Between Robert Frost and Bon Jovi: The Many Contradictions of Paul Muldoon

muldoon 3 getty Between Robert Frost and Bon Jovi: The Many Contradictions of Paul MuldoonThe poet Paul Muldoon cupped his hands around his mouth and set his eyes on the ground. He let out a big coyote howl as he walked up the path to Robert Frost’s summer cabin, now his. He wanted to let the bears know he was coming. The cabin is buried behind trees and made of dull brown wood, fading to gray. On the porch, Mr. Muldoon struggled with the lock on the green door for a moment, and then we entered. Inside it smelled like 100-year-old wood. At the window by the phone–the same phone Frost used to call Homer Noble Farm, a stone’s throw from the cabin, where his secretary, Kate Morrison, lived with her husband, Theodore–Mr. Muldoon looked out across the field where he likes to practice shooting his bow and arrow. Frost spent 24 summers on the farm; this is Mr. Muldoon’s 13th.

“Well,” he says. “It’s quiet enough.”

This month brings Mr. Muldoon’s 11th book of poems, Maggot. The 59-year-old Irish native writes poetry to read with the Oxford English Dictionary in hand. His stanzas are seas of subtle puns. He has been a major poet since his first collection, New Weather (published when he was just 21 years old), because of the quiet perfection of lines like, “What was he watching and waiting for/ walking Scollop every day?/ For one intending to leave at the end of the year/ who would break the laws of time and stay,” from “February.” He is either referring to his own memory or anyone’s or creating a new myth entirely. It could be all three.

It is Mr. Muldoon’s ability to walk the line between comedy and tragedy, autobiographical and universal themes, colloquial and stylized language, all with equal grace, that has made him influential. It has also branded him with labels like “postmodernist” and “difficult.” Indeed, he is a jester, but only in the sense of Lear’s Fool: Though he’s not as grave as John Ashbery or theatrical as Anne Carson, his jokes and tricks are among poetry’s most serious and illuminating examples of beauty.

In 2007, David Remnick appointed Mr. Muldoon poetry editor of The New Yorker. The choice caught some off guard–he is not American, and Alice Quinn’s exit from the position was unexpected. But Mr. Muldoon has brought a freshness to the magazine’s poetry section that only he could. Yes, he publishes Mr. Ashbery and C.K. Williams, but he also leaves space for emerging poets like Michael Robbins, who broke in with a controversial poem titled “Alien Vs. Predator,” or for Dave Musgrave’s single-line poem, “On the Inevitable Decline Into Mediocrity of the Popular Musician Who Attains a Comfortable Middle Age” (“O Sting, where is thy death?”).

“One of the great things about this moment, and one of the reasons I was even interested in doing the job, is that there are many styles,” Mr. Muldoon told me. “I don’t have to go desperately looking for a range of poems.”

Maggot is Mr. Muldoon’s first collection since 2006’s Horse Latitudes. He considered retiring after that book, but the impulse to write did not fade. Still, Mr. Muldoon is reluctant even to call himself a poet. “Generally,” he told me, “the people who come out of the woodwork and say, ‘Hey, I’m a poet. Here’s a poem for you.’ You say, ‘Oh my God. When’s the next bus?'”

Back in the moth-covered screens surrounding the porch of Homer Noble Farm, the deer flies buzzing around us, I sat and sipped coffee with Mr. Muldoon and his wife, the novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz. Every summer Mr. Muldoon comes here to Ripton, Vt., to teach poetry to high-school teachers at Bread Loaf (named for Bread Loaf Mountain, on which the campus rests). The corners of Mr. Muldoon’s mouth are perpetually turned up in a half-smile. His eyes look red and tired, but always attentive, nearly hidden behind a pair of thin glasses and a thick mop of unruly hair.

“The phones that connect the cabin were used for Frost and the secretary to get in touch with one another,” he explained.

“He was shtupping the wife,” said Ms. Korelitz. “There’s a phone line that connects from the house to the cabin so the wife could call up there and say, ‘My husband is away.'” She raised her eyebrows.

“You say that,” Mr. Muldoon said, “with such authenticity.”

Mr. Muldoon was raised Catholic in Northern Ireland. His father was an illiterate farmer, his mother a schoolteacher. The house where he grew up was largely barren of books, save for an encyclopedia for children. In grammar school, he encountered a slim volume, Book of Verse for Young People, which collected the most famous stanzas of Burns, Dickinson, Shakespeare, Yeats and others. Donne’s “The Flea” remains Mr. Muldoon’s favorite poem (“It suck’d me first, and now sucks thee,/ And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.”). His interpretation typifies the seriousness with which his own poetry employs humor and sex–attributes of Donne as well: “It’s the greatest pickup line in the language,” he said.

He left Ireland at age 35 to teach part-time at Princeton. After a stint at Oxford, he returned to Princeton, where he is director of the Lewis Arts Center. His on-campus office, where he does much of his writing, is stacked floor to ceiling with the collected works of Auden, Bishop, Keats and every other major poet since Homer. The complete volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary sit close to his desk. Mr. Muldoon told me that when he writes, he enters something like a literary fugue state and prefers “to have absolutely no sense of what I’m doing”–echoing T.S. Eliot’s belief that poetry is a giving over to the unconscious. He writes every day, as he has for nearly a half a century.

