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He lost his mother and sister to cancer before their time, but Paul Muldoon found solace in the written word and channelling 'the force of language in the world'

Ahead of his appearance at The MAC in Belfast next month, feted poet Paul Muldoon tells Barry Egan about the deaths of his mother and his sister from ovarian cancer, how he fell in love with his wife Jean, his connections with Seamus Heaney and John Banville, and how he believes he's had 'minimal influence' on his two children's lives

Paul Muldoon photographed by Steve Humphreys
Paul Muldoon photographed by Steve Humphreys
Paul Muldoon reading Seamus Heaney’s work
Paul’s wife Jean
Seamus Heaney
John Banville

By Barry Egan

Paul Muldoon and his wife Jean were staying in a hotel in Portland, Oregon, in the Nineties. Their daughter Dorothy was about four years old at the time. Paul rang reception and asked to speak to the manager. The receptionist was slightly nervous and said the manager wasn't available.

Paul spoke to the assistant manager instead... "I just want to tell you what a fabulous hotel you have here. Everybody has been so nice to us. I'm sure you are used to people complaining to you about this and that, but our stay has been wonderful."

Then Paul put the phone down.

"My wife said to me, 'You know, Paul - you're just like my father'.

"And then, my daughter said to me, 'You know, Paul - you're just like my father'."

Does Paul think his wife had adopted the Freudian concept of being attracted at some subconscious level to a man who reminded her of her father? "I do think that obtains in many cases. I don't know if it obtains universally, but there seems to be something to it."

And he's met Jean's father, obviously?

"Oh, yeah. He's still alive. He is a great guy. He is a doctor. He has just stopped practising. He is a very thorough fellow and very amusing."

Paul believes the point at which some connection was made by Jean about him maybe being a bit like her father was "the fact that we're both mad keen on westerns, which is hard to be these days. We are big fans of the western, being men of a certain age. Well, he is 90 now."

Did Paul watch westerns with his father?

"I did, and with other family members. There was this particular uncle who, whenever there would be some massacre, his line was always, 'God, there'll be a big funeral tomorrow'."

Paul's mother Brigid was 54 when she died of ovarian cancer in 1974. His sister Maureen was 53 when she died in 2006 of the same cancer. After Maureen died, Paul told The Guardian he thought he "probably wouldn't write about it. I couldn't see any obvious way to write anything, but the forces within oneself eventually announce themselves," he said in reference to the poem Horse Latitudes, which is about his sister.

His father, Patrick, died in 1985, aged 75. "One never stops thinking about these things. One's parents are always one's parents. They are always lurking around in some way. I was up at their grave the other day in Armagh. I was there with my daughter. My father used to say, 'It's only a blink'. We're here so briefly."

Born on June 21, 1951, Paul was the eldest of three children (his brother Joseph is a university administrator in Canada). Paul's father was a labourer and market gardener.

In an interview with The Paris Review in 2004, Paul recalled: "It takes almost nothing to get me back there, certainly to the house I was brought up in, after the age of four, near a village called the Moy (on the border of counties Armagh and Tyrone)."

He was "a great fan of the pigs. I used to go out there on a cold winter morning and the pigs were being fed, and it was quite appetising to see them eating their porridge."

The pig devotee who would go on to be one of the most acclaimed Irish poets of his or any generation - he has won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the TS Eliot Prize - had his start, it is said, as a 16-year-old when he sent a batch of poems to a Mr Seamus Heaney, asking what was wrong with them. To which Heaney replied: "Nothing."

Tragically, this story is something of a poetic myth.

"There are so many versions of this story," smiles Paul, "which is a story that seems to exercise people somehow, understandably perhaps. What happened was: I was introduced to him by a teacher in Armagh Museum and he apparently said to Seamus Heaney, 'This guy is going to be better than you are'. What an introduction!" laughs Paul.

(He was certainly smiling a good few years later when the Times Literary Supplement dubbed him "the most significant English-language poet born since the Second World War".)

"So I sent him some poems. And some version of that story is running around. But actually, you know, I wrote to him and he wrote to me and one way or another, he took a couple of these poems and published them in Threshold, a magazine from the Lyric Theatre that he was guest editing in 1968."

