Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon gave a reading as the keynote poet at last Thursday’s writer’s conference. Muldoon read from all periods of his work including newer, unpublished material.
“Paul Muldoon displays a versatility, which is extraordinary,” Jim Brazell, associate professor of English, said as he introduced Muldoon.
Muldoon’s most recent work “Moy Sand and Gravel” displays this versatility in its variety of poetic forms, from the haiku-esque series of poems “News Headlines from Homer Noble Farm,” to the more standard but still astonishing lyrical poetry.
Muldoon’s joking and easy-going nature, combined with his sense of sound kept the readinglight. “Have no fear, I’ve been to poetry readings, too,” he said.
His playful use of words spilled off the page and into the audience at times, eliciting laughs and smiles. His use of short, aphoristic lines combined with extensive use of rhyme made Muldoon’s writing a refreshing oddity in the climate of modern poetry.
While retaining the precepts of traditional poetry, Muldoon’s subject matter was contemporary. This counterpoint in itself made for interesting commentary on modern society as exemplified in his poem “To Thanos.” The poem was about hearing various digital ringing noises only to find that they are not coming from a fax machine or cell phone but from a simple cricket.
Perhaps the most impressive testament to Muldoon’s mastery of poetic form was his poem “The Last Time I Saw Chris.” The poem was a sestina, a 39-line poem in which six end words are repeated throughout the poem in a complex shifting of lines within a strict, fixed pattern.
What was so impressive about the poem was that it was a sestina that didn’t appear to be one. The end words were so subtly integrated in with the enjambment of his lines that the intense repetition was subconscious and barely noticeable.
Muldoon’s advice for the writers and poets at the conference was to stay focused and place faith in yourself and your writing.
“To focus is important,” he said. “Focus on the details, which will see you through. Observe and don’t write poems. Don’t feel you have to translate the world into poetry.”
He also emphasized the importance of self-expression and self-awareness in writing, saying that if your writing does not have an effect on you as the author, then it is not likely to have an effect on anyone else. “If it changes me, maybe it will change someone else,” he said.
Muldoon read at the conference in 1998 and was impressed with the way it has grown in the past four years.
“It seems like a very lively conference,” he said.
The conference crowd enjoyed Muldoon’s reading for its great quality of sound as well as the brilliance of his written word.
“Terrific, the wit, the humor, the erudition,” Donna Ruggiero, a teacher at Stewart Country Day School and conference attendee, said, summing up the audience response.
Muldoon was born in Northern Ireland in 1951. He has lived in the United States since 1987 and is a Howard G. B. Clark professor of humanities at Princeton University. He is also an elected professor of poetry at the University of Oxford. He has published nine books of poetry and is widely regarded as one of the leading living poets of the English language.