World Literature

Paul Muldoon

 

BORN: 1951, Armagh, Northern Ireland

NATIONALITY: British, Northern Irish

GENRE: Poetry

MAJOR WORKS:

New Weather (1973)

Why Brownlee Left (1980)

Madoc: A Mysterty (1990)

Hay (1998)

Horse Latitudes (2006)

 

 

Paul Muldoon. Muldoon, Paul, photograph. © Jerry Bauer. Reproduced by permission.

 

Overview

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Muldoon is recognized as one of Ireland’s major contemporary poets, though his work is often considered difficult and obscure. His poetry is characterized by archaic language, subtle wit, odd rhyme scheme, inventive conceits, and multilayered structures of meaning.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Childhood and “the Troubles”. Paul Muldoon was born in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, and raised near the village of Moy, where his mother was a schoolteacher and his father a laborer and market gardener. He grew up during a time known as ‘‘The Troubles,’’ during which conflicts between Northern Irish citizens seeking independence from England (the nationalists) and those wishing to remain a part of the British Empire (the unionists) were common and often deadly. Muldoon’s home county of Armagh was in fact one of the deadliest regions during The Troubles, with nearly three hundred killed between 1969 and 2001 as a result of nationalist and unionist conflicts.

Muldoon attended St. Patrick’s College in Armagh, and, inspired by several of his teachers, developed a strong interest in Irish Gaelic language, literature, and song, as well as in English literature. One of Muldoon’s teachers introduced him to the poetry of T. S. Eliot, and Muldoon quickly became an Eliot enthusiast, writing poetry that was often imitative of Eliot’s. He sent several of his poems to Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon, Irish poets who were gaining recognition in the 1960s, and a few of Muldoon’s works were published by Heaney in the periodical Thresholds.

As an undergraduate at Queen’s University in Belfast, Muldoon studied under Heaney and joined him at weekly poetry gatherings held at Heaney’s home. The group, which included the Ulster poets Derek Mahon and Michael Longley, the critic Michael Allen, as well as several other young poets, served as a critical forum.

Muldoon moved to the United States in 1987, where he currently teaches creative writing at Princeton University.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Muldoon's famous contemporaries include:

Seamus Heaney (1939-): An influential contemporary Irish poet, Heaney won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995.

Neil Jordan (1950-): Irish filmmaker and novelist who won an Academy Award for his 1992 film The Crying Game.

Bob Geldof (1951-): An Irish musician and political activist, Geldof helped found the charitable group known as Band Aid.

Tommy Hilfiger (1951-): An American fashion designer world famous for his ''Tommy'' and ''Tommy Hilfiger'' clothing lines.

Joey Ramone (1951-2001): An American musician who led the groundbreaking punk band the Ramones.

Paul Reubens (1952-): An American writer and comedian best known for his portrayal of the character Peewee Herman.

Michael Cunningham (1952-): An American author, Cunningham won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1998 with his novel The Hours.

 

Works in Literary Context

Muldoon’s poetry seems to go in two directions at once: back to the Irish mythological roots and forward to metaphysical worlds of his own devising. These two worlds come together in his poetry and, as they are intertwined, seem not divergent at all. Muldoon’s voice has remained highly individual and his verse is not associated with any particular poetical movement.

Self-Discovery. Early in his career, Muldoon won praise for the wit and promise of his work, but many critics cast him as a lesser Seamus Heaney. Muldoon’s third collection, Why Brownlee Left, marks a more mature stage in his poetic development that set him apart as a poet with a unique voice. For the first time in Muldoon’s work, a single theme, that of self-discovery, connects the poems of the collection, which are more experimental in form and more extravagant in their wit and irony than his earlier work. The final and longest poem of the collection, “Immram,” is Muldoon’s contemporary interpretation of the ninth-century Irish voyage tale ‘‘Immram Mael Duin.’’ In Muldoon’s version the Celtic ‘‘Other- world’’ of the original poem is represented by a surreal modern demimonde of decadence, drugs, and vice, which critics have commented gives the work the seamy atmosphere of a Raymond Chandler detective novel.

Poetry as Narrative. Why Brownlee Left stands as a model for Muldoon’s subsequent major collections of poetry: Quoof, Meeting the British, and Madoc: A Mystery. With each new work, Muldoon’s poetry has become more abstruse. In the title poem of Madoc: A Mystery, for example, the narrative is partitioned into short poems, each captioned with the name of a philosopher, from the ancient Greeks to Stephen Hawking, about whom the lines of the poem are believed by critics to make particular commentary.

The collections following Why Brownlee Left also exhibit a similar format in which a group of shorter poems precedes a long narrative poem. In both his long and short poems, Muldoon’s poetic style remains densely allusive and witty.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Muldoon is noted for the use of puns and other types of witty and obscure wordplay. Here are some other works that use similar techniques:

Five Satyres (c. 1590), poems by John Donnne. Many of Donne's poems make use of puns and satirical verses to achieve notable effects and images.