Was there a form of mentoring going on?

"I wouldn't say mentoring, per se. He was my teacher for a while in Queen's. You know, it is inevitable that Seamus and I are compared and contrasted because we are from the same part of the world."

I ask him did he put Heaney and himself together in his 1990 epic - and controversial - poem Madoc: A Mystery.

"I didn't, but people say I did. I think it was Edna Longley who said that Madoc had to do with myself and Seamus really rather than Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey. I don't think that's right. I certainly wasn't thinking in those terms."

Famously, John Banville, in his review of Madoc in The New York Review of Books, wrote: "I cannot help feeling that this time he has gone too far."

"I don't remember the details of his review but certainly that line does occur in it; that I'd gone too far," Paul says, "which is a fascinating idea, particularly coming from John Banville. Because John Banville, whom I've known for many years, is quite famous for pushing out the boat himself.

"I'm surprised that John Banville even entertains the idea of anybody going too far. He is an experimental novelist, certainly his first novels were.

"But I think Madoc is a pretty out-there poem. As far as I'm concerned, all poems need to be out there. Madoc does go far. There is nothing quite like it."

He is fond of quoting Scottish poet Don Paterson's line: 'The poem is a little mechanism for remembering itself.'

"The question is," Muldoon asked in an interview with The White Review in 2017, "why has the poem come into being?"

Paul says that from the beginning, from the first poem he wrote as a child, the work always came through him.

"It's not that I'm absolutely absent but I am somewhat absent. The important thing has to do not with me but with something else."

What is the something else?

"The something else is the power - I don't know if there is a decent description of it - but let's say it's the force of language in the world and the tendency for language to want to construct new shapes for itself in the world. The analogy that I find useful is the DNA. We are used by DNA to further itself.

"I have been doing this for so long now you can't really expect necessarily to be able to do it forever or maybe even at all."

Is that the big fear - that he will wake up one day and the tap is turned off?

"You know, it is not actually a fear, believe it or not. I'll tell you what it is. I've had an extremely good innings. I have been very, very lucky. I have managed to write a lot of stuff and tried to keep abreast of who I was and where I was as I did it.

"And if it's over, that's fine. The big fear is, and no one can ever be sure that they haven't already reached it, I don't want to be publishing c**p, basically.

"And I'm sure some people will say, 'It's a bit late for him to be saying that'. So it wouldn't bother me at all. It would be a kind of relief in many ways, honestly, because it is very hard to do."

So why does he do it?

"Because I have to do it."

It's an affliction?

"Yes, it's an affliction. Totally. It's a drug and it's a disease. It's not something I have any choice in any more. It is like an addiction or something. It is a drug of some kind. It's just what I do. I am wired to do it."

To this end, Paul, who looks like he should be playing guitar in The Cure with the big rock star head on him, is putting on the extraordinary Muldoon's Picnic.

"An omnium gatherum of poetry, prose and music" - think Muldoon as Dylan in the Rolling Thunder Revue 40 years on, featuring variously Zadie Smith, Anne Enright, Fintan O'Toole, Michael Longley, Lisa O'Neill, Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, Wendy Erskine, Glen Hansard, Lisa Lambe, Martin Hayes and Horslips among many others, even a fella by the name of John Banville - that will visit various parts of Ireland, starting at the Hawkswell Theatre in Sligo on August 2.

Paul is Professor in the Humanities at Princeton University. Before that, from 1999-2004, he was Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford. He was also poetry editor of The New Yorker magazine for 10 years until he left in 2017.

"It was a great experience in many ways but very tough. I spent most of my time saying 'no' to people. Who needs that?" I am curious about home life in New York with his novelist wife Jean Hanff Korelitz. Is he in one room writing poems and in another Jean is writing novels?

"In fact, we have - several times - sat at the same table, and worked away. We can do that. But in general, we write in separate spots. She's fabulous."

What's the attraction?

"Physical. I'd say it is purely physical. Actually, when I met her she was a poet but, as they say, she's all right now. The great thing about her is - at least she tells me it's the great thing - she is very direct. She will say to me when I show her a poem: 'That's rubbish. Don't even think about publishing that'."

