The Invention of the I: A Conversation with Paul Muldoon

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“The Invention of the I: A Conversation with Paul Muldoon” appeared in the Winter 1998 issue of MQR.


The following conversation took place April 4, 1996, during the poet’s visit to the State University of New York, College at Brockport, where he was a guest of the Brockport Writers Forum and Videotape Library. Speaking with him were Stan Sanvel Rubin, the Director of the Writers Forum, and Earl G. Ingersoll, Distinguished Teaching Professor of English.

Paul Muldoon was born and raised in County Armagh, Northern Ireland. In 1973 he received his B.A. from Queen’s University, Belfast, where his tutor was Seamus Heaney, and his first book of poems, New Weather, was published. For thirteen years he worked for the BBC in Northern Ireland. He came to the United States in 1987, and he presently directs the creative writing program at Princeton. He is the author of seven books of poetry, most recently The Annals of Chile, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1994. He is also the author of three opera librettos and the editor of The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry.

The Briefcase
    for Seamus Heaney

I held the briefcase at arm’s length from me;
the oxblood or liver
eelskin with which it was covered
had suddenly grown supple.
I’d been waiting in line for the cross-town
bus when an almighty cloudburst
left the sidewalk a raging torrent.
And though it contained only the first
inkling of this poem, I knew I daren’t
set the briefcase down
to slap my pockets for an obol—
for fear it might slink into a culvert
and strike out along the East River
for the sea. By which I mean the “open” sea.

–Earl G. Ingersoll & Stan Sanvel Rubin


SR:  “The Briefcase” is the final poem of a series of seven in Part I of Madoc, followed by a 150-page poem. I don’t know that anything like that has ever been done before, in terms of the balance of parts.

PM:  It does seem a shade lopsided, doesn’t it?

SR:  The “I” in “The Briefcase” has been interpreted to be the speaker of the longer poem. Were the seven poems written with that thought in mind?

PM:  No, I hadn’t thought of it in those terms. The speaker, that “I,” in “The Briefcase” is probably more like the historical character, “Paul Muldoon,” who lived for a while in New York City. The poem was describing a trip across town in a bus. I used to teach at Columbia. So that’s partly what’s going on there. But then even that “I” is something of an invention, as all our “I”s are “Adventures of the Letter I,” in Louis Simpson’s great phrase. We’re all inventions of ourselves at some level. However, it’s probably more like myself than the character through whom the long poem is refracted, let’s say, from the back of whose eye the great, long poem is discovered. When I say, “the great, long poem,” I mean the long, long poem. And it is somewhat lopsided. I’ve always been interested in writing somewhat longer poems, and this, of course, is one of the longest of those. It’s not exactly Paradise Lost, but it’s a bit more than the lyric poem. The book, as you say, does seem a little strange, and I suppose most of my books in some way seem, or indeed are, a little strange, and that’s how I like it.

SR:  I’m just wondering about the placement of those seven. When did you conceive of this organization for the book?

PM:  Very much at the end, yes. The kind of structure these books have had runs the risk sometimes of looking a bit programmatic, as if I’ve set out with a plan, as it were, and the book is going to have that beginning and that end. But really it’s a process of discovery, and the ordering of the poems in the books — while it’s very important to me and while there’s an argument — an arc through each of these books — it’s something that’s discovered in the course of putting the book together. But everything relates—nothing strange about that. That’s not a measure of its being programmatic but simply that all of these poems are coming from one small personality, and certain obsessions recur throughout them. Does that make any sense?

SR:  Yes, but one last question related to this issue: did you in fact write those seven poems first, or did you begin the larger project first?

PM:  I think the first poem that I wrote was “The Briefcase,” probably the first poem I wrote just after I came to live in this country. Then I probably started on the long poem, Madoc, a Mystery. I know I started it in Yaddo and spent about eighteen months writing it. The other poems were probably written along the way — can’t remember exactly — so a bit of coming and going.

