Paul Muldoon

What I think: Paul Muldoon

July 14, 2017 noon

Paul Muldoon

The son of a market gardener and a schoolteacher, Paul Muldoon grew up near a village called The Moy on the border of Counties Armagh and Tyrone, Northern Ireland. The oldest of three children, he describes himself as "a bit of an eccentric child, a little bit of the family mascot" who was given privileges such as his own tiny room, where he spent hours as a teenager reading and writing poetry. After studying at Queen's University, he worked in Belfast as a radio and television producer for the BBC and moved to the United States in 1987. His most recent book, "Selected Poems 1968-2014," published in November 2016, draws from 12 previous books of poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Moy Sand and Gravel." He has served as the poetry editor of The New Yorker since 2007.

Muldoon is the Howard G.B. Clark '21 University Professor in the Humanities, professor of creative writing in the Lewis Center for the Arts and director of the Princeton Atelier. He has taught poetry at Princeton since 1987 and songwriting since 2013.

These musings are from an April 26 interview, and Muldoon reads two poems from his recent collection in the accompanying videos. 

Poetry is a way of making sense of the world. It resonates in all kinds of directions and has affinities with other callings. In my songwriting class, for example, there may be one music major; others are in molecular biology or engineering. They come from a whole slew of majors, but each week they're writing songs, music, words. It's awe-inspiring what they come up with — given that that's not even what they do; they are troublingly talented.

I do not watch any TV almost as a matter of principle. My wife has said to me from time to time when she looks at the number of books I've published: "Well I can see that there's a shelf that is represented by the fact that you don't watch TV." I make my own amusement.

When it comes to music, I am really old school. I buy CDs and listen to them in my car. The last three songs I listened to were: "No Particular Place to Go" by Chuck Berry; "I'm Your Man" by Leonard Cohen; and "Wristband" by Paul Simon. "Saffron," one of the poems in my new collection, recalls the heyday in the mid-'80s of the band A Flock of Seagulls.

People are fascinated by my being the poetry editor of The New Yorker and I think it's because they imagine that there's some kind of secret that, if only they knew it, would guarantee a spot in The New Yorker. And there is a secret, actually. And that is to write a really good poem, which is an extremely hard thing to do. We get 1,500 poems a week, and we publish two, so that gives you some sense of what we're up against.

Paul Muldoon recites his poem "Why Brownlee Left"
Play Video: “Why Brownlee Left” by Paul Muldoon

I don't always manage it, but I try to do everything as well as I possibly can. And I know I get it from my father — be it planting a row of little lettuce plants in a perfectly straight line, everything was done properly.

One of my mother's adages was: Never eat a ham sandwich without looking into it first. I think they used to put a lot of gristle and things into sandwiches; but what she meant was, look behind the surface. Nothing is ever as it seems.

Once, a boy at school took his pencil and stabbed me with it through my pants. I'm sure I was being some kind of a smart ass in class. I might have just been minding my own business, I don't know. He was sitting right next to me. It is true. I can still feel it.

We had a hedgehog outside the back door; they're lovely little creatures. I would leave a saucer of milk outside for the hedgehog. You couldn't see him, but you could hear the tin saucer rattling. I told that story recently and somebody said, you don't give hedgehogs milk, it's not good for them. Well, we didn't know that. I wrote a poem about it: "The Hedgehog."

Somebody gave me "The Faber Book of 20th-Century Verse." In that culture, we were reading heavy-duty stuff. I knew a huge amount about 20th-century poetry. Kids that age are usually into something. That's what I was into.

I'm glad to see there's some movement afoot among students in protesting some of the many things that we need to protest. I'm teaching a class in protest poetry. Each week the students write a protest poem. Today we were looking at gay rights; next week we'll be looking at surveillance. Gay rights, the environment, war, a full range of topics. The students are surprised that they're having the conversations they're having in a poetry class, quote unquote. They could be in an anthropology class or a sociology class. But they happen to be in a poetry class.

Paul Muldoon teaching creative writing seminar to students

Muldoon, who has taught poetry at Princeton since 1987 and songwriting since 2013, leads a discussion in one of his poetry seminars.

The great difficulty with poetry is that we think poetry's always about something other than what it seems to be, whereas in fact most of the time it's just about what it seems to be. That's one of our great societal difficulties with poetry; we can't accept that it's as it is, because we've been taught to believe that it's about something else. We're always looking for the something else it's about. It's a banal thing to say, but it accounts for a lot of trouble that readers get into.

At age 15, I felt I could be a poet, which I'm less sure of these days. Because the more I know about it, the more difficult it is. And now at the age of 65, I think, well, you know, I've spent my life doing this. I'm not sure if any of it's any good. Seriously, you really don't know. But there you have it.

There's a word in Irish, bearradoir, for a cow that nibbles on other cows' tails. It comes from the Celtic cattle culture.

