Becoming an Instrument of the Poem: A Conversation with Paul Muldoon

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Paul Muldoon’s most recent books are Howdie-Skelp, released in 2021, and Frolic and Detour, released in 2019, both published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. His new collection Joy in Service on Rue Tagore is forthcoming through Faber in the United Kingdom (April 2024) and Farrar, Straus, and Giroux in the United States (September 2024). Praised by the Times Literary Supplement as “the most significant English-language poet born since the second World War,” Muldoon has published fourteen full-length poetry collections, in addition to opera libretti, children’s books, critical works, song lyrics, and scripts for television and radio. Among his many honors, Muldoon has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, the Griffin International Poetry Prize, and the T.S. Eliot Prize. He has served as Oxford Professor of Poetry, Poetry Editor at The New Yorker, and President of the Poetry Society (UK), and he currently holds the position of Ireland Professor of Poetry. I corresponded with Muldoon about a variety of subjects, including the role of voice in poetry, the influence of T.S. Eliot on his work, the problem of cultural determinism in the context of a writer’s national identity, the importance of not getting in a poem’s way, and more.

CD: In an interview with James S.F. Wilson in The Paris Review in 2004, when asked about discovering your voice in poetry, you said the following: “I don’t know if I’ve ever found a voice. In fact, I’m rather skeptical of that idea having any currency. Each poem demands its own voice.” What are your thoughts about the fact that “finding your voice” has become such a ubiquitous imperative in the education of young writers at the high school, undergraduate, and graduate levels? Related to that, how would you characterize the distinction between voice and style, and what are some of the challenges you encounter in arriving at the voice that each individual poem demands?

PM: Most members of the general reading public understand what the idea of having a “voice” means. We think of the distinctive “sound” of a poem made by T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, or John Ashbery, and we imagine that Eliot, Moore, and Ashbery must have spent years developing that unmistakable effect. There’s even some truth to it, because each did indeed spend years working under the influence of other writers before they became “themselves.” But the key element in all of this is point of view. From the point of view of the reader, we recognize the “voice” just as a forensic detective will recognize the fingerprints and DNA of Eliot, Moore, and Ashbery all over the scene of the crime that is their most recent poem. From the perspective of the three poets, though, it’s likely they believe that there’s no way they’ll ever be linked to the crime scene, and that they’ll walk away scot-free.

It’s also likely they think they’re doing something they’ve never quite done before, and in which they’ll never be implicated, because, in general, the last thing Eliot, Moore, or Ashbery want to do is to write a parody of themselves. They don’t want to be thought of as serial killers, even if that’s what they turn out to be. It’s for that reason I am skeptical about the idea of a writer developing a “voice” which they’ll somehow magically conjure and apply to the situation of having to write a poem. The fact is that almost nothing that might have been useful in the writing of Poem A is applicable to the writing of Poem B. Whatever might be applicable is what may be taught and, therefore, learned. But it’s an infinitesimally small amount compared to the enormity of what must be brought to each new circumstance. Writers learn on the job. To return to the crime analogy, they’re more inclined to leave no fingerprints. They want mostly to have an alibi. They go in fear of CCTV and voice recognition technology.

CD: Howdie-Skelp, your most recent full-length poetry collection, contains a long sequence titled “American Standard,” which explores contemporary life while gesturing toward the style and structure of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. In the poem, you use many of the words and phrases that appear in The Waste Land, while imbuing them with new nuances and double meanings. You’ve also talked in the past about Eliot’s role as a shaping force on your work during your early years as a poet. Would you elaborate for us on how The Waste Land impacted your crafting of “American Standard,” how you view the two poems functioning in conversation with each other, and how Eliot’s work has continued to influence your poetry over time?

PM: The poet whom I mimicked early on was Eliot. I spent roughly two years—between the ages of 15 and 17, say—writing only versions of Eliot. Then I must have figured out that Eliot was, in fact, less interesting than his main source, Donne, and I went back to him. I cut out the middleman. For “American Standard,” I was having a lot of fun with the template of The Waste Land, mostly because the centenary of its publication was in the offing. The reality is, of course, that there’s still a lot of mileage in Eliot’s “mythic method.” The mess and muck and muddle of the early years of the 20th century have, if anything, grown more pronounced in the early years of the 21st century, and the big, baggy, boisterous sequence still has a lot to offer anyone with a bit of nerve. That’s the thing I still admire most about Eliot. His sheer nerve.

