Muldoon, Paul (Vol. 166)
Paul Muldoon 1951-
Irish poet, editor, librettist, translator, playwright, children's writer, and lecturer.
The following entry presents an overview of Muldoon's career through 2002. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 32 and 72.
A renowned poet who emerged from the Irish literary renaissance of the 1960s and 1970s, Muldoon has earned distinction for his firm poetic voice, linguistic skill, and complex postmodern sensibility. His first full book of poems, New Weather (1973), published when Muldoon was only twenty-one, signaled the beginning of an impressive oeuvre including the collections Mules (1977), Why Brownlee Left (1980), Quoof (1983), Meeting the British (1987), Madoc: A Mystery (1990), and The Annals of Chile (1994). Muldoon often employs complex and idiosyncratic rhymes and puns to reshape poetic conventions and to convey his unique view of contemporary life. His poems examine diverse ideas and questions involving Irish identity, gender, race, and nature. By blending literary genres and integrating aspects of comedy, film, television, and other elements of popular culture in his poetry, Muldoon has recast the poetic narrative in a multidimensional manner, employing reinvented forms to explore issues of love, death, loss, identity, and the roles of poetry and the poet in society.
Born in Portadown, County Armagh, Northern Ireland, in 1951, Muldoon spent his childhood in the town of Collegelands, near a village called the Moy. The son of Catholic parents, Muldoon was raised in a Catholic section of the predominantly Protestant region. Muldoon's father, Patrick, worked as a laborer and market gardener, while his mother, Brigid, a schoolteacher, taught in a local school. After attending primary school in Collegelands, Muldoon went to St. Patrick's College, where he learned Gaelic and studied Irish literature. While at St. Patrick's, Muldoon began writing poetry. He wrote and published his first poems in Gaelic, later switching to English to give himself greater linguistic control. During this period Muldoon also discovered the poetry of Robert Frost and T. S. Eliot, poets who have consistently influenced Muldoon and his work. After leaving St. Patrick's, he enrolled at Queens University in Belfast, where, in addition to studying literature and philosophy, he met a number of Irish writers, most notably Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, James Simmons, and Seamus Heaney, a group who would later become known as the Ulster Poets. The group gathered weekly to discuss poetry and to critique each other's work. Heaney became Muldoon's tutor within the university and encouraged Muldoon to publish his work. Heaney eventually included some of Muldoon's poems in a magazine he was guest editing, bringing Muldoon to the attention of the publishing house Faber & Faber, who released New Weather. Prior to New Weather, Muldoon had released only a small pamphlet of poems entitled Knowing My Place (1971). After earning his undergraduate degree in 1973, Muldoon worked for the next thirteen years as a radio and television producer for the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) in Belfast. While working for the BBC, Muldoon continued to write and publish an impressive body of poetry, including Why Brownlee Left, for which he won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize in 1982, and Quoof. Muldoon left the BBC in 1986 to pursue an academic career, starting with fellowships at the universities of Cambridge and East Anglia. After moving to the United States in 1987, he held a series of temporary teaching posts at various American universities before accepting a position as the Howard G. B. Clark Professor of the Humanities and Creative Writing at Princeton University in 1990. Muldoon has received numerous literary awards and honors throughout his career, including the Eric Gregory award for New Weather, a 1990 Guggenheim fellowship, the 1994 T. S. Eliot award for The Annals of Chile, an American Academy of Arts and Letters award in 1996, and the 1997 Irish Times Poetry prize for New Selected Poems: 1968-1994 (1996). He is also a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a professor of poetry at Oxford University.
Muldoon's poetry is well known for the formal and linguistic complexity of its verse, and for merging details from his life in Northern Ireland and the United States with a wide array of literary forms and references drawn from Irish, Greco-Roman, British, American, and Native-American cultures. New Weather represents Muldoon's desire to break from the Irish poetic tradition, particularly the imposing precedent of William Butler Yeats. The collection reveals Muldoon's preoccupation with points of contradiction and incongruity, while also introducing subjects that became recurring motifs for him—the failure of the quest and the continuous intrigue of the journey. The volume's final poem, “The Year of Sloes, for Ishi,” draws upon Native-American culture and creates parallels to events in Irish history. In Mules, which includes the poems “Lunch with Pancho Villa” and “Mixed Marriage,” Muldoon examines the conflicted allegiances that shape his world view, using hybridized images that juxtapose various dichotomies, both real and fantastic, to convey his understanding of the political and personal tensions that surrounded him in Northern Ireland. Why Brownlee Left employs a quest motif to explore the concept of difference at a deeper and more complex level. With this volume, Muldoon established a structural pattern that he repeated in subsequent books, involving a series of short poems—ballads, sonnets, and short lyrics—preceding a longer narrative poem. The centerpiece of Why Brownlee Left is “Immram”—Gaelic for “wandering”—whose title derives from the ancient Irish poem “Immram Mul Duine.” The poem splices together elements drawn from the Irish vision-quest genre, detective fiction, film noir, and comedy to create a lyrical narrative that addresses issues of identity, the meaning of “home,” and the impossibility of directing or controlling one's life. The poems of Quoof are marked by frenetic wordplay and increased stanzaic experimentation, as well as a more sophisticated treatment of recurring topics such as family, language, the quest, love, death, and Ireland. Quoof, whose title refers to the Muldoon family's private word for a hot water bottle, ends with one of his best known poems, “The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants.” Returning to Native-American literature for the poem's central analogy, Muldoon utilizes a cycle of trickster myths from the Winnebago Indians, delving into issues of identity and questioning the validity of knowledge about oneself, others, and events—particularly with respect to the violence and civil strife in Northern Ireland.
