The political poet: from Ireland to Iraq

Holly Williams talks to Pulitzer-winning poet Paul Muldoon about his new collection, Horse Latitudes

Think of Irish poetry and it’s likely that, after pausing on canon heavyweights like Heaney and Yeats, your thoughts will turn to Paul Muldoon, one of Ireland’s most successful living poets. Muldoon’s cultural influences, however, are more complex than the ‘Irish’ label allows; he has lived in America for the past 20 years and visits to Britain now come as an occasional “mad dash” around the country. York was lucky enough to be on the itinerary for his latest trip and I had a chance to ask him about this issue of nationality before he read from his latest poetry collection, Horse Latitudes.

“We certainly understand the terms ‘American poet’ or ‘Irish poet’, but honestly I’m not too interested in any of it,” he says, “particularly when we live in a world, which, for better or worse, is so much smaller. I would love to be thought of as an Irish poet. I would love to be thought of as a poet at all, you know? I mean the chances are quite strong that one won’t be thought of as anything.”

This country will survive Tony Blair. It has survived Margaret Thatcher, it has survived vaious creeps, as has America

Of course, Muldoon has already proved that the chances are high that he will be thought of very highly indeed. The large and refreshingly varied audience in a Langwith lecture room was testament to the broad appeal of his work, as is his impressive array of awards, including the Pulitzer and T.S. Eliot poetry prizes. But such self-deprecation seems typical of this rather gentle, smiley man. Despite his poems sometimes seeming terrifyingly clever, Muldoon insists that he doesn’t know what he’s doing when he starts writing a poem, where it might go or what its ‘meaning’ might be. I wonder if that might be why writing poetry was so enjoyable. “Absolutely!” he answers. “That’s one of the reasons why it’s enjoyable, and also so hard. Because if you don’t know what you’re doing, that’s a bit scary.”

It may also be why Muldoon’s poetry is so full of strange leaps and connections, constantly surprising the reader, and he confirms that this is partly the intention: “I want to be doing something unexpected, so that when you read it you think ‘Ah Heaven! I would never have expected that.’ It’s the idea of the reader being in the poem in which one has been oneself, and then one leaves and the reader is in there then having much the same experience.”

Horse Latitudes begins with 19 sonnets, titled with battles beginning with the letter ‘B’, from the well known, such as Bosworth, to the willfully obscure – Bronkhorstspruit, anyone? Muldoon has always shown a fascination with structure and form, and we discussed the appeal of the strict sonnet form which, “despite being quite short is extremely effective.” While he insists that, as with content, the form doesn’t come first – “I don’t sit down thinking: I’m going to write a sonnet here” – it often informs the writing process.

“The truth is, of course, that I’m pre-disposed to it. So what started by accident certainly ended up becoming the informing, pattern-making device of the poem. Rightly or wrongly, easily or otherwise, it helps me to get the thing out into the world.”

Of course, the series of sonnets appears incomplete – there is surely a missing 20th sonnet entitled ‘Baghdad’. The collection was written as things were getting messy in Iraq, and Horse Latitudes criticises the Bush administration. We discussed the anti-American feeling that has been so prominent since the Iraq war and how the Brit-in-America dynamic has changed. Muldoon recalled having to defend America at dinner parties, since it became so acceptable to “whine about America and what a terrible place it is.”

Her wet suit like a coat of mail
worn by a French knight from the time
a knight could still cause a ruction
by direct-charging his rouncy,
when an Englishman’s home was his bouncy
castle, when abduction and seduction
went hand in glove. Now Carlotta would climb
from the hotel pool in Nashville,
take off her mask, and set a spill
to a Gauloise as one might set
a spill to the fuse of a falconet
and the walls of her chest assail.
The French, meanwhile, were still struggling to prime
Their weapons of mass destruction.
Faber & Faber

However, Muldoon was keen to make the distinction between the country, which is “not a terrible place, not at all”, and the current administration (the “idiots who are running the country”). He isn’t too complimentary about the British government either; but there is a sense of hope in the transient nature of governments. “This country will survive Tony Blair. It has survived Margaret Thatcher, it has survived various creeps, as has America. There have been various American administrations that have been problematic – I don’t think any quite so problematic as this – but the country is still basically a place where most people want the decent thing to happen and in that respect it’s way ahead of the world. The world is a mess. It’s too easy to be down on America.”

I wonder if there was pressure to be down on America, and Muldoon agreed. “I am taking a few shots, as it were, in my new book, at the Iraq fiasco and in a strange way it’s a bit of a soft target. Still, it is such a fiasco, such a terrible thing.”

We expect our poets, it seems, to tackle awkward issues, and during the Troubles in 1980s Ireland there was pressure on the generation of Ulster poets – Muldoon, Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley – to tackle the politics of the day. Muldoon’s poetry, however, has always been somewhat slippery and if it dealt with such issues at all, it was with the inherent ambiguities of the conflict. Comparing, then, Muldoon’s open attack on the US government with his earlier poems dealing with the Irish conflict, there might appear a discrepancy. Muldoon explains, however, with a somewhat wearied sigh, that the “Irish situation is much less cut and dry than the US situation. I don’t think I would ever have found myself coming down quite so vehemently on one side in the Irish context.” In any of Muldoon’s actual poetry though, infamously dense and rich with references, meaning remains negotiable and his poems are as elusive as they allusive.

A professor now at Princeton University, Muldoon is Chair of the University Center for the Creative and Performing Arts, teaching creative writing, and is certainly enthusiastic about students: “I love them! They’re interested and they’re interesting and they’re trying to do something and I’m trying to help them do something.” While being taught by such an eminent poet might sound intimidating, he comes across as an encouraging tutor, with absolute belief in the potential of his students.

“I say to my students that there is absolutely no reason why you can’t be publishing your writing and poems, that are every bit as good as anything that’s been done anywhere, by anyone, of any age. In fact, the chances are maybe higher of them doing something interesting.”

Of course, Muldoon had his first collection, New Weather, published while he was still a student at Queens University. He was lucky in having around him the cream of Irish writing at the time, and was taught by Seamus Heaney. But even without such luminaries surrounding you, Muldoon considers university the perfect time for experimenting with creative work.

I asked if he had any advice for the would-be writer at York and he comes back to the need to be humble and to allow yourself a “sense of ignorance – which is hard to manage, especially at university. You need a sense of unknowing, brought to the fore.” Suddenly that lecture seems less crucial.

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