You’ll see the word “gaiety” a thousand times if you read any essay on Paul Muldoon; while linguistic feats like “pulley glitches, gully pitches” abound in his work, he is somehow never donnish. He can show you ways of looking at words without pushing you away from them. His resume—spotted as it is with names like Princeton, Oxford, and The New Yorker, where he is the poetry editor—also includes two rock bands, operas, and a song that has been covered in concert by Bruce Springsteen. (The latter was co-written by Warren Zevon for one of his last records, before he died in 2003.) In a piece for The New York Review of Books, John Banville identified a “loony elegance and obsessive playfulness” in Paul Muldoon’s poetry, and he’s not wrong. Muldoon’s work is often playing with gravity. His latest work, Word on the Street, is a book of song lyrics he wrote for his band Wayside Shrines and an album of songs from that book. I talked to him about how difficult it is to write, how difficult it is to hold an audience’s interest, and how easy it is for him to relax at a stadium concert. Wayside Shrines plays at Joe’s Pub tomorrow night.
How did you meet Warren Zevon?
I wrote him a fan letter and told him how great I thought he was. Then he got in touch with me, and we wrote a couple songs. It was working with him that got me interested in attempting to do this at all. He was an absolutely brilliant songwriter. I feel very lucky to have met him, and to have learned something from him. There’s really no point in learning from someone that’s only okay at it, whatever it is. Whether it’s a car mechanic or a cinematographer. You want to learn from people who are really good at it. You want to try to learn from them, anyway. Insofar as one learns anything from anybody, which we have to believe we do, otherwise we wouldn’t be teachers. I think I learned quite a lot from him. If only how hard it is.
Was it hard for him? Did he ever express that?
Yeah, I think it was. I think many of these people… it’s just a truism, we’ve heard it a million times, but I think it’s just a fact. They make it look easy, because they put so much work into it. We spent, I’d say, about a month writing one verse of one song. And you wouldn’t think that. At the end of the day, the last thing one would think about would be, “Huh, they must have spent a month writing that.”
No one wants to think something’s been overworked or overwritten.
That’s right. Honestly, that is such a problem. It’s a real issue.
You’ve been to the Meadowlands quite a bit. They’re building a new stadium, aren’t they?
It’s very hard to keep track of all these stadia, because they keep changing names every ten minutes. One bank owns it, and then another bank owns it. But I’ve been to all of those venues. I spend a lot of my time going to music shows, for relaxation.
Can you relax at a stadium concert?
How is that! I went to see the E Street Band at the Meadowlands right before it closed, and that was hectic. I can’t imagine.
I know what you mean, they can get quite rowdy. Also there are people standing up in front of you. That’s a bit of a drag. But sometimes, if I can manage at all, I’ll try to get a seat in the front row of a section. Where I can sit, in my advanced years. The fact of the matter is the demographic going to many of these concerts these days is actually a bunch of old guys and gals. Some of these venues are quite sophisticated now, compared to what they were. You see people wandering Madison Square Garden with trays filled with flutes of champagne.
Is there a sort of natural evolution from what you were doing with your previous band, Rackett, to what you’re doing with Wayside Shrines?
They’re similar projects, I suppose. This is more of a communal effort than Rackett was. It’s a bit of a moveable feast. We’re very keen to be as various as possible, which would be a danger, I suppose, if we were setting out to take over the world, because people of course like bands to have very specific sounds. But since we’re not quite doing that, we’re not really too worried. As I think most of the people in the band are, I’m interested in a wide range of music. I like traditional Irish music, I like rock ‘n’ roll, I like very basic blues, I like country music, I like some rap music.
What rap music do you like?
Recently, believe it or not, I had the pleasure of meeting DMC from Run DMC. Do you know those guys?
We’re hoping to try and write something together. We’ve not done too much about it yet, but I enjoy writing songs with other people. I’m not an expert at all on rap music, or hip hop, or whatever you call it, but one thing I do know about it is that there’s an interest in the word, which is not such a feature of many other genres of music. The same is true of country music. There’s an interest in the witty line, you know?
There are a lot of jokes.
Yeah, not necessarily always laugh-out-loud jokes but they’re…we have a song, which we haven’t got on this album, called “You Better Think Twice Because You’ll only Two-Time Me Once.”
Ah! That’s such a country song title.
That’s right, there’s that component which we rather like. There’s another one called…it’s not on this CD either…it’s called “You Say You’re Just Hanging Out But I Know You’re Just Hanging In.” Those aren’t necessarily done as country songs, but one of the things I’m fascinated by is the extent to which songs may have different manifestations in the world. And the classic case for me, or the one that certainly comes to mind for me, is a song by Leonard Cohen which I’m sure you know, “Bird on a Wire.” There’s a CD of Leonard Cohen covers by a bunch of artistes, including Willie Nelson, who sings “Bird on a Wire.” And really, the way Willie Nelson sings it, it’s a country song.