EI:  I’d like to ask a question about nationality. “The Briefcase” has its setting in this country, and a number of your poems now are also set in this country, rather than in Ireland, and I’m curious how you see yourself: still an Irish poet? an American poet? neither? both?

PM:  Well, I think I’m an Irish poet. I was born there and lived most of my life there, until I was about thirty-five or so. In so far as I might belong to that tradition, which it would be an honor to belong to, I think I still do. I’ve been described as turning into an American poet, whatever that means, or reinventing myself as an American poet. I’ve certainly not set out to do that. But the fact that I live here is bound to be reflected in my work, just as the fact that I lived in Ireland is reflected in my early work. I’m happy to move between the two places, and that’s one of the great things about living at this time in the world:  one can come and go, back and forth between two countries, and enjoy the advantages of both.

EI:  Does it worry you that you might be considered an American rather than an Irish poet?

PM:  No, it doesn’t. I don’t really care too much about what people call me. People have called me all sorts of things. To be called an American poet I don’t think is quite appropriate, but it’s not inappropriate. I’m actually an American citizen. I’m happy to belong to any group that’ll have me, but then on some level I’m with Groucho Marx:  I don’t want to belong to any groups at all — particularly those that’ll have me. I don’t mean to sound facetious about your question. I mean, I’m primarily an Irish poet, I would say. My poetry reflects my life and its complexities.

EI:  I was noticing during your reading last night that like most poets you preface your reading of individual poems with notes. I assume you read in Ireland, and I’m wondering whether you do that with American poems to be sure your Irish audiences get the references.

PM:  Well, actually something springs to mind about one of those poems I read last night, a poem called “Footling” about the birth of my daughter by Caesarean section. In the poem I used the brand name Saran Wrap, which of course doesn’t feature in Irish and English supermarkets — Cling Film, or its equivalent — so there’s occasionally an allusion like that that has to be clarified. I think probably the context would clarify it. But I see what you’re getting at, and I think it’s a very valid point. I mean, one uses slightly different vocabulary in each country and so that’s obviously going to affect the way that one writes. I suppose that at some level the fact that I don’t live within the language in which I primarily write is problematic, or could be problematic. I was saying to someone the other day that it’s possible one of the reasons why I wrote this long poem Madoc, which is set to begin with in the future and then at the turn of the eighteenth, or beginning of the nineteenth century, might have been at some level a postponement of the program, as far as there might’ve been one, of what language one would write in.

EI:  I ask it in part because of my interest in how aware you are of audience as you’re writing a poem — who you feel you’re writing for, who your readers will be?

PM:  The first thing to be said about that is that there are usually very few. At some level, I obviously know that some of them live in Britain and Ireland, and that there are some in this country too. I mean, just to answer your question in a banal way, I do know for the most part that both groups will understand pretty much most of what I write in terms of those allusions, those references, the language I use, or if they don’t, they have the opportunity to look up a few words. The important thing is that it is always a small group; I think for most poets that’s the case. I don’t have an ideal reader, I suppose. I don’t have a sense of a reader over my shoulder, except maybe that it’s someone like myself, as the first reader of the poem, you know. It probably varies also from poem to poem. One’s constantly trying to make decisions and judgments like “Can I really write ‘Saran Wrap’ in this poem? What are the problems that are going to arise with that? My English readers are not going to get it. Is that going to be a problem?” At some level, one should be thinking all those things. But really one would go mad if one were to think through the ramifications of every word. I mean, they have to be thought through; that’s part of the writer’s job, to make sense of the possible ways in which each of these words will be read.

EI:  Your reader, ideal or otherwise, is a very well-read reader. I’m thinking, for example, of the importance to Madoc of an awareness of Coleridge and Southey.

PM:  A little awareness of them. I think a lot of the information one needs was probably contained within the body of the poem itself.

