Paul Muldoon: a poet at play
HISTORY:Paul Muldoon’s writing life has taken him from Armagh to New Jersey, and from a professorship at Princeton to life as a lyricist. And yet, with Beckett on his shoulder, he feels he has never left Ireland, he tells SUZANNE LYNCH
PAUL MULDOON looks utterly at home as he takes a seat in Blake’s bar in Enniskillen. “I used to meet John McGahern here the odd time. He and his wife would come to Enniskillen for the day and have a drink before they’d go back to Leitrim. It’s a nice town, Enniskillen,” he says. “Actually, I bumped into a cousin of mine on the way here, would you believe.”
It might be more than 20 years since he moved to the US, but the poet is still very much on home ground. “I don’t feel disconnected. I don’t feel as if I’ve left the country in the way that I know people once did. It sounds trite, but the modern world means that travelling back to Belfast is like taking a bus. It’s not too long ago that it would have taken that long to go from Dungannon to Enniskillen.
“In fact, in Belfast the other day a local literary type greeted me by saying, ‘You know, not so long ago when people left the country they really left.’ It was a slightly barbed comment, slightly acerbic.”
The suggestion that Muldoon has never really left Ireland is perceptive. Described by the Times Literary Supplement as the most significant English-language poet born since the second World War, he looms large in Irish literature, his relentlessly inventive, intricate work inviting a response from readers and other writers of poetry.
Born into a Catholic family in Co Armagh in 1951, Muldoon attended Queen’s University Belfast. In his early 20s he published his first collection of poetry, New Weather, his nascent poetic sensibility forged in the dynamic literary environment of Queen’s, where he was taught by Seamus Heaney.
Though critics pool him with other poets of the so-called Northern school, Muldoon embarked on his own path, even as his friendships with Heaney, Michael Longley and other writers continued, his poetry displaying from the outset the idiosyncratic rhymes, allusions and playfulness that were to become its hallmarks.
He worked for more than a decade as a radio and TV producer with the BBC in Belfast, all the while pursuing poetry, making his mark with collections such as Why Brownlee Left (1980) and Quoof (1983). Teaching positions at Cambridge followed; then, in 1987, he moved to the US. Between 1999 and 2004 he was professor of poetry at Oxford University. He is now a professor at Princeton and, since 2007, the poetry editor of the New Yorker.
Now 61, his most recent collection, Maggot (2010), saw Muldoon in top form. Its clever, almost surreal poems, tinged with themes of mortality and the physical body, seemed to stretch his idiosyncratic style and technique to their limits.
Muldoon’s focus is now on music. One current project is a collaboration with the English composer Mark-Anthony Turnage, perhaps best known for his 2007 opera Anna Nicole, based on the life of the American glamour model Anna Nicole Smith. Their work, a celebration of the Walls of Derry, will premiere next July in a performance with the London Symphony Orchestra as part of Derry’s City of Culture celebrations.
It’s not his first foray into opera: Muldoon collaborated with the composer Daron Hagen on the 1993 opera Shining Brow, based on the life of Frank Lloyd Wright, and a decade later he wrote the libretto for Hagen’s Bandana, a reworking of Othello. He has also worked with the songwriter Paul Brady.
For Muldoon the transition from poems to lyrics is a natural one. “I’ve always been interested in writing for music. It started when I was a kid in Armagh. I was at a school where there was a lot of music in the air, literally. There were a couple of people who taught there who taught Irish literature, music, poems and songs, together. It was probably a much more significant component than I ever realised at the time.”