Paul Muldoon is one of Ireland's leading contemporary poets. He was born in Portadown, County Armagh and raised near The Moy, in Northern Ireland. Muldoon’s work is full of paradox: playful but serious, elusive but direct, innovative but traditional. He uses traditional verse forms such as the sonnet, ballad, and dramatic monologue, but alters their length and basic structure, and uses rhyme and meter in new ways. His work is also notable for its layered use of conceit, allusion, and wit. The cryptic wordplay present in many poems has often been called Joycean, but Muldoon himself has cited lyric poets such as Frost, Thomas, and MacNeice as his major influences.
Muldoon is the youngest member of a group of Northern Irish poets—including Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, and Derek Mahon—which gained prominence in the 1960s and 1970s. As a student at Queen's University, Muldoon studied under Heaney, and refined his own analytical and critical skills in weekly discussions with other poets. In 1971, at the age of nineteen, Muldoon completed his first short collection, Knowing My Place. Two years later, he published New Weather (1973), his first widely reviewed volume of poetry. The book secured Muldoon's place among Ireland's finest writers and helped establish his reputation as an innovative new voice in English-language poetry.
The poems in New Weather generally illuminate the complexities of seemingly ordinary things or events. Calling the collection "the result of continuous age and aging," Roger Conover suggested in a review for Eire-Ireland, "Muldoon's is a poetry which sees into things, and speaks of the world in terms of its own internal designs and patterns." Muldoon followed New Weather with the 1977 collection Mules. Recurring themes of political and social relevance inform the pastorals and ballads in Mules, as do family anecdotes, Muldoon’s rural upbringing and a wide range of literary and cultural allusion. In Preoccupations: Selected Prose, Heaney deemed Mules "a strange, rich second collection" and judged the poet "one of the very best."
By the time Muldoon's next volume of poetry, Why Brownlee Left (1980), was published, the poet had attracted considerable attention for his technical acumen, dry verbal wit, and provocative use of language. Some critics considered Why Brownlee Left a more mature effort than Muldoon's earlier collections. The book’s influential final poem, the long “Immram” brings together the two impulses that inform Muldoon’s work, argued Ian Hamilton in The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry in English, “a Northern Irish Catholic sensibility and the English poetic tradition.” Muldoon's 1983 collection, Quoof, takes its title from his family's name for a hot-water bottle. "Gathering Mushrooms" opens the book with the narrator's drug-induced reminiscences of his childhood, his father, and the turmoil in Ireland. "The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants," the final poem and the volume's longest, is a narrative that follows the exploits of the mercenary-like figure Gallogly as he voyages through Northern Ireland. Writing in the London Review of Books, John Kerrigan asserted that the poetry in Quoof is "a bewildering display of narrative invention . . . written with that combination of visual clarity and verbal panache which has become the hallmark of Paul Muldoon."
Meeting the British, Muldoon's 1987 collection, contains the long poem "7, Middagh Street," which, according to Terry Eagleton in the Observer, blends fantasy and history with "dramatic energy and calculated irony . . . to produce a major poem." A series of imaginary monologues by such prominent artistic and literary figures as W. H. Auden, Salvador Dali, Gypsy Rose Lee, Carson McCullers, and Louis MacNeice, "7, Middagh Street" contains provocative commentary on the importance of politics in Irish art. Deeming Meeting the British Muldoon's "most ambitious collection," Mick Imlah, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, noted that the volume proves an innovative addition "to a difficult and delightful body of poetry."
