The Frolics and Detours of Paul Muldoon
Through poetry, Paul Muldoon sought to understand the violence in Northern Ireland during his early life. He found tolerance.
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.
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.