As editor of The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry (1986), Muldoon set out to identify and catalog the most significant Irish poets since Yeats. Rather than write a traditional editorial introduction for the collection, Muldoon instead published a lengthy transcript of a 1939 debate between Irish poets F. R. Higgins and Louis MacNeice regarding the state of Irish poetry, which served to reflect many of Muldoon's own views on the subject. Meeting the British, Muldoon's last volume of poetry written before moving to the United States, returns to the theme of wandering, using shorter lyrical lines to suggest movement and change. The volume's long poem, “7, Middagh Street,” refers to the Brooklyn, New York, residence where English poet W. H. Auden settled following his relocation to the United States in the 1940s. Muldoon's long and complex epic narrative, Madoc—subtitled “A Mystery”—combines two storylines into one narrative. The first plotline is a retelling of the story of the twelfth-century Welsh prince, Madoc. According to legend, Madoc sailed west, discovered America, and settled among a Native-American tribe of Mandan Indians. The second plotline is an imaginative rendering of a never-realized scheme—conceived by nineteenth-century British Romantic poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey—to sail to America and establish a utopian pantisocracy on the banks of Pennsylvania's Susquehanna River. Each of the volume's poems is parenthetically titled with the name of an ancient philosopher or intellectual. The two storylines converge in a narrative presented by a descendent of Southey, named “South,” who retrieves the story from the back of his own eye using a device called a retinograph.
In contrast to Madoc, the poems that comprise The Annals of Chile are more personal, lyrical, and emotionally charged, allowing Muldoon to explore ideas of loss—both personal and cultural. These themes are addressed in poems such as the elegiac “Incantata”—written for Mary Farl Powers, an artist and Muldoon's former lover—and in the collection's long poem, “Yarrow,” focusing on 1963, a year marked by the passing of Robert Frost, Louis MacNeice, and Sylvia Plath. These poems revolve around Muldoon's relationships to those who died before him juxtaposed against incidents from his daily routines and current milestones—events which shaped his consciousness and informed his art. Hay (1998) is a diverse assemblage of poems whose various forms, styles, and subjects reflect Muldoon's continuing effort to present a more personal and accessible side in his work. Poems such as “The Mud Room” and “The Bangle (Slight Return),” revisit themes of identity, literature, and the potential for discovery facilitated by rhyme and poetic form. Muldoon has also published a series of shorter volumes, including The Prince of the Quotidian (1994), a diary-like account of the poet's daily activities in Princeton, New Jersey, and Kerry Slides (1996), which centers around Muldoon's return visits to Ireland. In addition to his poetry collections, Muldoon has produced several librettos, most notably Shining Brow (1993), which is an operatic biography of architect Frank Lloyd Wright written in collaboration with composer Daron Hagen. Muldoon has also served as the editor of The Essential Byron (1989) and The Faber Book of Beasts (1997), and has published a collection of his lectures on Irish literature in To Ireland, I (2000).
From the publication of his earliest poems Muldoon has been widely lauded for his sophisticated verbal techniques and his experimentation with poetic form. New Weather has received considerable critical acclaim and has been praised for introducing Muldoon's singular poetic voice. Despite his strong preoccupation with Irish culture and tradition, reviewers have often noted the absence of both explicit references to Northern Irish politics and expressions of Muldoon's own political beliefs in his poetry. Commentators have acknowledged the linguistic complexity of Muldoon's poetry, drawing attention to its inventive wordplay, use of neologisms, innovative stanzaic treatment, and comic elements. Many critics have also lauded Muldoon's postmodern mode of splicing together themes and techniques borrowed from other genres and media. However, some reviewers have argued that such poems are oblique and obscure, noting that several of Muldoon's works appear to be deliberately inaccessible, hermetic, and artificial. Madoc, in particular, has been criticized for employing a highly stylized structure and failing to examine emotional, core issues. Other critics have disagreed with this assessment of Muldoon's poetry, citing such poems as “Incantata” and “Yarrow” in The Annals of Chile as examples of Muldoon's most passionate and personal works. In general, most critics have agreed that Muldoon is a highly original poet whose writing offers insight into challenging questions surrounding the nature of poetry, cultural history, national allegiance, and self-identity.
Knowing My Place (poetry) 1971
New Weather (poetry) 1973
Spirit of Dawn (poetry) 1975
Mules (poetry) 1977
Names and Addresses (poetry) 1978
The Scrake of Dawn: Poems by Young People from Northern Ireland [editor] (poetry) 1979
Immram [illustrated by Robert Ballagh] (poetry) 1980
The O-Os' Party: New Year's Eve (juvenilia) 1980
Why Brownlee Left (poetry) 1980
Out of Siberia (poetry) 1982
Quoof (poetry) 1983
The Wishbone (poetry) 1984
Mules and Earlier Poems (poetry) 1985
The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry [editor] (poetry) 1986
Selected Poems: 1968-1986 (poetry) 1986
Meeting the British (poetry) 1987
The Essential Byron [editor] (poetry) 1989
Madoc: A Mystery (poetry) 1990
The Astrakhan Cloak [translator; from the collection by Nuala Ní Dhomnaill] (poetry) 1992
Shining Brow: An Opera in Two Acts and a Prologue [with Daron Aric Hagen] (libretto) 1993
The Annals of Chile (poetry) 1994
The Prince of the Quotidian (poetry)...
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SOURCE: Lucas, John. “Escape Artist.” New Statesman 114, no. 2943 (21 August 1987): 23-4.
[In the following excerpt, Lucas compliments Muldoon's poetic techinques in Meeting the British, calling the collection “the best of his five full volumes of poetry.”]
Like its predecessors, Paul Muldoon's new volume, Meeting the British, is full of poems whose real subject seems to be how to write a poem. I don't at all mean that Muldoon apes those old-new American writers whose only subject was poetry (didn't they do any living?); the point is rather that a Muldoon poem invariably has a canny, almost wittily defiant air about it, a manner of implying that neither it nor its author will allow themselves to be docketted as this or that kind of Irish performance.
And yet, paradoxically, Muldoon's poems are wonderfully adroit performances, whose absorbed perceptions and habits can feel close to aesthetic heartlessness but only, perhaps, to the drab certainties of bourgeois moralists. ‘Sushi’ begins with someone saying: ‘Why do we waste so much Time arguing,’ and the same voice returns at later points to complain, with justice, of an absence of talk, of love. Meanwhile, the protagonist is attentiveness itself, as he studies the ‘translucent strips / of octopus, / squid and conger, / pickled ginger / and pale-green horseradish …’ In ‘Overlooking the River...
