Paul Muldoon has a pretty good day job. He has been described by the Times Literary Supplement as "the most significant English-language poet born since the second World War." He holds the title of Howard G. B. Clark ’21 Professor in the Humanities at Princeton University and has published nine collections of poetry, starting with "New Weather" in 1973. "Moy Sand and Gravel" (2002) won him the 2003 Pulitzer Prize. A 10th collection, "Horse Latitudes," is due out in the fall of 2006. Muldoon also plays a mean guitar.
He’s not quite Mick Jagger or Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen, and his band, Rackett, is hardly a household name, but it very well could be someday. After all, their lyricist is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet. Fresh off the plane from a September 7 gig at the Art Institute of Chicago Poetry Center, Rackett will give an outdoor concert on Saturday, September 10, at Pettoranello Gardens, Community Park North.
While he obviously has a way with the English language, Muldoon confesses that he has always been entranced by rock and roll. "I was brought up on it as well as Irish music and English literature but there was always rock and roll lurking about. I suppose unconsciously I developed a partial sense of how rock and roll works and how some of these songs are constructed."
About six years ago he decided to act upon an inner voice and buy an electric guitar. As his wife, the novelist and journalist Jean Hanff Korelitz, says in an essay she wrote for the New York Times: "I was laughing too hard to absorb the enormity of what was happening…he believed, at the age of 53, that it was utterly possible for him to become a rock guitarist."
Muldoon made a space for himself and a growing collection of guitars in his basement. He found others who shared his love of music and desire to play – Nigel Smith, a professor of Renaissance poetry who also has a talent for writing music; Beckman Rich, a lawyer with the heart of a rock and roller; and three musicians just out of college – two Harvard grads, Henry Rich and Eric Lybeck; and NYU grad student Paul Grimstad. They formed a band and called themselves "Rackett," for reasons obvious to some, especially Muldoon’s wife. They started to get gigs. Their first was in Greenwich Village, not too shabby for a band just starting out.
Then the great rocker Warren Zevon called. He and Muldoon wrote two songs together, including "My Ride’s Here" which became the title track of his penultimate album. After Zevon’s death, Bruce Springsteen produced a live recording of that song for his tribute album. Now there’s talk of a CD. Muldoon has lined up fellow Princeton professor Sean Wilentz, nominated this year for a Grammy for his notes for a Bob Dylan album, to write the notes for his album. "We’re friends, after all," he declares. "Why not get the best?"
With each success, Muldoon has maintained his self-deprecating humor. "I’m a very basic, basic guitarist," he insists. "Very basic indeed. I don’t want anyone to get the idea that I’m any good at it." Of his band he says, "I have a realistic sense of all this. We’re just starting. Who knows where we might go? You can’t go out there expecting anything from it because there’s no guarantee it will happen. The only decent motivation is to do it for its own sake."
Muldoon was born in 1951 in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, the oldest of three children. His brother is an administrator at a university in Canada. His sister died this year just short of her 52nd birthday from ovarian cancer, the same disease that took his mother, Bridget, when she was 55. She had been a grade school teacher. His father, Patrick, was a laborer who could barely write his name.
There were very few books in the house but there was a full collection of the Junior World Encyclopedia, which the young Muldoon devoured. He also took piano lessons for years, something he absolutely hated. "I just didn’t get it. I had a teacher who literally rapped me over the knuckles. At school I was told by the music teacher that I had no sense of music. But you know what? (laughs heartily) I think they were absolutely right! I couldn’t sing!"
Muldoon studied at the Queen’s University of Belfast. From 1973 to 1986 he worked as a producer for the British Broadcasting Corporation before his literary career took off. He has been quoted as saying that writing lyrics is harder than writing poetry because of the structure of the music, but where does he get the inspiration for both? "They begin in similar places," says Muldoon. "Inspiration can come from an ordinary phrase from daily life, something like ‘see if I care’ that turns into a song or poem. Most of rock and roll is fairly mindless music. But the great song writers, Bob Dylan and Warren Zevon, for example, have served us extremely well."
As for writing lyrics, Muldoon says: "I’d never really done it before although I had wanted to. Like all writing it’s something one has to learn on the job." He analyzed rock tunes and discovered the time-honored structure of popular song. "If you pick almost any song apart you find it falls into this form – AABA – verse chorus verse chorus bridge verse chorus. The bridge is often in a slightly different key or tempo and it’s where some aspect of song is resolved. It’s like saying a sonnet has 14 lines. It’s not to say it’s easy to manage. I enjoyed trying to do it. I don’t know if I did it properly, but I was fascinated with the effort."
It’s when he’s asked why Ireland and England have been such fertile ground for poetry and music that the Irish poet in the man emerges with the soul and fire that have produced generations of spellbinding storytellers. "I think most cultures have their strong literatures but it’s true that the Irish writers have an extraordinary track record," he says.
One explanation concerns the writer’s often tenuous relationship with the English language. "Writers are not people who are necessarily good at language. James Joyce is a great, great writer but he was willing to spend an entire day writing a single sentence. The fact that he would do that shows he’s not quite confident that the sentence is going to come out correctly. It’s because these writers are so willing to spend so much time getting it right that they manage to do such great work. I work very slowly to make it look as if it’s been written very quickly. My wife is a journalist. She writes quickly. It takes me forever to write a sentence on an E-mail because it needs to be absolutely just so. So it’s a curse in many ways."
Muldoon says that poetry and song are slightly different variations of the same thing. "In the Irish Gaelic tradition, both are virtually indistinguishable. It’s a culture in which the interesting use of both oral and written language is valued. American English is a terrifically vital language but there’s not quite the same engagement with the well-turned witty phrase as there may be in a culture like Ireland’s."
Another reason for the great Irish tradition of storytelling, he explains, is that there is a sense of a society that is somehow unfinished. "Nothing is quite fixed. Everyone has to determine how they make sense of the country and themselves. There’s a feeling that one has to make sense of one’s life. One way that’s done is through writing."
Muldoon points to rap music, ironically, as an area where there is much more engagement with wit and linguistic play than in most of today’s rock and roll. "While the average rock song often has a blah aspect to it, rap music is more interesting in terms of the well-turned or witty phrase. I’d like to think we might be able to do something in that vein, that our songs might mean something beyond the usual." He says his audience is largely people who have been brought up on rock and roll, who are touched by the music intellectually and emotionally. He lauds U2 as a band that has managed to do that "splendidly. Their songs have substance." Some of the best lyric writers today? Paul Simon. Leonard Cohen. New bands he really likes? "Fountains of Wayne" and "Bowling for Soup."
Right now Rackett is engaged in a hectic rehearsal schedule for a number of performances. Muldoon is also excited aboutattending upcoming concerts by the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, and U2. He’s also preparing to teach two undergraduate courses at Princeton this semester, one on translation, the other on the prose poem.
What do his students think of their esteemed professor’s rock and roll band? "’These guys are a bunch of old idiots’ is a likely response, and I’m okay with that," says Muldoon who reveals just how humble he is when he says he attributes his Pulitzer largely to a matter of luck He says his wife used to flick the basement light off and on to get him to stop playing.
When the band was just starting out, Muldoon’s then 12-year-old daughter dubbed them "Freaks With Guitars." "I think she may still think of us as freaks with guitars," Muldoon says. "She’s at an age where anything parents do is embarrassing. As for my wife, she’s a very good reader. She reads my poems and helps me with them. She’s kind of amused by all this. She laughs. Why wouldn’t one laugh? I laugh too."