the roof of my car
like holy water
on a coffin lid”
That’s the beginning of Paul Muldoon’s “Pelt” in his new collection One Thousand Things Worth Knowing. The water certainly pelted down last week when I drove to Grasmere to hear Paul Muldoon’s poetry reading.
The reading was a retrospective selection of poems from many years’ work, including that Muldoon classic, “Why Brownlee left” (1980). It’s a poem set in a rural Irish past when a few acres and a pair of heavy horses was all you needed. There’s that wonderful line break that enacts the horses standing waiting –
“shifting their weight from foot
but above all there’s the unsolved mystery of Brownlee’s disappearance and the tricksiness of the poem’s title.
Paul Muldoon is a charismatic reader. His voice has a warm County Armagh timbre (perhaps with a slight American tinge after all the time he’s spent on the other side of the Atlantic). He gives helpful introductions and reads his poems with great clarity, all the time engaging with his audience. Every word is given its proper weight.
When I hear Paul Muldoon read I am reminded of his legendary reading at Grasmere in 2003 which ended with a virtuoso unscripted defence of contemporary poetry in reply to a somewhat biased or naïve questioner who asked “Why is this poetry?”
But last week he ended with a link between his youth in County Armagh and Grasmere. One day his English teacher, Jerry Hicks spent the whole lesson reading a long poem aloud to the class. It was Wordsworth’s Prelude.
Incessant rain was falling.”)
You can find “Why Brownlee left” at www.poetryfoundation.org
The current edition of PN Review carries an excellent interview with Paul Muldoon by Adam Crowthers (PN Review 223 May-June 2015)