Leonard Cohen happens to be one of my heroes, and the thing about his songs is you can do almost anything to them and they’ll survive it, you know? I was trying to get one of my kids to go see The Tempest tonight at Princeton, just as I brought another of them to see Macbeth the other night. And I said to them, “You know, these are plays you can do upside down in a swimming pool, and still something interesting is going to come out of them.” Every time you see it. And my son goes, “Well, I’ve seen The Tempest.” And I said, “Well, yeah, in some sense. But in another, not at all. You can keep on seeing it for the rest of your life, you know? And you’re still not seeing it.” So I’m interested in that aspect of the song. I try to write songs that would withstand the various pressures that might be brought to bear upon them.
Do you find that songwriting gets easier as you do it more?
Absolutely not! Absolutely not, no. I find that everything gets harder. It’s horrifying. It’s not how it should be.
Do you mean with age?
It may be partly age. You need energy to be able to do these things. But also… oh, I don’t know why it is. But certainly, for the most part, the longer people continue in some of these practices—certainly in poetry writing—the worst they tend to get. It’s one of the reasons I thought I might try to take up songwriting. I think songs may occur in the world at a slightly lower pressure per square inch than some poems.
Because it frees you up to play with language in a way that you can’t with poetry, or because there’s less pressure on what the song is supposed to do?
A little bit of both. There are lines in some of these songs that are a bit slaphappy and clichéd in a way that probably wouldn’t occur in one of my poems. I’m not saying cliché is okay in a song, but somehow songs are more forgiving. Sometimes a cliché is just the thing. Sometimes a throwaway line is just the thing, and it’s the combination of words and music, that extraordinary chemical reaction between the two, that makes them work. There are loads of songs, the lyrics of which one may not even be able to decipher. There are songs that one runs around singing, and one isn’t even sure if one’s actually got the right words, and it doesn’t even matter somehow.
I wanted to ask you about clichés, actually, because that’s something I noticed a lot in both your poetry and in your song lyrics. You have that line at the end of that poem of yours, “A Train,” where you take an idiom [“give lie to the notion”] and put it in a really prized place. But you’ll also make fun of clichés quite often—
One of my favorite poems is from years ago. I can’t actually…I read it very fleetingly. I don’t remember who wrote it, but it sort of doesn’t matter. I’m kind of interested, actually, in anonymity. It’s one of the aspects of songwriting that fascinates me. One wants to write in a somewhat impersonal way. Anyway, there’s a poem called…I think it was called “The Pearl Fishers” or “The Pearl Fishermen”? And the poem, the line I remember from it is, “The oyster is his world,” which is obviously a standing-on-its-head of the cliché. Is it the most fascinating piece of literature ever written? Of course not, but it does its job.
Yes, and it’s playful.
People think that playfulness is a problem. Certainly in poetry. They think that playfulness or anything that might raise a smile is inappropriate for such a serious or such a solemn art form as poetry writing. Whereas I love so-called light verse, for example. When I hear people talk about light verse, as I just have, I’m often prompted to think: well, what is the alternative to light verse? Is it heavy verse? Poetry comes in all sorts of ways in the world. I feel, anyway, that I have to be very open to its many manifestations.
Have you recently been struck by something unexpected that could be poetry?
Do you mean a kind of writing, or just an image?
There are a couple of images that have had a certain currency recently. I’ve actually tried to incorporate them. They don’t really need an awful lot to be done with them. They’re just so fascinating in themselves. They’re revelations about the world, which is, among other things, what poems represent. One of them has to do with the fact—I don’t know if you read it this last week or ten days—that they’ve been doing some work on the dung beetle. Did you see this in The New York Times?
No, I didn’t.
It seems that they did some work with dung beetles in Africa in the middle of the desert. They deduced from various experiments, including obscuring their vision, that dung beetles steer by the stars. They steer by the Milky Way. You know, just that factoid is much more interesting than many poems I read.
Another recent factoid you may have seen was these excursions they’re involved with at the moment on Mars, with the little probe they have. They’ve discovered that there are rounded stones on Mars, and they recognize that’s because they were at one point part of a riverbed. So that kind of thing I find fascinating. Is that the sort of thing you’re talking about?
Yes, it is. What I was thinking about when I asked that question was… going throughout your day, are there things you have previously taken for granted, but now see as part of the definition of poetry that you often go back to, which is the idea that poems are engineered or structured or otherwise designed to do something…
Oh, you mean I myself have said something about that?
No, that’s right, I have. You’re absolutely right. There’s a poet I love, who you probably know, called Don Paterson. He’s a Scottish poet, and he has a definition of a poem as a little machine for remembering itself. A little machine, a little mechanism for remembering itself. And certainly the idea of a mechanism, a piece of engineering, is one significant component of what a poem is. It’s something that’s made in the world, constructed in the world. That’s one aspect of it. It’s not the whole story, but it’s certainly a significant part of the story, right? The best writing in any genre is revelatory.
