The Paul Muldoon Problem

I’ve spent Xmas in the company of Geoffrey Hill (in Welsh mode), Maurice Blanchot (in disastrous mode), Keston Sutherland (in deeply disturbing but probably brilliant mode) and Paul Muldoon.
I haven’t mentioned this before but I have this need of late to buy Muldoon collections and then to spend weeks dithering about what I feel about him/them. This unpleasant state is compounded by the fact that I can’t easily put him into a category. This isn’t to do with lack of familiarity, I’ve been reading his stuff for years, it is more to do with the contrast between very, very good poems and incredibly bad ones and the ones that are bad but in a really interesting way. Then there’s the critical clichés about Muldoon that I try to avoid (modern/postmodern, early brilliance/late coasting) except when they hit me in the face.
I also need to confess that I haven’t read either Madoc or Qoof and keep promising myself to get round to these but the dithering keeps getting in the way.
I am accustomed to dithering about most things in life but not about poetry. I can dither endlessly about politics, films, holiday destinations, music, health, personal finances but not about poetry. I can read a collection of verse and arrive at a judgement very quickly. Sometimes this judgement is wrong and is corrected over time but I can usually stand by my initial reaction and by subsequent reactions with a degree of certainty. This is not the case with Muldoon who appears to embody most things poetic that I hate yet manages to write a few lines that are really exceptional. Then there’s the rhyme issue. Muldoon does rhyme and he does it very well but he knows that he does it well and reminds the reader of this fact on a regular basis.
I hadn’t given rhyme too much attention until fairly recently but the latest Hill collection uses rhyme for the first time since ‘The Unfallen’ which has led me to take it a bit more seriously. I’ve even the read the first half of Simon Jarvis on “Why Rhyme Pleases” which quotes this definition from Hugh Kenner: ‘… the production of like sounds according to a schedule that makes them predictable’ which probably best expresses how most of us think about it. The quality of a rhyme is primarily judged by Kenner’s first criteria of ‘like sounds’ and how alike these are without feeling contrived or forced. The use of a word which makes the rhyme but does this at the expense of the sense of the line is a bad rhyme just as much as a rhyme which isn’t very alike.
Muldoon is fairly renowned for his ability to play around with and extend rhyme in inventive ways. I don’t find this particularly impressive because I’m stuck in that old-fashioned thing of feeling that content is more interesting and important than form. This is because a virtuoso display of technical skill won’t make up for the fact that a poem has nothing to say whereas interesting content will always compensate for poor or indifferent technique.
So, turning aside from dexterity, I’ve given some thought to content and find that Muldoon continues to alternate between providing some interest and being seemingly intent on the glib and superficial. “Maggot” (the latest collection) contains a poem dedicated to John Ashbery which is crying out to be unpicked and also has some excellent phrases that almost work in the way that Muldoon wants.
On the other hand there’s those poems that are both clever and accomplished but don’t say very much, as if cleverness and dexterity are enough. I’m an admirer of cleverness in all its forms but I do get a bit weary with Muldoon’s habit of reminding me just how clever he is. I’d much prefer that he spent more time explaining what he thinks or feels because his subjects usually merit a more reflective approach. ‘Wayside Shrines’ which is the last poem in the collection gives the impression of wanting to be taken seriously on a number of levels but it still feels that Muldoon can’t resist undermining this intent – rhyming ‘out through the prism’ with ‘monasticism’ is merely distracting.
Then there’s the word use issue. Most of the tone in Muldoon’s work is conversational and relaxed (which is probably used to denote hidden depth) but ever once in a while a word is thrown in that sends me running for the OED. Two prominent examples are “harupsicate” and “tatterdemalion” both of which clash with the surrounding lines could be replaced by other less obscure words. This assumes that we’re meant to understand these by their primary meanings and not take too much notice of secondary definitions / contexts.
None of this resolves how I feel about Muldoon and why I keep on reading him. His subject matter is usually of interest to me and his fore-mentioned cleverness is attractive and repellent in equal measure. I think I’ve come to the conclusion that he’s quite good in doing what he does and is capable of writing with a degree of insight and sensitivity even though the level of deliberate superficiality feels more than a little affected.
So, I’ll probably keep on reading Muldoon without quite knowing why…


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