Acclaimed poet Paul Muldoon may be a dazzling wordsmith, but his verse is all style and no substance
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’.
Like many of the 44 dizzying stanzas of “Incantata,” this exhibits great brio; it’s close to nonsense verse of an inspired, almost manic sort. The cross-lingual and assonantal rhymes, the plosive alliterations, the knowing allusions to Beckett, the repeated French quoi and Latin qua which end up sounding like nothing so much as hysterical frog-croaks-it out-Lears Edward Lear and out-Carrolls Lewis Carroll. But despite its technical brilliance, its calculated wackiness, do we believe for an instant that the poet has his “eyes abrim”? Not once in this long poem do we feel or share the force of grief.
In such great elegies as Milton’s “Lycidas” or Shelley’s “Adonais” or in each of the 131 poems of Tennyson’s In Memoriam, the power of the language is sustained and exalted by the power of the sorrow; they stand in secret counterpoise. Even the vivid personal details of Mary Farl Powers’s life and art which Muldoon employs seem little more than coolly calibrated opportunities for yet another flashy rhyme or trendy allusion.
In much of Muldoon’s work the spectacular surfaces of the poems conceal a curious hollowness within. Robert Frost wrote memorably that “like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.” I don’t think he meant that the poem should fizzle into vapour; and yet, this is often the effect of reading Muldoon: his poems dazzle when first read but leave little lasting impression; we remember their effect but not their import.
It wasn’t always thus. In earlier poems, there is an elegant equilibrium between word and thing. Take “Hedgehog” from New Weather, his first collection:
The hedgehog gives nothing
Away, keeping itself to itself.
We wonder what a hedgehog
Has to hide, why it so distrusts.
We forget the god
Under this crown of thorns.
We forget that never again
Will a god trust in the world.
For all its seeming simplicity, this is highly artful; and yet, the artfulness is employed for a larger purpose. Somehow, over the years, perhaps under the pressure of acclaim, the hedgehog appears to have forgotten its secret.