No 4 - Spring 1996
Interview with Paul Muldoon
Paul Muldoon was born in Northern Ireland in 1951, and educated at Queen’s University, Belfast. He worked for thirteen years as a BBC radio producer, before moving to the USA, where he now teaches at Princeton. His seventh collection of poems, The Annals of Chile (1994), won the T.S. Eliot Memorial Prize. In June a New Selected Poems is due to appear from Faber and Faber; and Kerry Slides will be published by Gallery in the same month.
This interview with John Redmond took place on 2 November 1995, at Oxford’s Randolph Hotel. The previous evening Paul Muldoon had given a reading in Oriel College, for the Oxford Poetry Society. Most of the interview focuses on work since Madoc - A Mystery (1990).
JIR: Starting with the long poem, ‘Yarrow’, would you agree that there’s a lot of self-accusation in the poem, centred around the issue of artificiality?
PM: I haven’t read ‘Yarrow’ for a while. I know there’s a line in ‘Incantata’ which is given to Mary Powers about me being artificial as a man and a poet. It’s actually something which she never said to me; they’re words I’ve put in her mouth. I suppose for whatever reason I actively welcome being put down, something which perhaps goes back to my upbringing - that accusation of not being worthy which could be laid at one’s door. Historically, it goes back to her calling me “Polyester”, which was a comment on my taste in shirts. Of course, all poetry is in a sense artificial: at its root is the idea of artifice, something which is made in this world, something which is constructed. But at the same time one wants to give the impression that it arises naturally, that it is made, as it were, with natural fibres. One of the kinds of poems I’m interested in writing is one which gives the impression that it had to be the way it is. But the artificiality you speak of is one which one or two commentators and I think it is only one or two, including John Carey of Oxford have picked up on. The burden of his complaint in so far as it coheres (and I don’t think it does cohere) is that the poems are literary and highflown and so on. But I don’t think that’s a problem at all - all poems, including those of Seamus Heaney (which Carey would especially valorise), are in a dialogue with other works of art. That’s obvious, I think.
JR: You made references there to ‘Incantata’, but in ‘Yarrow’ the artificiality also extends to some of the other characters, like, for example, ‘5—’, whoever she is, who makes obviously pretentious statements, trying to be more than she is.
PM: But is artificiality really such a dominant thing in the poem? Maybe it is. Are you thinking of the formal aspect of the poem, as well? Certainly it could be argued that the sestina-based form is artificial but I must say, I think that this poem has an organic - that is to say natural - life. Of course it’s written in this form; but it can only be written in this form. Some of the inherent elements of the sestina - conventionally, the obsessive return to the same half-a-dozen words - are absolutely suited to what the poem’s about. That’s not to suggest, though, that I got up one morning and said to myself “okay, I’m going to write a poem based on the sestina and it will be about obsession”. It doesn’t happen like that. It really did find its own way organically. I understand how that may seem pretty strange. You might say that can’t be right, but I’m afraid it is right. When a willed element enters the equation of form and content it’s always very borderline: once the system, as it were, is in place, you’re wedded to it. But the poem kept changing, kept releasing, all the time. I believe that these devices like repetition and rhyme are not artificial, that they’re not imposed, somehow, on the language. They are inherent in the language. Words want to find chimes with each other, things want to connect. I believe... I was almost going to say “I accept the universe!” I believe in the serendipity of all that, of giving oneself over to that. It’s only one way of looking at it of course. I’m certainly not saying that’s the only way one can write poems. It’s the way I happen to write poems at this moment. That might change.
JR: Running through ‘Yarrow’ seems to be the idea of death and disaster being fated and foreshadowed, particularly foreshadowed by that “bird of ill-omen”. That tends to imply that you think things are determined for, rather than directed by, people in any given situation. Is that fair?
PM: Well, it sounds a little retrogressive for me to start talking about fate. But geneticists will tell you that there are certain things about our lives and our deaths that we can’t do anything about. On the one hand we’re terrifyingly complicated things, but on the other hand, we’re very simple creatures, very basic organisms, and so much about us is pre-programmed and determined. It’s something which has always been an element in my poems: you know the notion that Brownlee’s end is somehow in his name, nomen est omen if you like. Of course if you said nomen est omen to people nowadays they’d look at you. But I’m not saying we should examine the entrails of birds. On the one hand there’s the wonderful chanciness and randomness of things, and on the other hand there’s a terrifying predictability. I suppose the theme of free will is a throwback to my early years - if one thinks about it at all.
