Part 2 of our interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon. He talks to us about puns, pride vs poetry and being equated with Elvis Costello.
Daniel Eltringham and Kit Toda
TL: Despite having lived in America for over 20 years, your works are still full of references to Ireland and the Irish. Do you see yourself as an Irish poet?
PM: Well, I mean, I suppose I was born there but I don’t go round thinking…I suppose I am an Irish poet. But sometimes i’m described as an American poet. I don’t think all that really matters.
These days I think of myself as someone who writes poems. Not a poet but someone who, from time to time, writes poems.
I was born in Ireland, lived in Ireland, now live in America and from time to time write poems.
I do think that many writers begin to take themselves a bit too seriously.
I suppose that is a bit of a mouthful really. I think I’d be delighted to belong to anyone who would have me.
TL: We’re in The Groucho Club…
PM: Yeah yeah I was just thinking that, what was the line again? That he wouldn’t belong to any club that would have him as a member, is that right?
PM: Well, I mean of course that’s the other thing. I’m sure that’s probably true of many writers, it’s true of me too in that one doesn’t really want to belong to anything. The minute one is categorised…
I like to think this is true of my poems. It’s one of the reasons why they’re various. I’m sure they fall into some patterns and I hope they’re not different for the sake of being different but I like difference. I like variety. I think most people do.
TL: In your essay on ‘All Souls’ Night’ in The End of the Poem, you use the analytical method of phonological correspondence (as with ‘muscatel’, and the perfect rhyme of ‘bell,’ and from ‘muscatel’ you jump to Keats’s ‘musk’). Is this a method you apply to composition as well? Does it work both ways, in other words? If you look for it in other poetry, do you intend it in your own?
PM: The short answer to that is yes. It’s not that one puts it in like a currant into a loaf of bread, but one is conscious of it. I’ll give you an example. Along the way I’ve mentioned some of the relationships writers have with their own names. It happens all the time – let’s say I have a student called Faith, for example, and two or three week into the course the word ‘faith’ appears in her poem, and she is not always necessarily aware of it. I know that sounds very strange, but I’ve seen it again and again.
Just the other day, I was trying to write something and the word ‘loom’ was used in the poem. It struck me for the first time that there is a relationship between the English word ‘dune’ and my own name. At the age of fifty-eight I realised it’s something that’s been staring me in the face for some years, that the ‘doon’ component of my name refers to a hill fort.
I think some of these links are very tenuous – absolutely, they are – but that doesn’t mean they’re not real. With something like the muscatel, the ‘musk’ that he [Keats] is using refers to a scent.
Many, many poets [pun on their own names] – William Shakespeare, for example – and John Donne, with ‘undone’ – this isn’t something I came up with myself last week. Some of these readings are a little bit tentative, and they’re certainly more tentative than most well-behaved, strict academics would engage in. But you see, yet again, I am not well-behaved, I’m still that mischievous kid, and I think many writers are. I like to have a bit of fun, and if people want to come with me, great. And if they don’t, that’s fine, they should go and do something else.
TL: In your ‘Notes Towards an Ars Poetica’, you seem to make great efforts to preempt any potential accusations of pretension or pomposity, saying at one point that you sometimes feel you ought to shout in your own ear ‘get over yourself’. Being a successful poet and a professor at Princeton, you must inevitably move in intellectual circles. So is coming across as or becoming pompous a great concern of yours?
PM: I do think that many writers begin to take themselves a bit too seriously. It’s pretty evident, you don’t have to go too far to see it. They think that because they’ve been doing this for years that everything they do is really good, and that somehow because they’ve been doing it so long that they actually know what they’re doing. Unfortunately all the evidence suggests that if you get too cocky that can lead to deep, deep trouble. It’s difficult to keep on writing in any case, and the other side of it is that the stakes are raised all the time, one has to try to do at least as well [as previously].
…to imagine that one is somehow ‘good’ at [writing poetry] is a problem. It just does not work like that…you have to learn to write that poem.
TL: Because there’s always a new generation?