CD: As a native of County Armagh in Northern Ireland, you spent the first thirty-five years of your life on Irish soil before moving to the United States. What are some similarities and/or differences that you’ve observed between the two countries in terms of poetry’s role in the larger culture, contemporary trends or tendencies in poets’ work, and the way that the literary world functions? Have you seen any notable commonalities or distinctions, as far as style, content, and literary influences, between poets working today in Ireland and the United States?

PM: The great change in both territories is that there’s a truly refreshing variousness. There’s no single orthodoxy that comes to the fore, or if it does, it doesn’t last more than ten minutes. I’m thinking of identity poetics, for example. Five minutes ago it was all the rage. It’s been and gone now. That’s very healthy, I’d say. We need poetic diversity just as we need planetary biodiversity. On top of that, the really interesting poets in both territories have always been open to learning from one another. Yeats learned a lot from Whitman. Heaney learned a lot from Lowell. Mahon learned a lot from Wilbur. Carson learned a lot from C.K. Williams. Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill learned a lot from Plath. And those are just influences in one direction!

CD: Related to the question above, when it comes to your own identity as a writer, do you ever feel that there’s a tension between readers and critics defining you as either an “Irish poet” or an “American poet”? If so, would you elaborate for us on that subject? What do you view as some of the assumptions and associations underpinning the reading public’s expectations of an “Irish poet” in comparison to an “American poet”?

PM: I’m not much interested in cultural determinism. So much of what we think of as comprising our identities is completely arbitrary. I happen to have been born in Ireland. So what. Most ideas of nationality tend to lead to setting up borders, borders tend to lead to territorial incursions, and territorial incursions tend to lead to world wars. I have a relationship to America along the lines of Eliot’s or Plath’s relationship to England. It’s easy to imagine a circumstance where Frost could have stayed on and become an “English” poet. I am less interested in whether Eliot, Plath, or even Frost is “American” than whether or not their poems are any good. I trust that’s the only question that might properly be asked of what I do. With regard to the matter of being Irish, it so happens I’m 1/16 Punjabi. Where does that leave us?

CD: In addition to your endeavors as an English-language poet, you’ve translated Gaelic poetry into English, including two books by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. In one of your most famous poems, titled “Anseo,” you mention that the titular word, which is a term used to indicate one’s presence during roll call at school, was the first word of Irish you spoke. Would you talk for us about your relationship to the Irish language?

PM: Apart from a few words I learned in primary school, I studied the Irish language and literature in Irish only when I went to secondary school. My main subjects at secondary school were Irish, English, French, and Latin. I always did best in Irish. I started translating while I was a teenager and, indeed, the first “original” poems that I published were in Irish. The impact of literature in Irish on my work is pretty substantial, I suspect. My grasp of spoken Irish is a lot weaker, I fear, than it was fifty years ago. I’m very out of practice. But it represents a larger component in what I do than most readers, including myself, will ever quite grasp. In that sense, the accident of my birthplace and my particular education do ramify. But they have no intrinsic merit.

CD: You’ve spent much of your life as devoted to the art of teaching as you have to the art of poetry. Drawing from your past experiences as a teacher, if you had an opportunity to design a program entirely from scratch, centered on the education of young poets, what are some of the approaches you might take in training them at their craft? I’m imagining this as a program located outside of traditional academia, with no need for the features typically associated with school settings, such as semesters, tests, and grades.

PM: Funnily enough, I’d be inclined to put translation at the heart of any such curriculum. One of the great things about translation is that it is the closest form of reading that exists. It falls, therefore, into a division of criticism. The practice of translation also fosters the selflessness and lack of ego—anonymity, one might go so far as to say—that I believe are key components in making interesting work. One must be at the service of the text in a way that seems largely overlooked these days. My own main ambition, which is a version of the ambition that drove St. Francis of Assisi, is to make myself an instrument of the poem.

CD: Over time, you’ve written increasingly lengthy poems, often arranged in numbered sections. Both Howdie-Skelp and Frolic and Detour, your two most recent poetry collections, contain long sectional poems on a broad range of topics. What does a longer format allow you to accomplish, in relation to your content, that you wouldn’t be able to do in shorter poems? How might you compare the challenges involved in composing longer poems to the those involved in writing shorter poems?

PM: I’m what you might call a “Sunday” painter, and one of the aspects of the visual arts that I find truly mysterious is the question of how and why an artist chooses the size and shape of a canvas. When it comes to the dimensions of Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory, for example, I’m always shocked to realize it’s a mere nine and a half inches high and thirteen inches wide. There seems to be as much going on there as on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. I think of religious artists and their longstanding employment of the diptych and the triptych, and the narrative sequence of wall-length frescos and stained-glass windows. The longer format, which I used even in my first collection, allows for taking on even bigger subjects. “The Year of the Sloes” in New Weather was a poem that addressed the events of Bloody Sunday in January 1972 through the prism of the Lakota calendar. I was reared on the big poems of high modernism—Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, Paterson, The Bridge—so I’m predisposed to their strategies. But the poem should only be as big as it needs to be, and I’m no less interested in one day writing a perfect little imagistic poem like “In a Station of the Metro.” I live in hope. 

