Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: 1990 – Madoc, by Paul Muldoon

The Co Armagh-born poet is arguably the first real Irish writer of globalisation

Going his own way: Paul Muldoon around the time of Madoc. Photograph: Frank Miller

Going his own way: Paul Muldoon around the time of Madoc. Photograph: Frank Miller

 

When Paul Muldoon posted a selection of poems to Seamus Heaney in April 1968 he was just 16 years old. Muldoon’s teacher in Armagh had taken him to a reading Heaney gave at Armagh Museum. Muldoon sent him the poems with a request to tell him where he was going wrong. Heaney replied: “I like these poems very much and I think you don’t need anyone to tell you ‘where you’re going wrong.’ I think you’re a poet and will go where you decide.” As well as recognising Muldoon’s prodigious talent, Heaney seemed to sense that the young man would go his own way, charting a course that would take him very far from the Irish traditions that went back to WB Yeats.

Born in 1951 to Patrick Muldoon, a farm labourer and market gardener, and Brigid Regan, a schoolteacher, Paul Muldoon was brought up near Moy, on the borders of Armagh and Tyrone. His poetic talent flowered early. After studying at Queen’s University Belfast he published his first book, New Weather, with the prestigious Faber imprint, in 1973, at the age of just 21. He worked as a producer for the BBC in Belfast until, in the mid-1980s, he gave up his job to become a freelance writer and moved to the United States with his American wife, Jean Korelitz.

If Heaney could be seen in some ways as the successor to Yeats, Muldoon is arguably the nearest thing to an Irish successor to James Joyce. Like Joyce he is acutely aware of Irishness as an identity that floats freely in a globalised culture. And like Joyce his aesthetic is both omnivorous and associative. Muldoon uses a dazzling variety of forms, from ballads to sonnets, from rock lyrics to opera libretti, from an almost conversationally intimate tone to the most complex metres and rhyme schemes. His poetry absorbs everything – history, politics, autobiography, myth, movies, tall tales – and then connects it to everything else. His own poetic persona never seems to settle, shifting as he does apparently at will from convoluted meta-poetic jokes to heartbreaking emotion. Like Joyce he is a fiend for puns and etymology, turning words upside down and inside out. In the opening poem of Madoc, The Key, we are reminded that “hoodlum” derives (almost) from Muldoon spelt backwards.

Madoc can be read as a cryptic response to Muldoon’s own shift from Ireland to the US. The long title poem, consisting of 233 lyrics, each headed with the name of a philosopher, is a based on the notion that the Romantic poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey went through with their scheme to emigrate to the United States and found a commune on the banks of the Susquehanna River. The legend of the Welsh prince Madoc, who allegedly sailed west and discovered America, is also enfolded into the sequence. But Madoc is also science fiction (it begins in what seems to be the near future), an oddball history of western philosophy and a lament for the American Indians. And, of course, the meetings of coloniser and colonised in the New World carry distant but unmistakable echoes of the Troubles in Muldoon’s old world of Northern Ireland. (The town of Ulster, Pennsylvania, features prominently.)

Not for nothing is the poem subtitled A Mystery: it does not give up its meanings easily. For some critics, such as John Banville, Muldoon had simply “gone too far” and was now “off there in the distance, dancing by himself”. Yet perhaps it is just this travelling off into the distance that makes Madoc so remarkable in Irish art. Muldoon’s willingness to go very far in time and space makes him arguably the first real Irish writer of globalisation. As Bucephalus, the talking horse, lectures us in the poem:

Madoc himself is, above all, emblematic
of our desire to go beyond ourselves.

Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks is a collaboration between The Irish Times and the Royal Irish Academy. Find out more at ria.ie

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