Few people bother to memorize poems any more. Were this practice to come back into fashion, not many would turn to the work of Paul Muldoon.
He’s a difficult poet — allusive, riddling, satirical, strange. His work only rarely trips off the tongue. His poems set trapdoors — emotional, metrical, intellectual — into which you can fall for miles. On the way down, there will be bats. You may land with thunk back in County Armagh, in Northern Ireland, on the farm where he was born. He will have dropped you there (he is poetry editor of The New Yorker) from a dizzying urban height.
Since I first read it 10 years ago, however, it’s a Muldoon poem I most wish I had added to the small college-era verse-store in my head. The poem is “The Old Country,” and it first appeared in his collection “Horse Latitudes” (2006).... read more.
I’ve never attempted to memorize it, mostly I think because of its length. It’s a bravura crown of sonnets that unfolds over a full nine pages — vastly longer than Robert W. Service’s “The Shooting of Dan McGrew,” which my paternal grandfather used to recite, when asked, at family gatherings. I also suspect you’d need a bit of an Irish brogue to really pull it off.
On one level, “The Old Country” is a twisting poem that’s nearly as merry as a brook in springtime. It’s a catalog of clichés about Ireland back in the day, “where every shave was a very close shave” and “every malt was a single malt.” As it moves forward, though, this poem snowballs and turns inward; it accumulates a potent sense of doom.
Mr. Muldoon uses anaphora — the repeated use of the word “every” — to pulverizing effect. The poem moves with a jaunty deliberateness; it takes a while to realize how far it has rushed past your sense of its meanings. Its stanzas begin to read like telegraphs from a freshly broken world:
Every runnel was a Rubicon
where every ditch was a last ditch.
Every man was ‘a grand wee mon’
whose every pitch was another sales pitch
now every boat was a burned boat.
Every cap was a cap in hand.
Every coat a trailed coat.
Every band was a gallant band
across the broken bridge
and broken ridge after broken ridge
where you couldn’t beat a stick with a big stick.
Every road was a straight up speed trap.
Every decision was a snap.
Every cut was a cut to the quick.
On this poem’s last page Mr. Muldoon announces that “every dance was a last dance” and guides the reader, as if in an uncanny tango, home.
“The Old Country” appears in “Selected Poems 1968-2014,” Mr. Muldoon’s third “best of” volume. His first selected poems appeared in 1986 and his second a decade later. His anvil-size and up-to-then complete “Poems 1968-1998” was published in 2001. You’re not a writer, James Baldwin said, until you have a shelf. Mr. Muldoon requires a shelf for his re-boxings.
This new volume includes five poems from each of his previous 12 books of poems, beginning with “New Weather” (1973) and ending with “One Thousand Things Worth Knowing” (2014). It’s a compact, powerful book, filled with catharses you didn’t know you needed.
Early in his career, Mr. Muldoon’s work sometimes followed in the footsteps of his mentor, the Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney. But it followed with madcap energy, like a dog newly let off its leash. Like that dog, it is arguable that Mr. Muldoon has raced past his master.
His work has always leaned on folklore, superstitions and old wives’ tales. He makes these feel modern. He takes traditional verse forms — sonnets, sestinas, ballads, pantoums — and retools them, as if they were engine parts, for his own purposes as well.
Emily Dickinson said, “I am out with lanterns, looking for myself.” Mr. Muldoon’s poems often feature killings or carjackings or missing persons; the police and detectives are frequently in attendance. He is out with lanterns, looking for the body.
His long poem “The Humours of Hakone,” from his 2010 collection “Maggot,” gives us a forensic investigator lingering over the dead body of a Japanese girl. “By day four,” he says, “the skin would have peeled from her thigh like a fine-mesh stocking.”
In an early poem, “Good Friday, 1971. Driving Westward,” a couple in a car “hit something big.” Nothing is visible in the rearview mirror and they drive on. Had they hit a human being? In the poem’s final stanza, the male narrator describes this confession over lunch in a restaurant:
She stood up there and then, face full of drink,
And announced that she and I were to blame
For something killed along the way we came.
Children were warned that it was rude to stare,
Left with their parents for a breath of air.
Mr. Muldoon writes nature poems and urban poems and sex poems; he is at home in every setting. In each, as he writes in his poem “Incantata,” the “things of this world sing out in a great oratorio.”
