Paul Muldoon Muldoon, Paul (Vol. 32) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Paul Muldoon 1951–

Irish poet.

Muldoon has a highly individual voice which reflects the vulnerability of life in strife-torn Northern Ireland. Roger Conover has claimed that his poems are about "an ancient faith answering to a modern reason." Among Muldoon's eclectic subjects are the violence of the natural world, the tensions of human relationships, personal memories of childhood and adolescence, and Irish folklore and history. Equally diverse are the structures of his poems, which utilize such forms as "ballad style quatrains," modified sonnets, short lyrics, and dramatic monologues. Most critics caution that Muldoon's colloquial diction is deceptively simple; they often comment about the allusiveness of the meaning of his poems, echoing Seamus Heaney's opinion that what Muldoon has to say is "constantly in disguise."

Muldoon's collections include New Weather (1973), Mules (1977), Why Brownlee Left (1980), and Quoof (1983). Each new volume substantiates John Kerrigan's statement that a "combination of visual clarity and verbal panache … has become the hall-mark of Paul Muldoon."

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 113.)

Hugo Williams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Paul Muldoon] represents a painfully accurate rendezvous for the exacting requirements of traditional skill, youthful experiment and popular demand. But the poems [in New Weather], though sometimes competition winners, are rather iced with their own talent…. [He has] a punchy inventiveness, a dry, flourished mascularity, which, with low Irish cunning, cleverly disguises and brings up to date for city consumption their essential literariness. Muldoon's detached virtuosity sits uneasily on the shoulders of a twenty-two-year-old, distracting one's attention. But why should this be? Must poets develop backwards now to hold us? Must they unmature?… Muldoon's effects seem worked up, the target too aimed for. Yet there is joy in a bullseye…. He has an instinctive feel for things which will embody his thoughts, which is fine … when his thoughts are not too intent on poetry. When this happens he sees meanings on every street corner and sometimes they are only layabouts lounging there who wouldn't appreciate being in a poem at all…. Sometimes [he goes] on to complexify the subject too completely, as if he was rounding up sheep, and all the time his flights managing as if by magic to return home by the foot of the page. (pp. 125-26)

Muldoon is no romantic and when I read fine poems of his like The Cure for Warts, Vespers, The Indians on Alcatraz, Kate Whiskey, Upriver Incident or the moving anthem to Brendan Behan Lives of the Saints, or any of those where the focus falls on the foreground of the poem, I think perhaps it is his classical sense I am judging too harshly from a (contradiction) romantic master's desk. (p. 127)

Hugo Williams, "Sounding Like Nobody," in Poetry, Vol. 13, No. 2, June-July, 1973, pp. 123-31.∗

Dillon Johnston

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In his first book, New Weather (1973), [Paul Muldoon] distinguishes himself, through his use of metaphor, from Seamus Heaney, whose disciple he is often proclaimed. In contrast to Heaney's elemental analogies, Muldoon's metaphysical metaphors fleetingly reflect correspondences that grow in one's mind into truths or tease one out of thought. Whereas he offers these correspondences ironically or non-committally, they often suggest an innocent pre-Newtonian view of an interrelated universe, an impression enforced by Muldoon's habit of structuring poems on the four elements, with water and air predominant.

"Seanchas" represents his typical use of metaphor. The seanchai is an unschooled oral historian whom the poet visits in rural Ulster. He "can adlib / No other route. If we play back the tape / He may take up where he left off." His flock flows similarly: "their bellies / Accumulate and, are anonymous again. But having shape, / Separate and memorable."

Occasionally, his metaphors are simply facile, so that one critic for Hibernia, not above obtuseness, entitled his review of Muldoon's book, "Enchanting Emptiness." Indeed, Muldoon's poems are comprised, in his own phrase, "of carefully appointed mirrors." Sometimes … he angles the mirrors by lapsing from parallel structure ("Thinking of the Goldfish") or by creating ambiguous references ("Vespers") or by obscuring the surface being reflected, as in "Leaving An Island."… [The success of "Leaving An Island"] depends less on the metaphors in the second and last stanzas than on a radiant tone which seems to me characteristic of a peculiarly Irish sensuality. In Synge's Iyric lines or Clarke's aisling poems or James Simmons' love songs, vivid colors and pellucid atmosphere imply a reprieve from asceticism, an impression made explicit by Heaney's "In Gallarus Oratory" where, coming from the sepulchral darkness of the church, the ancient parishioners found "the sea a censer, and the grass a flame." In Muldoon's poem something of Miranda's wonder invades the tone of the instructed youth.

