Shaker Barn Music Series: Muldoon's latest work illuminates line between poem and song

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PITTSFIELD — When Bob Dylan was named the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2016, the announcement sparked conversations about the differences between poem and song. Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon views poetic verses and lyrics as separate forms of writing.

"The poem is an interesting phenomenon," Muldoon told The Eagle by phone Wednesday. "One of the classic distinctions between the lyric and the poem is that the poem brings its own music. It has its own music. It doesn't need anything else. It almost instructs you how to read it. When you get involved with words in music, it involves a somewhat different thing."

Lately, Muldoon has been exploring that "somewhat different thing." For the past few years, the Northern Ireland native has been writing spoken word pieces and song lyrics for a musical collective called Rogue Oliphant. On Saturday, Oct. 6, at 7:30 p.m., the group's rock, folk, blues and reggae sounds will accompany some of those words at Hancock Shaker Village as part of the Shaker Barn Music series.

"I've always been interested in trying to write songs," Muldoon said. "I've always been interested in what happens when words and music come together. For the most part, of course, what I'm doing is writing poems, or trying to write them, and there will be an aspect of that in this showing. The two forms of writing, I suppose, are somewhat separate but akin, and I enjoy trying to do both."

For the past eight years, for example, he has run Muldoon's Picnic at New York City's Irish Arts Center, inviting a mix of musicians and wordsmiths for performances. Five Rogue Oliphant musicians are slated to join Muldoon at Hancock Shaker Village, including regulars Chris Harford and David Mansfield, the latter of whom toured and recorded with Dylan. It isn't a conventional band; Rogue Oliphant is a "loose affiliation of musicians and composers," according to its website. Sometimes, as few as two performers will take the stage. The idea is that scheduling conflicts among one or more members won't compromise the group's ability to book gigs.

"With a setup like this, we're much more nimble," Muldoon said.

It also lends itself to a surprising show.

"It's always a bit of an adventure when we go out, but these are such fabulous musicians," Muldoon said.

Audience members can expect a mix of spoken word compositions with musical accompaniment, solo spoken word pieces and a bunch of songs. For the event, Muldoon has been working on a tune inspired by the Shakers. He won't be voicing any of the songs, though.

"Unfortunately, I'm not really a singer," he said.

The prospect of hearing others belt his words intrigues him, though. For many readers over the years, the opportunity to devour his work has prompted a similar feeling. Born in Portadown, County Armagh, in 1951, Muldoon published his first large collection of poetry, "New Weather," in 1973. He has released 11 more over the years, including "Moy Sand and Gravel," which won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. It is a challenging volume, the kind that enthralls some readers and distances others.

"He's a postmodernist, ruminating on past knowledge and contemporary demotic culture while relying on the traditional verse furniture of poetry: rhyme and unreason," Peter Davison writes in a review for The New York Times.

Muldoon is often linked to Seamus Heaney, the Northern Ireland poetic titan who offered feedback on some of Muldoon's work early on and promoted his verse. In 2018, Muldoon won the Seamus Heaney Award for Arts & Letters.

Muldoon hasn't had much time to return to his own work over the years. He has taught at Princeton University since 1987 and recently wrapped up a decade-long run at The New Yorker's poetry editor. But "Why Brownlee Left" is one that has stuck with him.

"Why Brownlee left, and where he went, / Is a mystery even now," the poem begins.

"There something that's kind of haunting about it. It was haunting then, and it's haunting now," Muldoon said.

"Comeback," one of the spoken word pieces Muldoon has written, is more uplifting. It's inspired by an aging rock 'n' roll band that has just two surviving members but continues to play on.

"It's a love song that uses the imagery of the rock 'n' roll band world as a basis for its system of metaphors and similes," Muldoon said.

The camaraderie of Rogue Oliphant is welcome for a poet who has worked alone for so much of his life.

"It's always exciting to me when other talents bring their gift to the words," he said.

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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