A Happy Affliction: A Conversation with Paul Muldoon
JANUARY 11, 2018
LESS THAN ONE YEAR since leaving his decade-long post as poetry editor at The New Yorker, Paul Muldoon is as deeply embedded in the literary world as he seems to have ever been: not only as a beloved — albeit sometimes elusive — poet, but also as a professor at Princeton University, where he thoroughly enjoys learning about poetry as much as his students do.
Since the start of his career, as a youth living in the misty realm of Northern Ireland, his keen observances — often on the higher powers that be, whether political or existential — have been deeply felt by countless readers. Quite naturally, from his first collection of poems in 1971, Knowing My Place, came a slew of others in the following 20 years: New Weather in 1973, Mules in 1977, Why Brownlee Left in 1980, Quoof in 1983, Meeting the British in 1987, and Madoc: A Mystery in 1990.
Every five years or so, typically less, you could expect — like clockwork — another of his image-driven works to be published, and, more often than not, to critical acclaim. In 1994, for instance, he released The Annals of Chile into the world, which, amid a kerfuffle from critics, silenced tongues when it won the T. S. Eliot Prize. Ever a student of the written word — a Romeo of it, actually — after Annals, and after his 1998 collection Hay was printed, he took up professorship at Oxford University.
While at the apex school — during days spent strolling across its Palladian halls — he finished, like clockwork, Moy Sand and Gravel in 2002, a contribution that not only won the Griffin Poetry Prize but also a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. In the years that have followed, his work has not diminished in its rich imagery (e.g., Horse Latitudes, 2006) or in its ingenious use of objective correlatives.
On November 19, 2017, at Miami Dade College, after discussing his Selected Poems 1968–2014, which chronicles the poet’s favorites among his lifetime’s work, Muldoon graciously agreed to sit down with me. With an ever-probing eye, the soft-spoken fellow mused with me on what it means to be a maturing writer, the art of retaining a childlike bewilderment (and its importance), and wrestling with aesthetic quandaries.
JONATHAN KENDALL: I don’t mean to be so personal in the very beginning, but to go back to one of your poems, “As” — “As […] the ineffable gives way to the unsaid […] I give way to you” — what kind of things, what kinds of people, do you find yourself yielding to?
PAUL MULDOON: It’s almost like a song lyric, that particular piece. I wrote it for Raidió Teilifís Éireann, which is the radio broadcasting outfit in Ireland, to be broadcast as the new millennium came in, and so the idea of one thing giving way to another had a very specific resonance. I find that, in a strange way, the idea of humility, which I suppose might be one way of thinking about this, is actually a critical idea in what we call interpersonal relations.
Toward the end of the poem I felt like, perhaps, you meant you were submitting to someone.
Yeah, well I think that is one of those things, I suppose, that one does in relationships, but also, in artistic terms, submitting to something beyond oneself.
Yeah, like almost the sublime.
So it’s not so much submission in a negative sense, but just like when you see a lightning bolt, you submit and you’re in awe of it.
Yeah, that’s right. “I give way to you” as something gives way to this — it’s kind of a litany poem, really. And, in that sense, it has an almost spiritual aspect.
And it has an incantatory aspect.
How does one — as you had said about there being an almost spiritual element to it — how does one build up a spiritual sense?
Well, one builds it up by, you know, seeing that it’s actually, in the widest sense, the most effective way of finding oneself, finding a path, really, through the world. You know? As far as I’m concerned it’s a Zen thing, as much as anything else. It’s literary, artistic. You know, one of the ideas by which I live is that of negative capability, which was Keats’s way of describing this — about how one is willing to go in uncertainties, mysteries, without any reaching after fact and reason. So there is a kind of literary, almost religious component to it.
And do you feel one has to be courageous in a spiritual sense to go into these uncertain situations?
Well, yeah, I suppose so because — courageous, foolhardy, who knows — most people want to be in control, and I myself am not interested in being in control. I am interested in being at the mercy of something.
Do you feel your voice as a poet, as a writer, has changed over the years, or do you still hear the boy who grew up in rural Ireland? Would Knowing My Place be a different story if you wrote it today?
Hmm. I think it probably would. You know, I’m torn on this one, because on the one hand I don’t believe that one progresses as a writer or improves as a writer. However, I was just reading a couple of my poems for somebody in Venezuela, and I was thinking, “God, you know, you really could have done so much better. I think I would do it better now.” But then I’m not sure of that.