Muldoon is not involved in the descents and excavations that preoccupy Heaney, Montague, Mahon, and Kinsella. In most of his poems he is a tourist or vagrant, moving in, or out, enquiring or taking note. Like Kinsella, Ryan, and Montague, he writes of America with fresh vision. (pp. 15-17)

Dillon Johnston, "'The Enabling Ritual': Irish Poetry in the 'Seventies," in Shenandoah, Vol. XXV, No. 4, Summer, 1974, pp. 3-24.∗

Roger Conover

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Two years after publication, Paul Muldoon's New Weather remains the most important first book by an Irish poet since Seamus Heaney's Death of a Naturalist appeared in 1966. With this single volume of 36 poems, Muldoon clearly distinguished himself as a major presence in Ireland—not only among the select half-dozen poets in their 20's whose work has managed to outlive its traditionally terminal form of entry (the chapbook series), but also among the Dolmen "professionals," whose reputations were secure even before Muldoon began his apprenticeship. Muldoon, now 24, is still one of the youngest on the scene. But the authority of his first book rules such things as birthdates out of consideration. These poems are the result of continuous age and aging.

New Weather is a sui generic work, even as its title suggests. Muldoon's work is derivative only to the extent that all good poetry is derivative: it is informed by the tradition. His skill is not in imitating others, but in repeating his own sure aims with such astounding accuracy and from such a variety of positions that we gradually recognize a cluster of simple truths in an area that we had always supposed to be the blindspot of our vision. The correspondences that are most striking in Muldoon's work are those which exist between his own poems. His poems are too individual to characterize very effectively in terms of anyone else's work, although on a line-for-line basis any number of parallels might be drawn. The one comparison which has received the most attention deserves notice here, if only to distinguish superficial from profound resemblances, and to detach Muldoon's work from the forced adoption which seems to have been issued upon it from the start. It is a bad critical habit which assigns a young poet to a literary parent, but it is a habit whose subscribers have made it a wild rumour in the case of Muldoon.

I am referring to the widespread notion that Paul Muldoon is the other (or younger or next) Seamus Heaney. Unfortunately, the similar circumstances of their lives and poems have been mistaken for the very different conditions of their lives and poems. It's a neat mistake: Heaney and Muldoon are both from the North, and both received early attention from Faber's prestigious anthologies. In Introduction 2, Muldoon dedicated one poem ("Unborn") among an impressive suite of 14 to Heaney. And there is no doubt that Heaney's work figured significantly in Muldoon's early development as a poet. By the time his first book was published, however, Muldoon had reworked those early poems into a haunting, strenuous music, very much in his own idiom. Except for a shared topography and a common interest in texture, the Heaney-Glob tones had been played out. But when New Weather was released, only months after Heaney's third volume, Wintering Out, it was inevitable that the Heaney resonances should be re-emphasized.

Taken together, the two Faber books made a nice review package, and reviewers were inclined to indulge in a bit of their own poetry: a landscape which had already been located, peopled and named by Heaney's three volumes was now mythologized and ritualized by Muldoon. Muldoon seemed to be reconstructing the ancient code from which Heaney intuited his secret intelligence from the earth's rhythms. Muldoon was the presiding hierophant over Heaney's dark mysteries. Indeed, the poems themselves seemed to support this collaborative vision. Both poets sensed the presence of deeper rhythms in commonplace routines; both were interested in sources and origins, in the bog past and the pagan past. To both, the earth was damp, female, and mothering, and to both it was a scarred, wounded, plundered treasure of recurring forms. Both shaped poems around the act of birth (and stillbirth), and both favored the uterine state of life.

That brouhaha was two years ago. What it finally came down to was that people who liked Heaney liked Muldoon, mostly for the stony vocabulary of life-behind-the-hedges. But today, Muldoon's best readers may be those who have grown weary of Heaney's textures, but who continue to find in Muldoon the articulation of a deeper structure of which the texture is only the outer skin. Heaney suggests such a structure, but keeps it mysterious. It is Muldoon who comes closest to sounding it out, with his precocious, if not preconscious, instincts. But these instincts are constantly being put to the test of his profound good sense. And that is precisely what his poems are often about—an ancient faith answering to a modern...

