Knowing My Place




The title page of Knowing My Place, annotated by Paul Muldoon. Click to enlarge.

On December 2, PEN American Center presents “First Editions, Second Thoughts,” an auction of seventy-five annotated first editions at Christie’s New York, including work by Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, and Jane Smiley, among others. The proceeds will benefit PEN, a writers’ association dedicated to protecting free expression.

Paul Muldoon’s first chapbook, Knowing My Place, is one of the books up for auction, and PEN has shared some of Muldoon’s annotations with us. Knowing My Place is so hard to come by that The Paris Review’s Art of Poetry interview with him makes no mention of it; his first full collection, 1973’s New Weather, is usually considered his first book. He does hint at the circumstances of Knowing My Place’s publication, though:


While you were at Queen’s you joined a very famous writing group, and while still an undergraduate you published your first book, New Weather. How did all of this come about? Who had you been showing your work to?


Ciaran Carson. Frank Ormsby. There were people associated with a particular magazine, The Honest Ulsterman. I’d started publishing there when I was a teenager. When I went to Queen’s I was welcomed by Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley into a critical society called the Group, or the Belfast Group, which was the offshoot of the London Group. And our poems were critiqued there by Heaney, Longley, Stewart Parker, and various other luminaries lurking around. So I suppose the stakes were quite high.

One of the things about being eighteen or nineteen or twenty is that one’s daunted by nothing. So on some level I thought to myself, Well, you know, I can do this. That’s why people do almost everything, whatever it might be. Not only, I can do this, but, I can also do it better than this. I have a sense, which I try to give my own students, that it’s possible to write poems that are of a high quality.

Knowing My Place was published by Ulsterman Publications, which I can only assume is affiliated with the group mentioned here. It appeared when Muldoon was only nineteen, an undergraduate, in 1971; “the year decimalisation came in the UK,” his annotation to the title page says. (The pound sterling was subdivided in one hundred pennies where previously it had comprised 240 pence.)

Here are some more of the annotated pages in Knowing My Place:


On “Macha”: “This felt quite risqué at the time.”


On “Belfast“: “It didn’t make the cut when my first book came out.”