Well, yesterday, I was looking over a story I wrote two years ago, and it was hidden in the back of this folder, and I noticed all the things I could have done better, and I was like, “Oh my gosh.” I thought I was gifted, and actually, as time went by I recognized what my teachers were pointing out.
It’s hard to judge. It’s very hard to judge. You do your best at the time, and you hope it’s going to be good enough for a while. You know?
Nikola Tesla once said that, “One must be sane to think clearly, but one can think deeply and be quite insane.” That said, John Kerrigan at the London Review of Books once wrote that you not only have “verbal panache” but also “visual clarity.” How does one see clearly?
“Visual clarity.” I’m not sure if I do see clearly, but I am very interested in the image. Along with many poets I am image-driven, almost to the point that you can see something in the poem, you can visualize it. And I did train as a film director.
So, capturing images.
Yeah. As a teenager, I was more interested in painting. So I do always see things. And I’m very interested in the imagist poets of the early 20th century.
How did you retain a voice that people can resonate with? Often, when writers become notable they become somewhat egotistical. How do you, going back to what you originally said about humility, remain humble?
Well, the first thing is, I don’t think of myself as having a voice. I don’t understand even what that means. I mean, I understand it in terms of someone describing, you know, Yeats’s voice: “This poem could have been written only by W. B. Yeats.” But W. B. Yeats himself was not writing in the style of W. B. Yeats. The last thing he wanted to sound like was W. B. Yeats.
Why do you think that is?
Because he wanted to do something else. He wanted the right sounds for that poem. And in some ways he’s doomed to sound always like W. B. Yeats because he has such a strong voice. It’s a feature of the great poet, I suppose, that you recognize a million miles from you, you know, this particular thing. But they’re not sitting around themselves thinking, “I’ve this thing now, let’s take it out and use it.”
So they might be blind to their own brilliance or shine?
Well, no. The point is, you know the idea of getting a voice as a writer — everyone always says you find your voice — well, just to be devil’s advocate, I mean supposing you find it, what would you do with it? Sort of use it? Like go and take it out? You know, “try it on,” as it were, when you’re writing something?
Well, perhaps it’s the voice we fall in love with.
Yeah, well, I don’t know. My own view is that every poem is different and needs its own voice.
You know, each poem is spoken by someone else.
For many writers, being published in The New Yorker is a lifetime achievement, and many work hard, over the course of years, to produce work that is worthy. Do you still feel a sense of thrill when a magazine picks up one of your poems?
I do. Yeah, I mean, that’s partly what it’s about. On the one hand, one would like to think that, even if nobody were to publish you, that you’d still do it, and I think I probably would, because it’s really such a deep-seated impulse to write. You know? It’s a kind of disease, in fact.
It is a kind of disease.
A lifetime affliction.
It is an affliction. Absolutely. I mean, it’s a happy affliction in some ways, but it is an affliction.
Kurt Vonnegut alluded to that. He once said to write a poem and write it well and then to tear it up into little pieces and disperse each part into various garbage cans. He said that then what you’ve been rewarded for is something invisible — you’ve developed soul. Like you said, there’s a compulsion to write, almost like it’s part of you. So, regardless of whether something is published, there is still a need to express it.
But having said that, I still enjoy seeing my poems in print. I’ve never been blasé about it. I mean, on some level I know it’s all meaningless.
Why? You sound very Solomon.
Solomon, King Solomon in Ecclesiastes: “Everything is meaningless.”
No, in the sense that what’s fashionable or what gets published is not necessarily an indication of anything at all other than that. It could be an indication of quality, but it might not be. All sorts of rubbish is published, you know? So you don’t want to take that too seriously. One doesn’t want to pay a lot of attention to that public end of things. However, of course it’s lovely to have a poem published. And, in a strange way, the thrill of having something published when you’re 17 is … You never quite get over that.
What role, if any, does suffering have in producing great works of art?
Well, I suppose, happiness is not interesting. Unhappiness is interesting. And it plays that role. And I suspect that most writers are driven by some form of unhappiness, be it a kind of restlessness or certifiable unhappiness.
Maybe that goes back to what you said, how it’s not necessarily a terrible affliction in the sense that you’re able to use writing to turn something frustrating into something that we can try to make sense of. Sometimes even the act of writing feels like some sense of control — to put things into words.
Yeah, I’m sure that’s right — to understand things.
Great poetry is often said to come from great thoughts and great passions. Do you feel everyone is endowed with such things with the same intensity, and perhaps lack the technical skills to express them, or are some people more endowed than others when it comes to such intense emotions?
