This poet’s picnic offers a feast of words and music


JOHN YANG: Next: It's called a picnic, but instead of hotdogs and potato salad, this one features poetry and music.

Jeffrey Brown met up with its creator and master of ceremonies, poet Paul Muldoon.

JEFFREY BROWN: There was music from the Irish musical duo the lost Brothers, storytelling from novelist Nicholson Baker.

NICHOLSON BAKER, Novelist: I was in a laundromat. It was a laundromat in Marseille, France. Marseille. Do you hear that? It's a mattress of a word.

EILEEN MYLES, Poet: This one's basically talking to my computer.

JEFFREY BROWN: And there was poetry by Eileen Myles.

EILEEN MYLES: You. After all these years, you should know my font. You should know the numbers go in the middle. What'd I say?

JEFFREY BROWN: Muldoon's Picnic is an old-fashioned variety show, the brainchild of poet Paul Muldoon, held monthly at the Irish Arts Center in Manhattan.

PAUL MULDOON, Poet: While our drugs of choice were run from Istanbul through a girl called Joyce, whose real name was Mule.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, what's your role here? You're sort of the impresario?

PAUL MULDOON: Sort of impish impresario.

JEFFREY BROWN: Impish, yes.

PAUL MULDOON: Of course, everyone is stuck in their own little world these days. This has to do with people making their own amusement, or at least opening themselves to the possibility, I suppose, of amusement being of a somewhat more direct nature, you know, the poem, the short story, the song.

JEFFREY BROWN: Muldoon is an Irish-born, renowned Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Princeton Professor, poetry editor of "The New Yorker," and front man for the band Rogue Oliphant.

The Picnic revives a popular New York vaudeville variety show from the 1880s. But it begins with an even older tradition of poetry as an oral art form to be performed.

PAUL MULDOON: Certainly, in the Irish tradition, there is no distinction, for example, between the poem and the song. Many of the great poems in the Gaelic tradition were, coincidentally, songs.

JEFFREY BROWN: What's the difference between writing lyrics for a song and writing a poem?

PAUL MULDOON: They're akin as activities, but they're distinct. They're both using words, obviously.

Now, the song lyric is missing something. It's missing an element, which will bring it to its — what it most may be in the world. And that's the music.

So, to try to write a song lyric is difficult for me, and I think many people, because, when I'm writing a poem, my impulse is to be perfect, is to achieve perfection.

JEFFREY BROWN: Which means what?

PAUL MULDOON: Which means that it is unassailable. It is — there is not a word out of place in it.

JEFFREY BROWN: And it doesn't need music to complete it.

PAUL MULDOON: It doesn't need music, because some wise wag once said it brings its own music.

JEFFREY BROWN: Muldoon's poetry is famously filled with its own music, metaphors and allusions. A new selected poems was recently published. I asked what effect he strives for.

PAUL MULDOON: Contrary to what I think many people feel, many people feel art is about salve, about peace. I myself am looking for something quite different. I'm looking for trouble. I'm looking for…

JEFFREY BROWN: No rest, not rest, trouble.

PAUL MULDOON: Well, you know, trouble is the mode of the world. It's the mode of the world, and to be equal to the mode of the world, I think, in a strange way, to be able to represent unrest, and to be able to bring together the elements, the chemical components that, when they combine, do have some kind of combustion.

JEFFREY BROWN: And at Muldoon's Picnic, you can get your poetry with a musical performance.

From the Irish Arts Center in Manhattan, I'm Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.

JOHN YANG: The next performance of Muldoon's Picnic will be held in New York a week from tonight, on April 10.

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