Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
The first thing you notice about Paul Muldoon is his “genius hair,” Albert Einsteinian wisps that float out at odd angles from the head as if the brain’s thoughts were so frazzling, the hair got fried. He looks a lot like you’d expect having read his poetry: deceptively casual with soft voice and sleepy eyes but with startlingly acute and penetrating insight.
Muldoon—Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Poetry Editor of The New Yorker, professor at Princeton University, and lyricist and rhythm guitarist in his band Rackett—was sponsored by the Department of English Literature and the Cooper Foundation to visit Swarthmore Tuesday the 24th.
Students were invited to an LPAC classroom for an intimate Q&A session in which he answered questions about his poetry and writing process. During the session, he told the audience how his poetry is inspired by “more often than not, an image or a discerning of a kinship” and discerned likenesses that turn into “far-flung” similes that are alike in “but one fleeting sense.”
As an author, he feels that a “profound sense of ignorance” is essential to the writing process. To him, it’s important to find what’s being written about while writing, and this is what makes a work interesting. “There’s no point to writing the poem if you already know what you’re going to say,” said Muldoon. For Muldoon, poetry is all about discovery, “going into the unknown determinedly.”
“And to ensure that one does not know what one is doing, I sort of go slowly from line to line, word to word, and get it right before moving on.” Instead of writing drafts of poems, working and reworking the whole poem until polished, Muldoon works and reworks individual lines. He adds new lines onto the last until he feels he is finished, and then he has his final draft.
In regards to his particular fascination with form, Paul Muldoon does not start off knowing he is going to write, say, a sestina as in “Loaf.” Since he doesn’t start off knowing what the poem is about or what it looks like, he focuses more closely on the language itself, searching for “chimes that are intrinsic or inherent rather than imposed,” and using those to discover “why a line stops where it does and why the next begins where it does.”
He also mentioned how his poems may come into being via “negative capability.” Negative capability is a term Keats coined in a letter to describe the creation of a poem by an author who maintains an aesthetic distance and does not allow his opinions and beliefs to affect the poem in its purest form. Muldoon explained that his writing process is about “passiveness, yes, but a wise passiveness” and a contentedness to go fearlessly into uncertainty.
That evening, Paul Muldoon gave a well-attended reading in LPAC Cinema. He read from his collection Poems 1968-1998, Moy Sand and Gravel, as well as his recent, Pulitzer Prize-winning Horse Latitudes. Muldoon read “The Weepies,” “Cuba,” “Tithonus,” “The Sightseers,” “Loaf,” “Side Man,” “Turkey Buzzards,” “The Mountain Is Holding Out,” “Anseo,” “The Frog,” and “A Collegelands Catechism.” He ended with three personal poems about the birth of his daughter (“The Sonogram,” “Footling,” “The Birth”) and a jaunty, playful song “Saab With Sandy.”