CD: Your poems abound with the names of famous historical and literary figures, some recognizable to a general readership and some far more obscure, as well as the names of people from your own life. The profusion of names in your poetry brings to mind W.H. Auden’s assertion that “proper names are poetry in the raw.” What do you see as some of the effects created for readers through the presence of names in your poems, and how do you view those effects as varying in relation to different kinds of names?

PM: I use names the way Aristophanes uses, in his plays, the names of people in his audience. His Athens was a very small place. Our planet is also a very small place.

CD: You entered university during a time when Northern Irish Poetry centered on a generation of poets who became known as the “Belfast Group,” which included Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, and Seamus Heaney. As quoted in The Guardian, Michael Longley has said the following about you and other Northern Irish poets of your generation: “I feel they set about deconstructing everything that myself and Seamus and Derek Mahon had so patiently put together, and it’s great to remain on your toes, which this younger generation has forced me to do.” Do you think that you and other Northern Irish poets of your generation set about, whether consciously or unconsciously, deconstructing the work of the “Belfast Group”?

PM: I’m not at all sure what Longley, Mahon, and Heaney “had so patiently put together.” Michael Longley makes it sound as if they’d built a sandcastle on the beach in Bangor or Bundoran, and a bunch of rowdies came along and spoiled it. It’s more likely, however, that the tide came in and knocked it over. The decade or so that separates Longley, Mahon, and Heaney from Carson, McGuckian, and myself, say, was one in which there were huge shifts in two key areas—politics and popular culture. Take Heaney. Even though he began publishing in the 1960s, you’d be hard pressed to find the impact of the sixties on his work. Certainly not the swinging sixties! His immediate literary forbears are Larkin, Hughes, and Gunn. A little further back are Kavanagh and Carleton. One can read him without thinking of modernism. Yeats and Joyce barely figure at his table except as last-minute guests he realizes he should have invited. Carson and I tended to go back to high modernism, and Joyce was even more important for us than Yeats, as were other prose writers in the vein of Borges and Calvino. Surrealism. Magical realism. We were less immediately in conversation with Heaney, Mahon, and Longley because, in the way the young do, we thought we had bigger fish to fry. Another aspect of these literary to-ings and fro-ings that’s generally overlooked is that Longley, Mahon, and Heaney may have learned as much, or more, from us than we ever did from them.

CD: You grew up as a reader and writer before the internet existed, but your work certainly possesses a presence online, and you have spent much of your life teaching writing and literature to students whose interactions with the world are largely digital in nature. You’ve also raised two children of your own whose lives have unfolded, from their earliest years, in an internet-centered society. Have you noticed any significant changes over time in the way that people read literary works, especially in relation to the cultural shift from page to screen?

PM: I insist this is a great age for reading poetry, if only because one may not perforce languish in ignorance vis-à-vis a reference of the kind you mentioned earlier. One can find out almost immediately what an unfamiliar word or allusion might mean. Unlike many professors, I always have at least one student in my classroom connected to the wider world via the internet during our sessions.

CD: Among your most recent books is a volume titled Dislocations: The Selected Innovative Poems of Paul Muldoon, which was published in 2020 by Liverpool University Press. You have also published five previous selected editions, each containing work from poetry collections produced during various stages of your life. Would you elaborate for us on how you approached the process of choosing poems for your past selected editions, and how you went about deciding which poems to include in Dislocations: The Selected Innovative Poems of Paul Muldoon? What do you view as the role of selected editions in a poet’s oeuvre, particularly in relation to individual books of poetry and collected editions?

PM: I took next to no role in that Liverpool University Press project. It was the idea of the Australian poet John Kinsella. He wanted to present a particular route through my poems, and he persuaded Liverpool to let him do it in public. The last selection I made was Selected Poems 1968-2014, a book that presented five poems from twelve of my collections. It’s ten years old now, so it may be time for another version of the tasting menu. I might include four poems from my fifteen full-length collections, and perhaps quite different poems from the last round. It’s actually a form of quality control. If one hasn’t published sixty decent poems after a lifetime’s work, one should probably have been doing something else. Of course, it’s never too late to stop!

