- 02 May 19
In honour of National Poetry Day, we’re taking a look back at two very different sides of the poetry coin and up first is Paul Muldoon
Colin Carberry originally spoke to Armagh poet Paul Muldoon back in May of 2006...
"It’s a beautiful day,” sighs Paul Muldoon, just after the hail storm passes: a rain cloud looming over the top of Botanic Avenue; bright sunshine dancing past the police station at the bottom. “I love this. The many days in one.”
We’ve tried Starbucks (“I gave a talk at the United Nations recently,” my poker-faced companion reveals. “I spoke about how dishonest the Tall, Grande thing is. Venti, I can see is justified. But Tall and Grande are wilfully awkward. Like so-called Direct Flights that actually stop off.”), pausing wryly at the ‘Local Artists’ section, before choosing to sit at a table outside. One look at the soaked metal seats, however, and it’s (sensibly) suggested that we move on elsewhere. So, following a brief interlude in a joint that looks open, feels open but isn’t open at all, and a wind-buffeted sojourn under a damp canopy on the front porch of his hotel, we’ve ended up here: slouched on a sofa in the foyer – hair everywhere, coffee running down the sides of our cups.
On meeting Paul Muldoon, it quickly transpires, it’s advisable to adopt the same approach as when navigating through one of his poems: have fun certainly, but try not to make yourself too comfortable.
From the publication of Muldoon’s first collection, New Weather, in 1973 (when he was 21 and still a student at Queen’s University in Belfast) the Armagh-born writer has enjoyed an unhindered ascent from gifted prodigy (Seamus Heaney, a tutor at the time, called him “the most promising poet to appear in Ireland in years”) to world class maestro.
Currently Professor in the Humanities at Princeton (he had, until recently, been the Director of the university’s Creative Writing Programme), a brief glance at Muldoon’s CV reveals a career-path decorated with prestigious stop-offs. Alongside his Ivy League Professorship, he has occupied the post of Oxford Professor of Poetry (a set of his lectures from that time, The End of The Poem, are to be published in the autumn), while his nine collections have earned him a T.S Eliot Award, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Award for Literature, the Irish Times Poetry Prize and, for his most recent work, 2003’s Moy Sand and Gravel, The Pulitzer Prize.
The Nobel Committee have yet to make a call, but the general feeling is that they’re merely playing hard-to-get.
If the fervour with which the literary and academic establishments have tossed bouquets in Muldoon’s direction, suggests a safe, institutionalised kind of talent, exposure to the work shows that it is anything but.
Technically audacious (take a look at ‘Our Lady of Ardboe‘ for an example of how to tear a sonnet apart and put it back together without anyone noticing), tirelessly playful (Madoc: A Mystery is a brilliant attempt to imagine what would have happened if Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge had, as they planned, managed to establish a new society on the banks of the Susquehanna River in the 1790s) ) and capable of moments of heart-stopping emotional power (‘Incantata’, his elegy for former partner Mary Farl Powers, is one of the last century’s truly great requiem poems; ‘Cradle Song For Asher’, a wonderful celebration of the birth of a child), Muldoon’s poetry doesn’t just live and breath – it provokes, soothes, jokes and dreams.
As one of the few writers to actually stay (and continue to publish) in Northern Ireland during the 1970s and ‘80s (he worked for 13 years as a producer with the BBC), it was also forced to confront head-on the dangers and pressures of the period. The ever light-footed Muldoon managed to avoid ensnarement in the traps (of national, religious and communal identity) that some of his contemporaries were caught in. Instead, his poetry of the time offered a complex, liberating, sexy (Edna Longley refers to Muldoon’s hornier poems such as ‘Whim’ and ‘History’, as his “one night stanzas”) and fearsomely human alternative to the deadening Prod/Taig orthodoxy that prevailed to such destructive effect.
Muldoon’s work has continued to challenge all kinds of presumptions; including that of what exactly being a poet entails. As such, recent years have found him branching off into other unexpected directions - writing libretti, children’s books and even forming his own “three car garage band”, Racket, with fellow tutors at Princeton. Perhaps Muldoon’s most memorable diversion came in 2001 when he co-wrote two songs (the title track and ‘MacGillicuddy’s Reeks’) for Warren Zevon’s penultimate album My Ride’s Here.
