The observations and experiences of poet Paul Muldoon and multidisciplinary artist Daniel Arsham are powerfully rendered in their work.
Paul Muldoon is an esteemed poet. Among his many accolades, he is the winner of the T. S. Eliot Prize, the Irish Times Poetry Prize, and the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
Born in 1951 in Portadown, Northern Ireland, he studied at Queen’s University, Belfast. He published his first poetry book, New Weather (1973), at the age of 21. He has since released fourteen full-length collections, including the Pulitzer-winning Moy Sand and Gravel (2002). His work is admired for its understated wit, depth of meaning, and innovative use of traditional poem forms.
As well as his poetry, Muldoon has written librettos to four operas by Daron Hagen, contributed lyrics to rock musician Warren Zevon, and worked as a critic, editor, and translator.
In the mid-1980s, Muldoon gave up a career as a radio producer for BBC Belfast to relocate to the United States. He has taught poetry at Princeton University since 1987 and served as poetry editor of The New Yorker from 2007 to 2017.
Daniel Arsham is a trailblazing visual artist whose work traverses fine art, sculpture, architecture, film, and design.
Born in Cleveland, OH, in 1980, Arsham was raised in Miami, FL and attended Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York. He returned to Miami after graduation and displayed his experimental work at The House art collective, where he was discovered by a major Parisian gallery owner. He is known for purposeful weathered sculptures that depict pop culture objects or iconic statues, with fractures full of beautiful crystals.
In 2005, Arsham founded Snarkitecture with architect Alex Mustonen; the firm designed the KITH shops in New York and Los Angeles, the DIG project at New York’s Storefront for Art and Architecture, and elements of the Miami Marlins baseball stadium. He has also contributed set designs for choreographer Merce Cunningham and for Dior’s 2019 fashion week show in Paris and collaborated with brands Adidas and Porsche, musician Pharrell Williams, Japanese illustrator Hajime Sorayama, and other artists.
- Art & Design
Welcome to Articulate, the show that explores how really creative people understand the world. And on this episode, “Reflexive Cognition.” Through poetry, Paul Muldoon sought reconciliation with the violence of his early life in Northern Ireland. He found tolerance.
Paul Muldoon: It would actually come as a kind of relief, I think, if I were to accept the idea that I don’t have to understand everything and that I don’t understand anything. And as opposed to what I was like when I was 18, it’s okay, it’s fine.
And Daniel Arsham has thrived in fine art, architecture, design, film, fashion, and performance by approaching each with creativity, intellect, and science.
Daniel Arsham: I think I’ve just always been interested in particularly like science fiction’s interpretations of time, because it seems, in somebody who, you know, thinks so much about physical space and the manipulation of physical things, time is this other kind of intangible element that informs our experience of all of those things.
That’s all ahead, on Articulate.
Paul Muldoon grew up on a farm on Northern Ireland’s southern border, just as the sectarian conflict among Protestants and Catholics had begun in earnest.
Paul Muldoon: Being from there means that what happened there and what happens there is necessarily part of who one is and what one writes about. I was a Troubles poet in the sense that everyone who lived during the late sixties, we weren’t necessarily standing with one particular side, I think we tried to be true to, to what was happening.
Like many of his compatriots, Paul Muldoon has a particular gift for words, and for understatement. Thus, the 1916 rebellion against British occupation was a rising, not a revolution, and the 30 year insurrection in the north of Ireland was called The Troubles, not a war. In his poetry, Muldoon’s view of the strife in his homeland is also handled with a light touch.
(Paul Muldoon’s “The Boundary Commission”)
‘You remember that village where the border ran
Down the middle of the street,
With the butcher and baker in different states?’
Today he remarked how a shower of rain
Had stopped so cleanly across Golightly’s lane
It might have been a wall of glass
That had toppled over. He stood there, for ages,
To wonder which side, if any, he should be on.
Born in 1951 in Armagh, one of the six counties of Northern Ireland ruled by Britain, Muldoon was the eldest of three children. His father, a market gardener, and his mother, a school teacher, were well-read Irish nationalists who tried to shelter their children from the brutality of life outside their door. They shared a love of popular song, of literature, of words.
Muldoon: I do think that Irish people, in general, love language, and you know, that runs right through society. The songs that, that they, that they, people were singing in English, and indeed, before that, in Irish, were designed, one would almost believe to show how smart people were, how educated they were, how many big words they could use. I think it’s fair to say that Irish people like to read and to talk.