CD: A sestina of yours titled “The MRI” appeared in The New Yorker in May 2023. “MRI” contains stylistic elements that have long been noted in your work, including wit, enigma, juxtaposition, and formal innovation. I’ll quote the first four stanzas from the poem below. It would be illuminating to hear you talk about your process in composing “The MRI,” as far as your approach to navigating the tension between form and content. Did you start out with the sestina’s repeating end-words and their variations already selected, or did you just dive in and let the poem lead the way? Throughout the poem, you play with common colloquial phrases (such as “shoulder to the wheel,” “a little heart to heart” and “the straight and narrow”). How do you view those phrases functioning in relation to the poem’s larger exploration of human fallibility, MRI technology, and language itself?


Again and again, we’ll put our shoulder to the wheel on which we’re broken. Stretched out at the heart of a replica of the stone sarcophagus we once believed to “eat flesh,” we still have a straight shot at the Strait of Gibraltar. Where we first found a shoulder to cry on. Long before the flash of an iron-rimmed wheel on a limestone pavement. Where we first had a little heart to heart. Where we first developed our sense of the straight and narrow. Threw the first stone. First rubbed shoulders with pigment traders. First made a color wheel. First thought to flush Caidyes through our own flesh, so as to map what lies within our hearts. First reinvented the wheel that will run straight only with a camber. First gave the cold shoulder to a pigment trader. First chipped away at limestone…

PM: The ideal situation is that the poem announces itself and, with any luck, writes itself. I now think my main job as a writer is simply to not get in the way of a poem that has offered itself as a distinct possibility. If I provide a bit of guidance, it’s the guidance a timber rafter gives a log jam on a fast-flowing river. All I have most of the time is that distinct possibility. I don’t even start poems that aren’t distinct possibilities because, let’s face it, life’s too short. I’m pretty sure I just embarked on writing “MRI” and the gods were with me. On the other hand, I may have had a trial run at an ending in which the possibility of certain words having a particular order was rehearsed, a bit like having the image of a pulp mill in mind. It’s very dicey, though, to anticipate the end of a poem before the body of it is written. There’s a chance that the revelation of the poem will not be commensurate with that distinct possibility. It’ll either be too big or too small. Those familiar phrases to which you refer—clichés, indeed—are meant to give a sense of the poem functioning in a matter-of-fact, unfussy way despite the fact that the sestina is essentially far-fetched and finicky. One of the discoveries in a poem like this is that those very clichés are far from redundant. Another discovery is that, despite its seeming artificiality, a poem like “The MRI” allows for a kind of aching humanity. That’s how it struck me as its first reader. It made me want to cry.

CD: You possess a remarkable range of talents and passions, and your energies as a poet, critic, translator, and teacher have been matched by your enthusiasms in the musical realm. You’ve written libretti for multiple operas, as well as rock lyrics for Warren Zevon and others, and you’ve also played rhythm guitar and composed lyrics in multiple Princeton-based rock groups. What are some of the projects on which you’re currently working, literary, musical, or otherwise? Are there any themes, cultural developments, or questions in which you find yourself particularly interested at present?

PM: I have a new book of poems coming out in April in the UK and September in the US. It’s called Joy in Service on Rue Tagore, and it contains “The MRI” along with other poems from the last three or four years. I know it’s a bit unseemly, but I’ve been able to work like crazy for the past while. There’s been little else to do, frankly, particularly in the Covid era. I’m also editing a new prose collection titled The Eternity of the Poem, which contains essays written over the past twenty years. I’m still hoping to write a few poems in Irish, though I’m not sure if I really have the chops for that. We’ll soon find out. On the musical front, I have written a short opera with music by Kamala Sankaram called Custom of the Coast, as well as a rock version of Frogs by our old friend Aristophanes. The music there is by Stew. Rogue Oliphant, the band for which I compose lyrics and perform spoken word, is in the process of recording a studio album with the great Tony Visconti as producer. In a word or two, I’m having a ball.

CD: The editorial staff here at Literary Matters is thrilled to learn of your forthcoming poetry book Joy in Service on Rue Tagore, and we also look forward to The Eternity of the Poem, the collection of essays that you’re currently editing, hitting the shelves in the not-too-distant future. We hope that you never stop having a ball as an artist, not least because it means that readers can anticipate the continued arrival of new work by Paul Muldoon. Thank you for taking the time to converse with Literary Matters.


Paul Muldoon was born in County Armagh in 1951. He now lives in New York. A former radio and television producer for the BBC in Belfast, he has taught at Princeton University for thirty-five years. He is the author of fifteen collections of poetry, including Moy Sand and Gravel, for which he won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize, and Joy in Service on Rue Tagore, published by FSG and Faber and Faber in 2024. He serves as Ireland Professor of Poetry 2022-2025.