It would be wrong to claim that the Times Literary Supplement’s view of Muldoon as “the most significant English (Language) poet born since the Second World War” is universally accepted. One former colleague at Oxford referred to his lectures as “Bedlam: an associative madness.” However, in describing how an initial (often bewildered) collision with his work can develop into a lasting passion, the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer may speak for many Muldoon fans.
“I’ve never memorized as many phrases,” he has said of his first encounter with a Collected Poems. “Never worn down an entire pencil with underlining (never underlined for that matter), never actually freed the pages from the spine from so much handling.”
Safran Foer claims he fell in love with his wife, the fellow writer, Nicole Krauss, when, on their first date, she revealed she was a Muldoon fanatic too.
Muldoon’s work can have that kind of impact.
Hot Press: You’re in Belfast for the Between The Lines Festival. Do you get back often?
Paul Muldoon: I come back quite a lot actually. My sister died almost exactly a year ago. Certainly in the several years leading up to her death – it was a long drawn out death – I came back regularly. Even since then I’ve been back quite a few times. I come back to give lectures, do a reading, sometimes even for just for a holiday. I came back with my wife and one of our children in September and had a toodle round the country.
Are the changes as pronounced each time you return?
I get the sense, of course, the sense that everybody has, pretty much, that parts have been rebuilt, revived. There were a lot of gaps in the narrative, as it were. A lot of buildings missing. I had a bite of lunch today and the woman who was serving us asked if we wanted a panini or ciabbata. I suppose that’s a measure of some change in Belfast, but what exactly it means, I’m not sure. I don’t think it actually means that much. Sure, there’s a Starbucks down the road. But so what – there’s a Starbucks at the Great Wall Of China. I’d like to think that something more profound has changed than the ciabbata, panini familiarity. But I’m not sure it has. I’m fearful to the extent of the changes to the hardcore positions. I wonder about that. Obviously one would hope that people are given a decent opportunity to live decent lives. I hope that’s the case.
Reading your poetry from during the 70s and 80s, was it trying to complicate the things that the politicians and paramilitaries wanted to simplify in the North?
I was brought up in the country – the County Armagh/Tyrone border. Brought up in a family, we were Catholic, Nationalist, I’d suppose – but they really didn’t believe in violent action. I think I was brought up to believe that everyone was to be respected. In fact I’ve been struck recently – my children go to a Quaker school in the US – and I realised that my mother, almost as an article of faith, made sure that our doctor, our pharmacist, the guy who repaired our motors – they were all Quakers. I think, partly because we were blow-ins ourselves, we weren’t quite from there. I certainly wasn’t brought up with anything like a them-and-us vision of the world. I went to school on a bus meeting a very wide range of people and that was in the 1960s.
By the end of which, of course, the situation had exploded. Were you aware of the build-up of tension as you got older?
I was fearful at times of the Lambeg drummers. I was brought up in Loughgall Parish – Lambeg central. But I don’t really think that I felt totally threatened. It was a mixed community. I was very conscious of the rise of the Civil Rights movement – was aware of Dr McCloskey and Austin Curry and the housing problems, and one began to see the inequities in society. However I was just too young to go on Civil Rights marches, had I been inclined to do that. But I did come to university in 1969, and that coincided with things going from zero to 70. And then just living here when I graduated, I lived round the corner (from here) on Fitzroy Avenue. 1972 was not a good year to be living in Belfast. It was a nasty time. There was a sense that it was strange, and yet the terrible fact is that people can very quickly adapt to any circumstance and see it as the norm. That’s one of the great and terrible things about us – we can get used to anything.
Like this – café society. There is a lot of obvious investment in Northern Ireland at the moment but, as you say, little evidence that any of the entrenched opinions have been diluted. If anything, they’ve been rewarded. The two largest parties, of course, are now Sinn Fein and the DUP.
