Director: Alan Gilsenan
When poet Paul Muldoon worked for BBC Northern Ireland in the 1970s he had a quote by Welsh poet Dylan Thomas pinned above his desk. It suggested that in the old days poets would run away to sea. But now they work for the BBC. However, a decade later Muldoon did cross the sea – the Atlantic at least – to move to America, a country where, at the age of 70, he still lives today. Nevertheless, he’s still considered an Irish poet and often writes in the Irish language. More than a poet’s biography Laoithe is Lirici (Life in Lyrics) is a celebration of the Irish language, but the documentary frustrates as much as it elucidates.
Alan Gilsenan’s film frustrates because we learn very little of Muldoon’s life. The biographical details are few. He grew up in County Armagh, went to university at Queen’s, worked for the BBC in Belfast, lived in Dingle for a while before travelling to the States to teach at Ivy Leagues like Princeton. Only one memory from his childhood is provided: his first poetry performance when he messed up reciting Yeats’s ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’. Caught out by the repeated phrase, ‘I will arise and go now’ the young Muldoon inadvertently returned to the poem’s start.
Like Yeats in his own time, Muldoon’s approach to his own poems could be said to be unconventional. Muldoon is the master of the half-rhyme, the slant rhyme and the hidden rhyme. It’s fitting that this documentary is unconventional too even if it does side-line his poetry and its mechanics. Instead, the film presents a series of songs with lyrics by Muldoon. For his 70th birthday, the poet gave these lyrics to musicians who created music to accompany the words. Gilsenan’s film showcases these songs and they are many of them.
So there are no talking heads; rather singing heads. The list of musicians is impressive from Irish musicians such as Moya Brennan (who sings her song beautifully) and Iarla O’Lionáird to superstars like Paul Simon and Bono. Some of the Irish performers sing their songs in Irish, and while it is wonderful to hear the Irish language, there are no subtitles and the meaning of the songs remains elusive for non-Irish speakers. Indeed, subtitles would also come in handy for those singers who sing – or in Paul Simon’s case, speak – in English as often it is difficult to work out what they are saying. Only a few performers like Muldoon’s son Asher and blues singer Stew deliver the lyrics in a crystal clear fashion.
Laurie Anderson plays her cut-off violin and Damien Rice sings a nice ballad and Run-DMC rap about Wild Nights. Sometimes Gilsenan’s camera is so uncomfortably and inexplicably close to the faces of the performers that it becomes distracting, taking away from the songs and the lyrics themselves. While some musicians have obviously spent many hours getting their songs just right, busy Bono recites his lyrics as if they were poetry, but the chorus of repeated words merely sounds odd.
It’s never made clear in Life in Lyrics how Muldoon knows such a wide range of famous people – Paul McCartney makes an appearance too – and the songs are reeled off with little contextualisation. There’s nothing wrong with the songs, but those wanting poetry may be disappointed. Only a handful of poems are recited including school favourite ‘Meeting the British’, but these short offerings are more effective in portraying the influence of Muldoon on English and Irish Literature.
Paul Muldoon: Laoithe is Lirici screened at the Irish Film Festival 2022.