Paul Muldoon in Conversation
The following is a transcript of an interview with Paul Muldoon conducted at the office of the Academy of American Poets in June 2011.
Poets.org: How do you see the relationship between poetry and music?
Paul Muldoon: On one hand, I think there are very profound connections between the two. This is a massive subject, obviously, so anything I say is going to be just glancing off of it. But let's take the notion of the lyric poem.
Needless to say, in many societies, the poem that was sung, recited to the accompaniment of a lyre (as in lyric) or some similar instrument, a harp of some kind, was a commonplace. In my own first culture—if we could call it that—in Irish culture, the earliest poets were singing their poems to the accompaniment of harps. And indeed right through the history of Irish poetry in Irish—in the Irish language, that is to say, in Gaelic—even into the 18th century, there was a tradition of recitation of the poem to musical accompaniment.
Many songs were indivisible from poems, and poems from songs. One of the great 19th century Irish poets, Thomas Moore, wrote many poem-songs. They were known as Moore's melodies. A number of those other contemporary poets—you know the poets that Yeats refers to when he writes about being at "one with Davis, Mangan, Ferguson"—were adept at writing, first of all, translations of Irish songs to singable tunes. They were transferred into songs in English.
So famous 19th century Irish poems like "My Dark Rosaleen" (James Clarence Mangan) were essentially versions of songs in Gaelic. And this was the case right up to Yeats who wrote many songs with "burdens," as he would've said (refrains). The number of poems that were called "Song" or have 'song' in their title, or are in essence songs, is actually quite remarkable.
So there's that component where the two are closely related, on one hand. The other side, of course, is that though they are similar in many ways, in many cultures, at many times, they're actually trying to do somewhat different things, most of the time, for most of us. So that a song lyric by Leonard Cohen may coincidentally be published in his Collected Poems and yet be rather steadfastly a song lyric. It needs something else. It may be recited as a poem, but for one reason or another, it's missing something. The poem conventionally brings its own music.
Poets.org: What are the similarities between T.S. Eliot and his engagement with music as compared with someone like Bob Dylan?
Muldoon: Eliot incorporated musical allusions, and musical structures, into so many of his poems that it's hard not to think of him as a highly musical poet. He has a great ear, a rarer and rarer commodity these days, even among fairly highly regarded poets. And I'm sure he'd be as likely to be alluding to Bob Dylan were he writing now as to the songs he draws on in "The Waste Land." Anyone who could embrace "Mrs. Porter and her daughter" could have been working on "Maggie's Farm."
Poets.org: You've said in an earlier interview: "as I'm writing [a poem] I'm conscious of its speakability...Nothing, I suppose, or at least, not very much, can't be spoken aloud." What are the advantages of hearing a poem read aloud?
Muldoon: "The Waste Land" is a case in point. However cluttered its collage-effect might look to the eye, it rises off the page like a helicopter from a heli-deck and just keeps on turning and churning.
Poets.org: What can't be spoken aloud?
Muldoon: Lots of concrete poems pose a problem in that regard. But then they're not necessarily interested in finding an ear or a mouth.
Poets.org: What can song lyrics teach lyric poems?
Muldoon: Simplicity. Emotional groundedness. That's one of the reasons I'm interested in extending my range in the song lyric. I think it's already feeding back into my poems.
Poets.org: What can poems teach song?
Muldoon: You can have ideas in song that rise above the banalities of most rock lyrics. You've only got to look at ballads, blues, country music, much rap, to see examples of humor and high intelligence that really connect with listeners. I think listeners are ready for smart, heartfelt songs in the way they're ready for something other than hoarders and boarders.
Poets.org: Writers like Leonard Cohen and Bruce Springsteen aren't traditionally taught in school—not to mention Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Ira Gershwin. Do you think this writing has nonetheless informed the 20th century poetic canon? What can a more traditional poet learn from these popular entertainers?
Muldoon: You know, I think they can learn that there's nothing wrong with being entertaining and popular. I mean, there's nothing wrong with that.
I don't know if one sets out necessarily to do that. For this reason: the guys who made Pirates of the Caribbean (part whatever-it-is-now)—and there are very talented people involved—presumably when they were setting out to make that, they wanted to make it popular and to make it entertainment. That's probably their main objective. I don't think they're into social commentary.
The big question that remains is how successful have they been even at that, even though that was their main enterprise. And I think the jury's out on that. Johnny Depp himself said, along the way, that he didn't know what was happening in these earlier movies, and that it'd be good to have a little more plot. All the indicators are that the plot is completely nuts, if it exists. What I'm saying is: even if you set out just to entertain, even that is not necessarily something you can be guaranteed of having achieved.
You can't be certain. Everybody who sits down to write a popular song hopes it's going to be that. Does that happen? No. There's really no accounting for why some things are more popular than others, so in that respect, it probably makes as much sense to try to do something interesting and let people come to it and discover that it might be entertaining and might even become popular, rather than setting out to do that from the outset.
But certainly the idea that poetry be popular or entertaining is a completely admirable one. It's just a matter of how one achieves that. There are some poets who would say, "Well, the only way to achieve that is to write a very simplistic kind of poetry." I myself don't belong to that school.
By simplistic poetry, I don't mean simple poetry. Dr. Seuss is simple, in some sense, but complicated in others, and in many ways a great poet. But there is a tendency to sell out to entertain and get a few laughs, and that's the poem.
Poets.org: What are you listening to these days? What are you reading? Do these affect each other?
Muldoon: No, I don't read to music. I listen to music. I tend not to do two things at once. Well, I drive with music. I suppose that's multitasking. I tend not to use music as wallpaper.
One of the bands I'm listening to is Noah and the Whale. I'm going to go and see them soon. Their songwriting is quite good. A few people like that.
I go to a huge number of concerts. The last concert I saw was headlined by Paul Simon. He was brilliant. I've seen Dylan a few times recently. I've seen U2 a couple of times. One of my big disappointments recently was that I was about to go to a concert by Weird Al Yankovich recently, but it was canceled.
I hear quite a number of bands, listen to a certain number of new CDS, or whatever we call them nowadays. And I do read a lot. At the moment, I'm reading several books at once. So I'm reading James Gleich's book, The Information; he's the guy who wrote Chaos. And I'm reading a book called Area 51. It's about the zone in Nevada where the spy plane was developed.
I read a lot of nonfiction. That's basically what I read. You know, obviously I read a lot of poetry for my work, but for fun, I read a fair amount of prose.
Poets.org: Is there a musical prose?
Muldoon: There are some great stylists. One terrible thing is how we use the word 'stylist' almost as a slur—"merely a stylist." Among the guys I enjoy reading in that respect would be people like Sir Thomas Brawne, Swift, Joyce. Joyce is a great example.
Joyce is very interested in music. There's a musicality to his prose. Though now having said that, I don't even know. His prose does what it needs to do. Some of it is informed by ideas of musicality and some not. Some of it is going against that idea.