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SOURCE: Wilson, William A. “Paul Muldoon and the Poetics of Sexual Difference.” Contemporary Literature 28, no. 3 (fall 1987): 317-31.
[In the following essay, Wilson discusses Muldoon's break from the Yeatsian tradition of Irish poetry, particularly as evidenced in Muldoon's patterns of sexual signification and linguistic dichotomies that reflect the poet's effort to come to terms with his sense of paternal loss and the deconstructed culture of the postmodern world.]
As part of his deconstruction of Irish criticism, Seamus Deane described two dominant styles in Irish history and letters:
One is “Romantic,” a mode of reading which takes pleasure in the notion that Ireland is a culture enriched by the ambiguity of its relationship to an anachronistic and modernized present. The other is a mode of reading which denies the glamour of this ambiguity and seeks to escape from it into a pluralism of the present. The authors who represent these modes most powerfully are Yeats and Joyce respectively1.
(Heroic Styles 5)
Of all the poets connected with the increasingly important Ulster Movement, Muldoon most strongly resists the seductions of the Yeatsian idea of a Celtic cultural hegemony. Pursuing and extending the Joycean mode of reading history and culture, he sets his verse in the pluralism of...
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SOURCE: Quinlan, Kieran. Review of Selected Poems: 1968-1986, by Paul Muldoon. World Literature Today 63, no. 1 (winter 1989): 104.
[In the following review, Quinlan offers a positive assessment of Selected Poems: 1968-1986.]
“Kaleidoscopic,” “visionary,” and “charismatic” (the words used on the book jacket [of Selected Poems: 1968-1986] by as sensible an Ulsterman as Seamus Heaney) are all terms frequently applied to Paul Muldoon's work and aptly descriptive of its main thrust—which is to say that the poems by this relatively new voice from Northern Ireland are not always easily accessible, even when they are at their most inspiring. Still, there is a marked development from the tentativeness of the items selected from New Weather (1973) to the extreme confidence of those from Meeting the British (1987).
As one might expect of a writer from Muldoon's region of the world, the nuances of political commitment are never too far from the poet's consciousness, though that consciousness ranges internationally and is by no means confined to the echoes of a local row. The more recent poems, however, in which Muldoon plays off against Auden playing off against Yeats—“As for his crass, rhetorical // posturing, ‘Did that play of mine / send out certain men (certain men?) // the English shot … ?’ / the answer is ‘Certainly not’”—and...
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SOURCE: Bedient, Calvin. “The Crabbed Genius of Belfast.” Parnassus 16, no. 1 (1990): 195-216.
[In the following excerpt, Bedient lauds Muldoon's rejection of the traditional motifs of Irish poetry in Meeting the British and Selected Poems: 1968-1986.]
In the recent work of two Belfast poets, Paul Muldoon and Medbh1 McGuckian, a calculated art of disturbance makes a stunning appearance. Born in Belfast at the beginning of the 1950s, both poets are brazenly set on shattering the “human” or conventional aspects of reality. Each is in constant training for shock. The equivalents of petrol bombs are going off in their imaginations, moving the shapes of things around crazily. Yet McGuckian leaves Belfast itself out of her nightmare: Desire, not Belfast, is the site of the battle of which she gives an astonishingly colorful, inwardly spinning, dazed, and elegiac report. As for Muldoon, he laughs at Belfast with a sensibility of brass, and at his most mocking and aggressive makes art triumph as farce. …
Not that Paul Muldoon is a slouch. Indeed, he fits Ortega y Gasset's characterization of the new dehumanized art of the early twentieth century as masculine and youthful (“For a while women and old people will have to cede the rule over life to boys”). Brilliantly impertinent, he's an anarchical, cartoonish...
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SOURCE: Jones, Paul. Review of Madoc: A Mystery, by Paul Muldoon. Southern Humanities Review 27, no. 2 (spring 1993): 198-200.
[In the following positive review, Jones argues that Madoc: A Mystery is “the most ambitious and successful long poem that we've seen in a long time.”]
Paul Muldoon established a name for himself among the poets of Ireland at an early age. New Weather, his first book, was published before his twenty-second birthday. Four books and a Selected Poems later, readers have some idea of what to expect from him. What we have come to expect is surprise and innovation, along with a subtle wit and sharp ear.
We have also come to expect a certain design in each of his books. The usual design is a collection of short poems widely varying in form, mostly under a page in length, followed by a longer, more narrative piece that throws a different light on the short poems that went before. In Mules, the long poem was a series of sonnets called “Armageddon, Armageddon.” In Why Brownlee Left, “Immram” was based on a ten-line stanza. In Quoof, “The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants” marked a return to a version of the sonnet sequence. In Meeting the British, “7, Middagh Street” recreated an imagined conversation between W. H. Auden, Salvador Dali, Gypsy Rose Lee, Carson McCullers, Benjamin Britten, Louis...
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SOURCE: Muldoon, Paul, and Lynn Keller. “An Interview with Paul Muldoon.” Contemporary Literature 35, no. 1 (spring 1994): 1-29.
[In the following interview, originally conducted between April 22 and 23, 1993, Muldoon discusses the creative origins and artistic aims of Shining Brow and Madoc: A Mystery, his incorporation of historical and literary references in these works, and his views on contemporary poetry and the formal aspects of his own verse.]
Born in 1951, the poet Paul Muldoon was raised in a Catholic household in county Armagh in Protestant-dominated Northern Ireland. His father was a market gardener, his mother a schoolteacher; as the offspring of this “mixed marriage” (the title of an early poem), Muldoon in his writing seems drawn on the one hand to the reassuring—if currently threatened—solidities of nature or of rural life and on the other to esoteric scholarly learning and flights of verbal fancy. His work is often autobiographical, yet individual identity is of less interest in his poetry than the processes of perception and the energies inherent in language. Thus his poems frequently foreground the associative movement of thought; one thing—“which made me think of something else, then something else again” (Meeting the British 40)—leads to another, each one precisely registered even if contexts shift vertiginously. The surprising movements of...
