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Chez Moy: Poet Paul Muldoon

Poet Paul Muldoon’s wife, author Jean Korelitz, once said of his playing in a rock band, “It occurs to me that much of his success in this odd endeavor derives from the fact that he just didn’t know that the whole thing was impossible.” The same might be said for his phenomenal success as a poet. Muldoon was born into a poor Catholic family in rural County Armagh, Northern Ireland, in 1951. From these modest beginnings, he’s risen to become one of the most respected English-language poets. He’s produced nine poetry collections, the last of which, Moy Sand and Gravel, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2003. Today, Muldoon lives in New Jersey, where he heads Princeton University’s creative writing program, plays in the rock band Rackett and continues making sense of the world, one poem at a time.

What kind of books did you grow up reading? I’ve noticed a lot of references to Treasure Island in your poetry. “That’s right (laughs). It continues to be one of my favorite books—it’s terrifically well written and it’s a ripping yarn. But there were many other books that fell into that category, of course. One of the things I was brought up on was digests of well-known novels, a series called “Classics Illustrated.” They were sort of comic-book versions of great novels—Around the World in 80 Days, The Man in the Iron Mask, The Black Tulip, The Three Musketeers, The Last of the Mohicans, Moby Dick, A Tale of Two Cities and so on. And that, funnily enough, is how I got a lot of my sense of literature, from this Cliff’s Note-ish version of it. That’s not to say that I didn’t read some of these books in their entirety, but that was one form of reading. Another was my mother was a great believer in educational weeklies. At one time, comic books were believed to be the enemy of literacy, until educators caught onto the obvious tautology that a child who reads comic books reads. I was also brought up on a magazine called Look and Learn, and another called Finding Out, so I was particularly interested in general knowledge.”

That comes through in your poetry today. “Yeah, I mean I’m just fascinated by…factoids. It just happens to be the thing I was interested in as a kid. It could easily have been baseball cards, except that wasn’t such a big feature of our lives. It could’ve been stamp collecting. So there was all of that. The other great text I read was the Junior World Encyclopedia, a children’s encyclopedia, which began with ‘aardvark’ and went to ‘xylophone.’ And, basically, I’ve been interested in everything between the aardvark and the xylophone ever since.”

Growing up Catholic in Northern Ireland must have been strange. “Well it didn’t seem strange at the time. It seems very strange now. It’s a very rigid society, in which, of course, as the years go by, we discover that the very people who were imposing rigidities on us weren’t always quite so rigid in their own lives. So I fear I have very little time for organized religion of any stripe. I am interested, however, in…I have some sort of spiritual sense, but not in terms of organized religion. I must say I’m quite happy to see the Catholic Church doing itself so much damage. The rigidity of that world picture, I’m glad to see it breaking down, I really am. I have no qualms about saying that at all.”

It’s been said that your poetry rarely deals directly with the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Do you agree? “I don’t think I do. I know that people have said that along the way. I guess the big question is, ‘What would dealing directly with it look like?’ That’s a little bit of a commonplace. I don’t deal directly with it, perhaps, in the sense I’ve not espoused one position over another. That’s certainly the case, because I don’t really have much time for most of the positions espoused there, all of which tend to simplify the matter. And anybody who knows anything about it knows that it’s a lot more complex than that. But the fact is that what had been the day-to-day violence of Northern Ireland is in the poems, for those who’ve read them. That’s basically a line once heard from people who haven’t read the poems. That’s perfectly fine, I don’t mind if people read them or not, just so long as they don’t make too many claims about them without having read them.”

You’ve been called the “crown prince of puns.” “Sure, there’s the old pun. People say the pun is the lowest form of wit. But they’re the very people who would stand up on Sunday morning and admire the fact that Christ said to Peter, ‘Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.’ Right? So they get very excited about that. As I’ve said before, if a pun’s good enough for Christ, it’s certainly good enough for me. Punning is a very natural thing. If you talk to a five- or six-year-old, they’re natural punners. I use the occasional pun, but that’s not the end of the story. Again, anybody who suggests that it is basically hasn’t read the stuff.”

