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Paul Muldoon
A Poet for Our Time.

BY DAVID S. HIRSCHMAN | He has been described as the "most important English-language poet of the past 50 years", and is known the world over as a master of the English language. Born in a small town in Northern Ireland, Paul Muldoon has published nine collections of his work, written lyrics with musician Warren Zevon and won the praise of traditional and modern poets alike. On January 21st, Muldoon gave the first lecture in a series at Oxford University entitled "The End of the Poem". He is a professor of poetry there and at Princeton University, as well. Here he talks about his influences, the process of writing and gives advice to young poets.

Date of Birth: 6/20/51
Hometown: Just outside Moy, country Armagh, Ireland

What books are on your nighttable?
I'm just finishing The IRA: A Secret History by Ed Maloney. I'm also reading an extraordinary book called Analyzing Freud, which are letters by H.D., Bryer, and their circle, edited by Susan Stanford Friedman.

What writers did you admire while you were growing up? Who has influenced your work the most?
Initially, one of my major influences was T.S. Eliot, who was, of course, one of the great poets of the 20th century. When I was a teenager I was very interested in his life and probably read as much about him as I did by him. For some time, everything I wrote was influenced by him. It's funny, I was actually having a conversation with his [T.S. Eliot's] widow recently—it's strange, you think of Eliot as this remote figure and here you are talking to the woman who was his wife. But, as with many distinctive poets, one really has to struggle free of influences or else one tends to be pursuing pastische. I mean, of course I learn things from people like Elizabteth Bishop and Robert Frost. What one copies in the case of Bishop is the concentration on detail—that's something everyone can learn from. I also like John Donne, who was a metaphysical poet—I've always been interested and influenced by [the metaphysical poets]. They had this habit of writing in conceits—outlandish metaphors—such as the marriage bed being compared to a flea. They take outrageous ideas and run with them as far as they can.

Though you've left Ireland and now live in New Jersey, your poetry continues to be influenced by Irish culture and your upbringing. And, without doubt, your life has been qualitatively different than that of your parents and grandparents. Do you feel you have a major gap between the life you grew up into and the one you lead now?
I feel that I've lived a couple of lives. The lives that our parents and people of that vintage led were quite different. The changes that have taken place in the world since then have been quite phenomenal. Development has been extraordinary. One of my earliest memories as a kid was being stepped on by a horse. Where I grew up in Ireland was a rural, peasant society. And we went from there to high-tech without really catching our breath. As a child I was always conscious of the U.S., and, culturally, we were brought up on American television, books, etc.. There was less of a cultural gap than you'd think. It was much more part of the back of our minds than rural Ireland would be to someone here.

How do you keep your poetic language fresh? How much of an influence is Irish English on your writing?
Irish English was itself both an influence on American English and influenced by American English. I would imagine there are more elements of American English in my vocubulary but I also use old Irish words and often this results in kinf of a hodge-podge of vocabulary. It just reflects that I am interested in language; most people who write are. I am interested in how the English language operates. I always go out of my way to find just the right word, and so I tend to appeal to a very large range of linguistic references.

Tell me a little about the process of writing. Has it changed for you over the years?
I write pretty much every day. Not poetry, per se, but I write something every day. And a large part of it has to do with habit. It's the same with working out; at 5:30 this morning I was wondering whether I should go to the gym or not, but of course I had to; it's become my habit. And it's easier when one is in the habit; much of it is about that. You may not write wonderful stuff every time, but many things flower out of the little buzz that one gets from just doing it.

Your new lecture to be given this month at Oxford is called The End of the Poem. Tell me a little about that.
In each lecture I look at a single poem and talk about it for an hour. I do very close readings, word to word, trying to work out what's going on in the unconscious of the poem. As I was writing it, I thought I should have some kind of plan, and so I came up with "The End of the Poem" as a way of tying the lectures together. It's fifteen lectures and fifteen ways of thinking about this phrase, using specific poems as examples. Some of the obvious ones are, specifically "where the poem ends" as well as the "function and aim" (both fdifferent ways of understanding the word "end") As well, I address where we draw the line between poetry and prose, as well as the interface of biography and text.

Has poetry fused with other genres? How do you incorporate these?
Poetry has always been quite close to the song genre. But the function of poetry has changed. Aspects of the activity that traditionally was once associated almost exclusvely by the poet have been taken over by the social scientists. In primitive societies the poet had the memory of the tribe and had magical capabilities; he often told long narrative tales of the the history of the tribe and part of this was transmogrified into fiction. The entertainment aspect of faith has since been diversified, but poetry still does something that is truly unique, even in modern times. I am particularly interested in the oral aspects of poems; it has something to do with the rhythms of speech; for the ear not the eye.

Rilke's famous book, which I imagine you're familiar with, Letters to a Young Poet, is basically a collection of his guidelines to a young fan, or, really, a younger version of himself. Do you have any such advice you can share?
Several things, actually. First, one has to read poetry before one can write it. This is key—just as one has to be steeped in music if one wants to be a musician, you can't just start from a standing start [as a poet] and expect to manage it. You have to have some sense of the range of what is possible. The central thing is that one should be always surprised; one should never know what one is doing, because the chances are—if I know what I'm doing—chances are you do too, whereas what we really want to do is to go to a place where no one knows what is happening.

Is that surprise, ultimately, your goal as a writer?
Absolutely. My goal is to go to a place in which one will have one's sense of things change. And then to take others there.

David S. Hirschman is a freelance writer and interim editor of mediabistro.com.

 

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