In Nicholson Baker’s novel The Anthologist (2009), the eponymous hero attends a poetry festival in Switzerland. Suddenly word flew through the room like wildfire—Paul Muldoon was here! Paul Muldoon! Paul Muldoon! He was besieged. Muldoon is a fabled beast—or a rara avis, as his teacher Jerry Hicks termed him when introducing his charge to Seamus Heaney. Later the schoolboy sent his poems to the older poet, asking what he was doing wrong; the reply came “Nothing,” or so the story goes. (In Stepping Stones Heaney clarified, slightly: “The letter, as I remember it, said ‘Perhaps you can tell me where I am going wrong’; I wrote back saying that I didn’t think I could tell him anything he wouldn’t find out for himself.”) Part of this mystique (as The Anthologist makes clear) has recently been due to Muldoon’s influential position as poetry editor of The New Yorker—but the work itself is at the heart of it. The most formally ambitious and technically innovative of modern poets, he writes poems like no one else.
Muldoon was born in County Armagh in 1951 to a schoolmistress and a market gardener, and raised as a Roman Catholic in Collegelands, a small town near the staunchly Protestant village of Loughgall, where the Orange Order was founded in 1795. The Catholic Church, Muldoon has said, “presided over almost every aspect of our lives, both literally—the building itself was two fields away—and metaphorically.” The repressive society was replicated domestically, and his relationship with his mother, who died in 1973, appears to have been fraught. We meet a version of her in “They That Wash on Thursday,” where a plangent autorhyme forces varying cadences of sadness or anger:
She was such a dab hand, my mother. Such a dab hand
at raising her hand
to a child. At bringing a cane down across my hand
in such a seemingly offhand
manner I almost have to hand
it to her. “Many hands,”
she would say, “spoil the broth.” My father took no hand
in this. He washed his hands
of the matter. He sat on his hands.
So I learned firsthand
to deal in the off-, the under-, the sleight-of-hand….
While still an undergraduate at Queens University, Belfast, Muldoon published his first collection, New Weather (1973). Graduating with an “allowed fail,” he “‘ran away to the BBC’/as poets did” and stayed there thirteen years. Teaching followed at Cambridge, the University of East Anglia, and then Columbia University, the University of California, and the University of Massachusetts. In 1990 he arrived at Prince- ton where he is now the Howard G.B. Clark Professor in Humanities.
Muldoon’s early work is characterized by subversion and refusal: “The hedgehog/Shares its secret with no-one.” The tone is world-weary or angry, sly, chilly. Rural or family scenes are undercut with nightmare strangeness, oedipal fantasy (“The Waking Father” sees the son imagining that the “spricklies” nibbling at his father’s feet in the Oona river “might have been piranhas,/The river a red carpet”), and abrupt sexual violence:
He had never yet taken time to grieve
For this one without breasts
Or that one wearing her heart on her sleeve
Or another with her belly slashed.
Destabilizing clichés was a Muldoon habit from the start, and here the brutality of that last line makes the reader wonder if “wearing her heart on her sleeve” is purely metaphorical. The occupants of early poems tend to embody transgressive concepts: there’s a merman, a bearded lady, a baby who’s “ninety…if he’s a day,” a woman with a blue eye and a brown eye. There’s miscegenation (mules, mixed marriages) and superabundant confusion: “Which of us had that leg belonged to?”
For Muldoon, “a central tenet of the Irish imagination [is] that what you see is never what you get. Heaven and earth are separated by a cloth.” In his engrossing ramble through Irish literature, To Ireland, I (2000), Muldoon discusses the Ballyshannon poet William Allingham (1828–1889), best known for his poem about the “wee folk,” “The Fairies.” Muldoon writes of the early Irish tribe the Tuatha Dé Danann, who became “the áes sídhe, the ‘fairy’ or ‘gentle’ folk, [and] are made invisible by virtue of the féth fíada…the magic mist or veil, a kind of world-scrim, that hangs about them, often allowing them to appear as animals, particularly deer.”
The passage to a fairy realm often takes place during a hunt, sometimes to “the ringing of bells…or the strains of an unearthly music” called ceol sídhe. Muldoon adds that “this idea of a parallel universe…offers an escape clause, a kind of psychological trapdoor.” It’s by encountering strangeness, by crossing over, that we arrive at knowledge. In his early poem “Duffy’s Circus” the boy-speaker hears a ceol sídhe in the form of a human scream, heralding his glimpse into another world (in this case of adult sexual intrigue):
For the first time that long-drawn-out cry.
It came from somewhere beyond the corral.
A dwarf on stilts. Another dwarf.
I sidled past some trucks. From under a freighter
I watched a man sawing a woman in half.
