Feature - February 11, 1998
Paul Muldoon's poetry--inventive, complex, perverse--is "just a way of getting from day to day"
By Caroline Moseley
The London Times calls him "one of the most inventive and ambitious poets working today." London Magazine asserts, "there are few contemporary poets, if any, who can match his achievement." And, according to the The New York Times, he is "one of the two or three most accomplished rhymers now writing in English."
The rhymer in question is Paul Muldoon, a professor in the Council of the Humanities and Creative Writing and the director of the Program in Creative Writing. A native of Ulster, Muldoon is the 1997 recipient of the Irish Times Literature Prize for Poetry; in granting him the award, the paper cited his "inventive use of language" and called his New Selected Poems 1968-1994 (Faber and Faber, 1996) "engaging and challenging" for its "intellectual wordplay and literary cross-references."
The poetry is, indeed, challenging. Muldoon's most ardent admirers comment on his
poems' often frustrating complexity, which the poet
is quick to defend. "We live in very complex
times," he explains in his lilting brogue. "I'm not
particularly avant-garde, but I am interested in
shaking things about--partly because one is shaken about. The poems reflect the shaken state
of things. That needn't necessarily mean chaos, discord or 'difficulty,' but the poems
sometimes go in that direction."
Muldoon, who writes lyric and narrative poetry, is both avant-garde and traditional. He may use traditional forms such as the sonnet or villanelle, but takes enough liberties with the forms that, he says, "the poems sometimes explode and reinvent the form they're using." Intricate constructions of assonance replace rhyme, leading reviewers to comment on Muldoon's "dazzling half-rhymes, bamboozling but beautiful" and his "shimmeringly perverse wordplay."
His poetry is richly allusive: He quotes from many languages, including Gaelic; he incorporates historical and literary figures from almost any country and time, and the heroes of Irish folklore share tropes with Emily Post and Michael Jackson.
Further complicating interpretation, many of Muldoon's words are not merely obscure but newly minted. "Incantata," the title of an elegy for a friend, is "a word I made up for the purpose," he says. "It alludes, as the poem says, to 'the Inca/glyph for a mouth,' and also to 'cantata,' and 'incantation.'"
Muldoon knows his work makes demands on the reader. "There are things one might have to look up, absolutely," he acknowledges. "But I don't put such things in just to keep people scurrying back and forth to the OED. I use these words because they are the words that must be used--the right words in the right order, as Coleridge said." As it happens, Muldoon's office, in 185 Nassau Street, does contain the massive three-volume Oxford English Dictionary (with magnifying glass), plus two sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica and two of the Encyclopedia Americana. He maintains a reference library for his use and that of his students.
"I look things up all the time, sure," he says. "Research is part of any writing. If I'm writing about a duck, I'm quite happy to look up 'duck' in the Encyclopedia Britannica; there's no honor code been broken." Sometimes, he adds, "People say, 'Hey, what's going on here? It makes no sense. It's like nothing else.' Then, if they're so inclined, they may go back, read the poems, think about them, and realize that maybe they are not so complex as they might at first appear."
He smiles. "Mind you, I'm not saying people must go back. They are quite entitled to throw the book away."
Muldoon asks of his readers only that they "read each poem. Each poem determines its own shape in the world, sets its own rules, and determines the way in which it will be read." Form and rhetoric are "at the service of what the poems are doing or saying. It's not what I am trying to do, it's what the poem is trying to do; I believe very much in the thing itself." It is perhaps significant that Muldoon never refers to "my poem" but always to "the poem."
Muldoon says The Annals of Chile (a collection that won the 1995 T.S. Eliot Poetry Prize) "may represent some kind of end for me. The neologisms, for example: you really can't go down that road without people saying, 'That's just pseudo-Joyce.' I don't want that, and I don't want to end up imitating myself eithernot that one doesn't end up sounding roughly like oneself anyway."
His most recent volume, Hay, to be published later this year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, contains mostly lyric poems, many of which are set in and around Hopewell, New Jersey, where he lives with his wife, Jean Korelitz, and their six-year-old daughter, Dorothy. Hay, he says, is written in "a more simple, direct style, and contains less difficult, less allusive, poems." [For the title poem, see page 12.]
Muldoon says that most of his poems are written on his lunch hour, but he also composes early in the morning in his campus office. He believes in the importance of "not writing poetry all the time, even if one has all the time. One's tendency would be to take every little ruffle of the sails as some magnificent moment." Thus, he doesn't mind dealing with the humdrum tasks of a program director; he regards writing memos as "the same as any other kind of writing--finding the right words and having an effect. Unless at some level it transports and changes, no one will be interested in reading it."
POETRY AS CATALYST
In Muldoon's classes (which he prefers to call "gatherings" or "meetings"), he tells students to approach a poem with an open mind, without preconditions. "A short, imagistic haiku, for example, is not going to be read on quite the same terms as an extended narrative like Paradise Lost. Or, you try to determine who the speaker is. Are we to take the speaker seriously, or is there an ironic tone?"