The critic Kenneth Tynan had a sign on his desk that read: “Be light, stinging, insolent, and melancholy.” These seem to be Mr. Muldoon’s rules as well. His wit always has an undertow of sadness. In one poem he is “waiting for some lover/ to kick me out of bed/ for having acted on a whim.”
A few of his poems are well-nigh impenetrable. The voltage in his head is not the same as in ours. Reviewing Mr. Muldoon’s notoriously difficult book “Madoc: A Mystery” (1990) in The New York Review of Books, John Banville wrote: “I cannot help feeling that this time he has gone too far — so far, at least, that I can hardly make him out at all, off there in the distance, dancing by himself.”
For most of “Selected Poems 1968-2014” Mr. Muldoon is not so distant. He is close up, whispering in the reader’s ear. What I always imagine he is saying is his own version of this line from the poet Rita Dove: “If you feel strange, strange things will happen to you.”- Dwight Garner, New York Times
The Fuzzy In-Betweenness of Everything
In Paul Muldoon’s curiously timely poetry, identities are always fluid and allegiances always partial.
“Yet by my broken bones// I tell new weather.” When these precocious lines appeared in his 1973 debut New Weather, the Irish poet Paul Muldoon was 21, a student at Queen’s University in Belfast, and generally too self-deprecating, too generalization-averse, for such brash pronouncements. Today, in one of those serendipitous coincidences that buoy his poetry, Muldoon’s forecast sounds like utter understatement. At 65, Muldoon—Princeton professor, New Yorker poetry editor (and honey-tongued host of its poetry podcast), one Nobel shy of amassing the literary world’s biggest prizes—can take credit for an expansive weather pattern in contemporary poetry, a half-century of shapeshifting, inimitable work.
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Muldoon’s high-profile side gigs, his midcareer transatlantic move, his increasing knottiness and self-reflexivity: All of the above has obscured, for American readers, the achievements and history of Muldoon the poet. Selected Poems, 1968–2014, gathering five poems apiece from his 12 major collections, offers the clearest condensation of that history to date. It reveals, amid Muldoon’s kaleidoscopic variations, the axiom underlying all his poetry: that no categories are truly stable, that everything inhabits a fuzzy in-betweenness. In Muldoon’s slant-rhymed take on our world, identities are always in flux, allegiances always partial, borders teetered over, messages mistranslated, feelings incurably mixed.
Suspended between influences—W. H. Auden’s coded transmissions, Seamus Heaney’s sensuous candor, Robert Frost’s never-say-quite-what-you-mean mischief—Muldoon’s first poems found their voice in hybrid speakers and mismatched pairs. Muldoon’s subjects could be mythical, or cryptozoological: centaurs, mermen, yetis, ’shroom-fueled hallucinations of talking horse heads. More often, they revisited his early years in Northern Ireland, barking a carnival of mixed marriages, disastrous dinner dates, cease-fires, and self-fashioning teenagers. Muldoon’s most distilled mission statement, an early poem called “Mules,” starts with a smirk: “Should they not have the best of both worlds?” Muldoon celebrates “what was neither one thing nor the other,” neither donkey nor horse, lowly yet heavenly, born into our fallen world with an afterbirth “Trailed like some fine, silk parachute,/ That we would know from what heights it fell.” Muldoon’s sparse narratives could start anywhere and end anywhere else, forgoing symmetries for free-associative triple jumps and world-traversing butterfly effects. In the quavering reminiscence “Cuba,” the Cuban Missile Crisis sends aftershocks of paranoia to Ireland; Muldoon’s apocalyptic father, in turn, sends an abashed teenage daughter to the confessional. In “Anseo”—Muldoon’s first Irish word, “meaning here, here and now,/ All present and correct”—a primary-school roll call chimes with republican militarists “fighting for Ireland,” who “would call back Anseo/ And raise their hands/ As their names occurred.”
