Interview with Paul Muldoon
Conducted by Barry Jacobs, John Borneman, and Sidhartha Goyal.
Pulitzer Prize winner poet, Paul Muldoon, currently Howard G.B. Clark '21 University Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Creative Writing in the University Center for the Creative and Performing Arts, talks about the "Pink Spotted Torso," Pink Floyd, John Barr and the Poetry Foundation, and appreciation for complexity as expressed in artistic forms. In addressing why much poetry seems inaccessible to American audiences, he also discusses W.B. Yeats, Elizabeth Bishop, Dr. Seuss, and more…
- The editors
John Borneman: Have you written about color in your poetry?
Paul Muldoon: As it happens, I have a poem called "Pink Spotted Torso", which happens to be the title of a print that was made by a woman named Mary Farl Powers, who was an etcher and lithographer. She was born in America, the daughter of a rather distinguished Irish-American writer by the name of J. F. Powers, who won the National Book Award  for a novel called "Morte d'Urban". She was a woman with whom I lived for a while in the early 1980s. And one of her etchings was of a potatoish item, a somewhat amorphous blob, entitled "Pink Spotted Torso". And this was a woman who in very early 1990s died, alas, from breast cancer, which she refused to treat by conventional means. So, her own pink spotted tyorso, as it were, began to resonate for me in a literal sense. And I wrote a long poem, called "Incantata", which is an elegy for her, which mentions that same etching, the "Pink Spotted Torso".
Barry Jacobs: Your poetry has been characterized as a collection of puns. Would you agree with that?
Muldoon: That comment is probably made by people who haven't read the poems but who have read a few commentaries, also by people who probably haven't read the poems. But I certainly do use the occasional pun. The pun has been an element of our lives for rather a long time, and from the outset of our lives. If you have any experience of children at all, you know that they come naturally to punning and delight in punning; it is the one of the first things that they do and are amused by. And that goes right the way through to the personage of Jesus Christ, who I guess in his early thirties used quite a famous pun. Speaking to St. Peter "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church".
Jacobs: What do you associate with pink?
Muldoon: Well pink has so many resonances, of course. It is associated with with female sexuality, being a crude term for the vagina. There was a novel by Carrie Fisher, [she was] Princess Leia [in Star Wars], with the rather un-princess Leia title of "Surrender the Pink". It is also of course associated with the gay movement; the pink triangles that we used to identify and stigmatize gay people in the Nazi era, and perhaps in others.
Jacobs: Do you think colors have intrinsic meaning for a viewer?
Muldoon: I would imagine for most part is that is it cultural.
Jacobs: A big issue in the Sciences is that any color, say pink, evokes something that could be across cultures, something inherent.
Muldoon: The short answer to that is that I don't know. In my own culture, for example, that is to say the Irish culture, we have a word in Irish for a color, which may be either blue may be green, or perhaps even grey, is the color glas, in Irish. There is a suggestion, for example, that the Irish have some tendency towards color blindness, in some scientifically measured way. I do think that different cultures have different associations with colors.
Jacobs: Some believe that girls are attracted to pink and boys to blue is not an accident, and that there is some biology behind it.
Muldoon: Well in this supposedly enlightened age, we as parents tend to shy away from anything that suggests that everyone is not on some kind of equal footing. However, it is fair to say that there are distinctions in how our little boys and little girls behave, and indeed in how slightly bigger girls and boys behave. But, it is a difficult area, it would be a parlous business to get involved in making any large statements in these matters. Partly, because I believe that at some level each of us includes so much, we are so alike both in terms of the gender and in terms of the wider considerations. But I suppose it is the case that we still have not strayed too far from the cave. This is one of the reasons we like to snuggle up in this time of the year, one of the reasons we go out to the supermarket and stock up on items we are never going to eat, just in case it snows more than a couple of inches. Blue, for example, is not a color we tend to admire much in food, apart from blue-berries and blue cheese, we are probably programmed somewhat to avoid that color, for the most part. We tend to be attracted to the pink when we expect it, in the case of the salmon, for example. Its pinkness comes from the, as the pinkness of the flamingo, from its propensity to eat krill or other small pinkish sea creatures. There is a problem of how shrimp turns pink when we throw them into a pot of boiling water, for some reason. Anyhow, it's because of our propensity to associate pink with salmon that a color-wheel is used in fish farms, whereby the fish farmer may choose the degree of pinkness he wants his fish to achieve. Because most farmed salmon would actually be grey, if they did not introduce a coloring agent.
Jacobs: I am so sorry you told me that…
Muldoon: So, there are problems with all of this. There is actually a color-wheel by which you can figure out how much "stuff", stuff is what it is, that you feed your salmon. They did try to market farmed salmon as, an ivory salmon, a salmon that has not been tampered with; I don't think it quite worked.
Borneman: You are in a rock band. What do you think of Pink Floyd?
