Poetry predates written language. If that's a fact -- verified by the revenant oral epic-poetry tradition in places like India -- it's one honored in the breach. Even poetry aficionados read much more poetry than they hear. But the musical pleasures of poetry aloud are easy to find in Pittsburgh, and the city's oldest reading series is the International Poetry Forum.
Poet and English professor Samuel Hazo's creation opened its 48th season (48th!) on Oct. 15 with Paul Muldoon, the Pulitzer-winning Northern Ireland-born poet who's poetry editor of The New Yorker. Muldoon, 57, has a wild head of graying hair. He reads in a husky, deliberate voice with a light accent. (He's lived in the U.S. for two decades, currently teaching at Princeton.) Bespectacled, he has an air of John Lennonish mild cheek, and a habit of looking up somewhat challengingly at his audience at each stanza break.
It was easy to see why Hazo gave Muldoon the IPF's cash-prize Charity Randall Award for poets distinguished both on the page and in person. Muldoon, whose critically lauded work is often classified as obscure, spent a good deal of time telling the stories behind these 15 or so poems. "Graveyard visitations were very high on the list of social activities in that part of the world," he said, prefacing a poem recounting a childhood episode. He introduced "a poem having to do with a series of sensations through a hole in the wall" by saying, "It's a bit of a jumble. We'll see how we get through it." He offered a glimpse of his creative process, telling how a poem about his sister dying of ovarian cancer began as a verse about "one of my favorite animals, the turkey buzzard," and noting how another was inspired by a medical term for his unborn daughter's position in the womb: "The moment I heard that phrase, 'footling breach,' I felt a little poem coming on." And he read two new poems about porcupines.
But as with many good poetry readings, what I remember is the pleasure of the sounds, and the emotions they conjure: "Sinking fast in a dear crypt" and "the horse-hair-fringed niche" are two of Muldoon's I jotted down. And this turn of phrase: "Nothing can confirm one's sense of being prized than a sense of another's being anathematized."
It was a busy arts night in Oakland: Within a couple blocks of the Carnegie Lecture Hall, Squonk Opera's outdoor extravaganza Astro-Rama opened; Scott Turow awarded Anthony Varallo the Drue Heinz Prize; and Pitt Rep opened The Clean House. But with Muldoon demonstrating, as he put it, how the performance of poems is "the completion of their poetic moment," the Carnegie was a good place to be.