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Esteemed Irish poet charms the La Grua Center

Whether you read the handicapping in elite British dailies like the Guardian and the Observer — and they keep track of such things — or a Vegas-style sports book, the odds at any moment that Irish poet Paul Muldoon will win a Nobel Prize in Literature are pretty damned good.

Of course, Muldoon already has received dozens of premiere awards, including the T.S. Eliot, Pulitzer and Shakespeare prizes, as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship, so his popular and critical acclaim are well established. Over the last half-century, he's been a consistent and prolific fountain of fresh, creative, broadly sourced and influential poetry.

What might be less known is that, appearing in person — as he did at twilight Saturday in Stonington Borough's La Grua Center — Muldoon is an astoundingly charismatic, entertaining and gracious force. A La Grua full house learned this over the course of an 80-minute presentation called "Good Stories Well Told," which featured the poet reading selections from his vast body of work — 12 major collections and counting — as well as a brief conversation with host/La Grua Executive Director Lori Robishaw.

After welcoming remarks from Robishaw, Muldoon, who has for years lived in the States and teaches at Princeton, read several pieces. To do so, he stepped off the stage and trod to and fro with the sort of comfortable familiarity Clarence Darrow might have used to charm juries — not that there were any skeptics in the crowd. Wearing a black T-shirt, black slacks and a tweed sport coat, the tousle-haired Muldoon spoke softly into a headset microphone, his soft Irish accent as lulling as Garrison Keillor at the height of Woebegone mesmerism.

Given the format, it wasn't surprising that Muldoon's reading choices stayed away from his epic-length poems and those postmodern experimentations rife with historical, mythological and arcane references. Instead, he chose shorter, more accessible works like "Redknots," an ode to wonder about not only the birth of a child but also ornithological miracles. Another was the pastoral "The Loaf," containing a chorus-like refrain with variations of "with a pink and a pink and a pinkie-pick" — which Muldoon used to conduct a sort of audience singalong.

Speaking of music, it was humbling and inspiring when Muldoon talked about his own efforts at song lyrics. He described writing a fan letter to the late Warren Zevon; after the two actually met, they indeed collaborated, including the stunning title cut to Zevon's "My Ride's Here." To hear Muldoon talk about the whole thing was delightful because it was clear he still couldn't quite believe his good fortune — as though he wasn't Paul freakin' Muldoon.

In conversation, Muldoon talked about collaborating with his wife, novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz, who was in the crowd, on an immersive theatrical adaptation of the James Joyce short story "The Dead." Muldoon described their efforts as "modest — well, perhaps it was immodest, but all we did was take Joyce's words and expand them a bit." He laughed heartily.

Muldoon also was asked about his mentor and great friend, the late Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney. The story is that, as a teen, Muldoon approached Heaney and nervously presented the master with a sheaf of poems for analysis. Apocryphally, Heaney read them, and when Muldoon asked what he could do to improve, he was told "Nothing."

"It was something like that," Muldoon remembered shyly Saturday. "You'd think I'd know this." He then related that he's had several students of his own whose work "was fabulous. Just amazing. At the same time, there's always time and a need to revise." Muldoon talked about the early stage brilliance of T.S. Elliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" — which was made better still through the editorial suggestions of Ezra Pound.

"The question is always, 'Can you do better than that?'" Muldoon said. "And the answer is always, 'Yeah, you can.' The minute you think you're done, you're not. The minute you think you don't need editing or help, you probably do."


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