A riffing way to avoid the business of the business suit

Paul Muldoon’s new collection is made up of 30 of his rock lyrics

Paul Muldoon with his guitar in Princeton, New Jersey, in 2007. Photograph: Oliver Morris/Getty Images

Paul Muldoon with his guitar in Princeton, New Jersey, in 2007. Photograph: Oliver Morris/Getty Images

Sat, Mar 30, 2013, 11:01

Paul Muldoon’s initial forays into music, like those of many modern poets, were libretti. He has collaborated extensively with the composer Daron Hagen, and his cantata with Mark-Anthony Turnage will be premiered as part of the Derry City of Culture celebrations. He has also been very interested in rock music. In a poem from Hay (1998), Muldoon wrote of Leonard Cohen, “his songs have meant far more to me / than most of the so-called poems I’ve read”, and over the past decade he has evolved an unusual side project, first with a band called Rackett, who made what Muldoon called “three-car garage rock”, and more recently with Wayside Shrines, which he describes as a “Princeton-based music collective”.

His new collection, The Word on the Street (Faber and Faber, £12.99), contains 30 of Muldoon’s rock lyrics, including four from a previous collection, General Admission (Gallery, 2006), but not My Ride’s Here , the only song, thus far, to have crossed over to a more general audience. ( My Ride’s Here was written with Warren Zevon and recorded by Zevon and, subsequently Bruce Springsteen.) Readers interested in how the new lyrics sound are pointed in the direction of a website where they can hear what Wayside Shrines do with (or do to?) Muldoon’s lyrics, which is – mostly – to play them straight. The songs do not quite do justice to the mercurial way his writing shifts register.

Readers, anyway, will be more interested in Muldoon’s words than they will be in the musical direction of his rock bands. Allusive, joky, aphoristic, yoking together unlikely idioms, outrageously rhymed, it is impossible to imagine that the lyrics could be written by anyone else.

The book’s presentation of the words as rock lyrics is artfully done. Unpunctuated, right-justified and printed in a bold and blocky font, the lyrics look like more like a CD insert than a book of poems. The cover image is similarly playful: what looks initially like a single in its sleeve is in fact an embossed manhole cover that bears the book’s title and is set against a gold-flecked road surface – literally, the word on the street (now paved with gold, like Percy French’s London).

Presentation aside, Muldoon’s singular technique is still capacious enough to touch on almost any subject without losing its distinctive tone, and he is as keen as ever to hammer together political and private matters in original ways.

Rock lyrics, though, are far more confining and precast, formally, than the expansive long rhymed poems and brilliant sonnets and sequences of Muldoon’s poetry. At times a reader can almost hear the sounds of Muldoon’s wheels spinning as he attempts to drive the lyrics towards the territory of his poems.

Azerbaijan , for example, seems both more direct and hazier than his poems. It begins, “It might take years / to win your heart”, the kind of sentiment and phrasing we might expect from One Direction’s lyricists. What follows, though, is a Babel of proper nouns, whose unlikely use has always been a signature of Muldoon’s work: the lovers meet at “T.B.’s Bar”, not far from an air base, which leads them to Kandahar and a job with oil and gas engineers, which leads to a move to Azerbaijan, as “The house / we bought through Morgan Chase / It’s come to naught.”

The rapid changes of location offer a shorthand version of the Bush years in the United States, its petrodollars failing to survive the credit crunch, but its thumbnail sketch is short on the images and the folded, fan-like sentences of Muldoon’s poems.

That said, the lyrics’ couplets are often sharp and smart: literary riffs serve as putdowns or kiss-offs. “Julius Caesar was a people person,” runs one lyric, “A people person like you [. . . ] Saddam Hussein and Idi Amin / Both had your people skills”; daft puns enliven the drug tale of Jezebel W as a Jersey Belle (“As for Jezebel / She put her horse / Before the cartel”); in Dream Team , a couple’s affinity is compared to “History and Hegel / The mote and the beam / Lox and a bagel / We were a dream”. And, sometimes, the lyrics do more: the mashed-up cultural references are developed, on the page, with the complexity and richness of his poems: Jersey Fresh strings together images in a complex sentence rather than as a series of jabs and counterjabs: “When the night I spent in horse country / Was its own prefigurement / I think of Botticelli / When he juxtaposes / In the Sistine Chapel / The foundling Moses / With Jesus in the crèche / Jersey fresh Jersey fresh.”

The Youngers (Bob and Cole and Jim and John) is more typically arcane and refers to an associate of the Jesse James gang, Cole Younger, a former outlaw now on parole as a touring entertainer with Frank James; addressing a lover who has gone straight, Muldoon writes: “I’ve learned the history of the hiss / From your boos and hoots” and, later, “You never used / To act like this/ This business of the business suit.”

The Word on the Street may not always convince, as rock lyrics or as poems, but it is impossible to hiss or boo a poet who so squarely aims to avoid the “business suit” as Muldoon does with this side project.

John McAuliffe's third collection Of All Places (Gallery) was published in 2011. He co-directs the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester.