Back when The Poetry Review used to include caricatures, Paul Muldoon emerged from its pages as a rattlesnake. Sporting his trademark Dylan-esque barnet and NHS specs, his trickster’s tie wriggled from a hieroglyph-inscribed basket. The image sticks because it fits. For the past forty years Muldoon has danced to his own tune, snake charmer to slippery, sly, fun but also menacing poems, borne of precocious technical mastery and increasingly reckless imaginative abandon. Boyish wonder meets a cynical intelligence. Playfulness and seriousness blur to one and the same. In his best poems – and by now, the longevity of his 70s and 80s lyric masterpieces ‘Wind and Tree’, ‘Mules’, ‘Why Brownlee Left’, ‘Cuba’, ‘The Sightseers’ and ‘Quoof’ seem beyond sensible question – the rhyming panache and lexical grace lure you in. But so too do the brevity, the deceptive clarity, the eye-widening exactitude. Form and flawless execution jostle with a beady-eyed mischievousness and darkness, unpicking favoured discomfiting themes: death, disappearance, sex, divisions both personal and public, and the sense that our pursuit of meaning is, finally, a flawed and laughable quest, though not without reward.
One Thousand Things Worth Knowing is Muldoon’s twelfth collection. It arrives midway through the poet’s sixty-fourth year, a year following one that began with the passing of Seamus Heaney, champion to the wunderkind Muldoon, and from whom the once protégé now inherits the title of Ireland’s greatest living poet. In truth, though, followers of Muldoon the pied piper have been pushing for his promotion for a while. When Stephen Knight called him “the most significant English-language poet born since the Second World War”, echoing Tim Kendall’s similar pronouncements, he sounded a degree of cautious deference to the old master, but the claim was clear. Even the most astute, punctilious critics have reached for superlatives in praising this rara avis: “among discriminating readers of new poetry, no one’s stock is any higher” announced Michael Hofmann. The acclaim rings true. Muldoon really is as good as he seems.
Or rather, he was. Like one of his own hypnotic narrative poems, there are a couple of twists in the strange tale of Muldoon’s fecund career. Since the early Noughties and the publication of his hefty Poems 1968–1998, Muldoon’s work has usually been divided into two – what David Wheatley, with pious irreverence, labelled the ‘Muldoon Old Testament’ of New Weather (1973) to Quoof (1983), and the ‘New Testament’ of Meeting the British (1987) to Hay (1998). Quoof was arguably the high point of the early style, a book of pellucid yet complex lyric poems that conveyed both the tragic farce and violent horror of sectarian conflict during the Northern Irish Troubles, in a style as comically parodic as it was coolly matter-of-fact. It marked out the postmodernist Muldoon from his more genteelly Modern predecessors, and gifted him passage to the US, specifically the ivory towers of Princeton. From there, the magic mushrooms first gathered in Quoof met the acid trip of ‘Something Else Again’, a mid-life mantra that exalted a poetics of wild connection-making, paving the way for the cultural stockpiling and myth-kitty raiding that finds its apogee in Madoc: A Mystery (1990) and Hay’s ‘The Bangle (Slight Return)’. The former, a reimagining of Coleridge and Southey’s thwarted ideal of an egalitarian utopia, is relayed from the perspective of a prisoner’s failing vision (geddit?) in the futuristic city of Unitel, with sections often randomly captioned after philosophers. Are we to take such bustling extempore as an opportunity for rewarding exegesis, or is Muldoon just taking the mick, leaving us high and dry, as he has confessed before, “in some corner at a terrible party, where I’ve nipped out through the bathroom window”? Whatever your verdict, there’s no denying such poems have earned an almost entirely academic audience. Schooled readers might think they’re in on the joke, that the red herrings of allusions and etymological conjecture are worth the price of entry, but to me, Madoc still looks like an overlong, winking yet all-too-literal illustration of the misguided search for “a moral for our times”, one that a younger Muldoon roundly mocked in ‘The Frog’. “What if I put him to my head / and squeezed it out of him?”