EI:  I was thinking also of that fascinating poem “7, Middagh Street.” It has Auden and Carson McCullers and various other personae.

PM:  This was the household in Brooklyn, 7 Middagh Street — Midday Street — where Auden and Chester Kallman and Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears and various other odds and sods were assembled. Salvador Dali features in the poem. I don’t know if he visited on Thanksgiving Day, 1940, which is when the poem is set, but MacNeice was there on that day. There are a number of people arranged around the dinner table talking about various things, including notions of responsibility and the efficacy of art.

SR:  Has the art of poetry any efficacy?

PM:  I think it has. Absolutely. I think at some level the minute one starts believing that it hasn’t there’s no point in doing it. It has to have efficacy at some level. Now we’re not talking about necessarily changing the world. And that’s the great debate, of course, in that particular poem. Those are the terms of the debate between Auden, who at this point had decided art makes nothing happen, or “poetry makes nothing happen,” as he puts it in his elegy for Yeats, contrary to what he had believed. But he’d had one or two experiences which made him doubt that art did have any impact on the world. And then on the other side of it I have Louis MacNeice, the Northern Irish poet, counter that with the notion that art, poetry, must make something happen, that at some level it has to change the world, not necessarily in terms of mind-bendingly, extravagantly, huge ways, you know, that would equal a cure for cancer or AIDS, or that would either bring peace to the world or topple governments. Not necessarily in any of those ways. But just in ways as simple as the fact that ideally one should never be able to look at a briefcase again after reading that poem, certainly not an eelskin briefcase — never be able to look at it again in exactly the same light. Maybe, at some level, never to be able to stand at a bus stop again in exactly the same light, never to look in a culvert again in exactly the same light, never to think of what the open sea might mean in the same light. I know that sounds like a rather tall order, but basically that is the order by which I live. I know my poems fall drastically short of those ambitions; however, those are the ambitions.

EI:  In that poem, Auden is rather rough on Yeats, and it’s been thought that you shared Auden’s criticism of Yeats.

PM:  I think Yeats will survive. That’s a very specific reference to Yeats, where at one point, you know, he inquires of himself, “Did that play of mine send out / Certain men the English shot?” Basically, I think it’s a little bit of posturing and self-aggrandizement. We’re allowed to say that about Yeats? Surely. That doesn’t mean I don’t think Yeats is a great poet, but he was a posturing old jerk too.

SR:  In your introduction to the Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poets, you excerpted a discussion between F. R. Higgins and Louis MacNeice from a 1939 radio broadcast, and you quote MacNeice saying:  “I think the poet is a sensitive instrument designed to record anything which interests his mind or affects his emotions.” He goes on to say:  “He will be fulfilling his function if he records these things with integrity and as much music as is appropriate.” This is not exactly the world-transforming function, is it?

PM:  No, that particular description of poetry is not necessarily the changing, alchemical view of poetry I’m suggesting. But, to be true to the world may be a way of transforming it. To find new shapes in it that are somehow rare before they are discovered. In some poems, discovery is what I’m interested in.

SR:  Are you siding with both Higgins and MacNeice? Why did you put that discussion there?

PM:  I put it there because I had a very mischievous editor at that time, who said, “Maybe we shouldn’t have an introduction to this book.” It’s probably a terrible mistake. It appealed to me since it meant I didn’t have to write it.

SR:  But did you in fact choose it?

PM:  I did. Basically, in this particular instance, F. R. Higgins is coming out with all this nonsense about the ritual, blood music, some notion of purity of Irish poetry, and more than anything else that’s a vision of Irish poetry I wanted to debunk, not necessarily to set up anything in its place. Mind you, I do think the poems in this anthology do give you a sense of Ireland which does reveal much more about how that country might truly be than Higgins’s very narrow vision of it.

EI:  You think very highly of Louis MacNeice, don’t you?

