Paul Muldoon: Pulitzer Prize for Poetry
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JEFFREY BROWN: Here are the first lines of Paul Muldoon’s poem, “A College Land’s Catechism.” Which is known as the orchard county, which as the garden state. Which captain of the bounty was set adrift by his mate?”
JEFFREY BROWN: The 52-year-old Muldoon is a lover of rhyme and rock and roll. And he is this year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. So you can teach poetry after all, huh?
PAUL MULDOON: I believe one may teaches it. Otherwise, I’d be somewhat fraudulent, I think.
JEFFREY BROWN: Muldoon is a transplant to the central New Jersey town of Princeton from the Northern Ireland village of Moy. Thus the title of his prizewinning book, “Moy Sand and Gravel.” The poems, he says, straddle the two places in his life.
PAUL MULDOON: There’s a little tightrope walking between the two places. And, indeed, one of the central figures in one of the poems in the book is Blondon, the great French tightrope walker who specialized in crossing Niagara Falls, you know, bringing with him all kinds of accouterments; a wheelbarrow. He would stop halfway across and light a little stove and cook himself an omelet. So, I suppose that’s a rather precarious position to be in. And, perhaps, it’s a position that… that I recognize from time to time, of between two cultures.
JEFFREY BROWN: So this tightrope you’re talking about, was it intentional when you set about to collect the poems for this book?
PAUL MULDOON: Well, there’s very little of the intentional about the business of writing poetry, as least as far as I can see. What I try to do is to go into a poem– and one writes them, of course, poem by poem– to go into each poem, first of all without having any sense whatsoever of where it’s going to end up. So in that sense, I suppose there’s a little bit of the tightrope walker’s unease. In fact, it’s probably… most tightrope walkers would feel much more at ease.
PAUL MULDOON: Who would like to read his or her poem on this fine occasion?
JEFFREY BROWN: Muldoon has been teaching at Princeton since 1987, and let us join a recent writing class where student poems were read and dissected.
PAUL MULDOON: It’s very difficult, I think, often for… for those little words to carry the weights on their narrow, little shoulders that’s been asked of them to carry.
JEFFREY BROWN: Something of a child prodigy, Muldoon as a teenager earned the notice of Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet who would win the Nobel Prize for literature. A prolific writer, Muldoon’s “Moy Sand and Gravel” is his ninth collection of poetry.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now we watched you teaching today and there was a great emphasis on clarity, on what is exact… what is the phrase exactly mean? You really push that on your students.
PAUL MULDOON: Well, indeed, because clarity, the movement towards clarity is, I think, at the heart of the enterprise. Let’s face it, confusion is what we’re living with — not being able to make sense of what’s happening to us from day to day. Whereas making sense is what we’re aiming for — making sense. Now that’s a complicated matter, of course, in that many poems are difficult. Sometimes clarity, though they may be moving in that direction isn’t always what they achieve.
JEFFREY BROWN: Certainly your own poetry has been called difficult.
PAUL MULDOON: Well, that’s right. That’s why I bring it up. ( Laughs ) because…
JEFFREY BROWN: You beat me to it.
PAUL MULDOON: It’s not as if I’m trying to write crossword puzzles to which one might find an answer at the back of the book or anything like that. To… they… they are… meant to be equal to the difficulties which surround us. In this era of extraordinary complexity, where it’s impossible to– I was going to say walk down the street– but, you know, move towards one’s front door with its alarm, turn on one’s television for heaven’s sake, if one’s able to do it. Understand even remotely what’s going on under the hood of one’s car, never mind understand what is happening in Afghanistan or Iraq for most of us.
JEFFREY BROWN: So the complexity of the poem mirrors the complexity of life around us?
PAUL MULDOON: That’s my story. That’s my story.
JEFFREY BROWN: I do…
PAUL MULDOON: And I’m sticking to it.
JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, while following all Muldoon’s references can be difficult, enjoying his playfulness with language is easy. Listen as he reads the rest of “A College Land Catechism,” the poem featuring a tightrope walker.
PAUL MULDOON: Who cooked and ate an omelet midway across Niagara Falls? Where did Setanta get those magical hurley balls he ramstand down the throat of the blacksmith’s hound? Why would a Greek philosopher of note refuse to be bound by convention but live in a tub, from which he might overhear, as went to rub an apple on his sleeve? The mutineers plotting to seize the maid of the mist, while it was still half able to forge ahead and make half a fist of crossing the Niagara Gorge — the tub in which he might light a stove and fold the beaten eggs into themselves. Who unearthed the egg trove? And who having eaten the omelet would marvel at how the Mounties had so quickly closed in on him late of the Orchard County by way of the garden state?
JEFFREY BROWN: You love the play of words, of sounds, of connections, of things that don’t necessarily seem to connect, but suddenly you make connect.
PAUL MULDOON: Well, I think that’s one of the great delights of… of attempting to write poems. And central, in fact, one might say to the activity is to find those likeness between unlike things.
JEFFREY BROWN: What about the use of rhyme?
PAUL MULDOON: Well, I think of rhyme as being intrinsic to the language, integral to the language.
JEFFREY BROWN: As in how we hear it, how we take it in?
PAUL MULDOON: Absolutely. Our tendency to find chimes in the language is intrinsic to us and to it. And you’ve only got to look at even television advertising. I’m sure 50 percent of television ads use rhyme. At the base of hip-hop, rap music, there may be other things coming into play. And they may not always be so attractive. But one thing that’s certainly is and something to be said in its favor, is that there is an engagement with language and with rhyme.
JEFFREY BROWN: What is winning the Pulitzer mean for you?
PAUL MULDOON: Well, it’s a huge honor. It’s wonderful. I mean, I guess it’s perhaps the great American prize. I’d no idea that I was even eligible for it, though I am a U.S. citizen. The fact is that where I am now is where I was a month ago; which is however cliché-ridden it might seen, facing the blank page and probably finding it as difficult and maybe even slightly more difficult to keep on going. But the hope is… the hope is that one of these days that something really exciting will happen, and something really clear will happen.
JEFFREY BROWN: Really exciting like what?
PAUL MULDOON: That an absolutely stunning poem will come down the pike.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Paul Muldoon, thank you for talking to us. And, again, congratulations.
PAUL MULDOON: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure. Thank you.