Gradually over the 1980s, and exponentially over the 1990s, Muldoon’s style uncoiled. If his earliest poems were miniaturist, spring-loaded gizmos, then his hyper-allusive middle period is an A.I. that’s gained sentience, escaping its programmer’s control. The search engine–wide mind behind the 1990 epic Madoc: A Mystery and 1994’s The Annals of Chile must have uploaded, for starters, a dozen poetry anthologies, encyclopedias, atlases, the OED, all of Western philosophy (or the relevant SparkNotes), the collected stories of Raymond Chandler, and every five-star rock album released between 1967 and 1994. Suddenly, a Muldoon stanza could accommodate compulsive punning, Irish ballads, academese, nonsense syllables (“fol-de-rol fol-de-rol fol-de-rol-di-do”), highbrow cozying up to lowbrow (“Chopin or Chop-/ sticks”), inside jokes, decades-old slang, folk etymologies, and, like, the vocal tics of the moment. That sprawling vocabulary was boxed in by sonnets gone haywire, overgrown villanelles, a 1212-line elegy whose 90 rhymes followed a scheme as airtight and arbitrary as a conspiracy theory. In his most-studied innovation, Muldoon slanted rhyme to a new extreme that modulated vowels, garbled consonants, and shuffled syllables: The same poem might rhyme “yes indeedy” and “potato” and “Incantata,” “Estragon” and “Tarragon” and “jargon.”
No contemporary poetry gives such immediate proof that extravagant contrivance is perfectly compatible with powerful feeling, or can be feeling’s fractal-shaped expression. Taking and tangling up Frost’s advice—“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”—Muldoon’s best poems put themselves through obstacle courses and unthinkable constraints in order to surprise their way out of tears, which seep through his pages regardless. Take Muldoon’s maximalist elegies, which multiply grief’s five stages into 5,000 and stage a thinky, jocular, attention-deficient man running circles around loss. “Incantata” mourns a former partner, the artist Mary Farl Powers, with an absurd act of throat-clearing (cutting a mouth in a potato), followed by a 176-line litany of everything lost with Powers-
Of the great big dishes of chicken lo mein and beef chow mein,
of what’s mine is yours and what’s yours mine,
of the oxlips and cowslips
on the banks of the Liffey at Leixlip,
-among hundreds of moments and habits, gone forever. As consolation for his broken bones and fissured identities, Muldoon has only artifice—self-conscious, provisional, transcending nothing, virtuosic yet frivolous, virtually perfect and perfectly virtual.
In his latest books, suburban New Jersey life provides new topics (marriage, fatherhood, home decoration) and stable ground for Muldoon to range even further, to George Bush–burning satire, to riddles, and to songs—some Provençal and gallant, some garage-rock and bratty. (Selected Poems omits Muldoon’s libretti and rock lyrics, of which “My Ride’s Here,” co-written with Warren Zevon, remains the most singalong-able.) Recent Muldoon can ease into riffing lists, even outright goofiness: “Symposium,” hinting at that word’s original meaning (“drinking party”) while spoofing academia’s stuffier symposia, sloshes together proverbs into confident nonsense: “People in glass houses can’t see the wood/ for the new broom. Rome wasn’t built between two stools./ Empty vessels wait for no man.” For readers hopeful for clarification or relief from his erratic meanderings, Muldoon unspools his vexing “Errata”:
For “spike” read “spoke.”
For “lost” read “last.”
For “Steinbeck” read “Steenbeck.”
For “ludic” read “lucid.”
But he never settles down in any one place, any one thought, for long: Recent Muldoon books include comic travelogues like “Cuba (2),” which finds Muldoon navigating both Cuba (the country) and “Cuba” (his poem):
I’m hanging with my daughter in downtown Havana.
She’s worried people think she’s my mail-order bride.
It might be the Anseo tattooed on her ankle.
It might be the tie-in with that poem of mine.
If you read Selected Poems cover to cover, watching the antiheroes and withdrawn adolescents of his early books give way to pragmatic, mournful, still-scatterbrained adults, you might conclude that Muldoon grew up. It’s equally true that today’s culture is just catching up with Muldoon. His trivia-mad poems overwhelmed their first reviewers with pre-internet information overload: Today, they seem designed for an age of Google and Wikipedia (and quickly expose their limits). Muldoon’s cultural appetite has extended the same generosity to Joyce and Jimi, the classics and classic rock, for decades: There may be no poet more gleeful about Bob Dylan’s Nobel, more aggrieved by Leonard Cohen’s death. (Muldoon praises both songwriters in the uncharacteristically earnest “Sleeve Notes.”) Even his comic sensibility seems prescient: no poet was so fit for interrogation on The Colbert Report as Muldoon, whose amused admiration defused Colbert’s overblown persona and outrageous tones—tricks Muldoon had down for decades.
