Poetry: Paul Muldoon, Ireland’s enigmatic riddler of rhymes
The poet who ‘sounds like no one else’ has published his career-defining collection
Paul Muldoon: his “darker understanding of language knows that we use words, not to include, but to divide and control one another”. Photograph: Tony Pleavin
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.
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 itch
When 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’s fourth book, The Way In (Gallery), jointly won the Michael Hartnett Award this year. He teaches poetry at the University of Manchester’s Centre for New Writing.