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SOURCE: Driver, Paul. “Upstaging.” London Review of Books 15, no. 16 (19 August 1993): 22-3.
[In the following review, Driver discusses the modern tradition of libretto collaborations and offers a favorable assessment of Muldoon's verse in Shining Brow.]
Architects may come and Architects may go and Never change your point of view Paul Simon, ‘So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright’
Although W. H. Auden, who ranks with Hugo von Hofmannsthal among the master librettists of the age, thought that the meaning of a libretto's words were its least important component (at any rate, so far as the audience is concerned), and that a libretto is ‘really a private letter to the composer,’ he also found that ‘as an art-form involving words, opera is the last refuge of the High Style.’ The syllables are the main thing, the singability. The poet-librettist's verses ‘have their moment of glory,’ the moment in which they suggest ‘a certain melody’ to the composer; ‘once that is over, they are as expendable as infantry to a Chinese general.’ Yet opera is ‘the only art to which a poet with a nostalgia for those times past, when poets could write in the grand manner all by themselves, can still contribute, provided he will take the pains to learn the métier and is lucky enough to find a composer he can believe in.’
Paul Muldoon, who ranks with Auden as a poet for...
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SOURCE: Roberts, Michèle. “Strong Tease.” New Statesman and Society 7, no. 322 (30 September 1994): 54-5.
[In the following review, Roberts offers a positive assessment of The Annals of Chile, noting Muldoon's “sharp observation.”]
These are poems obsessed with language. The reader stumbles upon them like shining jewels heaped in a cave, an arranged mass of cut and carved parts, a word hoard brought up out of darkness to be exclaimed at and praised, turned and spun in the palm. It's almost impossible to convey a sense of what the poems are like: they are. They are collections of words fastidiously fitted together, with the utmost craftmanship, to dazzle, amuse, sadden, provoke.
It's as though Muldoon is playing with all the language in the world; there's such richness and prodigality here in the way he allows himself to deploy exactly the word that works. The tightly controlled forms tug pleasurably against the effect of largesse.
At first encounter, the poems [in The Annals of Chile] glitter too hard. You want to put a hand over your eyes; you don't want to stare into the sun. You have to give them a chance. The baffling brilliant surface finally blurs and steadies, crystallises into feeling. “Incantata, in Memory of Mary Earl Powers” exemplifies this, jumping into the thesaurus at the deep end: “I thought of you...
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SOURCE: Norfolk, Lawrence. “The Abundant Braes of Yarrow.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4775 (7 October 1994): 32-3.
[In the following review, Norfolk compliments The Annals of Chile, drawing attention to the poem “Yarrow” as an example of Muldoon's complex and ambitious verse.]
Paul Muldoon is one of the most inventive and ambitious poets working today. The Annals of Chile is his best book to date.
Such an endorsement, in fact any unequivocal statement, does not affix itself easily to Muldoon, any more than straightforward criticism has to his poetry. His work is oddly ungraspable and Muldoon himself is difficult to place; hipper than Heaney, but junior to him and a less obvious candidate for the canon. He is more fun than most of the Northern Ireland poets, but that is because he has not written enough about The Troubles. He is formidably erudite, for which read “too clever by half.” Critical sentiment is warm, but fundamentally undecided. The bandwagon continues to roll, but the ride gets more and more bumpy. From the publication of New Weather in 1973 onwards, Muldoon's poetry has by and large eluded questions about its own ultimate worth.
There has never been any doubt about his technical facility, nor the acuity of his poetic intelligence. Take “Dancers at the Moy,” from that first collection, where a respectable poem...
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SOURCE: Howard, Ben. Review of Selected Poems: 1968-1987, by Paul Muldoon. Poetry 165, no. 2 (November 1994): 101-05.
[In the following review, Howard evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Selected Poems: 1968-1987.]
For the Irish poet Paul Muldoon no value is more central to the poet's vocation than that of personal independence. Speaking to Kevin Barry in 1987, Muldoon expressed his belief that “a writer's job is to be an outsider, to belong to no groups, no tribes, no clubs. So far as any of us can, it's to be a free agent, within the state of oneself, or roaming through the different states of oneself” (The Irish Literary Supplement, Fall 1987). And in the fluid interiors of his poems, Muldoon has remained remarkably independent, sailing with poise and grace through perilous waters. Like his forerunner Louis MacNeice, who resisted the claims of Marxism and Catholicism, Muldoon has been his own best navigator, steering a course through the crosswinds of nationalism, internationalism, Catholicism, deconstructionism, formalism, aestheticism, and the warring ideologies of Northern Ireland. Parabolic, enigmatic, and richly allusive, his poems refract those ideologies but subscribe to none of them. At their most complex they also enlist the conventions of the medieval quest, motifs from Native American culture, imagery from the poet's rural childhood, fragments of the Irish-Gaelic...
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SOURCE: McNamara, Katherine. “The Riddle of the Expunged Words.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (11 December 1994): 13.
[In the following review, McNamara lauds the symbiotic relationship between Muldoon's two collections The Annals of Chile and The Prince of the Quotidian.]
In 1794, the English poets Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge planned to (but did not) come to America, meaning to set up a Pantisocracy, an equal rule for all, on the banks of the Susquehanna River. Paul Muldoon, an Irish poet who teaches at Princeton, nearly 200 years afterward, imagined what it would have been like if they had come West, and wrote a funny, tragic history of Western philosophy he called Madoc: A Mystery (1991).
In 1954, Ross Macdonald, who wrote his brooding, father-quest mysteries in Santa Barbara, said: “My fellow admirers of Coleridge will perhaps forgive me for suggesting that ‘Christabel’ is an unfinished mystery novel in verse, whose subject is the elucidation of guilt and the ritual exorcism—a guilt which arises from man's ability to sin against himself, both consciously and unconsciously.”
Making such a triangulation is good practice for reading Paul Muldoon's profound new poems, The Annals of Chile. Muldoon, “this picaro of the information highway,” is called “one of the most metaphoric poets alive.” “Paul's changing...
