The puckish poet

by Ben Naparstek / 23 February, 2008
Renowned for his cryptic verse, Paul Muldoon, the New Yorker's poetry editor, doesn't see why poetry is inherently more difficult than film or music. Influenced by John Donne and Seamus Heaney as well as rock music and advertising, he has described himself as a "prince of the quotidian".

Like any event that enters the realm of legend, it's hard to disentangle fact from fiction in accounts of Paul Muldoon's first meeting with Seamus Heaney. Even Muldoon mistrusts his memory. As he vaguely recalls it, he was 16 when a teacher introduced him to Heaney at a poetry reading in Northern Ireland with the epithet rara avis (Latin for "rare bird"). He subsequently posted Heaney some poems, asking, "What can I learn from you?" Heaney's response: "Nothing."

At 21, Muldoon had already published his first book, New Weather - after Heaney, then Muldoon's tutor at Queen's University in Belfast, showed his work to Faber and Faber's poetry editor. Now, after 10 volumes of poetry (not counting his selected and collected poems), no Irish poet rivals Muldoon for the Nobel laureate's mantle.

But aside from his wayward mop of hair, Muldoon shares little with his former mentor. His playful verse - where recondite allusions rub up against colloquial diction, and emotion is undercut by irony - contrasts with Heaney's high seriousness and polish. Next to Muldoon's brazen experiments, Heaney's pastoral lyrics seem old-fashioned.

In person, Muldoon is equally puckish. Boyish in temperament and appearance despite his 56 years, he has a rotund figure and bouncy walk. He's so soft-spoken and mild-mannered that it's hard to see where the poetic fireworks come from. His lilting Ulster vowels remain despite two decades in the United States, where he teaches at Princeton University. With his tweed sportscoat and shaggy hair, he is a cross between professor and ageing rock star. In 2004, he co-founded the "three-car garage band" Rackett with the Princeton poetry scholar Nigel Smith - Muldoon writes lyrics and plays guitar.

He's perplexed by his reputation for cryptic verse, insisting that he's not trying "to present riddles or conundrums but to engage readers". Even Helen Vendler, perhaps the pre-eminent US poetry critic, has suggested he publish with explanatory notes.

"Certainly, I can imagine a circumstance when a few notes would be useful, absolutely - but we'll leave that for someone else to do," Muldoon says. "John Donne and William Shakespeare need annotations, but they weren't doing their own."

He doesn't see why poetry is inherently more difficult than film or music. "We've spent so much of our lives watching movies that we're not conscious of how sophisticated we are at it," he says, peering through black-rimmed spectacles beneath a brown-and-grey fringe.

"In the silent movies, that famous caption 'Meanwhile, back at the ranch' had to be shot up because there was no understanding that what was happening in one frame was synchronisitous with the next frame, rather than in advanced time. And we've learnt a very sophisticated grammar of popular music. Poetry is not something people read, and they say, 'I don't understand this.'"

Muldoon's poetry has a sonorous quality that makes it inviting even when resisting comprehensibility. His fondness for unlikely rhymes has led some to joke that he could rhyme "knife" with "fork". Although rhyming verse has fallen out of fashion, Muldoon doesn't see it disappearing. "These little chimes are delightful to us. They make things memorable. In popular culture, rhyme is a very potent force, in everything from rap music through to advertising."

Referring to his love of demotic culture, Muldoon once described himself in a poem as a "prince of the quotidian".

For such a worldly poet, Muldoon's origins are surprisingly provincial. The oldest of three siblings, he was born into a Catholic family in County Armagh, Northern Ireland. His parents were opposed to political violence - a legacy inherited by Muldoon, whose poetry maintains an even-handed view of the sectarian conflict.

His father, Patrick, was a market gardener and mushroom farmer, whom Muldoon describes as a life-battered but jubilant man. In his poem "The Mixed Marriage", Muldoon recounts how Patrick left school to market himself as a labourer at a hiring fair: "When he left school at eight or nine/He took up billhook and loy/To win the ground he would never own." In fact, his father was 12. Though virtually illiterate, Muldoon Sr once heard his son's poem broadcast on the BBC and commented, "God, you made me very wee."

His mother, Brigid, was a tough-minded schoolmistress, whom Muldoon admits to having "probably demonised more than appropriate". In "Oscar", Muldoon relates a visit to his parents' grave, where he imagines that "though she preceded him/by a good ten years, my mother's skeleton/has managed to worm/its way back on top of the old man's,/and she once again has him under her thumb". Muldoon used her maiden name, Regan - an anagram of "anger" - for the dedication of The Annals of Chile (1994).

"The mother" - as Muldoon refers to Brigid in conversation - educated her children through general-knowledge magazines. Today, Muldoon remains "less interested in literature with a capital L than just books about interesting aspects of life - history, geography, biology, almost anything".

He started writing poetry aged 15 at St Patrick's College, where he recalls several great teachers who fostered a love of poetry in their students. "They made it cool. Lots of people around me were writing poems. One of our past students was the Irish poet John Montague, so there was a sense that one could be a poet without having lived in some previous era."

