Pulitzer Prize-winning poet PAUL MULDOON talks to us about his latest work ‘Wayside Shrines’, T.S.Eliot, the avant-garde and taking candy from strange clichés.
Dan Eltringham and Kit Toda
On the evidence of his poetry, Paul Muldoon is an intensely erudite man with a formidable intelligence. However, in person, he comes across as a charmingly ordinary and affable guy with something of the child about him still.
Take, for instance, when I happened to be seated in front of him on a coach headed on an excursion to Burnt Norton, courtesy of the T.S.Eliot International Summer School. The coach became stuck down a country lane and the driver had to do much manoeuvring to extract it, which caused a rather horrible squeaking and rumbling noise. Suddenly I heard behind me a voice:
Bemused, I turned around to find the Pulitzer-Prize winning poet meet my eye unabashed and carry on his rather impressively accurate imitation of the coach:
Later, we had a chat, not about Heideggerian poiesis or deixis in Eliot’s Four Quartets, but on how moles were sadly under-appreciated and how we should perhaps start a Mole Appreciation Society…
Therefore it was with a great deal of pleasure, rather than the usual nervousness, that I swung through the doors of his club (with fellow interviewer Dan Eltringham) to interview the mole-loving Paul Muldoon.
We traipsed into the bar and settled ourselves down as he kindly ordered us some tea and asked some polite questions about us. He seemed genuinely interested in the answers. But of course we were not there to talk about us so, dictaphones on tables, we began…
The Literateur: During the reading you gave at the T.S.Eliot Summer School this year, I noticed that you broke off frequently during poems, to tell an anecdote that came to mind, or elucidate something you’d just read out. This seemed to me unusual and refreshing, and I wonder if it indicates an irreverence, or a sort of disregard, for notions of the ‘whole’ poem being somehow untouchable or sacred?
Paul Muldoon: Well, you know there are two aspects to it, I think at a reading one is, on the one hand, doing one’s best by the poem. I think that’s what one is there to do, to present it in a way that makes it find its way into the world in a way that is going to be persuasive to people listening to it.
Of course at a reading one can never expect anyone to have read the poem in advance so it’s a very particular kind of contract, in which the poem is flying by the audience member’s ear and she or he really doesn’t have much of an opportunity to…well, put crudely…linger over it. One hears it flying by.
TL: We were discussing how a lot of your poetry is very complex…
PM: Some of it is yeah, some of it is. And for that reason, I often would give a little gloss on things which, if one were reading it on the page one would have no trouble checking out – you know you’d just go back and re-read the line.
There’s a certain reverence I think for the poem. But since it is a social occasion, right? I certainly don’t mind breaking off to give a little gloss. I’m not sure if that’s what I should be doing. I don’t know, but I sometimes do it, for sure. Probably not too often.
One is always warned against […] taking candy from strange clichés-or familiar clichés-as a kid. But on the other hand there’s a reason why they’re clichés, which is that they’re spot-on..
TL: It did seem to me very natural, to be quite an unplanned thing…
PM: Oh yeah, yeah I don’t plan my readings. I don’t plan my readings at all – well, for the most part. That’s not to say I don’t end up reading some of the same things again and again. But usually when I stand up, I don’t even know often which poem I’m going to start with.
TL: There is of course a difference between reading your poems and someone else’s. I mean they’re your own so you have the right not to treat them with reverence.
PM: You know that’s very interesting I think. For example last night at the [Faber 80th] reading in Queen Elizabeth Hall, I was – in so far as I get nervous and I only get nervous when I think about what i’m doing – I was getting nervous in regard to reading the T.S.Eliot poems because first of all it’s [wry smile] rather well-known.
One doesn’t want to screw up basically. With my own poems it doesn’t really matter. But one does seem answerable to T.S.[Eliot] on some level you know? So when reading other people’s poems, I’m much more concerned.
TL: At the Eliot Summer School poetry reading, you mentioned that Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’ influenced you very heavily to the extent that you wrote hundreds of poems all in the style of ‘The Hollow Men’.
PM: I don’t know about hundreds but certainly…did I say ‘hundreds’?
TL: You were being hyperbolic…I think.
PM: Yes…dozens I’d say, literally dozens. Metaphorically hundreds. A LOT. They were all in the style of ‘The Hollow Men’…and I think other Eliot poems too.
It was actually Eliot who really made me think as a teenager that poetry was an exciting thing and also somehow, for some reason, that I might be able to do it myself.
