Hay

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 412

From the time his first book of poetry, NEW WEATHER (1973), was published while he was still a student at Queens University, Belfast, Paul Muldoon’s dazzling technical skill, verbal invention and off-beat wit have impressed critics like Michael Hofmann, who wrote that “he began as a prodigy and has gone on to become a virtuoso.” HAY, arguably his finest achievement yet, combines the cultural heritage and command of craft that has been evident in his work from the start, with a deeply personal, very contemporary vision that displays his remarkable erudition and his continuing fascination with the nuances, peculiarities, and myriad idiosyncracies of the English language.

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Muldoon is particularly fond of the way in which words and ideas suggest other words and ideas in an associative pattern that extends through a poem, and often through a sequence of poems. The play of his mind—the connections he makes, the links he establishes, the flow of thought—maintains a high energy level in his work which keeps it interesting even when he is using esoteric references and allusions which may be difficult for the reader to fully follow. Yet in spite of his obvious erudition, Muldoon grounds his work in the type of individual experience and immediacy that resonates with a kind of universality beyond its local setting or sometimes obscure literary connections.

While his early life in County Tyrone, Ulster, informs the poems that respond to the three century legacy of political turmoil in Ireland, Muldoon;s marriage to an American woman of Jewish descent and their life in New Jersey are at the center of some very emotionally evocative lyrics, and his delight in song has resulted in a sequence called “Sleeve Notes” where he responds to the musical presence of the major rock singers of an era. Ninety rhyming haiku “Hopewell Haiku” offer sharp images of deft precision, his numerous sonnets show how contemporary and agile that form still is, and a thirty-poem group “The Bangle” combines autobiography, extraordinary linguistic facility, and historical profundity in a kind of collage that resembles nothing else being written today. The combination of intellectual adventure, emotional honesty, and lyric capability is unique, giving Muldoon’s voice its singular appeal and demonstrating that his eighth collection is certainly comparable to the achievement of any other poet writing in the language.

Sources for Further Study

The Guardian. October 17, 1998, p. SAT10.

The New Republic. CCXIX, November 30, 1998, p. 56.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, June 29, 1998, p. 52.

The Village Voice. September 8, 1998, p. 133.

Hay

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2118

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 fluid, casually indifferent to boundaries between languages and nations. Even if some of the components of the assemblage will be elusive for almost any reader, the sense of a removal of limits and the determination to find modes of coherence (often linking rhyme) make his longer poems continuously engrossing.

Muldoon seems especially fond of these extended sequences, as if he cannot resist linking an image or word with a tangentially connected one drawn from a dynamic, densely assembled, vast store of interesting material. In the poem “Errata” specifically, but in other places as well, he permits this impulse to reach its ultimate expression by making a poem out of a tendency to list associative word-patterns:

For “Antrim” read “Armagh.”
For “mother” read “other.”
For “harm” read “farm.”
For “feather” read “father.”

The poem continues thus for eight stanzas. Because he is aware of the perils to a particular poem of these endlessly unfolding thought-patterns, Muldoon uses numerical divisions to provide points of pause within the sequential gatherings, so that individual entries can often stand by themselves as relatively complete poems. The two other sequences in Hay are “Sleeve Notes,” in which he writes a series of personal responses and evocations directed toward albums by Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, Eric Clapton, and U2—the rock musical pantheon of his era; and ninety numbered haiku (“Hopewell Haiku” for their New Jersey point of location or inspiration), which are another example of his interest in the permutations of traditional form. These haiku rhyme the first and third lines, as “While the goldfinch nest/ in the peach tree’s eye level/ with a stallion’s crest,” which could also be called a stretched couplet, but any English version of haiku is so radically different from the original Japanese form that the use of rhyme is not a distortion that makes much difference. A more important consideration is the way in which Muldoon uses haiku to flash moments onto the page, creating an instantaneous mood, conveying a palpable feel for a setting, delineating a facet of the natural world with indelible strokes, thus capturing with deft, concise language the piercing perception that is at the source of a haiku’s origin.