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Colin Falck

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In his first book New Weather Paul Muldoon seemed to be controlling a native Irish airiness with a certain determination to be modern and realistic, but he also showed a reluctance to engage with much of the recalcitrantly unliterary stuff of modern life (so that when he mentioned 'the water that slopped / From the system he was meant / To have lagged' one could wonder momentarily if this was some unusually arcane bit of allegory). In his new book Mules there isn't much blunt banality either, and what we get instead is a fair number of historical or remotely-imagined dramatic pieces together with a general tendency to lapse into the Irishly anecdotal when other subjects fail. Muldoon's anecdotes incline towards darkly suggestive hints at mythic depths rather than spelled-out rationality, and perhaps for this reason have a way rather often of misfiring or seeming a bit of a try-on. He gives the impression by now (like Seamus Heaney: one of the best poems here, 'Ned Skinner', is a broodingly Heaneyish tale about the castration of some pigs) of scraping the folkloric barrel, but at any rate what he brings out of it still seems recognisably and authentically Irish. (p. 53)

Colin Falck, "From the Penile Colony," in The New Review, Vol. IV, No. 42, September, 1977, pp. 51-3.∗

Christopher Hope

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Mules Paul Muldoon] is evidently aware that however far he reaches, home is where he starts from, and home rules…. Muldoon turns a cold eye on a land fit for anti-heroes. Here are poems of the revolutionary, the centaur, vacquero, Virgin, stripper, Bearded Woman, merman: a cavalcade of the great reduced by a quiet faith and suburban constrictions into fit subjects for poems of containment. His language is crisp and refreshingly tart, finely expressing the often difficult relations between his parish and the wider world, as well as the world to come. His poems constitute a profound attack on heroic Irishry not entirely undermined by a sneaking belief in its necessity, and enough terse, spry wit to make the most of the contradiction…. He looks to the world beyond while standing firmly in his backyard. It is an honest, unsensational endeavour. But I can't help wondering whether there are not signs of a worrying ambivalence, as if he would break ground without disturbing the soil, as if discretion were the better part of discretion and a keen sense of the inherent contradictions were sufficient to justify the leap into faith, rather too easily granting to himself, as he would to his 'Mules', 'the best of both worlds….' (pp. 83-4)

Christopher Hope, "Clive of Indy," in London Magazine, n.s. Vol. 17, No. 4, October, 1977, pp. 79-86.∗

Anne Stevenson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Paul Muldoon has written] elegantly turned out pastorals in Mules. Here, every cowpat is carefully placed just where you have to notice it for authenticity's sake, yet it is never in the way of a smooth effect. In an eerily subtle study of homosexuality (or so I assume) at his school, Muldoon's snaffled, laconic casualness leads to crude action…. (p. 486)

If this poem—called 'How to Play Championship Tennis'—for reasons of subject-matter and tone sounds a bit Larkinish, more often Muldoon resembles a sleeker, Irish Robert Frost. His frame of reference is earthy, sly, obliquely religious and calculated to astonish as much as it is to please. Understatement is Muldoon's main line, though he deals with equal efficiency in the unexpected. The title poem ends amazingly on a Wordsworthian note. The mule born of Sam Parsons's jackass and Muldoon's father's mare might have sprung from the earth:

      Were it not for the afterbirth
      Trailed like some fine, silk parachute,
      That we would know from what heights it fell.

The ambiguity of 'heights' is tantalising. Does Muldoon mean Heaven or raw nature? Is he mocking Wordsworth or endorsing him? Like Frost, Muldoon is a fine dramatic poet. In 'Ned Skinner', the relationship between the hired pig butcher and Aunt Sarah is stabbingly sketched in a few ruthless stanzas. So if one has reservations about Muldoon's poems, they are the reservations one always has about the photographically perfect. (pp. 486-87)

Anne Stevenson, "Snaffling and Curbing," in The Listener, Vol. 98, No. 2530, October 13, 1977, pp. 486-87.∗

Craig Wallace Barrow

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Mules] will frustrate those wishing Northern Irish poets to lacerate their souls on the bloody realities of Ulster, for in the collection's first poem, "Lunch with Pancho Villa," Muldoon lets a "celebrated pamphleteer" berate the poet-narrator:

'Look, son. Just look around you.
People are getting themselves killed
Left, right and centre
While you do what? Write rondeaux?
There's more living in this country
Than stars and horses, pigs and trees,
Not that you'd guess it from your poems.
Do you never listen to the news?