Which brings us to what I’d like to suggest as the third age of Muldoon: the apocrypha to the two Testaments, which seems to bear the stylistic signature but far too little of the earlier understated brilliance, enough to make it suspect. In this often manic hall of mirrors where language and trivia run about, cartoon-like, to a soundtrack of canned laughter and the odd sentimental tune, things seem mainly to go from bad to worse, albeit by the perilously high standards of the Muldoon glory days. Starting with Horse Latitudes (2006) – though sparing at least the magnificent, witty, heartfelt ‘Sillyhow Stride’, a paean to Muldoon’s mother and sister, and his musician friend Warren Zevon, all of who battled with cancer – we arrive via 2010’s Maggot at this new collection.
I’ve taken this review as opportunity for a detailed appraisal of the Muldoon back catalogue for three reasons. First, because I’d wager that anyone not wholly conversant with his poetry’s trajectory would struggle to make head or tail of One Thousand Things Worth Knowing; second, because I honestly can’t find anything like those earlier poems to amaze or admire in this new stuff; and third, because Paul Muldoon so rarely gets to any kind of point in this book I thought I’d briefly grant myself similar license. The collection opens with ‘Cuthbert and the Otters’, a 10-page piece in memory of Seamus Heaney, originally commissioned by Durham Book Festival. Adopting the legend of the eponymous Northumbrian saint, whose famous piety and diligence afforded him a Doctor Doolittle-like rapport with God’s creatures, Muldoon invokes some loose metaphorical comparisons with the late great poet. So far, so good. Until, that is, Muldoon’s hyperactive mind, limitless love of arcana, and growing distaste for anything so memorable as argument or cohesion drown the whole thing out with, it seems, whatever popped into his head while writing:
The way to preserve a hide is not by working into it Irish moss or casein
but the very brains
of the very beast that was erstwhile so comfortable in its skin.
Irish monasticism may well derive from Egypt.
We don’t discount the doings of the Desert Fox
any more than Lil Langtry’s shenanigans with Prince
Louise of Battenberg. The 1920s vogue for sequins
began with Tutenkhamen. Five wise virgins
– and so on (and on and on). If there is substance here – and surely there must be in an elegy for a departed mentor – the poem bombards you with so much disparate intellectual litter, you can’t hope to sift through it all to find it. Some will say this lack of any point is the point, that confusion is king, but when it sets the scene for an entire book, and when Muldoon has been up to this sort of zaniness for at least a decade, it all becomes rather mundane and forgettable. “When I glance / from my hotel window”, our poet observes, “even I discern / a possibility / I might too readily have spurned”. Surely not. Still, there’s always the trivia. Did you know that Roman women “let // their hair grow right down to their waists / for twisting into skeins” for catapults? What connects ‘Barrage Balloons, Buck Alec, Bird Flu, and You’? “Arthritis is to psoriasis as Portugal is to …”? “Wait. Isn’t arthritis to psoriasis as Brazil is to Portugal?”
As Muldoon merrily loses his way in One Thousand Things Worth Knowing, in overblown tour de force after tour de force, letting his brilliant mind and unrivalled ability with rhyme, form and syntax too often overwhelm the hope of poetry occurring, there is the sense that the genuine alchemist of our times has become content to produce fool’s gold. But then you can hardly blame him. Only one or two poets in any generation will ever know what it’s like to be so gifted that technique, capacity and sheer panache come to implode on themselves. The epigraph to ‘The Firing Squad’ is an excerpt from a letter by Robert Frost, dated 1916, in which he confesses that “the poet in me died nearly ten years ago”. Telling, you might think. There are many timeless Muldoon poems worth knowing, inside out and off by heart. But, for me, none of the like are in this volume.
review by Ben Wilkinson
first published in The Poetry Review