“That’s the sort of phrase you read and think, ‘My God! Didn’t he have something better to do?'” he said. “Unfortunately, the fact that one has attempted to do it for 50 years is completely immaterial. One of the questions I have for myself is, ‘Is it time to quit?’ There’s no point in doing it unless it’s sort of half-interesting. If you’re a chef, the more often you make sushi, the better you might get at it. Maybe even that’s not the case, but it sure as hell isn’t the case in poetry. One tends to get worse at it, if anything. And here’s the thing: Even one’s best friends probably wouldn’t even tell you that it’s not interesting.”

This worry was particularly palpable with Maggot, a collection that Mr. Muldoon has his doubts about, even after it flowed out of him following a rare period of not writing poems. To be fair, Mr. Muldoon had other things to think about: raising two children, being a husband, his job as an administrator and teacher at Princeton, curating the poetry in The New Yorker. People have debated poetry’s importance since Plato, but the question remains: Is poetry worth the effort when there is a life to be lived?

“Is washing one’s socks worth doing?” Mr. Muldoon says. “I think poets are often their own worst enemies, engaging in these debates about ‘Does poetry matter?’ Really why not just get on with it? It does matter. It does matter.”

Jonathan Galassi, Mr. Muldoon’s publisher at FSG, told me about how Mr. Muldoon wanted to quit writing after Horse Latitudes.

“He was tired out, and yet here we are with a new book,” Mr. Galassi said. “His mind is just zapping all the time with linguistic games and connections. Maggot is like a kind of résumé–a reprise of many things he’s done as a writer. What it’s telling you is that he can’t stop writing.”

“What do you think about Paul saying he’s getting worse with time?” I asked.

Mr. Galassi let out a loud laugh.

MR. MULDOON BEGAN his career with these lines: “The early electric people had domesticated the wild ass/ They knew all about falling off.”

At once archaic and forward-looking, optimistic and hopeless, the words already predict and characterize Mr. Muldoon’s style: He electrifies language. He uses each word not only aware of its entire history, but also activating it. With Maggot, one of his most consistent, enthralling collections, he creates a quietly connected series in which every syllable is packed with meaning. In it, he rhymes “dork” with “Scythian torc”; composes a lengthy ethereal sequence about traveling in Japan and struggling to write the poem that the reader is reading; and, in “Balls,” creates poetry’s greatest sex joke since Donne’s “Loves Progress.” The very title, Maggot, suggests myriad understandings: As a noun, the word signifies those off-putting creatures that arise hopefully out of a corpse, the single sign of life among death–but also in the word’s verb form, “to fret,” a word that can also mean “to gnaw,” in the manner of a maggot.

The entire book is a kind of maggoting, in every sense imaginable, predominantly derived from the paradoxes of life continuing on both in spite–and because–of death. Consider, as Mr. Muldoon would want his readers to, the etymology of the word “metaphor”–itself the operative function of any poet’s work, but also the dominant linguistic technique of the recurring signifier “maggot,” a sustained metaphor throughout the collection. “Metaphor” comes from the Greek metaphero, meaning “to carry over,” suggesting, at once, the literal connotations of the noun maggot (organic life “carrying over” as a result of death), but also the symbolic nature of such reciprocity as a poetical trope.

Such a delightfully antithetical (and antithetically delightful) notion repeats itself in the strange contradictions of Maggot’s best images: “maggots, for their part,/ are content to be in a crowd scene from which they’ll nonetheless depart/ about as gracefully as Swift would retire/ from a debate on the slave trade,” or a girl with a tattoo that reads, “I REGRET THIS.” For all his claims of ignorance, Mr. Muldoon has crafted a highly nuanced, interconnected text, one that demands to be appreciated at all levels of interpretation.

 

THE DAY I left Vermont, Mr. Muldoon was on his way to a Jon Bon Jovi concert in Saratoga Springs. We were driving in his Prius.

“Are you a Bon Jovi fan?” he asked.

“No.”

“Me neither. But I feel like I should go to this. It’s a sociological experiment.”

He drummed on the steering wheel of his car, singing Bon Jovi lyrics, hiding his Irish accent beneath an approximation of Mr. Bon Jovi’s Jersey croon.

“You give love a bad na-ame!”

There is a potential poem here.

He said he “takes a stab or two at playing guitar.”

It was strange to hear him say this. He talks of his poetry with a similar air of informality: a hobby he takes a “stab” at. I recalled a conversation we had in his office the previous month. We sat surrounded by the collections of influential poets, his own books buried away on the shelves.

“I don’t think of myself as a professional poet at all.” His voice was serious, but his face was still half-smiling.

“Do you think there are any professional poets?” I asked.

“Um.” He paused for a long time.

“Because that begs the question: If you are not a professional poet–“

“Who would be, is that it? There’s something about being a poet that’s different from being a physician. If I were a physician and I were to say to you, ‘Yeah, I sort of try to be a physician,’ you would think, ‘Well I better find somebody else to do this.’ If one could pass oneself off as not just a poet, but a good poet, maybe it would be easier to say, ‘I’m a poet.’ But because I wouldn’t want to be a poet at all unless I were a good one, and I think this is true of many people, one would tend not to say it. Maybe it’s just time to embrace it and say this is what I do. For better or worse. This is what I do.”

mmiller@observer.com