Students read their works aloud, and classmates offer comments. They discuss meter, form, images--always on the alert for clichéd expressions. Muldoon gets discussion started by asking, "What is this poem about?" or "What do you think of the title?" If he makes a comment himself it is gently encouraging: "Deftly done," or "That's an interesting departure for you. I look forward to hearing more." The method, observes Krista Dobi '00, who took Muldoon's poetry workshop last semester, "leads to a discussion that is never derogatory, always constructive, always respecting the author." According to Jon Queally '00, another nascent poet, Muldoon "points out precisely where a problem lies, or where something works well. He speaks simply and deliberately and practically."
Muldoon's poetry often refers to historical and literary figures unknown to his students. But the students--immersed in the cultural milieu of 20-year-olds--may, in turn, create poetic images that do not at first resonate with their professor. One student's poem included a line about "my three wise men," a reference to a well-known student drinking game involving Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, and Johnny Walker. "Very neat," quipped Muldoon, once the allusion was explained to him.
Ideally, says Muldoon, a poem should act as a catalyst, changing "both the person who wrote it and the person who reads it. That's a tall order, but the order I set before my students--and myself of course; I wouldn't ask them to do something I wouldn't do myself. A poem changes the way we see what's before us." He points to Ezra Pound's "In a Station of the Metro":
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
No one who has read those lines, says Muldoon, "will ever look at a crowd in a subway station in quite the same way again."
Poetry workshops such as Muldoon's beg the question whether the writing of poetry can really be taught. "You cannot teach someone to be creative," the teacher acknowledges. "If there were some talisman we could grasp and hand on, it would be wonderful, but it doesn't work that way. The impulse has to be there, and a particular interest in language. We can, however, show students that a powerful concrete image is more effective than something abstract. And we can help teach students certain strategies for reading their own work."
WRITING AND TEACHING
Muldoon has been practicing his craft for some time. He was born in 1951 in Portadown, County Armagh, in Northern Ireland, the oldest child of Catholic parents (his mother was a school teacher, his father a market gardener who grew mushrooms and cauliflower; both figure prominently in his poetry). At Queen's University, Belfast, he studied English literature, philosophy, and Gaelic. He received his B.A. the same year (1973) that saw the publication of New Weather, his first volume of poems. Three more collections followed while he worked as the producer of radio and television arts programs for BBC Northern Ireland ("where I learned to be well organized and all that dreary sort of stuff"). He left the BBC to teach writing: first at the University of East Anglia and Cambridge University, then, beginning in 1987, in the United States. He taught at Princeton, Columbia, and the universities of California and Massachusetts before returning to Princeton in 1990. He has headed the Creative Writing Program since 1993.
New Selected Poems is Muldoon's eighth volume of poetry, and he is represented in most anthologies of contemporary Irish and British verse. Among his other volumes are The Annals of Chile, Madoc (1990), Selected Poems 1968-83 (1986), Meeting the British (1987), and Why Brownlee Left (1980). As an editor and translator, he published in 1993 The Astrakhan Cloak, a translation from the Gaelic of poems by Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill ("the feminine version of 'O'Donnell'").
While admitting that "I do like people to read my poetry," Muldoon is realistic about fame. "There are a few poets who are extremely famous; I don't think I'm going to be one of them. I'll never be Robert Frost or Rod McKuen. I'll never sell out Madison Square Garden." Referring to Princeton's small but venerable movie house, he adds, "I probably couldn't sell out the Garden Theater."
Between now and selling out a Garden of any size, Muldoon is more than happy to be writing and teaching poetry at Princeton. "It is terrific," he says. "Wonderful. I am proud to belong to this particular university; and, in a general sense, the patronage of creative artists by universities is very important." Accordingly, he wrote and read a poem at the opening ceremony for Princeton's 250th Anniversary, "Taking the Air with James McCosh, Prospect Gardens, February 1996" [opposite]. In April, Muldoon, along with other artists represented in the library's Leonard L. Milberg '53 Collection of Contemporary Irish Poetry, will do a reading at an Irish poetry festival at Princeton. He will also introduce his friend and 1995 Nobel laureate, Seamus Heaney, at a special reading.
Muldoon hopes to continue creating poetry that reflects "what it is like being this Irish person, whose parents are dead, and some of whose friends are dead, who is living in America right now, married with a small child.
"Writing poems is the way I try to answer the questions we all try to answer, whether we write poems or not--'Who am I? What am I doing here?' It's just a way of getting from day to day, do you see? There's nothing special about it. It's just the way I happen to go about things."
Caroline Moseley, a frequent PAW contributor, is a writer in the university's Office of Communications.
This much I know. Just as I'm about to make that right turn
of hay. (More accurately a bale of lucerne
that hay-accordion, that hay-concertina.
of the bales themselves), for a body to ascertain
From Hay, to be published later this year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Taking the Air With James McCosh,
Something about him brings to mind 'Horse' Reid. Herbert,
Commissioned on the occasion of Princeton's 250th Anniversary;