What does he say? 'I didn't like your last book either?'

"No, I don't say that. I say 'okay', because that is a wonderful thing to say to someone," Paul says. "And I know it sounds weird, but it is a wonderful thing to hear. And I'd sooner hear it from her than John Banville."

Paul and Jean have two grown-up children - Dorothy, who is 27, and Asher, who is 20. Asher is a Princeton student. "But he's a singer who's taken time off from university to be an understudy on the US national tour of Dear Evan Hansen, an extremely successful new musical. He's also working on a musical version of Patrick McCabe's The Butcher Boy."

Dorothy "does a bit of interior design and she also writes songs. She is a very good songwriter. She's is just about to release some. Her stage name is Damsen."

I ask Paul if he and his wife's rearing of Dorothy and Asher effectively disprove poet Philip Larkin's theory about parents that "they f*** you up, your mum and dad?"

"You know what? I believe very strongly that one has limited, maybe even minimal, influence on one's kids. I'd like to think that we gave them a sort of decent place in which to become themselves but the truth is they are their own selves. They arrive with their own little - or big - personalities.

"I look at my daughter now and I see her as a child. I see that child as she has always been and I don't think I had that much to do with it, really."

Paul said to Dorothy a few years ago: "Do you have any idea how much I love you?"

"The child has some love for the parent, maybe, maybe not," he says, "but the love that a parent has, in most cases, for a child - it is just one of the most powerful instincts in the world."

Paul can remember travelling to Dublin with his father when he was seven to buy plants. "There were a lot of horses around."

Paul recalls his mother as being "a very reserved, maybe even cool, but good woman. She was a school teacher, but quite strict really in her way. Strict in the classroom and strict-ish at home, with an eye to have us do the very best we could."

Asked to describe himself, Paul says: "I don't know whether I'm amusing but I think I'm amused. I'm quite amused. I laugh a lot. I enjoy a bit of fun."

In his youth, Paul used to have a lot of late nights; now he goes to bed no later than 9.30pm.

"That drives people crazy," he laughs, "because I will go to an opera and leave at half-time. And it doesn't matter if it is good, bad or indifferent. I get up very early in the morning. I don't sit up at night. I go to bed super-early. I don't watch TV."

When Paul and his wife are not writing together at the same table, what do they do socially in New York?

"Oh, we're out every night, often not together. We really take advantage of being in New York."

Paul says there are things that he is interested in that she isn't. "She is not particularly interested in rock 'n' roll. She is not particularly interested in opera."

The 'Muldoon's Picnic' tour starts at the Hawkswell Theatre, Sligo on August 2, then goes to the Gate Theatre, Dublin on August 4, the Everyman in Cork on August 5, Glor in Ennis on August 7, The Dock in Carrick-on-Shannon on August 9, and The MAC in Belfast on August 11. Produced by Poetry Ireland and supported by an Arts Council/An Chomhairle Ealaíon and Arts Council of Northern Ireland touring grant

THE SECRET OF A HAPPY MARRIAGE

Paul Muldoon and his wife Jean have been married for 32 years. They met at a poetry reading in London in 1984. Paul was giving a reading in the Poetry Society.

"She had come over from the US and was in the poetry business herself. She happened to be at a poetry reading and I happened to sign her book. Then I met her a bit after that, the following year. I suppose I fell in love with her, I'm not sure she fell in love with me."

Even now?

"I think she does love me. There is always a bit of mystery about these things."

I ask him what happened when they met a year later? He takes the question literally.

"Is this a family publication? Well, then I can't tell you.

"Jean was, and is, a beautiful woman," he continues, "and a beautiful person with a great mind; and I fell in love with her. She was finishing off at Cambridge, where she had been for two years doing a second degree.

"She came on a poetry writing course, on which I was one of the tutors, at the Arvon Foundation. That's really where I met her. She was coming over to Ireland for a project and I got in touch with her and asked would she like to come through Belfast on her trip. That was 1985.

"Then we lived in Belfast for a while. Then we lived in Dingle for most of 1986. Then we were back to England when I was offered a job and then I got offered a job in the US which made Jean's parents very happy because they had their daughter back home. Then we got married in the States."

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