PM: Oh no, it’s not even that, they’ve got their own problems. I’m not thinking about them, they’re thinking about themselves, that’s okay. I think many writers, I myself, certainly, don’t think about being in competition with other [writers]. The only person I’m in competition with is myself.
Those very tendencies that you’re describing, of becoming content, in some way, and thinking that you’re good – to imagine that one is somehow ‘good’ at this is a problem. It just does not work like that. For the reason that we were describing earlier on, every poem, as well as wanting to be itself – you have to learn to write that poem. It’s unlike anything else, though of course they end up looking quite a lot like other things.
I think the minute you relax into thinking you know what you’re doing, and thinking that anything you do is going to be okay because you’re doing it, and that you are this mythical creature – you really don’t have to look too far to see poets who run into deep trouble in that regard. I suppose I’m hoping not to do it, despite all the evidence. But it’s likely that one will do it. On some level one’s thinking, ‘is it time to quit?’ all the time.
TL: Also in your ‘Notes Towards an Ars Poetica’ you say you are a person ‘tempted by the post-Romantic urge expressed by Keats, in the aforementioned ‘Sleep and Poetry’, when he describes ‘the great end / Of poesy, that it should be a friend /To soothe the cares, and lift the thoughts of man’, yet quite disavows the notion of poetry as a moral force, offering respite or retribution’. Poetry with a moral force does however of course exist, the psalms for one. Whether poetry nowadays has a moral force or not is a huge topic for debate but I think one can argue that there is far less poetry written that has a moral purpose. Do you feel that for poets writing nowadays, having an obvious moral purpose is too old fashioned?
PM: I’m sure there are poems that have all sorts of roles in the world, and it’s conceivable that a poem might have a moral force and be very successful. In general though I shy away from poems that have designs on one. In some sense all poems have designs [on the reader], but I mean poems that have designs as pamphlets or items of propaganda. I’m always very wary of poems that most immediately aspire to some kind of political position. Which is not to say I haven’t written any myself.
When we know there’s a problem in the poem we are testing it against what we know it might have been.
On the moral front poetry may include that as a component, but one of the things poetry has been asked to do, and I wonder if it’s not unreasonably asked to do, is to stand in for various other institutionalized systems of moral force, most notably of course organized religion. I fear that I myself am not a fan of organized religion, and one doesn’t have to look much further than the Catholic Church, in which I was brought up, to see the hypocrisy of so much of what I was being told as a kid by these guys who were operating outrageously double standards. Of course there are those who say that they are just men, and that doesn’t make them the Catholic Church. I don’t know about that.
There is a component in a number of poets, say someone like Czeslaw Milosz, where part of their thinking has to do with their connection to Catholicism. I’m always a little bit wary of that. I think we have to take it case by case.
TL: A general rule in poetry?
PM: I think so, I really do think so. The minute you begin to make generalizations in favour of this, or in favour of that, you risk running into trouble.
TL: I’d like to talk about the responsibilities of translation. In The Pie Is Opened, you translate Irish Ballads, and Wulf and Eadwacer [Old English poem]. Do you think that when you’re translating an anonymous poem your responsibility towards the poem and its ‘author’ is lessened, or heightened, because you’re working in dialogue with a whole culture rather than an individual poet?
PM: There’s always a moral charge to any discussion of translation. A couple of things come to mind here. First of all I think all poetry is in a strange way anonymous. To come round to Eliot again, this idea of the impersonality of the poem I find quite attractive. Even though one knows that the DNA of the poet is a significant component of the poem, including The Waste Land, which is charged with his own private, personal life, and episodes therein.
But on the other hand I do like the idea of the poem being central to the mission. One is really in the service of the poem, be it written by an anonymous Anglo Saxon author or somebody you had dinner
Pride and poetry are really antithetical…The minute you get proud I think you’re sort of dead.
with the night before. One is in the service of the poem, and the service of what it, in so far as one may construe it, wants to be as it comes into this new language, having tried to figure out what it wanted to be when it came into its first language.
Actually one can check back from that as to what it wants to be from the outset. That’s one of the things we do when we read poems. When we know there’s a problem in the poem we are testing it against what we know it might have been. When we say there’s an image there that’s not quite worked out, or a simile that’s not quite worked out, we’re actually doing the same work as the poet, though perhaps coming to a different conclusion.
