An Interview with Paul Muldoon by Claire Wills, Nick Jenkins and John Lanchester
In an interview you gave with John Haffenden. you talked about an interest in creating mirroring structures, and also in setting up ironies that would run across a series of poems. Is that what you set out to do in Quoof? Was that a programmatic thing'?
Well, "programmatic" is the key word. It's not as if I have a wall covered with bits of paper and say, "Well, I'll have a bit of that there, up in the top left hand corner, and then on page twenty-eight ... " - as if I were charting a novel or something. No, it just happens that after a certain number of poems get written a structure begins to emerge. Even if there are only two poems if makes a difference which one comes first: then if you've got three a narrative and a kind of structure starts appearing. And then by the time you've got twenty poems written over a couple of years I find that things begin to fall into place, everything seems to come together. Partly it's because, with anyone of us, our range of interests and obsessions is very small. The trick -I use the word "trick" - is trying not to make it seem programmatic.
There must be a dangerous point when the new poems need to be bent into the curve of the book, as it starts to form.
That's the tightrope. That's the difficulty of it. It happens naturally: I don't set out to write a poem in which, say, there are going to be a lot of mushrooms. There's a case in point: I think there are too many mushrooms in Quoof. I didn't feel at the time that I was overdoing it, or generally scrabbling around for any bits of mushroom to hand, but I think, looking back on it, that it's probably a bit overdone. Mind you, perhaps there aren't all that many.
Is there a risk of the poems becoming rather hermetic? And of turning a book of poems into a hall of mirrors'?
Well, "hermetic". That depends whether you feel lost or enlarged in a hall of mirrors.
You've talked in a couple of places about your notion of your task as being one of limiting a poem's possible range of connotation, but in Quoof, the poems seem to do the opposite and to be continually opening up possible new meanings. They seem to suggest a way of reading that's contradictory to your aesthetic.
It's not contradictory to my aesthetic because my aesthetic is still pretty undeveloped. My idea of how I write, in which I'm told I'm deeply mistaken, is that I try to engineer an effect in myself, as first reader, which will then occur any time the poem is read. I understand that there are limitations in that, in terms of the different associations different readers will bring to their reading, but from where I stand it's about getting the thing to work. Not to say something necessarily, but to have a particular effect, Iike putting a needle into a particular part of your spine. The way I was brought up, on Prac Crit and all the rest of it, perhaps influences the way I write - and modernism too, the way Eliot constructed his canon, or Yeats reinvented his.
Would you still subscribe to the notion of limited connotation?
I would, sure. That's the way I was brought up, on Richards and Leavis and this-is-how-it's-done.
And you're writing things which implicitly trash Richards and Leavis'?
Well, I don't think about it in those terms, and I don't know enough about it. It's as simple as that. I'm not being prescriptive, not saying, "The only way is ... ". I'm just trying to describe how my own ideas of critical practice were determined by what was current at the time I was open to it and being influenced by it. That's all I can say. Now that's not to say that I get up in the morning and say, "I am a devotee of LA. Richards". I don't think in those terms. I don't think, "I am a Prac-Critter". Absolutely not. I'm just trying to write poems and if any of those literary theories are any good one could perhaps allow for a range of them, and also the appropriate theory could be brought to bear on the text. I know that's not how people look at it, but I have difficulty in imagining how any intelligent person could be so prescriptive as to take one view of how literature operates, and then throw it over the table like a blanket.
Quoof seems to do something very different from Practical Criticism's technique of sealing poems off and looking at them as separate mechanisms.
Yes, I know. I argued for the individuality of the single poem, which I do believe in, in spite of what happens. It's a bit perplexing ... I think the individual poems should stand on their own two feet, but it's inevitable that larger structures should become evident because I only have a few ideas about the world (which I try, for the most part, to suppress).
Your poem "Immram" has a source in the mediaeval Irish "Voyage of Mael Duin". How far does the existence of a source like that bear on the poem you are writing? Or is the parallel its own point?
The "Mael Duin" thing is for the most part extremely tenuous - it just happens to be a story of discovery, which is in some way at the heart of every piece of literature - and it's also there as a kind of plumbline, something you drop down a wall to keep it straight as you're building it. You don't need to know any of the details of the original story to get this story. To read the biography of Howard Hughes would bring you further, actually, than to read "The Voyage of Mael Duin", and to have read a bit of Chandler would give much more useful clues as to the tone of it.
Do you ever use myth as the answer to puzzles in a poem? The "Voyage of Bran", for instance - about a man who goes to the land of women and can't get back - seems to be an important hint about your poem" Bran".
The "Voyage of Bran" isn't very useful to know about, because it's not the primary significance of the name of the dog in the poem. Bran was one of Finn MacCool's hunting dogs; "Bran" also refers to a raven; and to the whole complex thing about St. Brendan the Navigator; and to "The Voyage of Bran" . In a way the references aren't important because Bran in English would have perfectly adequately covered the notion of this oatmeal coloured dog. Then, also, if you know anything about Irish mythology you know that actually Bran was Finn's cousin - she was a metamorphosed human.
Are there any poems which the reader will misconstrue unless they know the underlying myth?
Not that I can think of.
