~ Posted by Simon Willis, August 18th 2014
If the Irish poet Paul Muldoon was a sofa, he would be one of those battered brown-leather sofas—sagging, effortless, cool and comfortable—as much at home in the pub as in a stylish apartment. He published his first collection while he was still a student, and now occupies many of poetry's highest perches: poetry editor of the New Yorker, a professor at Princeton and a Pulitzer Prize-winner. But with his shock of unruly grey hair and his black-framed glasses there's something of the ageing rock star about him, and some of his author photographs show him holding a guitar. From countless frontmen he's borrowed the trick of delivering an important line to a particular member of the audience, and holding their gaze unflappably. Yesterday at the Edinburgh International Book Festival he read from "Maggot" (2010), a collection largely about "sex and the dead", and "The Word on the Street" (2012), a volume of song lyrics written under the influence, he explained, of the songwriters Cole Porter and Warren Zevon.
Muldoon is known for mixing high and demotic language, and for adventurous rhymes. He once, for instance, rhymed "tendency" with "Southend-on-Sea". He was asked where he finds those rhymes. "I don't think of myself as finding anything," he said. "The best things find you. As far as I'm concerned it's all about chance." Later he was asked about his linguistic playfulness. "Language plays itself," he explained, "and takes us places we didn't expect to go."
Someone in the audience asked him whether he was worried about people dismissing his poetry because of its playfulness. "Solemnity," he replied, "is certainly something I'm not interested in." He then began to recite "Sing a Song of Sixpence" before quoting Yeats, who said that you can refute Hegel but you can't refute "Sing a Song of Sixpence".
At one point he spoke about songwriting. Songs can get boring after two verses and two choruses, he said. "Something's got to happen", and the middle-eight or the bridge is "the change of tune, sometimes literally". Then he dived into literary history. "I think the middle-eight is a fossilisation of the sestet in a Petrarchan sonnet".
For more of our Edinburgh Festival coverage, read about "Minetti", a play by Thomas Bernhard about an actor without a stage; "Lungs", a high-adrenaline play from the Fringe about a couple on the brink of a big decision; "Beyond Zero: 1914-1918", a commemorative performance melding music and film;a sweeping talk about contemporary India from two speakers with different views of their subject; and the supremely entertaining circus show, "A Simple Space"
Simon Willis is apps editor of Intelligent Life