I first met Paul Muldoon in 1984 at an almost intimate reading in University College Cork. There were as many empty chairs as there were filled ones in the small auditorium. Quoof had just been published and Quoof was what he mainly read from, which was difficult for the audience, as Quoof is widely regarded now as the volume in which Muldoon unleashed, for the first time, an entire book consisting of the innovations which had been developing in scattered poems in his previous volumes. It was difficult for the audience because at that time very few people, even few regular readers of contemporary poetry, had developed the skillset required to digest many of these new poems. And despite Muldoon’s special attention to sound and music it was especially difficult for the audience to aurally absorb the full import of the pieces. Muldoon came across as shy and his declamation as under-practised. Afterwards he was very friendly and approachable over a pint.
Jump twenty years on and a Paul Muldoon reading is quite a different experience; gone is the shyness, gone the raggedy-andy delivery to be replaced by a sure-footedness and charm which seem as if they’ve been filched from Bill Clinton. Muldoon is now widely acknowledged (not least in the Times Literary Supplement) as the greatest Anglophone poet of his generation. He has a readership in the thousands compared with the multiples of a dozen most poets are lucky to have. His last two readings in Cork attracted hundreds and his appearances diary, as posted on his website, lists a date or two practically every week.
What are the innovations that mark him out? A devilish facility with pararhyme and half-rhyme. English is notorious as a language with a monster vocabulary but with a mouse-store of full rhymes. The unpredictability and genius novelty of Muldoon’s rhymes combined with his talent for arranging words musically is attractive but not enough to explain his full power or popularity. Muldoon eats the full Oxford English Dictionary for breakfast, dinner and tea, not simply to pepper his poems with words of which even the most educated are ignorant, but to get intimate with the etymologies and almost forgotten nuances of even the commonest of words. All this is still not enough to explain the phenomenon which is Paul Muldoon. One must also take into consideration his sardonic and iconoclastic sense of humour, which yet allows him to write very moving, irony-free, emotionally-honest poems (such as ‘Incantata’, Annals of Chile, 1994) about family and loved ones. Muldoon is, in short, the real thing, the entity which lends its name to describe other, lesser poets: Muldoonesque.
Muldoonesque did not exist in 1984; it sure as hell does now.
Paul Muldoon was born in 1951 in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, and educated in Armagh and at the Queen's University of Belfast. From 1973 to 1986 he worked in Belfast as a radio and television producer for the British Broadcasting Corporation. Since 1987 he has lived in the United States, where he is now Howard G. B. Clark ’21 Professor at Princeton University and Chair of the University Center for the Creative and Performing Arts. Between 1999 and 2004 he was Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford, where he is an honorary Fellow of Hertford College.
A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Paul Muldoon was given an American Academy of Arts and Letters award in literature for 1996. Other recent awards are the 1994 T. S. Eliot Prize, the 1997 Irish Times Poetry Prize, the 2003 Griffin International Prize for Excellence in Poetry, the 2004 American Ireland Fund Literary Award, the 2004 Shakespeare Prize, the 2005 Aspen Prize for Poetry, and the 2006 European Prize for Poetry. Muldoon is an avid collector of guitars. He writes lyrics, plays guitar and percussion in the band Rackett (formed in 2004) which has been described as Cole Porter meets Punk or Ira Gershwin Grunge.
New Weather, Faber, London, 1973
Mules, Faber, London, 1977
Why Brownlee Left, Faber, London, 1980
Quoof, Faber, London, 1983
Meeting the British, Faber, London, 1987
Madoc: A Mystery, Faber, London, 1990
The Annals of Chile, Faber, London, 1994
Hay, Faber, London, 1998
My Sand And Gravel, Faber, London, 2002
Horse Latitudes, Faber, London, 2006
For a complete bibliography visit the official website linked below.
Some Rock song lyrics written for Muldoon’s band Racket.
/>Review of Muldoon’s book-length poem Madoc
A profile in Ploughshares