PM:  Yes, I do. MacNeice was from Northern Ireland — he was born there — and spent a great deal of his life in England. In England he was the Irish poet who didn’t quite fit in. And in Ireland he was essentially the English poet who didn’t quite fit in, and he was somewhat overshadowed by Auden. I think that’s changing now. Which is certainly not to say that Auden is in some sort of decline. He’s not. Actually Auden’s reputation has survived quite remarkably. There’s a new biography of Auden I’ve been reading by Richard Davenport Hynes. A number of biographies. His stock is still very high, despite the fact that ordinarily, as you know, when poets die their reputations usually go into something of a slump for twenty or thirty years — or two or three hundred. But MacNeice is a quite remarkable poet, particularly later MacNeice and even posthumous MacNeice — I mean the poems published after he’d died — absolutely, extraordinarily nightmarish nursery rhymes, poems like “The Taxis” and “The Introduction.” Quite extraordinary poems, really nothing like them. And they’re poems that have been, to some extent, influential in some of the things I do. There’s a tone, a strain in what I do that belongs to that same strand of slightly disturbing, nightmarish activity.

EI:  I asked the question in part as a follow-up because someone has counted the number of pages of this collection that you give to various poets. They’ve noted that Kavanagh and MacNeice are important to you.

PM:  Well, all anthologies have agendas, as you know. To be at all interesting they have to have them. People don’t usually admit to that. But then most anthologies are particularly boring. I didn’t want this one to be boring. I wanted it to make a point about contemporary Irish poetry, and I set MacNeice and Kavanagh at the head since virtually everything of interest in contemporary Irish poetry can be related to those two poets. That’s not to say that other poets don’t play a part, that Yeats doesn’t play a part — indeed, that Joyce, more significantly perhaps, doesn’t play a part. But they’re there as the portals of a particular moment in Irish poetry of the recent “Revival,” as it were. You know, the poetry that came into prominence in the Sixties. You can’t really understand Seamus Heaney, for example, without knowing Patrick Kavanagh. You can’t understand Derek Mahon and Michael Longley without understanding MacNeice — as well as Carson, Durcan, or indeed a number of younger poets.

SR:  Perhaps Robert Lowell had some influence on both Seamus Heaney and yourself.

pm:  Oh yes, I’m sure. Well, of course, that’s another aspect that can easily be overlooked. One of the great things about poetry in English is that you can read it anywhere: you can be sitting in the back of a ditch somewhere in the middle of nowhere, reading Robert Lowell. And not only poetry written in English but poetry in translation, especially in the Sixties in England. We were reading poets like Miroslav Holub and Yehuda Amichai — poets from all parts of the world and taking that in with our Kavanagh supplement.

SR:  I’d like to ask you about the influence of Heaney on your own work.

PM:  His influence was significant, particularly earlier on. I hope this doesn’t sound strange, but it was really by example more than line to line, at some level. I was introduced to Heaney by my English teacher when I was sixteen or seventeen. Seamus was very welcoming, and has continued to be very supportive of my work. He was terrific help in getting published. The fact that we’re from a few miles from each other and have similar backgrounds, of course, will help people to see the similarities or the points of contact between our work as well as the differences.

SR:  What is it that called you to write poetry in the first place?

PM:  I’m not sure exactly how to answer that. I know that I’d written something when I was about twelve, probably something earlier than that. I think some of the best poetry in the world is written by eight or nine year olds, before they have all sorts of silly ideas about what a poem is. And then I know that I had to write an English essay one weekend — about the adventures of a penny, or whatever it was — I wrote a poem, and the English teacher had me read it out in class. I thought, That’s all right. Next stop, Brockport. So I started there. So much of it, I think, was about habit and being open to certain phrases that most people are open to or they see something and get a image and they think, Oh, that’s interesting and then they go on to the next step. Writers, as you know, are in the habit of using these phrases or images as ways of trying to make sense of themselves and their worlds. When you ask why I started to write, I honestly don’t know, but I suppose at some level that’s why I write. I write to make sense of myself.