I sometimes say to people… well, I don’t say it that often, but I do from time to time find myself saying about poems in The New Yorker, for example, where I work. I say to them, “Don’t you think [the poems] need to be at least as interesting as a review by David Denby?” Right? I certainly use that as a kind of yardstick. They need to be at least as interesting as anything else in the magazine. They need to be at least as interesting as a cartoon. I’ve said that to a couple of people, and they looked at me as if I were mad.
Why do you think that is? Why do you think there’s that reaction?
They think poetry’s a special case! And they think if you’re in poetry land, then it doesn’t matter if it means nothing. It’s sort of special.
Are there any poems that you’ve chosen to be in The New Yorker that you think of as particularly representative of this reaction to people who think poetry is supposed to be “special”?
You know, it’s not that I go around thinking in those terms. No, I go around thinking, insofar as I think at all, “Is this thing interesting?” I say that to my students too. Is this poem going to stop somebody? Are they going to read this poem instead of watching Downton Abbey or whatever? That sounds slightly overstated in some ways, but that’s what you’re up against. It should be at least as interesting as a hoarders show. Maybe there’s nothing as interesting as a hoarders show.
You’ve also said in the past that, as a poet, you feel like you’re most in competition with yourself, and I’m wondering if you’re just in competition with everything at a certain point. Or, at the end of the day, are you really just competing with yourself?
It’s not that… There are certain things that one can’t do, at least wittingly. One’s never perhaps able to avoid doing it completely unconsciously. And that’s to write the poem you wrote ten years ago or last week. It needs to be something else. So, in perhaps that sense, I might have been thinking of that.
I think that’s maybe one of the reasons it’s hard to keep on doing it. Because probably each of us is…I suspect there’s really not that much to any of us. I mean, we love to think we’re exceptionally complex, bottomless creatures, but I’m not sure of that, actually. I wouldn’t want to say that there is a finite amount of material. I certainly wouldn’t want to say that, since a poem may be about anything, and you wouldn’t want to rule anything out. But by the same token, since it may be about anything, it doesn’t actually matter what it’s about.
I suspect that really, if we’re lucky, we have two or three obsessions, or, I don’t know, things that we keep coming back to, that we keep picking at, or that keep picking at us, or on us. Those continuities are among what readers often see in the work of poets. You look at Emily Dickinson or Marianne Moore, and you say, “Okay, well, I can see there’s an extraordinary continuity here, right the way through.” But each of them in her way was probably sitting down and thinking, “Well, this is like nothing I’ve ever done. I’m really breaking ground here. I’ve got away from my old armored animal pack, or I’ve got away from my old religious imagery. I’ve got away from the hymn, the rhythm of the hymn here.” When in fact they never got away from it all.
Anyway, what am I trying to say. I suppose one’s attempting to do something new each time, to find each time what the poem wants to do, but one’s probably doomed to do the same old thing again.
I want to ask what you think your two or three obsessions are, but I know that that might be a little too…
Well, you know, I don’t know. That’s probably for someone else to say. Of course, a healthy person probably isn’t sitting around reading their own poems and thinking about the thematic links between one and the other.
One would hope not.
I actually don’t know. I’m not quite sure what the answer to that would be.
Do you often start writing a song with a phrase?
Often a phrase. Yes, often a phrase. One of the things about a song is it often has a hook, or a title, or a title and/or hook from a very familiar phrase that they keep coming back to.
Like “feet of clay,” for example.
That’s right, that’s right. The songs do little twists on those. There’s often a bit of lunacy on the way, but there’s this continuous component, this element to which they return. It’s often quite banal. You know, with a song, one has to work on the principle, more or less, that people are going to listen to it maybe only once, if even then. And they have to get it, more or less, the first time. Or at least get enough of it. You can replay it, of course, you can listen to it again, but it flies by your ear. You can’t put your eye to the top of the page and think, “What is that sentence? I have no idea what that’s about,” and then actually, within a millisecond, start again and have another look at it.
I read something about how the songs on the record have a restlessness about them. But they’re very much in one place to me. A lot of the songs have these little bits of New Jersey in them.
One doesn’t want to bore oneself or others. I think boredom is the enemy. Or an enemy. I mean, I’m sure boredom may be one’s friend. Maybe one should just resign… I’m thinking more and more of resigning myself to the slippers and the fireplace. But there are so many interesting things. One wants a bit of excitement. One wants to come out of a song, out of a poem, and think, Wow! That’s pretty amazing! Obviously it doesn’t happen every time, but… I suppose at some level, well, what’s the point of even doing it if you can’t hope to achieve something like that? It’s not only because one’s vying for attention, or it’s vying for attention in the world, where everything has its hand up. What’s the point of doing it if it’s not going to be as good as you can make it? Or as good as it can be, and you’re helping it?