And to reread Muldoon at the end of 2016, alongside poems circulated since the election, is to revisit a ceaselessly subversive political poet who is indispensable for every reason his best poems will never go viral: Muldoon offers 10 complications for each consolation, exposes every stock phrase and tidy -ism to bewildered scrutiny, and will reach for any stray interconnection between the quotidian and the traumatic, the topical and the esoteric. (For Muldoon’s best short political poem, start with the helplessly matter-of-fact “Meeting the British,” too startling to simply excerpt.) Muldoon is not our only poet who can implode hypocrisy or perniciously partial narratives, but he may be the most inviting, the most conspiratorial, and the first to admit that his poetry is fundamentally a matter of play, hijinks conducted at high-wire heights. With Selected Poems, Muldoon’s in-between poetry has never been this welcoming, or this disorienting: Come on in, but brace yourself for another lucid (read: “ludic”) rearrangement. - Christopher Spaide, slate.com
Paul Muldoon’s Selected Poems 1968-2014 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) demonstrates why he has long been regarded as one of the most significant poets of the past 50 years. Here, as he draws from numerous previous collections, including “Moy Sand and Gravel,” which won the Pulitzer Prize, Muldoon displays the full range of his voice, which can be whimsical, melancholy, pensive, angry or delight in word play.... read more. The collection opens beautifully with the poem “Wind and Tree,” a striking lyric from his book “New Weather,” that delights the ear and the mind with its evocative descriptions of trees joining and breaking their limbs and his observation that “Yet by my broken bones/ I tell new weather.” Thus begins a wonderful series of poems that focus on the natural world, before the speaker turns, in the following selections, to his family and to some of the momentous decisions people make. Later on, longer, complex pieces weave together various threads and parts of history while maintaining a balance between the timely and the timeless. Some of the best work shows the speaker at his most perceptive or most vulnerable, as when he mourns the death of Seamus Heaney, describes the impending birth of one of his children or when he muses wisely and wittily that “The best poems, meanwhile, give the answers/ to questions only they have raised.” - Elizabeth Lund, The Washington Post
Paul Muldoon’s Muldoonishness, and the regularity with which new books appear, can obscure his innovation. As he put it in his poem The Key: “I’ve sometimes run a little ahead of myself, but mostly I lag behind, my footfalls already pre-empted by their echoes.” However, Muldoon’s books are not karaoke repetitions or formal, foregone conclusions, and Selected Poems 1968-2014 (Faber, £14.99) offers a good vantage point on the restlessness of his growth as a poet.... read more. In 1996, Muldoon’s last New Selected Poems culminated with Incantata, his elegy for Mary Farl Powers, which marked a turning point in how we read Paul Muldoon. Its powerfully affecting, formally expansive representation of intimacy and loss drew attention to an aspect of his work that suddenly stood revealed in other, earlier poems. Cuba, Ned Skinner, The Soap Pig, Gathering Mushrooms and Why Brownlee Left, all now anthology favourites, articulated those vulnerable and hard-to-define moments of powerlessness, when their subjects’ experiences pass beyond their own control.Those poems still grace this collection, but Incantata now marks the halfway point of Muldoon’s prolific writing life. This selection, just five poems from each of his 12 Faber collections, newly emphasises the autobiographical strand that runs through his work. Yes, the eye is drawn to the formal risks Muldoon takes. The big, ingenious “exploded sestinas” of long poems, which take their cue from Incantata (including three amazing high-wire acts, At the Sign of the Black Horse, The Humours of Hakone and Dirty Data), are satisfyingly in view. But these poems’ inheritances and discoveries are both literary and familial, and their chosen subjects – parents and children, lovers and marriage and friends – feel newly prominent.What is clear now, as much as when he published his first collection as an undergraduate, is that Muldoon sounds like no one else. The immediately distinctive, speed, cynical wit and appetite for language of the books of his first decade led readers into increasingly strange situations and have inspired generations of Irish and British and, lately, North American writers.The title poem of Quoof (1983) is a sonnet that still sounds as fresh and oddly typical as ever. Its unlikely choice of subject, a family word for a hot water bottle (a “quoof”), satirises the dreamy, Esperanto idealism that we may all, one day, be able to truly understand one another.However, Muldoon’s darker understanding of language knows that we use words, not to include, but to divide and control one another. The quoof is, the