Despite Expecations, Poet’s Return Yet to Be Realized

More than three months ago—mere days after cancelling Tom Paulin’s original invitation—the English department decided to reinvite the controversial Irish poet, who was slated to deliver the prestigious Morris Gray Lecture.

“It will probably not be known for another few weeks whether or when the visit to Harvard by Mr. Paulin will take place,” English department chair Lawrence Buell posted on the department’s website on Nov. 21. “A news update will be posted on the English Department website when that information is known.”

More than 12 weeks have passed, and Buell wrote in an e-mail yesterday that there is “still no news to report” regarding Paulin’s potential visit to Harvard.

Porter University Professor Helen H. Vendler, who is a member of the three-person committee who decides the Morris Gray lecturers, said no progress has been made in efforts to have Paulin speak at Harvard.

“He’s teaching back at Oxford and it’s all on hold,” Vendler said.

Meanwhile, the English department quietly posted on its website that Slovenian poet Tomaz Salamun—not Paulin—will deliver the Morris Gray lecture in March.

This fall, just days before Paulin was originally slated to give the lecture, word of his allegedly anti-Israel comments to the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram provoked a firestorm of campus controversy and caused English professors to cancel his invitation.

A few days later, the department reconsidered, voting to invite the poet in the name of free speech.

At the center of this fall’s controversy were Paulin’s quotations in Al-Ahram—including one statement that Brooklyn-born settlers on the West Bank in Israel “should be shot dead.”

In one of his poems, Paulin also wrote of the “Zionist SS” who shot “another little Palestinian boy.”

Paulin has attempted to distance himself from those remarks over the past years, stating on multiple occasions that he does not support attacks on Israeli civilians.

Paulin, who this fall served as a visiting lecturer at Columbia, has since returned to his post as lecturer at Oxford.

And it is uncertain whether Paulin will again cross the Atlantic to visit Harvard.

James Shapiro, a professor of English at Columbia and friend of Paulin who returned a telephone message left for Paulin at Columbia’s English Department back in November, said at the time he was confident Paulin would wind up speaking at Harvard.

“I’m sure he’ll accept,” Shapiro said.

Whether or not Paulin will accept—the poet has eschewed the media in recent months—the apparently stalled or failed efforts to bring him back to Harvard are viewed as a victory by some who criticized his initial invitation.

“It was inappropriate to honor him by inviting him,” said Benjamin P. Solomon-Schwartz ’03, former president of Hillel, who added that he felt it “is a good end” that the original protests have resulted in Paulin’s visit being postponed.

Max P. Davis ’04, who warned last fall that he would protest Paulin’s visit, continues to object to the possibility of a visit by the Irish poet.

“I sincerely hope that the English Department has chosen to honor a worthy speaker instead of Paulin,” Davis wrote in an e-mail.

—Staff writer Alexander J. Blenkinsopp can be reached at blenkins@fas.harvard.edu