I don’t know if some people have more intense emotions than others. I suppose one could imagine someone being very upset about something to the extent that they would act violently, for example, if they were unhappy about some aspect of their emotional life. You know? Is that more intense? I suppose it would be. But in general, I mean, your question has to do with the extent of which of us has art within us. Is that part of what it’s about?
I do think there is at least one interesting work of art in everyone.
I guess, then, the great question is, how does one —
Get it out?
Maybe that’s what school is for.
It is. And one of the things one teaches, or as a teacher I try to teach — and I was talking about it all along — is in a strange way ignorance and innocence. It’s only when you accept you don’t really know what you’re doing that anything interesting is going to happen.
So in other words, it’s not very good to be a know-it-all.
I think that’s right, yeah, but having said that, you also need to know a lot. You need to know nothing and everything. That’s the problem.
Very paradoxical. But perhaps they inform each other.
I think that’s right.
Where does the joy of writing lie for you?
“The joy of writing.” Hmm, well, I think it’s a chemical thing, to go back to the aspect of addiction that is associated with it: the joy that one gets from seeing things connect in the world.
It’s a beautiful thing.
Yeah, which fires the storms in the brain, and feel-good moments. I mean, it is definitely joy when something comes together and you think, “Wow. Yeah.” So that’s the business one’s in. That’s what keeps one coming back for more.
How does one, in your opinion, strengthen one’s imagination? Because I feel as children it’s something we live in every day. How does one almost go back to that? Because I feel that in order to write great works of art there has to some kind of element of imagination there.
Sure. Well, I do believe that it’s some version of what we’ve been describing all along, the nurturing of ignorance, basically. You don’t know what the relationship between two things might be, so you allow them to teach you about some point of contact that they might have, and then you get rewarded.
It’s almost yielding to —
It goes back to what we were talking about, right? Yielding, yes.
I think that there is a humble genius in that.
So far as I can see, it’s the only way it can be done effectively. It’s not even a matter of opinion, really, it’s just I don’t see any other way of doing it. You know? It’s not a choice, so far as I can see. You have to, if you want to write something interesting.
And do you ever feel as though you are channeling the infinite?
I’m not sure what infinite means, but certainly something beyond oneself, something that one doesn’t understand. We use terms like “the infinite” and “the eternal” in everyday speech, but we use them to describe aspects of art that are otherwise hard to describe, in the sense that a great work of art, a great poem feels as if it’s always been there, you know? And that it’s been around forever, and it could only have ever been like this; it can’t have been in some other form. So there’s that sense which we popularly will associate as something beyond our ken.
Where do you write, usually?
I write everywhere and anywhere. I’m writing in my hotel room at the moment.
I was speaking with Ivy Pochoda and she said strictly at her desk at home.
No, I do that too, but I’m traveling so much, like I’m trying to write a lecture at the moment, and if I don’t do it, if I don’t spend between now and seven o’clock to do it, it’s not going to happen. You know? It’s just not going to happen. It’s just there’s no choice. I can’t get home to write it, so I have to write it in my room.
And the wonderful thing is that when inspiration strikes the desire to write, there’s compulsion.
Well, I’m keen to get back there, actually. I’m just writing a lecture, but I’m discovering things in the course of writing it, like I discovered something this morning that made me go, “Wow! That’s amazing!”
What was it?
It was just about a particular aspect of a Gaelic poem from, you know, 1650 or something. And it’s just the kind of revelation that one might have when writing a poem oneself. It’s all part of the same thing.
You have a poem called “The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants,” but in the poem you say that’s not necessarily true because someone might have a black eye, but not want another.
Yeah, that comes from a song, the title comes from a song: “The more a man has, the more a man wants, [but] I never met a man with one black eye who ever wanted two.”
Yeah. That said, though, perhaps as human beings there’s a drive for the next conquest, or for the next good thing. You are a lauded poet, professor, and editor. What do you want now?
Well, you know, I think I want … I hesitate from saying it because I know that the more one wants, the less one gets. And, you know, one wants not to want.
And what I’d like, still, is what I would have liked as a teenager.
And what is that?
I would like to write a really good poem.
You know? I would like to write a really good poem, a really good one. And I’m not sure if I’m ever going to do it.
Is there any particular poem you would say, I guess from someone else?
Well, my favorite poem is “The Flea” by John Donne. I would have liked to have written “The Flea.”
Jonathan Kendall is part of the editorial crew at the Southern California arts and culture magazine LALA. His writing appears in Vogue, Cultured, Atlas Obscura, The Hairpin, and Miami New Times. He enjoys collecting first-edition books and spending time with Taylor, his goldendoodle.