Harryette Mullen: Meaning and Wordplay

As announced last week, University of California Press author Harryette Mullen received the 2009 Academy Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets, one of the most distinguished awards in poetry in the United States. Here, Mullen reads her work at the Lunch Poems Noontime Poetry Reading Series, directed by Robert Hass, at UC Berkeley in 2004.

Mullen, an English professor at UCLA, published her book Sleeping with the Dictionary with UC Press in 2002. In the book, she compares the hierarchical, categorical Roget’s Thesaurus to the democratically created American Heritage dictionary.

Mullen says she intends to be meaningful in her poetry: “to allow, or suggest, to open up, or insinuate possible meanings, even in those places where the poem drifts between intentional utterance and improvisational wordplay.”

She is certainly known for her wordplay.

Academy Chancellor Susan Stewart describes Mullen as “a magician of words, phrases, and songs. She has sparked a revolution in poetic diction”. In winning the fellowship, Mullen follows in the footsteps of profound past winners including Gwendolyn Brooks, E.E. Cummings, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore.

The fellowship is given in memory of Pulitzer Prize winning poet James Ingram Merrill, who, like Mullen, was known for wordplay and puns.