Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 970
Paul Muldoon was raised in a Catholic household in Protestant-dominated Northern Ireland in the townland of Collegelands near the village of Moy. His father, Patrick, was a laborer and a market gardener, and his mother, Brigid (neé Regan), was a schoolteacher. This is the “mixed marriage” that Muldoon discusses in an early poem of the same title. He attended grammar school at St. Patrick’s College in Armagh and there studied Gaelic language, literature, and song. At St. Patrick’s he also studied English literature. He began to write poetry in Irish but soon switched to English because of his better command of the language. Muldoon eventually sent poems to Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon, two well-known Irish poets, and Heaney published a few in Thresholds.
Muldoon’s association with Heaney and other prominent Irish poets continued. His tutor at Queen’s University in Belfast, where he studied Celtic language and literature and Scholastic philosophy as well as English literature, was Heaney. Muldoon studied under Heaney and attended weekly poetry gatherings in Heaney’s home. The group included the Ulster poets Mahon and Michael Longley, the critic Michael Allen, and other young poets. It served as a critical forum, and Muldoon asserts it was quite beneficial. Indeed, these gatherings may have laid the foundation for a poet whose work has evolved from finding significance in the simple to being simple yet significant.
Muldoon’s collection New Weather appeared the year he obtained his B.A. and was published under Heaney’s shadow. Many critics, when it was released, contended that Muldoon was simply a younger Heaney. For example, in “Wind and Tree,” what seems a casual observation actually embodies more significance:
In the way that the most of the wind Happens where there are trees, Most of the world is centered About ourselves.
Noted critic Edna Longley discusses how a moral and psychological condition reflected through the landscape is a mark of Ulster poets, but Muldoon takes this device in a different direction from that typical of Heaney. In comparison to Heaney’s elemental analogies, Muldoon’s metaphors tend to be metaphysical and reflect correspondences that result from observations and occurrences—as in “Good Friday 1971, Driving Westward”—with layered, multiple meanings.
Critic Roger Conover speaks of Muldoon’s poetry as “see[ing] into things.” This introspection continues in the collection Mules (1977), one of the many collections published during his thirteen years (1973-1986) as a radio and television producer of arts programming for BBC Northern Ireland. Mules offers an interesting mix of themes. Muldoon still looks at the everyday in a different light, as in the poem, “Mules,” in which his father and neighbor watch a mare and jackass mate in a field. Immediately Muldoon thinks of the “gaunt, sexless foal” that will be born. His observation suggests the binaries of Irish life: North and South, Protestant and Catholic, British and Irish. Other poems in the collection are autobiographical and do not give themselves over to interpretation. However, there are poems with a clearer commentary on the turmoil of Northern Irish life, such as the opening poem, “Lunch with Pancho Villa.”
In Why Brownlee Left, Muldoon writes in lucid language. Many lines are beautifully crafted and deceivingly simplistic, and the great number of narrative poems make the collection an enjoyable read. Also, Muldoon’s commentary on Irish life is more convincing in this collection because he moves away from inflated rhetoric and bardic posturing. The final poem, “Immram,” is adopted from the medieval tale “Immram Mael Duin.” (The name “Muldoon” is derivative of Mael Duin.) Widely praised by critics, this poem narrates a boy’s search for his father. Various literary influences are at work in this poem, from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s version of Mael Duin to Raymond Chandler’s detective novels.
The plethora of influences continued in Muldoon’s subsequent collections. In Quoof, named for his family’s term for a hot-water bottle, Muldoon references tales from the Netsilik Eskimos to accounts of hallucinogenic mushroom “trips” in “Gathering Mushrooms” as he explores perceptions and invites the audience to look at both the old and the new. The poems are deceptively simple, a trademark of Muldoon.
With Meeting the British, published the same year in which the poet moved to the United States, Muldoon moved into a new phase in his writing. While Quoof tended to push its metaphors beyond recognition, in this collection Muldoon is more self-aware. There is not as much of a theme to this collection, but the poems do work together as they juxtapose the exotic with the banal. Also, Muldoon experiments with new forms and methods of expression through language, most aptly illustrated in the ending poem, “7, Middagh Street,” which is the Brooklyn Heights residence of George Davis, fiction editor for Harper’s Bazaar. In the poem Muldoon imagines how the famous people who visited there might have interacted. Muldoon’s use of words such as “quinquerine,” “flummoxed,” and “gormandize” as well as exciting rhymes such as “lemon/Ashmolean,” “Eden/Auden,” and “Minneapolis/ nipples” are a sampling of his command of the language.
In the book-length poem Madoc: A Mystery, Muldoon looks for new ways to push his talents and develop his voice. With Shining Brow (a dramatic poem written for an opera about Frank Lloyd Wright), The Annals of Chile, The Prince of the Quotidian, and Six Honest Serving Men, Muldoon, in the 1990’s director of the creative writing program at Princeton University, upholds his place in the literary world, as he continues to do in Hay, Kerry Slides, and Moy Sand and Gravel. Terse and original, Muldoon’s poetry is full of multiple meanings. While seemingly simple at times, the simplicity of his language is deceptive. Constantly changing, Muldoon’s poetry offers a means to look inside what we may take for granted.
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