Strange because on the one hand Eliot was quite daunting. He is a kind of institution almost, you can imagine him as the fifth face on Mount Rushmore. On the other hand I think I saw the fun in Eliot. The humour in him, an ordinary guy too, on some level. Also teenagers think they can do anything.
TL:“The arrogance of youth” and all that…
PM: Yes, yes, it’s a cliché because it’s true. You sort of think I can do that.
TL: Wayside Shrines makes use – in a very Eliotic way – of both high diction (‘anathematized’ ‘calamitous’) and the colloquial (‘helter skelter’ ‘call somebody’s bluff’)…
PM: You know that’s so…I think that’s absolutely right. I wasn’t going to make anything of it, say “by the way would you care to remark on the fact”, but I think you’re absolutely right. And that I think is one of the reasons why I read it. I wasn’t going to make a big deal of it but it is a sort of Eliotic poem.
I’m sure the combination of different dictions is one of Eliot’s great legacies. Of course he’s not the first person to have done that. Shakespeare and…even Chaucer did it too. So it’s not as if it rose fully formed from someone’s brow. However I do think in the twentieth century he excelled at that.
In that excerpt of The Waste Land I was reading [‘A Game of Chess’], the high diction in the first part of it is so…contorted. It’s actually somehow overwritten. One discovers that as one is reading it aloud.
That’s another aspect of poetry readings; one is involved somehow in an act of criticism. One is critiquing the poem – be it Eliot’s or one’s own – elucidating it.
The syntax in ‘A Game of Chess’ is really, really…under a lot of stress. It’s syntactically a bit cluttered. That’s part of what he’s doing. At that point he’s revelling in the overwrought aspect of what he’s describing. I suppose that his description of it is mimetically overly ornate. I guess that’s what he’d be telling us if he were here this morning.
TL: Also like Eliot’s works, I thought that ‘Wayside Shrines’ has at its heart a great deal of emotion but nevertheless it seems to constantly avoid emotive language. Do you think that perhaps due to the prevalence of emotive language in the media, we’ve come to regard it as somehow crass in poetry?
PM: I don’t know, I wouldn’t want to rule anything out in poetry. I’m sure there are occasions when emotive language is absolutely right.
Chaucer, Shakespeare, […] Byron. These were guys who could have a bit of fun while writing poetry, which I think is not a bad thing to have from time to time.
But it is a massively troubling subject. I saw something the other day, which in a way I wish I’d seen before I wrote the poem [‘Wayside Shrines’]. I was in a city centre and on a street corner there was a child’s bicycle, which had been painted entirely white, with very thick white paint. A child had obviously been run over there by a truck or something. It’s very…a very powerful image.
I don’t think the poem is going very deeply into how we memorialise, but I suppose that’s part of it.
TL: But even your most emotive poems like ‘Cradle Song for Asher’ refrains from using emotive language.
PM: What would emotive language be?
TL: I suppose obvious ones would be ‘ a cry’ or ‘piercing’ or ‘weeping’…
PM: Ah I see, I see. I suppose we don’t have much of that in contemporary poetry do we?
TL: No, no.
PM: Funnily enough one of the places in which I think I am more likely to do it and one is more likely to see it is in various forms of song, including the opera.
TL: Like your libretto.
PM: Yes I do try that from time to time. In that genre of course one of the great things about it is characters do come out and say ‘Oooh I am weeping, my lover’s left me I feel bad…so terrible…’
I think there are different ways of presenting emotional material.
I do think that many writers are at heart mischievous little kids.
TL: Perhaps now there is a great deal of danger of obvious emotionality coming across as clichéd.
PM: Perhaps so, perhaps so.
TL: But you are fond of using clichés…
PM: I am, that’s right.
…in unexpected ways to “make it new”. ‘Symposium’ in Hay is the most obvious example. [A poem made up entirely of clichéd phrases moulded together that includes lines like ‘A hair of the dog is a friend indeed’]
But it crops up often in your poetry. Even in your latest, ‘Wayside Shrines’ there is a lily ‘pulling rank’ but failing to ‘lend much weight’. Do you feel a conscious fascination with clichés and how we use them?
PM: I think I do, yes. I mean of course one is always warned against them, one shouldn’t be taking candy from strange clichés…or familiar clichés…as a kid. But on the other hand there’s a reason why they’re clichés, which is that they’re spot-on.