It was at St Patrick's that he discovered Donne, the 17th-century English poet known for his mastery of the "metaphysical conceit" - extended metaphors that yoke together two unlikely ideas. "A lot of my poems operate in similar ways - the idea of the quite fanciful, far-fetched metaphor," he says. "I love John Donne - the range, the control, the craziness. He's so witty, so airy, so grounded. He's a model poet."

Muldoon regrets that his rich poetry education was rare. "It's usually taught at the pretty banal level of 'Oh, so here we have our poem for today. You'll notice in the first stanza some alliteration. And notice what a hard sound that word hard has.'"

Not all poetic techniques are so obvious. When Muldoon submitted "Capercaillies" to the New Yorker magazine in the 80s, the editors seemed not to notice that it was an "acrostic" - a poem in which the first letter of each line spells out a message - reading, "Is this a New Yorker poem or what?"

Despite Muldoon mimicking what he saw as the magazine's preference for revelatory pastoral lyrics, the answer to the acrostic was clearly negative - the New Yorker rejected it. But the barb didn't stop the magazine hiring him as poetry editor last year - a post that he holds on top of his demanding Princeton schedule.

But Muldoon doesn't want more time to write, having only ever written about a dozen poems a year. "I try not to get involved in writing a poem unless I'm fairly sure that it's going to be demi-semi interesting, when I have an image or phrase or two that I think, in my innocence, are going to be explosive."

For 13 years, before decamping to the US in 1987, he worked as an arts producer for the BBC in Belfast. "In those days, as today, everything I wrote I wrote at lunchtime or at the weekend."

He's rarely conscious of form when he writes. "I would never know that something was going to be a sonnet, unless it was part of a sonnet sequence - that's just something that develops. But I'm apt to write a sonnet because the structure is predisposed to us. The basic idea of the sonnet, which in many cases is, 'Here we have this, then we have that', corresponds to a very basic way of thinking."

Poetry doesn't get easier with experience. "Poetry is made out of the stuff of one's own self, out of one's innards," he says, grasping his ample stomach. "And for that reason it becomes more and more difficult, in the spider sense of weaving from its own innards, to spin out as one gets older. Poets disimprove as they go on. It's just a fact of life. It's not a pleasant one. It's not one I want to think about. But it's a fact."

However, there are signs that Muldoon is improving, if anything. In 2003, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Moy Sand and Gravel. And his most recent volume, Horse Latitudes (2006), was published to high acclaim. Although critics never question Muldoon's verbal dexterity, some, like Vendler, have criticised his work for appealing more to the head than the heart. But reviewing Horse Latitudes in the New Republic, Vendler wrote that "age has deepened Muldoon's poetry" and applauded his ability "to bear aloft both grief and playfulness".

In "Incantata", published in The Annals of Chile, Muldoon elegises a former girlfriend, the Irish artist Mary Farl Powers, who died of cancer in 1992. He recalls, "you detected in me a tendency to put/on too much artificiality, both as man and poet,/which is why you called me 'Polyester' or 'Polyurethane'".

But Muldoon downplays the claims that his work has become more emotionally charged. "I can see how there might be more evident emotion, but there was always emotion."

In "The Mudroom", the poet merges Jewish and Irish imagery to celebrate his marriage to his Jewish wife, US novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz. Muldoon ruminates on his children's mixed heritage in "At the Sign of the Black Horse, September 1999", where he sees in the face of his newborn son, Asher, now eight, "a slew of interlopers/not from Maghery ... [but] that kale-eating child on whom the peaked cap, Verboten, /would shortly pin a star of yellow felt".

In "The Birth", he evokes the first moments of their daughter, Dorothy, now 15: "I watch through floods of tears/as they give her a quick rub-a-dub/and whisk/her off to the nursery, then check their staple-guns for staples."

Flights of fancy pervade Muldoon's essays, not just his poetry. In 2005, he published The End of the Poem, which consisted of the 15 lectures he delivered over his five-year tenure as professor of poetry at Oxford University. Although applauded for their inventiveness, his close readings of 15 poems were too idiosyncratic for some. The Oxford literary scholar Valentine Cunningham described them as "Bedlam - an associative madness".

Names are important to Muldoon. He reads Marianne Moore's poetry as a struggle against its own tendency for the excessive ornamentation typical of Moorish (or Islamic) art. He suggests that the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa wrote under heteronyms because of an obsession with personality stemming from his name pessoa (Portuguese for "person").

"Poets do, consciously or unconsciously, have relationships with their own names," he says. "I've seen many times my students unconsciously rendering their own names in their poems." Muldoon describes his affinity with his name as "profound" (recall "The Mudroom").

The End of the Poem is not the funeral lament for the form that its title may suggest; it refers instead to his belief that, after taking in the shape of a poem, the reader might reasonably start at its end. He thinks that the early 21st century is a particularly vital moment for poetry.

"What I like now is that there are no figures that have a monopoly on the poetic situation. There are many voices from all around the world. One can appreciate a poem by Les Murray, say, without getting involved in some kind of notion of the Herculean figures. In my day, the ones represented as such were [Ted] Hughes, [Philip] Larkin and [Thom] Gunn."

And now there are Heaney, Murray and Muldoon? He smiles bashfully: "Well, see, I wouldn't know that."

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