“A poet’s mind, like a stomach, will happily digest itself.”
So said Paul Muldoon, midway through his atmospheric reading for Oxford Poetry Society, in New College’s ante-chapel earlier this month. Thankfully for the sizeable audience, though, the works recited by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet were by no means the sign of a mind consumed by its own verbosity. Muldoon displayed his characteristically complex layering of allusion and reference, often to dizzying effect, but at no point did he cross the line into interiorised incoherence. Instead, the audience was treated to a subtle meandering through time, with seismic political events examined by small-scale poems about local or familial experiences.
Many of the poems Muldoon chose to read were meditations on memory and the past, with the phrase “I remember” becoming a recurring theme in both his work and his soft-spoken patter between poems. This often nostalgic reflection evoked a sense that poetry is, to Muldoon, an educational experience for the listener or reader. Without ever straying into the realms of didacticism, the former Oxford Professor of Poetry enlightened the audience through his use of arcane words such as “mitch” (meaning to skip school) or “flummery” (some kind of Welsh food), whilst also bringing into his poems a critical analysis of key events of world history. In works such as ‘Cuba’ and ‘The Sightseers’, Muldoon reconstructed the narrative of 20th-century events – respectively, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the clashes between the IRA and the “B Specials” during the Irish Troubles – by placing them at the periphery of personal family history. That is not to say that such large-scale events were made to seem insignificant. Rather, their treatment alongside the experiences of Muldoon’s family brought into sharper relief their impact on the lives of ordinary people.
Another element of Muldoon’s works made evident when spoken aloud was his merging of the arts of poetry and music. After noting his uncertainty as to whether his works were songs or poems, and deciding finally that they were probably best described as lyrics, Muldoon attempted to fuse the two media throughout. Some of his wittier, lighter works came in the form of song lyrics, including a particularly satirical take on the recent comeback of The Who, but music was also a constant in many of his more traditional poems – in one, he described watching children on a park bench as “they made mouth music.”
Though his treatment of history could have come across as rather stuffy, it cannot be emphasised enough that this was above all an incredibly funny reading. Muldoon accompanied his reading with a lively running commentary, which prevented the profundity of his poetry from becoming overbearing. At one point he interrupted his own poem, which had begun with the line, “You’ve got nothing on, babe,” to remark that “It’s very hard to say ‘babe’ with a straight face, isn’t it?” Over his many years of public performance, Muldoon has also developed a jovial technique for dealing with audience interruptions. To the predictable peal of a mobile message tone, he exclaimed, “Did I hear someone getting in touch with us?” When one audience member was beset by a fit of coughing, he paused his reading and brought them some water. These episodes revealed Muldoon’s ability to transcend the flaw that seems to characterise many poets – that of taking oneself too seriously. His mellifluous tones – the microphone being a welcome addition given the booming acoustic of the venue – lulled the audience into a state of comfortable contemplation, punctuated by easy laughter, which then allowed him to deal with a number of issues, including the tyranny of priests and police brutality, without ever sounding self-righteous. Muldoon was honest about the inability of his art form to provide solutions to real-world problems, admitting openly that, “The poems … give the answers to questions only they have raised.” These questions were, however, always absorbing, and their examination by this master of his craft was a constant source of thought-provoking entertainment that left the audience longing for more.
For more information about upcoming events organised by Oxford Poetry Society, please visit their website.