May 30, 2016

Paul Muldoon at AWF 2016: A poet worth knowing

In which Simon from Central City Library tells us about going to see poet Paul Muldoon, and the adroit adjective 'Eliotic' makes its first appearance in Books in the City:



The Writers Festival session "One thousand things worth knowing" featured acclaimed US-based Irish poet Paul Muldoon speaking about his career and artistry with our own C.K. Stead. Muldoon, a poet who enjoys a critical standing up there with the likes of Seamus Heaney (not to mention being a Professor at Princeton University and poetry editor at The New Yorker), was a warm and eloquent speaker. He read wonderfully and spoke with humour and grace. Stead is clearly less of a natural public speaker, (to be fair, he was a late stand-in for Bill Manhire), but knew Muldoon's work and antecedents more than well enough to help facilitate an interesting discussion.

The conversation begun with talk of formative influences. Aside from the impact of the immediacy necessary in radio, impressed upon him during his time working for the BBC, Muldoon admitted early poetic efforts also involved trying to "follow Eliot", which had often resulted in poetry that was "Eliotic."

In contrast, being an Irish poet, Muldoon had found it necessary to "work around" Yeats rather than aspire to, let alone compete with, his greatness. Stead expressed surprise that Yeats had not been mentioned more in the prior ‘From 1916 to Here’ festival event which Muldoon had been part of. Muldoon pointed out the irony that historical events after the fact had helped imbue a poem like Yeats’s “Easter 1916” with its verisimilitude. The British shooting of insurrectionists during the Easter Rising had in fact only happened after Yeats had composed the poem and not the other way round.

Even if he had begun as one of many Eliot acolytes, it was not the Eliotic that Muldoon was shooting for. Rather, he hoped he might induce an "electric shock" for the reader, or as Stead put it, "a kick in the behind." Muldoon elaborated that if the process of composing the poem is unexpected for the writer, this increases the likelihood that a similar shift, whether seismic or minor, will occur for the reader.

"If I know what I'm doing then everyone else will know too. . . If I don't know what I'm doing, there's a chance others will be surprised."

Further building on this contention, Muldoon went so far as to dismiss the "write about what you know" creative writing tenet.

Despite wanting to cause this shift in the reader, Muldoon was uncertain of the effect poetry might have on the world at large. He hoped it might do some good, and could see a world in which art took over the role of organised religion.

Muldoon read poems such as ‘Honey’ from his new volume One Thousand Things Worth Knowing, and older poems such as ‘Saffron’ and ‘Why Brownlee Left’. Muldoon contended ‘Honey’ was the type of poem which seemed to ask of itself: “Is this a poem at all?” The answer “Not much” was one Muldoon felt the culture of poetry as a whole should be more comfortable with. He read with a gentle determination that seemed perfectly in keeping with the tone of the poems.

A brief QnA session elicited charming and self-deprecating responses from Muldoon. When asked if he really felt he could “write about Saffron forever”, Muldoon said he felt that “subject matter” was irrelevant – that the whole world could be seen through the prism of something as seemingly minor as saffron. A second audience member enquired about what books had spoken to Muldoon in his youth. Stevenson’s Treasure Island as it turns out. “If I could write a book like Treasure Island, I wouldn’t bother with this stuff.”

-- Simon 

Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 17:15
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