Introduction for a reading by poet Tom Paulin

Damien Keane
September 13, 2001

I had planned to give, and had actually written, another set of remarks by way of tonight's introduction, which, in the context of Tuesday's events in New York and Washington, now seem rather inappropriate. Since Tuesday morning, I have found my thoughts frequently echoed by the odd half-rhyme, response and consequence; and that echo has only deepened, has only become more fraught, amid the growing talk of war, retaliation, and retribution. For anyone who has been to or spent time in Belfast, Derry, Newry, or Crossmaglen, in Bilbao, in Nicosia, in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, or Gaza, in Haiti, in Algeria, in the Balkans, in an ever-increasing number of cities and villages in sub-Saharan Africa—and I am afraid that the litany of death-dealing could go on and on—it has been distinctly chilling during the past two days to listen to the clamor for revenge; the calls for quick and decisive action; the discussion of the fine line between security and civil liberties and the delicate balance needed to maneuver along it, as though what were at issue was the jurisprudence of the state trooper checking drunks in the breakdown lane on the average Friday night. Of course, in this scenario laid out for us in the last forty-eight hours by former secretaries of state and defense and by current senators and representatives, who's the drunk and who's the cop? And who's walking the line?

Yet perhaps because of this very context, it is an honor to be able to welcome Tom Paulin to the Kelly Writers' House tonight. If, in such moments, grave attention must be paid to kinds and forms of response, then few have contributed to our understanding of what might be called the literary history of response—of the literary manifestations of political, aesthetic, and ethical response both to everyday and to extraordinary events—than this evening's speaker, as poet, as editor, as essayist, as professor, and as intellectual. In an impressive and eclectic number of publications, he has demonstrated the value of a long historical perspective on troubled times and places and the kinds and forms of response to them; he has also, and perhaps most crucially, indicated the importance of gatherings such as this one tonight: a group, of whatever scale, together to listen and to learn, to think about response in the shadow of consequence. In these times, how to act, yet still to avoid the role of bully-boy, of stooge, of agent of humiliation, all the while remaining true to the notion of, to use Beckett's word, a calmative? Indeed, we find ourselves, as a consequence, on the line between the title and subtitle of a song by Charles Mingus, the jazz bassist and composer: the title, "Prayer for Passive Resistance," the subtitle, "Meditations on a Pair of Wire-Cutters." In this context, I'd like to conclude by reading two poems that think about this relationship of learning and teaching in grim circumstances, the first by the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos from the collection Repetitions entitled "Heracles and Us" and the second by the Belfast poet Ciaran Carson from the collection The Irish for No entitled "Slate Street School."

Please join me in warmly welcoming Tom Paulin to Philadelphia.