JR: There’s a sense in ‘Yarrow’ that there’s an almost mystical search for a point in the past when things might have been changed...
PM: Yes, the poem keeps going back in an effort to find a point when one might have been able to make sense of something - and of course there is no such moment though the poem tirelessly swoops and hovers around it. I say “hovers” and “swoops” - there is at one point an image of the narrator as a little green heron. There was “an ill-fated bird of yore” on the cathedral in the winter of 1962-3 when Cardinal Dalton died. It was in the newspapers that this bird was hanging out on the cathedral spire. We were very conscious of it at the time - I went to school just next to the cathedral. It was a great winter for us: not only did the cardinal die which gave us a few days off school, but the weather was so bad that the school had to be closed for a while.
JR: This is the obsessional year of the poem, 1963, the year when MacNeice and Plath died.
PM: The winter of 1962-3.
JR: Was Plath, who appears in the poem, much of an influence on you?
PM: I don’t think so, no. I suppose she is the classic case of the poet on the edge. It’s terribly difficult to disentangle the circumstances of her death from the measure of her achievement, at least I find it is - it’s all connected in that web. Living at that pitch, on that edge, is something which many poets engage in to some extent.
JR: Is there some kind of parallel suggested between Mary Fan Powers and Plath? They were both female artists cut off in their prime.
PM: Maybe there was a ghost of that in there. I hadn’t really thought about it, although it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to suggest.
JR: To take a slightly different angle, there was an interview you gave for Contemporary Literature, much of which was concerned with the poem ‘Madoc’, where you mention a bellhop in Wisconsin who read the poem in one sitting - and this was in marked contrast to your interviewer who had done a great deal of research and checked up on all the references to people like Evans and Burr. The interesting thing was that you didn’t prefer the latter kind of reading, the kind which one would expect academics to prefer. Is it fair to say that you expect poems like ‘Madoc’ and ‘Yarrow’ to be read with a sense of flow?
PM: Of course, you can’t legislate for how people are going to read. One can’t say to the reader, “You’re supposed to put your head down, take a run at it and don’t stop till you get to the other side. Stop for nothing.” It’s like running a gauntlet, an unkind commentator might say. Finally, I suppose, I’m interested in poems where one isn’t stopped or where one is only stopped for a good reason. One wants to be carried along. In ‘Madoc’ there’s the issue of the surtitles or supertitles. What I wanted to achieve with them was at some level an impossibility, given the typographical setting. One would have liked those titles to be almost invisible, to only flash up, as it were, for a moment on the screen. In many ways it’s an unrealistic hope that you just fly through that poem and have a good time. ‘Madoc’ is meant to be many things: funny, savage, sad, disturbing. There’s always some relationship between the title and the piece of text beneath it. You know I never read these poems myself I think a lot of people would have found ‘Madoc’ hard to deal with. My wife thinks that ‘Madoc’ is like a teddy bear’s picnic compared to ‘Yarrow’, which I wouldn’t have thought at all. Certainly ‘Yarrow’ is complicated in one sense, but in another way it’s actually a very simple poem. One has to learn to read these poems, just as one has to learn to read a three-line, little imagist poem, just as the writer had to learn to write it. You know when ‘Immram’ came out in 1980 a lot of people read it and thought “What gives here?” Now it seems like a poem one can read quite easily. The same I think is true of ‘The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants’.
JR: It’s still very complex though.
PM: Yes, but I think there’s a sense in which we can say “We’re up to reading this”.
JR: You mean that you have, in a sense, moved the goalposts, educating the reader as you went along.
PM: Sure. That sounds very arrogant but surely it is also very common. I don’t want to sound self-regarding about it. Forget about me. The poems are interested in changing the shape of things. Whether they’re little poems or longer poems they all have that interest in common.
JR: It seems to me that one of the very strong themes in the poems is that reality doesn’t fit into language in a simple way, that language will always be inadequate and yet, at the same time, it changes the shape of reality. Why do you think you’re so attached to that notion? Where does it come from?
PM: I don’t know. I think you’re right when you say that. I’m sure that’s true of a number of poems. But I don’t think I’m obsessed with that, not consciously obsessed by it anyway.
JR: You said in another interview that you used to think very highly of Eliot...