Muldoon is part of a long tradition of Irish poets that stretches back through a centuries long Gaelic bardic tradition that’s still alive today. But Irish writers really came to the fore after the famines of the 1840s, when spoken English became more widespread. Wilde, Joyce, Yeats, Shaw, Beckett, showed Paul Muldoon that a life in letters could be a worthy pursuit. He began writing at a young age, but his early influences were not exclusively from his homeland.
Muldoon: The history of Irish literature is truly remarkable. I mean, by any standards. It’s astonishing actually, given the size of that population. Like many, I started writing when I was a child, essentially. I got really, really serious when I was in my mid teens, the way people in their mid teens get suddenly very serious about many things. But at that stage, funnily enough, it was T.S. Eliot who really got me started. A combination of T.S. Eliot and John Donne. I read Yates a little later on as a teenager. He was not necessarily the icon that he became, nor indeed, quite when I started out, was Joyce, who of course is in a league of his own.
In 1969, just as The Troubles were beginning, Muldoon left home to attend Queens University in Belfast. There, he would become part of a coterie of poets and playwrights that would include the future Nobel Prize Laureate, Seamus Heaney.
Muldoon: Both Seamus and myself, and I think most other people from that specific moment in Belfast, were very open to the idea of actually helping one another, reading one another. It was a culture in which, you know, you’d write your poem- I remember often, you know, with my arriving in a bar with my poem in my inside pocket, and they’d say, “Well, you know, actually I, I’m not so sure about the end.” And “What does that word mean?” “Is that really right?” That’s a terrific boon to have as a writer.
These aspirational writers would collectively become known as the Belfast Group and produced several accomplished writers and poets. But back then, says Muldoon, they were under-aware of the depth of their talents, or maybe, just too humble to acknowledge them.
Muldoon: One of the things about the Irish is that you don’t, you don’t start taking yourself too seriously. You don’t get notions about yourself. I mean, you might, you know, lying in your bed at night, but to express it, I mean you’d be, you’d be, you’d be marched out. And, and, and that’s, I think that’s quite healthy. You don’t have to look too far to see people getting ideas about themselves and it’s not attractive.
By 1973, even before he had graduated, Muldoon had published his first full length poetry collection, New Weather. An invitation from BBC Northern Ireland to read selections from the book led to a full-time job as an arts producer with the corporation.
Muldoon: And in fact, over my desk in the BBC, I had a little line, it was from Dylan Thomas: “In olden days, poets ran away to sea. Now they run away to the BBC.”
Muldoon’s time at the BBC, showed him the importance of the spoken and the sung, rather than the merely written word. He has embodied this tradition ever since.
Muldoon: I wrote a lot of scripts and most of them had to do with presenting what was in some sense, the most mundane information.
AJC: Such as?
Muldoon: Such as, “Werner Herzog’s new film would be playing next week at the Queens Film Theater in Belfast.” But that was written out, and it was written out with an ear to how it was going to be presented. So I think actually that one of the aspects, which I’m certain, plugged into my poetry, though you wouldn’t necessarily think about it, was a constant engagement with how is this going to sound? And that, by the way, was another feature of my education, which was, the song experience and the song tradition.
In a poem entitled “The Loaf”, he uses a common feature of song, the refrain, while remembering a group of Irish navvies as he was making repairs to an old house near Princeton.
(Excerpt from Paul Muldoon’s “The Loaf”)
When I put my finger to the hole they’ve cut for a dimmer switch
in a wall of plaster stiffened with horsehair
it seems I’ve scratched a two-hundred-year-old itch
with a pink and a pink and a pinkie-pick.
When I put my ear to the hole I’m suddenly aware
of spades and shovels turning up the gain
all the way from Raritan to the Delaware
with a clink and a clink and a clinky-click.
And just like those 19th century canal diggers, and many Irish people before and after, Muldoon has spent much of his life abroad. After a short stint at Cambridge, he’s been a professor at Princeton University since 1987, and in 2003 was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Along the way he has published 14 collections, each reflecting their own particular geography, time and place.
Muldoon: I like the notion of moving around the world and, and I mean, though I’m very, very attached to Ireland, I am Irish, I, I think we’re at a moment in history where, and I think it’s a healthy thing, I think it’s an enlivening thing where we, we, the more we think of ourselves as citizens of the world, I think honestly, the better.
In the “Sonogram”, Muldoon finds a connection with Ireland and the ultrasound picture of his and wife Jean’s child in utero. His illusion to Spiddal refers to a tiny village in County Galway, which in Irish is An Spideal, derived from ospideal, the hospital.
