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Publication in Focus: Paul Muldoon in America

24 November 2021 - “Endless ways to read him and endless ways to write about him”, Dr Alex Alonso says of the “incredibly productive” poet Paul Muldoon, following the recent publication of his book Paul Muldoon in America: Transatlantic Formations as part of our latest ‘publication in focus’ series.

Dr Alonso is a Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Fellow at Trinity’s School of English. Captivated by Muldoon’s poetry from his early studies of the poet’s work, Dr Alonso describes “the cheekiness, the mischievousness, the humour” and “the darkness”—all trademarks of Muldoon’s work.

Having completed his doctoral thesis under the supervision of prominent literary scholar Hugh Haughton at the University of York in 2017, Dr Alonso worked with Trinity School of English mentor Dr Rosie Lavan to develop the subject of his doctoral thesis into a monograph for Oxford University Press. Following the poet’s evolution from one of the ‘Belfast Group’ with contemporaries such as Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon and Michael Longley, the book focuses on Muldoon’s transatlantic departure and subsequent creative explorations in the United States. 

A well-respected and well-known poet before he goes to the U.S, much of Muldoon’s time is taken up with his work as a radio producer with BBC Northern Ireland until his departure to America, in the late 1980s, where he was able to spend more time on his poetry, Dr Alonso explains.

He leaves Northern Ireland partly because of his relationship with Jean Korelitz, an acclaimed American novelist, whom he marries shortly after arriving in the U.S. On arrival, between a number of visiting academic appointments and before finally securing a permanent lectureship at Princeton University, Muldoon moves around frequently, resulting in the “restlessness” which Dr Alonso notes in the poet’s American debut collection, Madoc: A Mystery.

While Muldoon made his name in Northern Ireland, in America he has become a poetic luminary.
Dr Alex Alonso

“It’s a departure from what he’s written before”, says Dr Alonso, “though when he leaves Ireland it’s certainly not a complete break”. While allowing for many continuities in his work before and after his arrival in the States, Dr Alonso describes “a change in formal intensity, and a change in concerns with certain themes – particularly when it comes to reflecting on Ireland, and his memories of the North, from what is now a transatlantic distance.”

Muldoon’s imagination remains a Northern Irish one to some extent, Dr Alonso adds. “Even in the later works, when he’s been living in American for more than 30 years…there’s still that kind of urge to go back imaginatively to the place he grew up”, he explains, drawing on some of the themes of belonging that he addresses in his new book on the poet.

Dr Alonso describes Muldoon as having a sort of “bifocal vision”; “he’s often operating in ‘two places at once, or one place twice’, as he writes in his poem ‘Twice’.”

“While Muldoon made his name in Northern Ireland, in America he has become a poetic luminary”, says Dr Alonso referring to a new book by Paul McCartney edited by Paul Muldoon--Paul McCartney The Lyrics, 1956 To The Present, Volume 1 and 2—as the most recent in many collaborations with high profile singer-songwriters. “Muldoon's interest in music, particularly rock music, has truly come to the fore in America; as I discuss in the book, it resulted first in his trilogy of opera libretti – Shining Brow, Vera of Las Vegas, and Bandanna – and since then, in several books of song lyrics. As a lyricist he has been part of several bands over the last few years, the most recent of which is Rogue Oliphant.”

As part of the book, Dr Alonso has looked at the Muldoon papers in the Stuart Rose Archive at Emory University—this is the first book-length study to explore these papers in full. In this “huge wealth of material”, the researcher says that he gained access to Muldoon’s poetry drafts and notebooks and an insight into his distinctive use of rhyme. 

Paul Muldoon delivering the Trinity Long Room Hub Annual Edmund Burke Lecture 2018. Click here to listen to his talk, 'He Who Did Nothing: The Poet as Citizen.'