In the 1980s Muldoon published Why Brownlee Left, Quoof, and Meeting the British, each containing twenty to thirty shortish brilliant lyrics (using off-rhymes and variant line-lengths), followed by a long virtuosic closing poem. Muldoon read Donne when he was a teenager and cites the Metaphysicals as “probably the greatest influence. A huge number of my poems are conceits, taking two heterogeneous ideas and yoking them together”—at least two ideas we might add when reading “Immram,” the long poem that closes Why Brownlee Left, and draws on hard-boiled detective argot, Howard Hughes’s autobiography, and the Irish genre of immram, or “voyage tales.” Set in a town called Paradise, in an America gleaned from movies and books rather than personal experience, it depicts a man searching for his father, a drug mule. It’s mischievous, agile, funny, and features the odd brilliantly outrageous rhyme:
They came bearing down on me out of nowhere.
A Buick and a Chevrolet.
They were heading towards a grand slam.
Salami on rye. I was the salami.
So much for my faith in human nature.
The age of chivalry how are you?
But I side-stepped them, neatly as Salome….
“The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants,” which closes Quoof, interweaves details of the Troubles (shootings, booby traps, bombings) with a cast of dozens, including Alice B. Toklas, Napper Tandy, Leto, an Apache Indian, Picasso, Pollock, Hopper—all in a language creolized with puns, jokes, sexual innuendoes, quotations, and Ulster dialect.
The poem hinges on the MacGuffin of “a pebble of quartz” (nodding to Frost’s “For Once, Then, Something,” where a whiteness glimpsed in a well is “Truth? A pebble of quartz?”), and this “aspirin-white spot” passing from hand to hand kills its possessor, like the black spot in Treasure Island. Muldoon has no time for certainties: the idea that you can hold on to “truth” among Ulster’s conflicting narratives engenders only death.
Concluding his book Meeting the British, “7, Middagh Street” was a terrific, flashy ventriloquist’s act, in which Muldoon becomes the many inhabitants of that Brooklyn address: W.H. Auden, Gypsy Rose Lee, Benjamin Britten, Chester Kallman, Salvador Dali, Carson McCullers, and Louis MacNeice. Virtuosic, again: but also poetry about poetry, with Gypsy Rose Lee apparently outlining Muldoon’s credo:
An off-the-shoulder shoulder-strap,
the removal of one glove—
it’s knowing exactly when to stop
what to hold back, some sweet disorder….
The attention to his work in the academy seemed to sanction Muldoon’s more complex tendencies, and his poetry grew more allusive, ever more philological and formally demanding, culminating in 1990 in Madoc, whose complexity defeated many readers, and perhaps the poem itself, as Muldoon seemed to acknowledge by excluding it from his Selected Poems. More immediately rewarding was The Annals of Chile (1994), containing “Yarrow” and “Incantata,” an elegy for the artist Mary Farl Powers, his ex-partner (and one of the finest long poems of the century). Its formal innovation is to re-use and reverse the rhyme sounds after the midpoint: the last stanza echoing the inverse of the first stanza, and so on. The poem is not best served by excerpts (its force comes from cumulation) but, to illustrate its technical intricacies, here are the tenth verse and the thirty-fifth (tenth from the end):
I saw you again tonight, in your jump-suit, thin as a rake,
your hand moving in such a deliberate arc
as you ground a lithographic stone
that your hand and the stone blurred to one
and your face blurred into the face of your mother, Betty Wahl,
who took your failing, ink-stained hand
in her failing, ink-stained hand
and together you ground down that stone by sheer force of will….
Of how you spent your whole life with your back to the wall,
of your generosity when all the while
you yourself lived from hand
to mouth, of Joseph Beuys’s pack of hounds
crying out from their felt and fat “Atone, atone, atone,”
of Watt remembering the “Krak! Krek! Krik!”
of those three frogs’ karaoke
like the still, sad, basso continuo of the great quotidian.
In the poem the reader audibly circles what is happening, only partly conscious of it, and such an effect, being a kind of haunting, is particularly suited to elegy.
“Yarrow” deals with the loss of Muldoon’s mother, his childhood and homeland—in effect the relentless passing of time:
Little by little it dawned on us that the row
of kale would shortly be overwhelmed by these pink
and cream blooms, that all of us
would be overwhelmed, that even if my da
were to lose an arm
or a leg to the fly-wheel
of a combine and be laid out on a tarp
in a pool of blood and oil
and my ma were to make one of her increasingly rare
appeals to some higher power, some Deo
this or that, all would be swept away by the stream
that fanned across the land.
When it comes to technique, Muldoon is an extremist, always prepared to go one step further, and “Yarrow” deploys the ninety rhyme sounds of “Incantata” in even stricter fashion. He concocts a kind of double sestina, modifying and enlarging the sestina’s conventions. The demands coax his imagination out, but in order to meet such formal responsibilities the mind must cast further and further, pulling in such extravagant diction and references that glossing the poem is real though rewarding work for the reader. Muldoon is often called a poet’s poet, code for difficult, and it’s true that other practitioners or academics most readily appreciate the vast technique at play in his work—or at work in his play, since he is so taken with puzzles, riddles, acrostics, portmanteaus, and errata. Later collections (Hay, the Pulitzer-winning Moy Sand and Gravel) consolidated his interest in the wrong-turning, where mistakes, as Joyce puts it, are only “portals of discovery,” where slips are Freudian: “For “mother” read “other”…for “married” read “marred”…for “ludic” read “lucid.”