(Paul Muldoon’s “Sonogram”)
Only a few weeks ago, the sonogram of Jean’s womb
resembled nothing so much
as a satellite map of Ireland:
now the image
is so well-defined we can make out not only a hand
but a thumb;
on the road to Spiddal, a woman hitching a ride;
a gladiator in his net, passing judgement on the crowd.
Now in his early seventies, Paul Muldoon looks back in wonder at the confidence and optimism of his youth and the dawning realities of growing older.
Muldoon: One of the things I do realize is this: when I was a teenager, I had more of a sense that I could indeed be a poet than I do now, you know? Now I look back on it and think really? Did I, did I pull it off? Did I manage it? I think if I were to accept the idea that I don’t have to understand everything and that I don’t understand anything, and as opposed to what I was like when I was 18 it’s okay, it’s fine.
Beyond poetry, Muldoon has penned librettos for four operas, written two children’s books, and collaborated with Warren Zevon to create the song that would become the legendary rocker’s epitaph. And for the past five years, Paul Muldoon has been working with Paul McCartney, examining the more than 150 songs he wrote as a member of The Beatles and after. The result of their collaboration, The Lyrics, was published in November of 2021.
Muldoon: I think he said along the way that he probably won’t ever write an autobiography, and this might be the closest that, that, that this book might be the closest that would come to that. And so, anyway, the, what we have is the text of the lyric and then his commentary, which as it happens was mediated through myself, but which appears as a, you know, a freestanding thing as he, where he’s talking.
AJC: His words.
Muldoon: His words. I mean, one of the things that comes across for me, anyone I think, or for others, is just how great a writer he is.
Paul Muldoon is modest about his own literary legacy and continues to push against having notions, ideas about one’s own importance. Proving once again, that you can take the boy out of Ireland, but you can’t take Ireland out of the man.
As a child, Daniel Arsham liked to draw the objects of his obsessions. Sneakers, cameras, automobiles. Then one day in 1992, the 11 year old sat huddled in a closet as Hurricane Andrew ripped through his family’s Miami home, collapsing walls and shattering windows. In a matter of hours, his most intimate personal landscape had been destroyed.
Daniel Arsham: When we emerged after the storm, the whole house, I mean, all the windows had blown out. There was glass and furniture everywhere. And there was this pink insulation foam from the ceilings that had been blown like over everything. And some of the rooms were like completely covered in it. So like the whole room was pink. I think in, in, in psychoanalysis, they, they, they sort of think of the house or the home as like a representation of the self. And you’re literally like physically dismembering this thing but then it was also put back together.
During reconstruction, Arsham for the first time glimpsed the inside of his house: the underlying structural framing, the plumbing and electrical wiring behind the walls. Thus began an obsession with architecture, decomposition, and the impermanence of physical things.
Arsham: I have this memory of when they gutted the house, they took everything out of it. Even the term ‘gutted’ is like very, you know, much about the self. And I was standing on one end of the house and I could see through my bedroom, the kitchen, my sister’s room, all the way to my parents’ room, like straight through in a line. And I had never, the space of that had never occurred to me. That, just the way that it was laid out that way. So it was a different conception of architecture of space. I mean, certainly the storm itself was pretty scary, but the aftermath of that was more like, you know, this, this kind of incredible sense of all of the normalcy of the everyday had been removed.
Born in 1980, Arsham took to drawing and photography as a kid, after being given a Pentax K1000 camera by his grandfather. He studied architecture in high school, but Cooper Union, a small college in New York City, gave him a full scholarship to study art rather than architecture. Cooper Union encouraged his multidisciplinary interests, especially painting, but architecture was never far from his mind. More recently, Arsham has based much of his work around the concept of fictional archeology, to create what he calls future relics of the present.
Arsham: All of the works tend to have some familiar element within them that I think allows a wide variety of viewer to enter the work. And then once they’re there, there are all of these different ideas present. There’s the, the idea of the materiality or a shift in, in materiality. There’s the idea that, in some cases, with the fictional archeological work, that you might be looking at an object that you know from your own life as if it was this kind of archeological object. It’s not a camera painted to look old, or, it’s actually made from crystal or volcanic ash. These materials that we, as a, you know, almost viscerally we associate with time passing. And so how can you look at an object that you know, from your own life as if you’re viewing it in 10,000 years?
He and his studio have recreated a variety of modern, relatable cultural objects that are, or soon will be obsolete. These objects appear old, to have been found in the distant future.
