Jonathan Safran Foer on Paul Muldoon
Paul Muldoon was the director of Princeton's creative writing program when I was a student there. But being a fiction writer, and a Philosophy major, I didn't have cause to meet him until my senior year, when I needed to get the department to help cover some exorbitant Xeroxing costs incurred by my obnoxious novel.
I went to his office. The door was closed, but I could hear something going on behind it. I was afraid of knocking, for some reason, so I left. When I went back the next day, I again heard noises coming from behind the closed door. It sounded like things were being overturned. It sounded like packing and unpacking. Freaked out, I left. I went back the following day, same thing. What is Paul Muldoon doing in there? I wondered.
After several days of this, I decided on a different tact: He must walk around the building, I figured, if just to and from his classes. So I'll try to intercept him in the halls. A reasonable enough plan. The only problem was that I didn't know what he looked like. Which is to say: I hadn't, at that point, seen his author photo. Which is to confess: I hadn't read any of his books.
Rather than go to a bookstore, I asked around, like a police sketch-artist. The physical gloss came quickly: Caucasian male, shortish, glasses. "He has a poem about a paunch," one person said, as if to protect Muldoon's feelings. A friend who'd taken a class with him described Muldoon this way: "He looks like he just misplaced something important." Working only off of that I was able to apprehend him.
I've forgotten nearly everything about my college experience, but strangely, I never forgot that description of Muldoon: "He looks like he just misplaced something important." In the years that followed, I became quite familiar with his face—not because we had so many run-ins, but because I became so deeply interested in his books. Interested is exactly the wrong word. I became passionate about them. I fell in love with his writing. When I spent three months in Spain, living out of a small suitcase, his Collected Poems was the only book I had with me. I chose it because of its unique power to open itself up, reading after reading, to perpetually bloom.
Something about Muldoon's writing seems just outside of the reach of what a person willfully could create. There's something uncanny about it. It's more energetic, more profound, and a lot more strange, than anything a poet could design.
Whenever I think about his writing, I think about that description: "He looks like he just misplaced something important."
The poet Joseph Brodsky—to whom Muldoon dedicated a wonderful poem—was fond of saying, "The rhyme is smarter than the poet." I take that to mean there are reasons greater than the prettiness of rhyming to write within forms. When you are forced to end a line with a word that rhymes with "tree"—or, in the case of a Muldoon poem, with "forsythia"— you are taken to a place you wouldn't have chosen, had you been unconstrained. The constraints allow you to exceed yourself. The handcuffs are also the keys to the handcuffs.
Great writing always involves the subconscious, and in that sense, it is always better—more intelligent, more powerful—than the person who wrote it. No one can create a work of genius on purpose. The people we call geniuses— and I would call Muldoon a genius—are those that put themselves in the way of the most fortunate accidents.
Here's a story that isn't true, but might get at something that I feel about Muldoon's art. It didn't actually happen one afternoon, midway into my senior year. I went to his office, wanting to find out if I could con the department into buying things for me. I heard a rustling, but was afraid to knock. I left, and came back the next day. There were noises from behind the closed door. Things being picked up and put down, things opened and closed. I left and came back. More noises. What is Paul Muldoon doing in there? I wondered.
Gathering my courage, I knocked. A voice called "Come in!" I opened the door, and saw a shortish, Caucasian male with glasses and a paunch looking under the cushions of a sofa. "I can't believe it!" he said, pulling out a snowglobe from Paris. It must have been an antique, because there was no Eiffel Tower for snow to fall on. He went over to his desk, opened all of the drawers, and rustled through the papers. "Isn't this terrific!" he said, pulling out a small stack of birth certificates from Madagascar, and a feminist Hagaddah written in Greek, and the business card of a tantric masseuse. He went to his jacket, which was slung over a chair in the corner. He reached his hand deep into one of the pockets and pulled out a bowl of miso soup. He laughed with pleasure. He laughed a poem.
I asked: "What are you doing?"
He said: "I'm looking for something important."
I asked: "What are you looking for?"
"Well," he said, "ostensibly I'm looking for a nickel. But I hid it from myself, and it's only a nickel, so pretty clearly that isn't the important thing."
I said: "You hid it from yourself?"
He said: "So I could go looking for the important thing."
I asked: "What's the important thing?"
He said: "Exactly."
That's how I feel about Muldoon's art. Before I left, I asked him, "Do you think there's any chance the department could be convinced to defray some Xeroxing costs?"
He lifted the edge of his rug, pulled out a pot of gold, and then let the rug fall. He said, "Not a chance in the world."
(On March 23rd, 2004, Jonathan Safran Foer introduced Paul Muldoon at The Bowery Poetry Club. Originally published in Crossroads, Fall 2004.)