In Nicholson Baker’s novel The Anthologist (2009), the eponymous hero attends a poetry festival in Switzerland. Suddenly word flew through the room like wildfire—Paul Muldoon was here! Paul Muldoon! Paul Muldoon! He was besieged. Muldoon is a fabled beast—or a rara avis, as his teacher Jerry Hicks termed him when introducing his charge to Seamus Heaney. Later the schoolboy sent his poems to the older poet, asking what he was doing wrong; the reply came “Nothing,” or so the story goes. (In Stepping Stones Heaney clarified, slightly: “The letter, as I remember it, said ‘Perhaps you can tell me where I am going wrong’; I wrote back saying that I didn’t think I could tell him anything he wouldn’t find out for himself.”) Part of this mystique (as The Anthologist makes clear) has recently been due to Muldoon’s influential position as poetry editor of The New Yorker—but the work itself is at the heart of it. The most formally ambitious and technically innovative of modern poets, he writes poems like no one else.
Muldoon was born in County Armagh in 1951 to a schoolmistress and a market gardener, and raised as a Roman Catholic in Collegelands, a small town near the staunchly Protestant village of Loughgall, where the Orange Order was founded in 1795. The Catholic Church, Muldoon has said, “presided over almost every aspect of our lives, both literally—the building itself was two fields away—and metaphorically.” The repressive society was replicated domestically, and his relationship with his mother, who died in 1973, appears to have been fraught. We meet a version of her in “They That Wash on Thursday,” where a plangent autorhyme forces varying cadences of sadness or anger:
She was such a dab hand, my mother. Such a dab hand
at raising her hand
to a child. At bringing a cane down across my hand
in such a seemingly offhand
manner I almost have to hand
it to her. “Many hands,”
she would say, “spoil the broth.” My father took no hand
in this. He washed his hands
of the matter. He sat on his hands.
So I learned firsthand
to deal in the off-, the under-, the sleight-of-hand….
While still an undergraduate at Queens University, Belfast, Muldoon published his first collection, New Weather (1973). Graduating with an “allowed fail,” he “‘ran away to the BBC’/as poets did” and stayed there thirteen years. Teaching followed at Cambridge, the University of East Anglia, and then Columbia University, the University of California, and the University of Massachusetts. In 1990 he arrived at Prince- ton where he is now the Howard G.B. Clark Professor in Humanities.
Muldoon’s early work …