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SOURCE: Ford, Mark. “Little Do We Know.” London Review of Books 17, no. 1 (12 January 1995): 19.
[In the following positive review, Ford asserts that The Annals of Chile is “Muldoon's most open and lyrical collection yet.”]
‘What are we going to write about now?’ one of Ulster's more engagé poets half-jokingly inquired soon after the IRA's ceasefire was announced. One would imagine that Paul Muldoon will be among the Northern Irish poets least directly affected by whatever happens—or doesn't—in the Province. His poetry has always reflected political events in the most delicate of styles, avoiding overt judgments, sentimental ideals, commitments or solutions, instead teasing out angles of irony and embodying states of impasse—‘that eternal interim,’ as he calls it in ‘Lull’—with a sophistication that must be its own reward.
The upbeat-sounding title of Paul Muldoon's precocious first volume, New Weather (published in 1973 when he was 21, and at long last reissued), was drawn from a poem called ‘Wind and Tree’ that broods bleakly on the dangers of involvement of any kind—sexual, political, familial. Muldoon here figures all relationships as an inescapable series of mutual destructions, but interestingly connects his poetry—or the fact of his poetry—to his own willingness to be ‘broken’:
Often where the wind...
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SOURCE: McCarthy, Thomas. Review of The Prince of the Quotidian, by Paul Muldoon. Eire-Ireland 30, no. 4 (winter 1996): 188-90.
[In the following review, McCarthy discusses Muldoon's decision to write a new poem for every day in 1992 and praises the subsequent collection of the works in The Prince of the Quotidian.]
In the New Year of 1992 Paul Muldoon decided to write a poem every day. He was newly arrived at Princeton where he had become director of the Creative Writing Program. The result is this forty-two page poetry journal [The Prince of the Quotidian]. If the project sounds Louis MacNiece-like, that is no coincidence. Muldoon, more than any other Ulster writer, has inherited many of the qualities and stylistic mannerisms of MacNiece.
And what are those qualities? Well, an acquisitive intelligence, a comfort with the detritus of modern life, an ability to absorb non-Irish experience without the tendency to flee back into a set of Irish references. He also shares with MacNiece a healthy does of self-irony and a belief in friendship: “I insert myself like an ampersand / between Joyce Carol Oates & Ingemar Johansson” (16). “To Dean I say, ‘I'm not ‘in exile,’’ / though I can't deny that I've been twice in Fintona” (36). Johansson was the Swedish boxer who knocked out Floyd Patterson; in company with Joyce Carol Oates he would certainly be as...
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SOURCE: Quinlan, Kieran. Review of The Prince of the Quotidian, by Paul Muldoon. World Literature Today 70, no. 1 (winter 1996): 190-91.
[In the following review, Quinlan argues that The Prince of the Quotidian will likely satisfy only admirers of Muldoon's previous works and those fond of postmodern verse.]
One can look at Paul Muldoon's short collection The Prince of the Quotidian (twelve of the forty-eight pages in the book are blank; text in the ones not blank rarely occupies more than half of its allotted space) in at least three ways. For the Muldoon aficionado, it will give further evidence of his ample talent, his postmodern responsiveness to a multiplicity of cultural voices and idioms and style. To those who expect poems to speak immediately to them, these lines (in spite of Muldoon's claim elsewhere that the poet must write about what is before him), with their constant allusions to personal friends, contemporary writers, the annual MLA meeting, et cetera, will prove enormously frustrating and insignificant (with the possible exception of a poem such as the one that begins “The Feast of the Epiphany”). To those, finally, who come to Muldoon via Yeats and Heaney looking for variations on established Irish themes, there is the occasional “traditional” (on the surface at least) reference: Muldoon's Canadian nephew is to be “ignited by the quaint / in this new...
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SOURCE: Muldoon, Paul, Earl G. Ingersoll, and Stan Sanvel Rubin. “The Invention of the I: A Conversation with Paul Muldoon.” Michigan Quarterly Review 37, no. 1 (winter 1998): 63-73.
[In the following interview, originally conducted on April 4, 1996, Muldoon comments on his national identity and influences, his approach to writing, and the composition of “The Briefcase,” “Madoc,” and “Yarrow.”]
The following conversation took place April 4, 1996, during the poet's visit to the State University of New York, College at Brockport, where he was a guest of the Brockport Writers Forum and Videotape Library. Speaking with him were Stan Sanvel Rubin, the Director of the Writers Forum, and Earl G. Ingersoll, Distinguished Teaching Professor of English.
Paul Muldoon was born and raised in County Armagh, Northern Ireland. In 1973 he received his B.A. from Queen's University, Belfast, where his tutor was Seamus Heaney, and his first book of poems, New Weather, was published. For thirteen years he worked for the BBC in Northern Ireland. He came to the United States in 1987, and he presently directs the creative writing program at Princeton. He is the author of seven books of poetry, most recently The Annals of Chile, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1994. He is also the author of three opera librettos and the editor of The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish...
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SOURCE: Kendall, Tim. “Fathers and Mothers: On Paul Muldoon's Life.” In Paul Muldoon, pp. 9-24. Chester Springs, PA: Dufour Editions, 1996.
[In the following essay, Kendall provides an overview of Muldoon's family background, education, publishing career, and critical reception, drawing attention to the formative experiences and personal relationships that shaped the development of his poetry.]
Paul Muldoon was born on 20 June 1951, in Portadown, County Armagh. His parents Patrick and Brigid (née Regan) Muldoon had been living in Dungannon, County Tyrone, and the family moved soon afterwards to the nearby village of Eglish, where two more children, Maureen and Joseph, were born in 1953 and 1954 respectively. After Joseph's birth the family settled in Collegelands, County Armagh, where it would be based for the next thirty years.
Muldoon's parents both came from poor Catholic families. Patrick Muldoon's mother had died when he was seven, and his father remarried—in Muldoon's own phrase—“an unsympathetic woman.” Forced to hire himself out as a farm labourer from a young age, Patrick received no secondary education, and throughout his life could read and write only with difficulty. Brigid's background was also financially unprepossessing, but as the youngest of her family she had the advantage of sibling support. Her education at St Joseph's Convent, Donaghmore, and St Mary's...
