English Forum Will Explore Flap

Days after cancelling and then re-offering a prestigious speaking engagement to Irish poet Tom Paulin, Harvard’s English department will hold a forum on controversial speech and the power of literary expression.

Five members of the department will lead the discussion, scheduled for Monday at noon in the Barker Center. It was not clear last night whether students would be allowed to participate.

Professor of English Elisa New, the department’s director of undergraduate studies, wrote in an e-mail to students and faculty that “events of the past week make clear, at the very least, that literature does matter—that it moves people and that it exerts force in the world.”

Paulin, an award-winning Irish poet and a lecturer at Oxford, has been castigated for making comments perceived as anti-Israeli and hateful, including one statement that that Brooklyn-born settlers in the West Bank in Israel “should be shot dead.”

The Palestine Solidarity Campaign web site also lists Paulin as a supporter of the Boycott Israeli Goods movement.

After his invitation to Harvard was withdrawn last week, the Department of English and American Literature and Language decided Tuesday to re-invite Paulin, drawing both criticism and plaudits.

Department Chair Lawrence Buell said that the department re-issued the invitation after an extended discussion about the merits of an open exchange of ideas.

According to New’s e-mail yesterday, professors at Monday’s forum “will read and comment on passages from literary works that challenge perception of acceptable ethical, political or social norms.”

Loker Professor of English Robert J. Kiely, who will participate, said in an interview that the discussion is “very much a response” to the controversy surrounding Paulin’s re-invitation.

“We want to think not about what we should have done, but what we should do,” Kiely said.

Sarah G. Dawson ’04, an English concentrator who believes Paulin should not have been initially invited, said the discussion is likely to be useful.

“I think there’s definitely a desire to discuss this,” she said. “English is the means for thinking about a lot of these issues.”

But Laura A. Aull ’04, also an English concentrator, said the event is unnecessary and might not tackle the issue appropriately.

The literary theme “is going around the issue, rather than addressing it head-on,” Aull said. “People are judging him as a person, not as a poet.”

Some department colleagues have interpreted New’s event in light of her romantic involvement with University President Lawrence H. Summers. New and Summers are dating.

Summers has been outspoken in his opposition to anti-Semitism on campus, and published reports said he was not pleased about Paulin’s invitation.

“Certainly there are some professors who think that she’s a mouthpiece for the president,” said an English professor who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity.

“Whatever she says, she says for herself. She’s a fiercely independent thinker,” another professor in the English department said.

New was unavailable for comment yesterday.

—Staff writer Alexander J. Blenkinsopp can be reached at