Talking to Paul Muldoon
Interview with Paul Muldoon, published in The Independent, October 2002
Paul Muldoon is a phenomenon we are lucky to have. But just how phenomenal, and why poets revere him, can be difficult to get across to a casual reader. Critical words used about him tend to be offputting: postmodern, technical, obscure.
Born in Armagh in 1951, he was a legend by the time he was twenty. They say that Seamus Heaney, trembling with excitement, showed Muldoon’s poems to Michael Longley, when Muldoon was a student in Belfast. Things took off from there in the direction of super-stardom. Faber published a collection; he worked for BBC radio Belfast, wrote further epoch-making collections.
“There was a time,” I have heard another Northern Irish poet say, “when everyone in Belfast was in love with Paul.”
But America took deep imaginative hold as Paul grew up on his father’s market-garden, and in 1987 he took a teaching job in the States. He has taught Creative Writing at Princeton for many years now, while publishing further important collections and a couple of opera librettos. In 1999 he became Professor of Poetry at Oxford, and blows in very punctually to give three lectures a year. This month he publishes his ninth collection, dedicated to his children: Moy Sand and Gravel, one of his very best.
At the heart of Muldoon’s brilliance are four things. One is the core lyric gift: making the domestic universal. In a sense, it doesn’t matter what his poems are “about”: Muldoon can make poetry out of anything and his poems all radiate out towards profound, compassionate insights into art, history, war, relationships, the surprisingness of life. Yet the grainy gritty details are crucial. The poems are also about real life in its fey, quotidian haphazardness. Muldoon centred one collection, Quoof, round his family’s word for a hot-water-bottle.
The second quality is his sheer delight in the power of words. There is lots of quartz-crackle wordplay, and many strange, lovingly unearthed exotic words. One suspects him, sometimes, of sleeping with the OED under his pillow.
His new collection Moy Sand and Gravel, his ninth, closes with a heart-searing long poem called for the New Jersey house he now lives in, “At the Sign of the Black Horse, September 1999”. In Yeatsian stanzas, it is an answer to Yeats’s “A Prayer for My Daughter”, studded with bossy public notices like “Hard Hats Must Be Worn”, and “No Children Beyond this Point.” It blends a hurricane-swollen canal flood with the tragedy and mystery of a miscarried child; and also with his living children’s double ancestry, Irish and Jewish. It is both an elegy for the dead child, and a celebration: of his living children (especially the new baby son Asher), and of the genetic histories that meet in them, and the tribal suffering behind both. Persecution and holocaust blend with the Irish diaspora – with the navvies with bleeding feet, who died building this very canal.
The verbal associations of Muldoon’s own ancestry leads to a place name, “Magherafelt”, which partners a yellow “felt” star:
When we wheeled the old Biltrite baby carriage to the brink this morning, I was awestruck to see in Asher’s glabrous
face a slew of interlopers not from Maghery, as I mght have expected, or Maghera, or Magherafelt,
(though my connections there are few and far between)
but the likes of that kale-eating child on whom the peaked cap, Verboten,
would shortly pin a star of yellow felt….
The chime between “Magherafelt” and “yellow felt” reflects the way Jewish and Irish have come together in the new baby’s face. The words re-enact the world.
The third quality is obsession with pattern.
This mental tic, which all poets have to have, Muldoon has in spades. He has revolutionized rhyming. Sometimes the first and last lines in a whole book rhyme. He has revolutionized other aspects of poetic architecture too, like the line-length in sonnets, and the angle at which you approach your subject.
When I interviewed Paul Muldoon this summer in Edinburgh, I wanted to ask how all this evolved. He was here for the Festival and first, he had to be photographed.
It was pouring, the light was hopeless. We tried the entrance to the Mongolian “yurt” where performers recuperate.”Don’t hurt the yurt”, said Paul, as the photographer struggled with lighting. Then we splashed off for lunch to a Stygian tapas bar.
One poem in the new book, “The Misfits”, is a sestina, in which each six-line verse has the same six end words. You use these words in each verse in a changing order, and finally squish them together in a three-line coda. Muldoon’s sestina is about his father stopping him, as a boy, accepting a lift from a monk. It conveys both the young Muldoon’s innocence, and the possibility that this monk abuses boys. The end words are blue, lift, seam, lead, bend, rich. Muldoon rings a few changes: rich becomes ostrich; and at one point lift becomes “Montgomery bloody Clift”. How on earth did these words turn into a poem about nearly being abused?
“I was teaching,” said Muldoon. “I assign a sestina to the class and let them choose the words. Everyone was writing a sestina, I thought to hell with it, I’ll do one myself.”
“But the subject-matter is so dredged-up personal.”
“People think,” said Muldoon, “that in a sestina, everything is pre-determined because you have the end words already, But it’s the opposite: NOTHING is determined. I had no idea what would happen when I wrote that poem. It’s not painting by numbers, it’s stepping out into the dark. I’m interested in raising the stakes: in how one can step into the dark. A sestina allows you to raise them in a spectacular form.”
That’s one clue to Muldoon: he wants to step into the dark. That’s what technical challenges provide.
How did his rhyme-patterning begin? “Things began to talk to me in those ways. It was doing the sort of thing you’re not meant to do, not meant to get away with. The little boy who refuses to do the expected.”
He speared an Edinburgh octopus. “For me, rhyme and form are a way of dealing with the explosiveness of the subject matter.”
Since he came to poetic maturity when The Troubles were at their height in Belfast, and since he is deeply aware of Irish history, he knows what he’s talking about.
“But I hate the idea of being associated with ‘formalism’; or with anything. After my last book I thought, ‘I’ll stop using rhyme altogether. I’ll do free verse. Enough of this, it’s over.’ But I do believe rhyme is integral to the language. Don’t get hurt on the way to the yurt. I hate to say it, but I’m fired by these structures.”
Another comment often made about his work is “difficult”.
“I’m sure there are things I’ve written that are unintelligible because they’re half-assed, but generally I hope they are complex for reasons of ” – he looked around the Spanish-Scottish shadows – “of architecture. I sincerely hope that the thinking and planning of these walls, especially the load-bearing walls, was a complex business. They are constructed things. Art is a complex business. I’ve been very generously treated by critics – too generously, perhaps – but they do go on about difficulty. My poems are nowhere near as complex as John Donne.”
Muldoon rarely explains. His books never add the footnotes which some poets provide to shed light on recondite subject-matter. I suspect he thinks through image, and pattern, first. So how does he like doing those Oxford lectures?
“I write anything very, very slowly, and I have no great track record of expounding. It takes a lot of energy; it doesn’t come naturally. By the time I recover from one lecture, it’s time to do another. But I treat the lectures very much as a poem. I want to come out with some shift in how I see the world at the other end.”
There you are. That’s the secret of Muldoon. Everything he approaches is a step into the dark. Every time he begins a poem he wants to re-invent the wheel. And in everything he does, he wants to come out of it with a shift in how he sees the world.
That’s why we are lucky to have him. For a shift in how he sees may eventually mean a shift in how we see, too.