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Seamus Heaney

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The essay from which this excerpt is taken was originally broadcast over Radio Telefis Eireann in 1978.]

Paul Muldoon's first book was aptly titled New Weather: it introduced us to a distinctive sensibility, a supple inward music, a poetry that insisted on its proper life as words before it conceded the claims of that other life we all live before and after words. Mules continues and develops this hermetic direction and is a strange, rich second collection, reminding one sometimes of the sophisticated repose of poésie pure, and sometimes bringing one down to earth in the simple piety of the local ballad. It is as if the poems spring from some mixed imaginative marriage,...

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Andrew Motion

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Why Brownlee Left is Paul Muldoon's third book, and like its predecessors is written in a style which aspires to the condition of clear glass. There are no outbursts of recherché language, and no strong rhetorical gestures. Just plain phrases and conversational cadences. The result is to make his poetry look simple—child-like, even, at times. Children themselves make a significantly large number of appearances in his work, but even when not actually present, their wide-eyed straightforwardness is recreated. In 'October 1950', for instance:

Whatever it is, it all comes down to this:
My father's cock
Between my mother's...

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Alan Hollinghurst

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Fiction nowadays can scarcely afford to be unselfconscious, and Irish fiction has often been particularly canny about its own business, the artificiality as well as the serious compulsiveness of telling stories. Paul Muldoon opened his second book Mules three years ago with a poem which both established and then exploded a fiction, a process by which he could ask "where do I stand?" in relation to things "made up as I went along." Behind this merely theoretical question lie issues closer to life, to do with the chosen subject of the poet, whether it is to be a lyric one drawn from tradition ("About pigs and trees, stars and horses") or a more engaged and political one, "something a little nearer home." Either...

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Rodney Pybus

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Paul Muldoon's third collection [Why Brownlee Left] is as humane, ingenious and formally skilful as one would expect after New Weather and Mules, and just a mite disappointing. The poems here show (and sometimes show off) his quirky, offbeat talent for sudden revelatory flights from mundane contexts. At the close of 'Whim' the man, making love to a woman in the Botanic Gardens, gets literally stuck into her…. Here again are many examples of childhood recollection and the anecdotal, and the complete inability to resist a crafty pun: 'There is such splendour in the grass / I might be the picture of happiness' ('Promises, Promises'). I don't get from many of these new poems much sense of Muldoon...

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John Kerrigan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Muldoon's Quoof begins and ends … with an epigraph from Rasmussen's The Netsilik Eskimos—telling how a female shaman made herself a penis of willow, a sledge out of her genitals and a dog from shit-stained snow—and a long last poem 'loosely based', according to the blurb, 'on the Trickster cycle of the Winnebago Indians'…. Muldoon relishes [the] inventive unpredictability [of Amerindian myths]. His dazzling long poem, 'The more a man has the more a man wants', jumps like a firecracker, hectically mixing the Everyday with What Might Be, and crosscutting so extravagantly from the epic to the banal that the fiction finally seems governed by its own law, or lore, and questions about the 'intrinsic...

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John Mole

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The obscurity in Paul Muldoon's work is … evasive, and often downright teasing. He's a sophisticated high-gloss technician, managing rhyme and stanza forms with dazzling accomplishment, but the greater the verbal clarity in his poems the more puzzling they seem to become…. Quoof (the family name for a hot-water bottle), is prefaced by an account of an Eskimo shaman, and begins and ends with poems which make reference to psilocybin. This sets the tone and the scene. Throughout the book Muldoon seems intent on taking anecdote and recollection as the starting points for exercises in pushing the actual through a series of transformations, breaking them up into hallucinatory fragments.


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Geoffrey Stokes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Faber published New Weather in 1973, when Muldoon was barely 21 years old, and his self-assured technical virtuosity was already startling. Yet for all the wit of the opening stanzas' self-effacing apology, the poem's claims were both grandiose and to some degree contradictory. I have, he announced in "Wind and Trees," a consciousness that is willy-nilly universal, but at the same time a special sort of vision that lets me see—and see through—metaphors. I reject violence (though it is both fascinating and beautiful), but it has given me the gift of prophecy. These are the boasts of a highly accomplished and very young man; time, it seemed, would inevitably administer a salutary spanking.


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