PM: I still do. I was quoted somewhere the other day unfortunately - I think it was after the T.S. Eliot Prize - and someone was asking me about him. I said that I thought he was great but he means a little less to me now - and what they quoted was “He means a little less to me now”, which you know is really pathetic. Eliot was an extremely important poet for me at one stage. The fact that I don’t think quite so highly of him as I did doesn’t mean I think he’s rubbish.
JR: There’s an idealistic, Bradleyan strain in Eliot though, where everything is underlain by an order of some sort, whereas your poems seem to take the view that there is no such underlying order, that there is more a kind of evolving flux...
PM: I’m not an expert in physics or cosmology or any of these matters, but the more we discover about how the world works the more we see these unpatterned patterns - all these orbits and orders and, within them, these variations. That’s how the physical world works. I don’t know that much about notions of time either, but the way time works in a poem like ‘Yarrow’ is probably more in keeping with theories of how time operates than one might imagine.
JR: In terms of looping back...?
PM: Yeah. That in terms of physics it’s actually fairly sound. That the poem is asking: “where is the present?”, “where is the future?”, “where is the reality?” You see, going back to Eliot, I find the Four Quartets just a little bit dry.
PM: Yes. It goes back to what you were saying about artificiality. It seems to me the structure of the Quartets is too imposed. Take, for example, the device of having each section in a Quartet correspond to the same section in the next one.
JR: Of course, people would accuse you of similar impositions...
PM: Well exactly, and if Eliot were sitting here he would say “Well, what’s your problem?” Because ‘Yarrow’ is a poem which seems to be very programmatic, and certainly some of my other poems are. Perhaps “programmatic” is the wrong word. I still think one can see too much of the scaffolding in the Quartets despite the moments of lyric beauty. I suppose I tend to prefer concrete imagery rather than more analytical language. It’s very hard to judge. It’s very hard to distinguish between what is artificial and what - within formal constraints - one has been released through.
JR: You’ve said before that Frost means a lot to you. Now one could say that, in terms of American poetry, Frost and Eliot are at opposite poles, that Frost if you like comes out of pragmatism and William James, the kind of philosophy which emphasises the voice and the kind of evasions within the voice. A very simple thing in Frost is that conversational going back on yourself which can be found in his frequent use of words like “something” and in lines like “He fell at Gettysburg or Fredericksburg./ I ought to know - it makes a difference which”. That seems to permeate your poetry all along.
PM: Absolutely. Of course it does. I don’t say it idly that Frost is a big influence on me - though there are other influences. But I think it pretty obvious that I’m close to him. Frost isn’t exactly despised but not enough people have worked out what a brilliant poet he was. It’s never really struck me before but a poem like ‘Directive’ has a lot in common with ‘Yarrow’.
JR: The Grail legend...
PM: Yes. ‘Yarrow’ is trying to do some of the same things. “Drink and be whole again beyond confusion”, and the children’s playhouse - you know it’s really the same territory, although they are very different poems.
JR: Of course it’s one of the things said about ‘Directive’ that it’s actually Frost rewriting the Quartets in a cuter and lighter vein.
J.R: And those peculiar lines about hiding the goblet so the wrong people can’t get saved as St. Mark says they mustn’t. Putting that in because it outrages people that the Bible would say such a thing. I suppose that’s the kind of cheekiness which you share with Frost in terms of upsetting people’s expectations.
PM: Well, absolutely. That is another thing I’m interested in. It’s not that I’m some sort of sixth-former up to some prank. Upset is what I’m interested in most of the time.
JR: As a means of getting around order. Or readjusting it...
PM: But I think upset can actually be a way of finding order. Something falls out of place in one sense but falls into place in another. One will never again look at a birch tree, after the Robert Frost poem, in exactly the same way. If it upsets our notion of things in one way, it also sets them in another. The two things are related. Upset - in the sense that what’s the point of having a poem without a vision of how things are.
JR: Getting away from Frost, at times you remind me of Marianne Moore or Stevens in terms of your diction even if they’re not influences...
PM: Yes. Frost is one influence on me but there are others. The Metaphysicals of course. In many ways they’re probably the greatest influence. A huge number of my poems are conceits, taking two heterogeneous ideas and yoking them together. That’s often the form the poems take: image A, image B, C.
JR: One of the striking things about your poems is the extensive diction. But at times there’s a certain kind of word which you tend to prefer - it’s related to that character in Six Honest Serving Men who’s accused of speaking Nancyboy English - a kind of “prissy” word related to the conscious fastidiousness which Marianne Moore speaks about. Where does that strain come out of? For instance, that phrase in ‘The Birth’: “the inestimable realm of...”. A phrase like that is almost affected, like something a character would say in a nineteenth-century novel...
