Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1996
Paul Muldoon is a fascinating and elusive poet whose poems over a thirty-year span have been collected here. They show his development from a fairly traditional Irish poet to a postmodernist language poet who undermines any attempt by his reader to construe meaning. He is also a humorous poet whose mocking and often joking poems poke fun at a number of established positions. He is, in addition, a skilled poet who can construct a strong poetic line and create some dazzling images and metaphors.
The first book in the collection, New Weather (1973), shows Muldoon as a conventional poet in the mode of Seamus Heaney. “Wind and Tree,” for example, metaphorically traces the connection between humans and trees. The relationship of the trees to each other is described in sexual terms as they “are grinding/ Madly together and together.” The Muldoon speaker then adds a realistic note: they are actually “breaking” each other in the connectedness. He is like them, although he would not break the tree. He is, however, already broken and through that “I tell new weather.” There is a good deal of irony in the poem, but it is still a lyric and not a language poem.
There are a number of poems about his father in the collection, and “The Waking Father” is one of the best. It begins with father and son catching fish and throwing them back. The imagery describing the place becomes strange and exotic. The fish are “piranhas” and the “river a red carpet.” The son asks if the father is dead or alive. If dead, he would turn the course of the river so the father might have a proper burial “bed.” There, none could doubt that he was a “king” and could discover in that river bed “the real fish farther down.” It is an effective poem that uses some fanciful metaphors, but the images of river and fishing enable Muldoon to pay tribute to and create feeling for the lost father.
Muldoon’s next book of poems, Mules (1977), rapidly moves away from traditional poetry. “Lunch with Pancho Villa” is an imaginary conversation between the poet and the famous Mexican revolutionary. Muldoon makes a number of references in his poems to Mexico, the American Indians, and the American Southwest. Perhaps these function as exotic place names in contrast to the drabness of Ireland. The poem starts with the poet asking Villa, “Is it really a revolution, though?” He then describes the accomplishments of Villa as coauthor of a number of pamphlets, such as Blood on the Rose. Villa takes a more serious tone as he chastises Muldoon for writing “rondeaux.” Villa challenges him to “get down to something true.” The Muldoon speaker, however, reveals it is all a game: “Nobody’s taken in, I’m sure,/ By such a mild invention.” He reveals that the fabrication was given away by the creation of the “preposterous titles” of Villa’s books. The last stanza comes back to“When are you going to tell the truth?’” However, there is no truth about Villa or the Mexican revolution in the poem. What matters is the play between the exotic and ordinary names and characters, and the privileging of imagination over fact.
There are a number of historical poems and some translations from the Irish in this collection, and “Keen” is one of the better ones. The original eighteenth century poem, “Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoighire” (known in English as “The Lament for Art O’Leary,”) was composed by Eibhlín Dubh Uí Chonaill after her husband, a Catholic, was killed for refusing to sell a prized horse to a Protestant landowner. It begins with the speaker recalling the moment she discovers her husband’s death: “I never dreamt you would die/ Till your horse came back to me. . . .” She rides out to find him near a bush, “Without priest or monk/ To preside or pray over you. . . .” He is bleeding and, since “I knew of no way to staunch it./ I cupped my hands and drank it.” The “keen” as a mourning ritual in Irish Gaelic culture is more than a vocal lament; it is also a sacrificial drinking of blood in the absence of the rites of the church.
“History” is a poem that focuses not on political events but on sexuality, It begins by asking “Where and when exactly did we first have sex?” He wonders if it was in a city and supplies names that start in Ireland, move on to London, and end up in “Marseilles or Aix?” The final speculation is of time and place. Was it when “you and I climbed into the bay window/ On the ground floor of Aquinas Hall/ And into the room where MacNeice wrote Snow,’/ Or the room where they say he wrote Snow.’” The difference between fact and a tale is impossible to determine in Muldoon. He continually undercuts any claim to authority or certainty while all is in play.
By the time of Quoof (1983), the poems are becoming longer and harder to understand, but they are always playful and fun to read and play with. “The More a Man Has the More He Wants” is twenty pages long, portraying the surrealistic adventures of an unlikely hero named Gallogly. It begins with his beloved abandoning him in “a froth of bra and panties” in Paris. He then undertakes an endless journey to various exotic places. The strangeness of the names and places seem to be at the heart of Muldoon’s spoofing of the ordinary and the traditional.
“Meeting the British” is the title poem of his next collection. It is marked by the surreal imagery and non sequitors: “We met the British in the dead of winter./ The sky was lavender.” The Muldoon speaker calls out, strangely, “in French.” The result of the encounter is that neither the British “General Jeffrey Amherst/ nor Colonel Henry Bouquet/ could stomach our willow-tobacco.” This presumably makes the Muldoon speaker into an American Indian rather than an Irishman. The poem ends sardonically: “They gave us six fishhooks/ and two blankets embroidered with smallpox.” The encounter between an advanced and a colonized society always seems to involve a fatal exchange, and the use of “embroidered” is very effective in describing the deception of that exchange.