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SOURCE: Reeve, F. D. “On Shoemakers and Snails.” Poetry 170, no. 1 (April 1997): 37-51.
[In the following excerpt, Reeve offers a favorable review of The Prince of the Quotidian and The Annals of Chile.]
Wake Forest University Press and Farrar, Straus and Giroux teamed up to present Paul Muldoon's latest comedy in two parts, both parts now available in paper. Muldoon is a juggler, a handspringing carny, a gandydancer, a stand-up comic, an intellectual muckraker. He bends language as easily as Geller, the psychic, bent spoons. To read the little book, The Prince of the Quotidian—putatively a journal of a scribbler's month in the New Jersey suburbs (Muldoon heads Princeton's writing program)—as notes for the big, The Annals of Chile, is to interpret the work as an update of The Waste Land, a farcical, parodic translation of romance back into its roots in ritual. A cycle based on sex and love, it begins with the transformation of people into frogs (the Latona-and-the-Lycians story from the Niobe portion of The Metamorphoses) and the ritual ends in the long, semi-autobiographical section called “Yarrow,” neither in the bosom of the Mother Church nor in Nirvana but with a clownish self-creation out of the world's commercial, intellectual, and geographic failures:
In a conventional tornada, the strains of her ‘Che sera, sera’ or ‘The Harp...
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SOURCE: Burt, Stephen. “A Delightful Muldoodle.” New Leader 130, no. 8 (5 May 1997): 18-19.
[In the following review, Burt lauds Muldoon's skillful verb usage and accomplished verse in Kerry Slides.]
Something like a consensus now deems Paul Muldoon the best Irish poet younger than Seamus Heaney, and American readers are figuring out—only about a decade late—that he's among the most inventive poets in the English language. Muldoon published his first book of poems in 1972, when he was in his early 20s, and has been expanding his ambitions and sharpening his wit ever since. Among his hallmarks are: sonnets, comic or extravagant approximate rhymes, self-suspicion, abrupt transitions, sex and violence, explorers and quests, and grammatical constructions that shift and roll like spinning, and probably rigged, roulette wheels.
Every five years or so since the '70s Muldoon has published another dense, ambitious volume of poetry, including at least one long narrative sequence; in between these elaborate projects come small books of short poems and divertissements (usually on Ireland's Gallery Press). Heaney has memorably dubbed the big books (like 1994's The Annals of Chile, or 1991's Madoc) “Mulbooms,” and the slim in-between sequences “Muldoodles.”
Kerry Slides is surely a Muldoodle. The poet's previous small-scale book, the...
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SOURCE: Vendler, Helen. “Anglo-Celtic Attitudes.” New York Review of Books 44, no. 17 (6 November 1997): 57-60.
[In the following excerpt, Vendler compliments both Selected Poems: 1968-1986 and The Annals of Chile, though she expresses reservations over Muldoon's tendency toward emotional detachment and cryptic allusions.]
When the United States became a superpower after World War II, Americans became less deferential toward English writers, with the consequence that, on the whole, postwar American readers knew little of the poetry being written in the British Isles and Ireland. Auden maintained a hold on the American audience because he lived here, and Dylan Thomas flashed briefly through the country, but apart from those two imports, modern British poets made almost no impression on the United States. We were content to let them (and the poets of the Commonwealth countries and Ireland) work in their separate sphere. This depressing situation was compounded by the gradual but widening divergence between British and American culture, and by the utter failure, in the service of a mistaken nativism, of American public (and even private) schools to keep British poetry, in a systematic way, in the elementary and secondary curriculum. The American presses that still publish poetry have tended predictably to favor American poets over others writing in English.
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SOURCE: Korn, Eric. “The Frog's Incog.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4938 (21 November 1997): 16.
[In the following review, Korn asserts that there is “much to praise” in The Faber Book of Beasts, calling the work a “subtle and provoking collection.”]
“In poetry, as in life, animals bring out the best in us,” says Paul Muldoon; though a few mink and a few minke might chitter and dweeble their dissent, and there's a half-reclaimed dancing bear on the Mappin Terraces of London Zoo, who met a few men and did not bring out the best in them, in consequence of which she has little mad outbursts of robotic movement, like an old alcoholic shuffling and jiggling about Camden Town station just down the road. The Zoo, largely staffed by people in whom animals do bring out the best has set observes and optimistic caseworkers around her, to wheedle her back into bear humanity, and out of what they explain to visitors is no more than a particularly persistent bad habit, such as anyone might develop if they were forced to stand on hot plates. Cruelty to animals is the oldest racism; chucking a superfluous puppy or piglet on the fire the first joke, the first boast, the first act of prayer.
There's not too much in The Faber Book of Beasts about cruelty to animals, for or against: no John Peel and no weeping over sparrows, deliciae meae puellae; no little hunted...
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SOURCE: Kirsch, Adam. “The Virtuoso.” New Republic (30 November 1998): 56-60.
[In the following review of Hay, Kirsch contends that Muldoon's inventive verse is too often a facile display of technical and stylistic virtuosity, whereby complexity and difficulty serve to “impress,” rather than “convince,” the reader.]
“Virtuoso” is a loaded compliment, an honorific that conceals a reproach. It implies performance, as distinct from creation: a performer stands before his audience and impresses them, while a creator must enter into his audience and engage them. In music, the two roles are usually separate, and so there is a natural place for the virtuoso, with his showmanship and his displays of technical control. In poetry, however, it is much less clear that one should aspire to the “virtuosic.” In poetry, the performance is the creation. The skill that the poet displays in writing his poem remains in the poem itself, and it is one of the elements that attracts us to it. Hopkins's technical daring, or Horace's vaunting pride, is a part of what makes their poetry appealing. But if virtuosity is all that a poet can display, if his poems demand attention simply because of their elaborateness and difficulty, then he has in some sense failed. For we only want to see such a performance once, and poems demand to be read again and again. In this sense, the “virtuoso poet” is a...
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SOURCE: Wills, Clair. “Introduction.” In Reading Paul Muldoon, pp. 9-23. Great Britain: Bloodaxe Books, 1998.