Describe for me your writing process. Do you write only when you’re inspired, or is it a daily process that you’re always working at? “It depends what the story is. If I’m writing prose, it sort of is a daily process. With poetry, I don’t actually spend a lot of time writing it. I haven’t written a poem for months, for example. I have no idea even when the last one I wrote would’ve been. Most shorter poems are written over a fairly short period of time—a day or two. I might write one a month, say. So if you write one a month, you’ve 12 a year. By the time three years have gone by, lo and behold, you’ve a book.”

Why do you think poetry is important? “Well, I think it is a way of trying to figure out what one’s doing in the world. A way of trying to make sense of things, and there are many, many ways of doing it. One of them would be to read Junior World Encyclopedia, one of them would be to pursue the aardvark, or indeed the xylophone. But it’s a way of negotiating those things and making sense of the world, and making things in the world. It’s just another form of construction, making things that might, in this case, help us to make sense of the space that we’re in.”

I understand you write songs for the rock band Rackett. “Yeah, I do write songs. We were playing last night, actually, and I’m stiff from it. So much energy has to go into it for a couple of hours on the guitar that my shoulders are sore. I’m not a musician at all. I strum a few chords, but basically I write the songs—the lyrics—for the band. The other guys are brilliant, but I’m their hanger-on, really.”

Are your lyrics similar to your poetry? “It’s a different business, really, a different business. If the poem brings its own music, the song lyric needs music to body it out. So that’s the big difference. One would like to think that there’s a room in the world for lyrics that are witty, as I hope they are, and fun in the way of the lyrics of some of the great, popular songwriters in a slightly earlier era. I’m thinking of Gershwin, Porter…particularly Ira Gershwin, a brilliant writer. In a strange way, I go back to them as much as to any of the contemporary songwriters who I’m a great fan of.”

Have those songwriters influenced your poetry, too? “Probably, yeah, the rock music and various songwriters—Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Warren Zevon, et al. I think they’ve played a huge part in all of this.”

You made an artist’s statement years ago where you said that all you could say about your work was you “wish that it displayed a shade more wit and wisdom.” “Yeah, I mean I really don’t spend any time…I was talking about this last night with a few guys in the band. I never remember any of the songs that we’ve written, I can barely tell one from the next. I basically write them and move on. I’m not interested in things that I’ve done or that have been done through me. I’m interested in the next one, you know? That’s really all I’m interested in. I’ve said that before, and I say it again, it just continues to be the case. It’s just a thing I do, there’s no point in thinking about what’s been done. You can’t even go back to it, it’s very hard to go back to it, I don’t like going back to it. My poems come in many different ways. Some of them are more evidently playful, many of them are not. There’s a range of them, so I’m just interested in doing lots of different things. They seem to come out in different ways. I like to think that’s healthy. We behave differently at different times of the day, depending on who we’re with. So basically I’m just interested in the adventure of it.”

So you stand by the statement, “I’m much less interested in what I’ve done, which almost certainly amounts to very little, than with what I might do, which will almost certainly not amount to much more?” “Well, that’s right. You have to be realistic about this. Obviously, one does one’s best. Everybody does his best, but somebody else may look at it and say it’s garbage. The same may be true of me. I think I’m doing my best, but it may turn out to be a load of rubbish. Things come and go, reputations come and go. People thought John Donne was rubbish for 200 years. People still haven’t quite read Emily Dickinson. You can’t get too exercised about that.”

So you can’t take yourself too seriously? “Absolutely. I go in fear of people who do. The next thing you know they’re running the country.”

Paul Muldoon will turn Canisius College into “Chez Moy” when he reads there on March 2 at 8pm, as part of the College’s Contemporary Writers Series. Grupp Fireside Lounge, 2001 Main Street, Buffalo.