Paulin is an award-winning Irish poet who has drawn criticism for his expression of anti-Israeli views.
Close to 50 students and faculty members attended the two-hour long event, which was a special installment of the department’s “Readings in the Parlor” series.
The event, entitled “Literature and Controversy,” replaced a previously scheduled reading in the Barker Center’s Thompson Parlor. Discussed texts included Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and plays by Shakespeare.
“One of the things that often happens in a democracy and at a university is we keep the peace by not mentioning bluntly when we disagree,” said Loker Professor of English Robert J. Kiely, explaining that the professors wanted to confront disagreement head-on through a “range of difficult, controversial, perhaps shocking texts”
Kiely, who teaches English 13, “The English Bible,” discussed Psalm 137. According to the translation used by Kiely, the psalm addresses enemies of the Jews and reads, “Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”
“It’s really a psalm in which language hardens, and that’s really the subject of our presentation today,” Kiely said.
Assistant Professor of Afro-American Studies and English and American Literature and Language Glenda R. Carpio discussed the oft-criticized Lolita, saying that “close reading needs to take place in the context of an entire book.”
Paulin, who has received criticism for reportedly saying that Brooklyn-born settlers on the West Bank in Israel “should be shot dead” and referring in one of his poems to “Zionist SS” who shot “another little Palestinian boy,” has said his quotations were taken out of context.
Assistant Professor of English and American Literature and Language Elizabeth D. Lyman read a racially charged excerpt from Amiri Baraka’s play Dutchman.
Lyman said plays have “a great deal of potential as a tool for political speech” and added that Baraka “didn’t go out and kill white people” despite his “scary plays.”
Professor of English and American Literature and Language Nicholas Watson, who said he abstained from the departmental vote to renew its invitation to Paulin but respects the decision, analyzed James Kirkup’s poem “The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name.”
Watson said the poem, which describes a homosexual encounter between a Roman soldier and Jesus Christ right after his crucifixion, is outlawed in England.
The “intent to offend,” according to Watson, is “always clear.”
Kenan Professor of English Marjorie Garber cited two of Shakespeare’s plays, The Merchant of Venice and Troilus and Cressida, to show how uncontextualized passages can lead to misinterpretation by the reader.
After the five professors discussed the passages—ultimately defending the right of the authors to express their views through literature—students asked questions about the controversial invitation.
Garber and Kiely defended to the audience the belief that the university is an appropriate setting in which to share controversial ideas.
Kiely also said the English department never withdrew the invitation from Paulin, but voted only to reaffirm that the invitation was still valid.
Paulin, if he ultimately decides to accept the invitation to speak at Harvard under the aegis of the Morris Gray Lectureship, will be free to use his time in any manner he likes, Kiely added.
Simon E. Chin ’05 called the readings “one effective way of responding toward [the Paulin debate] in showing the power of literature.”
But the most useful part of the discussion, Chin said, was when Kiely explained the course of events involved with the Paulin invitation.
“In explaining that, and clarifying what were often very vague and unclear statements to the press, it was most productive.”
—Katherine M. Dimengo contributed to the reporting of this story.
—Staff writer Alexander J. Blenkinsopp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.