Paul Muldoon 1951-
Irish poet, editor, librettist, translator, playwright, children's writer, and lecturer.
The following entry presents an overview of Muldoon's career through 2002. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 32 and 72.
A renowned poet who emerged from the Irish literary renaissance of the 1960s and 1970s, Muldoon has earned distinction for his firm poetic voice, linguistic skill, and complex postmodern sensibility. His first full book of poems, New Weather (1973), published when Muldoon was only twenty-one, signaled the beginning of an impressive oeuvre including the collections Mules (1977), Why Brownlee Left (1980), Quoof (1983), Meeting the British (1987), Madoc: A Mystery (1990), and The Annals of Chile (1994). Muldoon often employs complex and idiosyncratic rhymes and puns to reshape poetic conventions and to convey his unique view of contemporary life. His poems examine diverse ideas and questions involving Irish identity, gender, race, and nature. By blending literary genres and integrating aspects of comedy, film, television, and other elements of popular culture in his poetry, Muldoon has recast the poetic narrative in a multidimensional manner, employing reinvented forms to explore issues of love, death, loss, identity, and the roles of poetry and the poet in society.
Born in Portadown, County Armagh, Northern Ireland, in 1951, Muldoon spent his childhood in the town of Collegelands, near a village called the Moy. The son of Catholic parents, Muldoon was raised in a Catholic section of the predominantly Protestant region. Muldoon's father, Patrick, worked as a laborer and market gardener, while his mother, Brigid, a schoolteacher, taught in a local school. After attending primary school in Collegelands, Muldoon went to St. Patrick's College, where he learned Gaelic and studied Irish literature. While at St. Patrick's, Muldoon began writing poetry. He wrote and published his first poems in Gaelic, later switching to English to give himself greater linguistic control. During this period Muldoon also discovered the poetry of Robert Frost and T. S. Eliot, poets who have consistently influenced Muldoon and his work. After leaving St. Patrick's, he enrolled at Queens University in Belfast, where, in addition to studying literature and philosophy, he met a number of Irish writers, most notably Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, James Simmons, and Seamus Heaney, a group who would later become known as the Ulster Poets. The group gathered weekly to discuss poetry and to critique each other's work. Heaney became Muldoon's tutor within the university and encouraged Muldoon to publish his work. Heaney eventually included some of Muldoon's poems in a magazine he was guest editing, bringing Muldoon to the attention of the publishing house Faber & Faber, who released New Weather. Prior to New Weather, Muldoon had released only a small pamphlet of poems entitled Knowing My Place (1971). After earning his undergraduate degree in 1973, Muldoon worked for the next thirteen years as a radio and television producer for the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) in Belfast. While working for the BBC, Muldoon continued to write and publish an impressive body of poetry, including Why Brownlee Left, for which he won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize in 1982, and Quoof. Muldoon left the BBC in 1986 to pursue an academic career, starting with fellowships at the universities of Cambridge and East Anglia. After moving to the United States in 1987, he held a series of temporary teaching posts at various American universities before accepting a position as the Howard G. B. Clark Professor of the Humanities and Creative Writing at Princeton University in 1990. Muldoon has received numerous literary awards and honors throughout his career, including the Eric Gregory award for New Weather, a 1990 Guggenheim fellowship, the 1994 T. S. Eliot award for The Annals of Chile, an American Academy of Arts and Letters award in 1996, and the 1997 Irish Times Poetry prize for New Selected Poems: 1968-1994 (1996). He is also a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a professor of poetry at Oxford University.
Muldoon's poetry is well known for the formal and linguistic complexity of its verse, and for merging details from his life in Northern Ireland and the United States with a wide array of literary forms and references drawn from Irish, Greco-Roman, British, American, and Native-American cultures. New Weather represents Muldoon's desire to break from the Irish poetic tradition, particularly the imposing precedent of William Butler Yeats. The collection reveals Muldoon's preoccupation with points of contradiction and incongruity, while also introducing subjects that became recurring motifs for him—the failure of the quest and the continuous intrigue of the journey. The volume's final poem, “The Year of Sloes, for Ishi,” draws upon Native-American culture and creates parallels to events in Irish history. In Mules, which includes the poems “Lunch with Pancho Villa” and “Mixed Marriage,” Muldoon examines the conflicted allegiances that shape his world view, using hybridized images that juxtapose various dichotomies, both real and fantastic, to convey his understanding of the political and personal tensions that surrounded him in Northern Ireland. Why Brownlee Left employs a quest motif to explore the concept of difference at a deeper and more complex level. With this volume, Muldoon established a structural pattern that he repeated in subsequent books, involving a series of short poems—ballads, sonnets, and short lyrics—preceding a longer narrative poem. The centerpiece of Why Brownlee Left is “Immram”—Gaelic for “wandering”—whose title derives from the ancient Irish poem “Immram Mul Duine.” The poem splices together elements drawn from the Irish vision-quest genre, detective fiction, film noir, and comedy to create a lyrical narrative that addresses issues of identity, the meaning of “home,” and the impossibility of directing or controlling one's life. The poems of Quoof are marked by frenetic wordplay and increased stanzaic experimentation, as well as a more sophisticated treatment of recurring topics such as family, language, the quest, love, death, and Ireland. Quoof, whose title refers to the Muldoon family's private word for a hot water bottle, ends with one of his best known poems, “The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants.” Returning to Native-American literature for the poem's central analogy, Muldoon utilizes a cycle of trickster myths from the Winnebago Indians, delving into issues of identity and questioning the validity of knowledge about oneself, others, and events—particularly with respect to the violence and civil strife in Northern Ireland.
