Paul Muldoon, author of the Pulitzer-Prize winning Moy Sand and Gravel (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), among 25 volumes of poetry and nine collections, visited Milton Academy as part of the Bingham Visiting Writers Series on Wednesday and Thursday, November 2 and 3.
In a Straus Library question-and-answer session, Muldoon told students that his goal—regardless of the form of writing—is that some revelation will have taken place during the reading of a piece. Borrowing Keats’s and Wordsworth’s words, he mentioned “negative capability” or “wise passiveness” as states in which a reader may experience revelation.
Muldoon told students that he often sits to write with only an image in his head. He cited John Donne’s metaphysical conceit in “The Flea” as a successful execution of what might look an odd beginning. (Donne’s “flea” is a metaphor for love or, more particularly, a “marriage bed,” effected by the flea having bitten both lovers.)
He also said that, as a writer, you must be both a writer and a fictional reader, considering how the real reader might respond to your work. You must allow for a clarity of understanding on the reader’s part. “A wise wag once said, ‘Any fool can be difficult. It takes absolutely nothing to make no sense.’”
He hinted, though, that over-thinking—at least early on—can be a detriment to a poem’s originality and beauty: “Allow the poem to have its way with you,” he said.
In a King Theatre reading, Mr. Muldoon read poems, including “Sonogram,” “The Loaf” and “Cradle Song,” which in title echoes fellow Irishman W.B. Yeats’s poem, “A Cradle Song.”
Muldoon was born in Northern Ireland and moved to the United States in 1987. He joined the Princeton faculty as a lecturer in 1990 and was named a full professor in 1995. He directed the University’s Program in Creative Writing from 1993 until 2002. In 1999, he was elected to serve also as a professor of poetry at the University of Oxford.
“Muldoon takes some honest-to-God reading,” wrote Peter Davison in The New York Times Review of Books. “All good poets deserve attentive readers, but Muldoon needs you to be skeptical, needs you to forget what you know (but not what he knows) and remember what he wants you to.”
A fellow of both the Royal Society of Literature and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Muldoon was given an American Academy of Arts and Letters award in literature in 1996. His other awards include the 1994 T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry and the 1997 Irish Times Poetry Prize.
“The man is a maker and finder of patterns,” according to a review in The Economist. “It begins with an authentically personal grammar; as T.S. Eliot is founded on rhythm, so certain constructions and tenses-even the pluperfect-are Muldoon. These then find issuance in rhyme, of which Mr. Muldoon is the outstanding contemporary practitioner. Rhyme not as convention or swank, but as the expression of a naturally crystallizing imagination. The effect is of a great web of connections, a cracking glaze which seems to run ahead of you as you read.”
Muldoon’s other collections are New Weather (1973), Mules (1977), Why Brownlee Left (1980),Quoof (1983), Meeting the British (1987), Madoc: A Mystery (1990), The Annals of Chile (1994),Hay (1998) and Poems 1968-1998 (2001). He also has published drama, literary criticism, translation and children’s literature. His work has been the subject of readings, lectures, conference papers and theses by students and scholars.
Established in 1987 by the Bingham Family, Barry, Edith and Emily ’83, the Bingham Visiting Writers Series brings writers, historians and journalists to speak and work with students and faculty at Milton. Other recent series lecturers have included novelist Zadie Smith, poet Michael Harper, novelist John Wideman and novelist Sarah Bynum ’90.