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.”
Muldoon is an authentic poet of the psychoanalytic error (read “era”) who thinks of language as an active agent, signifying at levels below our consciousness:
I believe that these devices like repetition and rhyme are not artificial, that they’re not imposed, somehow, on the language. They are inherent in the language. Words want to find chimes with each other, things want to connect….
Negation is also a persistent trope: “it was not x, but y“; “not of pears, not plums—/But pomegranates, pawpaws”; “not Brazil,/then Uruguay”; “grief, not for his mother and father,/but a woman slinking….” These work of course not as corrections but connections, widening and extending a poem’s territory.
It is hard (for me anyway) not to link this insistence on the unreliability and instability of appearances to the Troubles. Here is his wonderful brief lyric “Ireland” (from Why Brownlee Left):
The Volkswagen parked in the gap,
But gently ticking over.
You wonder if it’s lovers
And not men hurrying back
Across two fields and a river.
Poetry is the controlled deployment of ambiguities, and here Muldoon identifies the readings of a situation: it could be x or it could be y. Here again is the liminal gap where one thing blends into another, and the ceol sídhe, the gentle ticking—even the word “gently” hints at Allingham’s “gentle” folk, one of the original parallel worlds of Ireland. And how many worlds are overlapping here? The passersby, the lovers, the terrorists? The internal quickening jangle of “wonder” and “lovers” suggests a blitheness immediately undercut by the necessity of “hurrying back” to detonate the rhymes set going in the first two lines. The poem’s form enacts its content: it’s about consequences.
America was a natural move for Muldoon. Even when resident in Ireland, Americana, and American poets, filled the poems. Frost lent him a fondness for the conversational mode and the wistful mood, and there’s Wallace Stevens in “I Remember Sir Alfred” and William Carlos Williams in “Leaving an Island.” More interestingly, Muldoon writes in Mules (1977) that “Ned Skinner”
Was “a barbaric yawp,”
If you took Aunt Sarah at her word.
He would step over the mountain
Of a summer afternoon
To dress a litter of pigs
On my uncle’s farm.
But Aunt Sarah isn’t the only one who can’t be taken at her word. “A barbaric yawp” is lifted from Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: “I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,/I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” The literary reference (unless we’re to assume Aunt Sarah’s making it) undercuts and ironizes the little parable, suggesting that all presentations of childhood are necessarily more calculated, more artificial than they seem.
It’s also hard not to read the poem as a half-mocking critique of early Heaney poems like “The Early Purges” (“I was six when I first saw kittens drown”). By undercutting his speaker, Muldoon takes a step back from his poem, and I’m still not sure if the effect is thrilling or cheapening, both probably. The contract between the reader and writer is redrawn, if you’re in the know.
That effect, that maneuvering coolness, seems emblematic of Muldoon’s work, and explains why it feels so representative of our ironic age. Muldoon has spoken of his willingness to play tricks and pull strings:
Of course I sometimes make little jokes and I do, quite often, engage in leading people on, gently, into little situations by assuring them that all’s well and then—this sounds awfully manipulative, but part of writing is about manipulation—leaving them high and dry, in some corner at a terrible party, where I’ve nipped out through the bathroom window.
Those concerned that Muldoon’s work has grown too obscurely playful will not find their minds changed by Maggot, his eleventh full-length collection, but if you’re happy to puzzle your way in, there’s plenty here to be going on with. Since The Annals of Chile Muldoon has been chipping away at the autonomy of single poems by making his oeuvre self-refer, both in content and structure, and Maggot is—once you discount its anniversary verses and pieces evoking works of art—remarkably self-involved. These ingenious poems inform and explicate one another, sharing lines, imagery, even epigraphs, and not many stand—or are even fully intelligible—alone. (Muldoon himself is wary of the idea that poems can stand alone. Ostensibly discussing Elizabeth Bowen and Samuel Beckett, he’s surely talking about himself: “I’d…suggest that [their] extraordinary appetite and aptitude for ‘intertextuality’ goes beyond a mere interest in the allusive, or the parodic…. There’s a sense of two discrete coexistent realms. Two texts. Concomitant with that, though, is the fact there’s no distinction between one world and the next. Or one text and the next.”)
Some of the poems are, however, immediately effective. “The Humors of Hakone” absorbs scientific language to piece together the circumstances of a Japanese murder (and recycles the ninety familiar rhyme sounds from “Yarrow” and “Incantata”). In “The Windshield” the speaker sits in his car in his windcheater, “breath…furring a windshield,” waiting for his daughter to “be released from her rehearsal” of “Much Ado.” Here again is the féth fíada, the world-scrim: the windshield a Carrollian looking glass where oddity leads to wonder, maybe self-knowledge.
