Making a Rackett

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon is just as comfortable with a Telecaster, writes Steven Rainey

Gripping his Fender Telecaster like a weapon, Paul Muldoon lifts the neck high and brings it crashing down with a clanging chord. Looking out at the audience, a sly smile spreads across his face before he leans into the microphone. 'Do any of you fancy a go? Now is the time if you fancy a little bop.'

Now really, is this appropriate behaviour for a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet?

Muldoon is having the time of his life, rocking out with Rackett in Belfast's Crescent Arts Centre. Formed in 2004 in Princeton University (where Muldoon is a lecturer) Rackett are a band of academics and professional musicians doing it for fun. 

On stage, Muldoon is animated and exuberant, prowling the lip of the stage with his guitar in the way only a rock 'n' roll performer can, living proof that it is an ageless art.

In conversation, Muldoon is measured and calm, each word carefully chosen and considered. While this is in keeping with his status as a poet, it belies an inner exhibitionism and spontaneity familiar to all performers.

With lyrics by Muldoon, first album Resistance features ten cuts of rough and ready garage rock. Rackett is no vanity project, though, and you've got to hand it to Muldoon for returning to Belfast as a rocker rather than a poet.

He was aware of the attention his show would generate, from adoring fans and the media alike. But then again, Muldoon has always walked his own path. His first volume of poetry, New Weather, was published while he was at Queen's University in 1973.

His poems - often criticised for being 'difficult' - display a profound love and understanding of 20th century pop culture.

'Work that’s thoughtful,' says Muldoon of his activity, 'And at the risk of bringing the element of age into it, that’s age appropriate. Work that means something to the people that grew up with it.

'A group of readers will grow up with a writer, and come along for the ride as it were. They’re making the laws.'  

Emerging from a thriving NI poetry scene in the early 1970s, with contemporaries like Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley, Muldoon’s work combined a stylised sense of modernity with a love of the obscure and the archaic.

In 2003, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for Moy Sand and Gravel. Most recent volume Horse Latitudes (2006) at times reflects his interest in rock and pop culture. ‘Sillyhow Stride’ is a tribute to the late Warren Zevon, the critically-acclaimed cult American singer/songwriter.

After entering into correspondence, Muldoon was invited by the terminally-ill Zevon to collaborate on a song entitled ‘My Ride’s Here’. 

The song was recorded by Bruce Springsteen on Zevon's posthumously released album of the same name, and awakened a desire within Muldoon to get more involved in music.

Raising the issue with fellow Princeton lecturer Nigel Smith, who also shared a love of rock 'n' roll, the two decided to form a band and began writing songs immediately.

Muldoon supplied the lyrics while Smith worked on the music, and before long they had repertoire enough to play live. 

A project like this could easily have been disregarded as a cringeworthy collective midlife crisis, but the band's honesty and Muldoon’s witty, literate lyrics have silenced the naysayers.

Rackett do more than their fair share to encourage the audience at the Crescent Arts Centre, prompting a large portion of the crowd to their feet, jumping off the stage mid-song to join in the revelry.

Their set is long but they keep it tight, adeptly switching from melodic garage rock to brooding ballads, and even to up-tempo reggae. The audience, a motley crew of all ages, stretching from various Belfast literati to the simply curious, are all kept on board.

'One can say whatever one wants about the Rolling Stones,' he says. 'But they still bring a tremendous energy and exuberance to their performance. The kind of energy that younger bands simply can’t match.'