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.”
This interplay between music and text is also part of the Irish literary inheritance, he says. “It’s there in the poets of south Armagh, the aisling poets Seamus Mac Curta, Peadar Ó Doirnín, people who came from around the Cooley peninsula, in and around south Armagh, and farther south, down towards Dundalk. Right through the Irish tradition there has been that connection. And then there’s Yeats. So many of his poems are really songs; many are in fact called songs: The Song of Wandering Aengus, the Supernatural Songs. In many ways Yeats is the great refrainer of the 20th century.”
Muldoon’s main musical experience these days comes through his involvement with his rock band in New Jersey, Wayside Shrines. He plays guitar with them, but his main contribution is writing lyrics.
“I know a certain amount about music, but I’m not at all musically literate. I’m interested in writing the words. There’s a poetic form called ghazal, found in various cultures, including Persian. It’s a poetic form that’s also a song. The poems are written, then composers who specialise in ghazals write the music. I’m interested in that idea.”
Faber is due to publish a collection of his lyrics in February. In the meantime, Muldoon was in Co Fermanagh last weekend to give a reading at the first Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival. His involvement with the event is in part due to his friendship with Seán Doran, the festival’s founder and artistic director, and in part down to his love of Beckett. “I love the humour in Beckett. When my son was about five or six I took him to a production of Waiting for Godot, and he sat there and laughed from beginning to end. He could see it, the humour.”
Beckett’s influence on Muldoon is not difficult to uncover. Maggot contains the clever, highly formal poem Lines for the Centenary of the Birth of Samuel Beckett. His 1994 poem Incantata, addressed to a deceased former girlfriend, Mary Farl Powers, refers to His Nibs Sam Bethicket before name-checking characters: Vladamir and Estragon, Nagg and Nell. The poem is a riff on Beckett, Muldoon says, although he struggles to elucidate the impulse behind the references. “I can’t say exactly why Beckett was such a prominent presence in the poem, although Mary, she had this habit of eating a banana, you know, like Krapp, throwing it behind her, in her eccentric way.
“I suppose Krapp’s Last Tape is also about a reassessment of one’s own life, as any elegy is. Elegies are as much, for better or worse, about the people who write them as they are about the lost one.”
MULDOON’S FOCUS ON language and word-play has also beckoned comparisons with Joyce. “You can’t write or be a writer in Ireland,” he says, “without being somehow infected by him, influenced by him.” But he rejects the notion that he is Joycean. “The thing about Joyce and many great writers who had such a particular style is that you can only go down that road a certain distance. There was a particular poem I wrote, Cows, which has a lot of what one might call Joycean linguistic play in it, and I realised, more or less as I was writing it, that this was not a route I could go down any farther. You just turn into a half-baked version of Joyce, which for some people is sort of what he turned into anyway himself. Take Finnegans Wake. Startling though it is in some respects, it’s like a huge pile of stuff at the end of a road . . . It’s a dead end. There is no future in that.”
Nonetheless, he’s still a fan of the Joycean pun. “People think the pun is in some ways intrinsically defective, but I myself still have a lot of time for the pun,” he says with a wry smile. “As Jesus said, ‘Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church’; Peter, of course, meaning rock. If puns are good enough for Christ, they should be good enough for the rest of us.”
This kind of wordplay and allusion typifies Muldoon’s edgy, sometimes discomforting style. For some, it’s too obscure, too difficult. Muldoon looks baffled by the charge.
“Of course that is not my intention. When I hear that, I say to people, ‘Could you give me an example of a simple poem?’ The answer is not so straightforward.” He compares poetry and sport to illustrate his point. “It’s possible that if someone was dropped down in Croke Park for a hurling match, it might not be entirely clear what’s going on. It is certainly the case with baseball. So why do we expect that we can be dropped into a poem without doing a bit of work about how to read a poem?”
As well as his appearance at the Beckett festival, Muldoon is in Ireland for a school reunion in Armagh as well as for A Turn at Tara, an annual celebration of poetry and song held on the last of Sunday of August on the Hill of Tara. The event began about five years ago, around the time when the controversial M3 motorway was being built. “The idea was simply to celebrate Tara’s association with cultural pursuits, but I suppose there was a small element of protest in it initially,” he says hesitantly.
“Frankly, I was appalled,” he continues, his pace quickening. “I know it’s easy to get appalled at all sorts of things, but the Greens, for example, presenting that as part of their platform and then reneging on it. We haven’t seen much of the Greens since then, but you know what, that’s how it should be,” he says, somewhat indignantly. “I can’t help but think that those particular guys were just cashing in on the idea of the Greens.”
As he shifts back to his natural, more measured mode, he talks about Ireland, about landscape, about the Dingle peninsula, where he once lived. “There’s a fascinating book, The Archaeological Survey of the Dingle Peninsula, which is basically an account of every stone on the peninsula. Of course that doesn’t mean that you can never build a road there again, but a country with the sense of its past should honour certain locations in particular. Tara is one of them. Even for the history of kingship alone. Nobody would build a road through Westminster Abbey or Buckingham Palace.”
As we discuss the meaning of place, the role of landscape on the writer, appropriately enough Beckett gets the final word.
“There is a placelessness about Beckett, but in a strange way placelessness works only if it has a somewhat specific reference point.” He pauses, and looks up. “Does that make sense? No matter what, I can’t help but think of Godot happening at a crossroads in Wicklow.”