Skip to content
Who's in the Video
Paul Muldoon is a writer, academic and educator, as well as Pulitzer Prize-winning poet from County Armagh, Northern Ireland.  Since 1987 he has lived in the United States, where he[…]

Everything from Irish song to Yevgeny Evtushenko.

Question: Whose poetry informs your work?

Paul Muldoon: There was so much poetry that was influential, from so many eras, and from so many traditions.

For example, there was the immediate tradition, the Irish tradition--I talked little bit about Irish language earlier on--with that, of course, came a massive tradition of literature that we were reared in, we were brought up in it.

In the homes there were people certainly still singing songs, stories; stories and songs that had components of that culture. But also at school, of course, as we are learning Irish, we learned it predominately through song.

As it happens, Irish poetry and Irish song were in many cases indistinguishable. So we learned all that. And the great Irish texts, we learned. We are also brought up in poetry in English, not only in the Irish tradition--studied Yeats when we were at school--but in the English tradition. Very early on I studied the metaphysical poets. When we where 16 or 17, one of our set texts was the metaphysical poets, an edition by Helen Gardner; of John Donne, George Herbert--and all the boys. They were predominantly boys, alas.

I am sure there was few ladies also, but I’m not sure, they seemed to have disappeared somewhat, alas. And perhaps some of them have been rediscovered more recently.

But anyway those where the poets who, as it happened, where very significant to me, John Donne in particular. And then T.S. Eliot, John Donne’s great disciple and champion in the early 20th century--I knew everything there was to be known about TS Eliot when I was 16 or 17. I was into T.S. Eliot the way a healthy creature would be into baseball or something. And the way that a healthy-ish young person would know all the scores and the teams and who did what and who played what in 1923, and all the rest of it, I knew everything there was to be known about T.S. Eliot.

I had a deal with the local librarian, and she got me everything that could be got on T.S.  And so I wrote very much in the style of T.S. Eliot, when I started out.

And then,  oh, also a great era, the 1960s, for poets, for poetry in translation, poetry and translation. There was a series called the Penguin Poets in Translation, so we were reading for example, Evtushenko. Evtushenko was as well known to us as Yeats--he really was.

So there was that sense of a world literature. I studied French poetry also as a student. I knew a lot about French poetry; a whole range of stuff.

And then I made a study under the guidance of the teacher of 20th century poetry in English. I knew things that I have no idea. I couldn’t tell you what I was doing this morning--but in those days I just knew an awful lot, in the way that kids do, in the way the kids do, and the way that teenagers do, if they’re interested in something.

It just happened to be the thing I was interested in. It could have been something else, but that’s what it was. And then I just plugged away at it and plugged the way and plugged away and plugged away. Yeats has a great line about that. He says “a man, or a woman, dabbles in verses and they become his life.” And that’s basically what has happened to me and, I’m sure, most other poets.

It’s a habit, it’s a habit so much of it is about particular habit of seeing a particular openness; nothing special about it, I think. It’s just that it is a particular way of thinking about the world or being open to the world in the way. 

I walk down the street here in New York earlier this morning, for example, and I went by a baseball store and I looked at a helmet, it reflected it fleetingly and it had been signed by I don’t know who, one of the Knicks players or whatever. But I suppose if I where, that would be a completely different store and that would be a completely different helmet to someone who was in the habit of thinking about it in different way.

So as writer or poet, certainly one simply in the habit of thinking about phrases that strike one, as if for the first time, which is something that happens to all of us whether or not we are writers. We see this—we think “hey, is that what that means?” It’s interesting. Or we can make a connectio; -the finding of likeness between unlike things which is at the root of metaphor-making, simile-making, the same thing. Something is like something else.

One, again, one of the most powerful, basic urges that we have in the world and as children and as we continue through the world and it is also at the heart of poetry.


Recorded on: Jan 30, 2008