poem says, “like a sword” between the speaker and his lovers. In the sonnet’s sestet, Muldoon rhymes “English” with “language”, and “New York City” with “yeti”, and the possibility of any communication or community (either personal or national) seems farfetched.Still, his style, his ability to zone in on particular subjects, and his formal bravura are all predicated on his ear for language, his poems’ curious ability to resonate beyond the literal words on the page. Few writers have such a sure sense of words’ implications, of the unsaid and the unspeakable.Quoof, for instance, asks readers to hear something else in its description of the father’s “hot water bottle”: he would “juggle a red-hot half-brick/ in an old sock”, the rhymes calling to mind other rhymes for brick, for sock. This imbues the poem with a sinister and complicit understanding of what the language has in store for its users. Muldoon moved to the US in 1988, and his life and family there are evidently part of the widening compass of this collection’s latter half. The poems confidently expand their associative range of reference; the internet helps with some of the fanciful detail his poems use, but, importantly, we recognise that he is still speaking to us, in our language. He has developed a new signature poem, the comic cliche-collage (“People in glass houses can’t see the wood/ for the new broom” from Symposium), while transatlantic travel quickens the first-class wit of his rhymes.In the jingling virtuosity of The Loaf, long-dead emigrant subjects are recovered, sense by sense: When I put my finger to the hole they’ve cut for a dimmer switch/ in a wall of plaster stiffened with horsehair/it seems I’ve scratched a two-hundred-year-old itchWhen the poem’s terza rima then conjures up its speaker “putting [his] mouth to the horsehair-fringed niche”, the reader must rhyme niche with switch and itch, ie, pronouncing this emigrant’s poem as Americans do. Muldoon’s genius for implication is evident in the outstanding long poems, including last year’s Dirty Data, but also in short lyrics, such as the title poem of his 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winner, Moy Sand and Gravel. Ostensibly about a cinema visit, its unusual syntax and striking images are subtly suggestive:
To come out of the cinema and be taken aback
by how, in the time it took a dolly to travel
along its little track
to the point where two movie stars’ heads
had come together smackety-smack
and their kiss filled the whole screen,
those two great towers directly across the road
at Moy Sand and Gravel
had already washed, at least once, what had flowed
or been dredged from the Blackwater’s bed
and were washing it again, load by load,
as if washing might make it clean.
The poem’s single sentence tracks so smoothly between its two scenes that the reader might miss the image of the two great towers, which signals this New Jersey-based poet’s response to 9/11. The poem’s coolness and elusiveness, like his friend Seamus Heaney’s poem on the subject in Anything Can Happen, place the event within a cyclical continuum of historical collapses and rebuilding (as does his unusual but typical choice of tense, the continuous infinitive). Few poets can write history into the margins of their work without being overwhelmed by it. In this book’s short lyrics and astonishing long poems, Muldoon manages. Readers of a poet as original and daring as Paul Muldoon learn to be patient. Who felt as if they were in the presence of a masterpiece on first reading The Humours of Hakone (2010)? Searching online for Waxahachie and Kyoto-eki, his “poem decomposing around an arrow” flickers into focus. Muldoon is still opening our eyes to the possibilities of poetry. - John McAuliffe, The Irish Times
A virtuoso since his student days in Northern Ireland, Muldoon has collected many of poetry’s most coveted trophies during his half-century-long career, including a Pulitzer Prize. This impressive yet approachable selection, replacing an earlier selected, offers an excellent introduction to his relentlessly crafted work.... read more. His early lyrics of rural life and the Irish Troubles have aged well: they remain as powerful and delicately wrought as the switch a boy makes for his own beatings in “Anseo.” Other poems slyly address political questions. “There is, surely, in this story/ a moral,” Muldoon writes in “The Frog,” asking about the eponymous amphibian, “What if I put him to my head/ and squeezed it out of him?” His more recent work is often death-haunted; its muses are maggots and turkey buzzards, and one poem”s refrain is literally “Too late.” But Muldoon leavens this morbidity with self-awareness and volubility, with the sincere wonder of the cosmopolitan. As he writes in “Cuthbert and the Otters,” his strange, moving requiem for Seamus Heaney, “The Benedictines still love a bit of banter/ along with the Beatitudes.” Equal parts bar crawl and blessing, formal adventure and shaggy dog, Muldoon’s work looks both backward and forward and finds new ways to rhyme them.- Publishers Weekly