Aaron Krumheuer | Staff Writer
Some say poetry should address only universal themes, while others argue the work of a poet is inseparable from his life.
Week Two poet-in-residence Andrew Mulvania will address the debate that is older than Walt Whitman.
Mulvania will present his lecture “Poetry and the Self: Autobiography in American Poetry” at 12:15 p.m. today on the front porch of Alumni Hall.
He is an assistant professor of English and teaches creative writing at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pa. Before that, he earned his Ph.D. in English at the University of Missouri, where he wrote a creative dissertation that became his first published book of poems, Also in Arcadia.
Mulvania’s lecture will traverse the history of American poetry, beginning with “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman, and examine the back-and-forth stances to the idea of poet-as-autobiographer.
“Where are we today with representing the self in poetry?” Mulvania asked. “What are the different approaches out there now, given there’s been this kind of vacillation back and forth on the question of if the whole job of the poet has been to reveal or conceal himself?”
His own work, Also in Arcadia, leans toward autobiographical and is full of memories and impressions of Mulvania’s upbringing. He was raised in rural, central Missouri, where his family lived and worked on an 80-acre farm. It was a place he described as “pastoral,” an idyllic feeling that fleets throughout his work.
He writes about county fairs, picking blackberries and small-town faith. But there is loss here, too. Some poems talk about a good friend who died when Mulvania was young.
“It shocked me out of that free, innocent kind of childhood perspective,” Mulvania said. “I didn’t know to what extent until I left Missouri, found myself writing these poems about my friend that was shot, that I realized how much it affected me.”
The name of his book, Also in Arcadia, is a reference to the Latin phrase, ”et in Arcadia ego,” translated as, “I too was in Arcadia.” Immortalized in Greek and Latin poetry as well as paintings by the 17th-century artist Nicolas Poussin, it was an inscription on a tomb found by ancient shepherds in the idyllic countryside of Arcadia. Mulvania likened the sentiment to his childhood in Missouri, saying it was brought into perspective with the loss of his friend.
“The ‘et in Arcadia ego’ idea is that sense that there is no place that exists outside of time; there is no golden age,” Mulvania said. “There is no place that is free from the forces of time itself, from mortality or violence or what have you.”
After Mulvania wrote this collection of poems, his first son was born, now a 3-year-old. When he found he had less time for quiet reflection, Mulvania’s style shifted away from the straight autobiographical. Mulvania started to play with channeling the lives of other poets, a method he is teaching all this week in his workshop, “Finding Our Own Voice Through Others’ Voices.”
He had spent a weekend in Chautauqua once before but said he was thrilled to be invited to stay as a poet-in-residence.
“It’s exactly the kind of experience I seek, that quiet. In my work, it’s so difficult to attain,” Mulvania said. “I really admire the fact that the Institution has worked so hard and so long to keep things that way in a world where that kind of quiet and lack of distraction is in peril.”