In 2015, Robert Weil, editor-in-chief of WW Norton / Liveright, invited Paul Muldoon to a performance of Verdi’s “Don Carlos” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. During each intermission, Weil pitched the idea of Muldoon editing a book focused on the entire work of Sir Paul McCartney’s song lyrics. By the time the curtain fell on the four-and-a-half-hour performance, they had come up with a plan.
Five years and over two dozen conversations between Muldoon and McCartney later, “The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present”, has arrived. The two-volume work illuminates the stories behind McCartney’s 154 song lyrics – “as close to an autobiography as we can ever get,” said Muldoon, the Howard GB Clark ’21 University Professor in the Humanities, professor of creative writing in the Lewis Center for the Arts, director of the Princeton Workshop and Chairman of the Fund for Irish Studies.
Muldoon, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and former New Yorker poetry editor, has taught poetry at Princeton since 1987 and songwriting since 2013. In February, the week before the publisher announced that Muldoon would be editor-in-chief of “The Lyrics,” McCartney made a two-hour surprise visit via Zoom to Muldoon’s “How to write a songIn which students work in small groups to compose one song per week, each with a specific theme and purpose.
Muldoon is old school when it comes to music and still listens to CDs in his car, but he knows a rock song well. He once wrote musician Warren Zevon a fan letter, which led to a collaboration on one song, “My Ride’s Here”, the title track from Zevon’s album released before his death in 2003 and later covered by Bruce Springsteen. He is the author of “The Word on the Street”, a collection of rock lyrics written for his former band, the Wayside Shrines, and “Songs and Sonnets” on the relationship between verse and song.
He has also written songs and spoken word for another group he is associated with, Rogue Oliphant. He is the organizer of the biennial Princeton Poetry Festival, which will take place on November 12 at the Berlind Theater at the McCarter Theater Center, featuring poets from the US, UK, Russia and El Salvador. Her 14th collection of poems, “Howdy-Skelp”, will be released in the United States by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on November 16.
Here Muldoon reflects on the creative process he and McCartney used, Sir Paul’s talent for teaching, the joy of bringing a song to life, and the role of poetry in pulling us out of our comfort zone.
The New Yorker recently released an excerpt from “The Lyrics” in which McCartney unpacks the story behind “Eleanor Rigby”. It’s a poignant and complex tale with a lot of moving parts. Was it easy to get McCartney to bring out these memories? Were they on hand, or did they take a few polls to find out?
It might help to start with the way the book was made. I met Paul McCartney five or six times a year between 2015 and 2020. Our sessions were usually three hours long, and in each we usually talked about six or eight songs. These conversations were recorded on two machines (for security reasons) and then transcribed. I edited the transcript into a continuous commentary on each of the 154 songs.
To answer your question, we were attached to the idea that, much like him and John Lennon, we wouldn’t leave the room without something new to show. This meant that we were actually a bit leery of what was at hand. This risked giving the reader an impression of déjà vu. I’m very interested in the role of the unconscious in the creative process, so I’ve often tried to provoke it into ways of thinking about his songs that he might not otherwise have considered.
Is there a Beatles song – maybe one of your longtime favorites – that you saw or felt differently after hearing about it being made?
I thought it was very important that the book be presented in alphabetical order rather than chronological order. One of the effects of this is, paradoxically, to establish the continuity of the work of Paul McCartney. Too often we tend to think of the Beatles era as a creative explosion – the goat in the python – when the reality is that Paul McCartney is still writing great songs. So I found myself surprised again and again. And I think the reader will be surprised again and again. Otherwise, there’s no point in making the book!
You called McCartney “a major literary person who draws inspiration from and extends the long tradition of poetry in English”. Has working so closely with him changed your view of your own profession?
I have found myself confirmed in my belief that poetry is a very large church, if you allow me that metaphor. A vast temple. A great mosque. In other words, poetry comes in many forms. This certainly includes the tradition of the song – a fact attested by just about every poetry story in English that includes “Sir Patrick Spens” or a Robin Hood ballad. It is instructive to think of the very solid upbringing Paul McCartney had in Liverpool. His English teacher, Alan Durband, had been a student of FR Leavis in Cambridge and had a major influence on Paul McCartney’s taste for what was known in the UK as practical criticism.
When McCartney made a surprise visit via Zoom to your “How to Write a Song” class, this week’s theme was “loss” with an emphasis on harmony. What advice did he give to one of the student groups that stood out for you?
One of the ideas that emerges clearly from “The Lyrics” is that, had he not become a Beatle, Paul McCartney would most likely have become an English teacher. His flair for teaching certainly manifested itself when he visited our class. There were eight groups of four songwriters that day and he gave fairly methodically “close reads” of the eight songs. In fact, he usually started the discussion. Much of his criticism revolved around the practical reworking of lyrics or chord structures. Her most important piece of advice was that students honor that they don’t quite know what they are doing. Like many great artists, he sees himself first and foremost as a medium through which a song finds its way into the world.
You also have a new book, “Howdie-Skelp” (an idiom for the slap in the face a midwife gives a newborn baby). How is this new collection of poems – written during the COVID-19 pandemic – its own kind of “wake-up call” in the present moment?
I think of every poem as some sort of insult. Indeed, the etymology of this word “confront” has to do with a blow to the face. Something that knocks us down. The poems that I like the most are unexpected to say the least and, more often than not, quite shocking. They force us to recalibrate. The period in which this book was written was a period in which we had to understand the urgency of a number of issues – racial justice, climate change, the failure of the bipartisan electoral system – and a number of the poems reflect these concerns. But there are also poems that are supposed to make us reconsider a fly, a chipmunk, a moose and a bull.