As interesting as the structural connections of these longer poems may be, and as appealing as it is to consider what George O’Brien has accurately identified as the “elliptical, poker-faced, riddling, and somewhat surreal perspective of his verse,” Muldoon’s very solid grasp of the traditional demands of his craft accounts for the success of many of the shorter poems in the collection. Perhaps protected by his obvious erudition, Muldoon seems completely at ease with an open expression of immediate emotion, so that a poem in celebration of his wife’s heritage (“The Throwback”) is written as a love sonnet; an account of their travels (“A Journey to Cracow”) is composed as a ballad in stanzas of quatrains; a loving tribute to the Russian Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky (“The Hug”) also uses quatrains, although with some dazzling rhyme-inventions; and a poem in recollection of an earlier affair (“Longbones”) is arranged in densely related triads continuing an a-b-a rhyme throughout while building in intensity through the use of incremental repetition in the manner of an old ballad. In an open confession of admiration, Muldoon in the “Sleeve Notes” sequence pays tribute to the Canadian poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen by saying, “his songs have meant far more to me/ than most of the so- called poems I’ve read.” The spirit of song, a centuries-old component of the Irish literary tradition, is evident throughout Muldoon’s work, in multiple references to single pieces, in echoes of familiar tunes, in word/sound collages akin to songs, and in the snatches of song that are often the signature feature of people in the poems.

The long continuum where song meets speech, a blurring of boundaries common to Muldoon’s work, is another indication of his inclination to approach matters of importance from more than one angle. Deane’s accusation of exile is an expression of the uneasiness that surrounds the issue of heritage for an Irish poet, particularly pertinent in terms of the number of writers who have lived or are living outside of Ireland. Muldoon’s earlier work was clearly Irish-centered, to the degree that Edna Longley observed that Muldoon’s “native Moy” is a “locality translated by his early poetry into a mobile and metaphoric parish.’” The circumstances of living in the United States have not, however, removed him from either his past or his homeland. The title poem considers an encounter with “another beat-up Volvo/ carrying a load/ of Hay” on a road in New Jersey, but there are references to hay in many other poems, including the “Third Epistle to Timothy,” which reaches back to his father’s boyhood in Killeeshill, then to his own youth when he helped with a hay-gathering gang and heard his destiny proclaimed. He is told, “Though you speak, young Muldoon,/ though you speak with the tongue/ of an angel, I see you for what you are . . . Malevolent.

Three centuries of the Troubles are encapsulated by a man who tells him that he is “a member of the church malignant” (that is, the wrong religion), but also a “malevolent spirit (that is, a potential troublemaking artist). Amid the narration of the hay-gathering, section 7 sketches a tale of political murder and revenge, suggesting something of the danger that a man who speaks dangerous truth faces from a local community committed to the old ways. Similarly, “Wired” deals with some interesting items that the author notices when hiking in Connecticut, linking them to inescapable fragments of memory that recall typical incidents of violence in Ireland. Image and thought lead to related image and thought throughout the collection, as its title is touched again and again—a haycock, the phrase “Paul./ Make hay while you can . . . , ” a boot tamped with hay, the river “Hay’s meanderings.” Disinclined to reduce the range of his vision, it is as if Muldoon has taken as a working principle Robert Frost’s comment that “there is always something more to everything.”

Paul Muldoon was recognized as a poet of exceptional promise at the time of the publication of his first volumes of poetry in the 1970’s, and his reputation has grown steadily since then. His The Annals of Chile (1994) won the prestigious T. S. Eliot Prize, Seamus Heaney has called him “one of the era’s true originals,” and The Times has summarized his writing career by saying that he “began as a prodigy and has gone on to become a virtuoso.” Hay supports Richard Tillinghast’s contention that he is “one of the two or three most accomplished rhymers now writing in English”; Tim Kendall’s remark that the “sheer ambition” of The Annals of Chile “reminds us that there are few contemporary poets, if any, who can match his achievement” is reinforced by the poetry in Hay. As Muldoon has moved further into the experience of living in America, his verbal facility has been undiminished, while his range and depth—already impressive—have continued to expand. Although there is a degree of gentle self-mockery in his account of his intentions in the poem “Anonymous: Myself and Pangur,” his real aspirations as a poet are revealed when he declares that “I, sharp-witted, swift and sure,/ shed light on what had seemed obscure.”

Sources for Further Study

The Guardian. October 17, 1998, p. SAT10.

The New Republic. CCXIX, November 30, 1998, p. 56.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, June 29, 1998, p. 52.

The Village Voice. September 8, 1998, p. 133.

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