Muldoon's next collection was the ambitious and notoriously difficult Madoc: A Mystery (1990)." Named after the title of a Robert Southey poem concerning a Welsh prince who discovers America in the twelfth century, the narrative flow of Madoc revolves around "what might have happened if the Romantic poets Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge had indeed come (as they planned in 1794) to America and created a 'pantisocracy' ('equal rule for all') on the banks of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania," commented Lucy McDiarmid in her New York Times review. Critical opinion divided on whether Madoc was a success or not. Muldoon’s next book, The Annals of Chile (1994), “is easier of access and more emotionally direct than Madoc, while more allusive and arcane than [his] earlier work," argued Richard Tillinghast in the New York Times Book Review. Mark Ford, in the London Review of Books, found the themes of "less scope for the kinds of all-synthesizing wit characteristic of Muldoon." The Los Angeles Times Book Review's Katherine McNamara, however, argued that in Annals, "every word, every reference, every allusion, carries meaning. Muldoon never flinches in his brilliant verbal workings."
Muldoon's 1998 Hay is a diverse collection, covering subjects from the personal to the political, offering a range of forms and styles that includes sonnets, sestinas, and haiku. Some reviewers criticized Muldoon's technical virtuosity: in the pages of the New Republic, Adam Kirsch noted: "if virtuosity is all that a poet can display, if his poems demand attention simply because of their elaborateness and difficulty, then he has in some sense failed." According to Logan: "Muldoon is . . . in love (not wisely but too well) with language itself. . . . Too often the result is tedious foolery, the language run amok with Jabberwocky possibility (words, words, monotonously inbreeding), as if possibility were reason enough for the doing." Yet, both Logan and Kirsch also offered praise for Hay. Logan concluded: "Everyone interested in contemporary poetry should read this book. . . . In our time of tired mirrors and more-than-tiresome confession, Muldoon is the rare poet who writes through the looking glass."
Muldoon’s poems have been collected into three books, Selected Poems 1968-1986 (1986), New Selected Poems: 1968-1994 (1996), and the hefty Poems 1968-1998 (2001). His book Moy Sand and Gravel (2002) won both the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the International Griffin Poetry Prize. While the book clearly draws from Muldoon’s well-known bag of tricks, Ian Samson in the Guardian found that no bad thing: “He may resort to familiar charms and rubrics, but his obsessions with particular forms and registers and vocabularies never dwindles to insensitivity. His is a triumph of technique—a constant resuscitation of the self and of form.” Muldoon’s tenth collection (by some estimates), Horse Latitudes (2006), received both wide spread praise and criticism. Jim McCue in the Independent wrote that the book represented “a good poet in the doldrums,” while James Fenton, reviewing for the Guardian, called it “as usual, an event.”
Horse Latitudes was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize and released the same year as Muldoon’s The End of the Poem: Oxford Lectures in Poetry. Bringing together the fifteen lectures Muldoon delivered as Oxford Professor of Poetry—a post he held from 1999 to 2004—the lectures, argued Adam Phillips in the London Review of Books, “are about poetic influence more than anything else…Muldoon is generous and expansive in his naming of names; he is the exemplary poet as fan…one of the most thrilling books of ‘literary criticism’ published in the last fifty years.” Muldoon’s Clarendon lectures in English were collected in the alphabetic survey of Irish literature, To Ireland, I (2000), Reviewing the book for the Times Literary Supplement, Clair Wills found “something irreducibly esoteric about this trip through the weird and wonderful land of Irish letters, and the quirkiness, bordering on whimsy, will no doubt alienate many readers. This is unfortunate, because the book also contains some of Muldoon’s most forthright reflections to date on the relations of history, literature and politics.”
In addition to poetry, Muldoon has written libretti, rock lyrics—for Warren Zevon, The Handsome Family, and his own band, Rackett—and many books for children. He edited both the Faber Anthology of Contemporary Irish Poetry (1986) and the Faber Book of Beasts (1997). He has also translated the work of Irish poets, including Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, into English. He has won many major poetry awards, including the John William Corrington Award for Literary Excellence. In 2007, he was hired as poetry editor of the New Yorker. Since 1987 Muldoon has lived in the United States, where he is now Howard G.B. Clark Professor of the Humanities and Chair of the University Center for the Creative and Performing Arts at Princeton University. Paul Muldoon lives with his wife, writer Jean Hanff Korelitz, and their two children near Princeton, New Jersey.