Tag Archives: Wallace Stevens

The Art of Unknowing – an afternoon with Paul Muldoon in Singapore


Paul Muldoon by Oliver Morris

Paul Muldoon by Oliver Morris


I didn’t know there would be just nine of us.

Perhaps those considered literary monoliths in one part of the world loom less mightily when viewed from another geographic area. A writer who is relevant and admired in the US, UK, and Ireland, may have less resonance and relevance to South East Asia. Or so I reasoned when facing the eight empty chairs facing the white board, perplexed at the lack of clamour, crush, and cacophony. Usually I’m twenty rows back in a hedge of pads and pens, lucky to have a question answered, not being invited to engage in the conversation which constitutes the workshop.

I’ve just discovered the pleasure and privilege of participating in a literary festival located outside Europe: Not only does it make you view the familiar and famous from different cultural and geographic standpoints, it enables you to discover a wealth of respected writers perhaps not even published in your own part of the globe.

Poet friends in the UK became visibly tremulous when I said I was taking a three hour masterclass with TS Eliot and Pulitzer prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon at the Singapore Writer’s Festival. I promised faithfully to take notes and share all, expecting a massive marquee or Great Hall, with me squinting at a hazy figure in the far distance. I didn’t expect to be sharing a small seminar room with him and seven other participants, most of whom were unlike any workshop bunny I’ve encountered, before.

My fellow participants were in IT, data analysis, social work, and journalism, making the discussion often surprising, and less predictable than many of my previous experiences.  There was no ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ Or ‘do you have a special pen to write with, or a ritual you have to do before starting in the morning?’ – the questions I’ve encountered most frequently as a regular literary festival junkie. Instead, the conversation turned on the value of knowledge and not knowing – a particularly resonant subject for commercial Singapore.

‘Ends that do not tie up is not attractive in the money culture, right?’ Muldoon asked – something the majority of my co-participants agreed with. They were expected to know everything, otherwise they would lose status and credibility, they said. For Muldoon, the value is in the opposite. He imagined a writer at her desk hopefully having a channel open through which she can appeal to the unconscious, ‘opening up to what comes down the pipe.’

The Art of Unknowing started with a definition of ‘poetry’ taken from the original Greek: constructing, making things. Therefore a poet is a maker, ‘one in the construction business,’ as Muldoon coined it.

He spoke of the physics of the poem, set by Wallace Stevens, where the sound of the poem creates a pressure within which is equal to the pressure without. ‘A poem therefore is constructed like a piece of engineering. Just as every bridge presents a different problem, so does the making of every poem and the physics brought to bear on solving that problem. This is the more active part.’

The second phrase he wanted us to consider was ‘troubadour’ – at the heart of which is someone who finds, who stumbles upon things. This he saw as the chemistry of the poem, where, when elements are put together, there may be a reaction. ‘The poem comes to find you – or you search for it.’

‘The art of unknowing’ comes from Keats and his notion of negative capability – a quality Keats ascribed to Shakespeare. ‘Shakespeare is great, as he doesn’t know what he is doing – that is, he gives himself over to doubts and uncertainties instead of the irritable reaching after fact and reason.’

This is not to criticise the search for fact and reason, nor to dismiss it. Muldoon believes we need both, but at different times in the process of making, and to leave the knowing side (physics) out of the equation at first, so the chemistry can work in this state of questioning and not knowing. The capacity to engage with the unknowing is negative capability.

‘How to get to the place none of us expect is what we want both as a writer and a reader,’ Muldoon believes. ‘Being sure of things is a problem. 500 years ago they’d figured out how the body works through the humours. Had we got it right? Things change.’

He spoke of us as individuals being divided into reader and writer, the critic and creator, the conscious and unconscious. Writing is a constant to-ing and fro-ing between these. ‘You’ve got to make your own team – the reader and the writer – there are two of you already.’

Writing a poem is something sometimes mysterious, and certainly beyond ourselves. It is something we shouldn’t know of in advance, or try, in these first stages, to control: ‘We are appealing in humility to something beyond ourselves and if we can, we may have a chance something interesting may turn up.’

‘What’s not possible if you honour the poem that wants to write itself and if you give it the chance? Allow it to have its way with you.’