“In some of the longer poems I deal with, the structures are incredibly complex and you don’t fully appreciate how they work just by reading them; it’s going through the archive manuscripts that you begin to see that there is actually a scaffolding in place, and that whole scaffolding hasn’t been looked at in serious detail before”, says Dr Alonso. He adds “it’s strangely esoteric and almost superstitious why he keeps returning to particular rhyming schemes—schemes he’s invented himself and keeps adapting as he comes back to them, particularly when engaging with elegiac subjects to do with death or loss or lost loves.”

There’s a chapter in Dr Alonso’s book which focuses on ‘Muldoon’s Mistakes’, something which the researcher is interested in not necessarily for any factual errors but more for what he describes as “suggestive slips of the pen” that give us a greater insight into the poet’s approach.

“He likes to play with the idea of words slipping or transforming into other words, of mistaken identities and things like that, and that interest snowballs when he arrives in America. We can speculate as to why that might be in terms of his own ideas of personal identity, but whatever the cause, there’s this real intensification in his American work, where the slip becomes something more than a motif”, says Dr Alonso, taking as an example Muldoon’s poem “Errata”, which includes a list of “rhyming substitutions” (“For ‘mother’ read ‘other’. / For ‘harm’ read ‘farm’. / For ‘feather’ read ‘father’.”). In Alonso’s 2015 interview with Muldoon, the poet described this piece of work as a kind of autobiography. Although the “supposedly throwaway playful text” has led some to underplay its significance as “post-modernism gone mad”, Dr Alonso sees it as a consequential piece of Muldoon’s writing, and a useful way of understanding his attitude to error as being a remarkably fertile one.  

Of course, Dr Alonso adds, at times the poet also “generates the mistake in order to correct it”, a performative aspect of Muldoon’s work which he sees also playing out in terms of the influences of Sigmund Freud and James Joyce on Muldoon's poetry and poetics.

“Freud’s essay about ‘Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through’…his ideas about grief and mourning seem to have something to do with the way Muldoon uses mistakes, and also the compulsive repetition of certain rhymes. But the book is not attempting a psychoanalytic reading of these poems by any means; it’s more about looking at the way Muldoon is using these tools and performing something like a psychoanalytic form of writing. It may be that these things are purgative for him, cathartic in some way, but that’s not really the impression that I get; for me it’s more a staging of a Freudian scene”, says Dr Alonso, noting the subtle but pervasive influence of Freud in Muldoon’s American work.

In terms of Muldoon’s contemporaries in Northern Ireland and what Dr Alonso describes as “an incredibly productive, fertile time”, he notes that Muldoon, Heaney, Mahon, and Longley were all very close. Muldoon, as the younger poet coming up through Queens University, was inevitably influenced by this. “Muldoon was a precocious, up-and-coming talent—they all were—but he was younger than them and I think Heaney was very helpful, particularly at the beginning, when using his platform to champion Muldoon’s poetry in reviews and interviews and so on. That closeness developed into a friendly rivalry that plays out in very interesting ways in his poems. Muldoon is sometimes having little wry jokes at Heaney’s expense, which Heaney answers in his own work. At the same time, though, I think Muldoon has been very conscious of forging his own path, as each of them have.”

Now focusing on the work of Heaney, Muldoon, Derek Mahon, Michael Longley, Eavan Boland and a few others, Dr Alonso has turned his attention to the underappreciated work of Irish poets on the radio between the 1960s and 1990s, and the public dimension that made them “public figures” during the Troubles when the role and responsibility of the artist was often called into question.

“A huge amount has been written about the ‘Belfast Group’, but not so much on how those formative relationships continued to play out in professional ways through areas such as radio, where they would often feature together, and sometimes even collaborate on projects. Radio was part of the development of these literary relationships, and on an individual level, it became a potent imaginative stimulus in the poetry and prose they each went on to write.”

Paul Muldoon in America: Transatlantic Formations is published by Oxford University Press.


Listen to Dr Alex Alonso's recent talk as part of the School of English Staff-Postgraduate Seminar Series 2021-22 in association with the Trinity Long Room Hub:


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