The idea of having a cup of coffee outside a hotel is not typical of the world. These indicators that we have – like the panini, ciabbata issue – they’re not necessarily indicators of civilisation. They are and they aren’t. I really do understand why people get upset at being at the mercy of these guys who decide: “You know what, the war’s over. We’ve had this war, and we want to call it to a halt now. Okay? Everyone on board?” I don’t think so. Just because someone decides it’s time to stop bombing, it doesn’t mean the rest of us have to jump on board. These are the guys who were doing it in the first place. I think it’s far from the end. I’m fearful that it’s a halt, not a true finish. I’m fearful, I really am.
You have lived in America since 1987; it’s a very different place now, not only from then, but even from when you wrote the poems for Moy Sand and Gravel?
Yes it is. There’s a lot of unhappiness in America. One in two Americans is unhappy – maybe more than that. One in two were unhappy that George Bush was re-elected and I think quite a few more are unhappy since then. There’s a tendency from a remove to think that America is a place that is on board the Bush bandwagon, but that’s not the case. A great many people are very worried. But, saying that, one of the great things about America is it has the power to renew itself, reinvent itself.
Is it regenerating at the moment?
I hope so. I hope it goes through it at the next election.
You work at Princeton. It’s always hoped that, during periods like these, the universities are fermenting dissent and discussion. Has that been your experience?
There’s no evidence. I find that a little bit surprising. More than a little bit surprising. One would imagine that if there was a time for a sense of unrest this would be it. But I’ve seen little evidence of it.
Up until recently you were the director of the creative writing programme. After September 11, Afghanistan, Iraq did you notice any of the tensions reflected in the work of students?
I think some of it is coming across but they don’t necessarily write directly about that. I’m a little bit fearful that it will not be this very generation of students who will respond – they haven’t responded yet. I think it might take another five years. A few more civil rights whipped-away. Those guys, Bush and his cronies, are shameless in what they get up to. Shameless. One hope there will be a general wake-up.
You’re still happy bringing your children up there?
Oh yes. Do you know what, the US continues to stand for a society – sure there are these veerings, let’s not forget there have been a series of dicey US Presidents, Nixon, Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Bush Senior, there have been a load of really dubious inhabitants – but one has to believe that the country still has in it the basic charter – the Constitution allows both for that veering and, importantly, that corrective. And, at least so far, it’s been conductive without violence in the streets.
Which is remarkable.
It is remarkable. The acceptance of it. This particular bunch – this crowd - comes closer than any other to a group that would be likely to want to replicate themselves and would get up to anything to make sure of that.
How do you see your role as a teacher of creative writing? Sometimes it can seem a bit programmatic. Those Robert McKee how-to-write-a-script books.
There are always those – the how-to books– and do you know what, they’re not without their place. Along the way, I’ve bought a book or two about how to write a poem because actually, you see the odd thing and think I never thought of that, that’s quite interesting. So, I wouldn’t rule them out completely.
I noticed somewhere that you gave two pieces of advice to aspiring writers: lose your own voice and write about what you don’t know.
Those are two of the basic ideas of creative writing – that you write about what you know. And of course we understand that, but I think in a more profound sense one must write about what one doesn’t know. It’s got to be of more interest than what you know. And also to find, not your own voice, but the voice of the piece. I do think that one has to believe that to the extent that one may teach art, painting, music – one may also teach writing. But only to that extent. None of this is to say that you can take a guy or woman off the street and turn them into Mozart. Of course not. Lots of other things need to be going on.
You live in Jersey?
Just outside Princeton. Suburbia I suppose but I love it.
Are you a fan of The Sopranos?
You know what I’ve never, ever, ever seen one episode of The Sopranos. It’s supposed to be very good but I just have no idea how to turn on my TV. I’ve never seen a frame. I believe it’s brilliant. I have nothing against. I would love to watch it but I’ve never got round to it. We have a TV, it’s locked in a cupboard, my wife watches all sorts of rubbish on it, but I never do. I used to work on it. I prefer to read something if I’m zoning out, or go to the movies.
What was the last film you went to see?
I generally go to kids’ movies. I tell you what I’m really looking forward to – the new Ice Age movie. I just loved the first one, loved it. I saw the Tristam Shandy movie, whatever it’s called (A Shaggy Dog’s Tale). I thought it was good. They did it the only way you could do it. I loved Finding Nemo – it’s a great movie, a truly great movie. I’m glad I have kids. They’ve given me a great excuse to go.