As editor of The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry (1986), Muldoon set out to identify and catalog the most significant Irish poets since Yeats. Rather than write a traditional editorial introduction for the collection, Muldoon instead published a lengthy transcript of a 1939 debate between Irish poets F. R. Higgins and Louis MacNeice regarding the state of Irish poetry, which served to reflect many of Muldoon's own views on the subject. Meeting the British, Muldoon's last volume of poetry written before moving to the United States, returns to the theme of wandering, using shorter lyrical lines to suggest movement and change. The volume's long poem, “7, Middagh Street,” refers to the Brooklyn, New York, residence where English poet W. H. Auden settled following his relocation to the United States in the 1940s. Muldoon's long and complex epic narrative, Madoc—subtitled “A Mystery”—combines two storylines into one narrative. The first plotline is a retelling of the story of the twelfth-century Welsh prince, Madoc. According to legend, Madoc sailed west, discovered America, and settled among a Native-American tribe of Mandan Indians. The second plotline is an imaginative rendering of a never-realized scheme—conceived by nineteenth-century British Romantic poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey—to sail to America and establish a utopian pantisocracy on the banks of Pennsylvania's Susquehanna River. Each of the volume's poems is parenthetically titled with the name of an ancient philosopher or intellectual. The two storylines converge in a narrative presented by a descendent of Southey, named “South,” who retrieves the story from the back of his own eye using a device called a retinograph.
In contrast to Madoc, the poems that comprise The Annals of Chile are more personal, lyrical, and emotionally charged, allowing Muldoon to explore ideas of loss—both personal and cultural. These themes are addressed in poems such as the elegiac “Incantata”—written for Mary Farl Powers, an artist and Muldoon's former lover—and in the collection's long poem, “Yarrow,” focusing on 1963, a year marked by the passing of Robert Frost, Louis MacNeice, and Sylvia Plath. These poems revolve around Muldoon's relationships to those who died before him juxtaposed against incidents from his daily routines and current milestones—events which shaped his consciousness and informed his art. Hay (1998) is a diverse assemblage of poems whose various forms, styles, and subjects reflect Muldoon's continuing effort to present a more personal and accessible side in his work. Poems such as “The Mud Room” and “The Bangle (Slight Return),” revisit themes of identity, literature, and the potential for discovery facilitated by rhyme and poetic form. Muldoon has also published a series of shorter volumes, including The Prince of the Quotidian (1994), a diary-like account of the poet's daily activities in Princeton, New Jersey, and Kerry Slides (1996), which centers around Muldoon's return visits to Ireland. In addition to his poetry collections, Muldoon has produced several librettos, most notably Shining Brow (1993), which is an operatic biography of architect Frank Lloyd Wright written in collaboration with composer Daron Hagen. Muldoon has also served as the editor of The Essential Byron (1989) and The Faber Book of Beasts (1997), and has published a collection of his lectures on Irish literature in To Ireland, I (2000).
From the publication of his earliest poems Muldoon has been widely lauded for his sophisticated verbal techniques and his experimentation with poetic form. New Weather has received considerable critical acclaim and has been praised for introducing Muldoon's singular poetic voice. Despite his strong preoccupation with Irish culture and tradition, reviewers have often noted the absence of both explicit references to Northern Irish politics and expressions of Muldoon's own political beliefs in his poetry. Commentators have acknowledged the linguistic complexity of Muldoon's poetry, drawing attention to its inventive wordplay, use of neologisms, innovative stanzaic treatment, and comic elements. Many critics have also lauded Muldoon's postmodern mode of splicing together themes and techniques borrowed from other genres and media. However, some reviewers have argued that such poems are oblique and obscure, noting that several of Muldoon's works appear to be deliberately inaccessible, hermetic, and artificial. Madoc, in particular, has been criticized for employing a highly stylized structure and failing to examine emotional, core issues. Other critics have disagreed with this assessment of Muldoon's poetry, citing such poems as “Incantata” and “Yarrow” in The Annals of Chile as examples of Muldoon's most passionate and personal works. In general, most critics have agreed that Muldoon is a highly original poet whose writing offers insight into challenging questions surrounding the nature of poetry, cultural history, national allegiance, and self-identity.