Sure enough, “all at once I recognize that shadow/coming towards me as my own…” and the speaker is back in the Cathedral car park in Armagh: now his mother is in her car waiting for him. As he approaches through the dark, he finds her nightmarishly “turned the wrong side out.” Chastizing himself for sullying “the memory of a parent, least of all one who sends a judder/through a child,” he sees himself as a “satin-lined grizzly.” “Grizzly” implies both bear and fretful child, and “satin-lined” connotes his windcheater, or a moses-basket (or coffin). A split realization: the speaker is both ursine terrorizer and infant terrorized, both parent and child (and momentarily released, perhaps, from his own rehearsal of Much Ado). Such resonant wordplay is just a foothill, though. In general these poems are all escarpment and bluff, and for those coming to Muldoon for the first time, well, be prepared to acclimatize.
When Maggot, with a little pressure, opens up, what surfaces is a sad, acidic masterwork. It’s about endings: of relationships, of lives. There’s betrayal, sex, and violence (always linked in Muldoon) and the dominant trope of decomposition: cancers, sod farms, wayside shrines, even lepers. Maggot refers also to the book’s skittish obscurity (Muldoon is, in the Irish idiom, “acting the maggot,” i.e., messing around).
The title poem is representative of the book’s triumphs and problems, being fiercely guarded, artful, and obsessively repetitive. It comprises nine sonnets with the same rhyme scheme, rhyming sounds, and recurring first half of the sestet. Many disparate ideas are yoked together here, all metaphors for the speaker’s sexual adventuring (Italian partisans in the war, fishing, medieval monasteries, car-stealing). The scenario is the strictures of a (“sym-/biotic”) marriage and the demise of a love affair (“I used to wait for a moonless night/before parachuting in”), but the speaker also rails about other sexual encounters, and his brutal tone disturbs: “the offer/of her little Commie quim,” “the pretty pre-med/who proved to be such a pushover.” Even the flipside of the usual sexual euphemisms is now violent: “Often an acolyte/will be taking it on the chin….” The speaker regrets nothing, and while it appears the lover has died (“Now I’m content to write/to her next of kin”) there’s no mourning here, only defiant self-justification.
It’s possible to parse the lines “I used to be somewhat swayed/by an Italian patronym” as sending the reader back to “Proud-fleshed Carlotta,” the cancer-stricken lover in the previous collection, Horse Latitudes (who announces in that book her name’s “an anagram/of oral fucking tact”). “Has-been is tight/with has-been./An ex-Franciscan will plight/his troth to an ex-Ursuline” suggests the union of two lapsed Catholics, Irish and Italian. When he writes “one trout held on like grim/death to a frayed/leader while another would skim/the Personals in the hope she might ignite/the fire within,” you hear “trout” in the sense of “annoying old woman,” and then realize a “frayed leader” is not just a worn filament attached to a fish hook but denotes a person too, the husband. While the poem is bound tight with rhyme, it almost seems to be in the process of syntactically decomposing. Here is (what appears to be) the poem’s end:
I used to think the partisans wore white
because they were free of sin.
Now I think it only right
to have got beneath her skin
where I’m waiting for some lover
to kick me out of bed
for having acted on a whim
when she herself has taken it into her head
all those who’ve gone undercover
may as well sink as swim.
Nobody is innocent. The victory of (the maggot) getting “beneath her skin” refers to both the injury or upset (to the wife) and the sexual affair. (Once you see one sexual euphemism, it can be hard to stop.) The last barb suggests that she (the wife who might exile him from his bed) has herself had an affair, has “taken it into her head” (a sexual euphemism familiar from “Quoof”: “I have taken it into so many lovely heads/or laid it between us like a sword”).
But what is most strange about this passage and others like it is that, grammatically, it seems a bit askew. There’s a looseness of antecedents, sense, and temporal grammar that recurs in the book as Muldoon plays with memory. The deadening repetitions and brutality of “Maggot” convey a mind (or a persona) obsessing and brooding over a love affair. The three lines quoted above—which recur throughout the poem—are an uncertain chorus (will he be “kicked out”?) that has a swagger the speaker doesn’t quite feel.