[In the following essay, Wills provides an overview of Muldoon's poetic style, his personal and intellectual perspective, and critical approaches to his work.]
What makes a poem by Paul Muldoon a Muldoon poem? Muldoon is at once the most characterful of contemporary poets, and the most elusive. There's a distinctive Muldoonian (or should it be Muldoonesque?) ring to his work which may be easy to spot, and even to imitate, but is perhaps less easy to define. Take the following poem, ‘Twice,’ which appeared in Muldoon's seventh poetry collection, The Annals of Chile, published in 1994:
It was so cold last night the water in the barrel grew a sod of water: I asked Taggart and McAnespie to come over and we sawed and sawed for half an hour until, using a crowbar as a lever
in the way Archimedes always said would shift the balance, we were somehow able to manoeuvre out and, finally, stand on its side in the snow that fifteen- or eighteen-inch thick manhole cover:
that ‘manhole cover’ was surely no more ice than are McAnespie and Taggart still of this earth; when I squinnied through it I saw ‘Lefty’ Clery, ‘An Ciotach,’
grinning from both ends of the school photograph, having jooked behind the three-deep rest of...
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SOURCE: Disch, Thomas M. “Job Opportunities in Contemporary Poetry.” Hudson Review 52, no. 2 (summer 1999): 313-22.
[In the following excerpt, Disch offers a negative assessment of Hay.]
I have for a long time been of the opinion that writing poetry, like good manners at dinner, should be a commonplace among any group of cultivated people, and is not a specifically “professional” accomplishment. There will always be those who excel at it, as there are those who are handsomer or dance with more panache. But the often aggrieved expectation that the creation of a body of poems entitles one to a stipend sufficient to subsist on and have free holidays at an artists' colony seems to me grasshopperism at its most presumptuous. Yet such has become an article of faith not only among poets of the middle rank, especially those who conduct writing workshops for a living, but also among the swelling ranks of bureaucrats who manage the foundations, colonies, and government offices devoted to the arts' own little welfare state within the larger one. For the price of just one jet bomber, these advocates insist, every poet in the country could be sent to Jamaica for a month of poetry bake-offs.
It may well be that there are some poets who would not fill even the slenderest of volumes without being funded by a trust fund or the federal Maecenas. I have one grasshopper friend who insists...
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SOURCE: Kitchen, Judith. “Tensions.” Georgia Review 53, no. 2 (summer 1999): 368-84.
[In the following excerpt, Kitchen praises Muldoon's verse in Hay, though finds the collection inferior to his previous volume, The Annals of Chile.]
It's early morning. I'm sitting in a corner window on the thirty-fifth floor of a hotel in San Francisco. Outside, nothing but fog, saving me from my own strong fear of heights. Where yesterday I could look out on city streets, moving lights, water in the distance, today there is nothing. No little cat feet, but a dense gray wall of impenetrability. Though if I should go down in the elevator and walk out the door, I could move through it easily enough.
Suddenly, a whir in front of me, and a wire mesh cage holding two men appears from above. They move past and disappear; I only know they are there because the ropes outside my window sway back and forth, revealing the tension of the cage in its circumscribed movement below me, thirty some floors above street level. Looking through the window on my right, I see two more men in a similar cage, though theirs is narrower, surrounded by what looks all too much like flimsy green canvas. They wear hard hats—one yellow, one white—and are tethered to their narrow walkway by yellow fabric straps. For fifteen minutes, with black tape and a razor, they work on one section of a ledge. Holding the...
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SOURCE: Birkerts, Sven. “About Paul Muldoon.” Ploughshares 26, no. 1 (spring 2000): 202-08.
[In the following essay, Birkerts offers an admiring commentary on Muldoon's challenging and idiosyncratic poetic style.]
I first heard of Paul Muldoon through the affectionate enthusing of Seamus Heaney, who donned his conspiratorial mien—as if agents of some imagined opposition might be lurking near—and confided that his somewhat younger compatriot was “the real thing.” I sought the work out, though I'll confess I was some time coming to it. This would have been in the mid-1980's, the time of Quoof and earlier collections. Accustomed to the solid subject-focused work of Heaney, who had taught Muldoon as an undergraduate, I thought Muldoon was working a bit too hard at the “Musee des Beaux Arts” thing, enthroning obliquity. But eventually, I made my connection. I readjusted whatever lenses I use to read poetry, and then, suddenly, they did not seem oblique at all. They seemed right, and much of the work of others, through that peculiar inversion of readerly tastes, now came across as lumberingly obvious.
Born in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, in 1951, Muldoon grew up in a house without many books. “Believe it or not,” he writes, responding to my question about literary influence, “the only reading material we had in the house was The Junior World...
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SOURCE: Wheatley, David. “In the Gasworks.” London Review of Books 22, no. 10 (18 May 2000): 30-1.
[In the following review, Wheatley lauds To Ireland, I, Bandanna, and Muldoon's translation of Aristophanes's The Birds.]
Marcel Aymé's novel Le Passemuraille, about a man who can walk through walls, would have interested Thomas Caulfield Irwin (1823-92). Irwin is cited in Paul Muldoon's To Ireland, I for a neighbourly dispute he was having with one John O'Donovan. ‘He says I am his enemy,’ Irwin wrote, ‘and watch him through the thickness of the wall which divides our houses. One of us must leave. I have a houseful of books; he has an umbrella and a revolver.’ Seasoned readers of Muldoon know all about trying to see through inscrutable partitions: for most of his career he has resisted the temptation to come out from behind his poems and explain himself in prose. Before To Ireland, I, Muldoon's critical pronouncements had always been a scarce commodity, not least in The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry with its notorious editorial no-show.
His Clarendon Lectures are unlikely to mean that Muldoon will be knocking down the wall between poetry and prose, but at least they represent a courtesy visit to the genre next door. In Macbeth Malcolm and Donalbain flee Scotland after Duncan's murder, Malcolm to England; ‘To Ireland, I,’...
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SOURCE: Wills, Clair. “Let Eriny Remember.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5070 (2 June 2000): 6.