“7, Middagh Street” is a twenty-two page poem that mocks a number of twentieth century poets, especially W. H. Auden and his group. It describes Auden’s journeys to Spain and other areas in the 1930’s as futile and disappointing. He then has a problem in returning to England not as a hero but merely as “Auden.” Muldoon also pokes fun at W. B. Yeats by quoting and mocking some notorious lines of Yeats:
. . . Did that play of mine
send out certain men (certain men?)
the English shot . . .?’
The answer is Certainly not’.
If Yeats had saved his pencil-lead
would certain men have stayed in bed?
Gypsy Rose Lee, Louis MacNeice, and Chester Kallman appear in the poem, as well as Salvador Dali, who makes some surreal comments. The whole poem refuses to take anything seriously.
Muldoon’s next book, Madoc: A Mystery (1990), contains the 124-page title poem, on the projected plan by the British poets Robert Southey (1774-1843) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) to found a pantisocracy near the banks of the Susquehanna River. The project never came to fulfillment, but Muldoon treats it as a reality and the poem describes Coleridge and Southey’s encounters with the American Indians in the United States of the early nineteenth century. It is a hilarious poem, but it is difficult to understand, largely because of the wide and often contradictory range of Muldoon’s references and allusions. Each section has the title of a philosopher; philosophy is just one of the things that Muldoon is undermining. An example of the humorous undermining can be seen in this complete section:
Coleridge leaps out of the tub. Imagine that.
The adventures of Coleridge and Southey intersect with the travels of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and a number of other historical figures, such as Lord Byron. The title comes from a puzzling discovery:
Shad waves back, and bends for the mattock
He’ll use to dig
a grave for the dog
when it comes to him in a flash—MADOC.
Madoc ap Owein Gwynedd was a legendary Welsh prince believed to have sailed to the west to escape civil war in 1170 and to have discovered North America. According to the legend, he returned to Wales and took seven shiploads of settlers back to this new land. These settlers were believed, by the eighteenth century, to have assimilated with the native population and become a tribe of “Welsh-speaking Indians” who always lived just a little further up the river. The desire of oppressed Welsh intellectuals, stirred by the ideals of the American and French Revolutions, to reunite with their free American brothers and found a Gwladfa, or national homeland, devoted to Welsh language and philosophical ideals, was the inspiration for Southey’s poem Madoc as well as the two poets’ Utopian plans. The failed Welsh quests to find theMadogwys, believed to be the Mandan Indians, nonetheless provided maps and inspiration for Lewis and Clark’s expedition as well. Muldoon uses this tumultuous period of myth and exploration as the raw material for comment on philosophy, colonialism, and Romantic impulses.
There is a poem with a good deal of feeling in Muldoon’s next book, The Annals of Chile (1994). “Milkweed and Monarch” begins with the poet kneeling at the grave of his mother and father. As he is doing so, tastes of “dill or tarragon” assault him and “he could barely tell one from another. . . .” The grief, however, is for a lost woman and not for his parents. He recalls her talk “while the Monarch butterflies passed over/ in their milkweed hunger.” However, the feeling for the absent parents does return at the end of the poem as he contemplates their tomb once more: “as he knelt by the grave of his mother and father/ he could barely tell one from the other.” The image of mixing smells in the beginning is forcefully connected to the mixture of the bodies of his parents in their grave.
“Yarrow” is a thirty-nine page poem that is the most resistant to explication. It, as do many other long poems, mixes historical figures and fictional ones in various time periods. Sylvia Plath makes an appearance, as does Jim Hawkins from Robert Lewis Stevenson’sTreasure Island (1883). The Muldoon speaker joins Jim Hawkins in “plundering the Spanish Main. . . .” The only structural principle is the repetition of “That was the year” in which some events, often bizarre ones, happened.
Hay (1998) is the last book in the collection, and the most interesting group of poems is the “Hopewell Haiku.” Muldoon subverts the haiku form by rhyming the first and third lines of every haiku and not observing the syllabic pattern very exactly. In addition, he tends to use the sordid rather than the elegantly beautiful in nature. For example, haiku X:
A crocus piss stain./ “There’s too much snow in my life,”/ My daughter complains.
Paul Muldoon’s career is an interesting example of a poet who began as a traditional lyric poet and then embraced—and surpassed—many of the postmodern and avant-garde movements of his time. Those exotic poems, especially the very long ones, are sometimes hilarious, and often diverting. Muldoon has a perverse sense of humor and it informs many of these poems. The later poems seem to be exercises in subverting meaning. Muldoon must defeat his reader or surrender to him. Many of the poems are not structures but comic collages of discordant materials. The early poems are like those of another Irish poet, Seamus Heaney. However, the later ones place him firmly in the camp of James Joyce.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 97 (March 1, 2001): 1220.
The New York Times Book Review 106 (June 10, 2001): 14.
Publishers Weekly 248 (February 12, 2001): 204.
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