PM: But let’s think about that: “inestimable realm”. What does that say? Of course that particular phrase is held at some remove. I would have thought that the poem can only be read a little bit ironically. At one end it’s a poem about jubilation and the wonderful litany of things of this world. But this random list has resonances with some of the things I’m interested in - it’s as if this world into which the child is going to arrive is somehow one’s own world and that’s dubious perhaps. I know what you’re saying of course and I think you’re right about it. But it’s not as if I’m interested in sending people to dictionaries or anything. These are absolutely the right words - at least they try to be the right words in the right order. But that phrase does draw attention to itself
JR: Perhaps I shouldn’t talk about words so much as tone. After all it’s the tone of phrases like “I would as lief...” and “yea, verily” and “lo” which are obviously archaic...
PM: That phrase “yea, verily” comes from ‘Footling’, the lines about “the groundswell,/ yea, verily, the ground swell of life”. What it’s trying to say is “Can this be true? Is it really as wonderful as all that?” The ground swell is an image of abundance but it’s also an image of danger. The ground swell is what’s going to sink you as well as being what buoys you up. These are clichés also, of course, and I’m sometimes interested in how much one can get away with.
JR: Along those lines, you were talking about glitches earlier. One of the things which I would find to be a glitch would be the use of neologisms in a poem like ‘Cows’. There you use such words as “emphysemantiphon” and “metaphysicattle”. Last night, I was impressed that you read those words as if they were natural to you, but when I read the poem myself they make me pause, because it’s very hard to know how to distribute the stresses.
PM: There’s something in that. More than likely they are a problem. But I don’t want to disown that poem because I do rather like it.
JR: Oh, it’s great.
PM: But some people don’t think so. My friend Alan Jenkins says that it reminds him of a man coming down the street with a rolled-up carpet which he then rolls out on the street saying, “Look what I can do here, there’s a bit of this and a bit of that,” you know as if it’s a little bit show-offy. I think though one is stopped by those words. It is a problem in the sense that that is a road down which I can’t really go any further. If I go down that road basically next stop is Finnegans Wake, and to do that one would always be a kind of tenth-rate Joyce. On the other hand I don’t like the idea that there are limits.
JR: Perhaps it’s a bit like Lowell’s late poems. It’s a direction likely to be unfruitful.
PM: Yes. It would be dangerous. Because even Joyce couldn’t do it, let’s face it. However staggeringly brilliant we might agree Finnegans Wake is, it’s a form that doesn’t really fly.
JR: I’ve never been able to read it all the way through.
PM: Nor have I, not all the way through. I’m not comparing myself with Joyce here, but it is a dangerous road. But again I hate the idea that such literary fun and games are out of play. One of the things ‘Cows’ is saying is forget that world, forget about the meaning of “oscaraboscarabinary”. It’s saying that that is completely by the way, that is irrelevant compared to the reality of standing on a road on a dark night and not knowing what’s going to happen next.
JR: I said to you last night that I thought the ending was a great cadence-shift - more bass, more gruff - that it reminded me of Pancho Villa saying “Look son. Just look around you”, a no-nonsense, Republican voice...
PM: I think that’s right but...
JR: Perhaps that impression of “the Republican voice” is reinforced by the phrase “the mighty Kalashnikov”. It’s like the ending of ‘Gathering Mushrooms’ where you shift tones into that Republican voice.
PM: It’s a horse talking there.
JR: Right. But it doesn’t sound like a horse.
PM: [Laughs]. Well, I don’t know. I agree about the rhetoric. But you might say this is a horse talking - and how much time are you going to give a horse? In ‘Cows’, you have to determine how to read the word “mighty”.
JR: It’s ironic.
PM: Well is it though? It goes in different directions. You might say that the Kalashnikov has been quite mighty however much one would want to disbelieve that. But I think it’s probably more ironic.
JR: Related to the use of irony, one of the things I see in the later poems is a greater attempt to be sincere, to use a voice without a trace of irony in it. Do you find it a problem that the ironist can never be taken as being sincere?
