Northern poet, Paul Muldoon, tells Richard Fitzpatrick about the power of words
THE Pulitzer Prize-winner Paul Muldoon tops the bill at next week’s Cork Spring Poetry Festival. For what it’s worth — to borrow one of the hackneyed phrases he often likes to playfully start a poem with — he does a good job at selling the intoxicating effect poetry can have on a body.
“There’s a very powerful chemical force at work in the great poem,” he says. “I’ve never got over the impact of John Donne, whom I was lucky enough to first read as a teenager. The magic has to do with the unexpected connections a great poem can allow us to make — as if we were making those connections for ourselves.
“We’re hardwired to feel good about novel ways of combining ideas and I’m certain writers are addicted to the buzz they get when metaphors come together. The same is true of readers. It’s all about neurotransmitters. I love to think of how Donne would work dopamine into a poem.”
There are many things said about Muldoon’s poetry. Words like dense, difficult, dazzling spring to mind. Some say he’ll get a Nobel Prize one day. His detractors complain that his poems are too showy, verging on “pyrotechnical autism”. They can be full of obscure references, like little, (or sometimes long), Joycean mysteries to be solved.
But the erudite Muldoon is always undercutting himself with irreverence. He’s good at putting clay feet on our poetry gods: “Would Yeats have saved his pencil lead if certain men had stayed in bed?”
And what’s not to love about a poet who writes the first letters of every line in a poem so that they spell out “Is this a New Yorker poem or what?”, particularly when it’s a poem that he’s submitting to The New Yorker?
The humour is part of his natural optimism. He speaks confidently about the outlook for poetry and disregards the notion that there might have been a golden age for the medium, say, a century ago:
“I think it’s a great time for poetry. Perhaps one of the best. Apart from anything else, there’s a high regard for conciseness, which is traditionally a feature of poetry.
“And no one can complain about not understanding a reference in a poem, sometimes a complaint with my poems, when the answer is only a thumb away.
“I’m sure that a hundred years ago, in 1914, poetry seemed to be in a much worse state. A year later, ‘Prufrock’ happened.”
Muldoon was born in 1951, near The Moy, in Co Armagh. His father worked as a labourer and a market gardener. His mother was a schoolteacher. Remarkably — given Faber & Faber would publish their son’s first volume of poetry, New Weather, while he was still an undergraduate at Queen’s — there were few books around the house, excluding a well-thumbed set of Junior World Encyclopaedias.
Muldoon first met “Famous Séamus” Heaney when the younger poet was 16 years of age, and immediately got the older man’s imprimatur as a poet. They were fast friends.
Muldoon, who has lived a lot of his life in New Jersey — having emigrated to the United States in 1987 — admits to not watching The Sopranos, which was set in the state. He doesn’t watch television, he says. “There’s always something much more pressing, and probably pleasurable, to do.
“But funnily enough, one of the last communications I had from Séamus [Heaney] had a ‘Sopranos’ component. We were meant to read together in Manchester a month or two after he died and I asked him how he felt about a particular photograph being used in the poster.
“It’s a photograph of the pair of us taken on top of Joyce’s tower in June 2013. We’re both wearing tinted glasses. He wrote to me: ‘Nihil obstat. Imprimatur. Should we think about auditioning for The Sopranos? The hidden extras are a fine trove. Le grá, Séamus’.”
After leaving Queen’s University in 1973, Muldoon worked for the BBC as a radio producer in Belfast until 1986, seeing out most of “the roughest years” of the Troubles in the city. He says, however, that he rarely felt worried about his personal safety during that time, and never thought to leave until he took up a bursary from Aosdána, which facilitated a brief move to Dingle, Co Kerry before taking off to the United States.
He teaches creative writing at Princeton University today, and is married to Jean Hanff Korelitz, an American novelist; they have two children.
“It didn’t occur to me to leave Northern Ireland,” he says. “I really enjoyed my job in the BBC, so that kept me busy. And, of course, I was writing up a storm. The fact of the matter is, that one of our greatest strengths as human beings is that we can get used to anything and convince ourselves it’s all okay. That’s also our greatest weakness.”
Muldoon has had a prolific output. He has published close on 30 volumes of poetry, and last year published a collection of his music lyrics, The Word on the Street. He plays guitar in a rock band called the Wayside Shrines, and is typically self-effacing about his strumming talents: “If I could get to be a three-chord wonder, I’d be perfectly happy.”
Bruce Springsteen covered one of the songs he co-wrote with his late friend Warren Zevon, the singer-songwriter who shared the kind of dark sense of humour that Muldoon enjoys. He quotes some lines from Zevon’s Play It All Night Long: ‘Daddy’s doing Sister Sally/Grandma’s dying of cancer now/The cattle all have brucellosis/We’ll get through somehow’.’
“That’s rather funny in its horrible way,” he says.
nPaul Muldoon will do a reading at the Cork Spring Poetry Festival with Jean Hanff Korelitz at 10pm, Friday, February 14 at the Cork Arts Theatre, Carroll’s Quay, Cork. Further information: www.corkpoetryfest.net.
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