Muldoon: I love them. Apparently the name comes from the names of two Blues singers, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. They are not that well-known I would have thought. But, it is an indicator of the significance of the blues on all rock.
Borneman: Why do you love Pink Floyd?
Muldoon: I love Pink Floyd because they are incomparable when it comes to a certain kind of stadium rock. Of course there are recordings of their songs, but for the complete Pink Floyd experience, you had to have been there. They developed extremely sophisticated laser shows, for example. Most of us haven't seen or heard Pink Floyd because they don't quite exist except in two rather diminished versions.
They did get together a couple of years ago for the Live 8 concert. The only thing I was interested in seeing at that concert was the reunion of the Pink Floyd. I was living with no television. So, I booked myself into a hotel and settled down to watch Live 8. Pink Floyd would play a few notes, and then VH1 or whichever channel it was would cut away from the performance and some idiot would come on with a microphone to comment on how this was "such a great moment, the reunion of Pink Floyd." Meanwhile we couldn't see or hear them while this idiot was blathering on.
Borneman: We have some questions about audience…
Muldoon: Keep them simple! Keep them simple!
Borneman: About who reads poetry and whom do you want to reach…
Muldoon: Do you read poetry?
Borneman: Much less then I used to.
Muldoon: Then we want to reach you.
Borneman: First could you comment on John Barr and the Poetry Foundation and his project on democratizing and popularizing poetry? He is offering prizes to people to write poetry in all categories. Do you think monetary incentives and prizes and awards will encourage people who don't write poems to write them?
Muldoon: I don't think monetary incentives will necessarily make anything happen, certainly not necessarily anything of any value. I do think that education is at the heart of this, as it is to most other aspects of our lives, education or the lack of it. Readers and indeed writers are lost and found particularly in the high school and that is where the poetry foundation should be spending their money. They should be spending it on encouraging school teachers to expose students to poetry; independent of the fact that in most cases, in most of the public exams in this country do not feature poetry as a topic. Poetry is the last thing that is taught in high school, that's one of the reasons.
Borneman: Is it taught in Ireland?
Muldoon: Yes, but less and less. And what happens is that people are terrified of poetry, including the teachers. I work with teachers outside Princeton and I teach teachers poetry among other things. And it's a hard job, the teachers themselves have had a bad time. And one of the reasons they have had a bad time, oddly enough, is because there is an insistence on the teaching of poetry. That it is something that an ordinary person would not be able to manage by herself or himself. It's only when there is a teacher around that a student would be able to read a poem. Because a poem is never about what it seems to be about and Dante needs a Virgil to lead him/ her through the poem. So, there is always a sense that, it will be like going to Nepal without a guide; it will be a form of lunacy to try to read a poem for oneself. Or going to Antarctica without taking a few precautions. So, that's one of the difficulties.
Borneman: You are saying that is wrong…
Muldoon: I am saying that one of dangers is that teachers delight in insisting that poetry is difficult, and it is true that some of it is, much of what happened earlier on, particularly in the 20th century, though there are a number of other centuries that are contenders like the 17th, for example. But, the fact is that the real problem is that there is not enough exposure to [poetry]. Why do we know so much about Pink Floyd? Because, we'd need to have been dead not to be aware of Pink Floyd. Virtually everybody has some sense of Pink Floyd, be it from "Another Brick in the Wall" or something that has entered the popular imagination. We have been exposed to it [and] it's been fun. Or we know it through the film version, "The Wall."
Jacobs: My personal impression is that poetry has got much more obscure in the last 50-100 years.
Muldoon: It depends what one picks up. If you don't mind my saying, do you pick up many poems?
Jacobs: I did, but kind of gave up.
Muldoon: Depends on what one's reading. Most of the poems you would read in "The New Yorker," say, are fairly accessible. And in fact most poetry that is written is quite accessible. It's true that some is more difficult. My belief is of course that it's necessarily difficult. In the way that Astrophysics or Math or any other aspect of our lives is truly difficult. We don't expect Astronomy to be an easy subject, as it were. By the way, nor do we expect American football to be an easy thing to be involved with.
Jacobs: But the question is whether it is purposely made obscure?
Muldoon: No, it's not. If poetry is obscure it is for generally two reasons. One of them is that it is half-baked; it is obscure because it hasn't been worked out, because writing is about clarification of some kind. And one of the things we are trying to teach our students and ourselves is to be able to distinguish between the two. The other reason is that to be equal to this world it may necessarily be ever so slightly complex. To walk through this world of a morning is an extremely complex business, beginning with this (pointing to the digital recorder). We are surrounded by so much that we don't understand. And to be equal to that, poetry, while it is engaged in clarification, must somehow be equal to the difficulty of being here. Because it is a way of helping us to make sense of things that involves clarification, but it necessarily involves the laying out of the complexity. Complexity and simplification go hand in glove.