You can actually enter the world of the poem and see what it was attempting to be. That’s how we decide whether or not a poem works, right? I know it’s banal in some ways, but it’s not stated often enough. It’s an idea that informs these essays, or lectures [The End of the Poem], that one truly may look at the poem and see what it was attempting to be. People shy away from that, but in fact we do it all the time.
The way we determine whether or not something is successful is within the terms of that particular attempt. The poem sets out its own ambitions, and they vary from poem to poem. You don’t read Paradise Lost the way you read ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence.’
TL: Do you think that being a Northern Irish Poet means as much for the new generation, without the injection of tension provided by the troubles?
PM: I think Northern Island continues to be a subject, for those of us who are from there. It hasn’t exactly gone away. There are tensions there, interesting tensions as well as deadly ones. And any of those poets that we associate with Northern Island, I don’t think that was the only string to their bow, or arrow in their quiver. I think it was a component of our lives, at times a really major component of our lives, and will continue to be.
TL: Do you see it in young Northern Irish Poets now?
PM: They’ll have a rather different take on it, some of them were born into it in a way that for someone of my generation [was not the case]. It is a phenomenon that has erupted again, and again, and again, over the centuries.
TL: In The Message, his book on the relationship between poetry and pop lyrics, Roddy Lumsden draws up a tongue-in-cheek table of correspondences between the poetry and pop worlds, in which he equates you with Elvis Costello. What do you make of that? To give you some context, Don Paterson is Puff Daddy; ‘V’ is Never Mind the Bollocks,’ etc….
PM: [laughs, looks at book] I think with David Bowie and Hugo Williams, I can see the similarity there. And I see Phil Spector and Craig Raine are connected. Phil Spector’s in jail now isn’t he? Is Craig Raine in jail? Well, I always liked Elvis Costello, so I think that’s very good.
TL: So how does writing lyrics for your rock band Rackett differ from writing poems?
Posterity’s not really a thing one can think too much about. Apart from anything else, the sun is going to burn us up one of these days, if we don’t all drown first.
PM: It’s similar but different. I’ve always been interested in writing songs, writing for music, and I love rock and roll. I’ve always wanted to have a go at it. It’s a lot of fun, a hobby, a bit like playing golf.
TL: A couple of questions left. What is the proudest moment so far of your career?
PM: Pride and poetry are really antithetical. We were talking about it a little bit earlier. The minute you get proud, I think you’re sort of dead. In that sense I don’t even feel that I myself, though I’m sort of implicated I suppose, have much part in it. I am a medium for the poem, it’s really not about me. Anonymity is almost an ideal in art, for me.
TL: So do you never worry about posterity?
PM: It would be nice to think that some people might read some of these poems, of course. You can’t worry about posterity any more than you can worry about whatever we call the people who are around right now, the present. You can’t make them like you. Every week there are lots of films coming out that want to be liked, and they often run into trouble for that reason.
Posterity, first of all, would be the least of my concerns. One is trying to do something for the moment, for oneself, to make sense of things. If someone happens to read it down the road, sure.
If you open an anthology from 1900, and see the list of names of the poets who were big in 1900, most of them you’ve never heard of. That’s kind of chastening. Then you think of poets like John Donne, Emily Dickinson – it’s debatable even whether Emily Dickinson is really being read even now. Versions of the poems really only over the last few years have been established as the semi-definitive texts.
John Donne was barely read at all, or at least read in a very different way, so different that he might as well not have been read at all. Until he was discovered by our friend T.S. [Eliot], in some ways – rediscovered, repositioned in the market.
So with those ideas in mind posterity’s not really a thing one can think too much about. Apart from anything else, the sun is going to burn us up one of these days, if we don’t all drown first.
TL: So do you never see writing as a passport to immortality?
PM: I think that the more we know about how the world works, the less that is something one would be exercised by.
TL: But you still write for readers, not entirely for yourself?
PM: I write initially for the poem. I write on its behalf, to help it into being.
TL: Kind of a service?
PM: A service. A service industry.
TL: Paul Muldoon, thank you.