A major figure in English-language poetry for decades, Paul Muldoon has enjoyed one of the most successful careers of his generation. His first collection was published when he was still an undergraduate at Queen’s University, Belfast. Famously, Muldoon’s schoolteacher sent on a batch of his poems to Seamus Heaney (allegedly asking him what was ‘wrong with them’, to which Heaney replied, ‘Nothing’) and Heaney later recommended Muldoon’s work to his editor at Faber & Faber, Charles Monteith.
The result was New Weather (1973), a collection of ballads, songs, and references to the apparently inconsequential artefacts of everyday life. Muldoon has since written eleven collections of verse, won a Pulitzer Prize for Moy Sand and Gravel (2002), and taught poetry at Oxford, Cambridge, and the University of East Anglia. He moved to the United States in 1987, and presently serves as poetry editor of The New Yorker and a Professor in the Humanities at Princeton, from where his latest book, The Word on the Street – a collection of rock lyrics written for his band the Wayside Shrines – takes its details of New Jersey life and lore.
Paul Muldoon doesn’t like to go over old ground. To read his poetry is to grow familiar with his presiding conviction that poetry comes in innumerable, changing forms. The ludic wit, the acute sensitivity to what and how words mean, the verbal agility, and the freewheeling juxtapositions of diction – from the intellectual arcane to the low and demotic – permeate his work. But its protean quality is most clearly manifest in the handful of books he’s published since moving to the United States. In the book-length poem ‘Madoc’, in Madoc: A Mystery (1990), Muldoon supposes that Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey take up their fancy of founding a Pantisocratic community in North America – perhaps dramatising his own geographic relocation – in short sections named after different philosophers, diagrams, and the odd snatching of coherent narrative. The Annals of Chile (1994) develops the form of pseudo-autobiography explored in Madoc, as it imagines the life Muldoon’s father, a one-time mushroom cultivator, might have led had he moved from Ireland to Argentina. More recently, Horse Latitudes (2006) combines elegies to a former lover and Muldoon’s late sister, with a sequence of nineteen sonnets during which America embarked on an invasion of Iraq. Maggot (2010) offers a more concentrated, myopic interrogation of the decay of all things – human, animal, verbal – where references to Japanese pop culture and Western mythology are intercut with jaw-dropping etymological play.
Muldoon’s latest book, The Word on the Street, is an extension of his interest in formal innovation, and the culmination of a life-long interest in pop and rock music. As well as playing in the Wayside Shrines, he has collaborated with the musician Warren Zevon on a song that was later covered by Bruce Springsteen, written libretti for opera, published Songs and Sonnets, in which he explicitly explores the relationship between verse and song, and in the last few years written several refrain-drive poems (the title poem in, for example, is a sequence of nine Petrarchan sonnets which each include a repeated refrain). Muldoon’s poetic voice uniquely unites a deep awareness of the academic canon with contemporary vernacular – filtered through idioms, song, and contemporary cliché.
We met at Peels restaurant on Bowery, New York, on Holy Thursday morning. His generous attentiveness was coupled with a playful obliqueness throughout. We discussed the lyric, intuition, prosody… and eggs.