“I like variety in poetry. I love how it comes in so many guises. As rock lyric, as rap, as note on a fridge.” — Irish poet Paul Muldoon

“I’m very much against expressing a categorical view of the world. I hope I can continue to discover something, and not to underline or bolster up what I already know.” – Paul Muldoon

It’s his birthday today.

A giant in modern poetry, Paul Muldoon is, like Seamus Heaney, a rural Ulster man. He grew up on a farm in County Armagh, a Catholic in the middle of a Protestant majority. His parents tried to shield the family from the political realities of the moment, although they were nationalists. The Troubles reverberate through Muldoon’s verse. He’s published over 30 books of poetry. He is now a professor at Princeton. He’s won the Pulitzer Prize. He’s won every prize.

He went to Queen’s University Belfast, where Seamus Heaney was one of his teachers (post on him here). It was a hot time in Belfast, not just politically, but also in the literary scene, and Paul Muldoon was very much a part of that. Some of the names at the time: Michael Longley (post here), Derek Mahon (post on him here), Ciarán Carson (post here), Medbh McGuckian (post on herhere), Frank Ormsby, Muldoon – they were all part of a writer’s workshop in Belfast called the Belfast Group. Much of Heaney’s earliest work came out of it.

Muldoon is a big risk-taker in his verse, just like Frost was. He is dazzling, but not showy. The pages of today’s poetry journals are filled with Muldoon imitators. Muldoon is a brainiac, as most autodidacts are. He is voracious in curiosity and scope. Information is there to be used, messed with.

With all of this, Muldoon is also an eloquent poet of “the Troubles”.

While he often writes long poems, today I’m posting a brief one. It’s only five lines. Five lines is all you need to describe an entire WORLD … if you’re as good as Paul Muldoon, that is.


The Volkswagen parked in the gap,
But gently ticking over.
You wonder if it’s lovers
And not men hurrying back
Across two fields and a river.


Paul Muldoon:

On the other hand, at some level the mass of unresolved issues in Northern Ireland does influence the fact that there are so many good writers in the place.

Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets:

He was born in Portadown, County Armagh, in 1951 and brought up near the Moy, a village to which his poems return. Muldoon’s mother was a teacher with strong literary interests, his father a farm laborer friendly to the Republican cause, a Lawrentian formula that resulted not in Sons and Lovers but in poems about complementarities and incompatibilities. Fruitful and tragic misalliances are a recurrent theme in his poems, wired and triggered by ironies that can be unexpectedly savage or heartbreaking.

Roger Conover, Eire-Ireland:

Muldoon’s is a poetry which sees into things, and speaks of the world in terms of its own internal designs and patterns.

Seamus Heaney, Preoccupations: Selected Prose, on Muldoon’s Mules:

A strange, rich second collection.

Adam Kirsch, New Republic:

If virtuosity is all that a poet can display, if his poems demand attention simply because of their elaborateness and difficulty, then he has in some sense failed.

Michael Schmidt:

[Paul Muldoon] read Frost with special attention, though the American’s impact on his prosody and narrative strategies is limited, except when he is producing, as in “The Mountain” ironic connections.

Paul Muldoon:

[Robert] Frost was important to me early on because his line, his tone of voice, was so much a bare canvas.

William Logan:

Muldoon is … in love (not wisely but too well) with language itself. … Too often the result is tedious foolery, the language run amok with Jabberwocky possibility (words, words, monotonously inbreeding), as if possibility were reason enough for the doing.

Adam Phillips, London Review of Books, on Muldoon’s lectures:

[The lectures] are about poetic influence more than anything else … Muldoon is generous and expansive in his naming of names; he is the exemplary poet as fan.

Michael Schmidt:

Muldoon often builds with baroque delicacy a trellis of ironies over the rather rudimentary themes and subjects. He likes the Metaphysicals, he likes conceits.

Clair Wills, Times Literary Supplement, on To Ireland:

[There is] something irreducibly esoteric about this trip through the weird and wonderful land of Irish letters, and the quirkiness, bordering on whimsy, will no doubt alienate many readers. This is unfortunate, because the book also contains some of Muldoon’s most forthright reflections to date on the relations of history, literature and politics.

Seamus Heaney:

Robert Frost, a poet whose roguery and tough-mindedness are admired by Paul Muldoon, once wrote about the art of filling a cup up to the brim ‘or even above the brim’. This impulse to go further than is strictly necessary is presented by Frost as the most natural thing in the world. It’s why young boys want to climb to the tops of birch trees and why grown-up poets write poems.

William Logan, on Hay:

Everyone interested in contemporary poetry should read this book … In our time of tired mirrors and more-than-tiresome confession, Muldoon is the rare poet who writes through the looking glass.

Paul Muldoon:

I suppose for whatever reason I actively welcome being put down, something which perhaps goes back to my upbringing – that accusation of not being worthy which could be laid at one’s door.

Seamus Heaney:

“This work [Paul Muldoon’s book ‘The Annals of Chile’] gives the impression of coming clean and being clandestine at one and the same time. It is Joycean in its combination of the everyday and the erudite, but it is also entirely sui generis, a late-twentieth-century work that vindicates Muldoon’s reputation as one of the era’s true originals.”

Michael Schmidt:

His formal and verbal inventiveness leads away from self. In Madoc he risks rewriting the lives of Coleridge and Southey, as if they had fulfilled the ambition of Pantisocracy and set up their community on the banks of the Susquehanna. Philosophers from the ancient Greeks to Stephen Hawking comment tersely and in character on the enterprise. It is very funny, very learned, a high-table game. He speaks for a while histor of thought, talked down, as it were, but not trivialized. “I’m interested in ventriloquism, in speaking through other people, other voices.”

Seamus Heaney:

[Muldoon is] one of the very best.

Paul Muldoon, who talks a lot about Robert Frost:

One will never again look at a birch tree, after the Robert Frost poem, in exactly the same way.

And finally:

“It’s Never Too Late for Rock’N’Roll”
By Paul Muldoon

It may be too late to learn ancient Greek
Under a canopy of gnats
It may be too late to sail to Mozambique
With a psychotic cat
It may be too late to find a cure
Too late to save your soul

It may be too late to lose the heat
It may be too late to find your feet
It may be too late to draw a map
To the high desert of your heart
It may be too late to lose the poor
It’s never too late for rock’n’roll

It may be too late to dance like Fred Astaire
Or Michael Jackson come to that
It may be too late to climb the stair
And find the key under your mat
It may be too late to think that you’re
Never too late for rock’n’roll

We have to believe a couple of good thieves can still seize the day
We have to believe we can still clear the way
We have to believe we’ve found some common ground
We have to believe we have to believe
We can lose those last twenty pounds.

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2 Responses to “I like variety in poetry. I love how it comes in so many guises. As rock lyric, as rap, as note on a fridge.” — Irish poet Paul Muldoon

  1. Melissa Sutherland says:

    Love him! Have put him in my Birthday Book, but I’m sure you’ll remind us next year.

    • sheila says:

      He’s so great! Yup … this birthday thing now basically runs itself, lol, so it will come up again next year for sure!

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