NZ Arts Festival, Writers & Readers Week
March 14 | Reviewed by Joan Fleming

“HE BEGAN as a prodigy, and went on to become a virtuoso.” In the world of poetry, Paul Muldoon is about as close as you can get to a superstar. Poetry editor of the New Yorker, winner of countless honours and awards, and (it’s been said) owner of the most electric guitars of any major poet, Muldoon’s stage presence is practiced and easy. Yet he’s humble, gracious, gentle – and seems like a genuinely nice guy.

Paul Muldoon’s poem “Wind and Tree” from his first collection New Weather, which made him a legend at the age of twenty-one, is probably the poem that made me want to write poetry. It weaves echoes of Irish song with hints of a beautiful violence. Layers of hurt and hope are cradled in language so gorgeously straightforward and strange that it floors you, every time. Phew.

Since then, he’s kept raising the stakes with his brilliant formal technique and “confessional but reticent” style. In conversation with Bill Manhire at the Writers and Readers event, Muldoon spoke about the freeing paradox of traditional forms like the sestina, the sonnet, and the pantoum: “Everything seems pre-determined, pre-ordained. And yet, one has absolutely no idea how it’ll turn out. It’s like a codified form of innocence and ignorance.”

That Muldoon’s measured language comes from a near-mystic source – “out there” – lends his formal perfection a self-confessed Shamanistic quality. He spoke of “summoning” a poem: “We’re at the mercy of… something. Ideally, one doesn’t know what one’s doing. And the less control, the better.” The point where this gyre of possibilities, somewhere out there in the poetic ether, coalesces into a careful and well-crafted narrative is a mystery to everyone but the poet. Well, perhaps it’s a mystery to him, too.

Muldoon introduced his poems with a rambling, Irish storyteller’s relish and read with a careful weighing of each word. He’s funny, and happy to banter with the audience (a huge audience for a poetry event). We even got to hear a sound bite of his garage band over the Embassy’s loudspeakers while he fidgeted in his armchair.

He seemed almost bashful to hear himself described as a virtuoso (“Of course, one’s delighted to be described in any way at all!”), and yet, he conveyed a total conviction in the value of poetry. For me, Muldoon’s surrender to intuition, while insisting on the demands of craft, was one of the most inspiring things I’ve seen all week.