''Jabberywocky'' (1871), a poem by Lewis Carroll. This poem is almost entirely made up of nonsense words with the intention of demonstrating an extreme type of poetic construction.

Finnegans Wake (1939), a novel by James Joyce. This novel was written with extremely innovative language that combined multilingual puns with a stream-of- consciousness prose style.

 

Works in Critical Context

Beyond the Shadow of Seamus Heaney. Muldoon was once thought to work in the shadow of Seamus Heaney, but his reputation has grown with repeated honors, which include the T. S. Eliot Prize in 1994, the Irish Times Poetry Prize in 1997, and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2003. Although Muldoon has obviously earned high honors with his distinctly individual style, critics and peers still compare him to famous writers. In 2001, Ben Dowling of the Wall Street Journal linked Muldoon to James Joyce and others, suggesting that Muldoon ‘‘shows just how dangerous it is to swallow Joyce whole, how soon one ends up coining words such as ‘oscaraboscarabinary,’ jabbering about ‘tegelmousted Tuaregs’ and generally sounding like an unholy amalgam of Ezra Pound and Dr. Seuss.’’ Yet Robert Macfarlane of the Times Literary Supplement in 2002 uses a Shakespeare reference to caution against classifying Muldoon’s style: ‘‘Those who think of Paul Muldoon as the benign, pudgy Puck of contemporary poetry, imping around with a mischievous grin on his type-face, miss the vital dimension of ethical seriousness in which his work exists.’’

Poetic Originality and Idiosyncrasy. Although Muldoon has been criticized for what many consider the bafflingly allusive nature of his works, he is highly acclaimed for the extraordinary originality and artistic skill he exhibits in his poems. In 2003, Laura Quinney of the London Review of Books wrote: ‘‘Everyone who reads Paul Muldoon will be dazzled by his linguistic exuberance[.] In his best poems, the technical flair and buoyant voice go manic, outlining the shape of other emotions, and hollowing out a place for another consciousness, which does not share in the pride and prerogative of the style. He rides the wave of his swank virtuosity, but chaos and sorrow underlie it.’’ In the same vein, Richard Eder in a 2001 issue of the New York Times Book Review stated: ‘‘Muldoon’s manner is both playful and troubled. Though he subverts connection, meaning and the reverence of art and life, he subverts subversion as well. If reality has become an irrelevant philosophical and artistic concept, we sense beneath the clowning a refusal of its passing.’’

New Weather and Why Brownlee Left. Though some readers found New Weather consistent with, yet not the most impressive of, Muldoon’s work, the collection illuminates the complexities of ordinary things or events. A number of critics have noted that the collection explores psychological development with apparent simplicity and eloquence while offering keen insights into the subjective nature of perception. An anonymous reviewer from The Complete Review also suggests the volume is grounded in ‘‘biographical tidbits, scenes from [Muldoon’s] life and from Ireland, the preoccupation with America, religion.’’ Why Brownlee Left is deemed a more mature effort than Muldoon’s earlier collections. This collection is often considered more approachable; indeed, critic Andrew Motion compares Muldoon to a ‘‘miniaturised Robert Frost,’’ with his earthy settings and dialogue.

 

Responses to Literature

1. Muldoon has often been accused of being intentionally obscure and extremely difficult to understand. With a group of your classmates, discuss ways in which his poems might present undue difficulties for readers. Then, discuss ways in which readers might get something out of his poems even if they cannot fully understand his meanings. Use examples from some of Muldoon’s poetry to support your opinions.

2. Muldoon has been praised for the originality of his poetry. Using resources at your library or on the Internet, research the work of Robert Frost, James Joyce, or Dr. Seuss. Create an oral presentation comparing one or two poems written by Muldoon to one or two poems written by the poet you researched. Note places that represent Muldoon’s originality, as well as places that reflect the influence and style of the other poet.

3. Muldoon’s collection Madoc: A Mystery mixes poetry with the mystery genre to create a unique effect. Write a poem or set of poems that draws on another, different literary genre.

4. Muldoon has written lyrics for rock bands, but his poetry has yet to be set to music. Choose one or more of his poems that would work if set to contemporary rock music and write a paragraph explaining why you think so.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Haffenden, John. Viewpoints: Poets in Conversation. London: Faber & Faber, 1980.

Kendall, Tim. Paul Muldoon. Chester Springs, Pa.: Dufour Editions, 1996.

Kendall, Tim and Peter McDonald, eds. Paul Muldoon: Critical Essays. Liverpool, U.K.: Liverpool University Press, 2004.

Longley, Edna. ‘‘Stars and Horses, Pigs and Trees.’’ The Crane Bag Dublin: Arts Council of Ireland, 1979.