On a Saturday night last month a rather special band performed at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York. The rockers wore faded jeans and looked both relaxed and intense. Sandwiched between a young jazz act and a burlesque show promising “extreme audio visual stimulations,” this was Rackett, a five-man band that performs at the Bowery Poetry Club on the third Saturday of every month until December. Three of the band wore spectacles, all were well over thirty. Rackett includes amongst its members a world expert on Milton and a scholar of renaissance polyphony, but most famously its songs are composed by Pulitzer prize-winning Irish poet, Paul Muldoon.
Rackett first came into existence in 2004. In spring 2005, Muldoon’s wife, the novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz, wrote an article entitled “Sleeping with the Guitar Player” for the New York Times, telling how, while she was pregnant, her husband came home one day with a guitar and began to practise, initially causing her nausea. Soon though, that changed. “I remember vividly the first time I realized they were going to be good,” she says, sitting by the stage. “It was so humbling.”
But not surprising. Muldoon is after all, a brilliant and prolific poet. In the band’s early days, he would write three or four songs a week; now that has slowed to about two per month, but it’s still a rate that most songwriters would envy. “The beauty of this band is Paul’s creativity,” says Nigel Smith, a professor of English at Princeton University, where Muldoon is Howard G. B. Clarke ’21 professor of poetry.
Indeed, the band seems abrim with talent. Smith may be a professor now, but as a young teenager in London, he was a member of Benjamin Britten’s choir, and he featured on the original soundtrack of Jesus Christ Superstar. Later, he fell in love with prog rock and new wave, but then academics took over. Smith went to Oxford and studied English, and he didn’t return to rock until he met Muldoon at Princeton.
“When I came to Princeton, Paul looked after me and took me out to dinner occasionally,” Smith says, “and I realized he was a rock fiend. We started writing to each other in the personae of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.” In January 2004, Muldoon sent Smith a commanding email: “We’re having a band. Set this attached song to music.”
The band’s sound is eclectic. Muldoon deals with words, and the others (except the drummer) all contribute to the music. Smith favors rock, lead singer Lee Matthew folk, while Stephen Allen the keyboardist, writes in motown/reggae mode.
Poetry and song made up the set, and although he’s not the lead singer, Muldoon did most of the talking. A guest poet, Matthea Harvey, read her work, and Muldoon told the audience: “There are a lot of great poets writing in America at the moment. Thank you so much.” Muldoon, too, read several of his poems. After “Quoof,” there was a silence and Nigel Smith shyly said: “that was Paul Muldoon.”
“I think it may sound a bit odd that I’m interested in rock ‘n roll,” Muldoon says, speaking to me on the phone the next day. “I’ve always been interested in the song tradition, both in Ireland and beyond. In Ireland there’s really no distinction between the poem and the song. Some of the great poems in Gaelic are coincidentally songs.”
The simplicity of rock attracts him, along with its emotional impact. “I love the energy of it. The straightforwardness of it,” Muldoon says, adding, “rock ‘n roll can be quite sophisticated too. Much rock ‘n roll is derived across a range of influences, including blues – a form of folksong, which is none the less very sturdy and capable of sustaining a huge emotional range.”
Muldoon collaborated with Warren Zevon and wrote a poem in his memory after he died. He also studies the work of Bob Dylan, the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Leonard Cohen and Paul Simon, and he says, “It’s a constant learning experience.”
Songs are harder to write than poems. “It’s a stricter business than writing poetry,” says Muldoon. “When you’ve got the shape of a song, you sort of have to stick to it.” Yet Nigel Smith told me Muldoon’s songs have a wonderful artistry, with internal rhyme and assonance, and it’s this that makes them so easy to set to music.
Rackett’s performance may not have had the extreme elements of the burlesque show that followed it, but it had a stimulation of its own. Towards the end of the night, Muldoon announced to the audience: “Tell your friends there might be something demi-semi interesting going on here.” There certainly is.
Rackett’s next gig there is September 19.