Poetry as a shooting script: Paul Muldoon on movies, rhyme, rock and roll
The cowboy film is close to Paul Muldoon’s heart, even though he fears the Western may be a doomed genre. The Pulitzer prizewinning poet, who emigrated to America in 1987, talked about his enthusiasm - and likened writing poetry to a movie shooting script - in a wide-ranging interview with fellow Irish poet and Queen’s University man, Cahal Dallat, at the Troubadour in London on Monday night. Muldoon said he feared that the recent film, A Million Ways to Die in the West, marked the death knell for a kind of movie he loves: “I don’t want them to stop making westerns, but it may be a brave man or woman who decides to make another. But I’d like to think it’s not over. Even though the good guys/ bad guys geometry is a bit crude, it suffices for a couple of hours in a movie theatre.”
He added that he often thought of his own poems as “shooting scripts for film. You know, what is the first thing you see … what is the motivation for that change of shot? I actually find it quite useful.”
As with the western, Muldoon is hoping that rock and roll as a genre is also not finished yet. He has written song lyrics for rock bands, and his most recent Faber collection, The Word on the Street, dedicated to Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen, is composed of rock lyrics he's written over the last decade, many of them set to music for an album of the same name by Princeton musicians called the Wayside Shrines.
At the Troubadour he said that “people of a certain age – I’m 62, going on 63 – [found] our lives coincided with the rise of rock and roll. Chuck Berry, as you probably know, can still be seen … it’s quite remarkable.” He added that Berry’s novelty record, ‘My Ding A Ling’, was a “momentary aberration”.
In questions from the floor, Muldoon was asked about the use of rhyme in his poetry. He responded: “I know a lot of my poems do rhyme … that’s what they want to do, it seems to me … sometimes I would prefer them not to.” On fashions in poetry, and if there are any, Muldoon, who is poetry editor of the New Yorker magazine, said: “I’m not sure what is fashionable. I’m sure the great thing about poetry here and in the US, is that there is no single view to the fore – poetry comes in all shapes and forms. That’s certainly my view of it.”
In 1969, Muldoon read English at Queen's University Belfast, where, as well as Cahal Dallat - his interviewer at the Troubadour – he met Seamus Heaney and members of the Belfast Group of poets including Michael Longley. The former BBC producer in Belfast, and later Oxford professor of poetry, who has taught on the creative writing programme at Princeton after moving to the States, has been described as “the most significant English-language poet born since the second world war”.
He has a new collection “that I think is due out from Faber later this year”, and read a number of his poems at the Troubadour, old and new, including his renowned ‘Why Brownlee Left’. New poems included a couple about the early days in Northern Ireland - ‘Dodgems’, set in an amusement park in Portrush, and a poem about British army watchtowers in south Armagh at the height of the Troubles, inspired by a painting by Northern Ireland artist Rita Duffy. There are references to the smuggling of diesel across the border, and how attempts to get rid of its green marker dye produce a kind of sludge that “infiltrates our clothes, it’s impossible to budge”. The poem also includes the memorable line: “We always sided with the Redskin and the Palestinian.”
The evening at the Troubadour was full of music, too; sultry, jazzy versions of Leonard Cohen songs, and an excellent Paul Simon cover, by Irish-born, London-based singer Christine Tobin, a former BBC Jazz Awards best vocalist winner. She and backing musicians Dave Whitford (double bass) and Kate Williams (keyboards) rounded off the evening with the song ‘After Me’ (lyrics Paul Muldoon).
Such a night with such a star attraction represented a coup for Coffee-House Poetry organiser Anne-Marie Fyfe. But it was also special for Muldoon, too, who was on a brief visit to the UK. He told the audience: “I’ve been looking forward to coming to the Troubadour for a number of years.”