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Paul Muldoon on How to Write a Song

Interview by Donald H. Sanborn III | Photo by Denise Applewhite (University Photographer, Office of Communications).

Award-winning poet and Princeton University professor Paul Muldoon has edited Paul McCartney’s two-volume anthology, The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present (published by Liveright, an imprint of W.W. Norton & Company).

In his introduction Muldoon reveals that The Lyrics is “based on 24 separate meetings over a five-year period” between 2015 and 2020. He adds that most of the meetings “took place in New York, and each involved two or three hours of intensive conversation” in which he and McCartney discussed “six to eight songs.”

Last February McCartney visited, via Zoom, “How to Write a Song,” a Princeton University course Muldoon teaches with Bridget Kearney (a founding member of the Brooklyn-based, multi-genre band Lake Street Dive, and winner of the 2005 John Lennon Songwriting Contest in the Jazz Category). The website for the University’s Lewis Center for the Arts describes the course as an “introduction to the art of writing words for music, an art at the core of our literary tradition from the Beowulf poet through Lord Byron and Bessie Smith to Bob Dylan and the Notorious B.I.G.”

Muldoon also is at work on a rock musical, Athens, Georgia, an adaptation of the Frogs of Aristophanes. The music is by singer-songwriter Stew (Mark Stewart), co-composer of the Broadway musical Passing Strange. Muldoon says that this version has a “strong racial justice component.”

The Lewis Center’s website describes Athens, Georgia as an “up-to-date version” that “combines slapstick and social justice” and “features appearances by the rock god Dionysus, the guitar hero Hercules, Check Berry, Little Richard and, of course, the Real Housewives of Hades.” Athens, Georgia is the subject of a course offered by the Lewis Center, in which students have the opportunity to follow the development of the musical, which was commissioned by the Public Theater.

Muldoon’s 14th collection of poetry, Howdie-Skelp, is available from Macmillan. According to Macmillan’s website, the poems in Howdie-Skelp include a “nightmarish remake of ‘The Waste Land,’ an elegy for his fellow Northern Irish poet Ciaran Carson,” and “a heroic crown of sonnets that responds to the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.” Muldoon will read from Howdie-Skelp at Labyrinth Books on March 1 (visit labyrinthbooks.com for details).

How did you come to edit The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present?

I came to edit the volume because I went to the Met one night in 2015 with Robert Weil of Liveright. He’d already done a book of poems with Paul McCartney. I’d also written an introduction to a new Liveright edition of “The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot. Bob Weil had often asked me if there was anything I’d like to work on for him.

The opera was Verdi’s Don Carlos, which often clocks in at three and a half hours. Over the course of the evening (during intervals, in other words), the idea of putting together The Lyrics was raised and, by the end of the evening, we had a plan. After that, it was a matter of arranging a marriage with myself and Paul McCartney.

In your introduction to The Lyrics you describe the process of editing the volume as “a little reminiscent of the two-or-three-hour writing sessions that were a feature of the Lennon-McCartney partnership.” How did you craft your discussions with McCartney into the final version of the book?

Like Lennon and McCartney, we were very determined not to leave the room without something to show for it. Some fresh take on an old favorite. I supposed it was part of my job to provoke Paul McCartney into thinking about his songs in ways that hadn’t quite occurred to him. Not to start making things up, but to find new angles on the texts. Our conversations were recorded on two devices — just in case one failed — and then transcribed. I edited those transcripts down into the series of commentaries that make up the book.

What was your biggest discovery in the course of editing The Lyrics? Did anything surprise you or make you view a song differently?

I already had some sense of the extent to which he was interested in, and influenced by, the history of literature in English. But I had no idea just how broad and deep that went. Like many post-war kids in Britain, Paul McCartney had an excellent education. His English teacher, Alan Durband, had been a student of F.R. Leavis at Cambridge and was clearly one of those charismatic types of which we’ve heard so much. He helped introduce Paul McCartney to Shakespeare and Dickens, not to speak of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. The tradition of nonsense verse in English was a major element in Paul McCartney’s writing. It was something he shared with John Lennon.

Did you observe parallels between McCartney’s writing process and your own?

The single most relevant aspect of Paul McCartney’s description of his process is his insistence on not knowing what he’s doing when he’s writing a song. When I say I don’t know what I’m doing when I’m writing a poem, people assume I’m being a smartass. When Paul McCartney says it, they pay a little more attention.

What would you say is the biggest challenge McCartney has faced in songwriting? How did he overcome it, and what can other aspiring songwriters (including students of your course) learn from that?

The challenge is the same for one and all. It’s how to answer silence.

You invited McCartney to visit “How to Write a Song.” What do you think is the most important thing your students learned from him?

Precisely what I mentioned earlier. To be able to trust the song rather than interceding on its behalf. One of the great features of the class visit was how methodically Paul McCartney went about commenting on the songs that were under discussion that week. He’s a natural teacher. In fact, he says that had he not become a Beatle he may well have become a teacher.

For that course, what assignments to you give? By the end of a semester, what do you want your students to have accomplished?

We usually have 30 or 40 students. That sounds crazy until you realize they break up into groups of four, say, and work together on a song each week. Depending on the prompt we give them — loss, joy, revenge — they write the words and music and then present it to the class. The other students critique it as if they were critiquing a poem or a short story. We usually look at 10 new songs in each three-hour class.

Macmillan’s website describes Howdie-Skelp as a “sharp wake-up call,” and notes that a “’howdie-skelp’ is the slap in the face a midwife gives a newborn.” Could you tell our readers a bit about the poems in your 14th collection?

I suppose that each of them is meant to take one aback. To surprise. To shock. That’s why I write poems. I don’t see any point in doing it otherwise.

Creatively, what’s next for you?

In no particular order, I’m putting the finishing touches to a book of essays, The Eternity of the Poem, which will probably be out next year. I have a new collection of poems, The Castle of Perseverance, with watercolors by Philip Pearlstein, coming out soon in the U.K. There’s never a dull moment.

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