PM: I do. You know I wrote this poem for Seamus Heaney on his winning of the Nobel Prize which is meant to be absolutely sincere I wrote it very, very quickly, in a couple of hours. It was to do with a ship called ‘The Vasa’, which is on display in Stockholm, and I said to Seamus after I wrote it, “some idiot is going to point out that this is a poem in which the central image has to do with a ship sinking on its maiden voyage”. It’s almost as if I’m congenitally incapable of not putting an edge in there. But it certainly wasn’t intended.
JR: A phrase like “a Ieanbh”, say, in ‘Incantata’ seems to be in a tone which you wouldn’t have used in your earlier poems.
PM: I think the poems have changed a bit. On the other hand the poem ‘Lag’ which I read last night about the Siamese Twins, there’s still plenty of edge in that - it’s not exactly the kindlier, gentler nation, Some of my more recent poems though are about the happinesses of being in the world, which is a much more difficult subject to deal with. But having said that I think some of the earlier poems have that too.
JR: Maybe ‘Cass and Me’?
PM: Even ‘Wind and Tree’ is upfront in a certain way. These things come and go. Various things I’ve done over the last few years have made me interested in a slightly different feel of poem, trying to write more short, lyric poems and trying to avoid getting involved in the longer poems - although it doesn’t mean I won’t get involved with any of them later.
JR: The play you wrote recently, Six Honest Serving Men, is also written in the form of a long poem, a “sonnet of sonnets”. Did you find yourself able to draw characters to the extent which is demanded by a drama?
PM’ Well, the fact is there may not be enough character or drama in that thing. I wrote it because somebody asked me to. Of course, I didn’t have to write it, but I did. I think it’s going to be part of something longer. I may do several of these pieces; there may actually be a musical version.
JR: One of the interesting things in the long poems ‘Madoc’ and ‘Yarrow’, which is different from the previous long poems, is the use of the page break as a method of pausing. It creates a different feel. You turn a page in ‘Madoc’ and there’s one line, and on the next page there’s the same thing.
PM: Yes, that’s a very interesting notion. Clearly that’s not the only way which the poem could be printed. I remember someone saying about ‘Madoc’ that Muldoon has written a very long poem and then somebody else saying, yes, but there’s an awful lot of white space in it. What we’re talking about is a typographical convention. The poem would change if it were printed in a different way - in numbered sections, for example. I guess ‘Yarrow’ would change too. The shape it makes on the page does make an impact, sure it does.
JR: What effect might the ceasefire have on Northern Irish poetry? Will a certain tension go out of the poems?
PM: Obviously one of the things that poets from Northern Ireland and beyond - had to try to make sense of was what was happening on a day-to-day political level. It would be odd if they hadn’t tried to do so. But there are a couple things about the whole situation which I’m not sure about - and I don’t think this is part of the underpinning of your question - but there is a school of thought that Northern Irish poetry only exists because of the political situation; for instance, there’s Thomas Kinsella’ s line about Northern Irish poetry, that it’s just a ‘journalistic entity”. He should know better than that. I mean that’s the kind of remark which fuels the famous North-South fire. If that’s the level of debate which Thomas Kinsella engages in, it’s really awful. On the other hand, at some level the mass of unresolved issues in Northern Ireland does influence the fact that there are so many good writers in the place. I don’t think that writers are mere boils on the bottom of society representing the volcanic forces which are coming out. That’s not exactly how things work, because if it were I think there’d be more people writing poetry - there’d be more eruptions. The fact that people in Northern Ireland have had to ask themselves questions like “Where am I from?” may in some cases have given their poetry more of an edge. I think it’s too simple to say that violence equals energy; people have said that along the way. Violence is debilitating as much as anything else. One hopes and prays, in connection with that, that the people of Northern Ireland will agree that there are other ways of doing business, that they can live decently and honestly in an uncompromised way with their neighbours - that there’s room for everybody. That may sound like pulpit talk but I hope people will be able to do it. One thing I would say is that I don’t think a ceasefire is going to mean the sudden end of anything. There will still be a lot of issues exercising people’s minds. It won’t mean the end of Northern Irish poetry.
JR: Who comes after you, Longley, Heaney, Carson, Mahon, Paulin, McGuckian? Who will come next?
PM: It could be anybody. That’s one of the great things about poetry; one realises that one does one’s little turn - that you’re just part of the great crop, as it were. Of course there are, in the Bloomian sense, these recognisably strong voices, but one day some twenty-year old kid will come down the pike and say “Heaney has had his day, Muldoon has had his day, they’ve all had their day. Now watch this.” But that’s not to say the old guys are about to hand in their guns.
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