While it is an understandable matter of critical convenience to place poets in groups determined by geographical proximity (the Black Mountain poets; the New York School) or by perceived peculiarities of behavior (the Beats), these simplistic categorizations are often as deceptive as they are illuminating. The proliferation of powerful poetry from Ireland—by poets born both in the North and in the Republic—and the publicity attendant to Seamus Heaney’s well-deserved Nobel Prize has resulted in an amorphous mass called “Irish poetry” that assumes a commonality of interests and styles that, not surprisingly, is a simplistic reduction of the individual concerns and voices of the poets themselves. Still, as is historically evident, the possibilty of maintaining the “conversation of other poets” that Donald Hall posits is what poets “need,” since “the history of poetry is a history of friendship and rivalries,” has encouraged and sustained some of the most prominent of contemporary Irish poets. Ciaran Carson, Paul Muldoon, and Medbh McGuckian were students at Queen’s University in Belfast in the 1960’s, several years after Heaney’s graduation; McGuckian has recalled that Heaney was “the first person who didn’t make me feel that poetry was a closed shop. . . . There was this openness and friendliness that I trusted.” How these poets, among others born in Ireland, have dealt with the weight of Irish history and politics, as well as the specific experiences of their own lives, is one of the most useful means of approaching their work.
Paul Muldoon was born in Belfast in 1951. A professor at Princeton University, living in New Jersey, married to an American woman, he has been a citizen of the United States for several years. In his poem/diary “The Prince of the Quotidian” (1994), he directly addressed Seamus Deane, who has written a critical essay that, the poet complains, “has me ‘in exile’ in Princeton.” Muldoon’s irritation with this judgment is expressed with characteristic dry wit:
To Deane I say, I’m not in exile,
though I can’t deny
I’ve been twice in Fintona.
The fact that Muldoon chooses to mention Fintona, a small town in County Tyrone near Moy where he grew up, is a reaffirmation of the importance of the local in the face of Deane’s accusation that he is a kind of cultural traitor, as well as a pointed query about the influence of any one among the complex of occasions of a writer’s life. It is both a resistance to the narrowly parochial, the pressure of the parish, and a declaration of personal autonomy—his claim for the artist’s right to determine where he belongs and what he will choose to say. It recalls Heaney’s well-known response in “The Flight Path” when he, home from America, is challenged by a “grimfaced” republican to “write something for us.” Heaney’s defiant “’If I do write something It’ll be for me, not you or anybody/ About to tell me what I should be writing” is close to the first principle of artistic independence, and one of the most striking aspects of Muldoon’s writing is his pursuit of subjects and styles that are distinctly personal, somewhat idiosyncratic, and expertly rendered in terms of the requirements of the particular poem.
The extensive range of the poems in Hay is similar to that of previous collections. The placement of individual poems and groups is designed to reveal a subtle interplay among them, but this is not apparent until the entire book has been scrutinized. Even then, the relationship of the poems is fluid, depending on an order of reading that does not depend on going straight through. Muldoon begins with “The Mudroom,” a dream vision addressed to his wife (“my love”) that joins moments of their life together with Hebrew myth, culinary delicacies, pop- culture features, and other ephemera in a kind of journey that merges inner landscape with a trek through space and time. The mixture of erudition and evocative sensual imagery is one of the characteristics of Muldoon’s work, as is the offhand juxtaposition of esoteric items from a transnational amalgam of cross-cultural references with the most mundane circumstances of a man’s life. The last “poem” in the book is a numbered sequence that the publisher describes as “thirty sonnets,” set initially in a restaurant in Paris, where a waiter locates a “muldoon”—a stolen credit card—belonging to the poet. An exuberant chain of associations launches another excursion involving the play of the poet’s mind upon details of the dinner, an incident with his father in the past, the Aeneid, a sea voyage, and more. Muldoon has worked with the sonnet before, notably in Quoof (1983) and Meeting the British (1987), and his efforts are a strong refutation of the opinion that the form is a relic of another time. Muldoon stirs the sonnet into new shapes, permitting shifts in place and time that are rapid and often closely interior and incorporating plays on words much beyond the obvious puns that sometimes pass for verbal virtuousity. The elaborate cultural matrix of the poem is jagged and...