SR:  What keeps you disciplined as a writer? What is important to your own continuing to write?

PM:  The possibility of something exciting happening.

SR:  Do you try to work every day?

PM:  It varies. It depends on what I’m doing. I write a little bit most days. If I’m working on a longer thing, yes. Apart from poems, I write other things. With most lyric poems, shortish poems, I spend a couple days. I do sit at my desk and potter about and fiddle around and check if there’s any new e-mail that’s come through.

EI:  Other things? Short stories, novel?

PM:  No, I’ve never tried either of those.

EI:  You once said the forties are a difficult time for poets.

PM:  Just historically, a lot of poets have had a bad time in their forties. Writers start publishing in their late twenties or early thirties — I think that’s when most poets probably begin to publish. I started a little bit earlier than that. At some level, I feel as though I’ve had very lucky innings, and I suppose I’m thinking about myself: when is it going to stop, or has it already stopped? How am I going to keep myself honest?

SR:  Well, your ambitions seem to have changed. Madoc is a 200-page poem. “Yarrow” in The Annals of Chile is about 150 pages. You seem to be thinking, perhaps in lieu of narrative fiction, of the large poem.

PM:  I have been, I have been. But not at the moment, not doing it at the moment. Promised my wife I wouldn’t.

SR:  What are problems you face as a poet in these long, ambitious poems?

PM:  They take a lot of time.

SR:  It would seem that reading something as driven by language and association and clear consciousness as “Yarrow” is it would be impossible to be writing anything else at the same time. It seems as though everything you know is going into that one poem. Would you say something about the composition of a poem such as “Yarrow”?

PM:  “Yarrow” was written over a period of about eighteen months to two years. It began as something slightly different. I had a few images, and a few ideas for it. I did want to write something about the winter of 1962-63, very bitterly cold winter, the winter Sylvia Plath died in London. The poem is set in contemporary Newfoundland but goes back and forth to that period of my childhood and has to do with all sorts of adventure stories — the imaginative life, I suppose, of a child of ten, or eleven. Someone described it somewhere — and I thought it was awfully good, although I don’t think it’s the last word on it — as being a little bit like The Prelude written by Thomas Pynchon. It’s the background of a poet’s mind, or whatever — I don’t think that’s a very important aspect of it — a child’s mind, but written with somewhat loopy style.

SR:  It is associative, in short bursts, and yet they seem so carefully placed. How much forethought — and post-thought — goes into that kind of structuring, and how much gets cut away?

PM:  A huge amount. That poem is actually a series of twelve intercut, exploded sestinas. There are twelve core sestinas in it. Some of them have six lines, some of them a dozen, I think, but basically some notion of the sestina is the central form. And there are variations on the end words and the rhymes, but that’s why you have that kind of ghost of it lurking behind. It’s extremely complex, and it’s complex as a framework, mostly for the writing of the poem. I don’t think it’s necessary to disentangle it as a reader of the poem, though it can be done, but hardly worth it I would suggest. But the framework is there. I shouldn’t say “hardly worth it,” because if it matters, it either matters or it doesn’t. It matters, I suppose finally, because it’s the path it formed for this kind of obsessive circling and hovering about a particular moment, and return to a moment, that the poem is engaging with. As I say, I spent a long time writing it.

SR:  It would seem you associate yourself with the New-Critical idea, and the idea out of Eliot, of the impersonality of the poet and at the same time a poem such as “Yarrow” has an awful lot of personal and subjective material in it.

PM:  Yes. Mind you, I think the personal and the impersonal are part of the same thing, really. I mean, the impersonality of the poet, sure; but again it goes back to who that I is. And the I is not unlike myself. On the other hand, it’s an invention. One appeals to the bits and pieces of one’s own life — in my own case, not so much because of veracity but because of verifiability, that I know I can make this sound as though it’s “true.”

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