The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Incantata,” written in memory of the artist Mary Farl Powers, is a nearly perfect synthesis of formal construction and emotional content. Spoken directly to the poet’s former lover, the poem is both elegy and celebration. Each of the forty-five eight-line stanzas has the rhyme scheme aabbcddc, called a “stadium stanza”—a form invented by Abraham Cowley for elegiac purposes and later adopted by William Butler Yeats. Because of its length (360 lines), “Incantata” can sustain some variation; the lines range from four to seventeen syllables, and there is no regular underlying rhythm.

The first twenty-two stanzas tell the story of the accidental fortunes of a friendship, the shared history, the ways one life enriches another and the ways in which they differ. The poet begins thinking of his dead friend when he is cutting into a potato to make an Incan glyph in the shape of a mouth, and this, in turn, reminds him of the first time he saw her works of art. The mouth itself is significant because the poet is attempting to speak across the boundary of death. The title suggests that this is a kind of incantation, as though he could call her back through verbal ritual. It also suggests a “non-song” (in-cantata), and this association, too, is appropriate, since he cannot seem to find the proper words to express his feelings.

As the poet rushes through specific memories of what appears to have been a stimulating and...

(The entire section is 526 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Because “Incantata” employs a regular rhyme scheme, it demonstrates how what is sometimes called the “pressure of form” can help give shape to its subject matter. Muldoon is a master of “slant rhyme” or “half-rhyme,” so the sounds are often subtle, even clever. Muldoon’s poems are characteristically clever—playing on words, making puns, referring to the works of other writers and even to his own earlier poems. He often rhymes one language with another. This approach is somewhat true of “Incantata,” but the tendency to play with words (and with the facts) is somewhat muted because of the passionate and autobiographical nature of his material. The poem was written in a rush of emotion over a period of five days, Muldoon has said, and the feelings are all the more compressed and shaped by the use of the regular, rhymed stanzas.

In the first half of the poem, the rhymes are noticeable but do not dominate; the intimate voice of the writer is so urgent that the reader is more involved in the unfolding narrative of Mary Powers’s death. In the second half, however, the reader becomes more and more aware of rhyme and how Muldoon is orchestrating his material. The mixture of philosophy, theology, comedy, literary allusion, pop culture, history, and personal memory creates a collage of unrelated images, thereby making the reader doubly conscious of the way the poet is choosing his words. Sometimes the sounds are compressed:

(The entire section is 596 words.)