[In the following review of To Ireland, I, Wills commends Muldoon's idiosyncratic insight into Irish literary and cultural history, but finds shortcomings in his tendency toward overly esoteric and whimsical interpretations.]
Some poets who turn their hand to criticism adopt a sober academic guise, as if to atone for their verbal transgressions. Paul Muldoon is not one of them. In his most recent lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry, Muldoon entertained his audience with a string of far-fetched contentions. Did you know, for example, that Robert Frost's poem “The Mountain” alludes cryptically to the Irish philosopher Berkeley, in its references to “bark” and “lee”? No matter that neither word actually appears in the poem, let alone appearing together. After all, there is shelter “from a wind” and there are “trees with trunks”—not to mention the clincher that Lee is Frost's middle name.
Muldoon's Clarendon Lectures turn such philological chutzpah into a full-blown method. The four talks which make up To Ireland, I take us on an energetic dash through Irish literature, from “the first poet of Ireland,” the legendary warrior-poet Amergin, via early Irish anonymous or “invisible” authors, to more recent writers (none, though, among the living),...
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SOURCE: Wheeler, Susan. “Irish Weather over New Jersey.” Publishers Weekly 248, no. 19 (7 May 2001): 216.
[In the following essay, Wheeler presents an overview of Muldoon's poetry, literary career, and personal history, along with Muldoon's own comments on these subjects.]
Volumes of the complete edition of the OED, still in their worn blue dust jackets, spill off a low-slung table in the center of poet Paul Muldoon's office at Princeton University; behind a ring of chairs, the familiar brown spines of the Encyclopaedia Britannica crowd two shelves. Encyclopedias of words and worlds are in his blood, as the “boy from Moy”—the young Muldoon, growing up in the Moy, in County Armagh, Northern Ireland—grew up with only The Junior World Encyclopaedia in his home.
Over the desk are caricatures of Muldoon, from the Guardian and the New York Review of Books; photographs of the poet's wife, the novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz, and their children, Asher and Dorothy; and a haunting photograph of Muldoon's parents' grave. On leave this semester from his post as director of Princeton's creative writing program but not from his other roles—professor of poetry at Oxford, where he has not yet reached the midpoint of his five-year term; long-time director of the Poetry Society, London; and ongoing visiting professor at Bread Loaf—Muldoon is checking his...
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SOURCE: Newey, Adam. “Walking on Air.” New Statesman 130, no. 4541 (11 June 2001): 70-1.
[In the following review of Poems 1968-1998, Newey contends that Muldoon's “ludic” poetry often lacks “any substantial core” and risks falling into self-parody.]
I worry about Paul Muldoon. I mean, on the one hand, here is a poet of extravagant gifts, a true original who delights in weaving lexical patterns of great wit and complexity; on the other, we have someone who thinks it enough to construct a poem (albeit a brief one) around an agonisingly laboured pun on “Armagh” and “Armani.”
In one sense, that coupling gives the trajectory of his own journey, from low-key Catholic childhood in rural Ulster to high-status stateside professorship (he has been based at Princeton since 1987). Later this year he turns 50, and Faber has brought out this collection of his eight published volumes, which makes it a good moment to assess the career of the most acclaimed (and most imitated) poet of his generation.
Success came to Muldoon early, while a student at Queen's University, Belfast. A schoolteacher brought him to the attention of the Belfast “Group”—Michael Longley, Derek Mahon and Seamus Heaney foremost among them. For a while, Heaney tutored him at Queen's. The realisation that poetry was being written and talked about so seriously so close to home...
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SOURCE: Review of Moy Sand and Gravel, by Paul Muldoon. Publishers Weekly 249 no. 24 (17 June 2002): 57.
[In the following review, the critic commends Muldoon's “suburban observation and whimsical memory” in Moy Sand and Gravel.]
[Moy Sand and Gravel, t]his first full volume since Muldoon's monumental Poems 1968-1998 reveals one of the English-speaking world's most acclaimed poets still at the top of his slippery, virtuosic game. Born in Northern Ireland, for more than a decade Muldoon has lived, taught and raised a family in Princeton, N.J. Hay (1998) showed Muldoon incorporating his wife's Jewish-American heritage, and his life as a father, into a poetics previously noted for its formal complexity, its shaggy-dog-story narratives, and its interest in Irish history. This substantial collection furthers Hay's subjects. It succeeds with fast-paced poems of suburban observation and whimsical memory in difficult forms: some inherited (terza rima, sestina, tercets, haiku, catechism, Yeats's “Prayer for My Daughter” stanza), others invented (a sonnet, each of whose first 12 lines ends in “draw”). Occasional poems return to the Irish Troubles Muldoon has long, off and on, described: “A Brief Discourse on Decommissioning” explains “you can't make bricks without the straw / that breaks the camel's back.” The book's most serious poems ground themselves...
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Batten, Guinn. “‘He Could Barely Tell One from the Other’: The Borderline Disorders of Paul Muldoon's Poetry.” South Atlantic Quarterly 95, no. 1 (winter 1996): 171-204.
Batten examines Muldoon's ambiguous linguistic and metaphorical evocation of parental authority and sexuality, psychic loss, and the mournful search for allusive family and cultural origins in The Annals of Chile.
Birkerts, Sven. “The State of Poetry.” Partisan Review 55, no. 3 (summer 1988): 484-89.
Birkerts praises the development of Muldoon's poetry in Selected Poems: 1968-1986.
Coffey, Michael. “Don't Look Back.” Village Voice (8 September 1998): 133.
Coffey evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Hay.
Disch, Thomas M. “The Occasion of the Poem.” Poetry 160, no. 2 (May 1992): 94-107.
Disch praises individual segments of Madoc: A Mystery, but concludes that the sum of its parts fails to convey any overall meaning or coherence.
Eder, Richard. “To Understand Is to Be Perplexed.” New York Times Book Review (10 June 2001): 14.
Eder praises Muldoon's artistic development in Poems 1968-1998.
Griffiths, Paul. “The Singing Architect.” New Yorker (17 May 1993): 98-100....
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