Although direct environmental influences on the growth of the imagination are impossible to prove, it does seem relevant to point out that Paul Muldoon’s coming to consciousness coincided with the disintegrative threats to the social fabric of his native province. These threats of violence to civilians and forces of law and order alike, to property and the general communal infrastructure of Northern Ireland, date from 1969, when Muldoon was a freshman at Queen’s University, Belfast. The threats have been both carried out and resisted. Disintegration of families, neighborhoods, and institutions has occurred, yet those entities continue to survive. Codes of self-protective speech have arisen, and things are no longer necessarily what they seem on the surface. It would be fanciful to argue that such characteristics of the poet’s outer world are precisely what Muldoon’s poetry reproduces, since, to begin with, such an argument overlooks the inevitable significance of form in his work. At the same time, however, there is such a degree of unpredictability, play, and opacity in his poetry that it is tempting to consider it an attractive, exuberant, puzzling, and blessedly harmless parallel universe to that of bombers and demagogues.
This does not mean that Muldoon has not addressed poems to the trials and tribulations of the Northern Ireland of his adult life. Poems such as “Anseo” in Why Brownlee Left (anseo is the Irish word for “here,” meaning “present” in the poem), “The Sightseers” in Quoof, and the arresting and unnerving title poem of Meeting the British—to name well-known instances—confront in ways that are not particularly euphemistic the euphemistically named Troubles. However, it is equally, if not more, revealing of Muldoon that he would name a collection of poems for “our family word/ for the hot water bottle” (“quoof”), particularly since the reader has only the poet’s word for it that this is what “quoof” actually means. More than any other Irish poet of his generation, perhaps, Muldoon demands to be taken first and foremost, and if possible, exclusively at his word.
Muldoon’s slightly surreal, slightly whimsical, very subjective, and very oblique view of his material—his almost perverse conception of what constitutes “material” itself—sits at a seemingly crazy but refreshing angle to the modern Irish poetic tradition. Muldoon is concerned more with the making of verses than with the making of statements, and his work is airy, reckless, private, and provocative. Many of his poems are as much teases as they are texts in the predictable sense, yet they can also be seen as indebted to a more intriguing tradition of Irish poetry than that inaugurated by Yeats. Muldoon’s implicit rejection of the public, vatic role of the poet, his frequent absorption in the minutiae of the natural world, his deployment of fragmented narrative, his use of pastiche, his finding himself equally at ease with foreign or domestic themes, his playfulness, and the challenge of his cunning superficiality have—among numerous other devices and resources—provided a valuable counterpoint to the more solemn, preoccupied, and fundamentally historicist poetry of his Northern Irish elders.
New Weather, the title of his early work, has become over time a helpful phrase to describe the surprising novelty of Muldoon’s poetry and its place in the canon of modern Irish verse. The poem in which the phrase “new weather” occurs, “Wind and Tree,” is in one sense not particularly representative of Muldoon’s work, with its talk of love and its unironic, somewhat sheepishly attention-claiming “I.” The poem’s elaborate metaphorical conceit of lovers being injured as trees are by wind heralds one of the most conspicuous elements in Muldoon’s distinctive art, his generally shape-changing propensity, of which metaphor is a primary feature. “Wind and Tree” also provides the revealing lines, “Most of the world is centred/ About ourselves,” often availed of by readers struggling for a foothold in some of the poet’s less hospitable works.
Much more instructive of things to come in Muldoon’s work is “Hedgehog,” for the economy and distinctively contemporary quality of its imagery (“The snail moves like a/ Hovercraft, held up by a/ Rubber cushion of itself”), the outrageousness of its conceits (the hedgehog is referred to as “the god/ Under this crown of thorns”), and the possibility that the poem overall is a metaphor for communal and interpersonal division and defensiveness both in Northern Ireland and beyond. As in “Our Lady of Ardboe” (from Mules), “Who’s to know what’s knowable?”
By the time of the publication of Mules, the question of knowability in Muldoon’s work was not strictly rhetorical—rather, to be Muldoonish about it, it was strictly rhetorical, meaning that it was built into the nature of the poem, rather than occurring every so often as a detachable line from a given poem. “Lunch with Pancho Villa,” with its mysterious quality and the novelty of being written by an Irish poet, is not merely a witty imaginative adventure, expressive of the poet’s range and restlessness. The poem interrogates, in a tone that is all the more incisive for lacking solemnity, the consequences of violence, and it questions whether the poet’s duty is to respond to what the world contains or to the contents of his own imagination.
