Grad Student Guest Curates Exhibition on Famed Poet Paul Muldoon

Chris Kenny, a white man in his 20s with brown hair, glasses, and beard, smiles in front of an exhibition with open books and art.

On the fifth floor of Lauinger Library, just outside the Booth Family Center for Special Collections, Chris Kenny (MA English, ’23) has been curating his first poetry exhibition. Following extensive discussions with his supervising professor, Dr. Cóilín Parsons, and Joseph M. Hassett, who donated the materials comprising the exhibit, Kenny and library staff have been meticulously arranging and rearranging manuscripts, drafts, letters, photos, and books spanning the career of a world-renowned Irish writer who has been called “the most significant English-language poet born since the Second World War,” Paul Muldoon.

From March 1 through May 31, 2024, Georgetown University students, faculty, staff, and other Lauinger patrons can explore “Paul Muldoon: The Joseph M. Hassett Collection.” This unique exhibition features an intricate web of materials detailing Muldoon’s creative process, the political pressures that shaped his early work in the Troubles era of Belfast, his migration to the United States in 1987, his behind-the-scenes editorial relationships, and the artistic community that sustained him. It even includes “After the War,” a new poem Muldoon composed specifically for the exhibition at Hassett’s request.

Presented in collaboration with the Global Irish Studies Initiative at Georgetown University (GIS), the exhibition was catalyzed by Hassett donating his extensive personal collection of Muldoon’s work. An experienced trial lawyer by trade, Hassett has nurtured a deep appreciation for Irish poetry and holds a Ph.D. in Anglo-Irish Literature from University College Dublin. It was during his early studies in Ireland that he first came across Muldoon’s poetry. 

“What characterizes Paul’s work to me is his interest in the sound of words and the historic echoes those words carry,” Hassett said. “He understands the way in which a word or sound can really drive the poem, bringing it out of the atmosphere and onto the page.” Over decades, Hassett has collected materials from Muldoon’s career alongside the works of other writers such as W.B. Yeats. Having admired Parsons’ work with GIS and visited Lauinger Library on many occasions, Hassett donated his materials in 2022. “ I knew I could count on Georgetown to take good care of these books and make them available to the public.”

A copy of Paul Muldoon's "Madoc" displayed next to another open book in an exhibition shelf.

Chris Kenny, a graduate student at that time, was earning his master’s in English and studying under Parsons in his course on James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” Kenny’s father, a lyricist, playwright, and librettist, instilled in his son a love for language, inspiring him to pursue a master's degree in English at Georgetown.

One day, after a routine lecture on “Ulysses,” Kenny was about to leave class when opportunity knocked. “Dr. Parsons pulled me aside and asked if I had ever heard of Paul Muldoon,” Kenny said. He had not, but Parsons encouraged him to look into the poet’s work and see if he would like to work with the collection. “That night, I figured I would skim a couple of poems, and then I came across ‘Incantata’”—a lengthy elegy Muldoon wrote in memory of a former partner. For Kenny, its verses were enrapturing. “I didn’t even look at the collection. I went back the next day and said I would do it.”

With the guidance of Booth Center curators Jay Sylvestre and LuLen Walker, Kenny has immersed himself in the collection, piecing together the public exhibition while simultaneously writing his master’s thesis on Muldoon’s use of American Indian imagery. “I had to approach the exhibition differently than my thesis,” he said. “I want someone who isn’t interested in poetry or doesn’t think they’re interested to be able to look at Muldoon’s collaborations with visual artists and some of the other images and quickly get a sense of the world he came into.”

Sylvestre, the library’s Curator of Rare Books, coached Kenny through the curation process. As it turned out, he only needed so much coaching. “It’s funny—working with Chris, you’d think he’s been doing exhibits for years,” he said. He attested to Kenny’s patient decision-making and clear vision for how he would tell Muldoon’s story with precious shelf space. The resulting display, stretching across Lauinger’s fifth floor gallery space, invites passersby to dive as deep as they want into the life and work of a poet who has lent a powerful and mystifying voice to postcolonial movements around the world.

“Paul Muldoon: The Joseph M. Hassett Collection” is on display on Lauinger Library’s fifth floor from March 1 to May 31, 2024. 

On April 26, GIS will present a special speaking engagement featuring the curators and Professor Gerladine Higgins (Emory University), a well-known scholar of Irish literature, followed by a reception. Higgins graduated with a B.A. in English and History at Trinity College Dublin and a D.Phil. in English at Trinity College, Oxford.