I assume you’re going to be reading tonight from your next book, Horse Latitudes. Is it true that it contains an elegy for Warren Zevon?
That’s correct. Now where would you have heard that? I wrote an elegy (‘Sillyhow Stride’) for Warren Zevon, it’s not just about Warren, it’s also about my sister, but it’s mostly about him. A lot of it is taken from John Donne. He was a huge John Donne fan.
As are you. He was a very literate song-writer, do you think that’s why you hit it off with one-another?
He was wonderfully well read. He read everything. Everything. Why should one be surprised, although there is a lingering notion that a rock 'n' roller doesn’t have two brain cells to rub together. But not at all.
I was very fond of him – he was a great guy. We had a massive email correspondence. He was someone who I had a very strange and close relationship with. We were thinking about writing a musical but nothing came of it. I think he might have known, even then, that something was up.
His cancer was diagnosed after finishing My Ride’s Here, wasn’t it?
I think that’s correct. He then spent the last part of his life trying to complete (his final solo album) The Wind.
Were you in contact with him much at that time?
Not so much. He went into himself. There were phone communications rather than emails. I think he conserved his energy for the work and for his family.
Is it true that you wrote him a fan letter by way of introduction?
That is true. I’m a great believer in the fan letter. I’ve written fan letters since I was a kid. The first one I ever wrote – and I remember this very clearly – was to Richard Greene, the guy who played Robin Hood on the ITV series. I wrote to him and I said Dear – thinking back, I’m not sure if I called him Mr Greene or Mr Hood – I’m wondering if you have any spare bows or arrows, if you’ve any lying around could I have some? He sent me a signed photograph of himself and said he had none spare.
So, I did write to Warren and I told him that I was a big fan and anytime the issue of the great songwriters of the era was broached, I always maintained he was up there. It was a fan letter. I sent him a book of poems. Anyway, I mentioned that there was no need to reply. But then he called me up and we met in New York and he said, “You’ll have to write a song with me.” I said I’d try because even then I knew – although not to the extent that I would go on to learn – just how difficult it is to write a good song.
People think any idiot could write a rock song. A lot of people think that, I know they do, I know they do, but they’re seriously mistaken. They wanna have a go at it.
What was the main problem you faced?
I think in some strange way the big problem, if one is interested primarily in words, and getting words right, is to acknowledge – I’m saying this as if I know what I’m talking about, I can’t really answer the question is what I should say – but I think I can see that it’s about what you leave out in the words. There is by definition something in essence – there’s the great line, that’s been quoted many times, that a poem brings its own music – I certainly understand what that means, but in great rock songs there’s always something lacking in the lyric. And that is how it should be. This is not an improper want, an improper lack – the great songwriters recognise that. Guys like Cohen, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Dylan also, to some extent. It’s going to be heretical, this, but I’ve never thought of Dylan as the great poet. He’s perfectly fine but he’s nowhere close to the level of Leonard Cohen or Paul Simon.
He’s lumped in as a poet. (Pause and then smirk) I suppose, though, the more that are included under that particular rubric, the merrier.
The element of performance is crucial, too. In a way that it just isn’t with a poem. There really is no equivalent to the cover version in poetry.
Indeed. Absolutely. But I’d never really thought that there were too many differences between poems and songs, especially in the Irish tradition. I was taught by a man called Sean O’Boyle who taught Irish poetry through song. It was perfectly normal that there be no discrepancy between these two forms. I’d another teacher who was very friendly with Patrick Kavanagh and would see him at the weekends in Dublin. He would head out for a few bevvies with Kavanagh and come back and tell us all about it on the Monday morning. Kavanagh, I was thinking this recently, he was a poet, of course, but ‘Raglan Road’, I was always struck by the idea that a poet could also be a songwriter. I don’t think it was simply that this was his best known poem. The fact that Luke Kelly was singing it – it was intriguing. I loved that song, loved it.
It’s a beautiful song.
