Muldoon was born on a farm outside Moy, County Tyrone, the eldest of three children. The family was Catholic in a largely Protestant area of Northern Ireland. His father worked as a farmer (among other jobs) and his mother was a school-mistress. In 2001, Muldoon said of the Moy; "It's a beautiful part of the world. It's still the place that's 'burned into the retina', and although I haven't been back there since I left for university 30 years ago, it's the place I consider to be my home. We were a fairly non-political household; my parents were nationalists, of course, but it was not something, as I recall, that was a major area of discussion. But there were patrols; an army presence; movements of troops; a sectarian divide. And that particular area was a nationalist enclave, while next door was the parish where the Orange Order was founded; we'd hear the drums on summer evenings. But I think my mother, in particular, may have tried to shelter us from it all. Besides, we didn't really socialise a great deal. We were 'blow-ins' - arrivistes - new to the area, and didn't have a lot of connections."
Talking of his home life, he continues "I'm astonished to think that, apart from some Catholic Truth Society pamphlets, some books on saints, there were, essentially, no books in the house, except one set, the Junior World Encyclopaedia, which I certainly read again and again. People would say, I suppose, that it might account for my interest in a wide range of arcane bits of information. At some level, I was self-educated." He was a '"Troubles poet" from the beginning.
In 1969, Muldoon read English at Queen's University Belfast, where he met Seamus Heaney and became close to the Belfast Group of poets which involved writers such as Michael Longley, Ciarán Carson, Medbh McGuckian and Frank Ormsby. Muldoon said of the experience, "I think it was fairly significant, certainly to me. It was exciting. But then I was 19, 20 years old, and at university, so everything was exciting, really." Muldoon was not a strong student at Queens. He recalls "I had stopped. Really, I should have dropped out. I'd basically lost interest halfway through. Not because there weren't great people teaching me, but I'd stopped going to lectures, and rather than doing the decent thing, I just hung around". During his time at Queens, his first collection New Weather was published by Faber and Faber. He met his first wife, fellow student Anne-Marie Conway, and they were married after their graduation in 1973. Their marriage broke up in 1977.
For thirteen years (1973–86), Muldoon worked as an arts producer for BBC arts in Belfast, (including the most bitter period of the Troubles). During this time he published the collections Why Brownlee Left (1980) and Quoof (1983). After leaving the BBC he taught English and creative writing at Caius College, Cambridge, and the University of East Anglia where he taught such writers as Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) and Giles Foden (Last King of Scotland). In 1987, he emigrated to the United States, and teaches in the creative writing program at Princeton. He held the chair of Professor of Poetry at Oxford University for the five-year term 1999–2004, and is an Honorary Fellow of Hertford College, Oxford University.
Muldoon is married to novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz, whom he met at an Arvon writing course. He has two children, Dorothy and Asher, and lives in Griggstown, New Jersey.
Poetry and other works
His poetry is known for his difficult, sly, allusive style, casual use of obscure or archaic words, understated wit, punning, and deft technique in meter and slant rhyme. As Peter Davidson says in the New York Times review of books "Muldoon takes some honest-to-God reading. He's a riddler, enigmatic, distrustful of appearances, generous in allusion, doubtless a dab hand at crossword puzzles". The Guardian cites him as "among the few significant poets of our half-century"; "the most significant English-language poet born since the second world war" - a talent off the map. (Notably, Seamus Heaney was born in 1939). Muldoon's work is often compared with Heaney, a fellow Northern Irish poet, friend and mentor to Muldoon. Heaney, who won the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature, is better known, sells widely and has enjoyed more popular success. Muldoon is more of 'the poet's poet', whose work is frequently too involved and opaque for a more casual readership. However, Muldoon's reputation as a serious poet was confirmed in 2003 with his winning of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. He has been awarded fellowships in the Royal Society of Literature and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; the 1994 T. S. Eliot Prize; the 1997 Irish Times Poetry Prize, and the 2003 Griffin International Prize for Excellence in Poetry. He was also shortlisted for the 2007 Poetry Now Award. Muldoon’s poems have been collected into three books, Selected Poems 1968-1986 (1986), New Selected Poems: 1968-1994 (1996), and Poems 1968-1998 (2001). In September 2007 he was hired as poetry editor of The New Yorker and is president of the British Poetry Society (UK).
Most of Muldoon's collections contain shorter poems with an inclusion of a long concluding poem. As Muldoon produced more collections the long poems gradually took up more space in the volume, until in 1990 the poem Madoc: A Mystery took over the volume of that name, leaving only seven short poems to appear before it. Muldoon has not since published a poem of comparable length, but a new trend is emerging whereby more than one long poem appears in a volume.
Madoc: A Mystery, exploring themes of colonisation, is among Muldoon's most difficult works. It includes, as 'poetry', such non-literary constructions as maps and geometric diagrams. In the book Irish Poetry since 1950, John Goodby states it is "by common consent, the most complex poem in modern Irish literature [...] - a massively ambitious, a historiographical metafiction". The post-modern poem narrates, in 233 sections (the same number as the number of American Indian tribes), an alternative history in which Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey come to America in order to found a utopian community. The two poets had, in reality, discussed but never undertaken this journey. Muldoon's poem is inspired Southey's work Madoc, about a legendary Welsh prince of that name. Critics are divided over the poem's success. Some are stunned by its scope and many others, such as John Banville, have professed themselves utterly baffled by it - feeling it to be wilfully obscure. Muldoon says of it: "I quite enjoy having fun. It's part of how it is, and who we are."
Muldoon has contributed the librettos for four operas by Daron Hagen: Shining Brow (1992), Vera of Las Vegas (1996), Bandanna (1998), and The Antient Concert (2005). His interests have not only included libretto, but the rock lyric as well, penning lines for the band The Handsome Family as well as the late Warren Zevon whose titular track "My Ride's Here" belongs to a Muldoon collaboration. Muldoon also writes lyrics for (and plays "rudimentary rhythm" guitar in) his own Princeton-based rock band, Rackett.
Muldoon has also edited a number of anthologies, written two children's books, translated the work of other authors, and published critical prose.
He will also be partaking in the Bush Theatre's 2011 project Sixty Six where he has written a piece based upon a chapter of the King James Bible.
Muldoon has won the following major poetry awards:
1990: Guggenheim Fellowship
1992: Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize for Madoc: A Mystery
1994: T. S. Eliot Prize for The Annals of Chile
1997: Irish Times Irish Literature Prize for Poetry for New Selected Poems 1968–1994
2002: T. S. Eliot Prize (shortlist) for Moy Sand and Gravel
2003: Griffin Poetry Prize (Canada) for Moy Sand and Gravel
2003: Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for Moy Sand and Gravel
2004: American Ireland Fund Literary Award
2004: Aspen Prize for Poetry
2004: Shakespeare Prize
2009: John William Corrington Award for Literary Excellence
Honorary Professor in the School of English at the University of St Andrews (Scotland)
Professor of Poetry at Oxford University 1999–2004 (England)
Honorary Fellow of Hertford College, Oxford University (England)
Fellowship with the Royal Society of Literature (England)
Fellowship with the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (U.S.)
As he knelt by the grave of his mother and father
the taste of dill, or tarragon-
he could barely tell one from the other-
The rain comes flapping through the yard
like a tablecloth that she hand-embroidered.
My mother has left it on the line.
It is sodden with rain.
Comes to mind as another small
amongst the rubble.
His eye matches exactly the bubble
The snail moves like a
Hovercraft, held up by a
Rubber cushion of itself,
Sharing its secret