Arsham: I’m selecting things that I have some personal relationship or that I know inherently. The camera, a basketball, a Pokemon character. But I’m also selecting them with the knowledge that those objects are a sort of universal, you know, accepted language, right? People know, a basketball means the same thing here as it does in Paris and Hong Kong. And so they represent an idea of culture maybe. They also represent an era of time, right? The basketball is not from 500 years ago. So they locate the idea in a particular moment, which by transforming the material of them, by pushing that outside of this time, it creates this gap between them that people have to reconcile.
Early on, Arsham began his practice of collaborating with others: choreographers, illustrators, engineers, and architects.
Arsham: I think it’s become less difficult now or less egregious, but in the beginning, even the collaboration that I did with Adidas, I think that for a lot of my core collector base, and even like, you know, some of, some of my gallerists, they, they saw that as a way where the company was using my work as this vehicle to sell sneakers.
AJC: Which they were.
Arsham: Which they were.
One of his first major collaborations, was with the legendary choreographer, the late Merce Cunningham. In their first of four projects together, Arsham designed the stage set for eyeSpace, which premiered in 2007. As was his habit, Cunningham gave the artist no input, aside from requiring that Arsham’s designs be safe for his dancers.
Arsham: And that was probably the most informative experience in terms of showing me what collaboration could be.
AJC: And he was a master of it.
Arsham: He was a master of a very particular way of collaborating. So he would create his choreography, a musician would create the score and an artist would make the set, but none of them knew what the other one was doing until the premiere.
That exact way of working didn’t suit Daniel Arsham but the idea of collaborating did. He has since sought partnerships for much of his work.
Arsham: The idea of collaboration and the, the ability to bring other people into the circle. I think certainly started with him.
One such collaboration was with the Pokemon company of Japan after they saw his sculpture of their character, Pikachu, at a gallery in Japan.
Arsham: I saw it as me using this company with enormous reach, with reach to audiences that don’t have anything to do with the art world to show my work in and to create a kind of more egalitarian vehicle for the dissemination of artwork. And that was maybe a radical sort of proposition to them at the time, but I think that thinking has evolved.
A dream come true collaboration for Arsham was with the German auto maker Porsche. He proposed to erode a brand new Porsche 911 to create a totally drivable work of art.
Arsham: I had to work with the engineers there because you know, those cars, the exterior of them is aluminum and it’s actually structural. So once you start cutting holes in it, it affects, you know, the veracity of the car. They were very skeptical in the beginning to the point where they sort of said, you know, “We’re gonna give you the car.” And they sort of said, like, “That’s our contribution to this project and let’s see what happens.” The original idea was that I was gonna keep the car after that. And when this thing was first unveiled, it was at Selfridges in London. We, it was in the front window on the corner and it was just like instant bang, like so many photographs, people taking of that object. And in the end they decided the car is actually gonna go into the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart. Once we finished the first project, they sort of saw what I’m doing here, which is really to, to interpret the same way that I might interpret another object in my own work. I’m interpreting this car through a particular lens. I’m making alterations to it. But a lot of those alterations have to do with Porsche history or some sort of racing element, kind of blending these two universes together. So for them, I think it’s, there’s an added, you know, value there.
Arsham’s two sons, aged five and eight, take delight in their dad’s work. They enjoy playing in the studio with the same objects that fascinated their father when he was a boy.
Arsham: They’re very interested in Porsche, in Star Wars, in racing, in photography. When it crosses over into a universe that they know, like Pokemon, they’re obviously enthralled by that. And you know, they come here to the studio and with all of these different potential things around, they always gravitate towards like the miniature car models.
Daniel Arsham continues to follow his passions, the partnerships and projects that mean the most to him. He doesn’t spend a lot of time interpreting his art for others or worry too much about critical reaction.
Arsham: I think I’ve accepted that certain things are kind of inevitable. In being an artist, you know, you’re putting yourself out there, right? For people to understand and interpret and criticize and judge. And that’s just part of the game. It’s not really about me, in so many ways. It’s like the work. So once I’ve created the work, it’s outside me, right? And when people are questioning it, I don’t feel it as a personal attack.
Time is something Daniel Arsham thinks about a lot. He’s compared the present to a knife’s edge, so fleeting as to be non-existent. But during the pandemic, he’s made the most of it. Taking up painting once again and spending time with his family. In a recent book of quotes titled, Arsham-isms, published by Princeton University Press, he says, “Being a dad has brought me back to my own childhood, where everything holds wonders and is new and fresh.”