A pair of lyric luminaries teaches songwriting at Princeton

English songwriter John Wesley Harding listens to a song written by Princeton students (from left) guitarist Jordan Lubkeman, vocalist Tara Lukas, harpist Maia ten Brink.
English songwriter John Wesley Harding listens to a song written by Princeton students (from left) guitarist Jordan Lubkeman, vocalist Tara Lukas, harpist Maia ten Brink. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 13, 2013

The theme of this week's class is desire.

The "How to Write a Song" class, that is, taught by Pulitzer Prize-winning Northern Irish poet Paul Muldoon and English songwriter John Wesley Harding to a room full of impressively talented Princeton University undergraduates.

Each week this semester at Princeton, two dozen students have split into small groups and written songs on a given emotional topic, such as loneliness, or remorse. Then, when the class meets on Tuesdays on the Ivy League university's idyllic campus, they perform it in front of their impressively credentialed, though not stern, taskmasters.

Muldoon, the creative-writing professor dubbed "the most significant English-language poet born since the Second World War" by the Times Literary Supplement, wrote songs with Warren Zevon and plays guitar in the Wayside Shrines. The band's new album, The Word on the Street, shares its title with Muldoon's new book of rock lyrics, which includes such local references as Jersey tomatoes, Wawa, and the sign "Trenton Makes The World Takes." He'll read from his book Thursday at the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Harding, who lives in Mount Airy and writes novels under his given name, Wesley Stace, is a similar straddler of artistic pursuits. His most recent album, The Sound of His Own Voice, came out in 2011. He hosts John Wesley Harding's Cabinet of Wonders, a musical-comedy-literary variety show, at which Muldoon read his poem "Duffy's Circus" in Philadelphia last fall. The next Cabinet will take place Thursday at City Winery in New York, with comedian Fred Armisen, novelist Amy Sohn, rocker Graham Parker, and others.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon at the Class of 1970 Theater, however, the professors are spending their time listening to their students. The session kicks off with bass player Chester Dubov, guitarist Matt Seely, and singer Catherine Cohen performing "Linger," with Cohen and Seely's verse offering a dual perspective on a love affair.

Harding, 47, with hair swept back and feet on the railing in front of him, praises the song as "phenomenally ambitious." He takes issue with one line: "My heart is so ripe, it's close to rotting." Wouldn't a less harsh word be better?

Muldoon, 61, with a mop of frizzy locks above his plastic-framed glasses, doesn't think so. Speaking up in his soft, mellifluous brogue, he says it brings to mind the most revered of Irish poets: "You know, W.B. Yeats said that there were only two subjects to entertain the rational man or woman: sex and death."

After class, harpist Maia ten Brink says that such out-of-the-blue insights make Muldoon a popular teacher.

"Paul has a habit of saying something so crazy it works," she says. "He'll say, 'Why don't you think of it from the point of view of the boat?' And you're like, 'No. . . . Yes!' "

"It's such a delight to be hanging out with a bunch of students like this," Muldoon says. "Honestly, at some significant level, Wes and I could just leave now. In a strange way," adds the poet, who is married with two children, "being a teacher is like being a parent: Let them at it. Part of their job is to move beyond you."

Talking before class, Muldoon, who is poetry editor of the New Yorker, says part of his motivation for bringing in Harding, with whom he has been writing songs, is selfish.

"I can learn for myself, and I can learn from Wes," he said. "I believe that if you're going to learn something, you go to people who are very good at it. . . . Which is what I did with Warren Zevon."

He got to know Zevon when he wrote the hard-boiled troubadour a fan letter in 2000. The pair penned two songs, the pennywhistle-reel "Macgillicuddy's Reeks" and "My Ride's Here," the title cut to the penultimate album by Zevon, who died in 2003.

Since then, Muldoon has been writing songs as well as poems, the most recent collection being the critically praised Maggot, in 2010. Harding says their collaboration is "thrilling." "What I like most is his welcoming manner, his encouraging attitude to all creativity, and his unflagging friendship to all. It's what makes him so incredibly easy to work with."

Muldoon says, "It's actually more difficult to write songs than poems," partly because songs are typically ruled by tighter structures and the obligation to rhyme - as he does in The Word on the Street's "Over You," which begins: "The things they make in Trenton are taken by the world / You were made in Trenton, I took you for my girl."

With great songwriters, he says, "lyrics are indivisible from the music in many ways, but the lyrics may also be read. So you read Leonard Cohen's poems, but you might also read his song lyrics. I suppose, on some level, that's what I'd like to be doing myself."

There's a populist impulse, too, in a poet writing songs for a rock-and-roll band. "I suppose there is a sense that one wants to connect with as many people as possible," Muldoon says. "Who knows? For me, this is fun. And I do enjoy having a bit of fun in the midst of everything else."

Contact Dan DeLuca

at 215-854-5628 or deluca@phillynews.com, or

follow on Twitter @delucadan. Read his blog, "In the Mix,"

at www.philly.com/inthemix.

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