Fifty pages later we find “Loss of Separation: A Companion,” featuring an epigraph from Pliny the Elder’s Natural History: “In the province of Gallia Narbonensis and the region of Nemausus there is a marsh called Latera where dolphins and men co-operate to catch fish.” (Muldoon reuses the Pliny epigraph for another poem, “Lateral,” a title referring, at least, to a dolphin’s fin, Muldoon’s own sideways progression, and the thinking needed to make these poems cohere.) The phrase “loss of separation” applies to aircraft experiencing a loss of minimum space between them, in which case they are then said to be “in conflict.” Muldoon’s addition of “A Companion” works double time, analogizing aeronautics to marriage, and presenting the poem as a companion piece to “Maggot” (note the liminality of that marsh in the epigraph, neither land nor sea). Although this sonnet, essentially the tenth after “Maggot”‘s nine, keeps the same rhymes and refrain, it’s redemptive; defiance and arrogance ceding to bewilderment and sadness:
I used to think Mutual Aid
had given rise to the first kibbutzim.
Now an economic blockade
seems merely a victimless crime.
I used to think I’d got it right
when I notched up a ’59 Plymouth fin.
Now I fight only to fight
shy of the assembly line
where I’m waiting for some lover
to kick me out of bed
for having acted on a whim
after I’ve completely lost the thread
and find myself asking a river
to run that by me one more time.
A working union has ended or changed, and interaction, sexual or otherwise, stopped (though neither party seems upset, it being a “victimless crime”). Materialism (the acquisition of a classic sports car) or philandering (that “notched up” suggesting notches on the bedpost, slang for sexual conquests) has resulted only in renewed routine, a prison of demands, an “assembly line.” The final tercet overturns the poem’s brusqueness and surety, and the recurring unconvincing syntax speaks of confusion. Is there time to go backward? Might one try again?
Indeed those lines, in my mind, are once again self-reflexive, acknowledging the necessity of reading and re-reading Muldoon. And what about that epigraph of Pliny’s? Dolphins recur in the book (along with porpoises, elephants, hummingbirds, porcupines) and seem a symbol of innocence, integrity, assistance (one, Pelorus Jack, even guides ships). The poem “Yup” continues in this vein:
The bottlenose dolphin always rolls with the punch
when she finds herself against the ropes.
The forensic entomologist admits to some margin of error.
The bottlenose dolphin holds herself up to a mirror.
In this marriage recovering from an affair, the couple are so mismatched they’re different species. The form of the Shakespearean sonnet is corrupted: this is the opposite of a love poem, terse lines and clichés replicating a couple’s arguments. Then the last devastating image of a betrayed woman examining her body in the mirror, comparing herself to her dead rival. (We have plenty more clues in the book affirming this guiding narrative: “The Fling” bemoans a bathroom shower that has “lost its force,” which “once lavished itself on you/and me in that studio off the Grand Concourse”; in “A Mayfly” we find “the triumphal arch made of the femora/of a woman who’s even now filed under Ephemera“; “The Watercooler” begins “They’re poisoning the atmosphere/now you and I’ve split.”)
Maggot is enormously dextrous, but at times makes discomforting reading. The responsibility is to tell it like it is, or seems to be, and Muldoon’s work has always acknowledged that things are complicated, impulses and thoughts and fantasies not necessarily compatible with our own best self-image. Poetry isn’t improving: it doesn’t lead anywhere except back toward ourselves. As for the trickiness, the best defense of difficulty I know was made by Muldoon himself: heckled by an audience member that what he was reading wasn’t poetry, he replied:
It doesn’t come naturally to me to defend these things as poems. As a concept, I see it like this: the word “poetry,” as you know, means “making,” so these are constructs in the world…. One is trying to construct something that will help us to make sense of things, and a construct, or building even, let’s say, a space, a clearing, a momentary stay against confusion (from Robert Frost’s phrase), which, when we enter, we have some clarification, however slight, and when we leave it, something, however slight, has been clarified. We have been helped in some way to make sense of the world.
So that is what poetry means to me. I need to be provoked by it. I can’t quite accept what seems to be a fairly conventional notion of poetry as that which bolsters us up in what we already know. I am less interested in that than in poetry that puts us in a difficult position and makes us think again about how things are, and that is almost an article of faith.
Another article of faith (which I touched on briefly) has to do with unknowing, and that, I think, connects it to many experiences that could be described as “spiritual” experiences, and I know you are all familiar with those, where one has a sense of giving oneself over to something beyond oneself, something one doesn’t quite understand; and only when one does that, and only in a spirit of humility, is there half a chance that one will come out the other side knowing anything at all in some minor way. So I think I am really pleased that you enter these discussions in the spirit of unknowing, because that is the spirit in which we all engage in the business of trying to write poems.
Those advancing into Maggot, a fine collection by one of our very finest poets, might bear those words in mind.