It is. It’s that point where the music and poetry come together – the ballad tradition. I love the idea that there are many available forms for a piece of art. Going back to what you were saying about cover versions – yes, I suppose there’s certainly something that can be built on. Perhaps it’s a feature of getting older, but I’m much less concerned these days about who writes the song. In my own case or the case of anybody else. I’m much less concerned about authorship. I’ve never really been interested in the idea that I write my poems. In fact I’ve always been very much interested in the idea that I don’t write my poems. In the same way I’m fascinated by the anonymous song. The idea that when Willie Nelson gets his hands on ‘Bird On A Wire’, it sings him. It sings him. That’s something I find very interesting. That the song, the poem – they have their own forces in the world and one of the aspects of that is the kind of anonymity that is associated with that. And more and more I’m interested in trying to become anonymous. It might sound crazy. Wouldn’t it be great to write a ballad that suddenly existed out of nowhere but had a feel that it had been around forever?
That’s an idea that’ll keep a few PhD students busy for a while. There’s a huge critical interest in your work – Leeds University recently ran a symposium dedicated entirely to your work. Do you find that level of academic scrutiny strange?
It is of course, in the sense that anybody reads the poems at all. I mean I’m glad they’re happening, I’m glad people are interested, but I don’t put any store in them. You wouldn’t want to start thinking too much about it.
Are you worried that a certain level of examination may bleed the poems dry?
I don’t worry too much about that. In a strange way one would hope that the poems are sufficiently robust to entertain that and come through, as it were. That they’re sufficiently well made. That phrase that Yeats uses in his exhortation to Irish poets (‘Under Ben Bulben’) that, as you know, what poetry is about is simply making things well. One would hope that the poems are sea-worthy. That’s not to say that they have to be completely water-tight. In fact if some water doesn’t get into your boat, you’re probably in trouble.
Your work has always displayed a fascination with connections and transformations. Songs can travel incredible distances and get knocked into all kinds of different shapes. The Handsome Family wrote a song around your lyrics for ‘Blackwatertown’ – which was itself a commentary on how songs can cross borders and change shapes.
What a thrill that was. I was asked by Greil Marcus who was doing an anthology about the American Ballad and he wanted me to write about something. I said, I’ll write about ‘The Streets of Loredo’, which is, of course, a rip-off of ‘The Ballad of Armagh’, and then I thought – no, I’m not gonna do that at all. I’ll re-write the song. Rather than having another academic palaver – which I’d be no good at anyway – I thought that I’d try to re-write it. I thought, this is alright, but then The Handsome Family took it on and made it something else. They are absolutely terrific, terrific. I probably could have done it better. It’s almost too smarty-pants. That’s the other thing that a song demands – an absence of smarty-pantsdom.
Which, considering your track record, must be a tough ask.
I enjoy a bit of fun.
In Hay you write of The Rolling Stones that they “have always found the way/of setting a burning brand/to a petrol-soaked stack of hay/and making a ‘Thou Shalt’…"
"…of a Thou Shalt Not’." And they’re still at it. You’ve only got to read today’s paper. They’re in China and the Chinese authorities are saying you shalt not, and they’re saying, we fucking shall.
Do you envy rock and roll’s capacity for immediacy?
It’s a powerful force, a very kind of basic force. Voodoo Lounge (the album mentioned in the ‘sleeve notes’ section of the book) is hardly their best LP but it was out at the time and fitted in with the chronology of the poem, but The Stones were and remain an extraordinary force. I’ve seen them a few times recently. I brought my daughter, who is 13 and then took my six year old son to see them, and the energy level is phenomenal. They’re all 92 but they’re out and they’re brilliant.
The person I’m really interested in is Keith Richards. He’s one of these guys, and he knows it himself, he should be dead. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard him say it, but he has this wonderful phrase – It’s great to be here. In fact, it’s great to be anywhere. He understands what rock and roll is about – the other. It’s about the overthrowing of received ideas.
Do you think it still is?
That certainly was the classic rock tradition. It’s been transmogrified but I’m sure that impulse will emerge again in one form or another.
What’s the greatest song lyric?
The idea of the greatest song shifts from time to time. I like everything from 'Wake Up, Little Susie' to 'Wake Up Dead Man'.
If you could write a song for any voice, whose would it be?