Interview with Paul Muldoon

Andy Kuhn: You are a prodigiously prolific poet who shows no signs of slowing down. Your collected poems of 1968 to 1998 didn’t top 500 pages only because your publisher laid them out end to end, with a new poem starting up a couple of spaces below where the previous one left off, wherever that might turn out to be on the page.

Since then you haven’t slowed down much. Having won a Pulitzer, you’ve been named a fellow not only the Royal Society of Literature but also the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Your most recent collection of poetry, titled One Thousand Things Worth Knowing, contains at least that many, and finishes with a wild jalopy (or rather chariot) ride in “Dirty Data,” a sort of surreal re-engineering of Ben Hur as an Irish political epic playing out in a mythic and/or kitschy American West.

Do you go through long fallow periods, and then when inspiration strikes write at white hot speed? (I gather some prolific poets work that way, for instance Louise Glück). Or do you pretty much write every day, no matter how you happen to be feeling?

Paul Muldoon: I write something every day. It might be a line of a poem. It might be a line of a song. It might be a sentence of a lecture. It might be a response to a question. Each takes a long time. I have no facility with language. I work hard at every sentence. Including this one. I’m still working on it!

AK: Your poems come at the reader thick and fast, so to speak, and particularly for an American it can be hard to keep up. Partly it’s a matter of what my middle school English teacher used to call frames of reference, the nomenclature and geographic knowledge and historical markers a writer and his readers may share, or not.

But frames of reference sounds too brittle and rigid to apply here–the sensation is more like having successive nets and webs of reference cast before and over one. Which brings to mind not only the obvious association of the world wide web, the internet, without which many readers would be at a disadvantage in following you, I think, but also another thing you taught me in one of your poems, that a gladiator who fought with a net as a weapon was called a retiarus . . . speaking of Ben Hur . . .

This kind of associative process often seems to be triggered, reading your work. There’s a willingness in the poems to spin out connections that extend very far and wide, and may at times appear gossamer thin, and yet as a succession of images with rhetorical momentum, the argument of the poem, if one can call it that, seems nonetheless plausible or compelling. Mere logic doesn’t stand a chance.

Can you say a little about how “Dirty Data” came to be? And why is it called “Dirty Data”?

PM: According to Wikipedia, the term “Dirty Data” refers to inaccurate, incomplete or erroneous data, especially in a computer system or database. In reference to databases, this is data that contain errors. Unclean data can contain such mistakes as spelling or punctuation errors, incorrect data associated with a field, incomplete or outdated data, or even data that has been duplicated in the database. It can be cleaned through a process known as “data cleansing.” I find this idea fascinating, frankly, as it seems to be of a piece with how we conduct ourselves in the world. In terms of Northern Ireland, which is really the “subject” of this poem, it refers specifically to the impossibility of knowing what’s going on behind the scenes. What’s behind the scenes is the scene itself. That poem is about Bloody Sunday, one of the gravest miscalculations by both sides in the history of the “Troubles.”

AK: Formally, your poems seem to echo or evoke specific forms rather than to follow or enact them. Fourteen line poems with end-rhymes (if you look for them) don’t immediately bring to mind sonnets because the line-lengths vary so, and the iambs, when they appear, decline to march in formation. Yet your consistency in seeding your poems with rhyme (and off-rhyme, slant-rhyme, third-cousin rhyme) is striking. Can you say a little about the part that rhyme plays for you in composition? How aware of it are you at different points in the process? Do you feel that you have to be consistent with rhyme, that is, once you have deployed rhyme in a certain way at one point in a poem, or at the outset, that you are now obliged to follow through and continue to provide it?

PM: Rhyme is an element of almost everything we do. There’s scarcely a sound made that’s not echoed. Rhyming is something we hear and see everywhere we listen and look. It’s thought to be something artificial. It’s the most natural thing in the world. You see that hill? Then that one?

AK: Madoc: A Mystery appeared a long time ago already, 1990, soon after you fetched up in America. The web was little more than a gleam in some Defense Department researchers’ eyes, so these poems’ associative reach owed nothing to the experience of surfing the web. But they certainly brought together diverse and disparate elements in a sometimes mysterious way.

You’ve spoken elsewhere about an interest in and a respect for Freud, to the extent that he made us more aware of an unconscious. Madoc seems to enact the unconscious in a very bold manner. For the unconscious, nothing is incongruous. St. Augustine (in the poem [AUGUSTINE]) might well concern himself with the problems that the weightily named hamlet of Carthage, New York was having with the Seneca tribe in 1799. And why shouldn’t the Lake Poet Robert Southey get directions to an ale-house, in that same sad, muck-streeted burg, from Alexander the Great’s fabled horse, Bucephalus? All in the course of four couplets—another of the characteristics of the unconscious being its terrific compression.

Do you think that your having just then broken out of Ulster, indeed of Europe—to whatever extent you might have experienced that move as a breakout—could have contributed to a kind of manic syncretism in these poems? Or was this just a natural extension in the direction you’d been moving all along?

