Youd hardly know it by looking at him, but Paul Muldoon is now in his fifties. Maybe its because we locate him in years in relation to Heaney that hes still thought of as a younger Irish poet. But with nine collections behind him, and now a Pulitzer Prize to his name, Paul Muldoon is anything but a johnny-come-lately.
We arranged to meet in Amherst, Massachusetts, where. Muldoon was doing a reading the night before. It was only a few days after the 2003 Pulitzer Prize winners were announced - Muldoon had won the poetry section for his book Moy Sand and Gravel, and I sat in the Amherst Brewing Company waiting for him on the lookout for a poetic-looking type. Amherst being a university town, as well as the birthplace and longtime residence of Emily Dickinson, there were a lot.of poetic-looking types knocking about. But when Muldoon walked into the bar there was no mistaking him.
The first thing that strikes you are his unique physical attributes. Theres the eccentric mop of hair, still more brown than grey, a growth that first sprouted into being in Co Armagh in 1951, where he was born. Theres his ample form, which does not stop him from being quick in movement, a kind of middle-aged Puck, light of foot, agile and eloquent.
Then theres his black-rimmed glasses and tweed sports jacket, the garb of the erudite professor who wears jeans, as Muldoon seems to, on his weekends off.
When I heard about the Pulitzer, my first impression was that it was a practical joke, says Muldoon in his soft northern accent, still coming through despite 15 years spent living in New jersey, where he teaches at Princeton and where he lives with his Amerir-in wife and two children. I didnt even know it was the time of year for the Pulitzer Prize, and at some level, I never even expected to be taken seriously as an American, he says, noting how the Pulitzer Prize can only be awarded to US citizens.
With Muldoon, as anyone who knows his poetry will tell you, things are never simple not even his nationality. Irishman and American. Muldoon holds two nationalities and says he is very suspicious of a worldview where we equal our passports. He says he is happy to be thought of as an American poet, but is equally happy to be thought of as Irish.
These things are all just accidents of history. he says, I mean, Ive had a UK passport along the way too ... but my primary affiliation is with Ireland, where I lived for the first 35 Years. Moy Sand and Gravel, his ninth orginal collection, reflects Muldoons tendency to dwell simultaneously in different states, to slip from one history or culture to another, to draw on varying traditions at will. As a poet whose globalised imagination is essentially post-world war 2, Muldoon is as likely to bring Marilyn Monroe into a poeirn as Eamon de Valera. Sitting Bull as Wolfe Tone. But his openness to high as well as low culture - and his poetry of playfulness and allusion, is not part of some kind of over-arching poet scheme on his part. As he says, I dont have a plan, its just how the poems happen to come out in each instance. The old-fashiond idea of inspiration is not one that Muldoon rejects. Indeed, he agrees that he is an instinctual writer. His descriptions of the creative act make the writer sound almost like a conduit for electricity, a medium through which the poetic voice sounds.
The images seem to come from nowhere in particular, a little phrase or a little image that hits one, a sense that it might be interesting, a sense that there might be some sort of future in it. The process is less about planning it out ... I think that one is truly involved in not knowing what one is doing. Muldoon says that one of his favourite books is Zen in the Art of Archery, by Eugen Herrigel. Maybe that offers something of a clue to Muldoons method of composition, and the poems that result. I never know what Im doing, says Muldoon, I never have an idea where Im going to end up. But like those Zen archers he hits the bullseye more often than not, blindfolded or in the dark.
As for the centrality of the personality of the writer, Muldoon appears to belong to the T.S. Eliot school of authorial humility in the face of the poetic tradition. It appears that the source from which he draws is not the ego.
The self is less important than the poem, he says, the individual, the personality through which a poem is written is irrelevant really ... the poem is always, at some level, in dialogue with the collective unconscious with the whole poetry tradition. And yet Muldoon is a lyric poet, who makes poems, at least in part, out of the facts of his own life, his own experience.
And so, in Moy Sand and Gravel, we are brought again to familiar Muldoon locales. There is Northern Ireland in the 1950s, the village of Moy, where he was brought up. Many Irish place names are sounded throughout, but, increasingly, it is American place names that figure most: his house by, the Delaware Canal in New jersey, the city of St. Louis, The Homer Nobel Farm in Vermont, where Robert Frost spent many years, and where the Muldoon family now like to spend summers. It is a book where the themes of family, fatherhood and intimate relationships seem to come to the fore, maybe more than in earlier collections.
Muldoon, however, says that he has always written about such things, but says that maybe it wasnt as obvious. His reputation for high and sophisticated wordplay, complex buried allusions and self-conscious artifice could possibly have led some readers to overlook the emotional depth and seriousness of his poetry.
Poems as intricate games, as a hall of mirrors set up by the poet to dazzle and self-referentially reflect, have blinded some to the importance of feeling in many of Muldoons verses. The sheer formal artistry and difficulty of Muldoon have caused some to feel that following the lines of the poems through their zig-zagging obstacle course of ideas and allusions simply is not worth the effort and leads, ultimately and all too often, to nowhere.
It is true the poems are difficult but, arguably, untrue that at their core lies nothing but a hollowness, disguised by a playful, clever and bravura performance. As Muldoon says, there needs to be some sort of emotional underpinning to the poetry. As for the humour, the often knowing and ironic tone, Muldoon recognises it is there, but he allows too for the serious intent that is often also present, but sometimes not credited in the work.
Some of the poems are playful, but many of them are not. I dont necessarily see a problem about being playful - are children playful? I mean, theres such a, thing as serious play. I guess theres a tendency if theres an element of humour, if theres an element of wordplay, that someone ones dealing with something slightly more frothy, or something less substantial than something greatly earnest. All poetry is about wordplay in some way - at some level theyre all mere constructs. Theyre all toys at some level. That idea of the poem as construct and that emphasis on the formal aspect of poetry is also conceived by Muldoon in terms of a game, as a thing of amusement.
Form is a straitjacket in the way that a straitjacket was a straitjacket for Houdini, he says, with a wry smile. It is a smile that leaves one never sure when Muldoon is being ironic, when he is joking and when he is not. In conversation, as in his work, his register is continually shifting, is at times simply profound, at times subversive or playfully detached. Sometimes the transition from one register to the other is. so subtle that it catches you unawares.
And so it is with his highly individual poetry, a poetry that is instantly recognisable as Muldoon, as Eliot is instantly recognisable as Eliot, and as Yeats is instantly recognisable as Yeats. Muldoon is a poet who seems to have been born with his voice fully formed. His first collection, published all of 30 years ago, when Muldoon was still a student in Belfast, is as recognisable as Muldoon as any of the poems of Moy Sand and Gravel.
That is not to say that there has not been development over the nine collections; there has. From the linguistic impersonations of Meeting the British (1987), through the historic imaginings of Madoc: A Mystery (1986), to the more emotional and personal The Annals of Chile (1994), with its truly great final poem, Incantata, each collection spreads out into the world, exploring new territory, discovering new worlds.
That poetic exploration, and his own actual striking out further afield with his move to America in 1987, has meant that he has, like some versifying Houdini, escaped somewhat the Irish straitjacket. His honours have therefore tended to come from someplacd other than his native land - his election as Professor of Poetry at Oxford, for example, and now his Pulitzer Prize for poetry in the United States.
It is strange to think that such a major figure was excluded from RTÉs recent Reading the Future list of contemporary Irish writers who would endure - particularly surprising when one considers some of the inclusions.
Maybe its time we took a cue from Americans. Maybe its time to reclaim Paul Muldoon as one of our own.