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Paul Muldoon on poetry as chemical reaction
Wunderkammer Magazine features Paul Muldoon as the first subject in their series of “Five Dialogues on art.” Muldoon discusses his early influences as producing in him the same results as a young person who sees a Wenders or Antonioni film and decides to become a filmmaker. Besides his exposure to canonized poets, he cites local poets as opening him up to a wider definition of what poetry could be.
But then there poets in the vicinity of where I was brought up and where I lived in Northern Ireland, poets like Seamus Heaney preeminently who were writing about aspects of life there that in some sense we wouldn’t quite have believe were fit subjects for poetry. Poems about frogs and bogholes and people digging with spades and thatching, and you know, the kind of ordinary stuff of life that somehow managed to become poetry.
On the subject of what art and poetry accomplish, Muldoon turns to a favorite Oscar Wilde quote, that there were “no fogs before Dickens, no sunsets before Turner.” Perhaps for Muldoon, there were no bogs before Heaney; it’s in the recognition of something familiar but unnoticed where poetry makes its greatest impact.
The word poem for example means merely a construct. An artifact, an artifice, a piece of engineering in some sense that will bear certain laws of physics. A chemical experiment that allows for certain reactions to take place. Those would be two ways of thinking about it. But more significantly, I think, is that it is merely a representation of a possibility in the world that has only come into being through its own coming into being. IE, the poem in this case is a solution to a problem we hadn’t really known existed until it came into being. In that manifestation, it’s in the shock of recognition that we have at that manifestation in the poem that we’re set back and we think, Wow, what was that? What was that?