Paul Muldoon: Man of Low Expectations
Paul Muldoon is not only one of the most prominent poets writing today, but he is also among the few who may truly be considered a celebrity. He has won the Pulitzer Prize and currently serves as the poetry editor of the New Yorker. In the last year alone, he has read at the White House and appeared on shows like The Colbert Report.
Muldoon, 59, was born and raised in Northern Ireland. His father was a farmer and his mother worked as a schoolteacher, but despite that, he grew up in a home with “very, very few books.” He mainly read the Junior World Encyclopedia as a kid, along with abridged copies of works like Treasure Island. He began writing poetry in his early teenage years for school and his promise was quickly realized by his peers, and perhaps most importantly, by Seamus Heaney, a Nobel Prize winner and one of Ireland’s most notable poets.
Muldoon was kind enough to answer a few of our questions about his first poem, what happened after he met Seamus Heaney and why poets should always keep their expectations low.
Opening Lines: Paul, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us. What is the first poem you ever wrote?
Muldoon: The very first poem I can remember writing was about Charlemont Fort, an Elizabethan star fort near where I was brought up in Ireland. I was about 12 at the time and I contrasted the glories of a bygone age with “the reek of gasoline.”
Writing gets harder as one continues. One reason may be that one’s standards get even higher. Another reason may be that one’s standards completely disappear as one begins to believe one’s own publicity
Opening Lines: You were fortunate enough to meet and get some positive feedback from Seamus Heaney, the renowned Irish poet, when you were just a teenager. How did you end up meeting him and what effect did this encounter have on your career as a poet?
Muldoon: I met Seamus Heaney in April 1968, when I was 16. I was introduced to him by one of my teachers. Seamus Heaney was extremely welcoming to me and published a couple of my poems in a Belfast magazine he was guest editing. He then introduced me to Karl Miller, the literary editor of The Listener, a major magazine in London that happened also to be published by the BBC. In addition, Seamus introduced me to Charles Monteith, his editor at Faber and Faber. Charles Monteith published my first book in 1973, when I was 21. So that meeting with Seamus Heaney was critical. So much of publishing is about luck, I’m certain. I was extremely lucky
Opening Lines: Were your parents supportive of you majoring in poetry and eventually turning it into a career?
Muldoon: My mother wasn’t at all sure of the wisdom of pursuing poetry rather than my proper studies. She was almost certainly right.
Opening Lines: If I’m not mistaken, you also worked as an arts producer for the BBC in your early twenties. Were you planning to give up a career in poetry at this point, or was this just another outlet for that creativity?
Muldoon: The BBC job came about because of the publication of my first book. I knew the people who ran the BBC in Belfast while I was still a student at Queen’s University since I recorded many poems for them. It was a very small world. I kept a slip of paper, cut from The Listener as it happens, above my desk for the 13 years I worked for the BBC. It was a quote from Dylan Thomas: ‘In olden days poets ran away to sea. Now they run away to the BBC.” The BBC was complementary to my writing life. I loved it.
Opening Lines: Looking back, what was the biggest obstacle you faced on your way to becoming a successful poet?
Muldoon: I feel that I’ve had a blessed life as a poet. I’ve had more success than I deserve, I’m pretty sure. I’m determined never to complain about the poetry world because I’ve had absolutely nothing to complain about.
Opening Lines: How has the process of writing changed for you over the years? Do you find it easier or harder to produce a quality poem than you did when first starting out?
My mother wasn’t at all sure of the wisdom of pursuing poetry rather than my proper studies. She was almost certainly right.
Muldoon: The only conceivable obstacle has to do with writing itself. It gets harder as one continues. It’s counter intuitive, I suppose, since one would expect everything to get easier. One reason may be that one’s standards get even higher. Another reason may be that one’s standards completely disappear as one begins to believe one’s own publicity.
Opening Lines: Finally, what advice do you have for students and young adults who are debating whether to pursue a career in poetry?
Muldoon: The word “career” means a race. In poetry it’s a race in which only oneself is running. My single piece of advice for anyone considering writing poetry is to keep one’s expectations as low as one possibly can. That way it’s all gravy.
Image courtesy of PaulMuldoon.net.