How about allusions to your poetic contemporaries in your work - in "Gathering Mushrooms", for instance, there seems to be an awareness (to put it no more strongly than that) of Derek Mahon's poem "A Disused Shed In County Wexford".
Yes, sure. I sent it to Derek actually, he wrote me back a very funny wee postcard saying, "Definitely the best mushroom poem. Now perhaps I can have a bit of peace." But the similarity is really an accident. I think it's worth remembering that in England there's much more mobility, a much wider range of experience. I'm not saying that there aren't any class barriers or distinctions in Ireland, but basically it's a fairly homogenous country in which everybody's experience is pretty much the same, and the same images just tend to turn up. And the same images turn up in American poetry. What more can I say?
Do you ever invite people to misread your poems? Lure them on, as it were? I'm thinking of an instance in a television programme when your poem "Whim", in which a couple get stuck together during sex, was read as being partly an allegory of English involvement in Ireland.
Yes, well, it isn't about that at all. That's an instance of somebody reading under the influence of Heaney.
"Act Of Union."
How important is MacNeice to you as a poet? You seem to have followed on from elements of his work, like his use of parable.
I think MacNeice is very good. Some of the poems are quite extraordinary, like those in The Burning Perch for instance - there's really nothing like them. Vast tracts, of course, are sheer dull trackless desert (Autumn Sequel and stuff like that) - but the best of what he wrote is very good. He overdoes the parable a bit sometimes, but his best little parables arc marvellous, like "The Taxis". which is an astonishing poem. I'd love to be able to write a poem like that, and I feel very close to the spirit of "The Taxis". I can't really explain why because I'm no good at talking in critical or academic terms: but the tone of voice and the humour and the bleakness of it, and the fluency and the surreal element of it, and yet the fact that in the middle of all this great invention it never leaves the real world ... " The Introduction" also is an extraordinary poem. But he got involved in a bit of self-parody in that book too.
Is that a danger?
I think it's a constant danger, that is if you can locate the self, locate what is parodiable. I saw a review by Michael Hoffman the other day, stripping down my poem "The Wishbone" and showing how it operated, and I was quite alarmed at the accuracy of it. I said "Jesus" and put it away. I just don't want to know about it. I do that with all reviews, not that for the most part they're as acute as that - they're not but because I wouldn't want to find out. But self-parody is a danger, yes. Sometimes I start off and, though I would never quite consciously say, "Hell, that's another Muldoon", at some level something tells me to abandon the poem.
Do you think there are any limits to the permissible privacy of reference in a poem? I was thinking of your poem "Bears", which seems extremely cryptic and private.
I'm not sure that that poem works. Normally, whatever might be going on in a poem of mine (which most of the time, let's face it, is probably not too much) there's something pretty straight-forward happening in the foreground. There's a simple direct narrative. But a poem like "Bears", I don't think that it works, really, because it's impossible to follow what's going on in it: it's not written at all, it's only half, like a series of notes for a poem. In "Bears" and around that time I was trying to write a couple of poems that brought to it's logical conclusion the idea of leaving, that were treading a very very thin line between what you can put in and what you can leave out. Perhaps one reason you chose "Bears" as an example is because it's a border-line case; the poem resides around the asterisks. But actually that's the tightrope you're walking all the time. It seems to me that knowing where to start and where to finish, the little bit of time and space occupied, knowing what to put in and what to leave out - I know this is banal, but knowing what to put in and what to leave out is what writing is about.
How premeditated are your uses of the sonnet form? Do a poem's farm and main idea come to you at the same time?
Not initially, no, but a few lines in. Of course it may be obvious from the outset that the poem is going to be a couple of pages or twenty pages, but that's just a hunch, in the way that a painter knows what size of canvas to embark on. A lot of the poems do end up with a sort of sonnet shape: "deconstructed sonnets" is what Edna Longley called them once - perhaps she meant "destructed sonnets". There was a guy at the University of Saskatchewan who did an analysis of my sonnets - he put a computer on it - and he did a paper on it at a conference. One of the things he was saying was that he felt that I think that I might be taking the sonnet as a kind of archetypally "English" structure and breaking it up, almost as an anti-British thing - which I remember saying to someone at the time, is worth thinking about for about as long as it takes to think it, but not that much more. The whole of irony is very difficult. A difficult thing to talk about or to engage in.
Edna Longley's remark presumably implies that she thinks you're ridiculing the idea of a sonnet in writing it. Some of your rhymes do a similar thing, as in "Bears" where you rhyme "arbi/ trarily" with "I'herbe": it seems almost a parody of the idea of rhyme.
Yes, actually, it is. The line break in arbi/trarily is mimetic of its own enjambement - kind of the stuff I was brought up on. In another poem, "Making The Move", too, the rhymes arc atrocious, and I would like to think that it's so heavy-handed and heavy-footed that a reader would say to him- or her-self: "There's something going on here." It's a debunking thing, they're playful in their comments on their own procedures ... But that isn't the main point, it's just a little part of what I was trying to do. Of course I sometimes make little jokes and I do, quite often, engage in leading people on, gently, into little situations by assuring them that all's well and then - this sounds awfully manipulative, but part of writing is about manipulation leaving them high and dry, in some corner at a terrible party, where I've nipped out through the bathroom window.