A Literary Jolt

Paul Muldoon chats with literature students about his approach to creative writing.

Photo by Carl Socolow '77

Stellfox Recipient Paul Muldoon delivers poetic call to action

By MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson

“I was born and bred in the ‘murder triangle,’ ” says Paul Muldoon, launching this classroom visit as he launches his poetry—with a jolt. “It was redolent of quite a few of the forces at work in Irish history coming together in some way. That’s where I was brought up.”

This is not news to his audience; they’ve been studying this literary giant—a Pulitzer Prize-winner named by the Times Literary Supplement "the most significant English-language poet" of his generation—for weeks. But, interesting as it is to read about the violent forces of history that thread through Muldoon’s Northern Ireland childhood and saturate his 30-some volumes of work, it’s much more affecting to hear the man describe them in person, and in that soft, honeyed brogue.

Muldoon recently came to campus for a three-day stay that included class visits, a public address, meals with faculty and students, and the premiere of an original choral work based on his poetry. It was all part of the Harold and Ethel L. Stellfox Visiting Scholars and Writers Program, which brings literary luminaries to campus each year.

Throughout the week, Muldoon chatted with students and professors about his poems and his experiences as a poet, rock musician and New Yorker poetry editor. He also answered questions about the current artistic climate; his pedagogical philosophy; his love-hate relationship with his computer keyboard; the interrelatedness of art forms; and his view of the writing process as an act of informed channeling, as opposed to pure craft.

Leo Altidor '14, a psychology major, was eager to put that approach to the test. “For him, it’s very organic—to some extent, you let the writing lead you, rather than leading the writing,” Altidor said. For Emily Smith ’16, the takeaway was more about inspiration than technique. She emphasized that while Muldoon’s writerly accomplishments render his advice worth heeding, his soft skills, culled through years as an educator at Princeton University, brought his messages home.

“That’s an important aspect of this residency—Stellfox [awardees] are extraordinary people who can relate to students in an ordinary, accessible way,” said Smith, a double major in political science and English, who worked as student assistant for this year’s Stellfox selection committee. “And the overall experience of having someone who is accessible and who does this for a living—and does it so well—makes me feel like maybe I can do it as well.”

Muldoon left no doubt on that score. Recalling his own meteoric rise from student to master, he capped his final public event on campus—a Thursday-afternoon Q & A—with a literary call to arms. “We think of students as limbering up for the real thing, but the chances of your writing something really fabulous are stronger than the chances of my doing it these days,” he said. “But this is it. This is real.”

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Published Apr. 7, 2014