I have Zen-ish tendencies. I sometimes set as a text for my students "Zen and the Art of Archery" [1948] by Eugen Herrigel, a German philosopher who learns how to shoot a bow and hit the bull's eye every time. In the Zen tradition, it's only when you give yourself over to the unknowing, the unthinking, that something interesting might happen. That's how I write. I say to myself, give yourself to it — to everything, to the collective unconscious, to the language, what does it want to do with you? If one thought about it much, it would be quite scary. And people do find it scary, because we like to be in control. I don't need to be in control, I don't want to be in control in this business. I want to be at the mercy of something else.

I'd like to meet Emily Dickinson. I might say, "How do you do it, Emily?" and she might say, "I don't really know." It's difficult often to intellectualize what one does. She obviously had a very quirky mindset, as most interesting poets do. They take a slightly skewed view of the world. They're just wired differently.

The terrain in which people live has such impact on their lives and on their art. I spent a while on leave last semester in western Mongolia, living with Muslim Kazakhs. The terrain there is very arid, with just a few little leaves cropping up. It's one of the reasons why the culture is nomadic; it also influences their art. They have wall hangings in their yurts that never quite reach the ground; they're always unfinished on purpose because you can't have a sense of the whole thing — it's emblematic of the idea that we can't, as human beings, have a sense of the whole thing.

Most children are creators, then we stop them. We give them a little machine to play with rather than have them make their own amusement. We tell them, you should be doing something practical, sensible, with a purpose and a future. I really believe this, unfortunately, as an educator: I believe the art is educated out of them. But there are ways of getting back into it. There are ways in which we can teach people to free themselves up a bit and to go to that Zen spot.

I've yet to learn how to tie my shoes properly (I usually wear shoes that don't tie).

Paul Muldoon recites his poem "Pelt"
Play Video: “Pelt” by Paul Muldoon

There are two people involved in the writing of a poem: the writer and the first reader, initially housed in the same person. The writer is appealing to the subconscious; the first reader is analyzing what's coming into being and wondering, what's the impact of those words, in that order, what does that mean, does it mean anything? There's somebody who's in it up to their necks, and there's someone who's able to stand back. It's difficult to be both at the same time. I use the term, sometimes with my students, of the first reader as a stunt double standing in for the first reader down the road who's bought your book of poems — trying to anticipate what they're going to see and trying to fix it before they see it.

I consider myself extremely lucky because I get up every morning with a song in my heart. Every day is an adventure for me. I meet people and I say, how are you doing, and they say, well, it's Monday. I have zero concept of that. I work seven days a week. And I have fun seven days a week. I work but I go to the theater and music and do fun things.

I'm not talented as a musician, not at all. The band I'm associated with now, Rogue Oliphant, is so good, they don't let me play with them, quite rightly. I write the songs. I relax by writing songs.

The fact of the matter is, to write poetry, you need to be extremely focused. You have to have all your wits about you. I'm trying to keep the quality of the poems as high as possible. I think one of the reasons it gets harder [as you age] is because it gets harder to concentrate. My mind is not as focused as it was 30 years ago.

I write something almost every day. I was up at five o'clock this morning, and teaching all morning. I haven't written anything today but it's possible that before the day is over I will write a line, maybe. I'll write a line and I might leave it and that's it.

I can wake up in the middle of the night and have a phrase and I don't have to get up and write it down. When I wake up in the morning, it's there, it's the first thing that comes to me. And that's just because my mind is trained to do that, because I've done it for so long.

The truth of the matter is that I try not to complain. People do complain, even at Princeton, about this and that. I take a slightly dim view of it, to be honest. I said to somebody recently that I was thinking of retiring, and they said, "From what?" As if to say, you have such a fabulous time in your work, would you really want to give that up? It's fun. It's more fun than it should be.

I tell my students this: Supposing you're going to spend three hours a week writing your poem for the class. It's much better to do six half-hours or three one-hours, rather than three hours in a block, because it's brewing, as it were; it's percolating, your unconscious is working on it.

The students [at Princeton] are exceptional. That's the party line. It happens to coincide with the truth. They're amazing. I love them. I actually learn stuff from them. Factual stuff. Or together we learn things. It's a delight.

With poetry in particular I think everybody involved must from time to time think, oh my god, how did I get myself into this? It's always heartwarming to feel that other people have got themselves into this predicament too. There's a lot of laughter around here [with my colleagues at Princeton]. That's how we get through. You have to laugh. Particularly now. There is a sense of community, which is lovely and has a nurturing aspect.

If I could tell first-year students one thing, I would tell them that a university education is an education in time management. No matter what realm you end up in, be it dog walking, coffee grinding, a Ph.D., an app inventor, a writer, how to manage your time is the key component.

Non-utility is sometimes a charge that's laid against the humanities, whereas in fact they're actually quite useful. Several years ago somebody came into my office and said, "I studied poetry here about 40 years ago, but I'm a doctor now. And I read my patients the way I used to read a poem." Whether you're making sense of a patient or a legal document or the surface of a slide — be it a photographic slide or a slide in a lab — [one uses] the same skills for analysis and reading in the broadest sense, and the connecting of what one's looking at with where it fits into the human predicament.