The Times Literary Supplement has called Paul Muldoon "the most significant English-language poet born since the Second World War." The Aspen Daily News, not often cited as an authority on matters literary, describes him as "one of the most prolific, decorated and influential poets of the 21st century," a poet who "continues to stack up accolades and titles at a jaw-dropping pace." Such encomia may be found, amid a multitude of others, on the Paul Muldoon website, an extravaganza of shameless puffery approved if not actually written by the poet himself.
It's true that Muldoon is prolific and much-acclaimed. It's equally true that he possesses fabulous verbal skills. But if your jaw doesn't drop at the hyperbolic blurbs he has assembled by the score on his website your eyelids surely will. Such heavy-handed self-promotion seems a far cry from the poetry itself which, whatever its shortcomings, is seldom boring. Here the sheer voracity of self-regard suggests a lurking uncertainty. Does genius really need to be trumpeted so brazenly?
Of course, a poet shouldn't be judged by his efforts at self-promotion, however strenuous, but by his poems. From New Weather of 1973 to Maggot of 2010, with another 12 collections in between, Muldoon has evinced a quite dazzling command of verse. There's no formal measure of which he's not a proven master. He's especially renowned — rightly so, I think — for a verbal exuberance of astounding virtuosity. Formulations at once bizarre and apt, startling and often outlandish images, crafty multilingual puns, macaronic rhymes, cadences both suave and syncopated, pour forth in a seemingly inexhaustible cascade of glittering invention. The result is that the very surfaces of his poems, the cunningly knotted and woven texture of his words, seem an end in themselves.
Consider one stanza from "Incantata," his much-admired tour de force, an elegy for the artist Mary Farl Powers:
The fact that you were determined to cut yourself off in your prime
because it was pre-determined has my eyes abrim:
I crouch with Belacqua
and Lucky and Pozzo in the Acacacac-
ademy of Anthropopopometry, trying to make sense of the ‘quaquaqua'
of that potato-mouth; that mouth as prim
and proper as it's full of self-opprobrium,
with its ‘quaquaqua,' with its ‘Quoiquoiquoiquoiquoiquoiquoiq'.