One answer to this question—a question that may be used as a means of investigating Muldoon’s increasingly complex mapping of his subjectivity—may be found in “Cuba” (from Why Brownlee Left). Here a remembrance of family life and common usages, both domestic (a father’s predictable anger) and communal (an erring daughter goes to Confession), is placed in the context of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, revealing the quirky, intimate, and reassuringly unresolved and unmechanical manner in which personal and public history overlap. This poem, ostensibly a simple narrative elaborating a vignette of memory, is a delicate essay in remoteness and intimacy, last things and initial experiences, innocence and eschatology. The poem’s open rhythm (often captured by Muldoon through direct speech) leaves the reader in no doubt that the poet stands for the tender insignificant moments of the human realm rather than a melodramatic characterization of the machinations of history.
“Why Brownlee Left”
A comparable sense of openness, of life as new beginnings and deliberately unfinished business, is provided by the title poem of Why Brownlee Left, in which the material achieves significance by—as the title implies—being neither a question nor an answer. Who Brownlee is seems irrelevant. The emphasis is on what has remained “a mystery even now.” The point is the leaving, the possibility of pastures new, lyrically recapitulated by the absconder’s horses at the end of the poem, “gazing into the future.”
Perhaps Brownlee wanted to be able to say, like the narrator in “Immrama” (from Why Brownlee Left), “I, too, have trailed my father’s spirit”—even if the trail leads to an inconclusive and implausible end for both father and son. Conclusion is less important than continuity. Analogously, Muldoon’s work suggests that a poem’s happening—the multifarious activities of the words contained by and excited within a prosodic framework (itself various and informal, though necessarily final)—is of more consequence than the poem’s meaning. At an elementary level, which the reader dare not overlook, perhaps the happening is more lifelike, by virtue of its free play and variety, its sometimes outrageous rhymes and syncopated rhythms, than the meaning. Though quest as a motif has been present in Muldoon’s work from the outset—“Identities” in New Weather begins “When I reached the sea/ I fell in with another who had just come/ From the interior”—it becomes more pronounced in the collections after Why Brownlee Left. The unusual title “Immrama” draws attention to this fact, as presumably it is meant to. It is the plural form of immram, the name in Irish for the genre of medieval Irish romances (including tales of travel to the other world) and a word that in the singular provides the title of Muldoon’s first important long poem, which also appears in Why Brownlee Left.
In “Immrama,” Muldoon releases the possibilities latent or implied not only in the quirky lyrics of Why Brownlee Left but also in his overall body of work. Using narrative in order to subvert it—a strategy familiar from, for example, “Good Friday, 1971, Driving Westward” in New Weather—Muldoon brings the reader through a somewhat phantasmagorical, surreal adventure that pantomimes the style of hard-boiled detective fiction. Set in Los Angeles, the story itself is too erratic and effervescent to summarize. As the title of the poem is intended to suggest, however, the material maps out a territory that is rich and strange, which may be the landscape of dream or of vision or the objective manifestation of the psychic character of quest. Lest the reader be merely exhausted by the extent of the poem’s literary high jinks—“I shimmied about the cavernous lobby./ Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Tennyson/ Were ahead of me through the revolving door./ She tipped the bell-hop five dollars”—there are important themes, such as identity, fabulation, and rootlessness, and an alert meditation on the hybrid nature of writing as an imaginative process, of which “Immrama” is a helpful rehearsal.
“The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants”
Much more allusive, spectacular, and demanding is Muldoon’s next adventure in the long poem “The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants” (from Quoof). Here, an increasingly prominent interest on the poet’s part in the lore and legends of Native American traditional literature comes influentially into play. In particular, the various legends of jokers and shape-changers, particularly those of Winnebago literature, are availed of, not in the sense of overt borrowings or new translations but with a respect for and fascination with their spirit. Muldoon is not the first poet to pay homage to these mythical figures. The English poet laureateTed Hughes employed them in one of his most celebrated works, Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow (1970, 1972). The results are so different, however, that it is tempting to think of “The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants” as Muldoon’s response to the senior poet.
The subject of the poem is change. As in the case of “Immrama,” scenes shift with confusing rapidity, and the inherent transience and adaptability of the persona is once again a central, enabling concern. The thematic mixture is far richer, however, in “The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants.” In particular, the nature of change is not confined to Muldoon’s familiar deployments, such as travel, quest, and dream. Violence as an agent of change is also explored and its consequences confronted. Here again, a certain amount of frustration will be experienced by the reader, largely because the poem, though promising to be a narrative, becomes a variety of open-minded narrative options, while the integration of the material takes place by virtue of the reader’s ability to explore the possibilities of congruence within the widely...
(The entire section is 4777 words.)