Paul Muldoon won the Pulitzer Prize for his collection of poems entitled Moy Sand and Gravel. His latest collection of poems is a retrospective of his work entitled Selected Poems 1968-2014. Stay Thirsty Magazine was honored to visit with him in Manhattan for this Conversation.

STAY THIRSTY: In your most recent collection of poetry, entitled Selected Poems 1968-2014, you have chosen 60 poems that you wrote over a 46-year period. This collection is divided into twelve sections, each one drawn from twelve of your previously published collections, and you have included five poems from each of those respective collections. How did you arrive at such a particular and specific formula? Why did you choose to limit each section to only five poems?

PAUL MULDOON: I knew I wanted this to be a short, manageable book. And I wanted it to be as good as I could possibly make it. I decided that if I stuck to five poems per published collection, I might manage that. But very few poets, even rather famous ones, have actually written 60 decent poems. So I’m being a little

Paul Muldoon
presumptuous, I expect. Still, my impulse is not to bore.

STAY THIRSTY: In at least ten poems in your collection, animals, ranging from the hedgehog to mules, from a frog to a fox, from a panther to turkey buzzards, to name just a few, play an important role. What is it that draws you to write poems that center around animals? What in your life influenced you to be so sensitive to them?

PAUL MULDOON: I really don’t know. I don’t consciously set out to write about animals. But I edited and anthology a few years back, The Faber Book of Beasts, that collects animal poems and, I have to say, they coincidentally include some of the best poems in English. I think animals make us rise to the occasion, as it were. They force us to look hard at ourselves even as they force us to look hard at them.

STAY THIRSTY: Do you write poetry for yourself, for the reader or for the ages?

PAUL MULDOON: The idea of writing for the ages always made me slightly uncomfortable. It’s thrown into even greater relief by the fact that the ages, which had seemed to extend for as long as we weren’t consumed by the sun, have somehow become a little abbreviated. The reader as a concept has also become a little abbreviated. There are fewer and fewer people who know how to read a poem. So I write for myself.

STAY THIRSTY: You studied Queen’s University under the poet Seamus Heaney who went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995 and who passed away in 2013. What do you think he would say about this collection of your poetry? Which poems would he especially like and which would he be less interested in?

PAUL MULDOON: I have no idea. I do know that Seamus was acutely conscious of how difficult – perhaps impossible – it is for any poet to function after the age of 30. He’s on record as saying that. So he would certainly have some sense of the perils of the “long haul” and might be in interested in trying to assess whether those perils have been overcome. Who knows what his verdict might be.

STAY THIRSTY: The Times Literary Supplement said that you are “the most significant English-language poet born since the Second World War.” How do you feel about that comment?

PAUL MULDOON: It seems a bit mealy-mouthed.

STAY THIRSTY: In your new collection, which poem most reflects and reveals the inner Paul Muldoon?

PAUL MULDOON: I’d say that each of them reveals something about my multifaceted wonderfulness. All poems are autobiographical, of course, despite their best efforts. And poets reveal themselves all the time. The poetry business is not for shrinking violets or people who are worried about how they’re going to be perceived. You simply can’t afford to care about what people think. All decent poets are renegades. All decent poems have a somewhat outrageous aspect.

STAY THIRSTY: How have your views on poetry evolved over the past fifty years? How has your skill as a poet changed during that time?

PAUL MULDOON: It’s hard to know. As a teacher, I have to believe I might have learned something. But nothing prepares one quite for writing the next poem. At least not the poem I’d want to write. I’m not interested in writing Paul Muldoon poems. From what I can see, there are already a few people doing just that. I want to do something unexpected each time out.

STAY THIRSTY: You have said that, “Poetry is a way of making sense of the world.” How does poetry help explain the turbulent times of today?

PAUL MULDOON: Poetry helps us understand our problems. It doesn’t necessarily help us to solve them. To solve a problem like climate change, for example, one would need to have someone other that Pruitt at the helm of the EPA.

STAY THIRSTY: If you assigned Selected Poems 1968-2014 to one of your creative writing classes at Princeton, what would you say about the poet Paul Muldoon? How would you characterize his work in the English literary canon?

PAUL MULDOON: I’m often rather slow on the uptake but I’m pretty sure that’s a trick question.

STAY THIRSTY: What two key pieces of advice can you offer for those who aspire to become well-respected and successful poets?

PAUL MULDOON: 1) You must aspire to knowing everything. 2) You must aspire to knowing nothing. 

(Paul Muldoon header photo: Courtesy of Princeton University)
(Paul Muldoon photo credit: Adrian Cook)


All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.