireland state was unsaveable." He says he now supports the SDLP's constitutional route to a united Ireland but is still "all in favour of some of the values in unionism: the whole Glorious Revolution, certain civic and secular values. But the fact is that the two main unionist leaders, Edward Carson and Sir James Craig, thought the border would last 20 or 30 years. It was a stop-gap solution from their point of view. But the second world war happened and unionism ossified."

In 1979 Paulin - along with Seamus Heaney, the writer and critic Seamus Deane, playwright Brian Friel and actor Stephen Rea - became a founding director of Field Day, a Derry-based project designed to put on touring plays in Ireland, commission literary critics to write about the situation in Ireland and to publish a comprehensive anthology of Irish literature. In 1985 Field Day produced Paulin's play The Riot Act, based on Antigone, in which King Creon's misuse of state power could be compared to London's misrule in Ireland. The same year Paulin published a collection of essays called Ireland And The English Crisis.

The documentary filmmaker and musician David Hammond was another founding Field Day director. He says Paulin was the most politically aware of the directors and is a good strategist. "He is also hot-headed and can be contrary and stubborn at times. But his values are very decent values. He's regarded here as a serious man with serious intent, concerned about the way the north of Ireland is going."

While Paulin says he does occasionally receive angry letters from loyalists for his stance, he has never lost a friend. "Years ago you would argue about politics all the time, but nobody does now." And from his vantage point in Oxford he remains cautiously optimistic about the peace process. "The unionists are in a state of great negativity. Trimble and his supporters have taken enormous risks and I think that the unionist middle class bears a very heavy responsibility. There has always been just a tiny intelligentsia who criticised the place. Middle-class Protestants are still clinging to a British identity, but nobody over here wants them. There is no fellow feeling."

Bernard O'Donoghue sees The Invasion Handbook, which covers the years between the Treaty of Versailles and the Battle of Britain, as a culmination of Paulin's developing thinking. "He used to be rather sceptical about the word British and the way it linked to ideas of loyalism. But he has a much more positive interest in it now. He sees Britishness as being open to a more social and democratic construction - the kind of small-r republicanism he has always talked about as being capable of a British manifestation." Andrew McNeillie explains that "in previous books he has pioneered a mixture of forms and genres and appropriation of texts. But this time he has done it on a very daring and ambitious scale. As a Hardy scholar Tom has looming up in the distance The Dynasts, Hardy's epic of the Napoleonic War, which, of course, didn't work. It's a brave thing to have tried and I really think it is a triumph."

Paulin has used chunks of Keynes's Economic Consequences Of The Peace as well as passages from the German guidebook to Britain - the original Invasion Handbook - in which he noted a list of 2,000 people for instant arrest, "which did not include Bernard Shaw or Lloyd George". He says he thinks of himself as European and has more than a sentimental attachment to Europe. "You carry that history if you are European. You carry a guilt about the Holocaust even though your people, as it were, fought against it. It is part of European culture."

At the heart of the book is a search for peace, in particular the 1925 Locarno Treaties which vainly attempted to guarantee Franco-German borders. "I became fascinated by the treaties," he explains. "Eric Hobsbawm in his book on the 20th century has about two sentences on it which I thought was rather odd because this was a great, noble, idealistic enterprise, an attempt to bring Germany back in from the cold where it had been banished by the Versailles agreement. Of course Hitler dismantled the agreements, but I thought the enterprise should be remembered.

"I suppose it is my version from my provincial heart of 'how do you make peace after war?'. For 10 years now people have anticipated peace in Northern Ireland. John Hume's standard speech says 'if Germany and France could work together after the war, why can't we?'. I still think that is absolutely right."

Life at a glance: Thomas Neilson Paulin

Born: January 25 1949, Leeds.

Education: Annadale Grammar School, Belfast; University of Hull; Lincoln College, Oxford.

Married: Munjiet Kaur Khosa 1973 (two sons, Michael and Niall).

Career: University of Nottingham lecturer 1972-'89, reader in poetry '89-94; Hertford College, Oxford, GM Young Lecturer in English Literature '94- .

Criticism: Thomas Hardy: The Poetry Of Perception 1975; The Day-Star Of Liberty: William Hazlitt's Radical Style '98.

Collected essays: Ireland And The English Crisis 1985; Minotaur '92; Writing To The Moment '96.

Drama: The Riot Act 1985; The Hillsborough Script '87; Seize The Fire '90.

Poetry: A State Of Justice 1977; The Strange Museum '80; Liberty Tree '83; Fivemiletown '87; Walking A Line '95; The Wind Dog '99; The Invasion Handbook 2002.




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