I remember, years and years ago, reading a poem about pearl fishermen, people who dived deep to find pearls and oysters. The last line of the poem was ‘the oyster is his world’, which is of course turning around “the world is his oyster”. I mean it’s silly in some ways and yet it’s revelatory in some ways.
TL: Do you think that there is a tension between a desire in every new poetry to express something in new ways and the desire to say something spot-on, which is often a cliché? Are you wary of that?
PM: Yes one is wary of that but at the same time…
Funnily enough yesterday I was walking down the street and two clichés came into mind, which I thought might be interesting together, that may or may not come together. But I just got these two lines come into my head, which were ‘lock, stock and barrel’ and ‘hook, line and sinker’.
Right? I mean you immediately laugh at that but I’d never thought of them together. So ‘lock, stock and barrel / hook, line and sinker/ something something something’. It may or may not work but one of the things it elicits also is humour. I mean, you both laughed at that and I’ve always been interested in poetry as a reader that was from time to time humorous. Chaucer, Shakespeare – to think of more obvious examples – one of my great heroes, Byron. These were guys who could have a bit of fun while writing poetry, which I think is not a bad thing to have from time to time.
TL: There is a special pleasure in seeing a poet break a rule and do it well.
I think, ideally, the poem is saying, ‘You better write me’.
PM: You know I do think that many writers are at heart mischievous little kids. And I know as a parent – and as a kid – that the minute someone says ‘No you really shouldn’t do that’, I think ‘Okay, let me see…’
Things that are off-limits always become interesting so I’m sure that in some of my poems I’m saying, ‘Is this really how it should be?’ But then I think most writers are questioning the idea that this is how it should be.
I think there’s always a bit of a revolutionary component in a poem and in fact the overturning of cliché would be an example of that. That’s not very profound. But it’s some kind of subversion.
TL: You also experiment a great deal with form in your poetry and that’s also a kind of subversion I suppose…
PM: I suppose in one sense you could describe it as an experiment. Of course perhaps all poems are in some sense an experiment and in some ways avant-garde because it shouldn’t quite look like anything else you’ve ever seen. It is something that has, ideally, not been done before.
But on one level whether it’s traditional in form or not, it should be determining its own form or how it looks. Quite often in my case the forms are specific to the poems.
TL: Yes, you do everything from elegantly turned out couplets to haikus.
PM: I’ve always wondered about poets whose poems all look the same. You think, why do they all look the same, how could this possibly be? Sometimes you see poets whose last lines are always a single hanging line or those whose form is always indented on the page. And you think, why? Why would that be?
I think often the reason is just that they’ve got used to it.
Poetry is a bit like architecture or engineering. It’s really about holding things together or keeping them up.
TL: They’ve got into a rut.
TL: Do you tend to start writing and then the form suggests itself?
PM: Yes I usually don’t know how it would look. I sort of think of how it looks, as it were, [rather] than how it sounds.
I mean it is the case that sometimes I have written to order. For example a couple of poems were written along with my students for an assignment. We decided to write a sestina, just as an exercise in a class. Often what we do is determine what the six end words would be. Everybody writes a poem with six end words and we put them together.
But in general, they’re not written to order. They’re written to their own order.
Actually I remember Andrew Motion had quite an excellent idea about this; he said that all poems are, in some respects, commissioned. I think, ideally, the poem is saying, ‘You better write me’.
TL: Your poetry seems to have more of an emphasis on rhyme and echo than most contemporary poetry. I was wondering whether you felt that rhyme needs to be reclaimed a bit more?
PM: Well, I think it’s quite hard to write rhymed poetry. It’s also quite hard to write unrhymed poetry. It’s all quite hard I’d say.
‘Wayside Shrines’ has a lot of rhymes that are a little bit dicey, strictly speaking one shouldn’t get away with it – though there is a long tradition of getting away with it.
TL: It’s the feminine rhymes, the two-part rhymes that have that oddity to them particularly.
PM: Yes there’s a bit of that, yes, that’s right. But i was thinking more of the internal rhymes. The end word of the first line is picked up with an internal rhyme in the second line, in the first stanza of each part. That actually is, among other traditions, a feature of the Irish tradition. Internal rhyme is a big, big, big element in the Gaelic poetry tradition. So it’s a little bit harder to pull off in English I think; we’re not used to it.
Though mind you, I think Anglo-Saxon poetry, that was a component of that too, the linkages and little echoes within the line.
Poetry is a bit like architecture or engineering. It’s really about holding things together or keeping them up.