by Anthony Lawrence
I thought I’d begin my Blog with a close reading from a small selection of Paul Muldoon’s poems. I consider him to be one of the major poets writing in English, and I’d like to share some thoughts on why his work has been so influential.
Muldoon emerged, as did Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, Michael Longley, Eavan Boland, Ciaran Carson and others, from Belfast into international prominence. The Belfast renaissance of the late 60’s produced a potent list of poets whose work would inspire generations and, in Muldoon’s case, many imitators.
The story goes that when Muldoon, aged 19, showed Heaney some poems and asked him what he could do to improve them, Heaney said “Nothing” and handed them back to him. This story has been cut back to its essence, of course, yet it reveals how much clout the young man had, and how it seemed inevitable that he would develop into a very fine poet. And while Michael Longley’s statement that this confluence of major poets was ‘a coincidence of talent’, it seems, as well, that being proactive, of being involved in workshops, discussing each others’ poems, exchanging ideas and publishing work in journals like The Honest Ulsterman, went a long way to establishing their individual, inimitable styles.
Of these poets my favourites are Muldoon and Carson. I’d like to make a brief comment on Carson’s work before moving on to Muldoon. Carson’s long lines achieve a tricky balance between narrative and a sharp lyricism. His book ‘The Ballad of HMS Belfast’ – a selection from previous books – is a masterpiece in sustained, emotional involvement and observations of local history, music and violence. These lines, from Belfast Confetti, reveal a brilliant ear and eye. Four metaphors in quick succession, yet nothing feels overextended.
‘Suddenly as the riot squad moved in, it was raining
Nuts, bolts, nails, car keys. A fount of broken type. And the
Itself – an asterisk on the map. This hyphenated line, a burst
of rapid fire.’ (p23)
Carson seems the perfect lead-in to a discussion of what I love most about the poetry of Paul Muldoon. Firstly, its his ability to dovetail the visual and aural in ways that are luminously original. I am frequently sidelined by amazement that what I’m reading is so strange, singular, yet almost alarmingly refreshing. He has his trademark flourishes, of course, those small tics that mark him out and which underpin much of the work. One is his much-discussed tendency to use cliché and well-worn phrases from popular culture. That would be a crime if they were in common usage and left to their own worn devices, yet Muldoon’s imagination and ability to combine them with strange images, half-rhymes and repetition gives the work a compelling authority. Here is a line from ‘The Cure For Warts’ (New Weather):
‘Had I been the seventh son of a seventh son
Living at the dead center of a wood
Or at the dead end of a lane,
I might have cured by my touch alone
That pair of warts nippling your throat.’ (28)
This is very early Muldoon. He was, perhaps nineteen or twenty when he wrote many of the poems in New Weather. A close examination of why these lines work might begin with Muldoon’s ability to combine (and cleverly conceal) half-rhymes and a vowel-rich music, suggesting folklore and a playful, dark eroticism. The slant rhyme of ‘Been’ and ‘son’ in the first line contrast beautifully with the trochaic ‘Living’ and ‘center’ followed by two more half rhymes in ‘dead’ and ‘wood’. This sets up the potency of the poem’s overarching tone, and its something Muldoon has done, to great effect, throughout much of his poetry. So much happening in five lines, yet it’s so seamless we hear only the inner music. It’s a deft hand in control here. The last line begins with ‘That’ and ends with ‘Throat’. Muldoon could have written ‘The pair of warts…’ but he’d have missed an opportunity to make the line ring, almost imperceptively, from one end to the other.
As Muldoon’s prodigious talent grew and his risks with language increased, he moved towards a more diffuse, often complex vision, where his love of etymology and his insatiable curiosity with history were given, if not free reign, then certainly lots of room to move. This is perhaps most obvious in the book Madoc: A Mystery. For some readers, this might have been akin to Dylan going electric. A reworking (with detours into delirium) of Southey’s Madoc, Muldoon places Coleridge in the wheelhouse and what transpires involves a title poem of two hundred and fifty pages and a puzzling, often hard-to navigate assault on the senses. My take on Muldoon’s most ambitious, difficult poetry is to take a deep breath and go along for the ride. It’s the same with Dylan Thomas. A poem might defy immediate critical understanding, yet it works profoundly on a subliminal, emotional level. I can imagine Muldoon sitting back, narrowing his eyes in wonder at having written:
‘When Sara stretches into the dark
of the meal-ark
her hand is taken by a hand.
A tongue-in-cheek snail goes metic-
ulously across a mattock’s
As Southey squats in the claw-foot tub,
oblivious of the shadow-rub
of horses against his tent.’ [DIOGENES]
Muldoon has spoken at length about his writing process. Rarely, (even with a long thematically-linked poem like Madoc…) does he have a fixed idea of where things are likely to go. This is not news. Many poets write this way, yet Muldoon raises the stakes even higher by approaching each line as though it were a singular entry, as though it might not press on into something longer. By crafting each sentence until he has the music, imagery, line-length-and-breaks down, he moves forward, in slow stages. Technique and craft, meticulous attention to detail before anything else. It’s a complete act of faith in one’s ability to be simultaneously spellbound by the moment yet still maintain some sense of control that makes the work of a poet like Muldoon so enduring. I sense deeply that many of the poems in Madoc… emerged this way, surfacing to find their place in the story.
Recently I bought a hardcover copy of Maggot, Muldoon’s eleventh full collection of poems. It has fast become my favourite – it contains his hallmark strangeness, unpredictable syntax and idiosyncrasies, and it works as a curious discontinuous narrative through sex, death and entomological forensics. The imagery is this book is luminous and vital. Here is part two, from the opening sequence, Plan B:
‘To have fetched up here in Vilna – the linen plaids,
the amber, the orange-cap boletus
like a confession extorted from a birch,
the foot-wide pedestal upon which a prisoner would perch
on one leg in the former KGB headquarters
like a white stork
before tipping into a pool of icy water,
to be reinstated more than once by a guard with a pitchfork.’ (4)
Here is Muldoon’s genius in full swing. His tendency to offer slight shifts in meaning or suggest alternatives to places, colours, sounds, sensations can be seen in ‘the amber, the orange-cap boletus / like a confession extorted from a birch…’ Using one colour and asserting its authority in the line would have been fine, but Muldoon can’t resist that playful twist, and we are rewarded. He could have used ‘fungus’ and made it work, but to then give us the simile of it being a confession / extorted from a birch creates an indelible, masterful line of poetry. For months I carried this book everywhere, rereading the poems, and finding new things to be amazed at every time. Muldoon’s inventiveness and variousness keep me coming back for more.
For anyone interested in full-immersion in Muldoonville, I recommend a single-sitting reading of Incantata, his elegy for his friend the artist Mary Farl Powers from the book The Annals of Chile. The poem was written, he says, over a few days while grieving. It is one of my favourite poems, and one I love to read aloud, to my students. I won’t steal its thunder by discussing it here. Read it and be changed.