Borneman: So, on one hand lack of exposure creates the problem of accessibility. On the other, there is a problem with understanding complexity as expressed in poetry…
Muldoon: Here's a one sentence answer to that: they can't read it because they don't read it! There is a complaint about it being unintelligible. Generally, people who say that have not looked at a poem for a long time or at least not looked a range of poetry. If we go to the movies we are engaged in very sophisticated "seeing", if we go to a concert, be it by Pink Floyd or Prokofiev, we are engaged in very sophisticated "hearing". With Prokofiev we know that we have to learn how to listen, with Pink Floyd we forgot that we had to learn. We have forgotten that we had to learn because we were submerged in it. To go back to your question, the real difficulty [for poetry] is making it more and everyday part of our lives. And what the Poetry Foundation should be doing, I think, is encouraging newspapers to carry more poetry. They want to pay somebody to do something, pay the newspapers to carry a poem everyday, make it part of our lives. Rather then something that is strange and you are biting your nails for not being able to read it.
By the way, the other thing about most poetry, like most of everything else, most plumbing, most doctoring, most scientific research perhaps, it is not of a very high standard.
There are aspects of what the Poetry Foundation is trying to do, as far I understand it, which I have some questions about. One of them is an insistence on the importance of children's poetry, that to say poetry written for children. Some of the poetry that has been written expressly for children, Dr. Seuss [Theoder Geisel], for example, [is] excellent! The only trouble is that much more of it also begins to sound like second or third or fourth or may be even tenth read Dr. Seuss. So what happens is if you ask a twelve year old to write a poem, what she or he writes is twentieth rate Dr. Seuss, and one of the reasons for that is that they have been exposed to children's poetry. My own view is that they should be exposed to poetry pure and simple, they should be reading Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, John Donne, William Shakespeare, William Blake, John Clare, D. H. Lawrence, and so on. There is absolutely no reason why they shouldn't be reading any and all poetry. This is not meant to be offensive to some of the excellent writers of children poetry. But I am not entirely persuaded that this is the way to go about giving children poetry. As a parent one knows that to give children what is thought to be child-specific is the last thing they want to know about. They want the real thing, and why shouldn't they get it? Get William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Marianne Moore. There's absolutely no reason why they can't be reading that.
Borneman: As to the question of accessibility of poetry. Is it not also that the public is impoverished in their language today?
Muldoon: I don't think they are…
Borneman: You don't think there is something about public everyday language that makes the public less capable of reading poetry.
Muldoon: One hears stories that the literacy level has been fairly low. I do think that American English is a wonderful language and a vibrant language, [it is] kind of endlessly interesting, I really don't know about that. I would say exposure is the key thing.
Sidhartha Goyal: And would language be a barrier for children?
Muldoon: I don't think so. I mean kids who can read, they can read anything. If children are exposed to books, they will read. If they are exposed to poetry they will read that, so exposure is what it is about.
Borneman: You have been appointed to run the new Center for the Creative and Performing Arts. Is it not the case that the arts play a back seat at Princeton to politics? That the Woodrow Wilson School dominates….
Muldoon: Does it?
Borneman: Don't you think so?
Muldoon: I would have thought that there are many areas in Princeton that are to the fore. Aren't there many areas of this University that are world-class?
Borneman: World-class, yes…
Muldoon: I don't see Princeton as being dominated by the Woodrow Wilson school, but maybe I am missing something.
Borneman: For example, there are huge audiences for political personages and for the kind of policy issues discussed at the Woodrow Wilson School. I am wondering how you see the audience at Princeton for this new Center.
Muldoon: Well, I suspect that Dean Slaughter of the Woodrow Wilson school would be one of the first to agree that, in Yeats's famous phrase, "out of the quarrel with others we have rhetoric, out of the quarrel with ourselves we have poetry".
She might even agree that poetry and these other art forms are also ways in which we perhaps, even more truly, understand how societies function, even more truly understand how they function and what is at their heart. Even politicians understand that and that's why most presidents have had a poet at his, so far his, inauguration. Because they know that there is something about the role the poet plays in society that is still vibrant. And most people know that too. They know that in moments that are particularly charged in their lives, when there is a birth, when there is death, when there is a marriage, that poetry or some art form is required. And what they need to learn, and this might be the gist of what I am saying, is that it's useful to help them live their lives at other times, also.
Borneman: Is there a theory of poetry, like there are theories of the novel, or is poetry just a classification of speech?
Muldoon: A theory, yes. There are various descriptions of poetry and they've all got something of merit, I'm sure. They are all partial descriptions because poetry is such a huge subject that occurs in so many ways in our lives. In English, the very first poems were riddles, charms, spells, prayers, curses, right the way through. So, it takes very many forms. My own definition of the poem in recent years has been this: it is a solution to a problem that hitherto has not existed, that was raised only by itself. It is of use in answering its own question, of course, but it may have utility beyond that, too.
Borneman: Thank you very much.