Paul Muldoon, one of the most eminent contemporary poets in Britain today, spoke last week in an interactive and intimate reading in Parliament Hall. Professor Don Patterson, from the School of English, introduced him as both playful and serious; he works on the language, not just within it. And before Muldoon stepped up to the microphone, Professor Patterson called him “one of the most influential poets of the age” who “just so happens to be one of my favourites as well,” a big claim that Muldoon not only lived up to but also transcended in an utterly magical reading.
In his mesmeric and calming voice, Muldoon begins with ‘Hedgehog’, one of his first poems, which he wrote at the age of eighteen. When reading, he lets the words hang in the air and resonate around Parliament Hall. His consciousness of sound is most apparent in his lyrics, and indeed he even co-wrote a song for Bruce Springsteen (‘My Ride’s Here’, for any Boss fans.) As he allows the words of ‘Comeback’ to form in the air, his voice is truly the only sound in the room. He uses humour to discuss more serious underlying issues, and he reveals parts of his history when telling of his upbringing in County Armagh, Northern Ireland. ‘Tell’ is a beautiful poem about apple peeling, and Muldoon likes to present new language with words such as ‘flummery’ and ‘tilly lamp’. When asked about this, he says, “I’m not too worried about using words from different geographies and different histories.”
Having lived in America for twenty-five years, becoming the poetry editor for the New Yorker in 2007, Muldoon was asked what influence his experiences had on his vocabulary. He simply stated that he hopes “the context will look after things”. He notes that “even the word ‘cloud’ has changed in its meaning… also ‘friend’. I don’t suppose the Elizabethans were unfriending! Or ‘Twitter’. We just can’t use that word in the same way as we used to.” His message is clear and powerful, which is very much emblematic of his style.
In ‘The Loaf’, Muldoon evokes all of the senses to bring the image alive, and in ‘Good Luck With That’, Muldoon reads, “When I told you my heart was on fire, you said, ‘Good luck with that’.” His heart-breaking lyricism is both serene and pensive, and yet he can jump so quickly to light-hearted fun. Muldoon acknowledges Professor Patterson’s birthday, and we all sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to him his face turns highlighter pink. Muldoon also likes to use refrains in his work, and when asked about it, he says, “I suppose I’m interested in how we come back to things and how they change… it’s revelatory of how the world is.” The final poem Muldoon read is ‘The Birth’, which is about joy and the birth of his daughter, and was so beautiful I saw tears in the eyes of many of the audience members. If you missed him here, make sure to catch him next time round at the STAnza Poetry Festival in March.