PM: I do wish sometimes I’d gone a little further down that road. But I’d probably not still be alive. “Madoc” represents an impulse which I have as a matter of course but which I tend not to follow to the extent I might. I like the idea that all poems should be avant-garde, yet I find much self-identifying avant-gardeism terribly boring.

AK: In the world of poetry there have been other displacements with reverberations and aftershocks. Auden was rounded on for leaving Britain when the Nazis were advancing, which you evoke in his own voice in the astonishing series of linked poems, “7, Middagh Street”.

Did you experience significant static politically, critically, socially, for abandoning the old sod, to put it melodramatically? If so, have any answers to those complaints turned up in your poetry, on purpose or by the way?

PM: I never left the old sod in any serious way. I took a job offer thirty years ago and, for better or worse, am still here.  I was in Ireland two weeks ago. And two weeks before that. I’m still very attached to the place.

AK: I have never encountered a poet post-Shakespeare who has enlarged my vocabulary as rapidly as you have. Thank goodness multiple dictionaries are now at one’s online fingertips! Otherwise I might not have learned, for example, that a darne is a salmon’s shoulder meat; a turnip clamp, a house-sized mound of turnips; a gantry, a structure supporting a crane (or a rocket); spraint, the dung of otters; holt, an animal den; persiflage, light, slightly contemptuous banter (almost, almost had that one); firedamp, explosive methane gas that dangerously accumulates in mines; thole, to endure something without complaint, to tolerate.

All these appear in a single poem, “Cuthbert and the Otters,” which bears the subtitle, “In Memory of Seamus Heaney.”

Needless, perhaps, to say, that heretofore I’d also not heard tell of St. Cuthbert, nor of his nocturnal dips in the cold Atlantic with the local romp of otters, who by observation thought highly of him.

A few questions on this topic, which you may answer in any combination, or not at all.

Is this recondite vocabulary all at the tip of your own tongue, or do you need some swatting up yourself from time to time? Would Seamus Heaney himself have made it all the way through “Cuthbert” without recourse to any outside reference, do you think?

PM: I use only what I think is the right word at the right time and in the right place. Seamus had a big vocabulary and would have had no trouble with this poem. But no one need have trouble with it. If one doesn’t recognize a word, one should look it up. There’s no shame in that. Had Seamus not recognized a usage he’d have looked it up. It’s pretty basic.

AK: Looking at the collected terms, in “Cuthbert” for example, it appears that most of them are of the earth, referring to animals and artifacts that attach to a specific geography, and a line of Scottish and Norman and Middle English linguistic descent, and a way of life that that is largely past. When you arrived in the U.S., you have said, you figured you weren’t going to be writing any more poems about pig killers. But on the occasion of your return to Ireland for this funeral, you evoke this largely lost world. Is that partly by way of homage, an honoring of roots that nourished both Seamus Heaney and you?

PM: I’m sure that’s right. But pig-killing isn’t something that’s stopped. It’s still big business. In fact, I think my next book may be devoted to pig-killing.

AK: Your collection of essays is entitled The End of the Poem–a title involving some misdirection, to the extent that it evokes a gloomy “end of poetry” idea, whereas for the most part in these essays “end” seems to be taken to mean “purpose” or “intention.” You enact bold and intimate readings of particular poems and poets, and don’t hesitate to deploy biographical information in an effort to develop insight into the sources and meanings of specific choices, elisions, revisions, suppressions the poet makes. You sympathetically trace historic, thematic, and linguistic connections of which your protagonists were, to borrow from psychoanalytic terminology, either conscious, preconscious, or unconscious, but which you compellingly argue guided their poetic process and the shape of the final poem.

Do you ever subject your own work to this kind of analysis? Would you want to read it if someone else did?

PM : I’d like to think that my own poems would withstand the kind of scrutiny I give the poems in The End of the Poem. They’re certainly constructed with that level of scrutiny in mind. Any work of art should be able to withstand such intense focus. If I hadn’t been into that all along I wouldn’t ever have got into the business. And, of course, I believe absolutely that the poem itself knows more than I do.

AK: Before Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, I believe you were far and away the most successful poet who is or has ever been also a bona fide rocker. You wrote songs for and with Warren Zevon and the band Rackett, with whom you play rhythm guitar; you also published a collection of thirty rock song lyrics, Word on the Street.

What do you think of Dylan’s lyrics as poetry? Or as lyrics, for that matter? Did he have any influence on you as a poet? If he is a no-show in Stockholm, would you be willing to provide an acceptance speech in absentia in the form of an occasional poem?

PM: I’m pretty sure popular song has been part of the back of the mind for many poets for at least 100 years. Or is it 1000 years? In the 20th century, Eliot was deeply influenced by that tradition. The number of allusions to popular song in “The Waste Land” is remarkable by any standards. We think of that poem as being primarily a collage; it’s at least as useful to think of it as a very mixed chorus.

The poet who was a bona fide rocker was not me, by the way. I’m just an amateur, a poseur. The real rocker would be Leonard Cohen (of recent memory) or Paul Simon. In that regard, it doesn’t matter to me if something is a song or a poem or, indeed, neither. All that matters is whether or not they’re any good at what they’re setting out to do. That’s something we can figure out pretty quickly.