Very Clever, Mr Muldoon

One of my warmest poetic memories is the reading given by Paul Muldoon a few years ago at the Charleston Festival. The great man’s gentle voice and self-deprecating approach combined to make it a very special occasion. The hour-long session was over all too soon.

So I come to his poetry with a double bias, since not only do I keep this memory but also he comes trailing behind him the glories of Northern Irish poetry, in the form of the godlike trio Heaney, Mahon and Longley. Not that “trailing” is appropriate for someone who has blazed his own path and developed his own distinctive style.

The early Muldoon poems are in the shadow of Heaney, speaking of incidents in rural Ireland with oblique references to the Troubles. But he soon moved away from his home turf, both physically and in literary terms – first to England and the University of East Anglia, and then to Princeton, where he has taught on the creative writing programme since 1987.

Frolic and Detour is his thirteenth collection. His eminence can be seen from the fact that four of the poems in it were commissioned by bodies varying from the Grand Central Hotel in Belfast to the New York Times. It is not a book to be read in a hurry. Part of the reason for this is the way in which the poet darts round the world and backwards and forwards in time, in the space of a few lines. Take the first six couplets of Wave, written in memory of C.K. Williams:

I happened to be putzing around in the Gellert Spa in Budapest
while you did your very best

to hold on to the world-brim.
Saint Gellert taking a last look over the rim

of his nail-studded barrel. I was stretched in a thermal bath
even as Syrian refugees struggled to find a path

across the border at Zakay. Two of the many top-of-the-line
treatments on offer featured red wine
and chocolate. It was in Peru, Vermont,
in the late 80s I first heard you vaunt

Vallejo and Neruda. You were so tall I could no more reach you
for a farewell hug than scale the Heights of Machu Picchu.

Here we have references to one of Budapest’s most renowned hotels, the eleventh century martyrdom of Saint Gerard, Syrian refugees, Vermont, Vallejo and Neruda and Machu Picchu, combined with a series of playful rhymes bordering on music-hall. I have two difficulties with it – and they are difficulties rather than problems. One is that I feel I need to have Google on constant alert so that I understand the allusions. The second is that I don’t understand why he is including some of the references. In the present case I am not sure what the relevance of the Syrian refugees is, other than to point up a contrast to the poet reclining in the spa. The reference to Machu Picchu is, I suspect, merely a way of getting a wry smile by way of the rhyme with “reach you”.

A more serious objection arises with the reference to Saint Gellert in his nail-studded barrel. This may chime with the idea of the poet in a hot tub and with the related image of Williams taking a last look over the brim of the world, but this version of Saint Gellert’s martyrdom appears to be apocryphal.

Leaving quibbles of this kind aside, one cannot but be impressed by Muldoon’s mastery of form. 1916: The Eoghan Rua Variations consists of nine stanzas, each of fourteen lines – yes, reader, these could be described as sonnets, though they are only loosely so. The last four lines in each stanza are different translations of lines attributed to the Irish language poet referred to in the title, as set out in an epigraph. Each stanza follows a rhyme scheme of aabbcdcdcdefef, which is a reorganisation of the normal sonnet scheme, so that the sestina is in the middle. Not for nothing has one reviewer referred to Muldoon’s “linguistic bravura”.

This fondness for combining a strict-ish form with rambling content reaches its logical conclusion with the title poem Frolic and Detour, which consists of three sections, each with fifteen loosely-rhyming quatrains. The title operates on two levels: the speaker is depicted as driving on an errand for various household items – goat’s cheese, ibuprofen, a sander belt, pesticide – though apparently diverting from an intended route; and at the same time the places he passes encourage a stream-of-consciousness musing on topics ranging from the mystic Thomas Merton to Jimi Hendrix’ performance at Woodstock and the ancient Greek lyric poet Stesichorus.

It’s enjoyable stuff, even if one gets a bit tired of Googling. It would be logical to anticipate that a poet quite so flaunting of facts would be short on emotion. However, Muldoon is perfectly able to rise to this, as to any other, occasion. His best and his worst aspects are for me encapsulated in the poem With Eilmer of Malmesbury, written after news reaches Muldoon of the death – it appears, the suicide – of the sixteen-year-old Jack Eustis, son of friends. The poem begins movingly:

In Paddington a man allows his upright bass
to rest its head on his shoulder -
the awkward embrace
of a father and teenage son...

The speaker is travelling to Swindon by train and then on by cab to Malmesbury.

…I take the train
to Swindon, from there a cab to the Old Bell Hotel,
the oldest in England. Since the unusually large brain
of an Apache war chief will swell

even more when boiled, an army surgeon saws
through Mangas’s brain stem, tipping it into a vermeil
basin for further study.

“Mangas”, we know from another poem in the collection, is a reference to the Apache chief Mangas Coloradas. It is by no means clear what the reference is doing here.

We move on to the tale of Eilmer of Malmesbury, whose attempt at flight, by putting on wings and launching himself off a tower, ended in his breaking both legs and being lame for the rest of his life. This is contrasted with the sad fate of the sixteen-year-old:

My friends’ beloved son also fell hard
from a rafter
but stopped short
of the floor.

A few lines later:

We don’t know if Eilmer flew with the aid of leathers
or a contraption of linen and silk. The belt
worn by a Benedictine was made of leather

but a Franciscan’s  cincture was rope. The gaudy sleeve
I once put on is fraying by the hour.
At a distance of three thousand miles I grieve
with my friends.

This is moving, but the effect is then spoiled by :

…An E minor on a bass sours
even as it soars through the skull of Mangas Coloradas.  

(Note the implied wordplay of “soars” and “saws”.)

The minimalist maxim of “Less is more” comes to mind. As indeed does the comment I heard many years ago, in the course of an international legal conference that I attended. The chairman was a very brilliant French lawyer, who struck me as having an astonishing ability to link widely different aspects of almost any area of the law. When I remarked on this to one of the other French lawyers present he commented drily: Oui, mais c’est creux – yes, but it’s hollow. In other words, it was flashy but without substance.

That is not a charge I lay against Muldoon, who is capable of both the deep and the shallow. Nor would I wish him to lose his playfulness and sense of humour. But there are times when I would like him to rein himself in. Buy the book yourself and see what you think.

Paul Muldoon: Frolic and Detour. 2019 Faber and Faber.

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