Born in 1951, Paul Muldoon grew up on a farm in County Armagh. He has lived in the United States since 1987 where he is a professor at Princeton University. In 2003 he received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. He recently edited Paul McCartney’s two-volume set, The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present. He is married to American novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz. They have two children.
- Paul Muldoon: Laoithe is Lirici, a documentary about his life, will be screened as part of the Cork Film Festival at 5 p.m. on Saturday November 19 at the Gate Cinema. See: www.corkfilmfest.org.
What confirms my feeling that Paul McCartney is a major artist is his modesty. By this I don’t mean false modesty, or any form of Uriah Heepism. I mean the modesty that comes from feeling like he’s just a vehicle for something beyond himself. I don’t mean he’s totally inert, but I mean he’s first and foremost a medium for something bigger and better than himself.
What is fascinating about Paul Simon is that he first writes the music. Then he writes the words. His view is that if the music isn’t good, the lyrics don’t matter. He’s probably right. It’s a remarkable thing about him – that he can write great music and then he can write great lyrics to go with it. He’s a brilliant lyricist.
I wrote my first poem when I was 12. Most people are smart enough to stop writing soon after. TS Eliot is the poet who got me excited and made me think that writing poetry would be a good thing. He is a “modern” poet. For many people it is too much. It takes a bit of effort to read it. That’s not to say it’s unclear, but there are times when it needs a little work. The Waste Land is a good example. It’s such a weird way to do business – with all these hints and quotes from other texts. It is a poem of rupture. For some reason, it appealed to me as a teenager.
J Alfred Prufrock’s love song is the perfect poem for a teenager. The protagonist is a guy who says, “Should I or shouldn’t I ask her out?” What will happen? ‘Do I dare / disturb the universe?’ “It’s a poem about the essential uncertainty that characterizes adolescence. It continues to be one of my favorite poems.
TS Eliot reintroduced the world into the poetry of John Donne, the metaphysical poet. By extension, he has become my favorite poet. I am inspired by a poet like John Donne. One of his main interests was to make strikingly original metaphors, usually based on completely crazy connections between things. That’s what I try to do myself – be open to compelling ways of describing the world. Donne continues to be my biggest influence.
I love poetry from all over the world, but I’m always drawn to the local – South Armagh Gaelic poets are important to me. People like Peadar Ó Doirnín, Séamus Dall Mac Curta and Art Mac Cumhaigh. They are local poets who continually fascinate me. They are mostly from the 18th century. There are a number of other poets associated with the area – WR Rodgers, Jonathan Swift – that I like.
In its centenary year, the novel that continues to amaze and influence what I do is James Joyce’s Ulysses. The likes of which have not been seen since. Many writers consider themselves avant-garde. In other words, “I want to do something that’s never been done before.” This is the basic impulse, to embark on the creation of a stimulating text, innovative in its attempt to represent the world. Ulysses is a supreme novel in this regard. Joyce is an incredibly brilliant writer. I can read most writers and pretty much know how they did it. With Ulysses, I have no idea how Joyce did it. And one thing is for sure, I couldn’t do it myself.
One novel that I found fascinating is Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. It’s brilliantly written. He’s such a great writer. If I was trying to write a novel, I would try to write a novel less like Ulysses and more like Treasure Island. The story is extraordinary. More than that, the cast list – and the way the characters are introduced – is one fascinating character after another. Whether it’s narrator Jim Hawkins; old Captain Black Dog; locals like the Squire John Trelawney; sea cook Long John Silver; gunner Israel Hands; not to mention Ben Gunn. This cast of characters is remarkable.
Leonard Cohen’s Collected Poems are exactly the same as his Collected Songs. The pressure per square inch in a Cohen song is very high. That’s one of the reasons his songs do so well. It’s not a requirement – you can have great songs that you don’t even understand the lyrics to, but Leonard Cohen has that quality.
When I was a kid in Armagh, the way we studied plays was to stage them in class. The play that I find perfect is William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. I saw him recently in New York – where I live – with Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga. Ruth played Lady Macbeth. She was absolutely awesome. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen Macbeth. I would go see Macbeth – no matter who does. It is a game that is indestructible. It’s so beautifully constructed. It’s a masterpiece. It’s probably my favorite piece.
I saw Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy when they came out in a cinema in Armagh. I love that A Fistful of Dollars is based on Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo movie. Great artists begin by imitating. The most important cultural moments derive from fusion. The western as a genre in America; the Japanese component; then you had this Italian opera buffa component – there’s a comedic tension running through it, this tweak. They are equestrian operas in both senses of the word. And the music is amazing. I like their bastard status. They rely on very distant components that they manage to bring together to create something new.
I love the exaggerated aspect of musical theatre. Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street makes for an unlikely whirlwind pitch – an opera about a demon barber who kills people and his accomplice bakes pies out of their meat. I like to write poems where, on some level, people say, “You can’t do that. There’s no way you’re getting away with it. To which I say, “OK, well, look at this.” You must be prepared to fail. You can’t worry about failing or what people think of you if you’re an artist. You just have to give it a whirl.