Friday morning when Paul Muldoon spoke to students in Belk Centrum—as one of the featured authors in Lenoir-Rhyne’s Visiting Writers Series—he addressed the appeal of poetry, the importance of reading masters of the craft, the teaching of poetry, and his own writing process.
Local poet and Adjunct Professor Scott Owens, who interviewed Muldoon, began by asking the question, “Why write poetry?” In response, Muldoon noted one of his favorite observations about poetry, from W. B. Yeats: A man dabbles in verses, and they become his life. Muldoon recalled how he first wrote a poem as a teenager. Rather than composing the weekly essay, he decided to write a poem because it was shorter, and it seemed easier. The following Monday the teacher asked him to read it to the class. The act of reading his words aloud to his peers felt wonderful to him, and he was hooked. I have a very primitive view of how the brain works, he said. We are happy when we see connections being made in the world. Poetry is about that, about finding the likeness in unlike things.
In response, Owens commented on Muldoon’s penchant for analogies, mentioning his recent poem “Catamaran,” in which he likens sperm whales to the two-hulled boat of the title. That comparison reminded me of the gliding movement of the snail that Muldoon likens to a hovercraft in his early poem “Hedgehog,” which my students and I read as a prelude to his visit.
When Owens asked if he preferred James Joyce or W. B. Yeats, Muldoon replied that he admired both of them. I fear that this will sound presumptuous, he added, but sometimes when I read Yeats, I say to myself, I could do this. But Joyce, never. That would never cross my mind. Joyce is a mystery.
Owens observed that he could see the influence of both Joyce and Yeats in Muldoon’s work, to which Muldoon replied: As an Irish writer, there’s no point in pretending that they aren’t there. He added that it’s essential to study the masters, to see what (John) Donne has done or what (Emily) Dickinson has done. And if you’re going to write big stanzaic poems, you need to study Yeats.
Muldoon, who has taught at both Oxford and Princeton, noted that as a professor he has to believe—as all teachers of writing have to believe—that we can learn to do what other writers have done. The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet said that when goes to the bookstore and sees a book on how to write a poem, he buys it. If he is working on a poem and it seems to be taking on the form of a sestina, he looks up the rhyme scheme of a sestina—because he isn’t crazy, Muldoon said. No sane person keeps that rhyme scheme in his head, he added.
In response to a question about how his power of observation plays a role in his poetry, Muldoon said that writing poetry means looking hard at the world; “description will take you a long way down the road.” He added, sometimes I tell my students not to get hung up on writing a poem. Think of your writing as a documentary.
When an audience member asked, “Who’s in charge, the poet or the poem?” Muldoon said the poem, adding that many things that happen in his poems come from a passive, ignorant, or innocent mode. I want to come out of the poem that has asked to be written, he said. There’s no decent analogy for that. Muldoon’s follow-up statement, “I never know what I’m doing,” echoed the sentiments of Lamott, who sat on the same stage in the same chair a week earlier. In the chapter “Shitty First Drafts” in Lamott’s Bird by Bird, she observes that “[v]ery few writers really know what they’re doing until they’ve done it.”
Muldoon spoke of the importance of fumbling around in your writing, saying that when you’re writing—whether it’s a poem or an essay or something else—it only becomes interesting when you come up with an idea that you didn’t expect to have.
Near the end of Muldoon’s talk, a student asked him whether a poem can be about the subject on the page or whether it always signifies something else. Muldoon replied that a poem could be about what’s on the page, adding that the question brought to mind one of the problems with the way that poetry is often taught. The problem is that sometimes we’ll look at the duck on the pond and say that the duck on the pond is really the British Empire. Well, sometimes it’s the duck on the pond. Sometimes the poet is just writing about the duck.
Now having listened to Muldoon, I imagine that my method of teaching his poem “Hedgehog” is similar to the way he asks his own students to study poems. Rather than presenting an interpretation, I asked students to look closely at the poem—the way that poets, in Muldoon’s words, look hard at the world, because “description will take you a long way”—and consider why he may have chosen to render the hedgehog as we see it, in the last stanza, as a “god” (17) with a “crown of thorns” (18).
Muldoon, Paul. “Hedgehog.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 13 Apr. 2016.