Poetry Focus: Paul Muldoon


Eyewear is delighted to feature Paul Muldoon.  Muldoon (pictured here as a young man) is, in my opinion, the most significant poet from Ireland and Britain born since 1950.  This is his 60th year.  His style - witty, linguistically complex, musical, allusive, and filled with puns - is the most rhythmically original since Lowell's and Auden's.  He is the funniest Irish writer of genius since Flann O'Brien; and the most alert to language's depths since Heaney and Joyce.

He has developed a way of patterning words and images by alluding to myth, legend, and also personal experience, employing a syntax that is playful and sometimes mesmeric.  He might be the most verbally seductive of poets since Swinburne.  His influence is apparent on a whole generation of poets, and the work of, say, Don Paterson, is unimaginable without the Muldoon template behind it.  Since I started reading his work in 1985 or so, when I was 19, he has been a key influence on my thinking about poetry.  I met him a few times around then, first at Cambridge, and then in Vermont, where he was doing a reading.

One of my early highlights was having Chinese food with him after the Burlington reading, along with Martin Mooney, co-editor of our anthology of Northern Irish Poetry, from 1987; I saw him next in New York in 2002, and again when his Horse Latitudes was up for the TS Eliot Prize in London.  In the 21st century, Paul Muldoon has become one of the major literary figures in America - as professor based at Princeton, and poetry editor of the New Yorker.  Before then, he had won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and been the Oxford Professor of Poetry.

His book of criticism, The End of the Poem, is deliriously brilliant, and useful for practicing poets in a way that not all such criticism is.  Sometimes criticised for being smarter than he is heartfelt, I feel his work develops the requirement for difficulty that Eliot noted long ago.  The English language's post-modern master of poetry, Muldoon furthers the traditional lyric, mid-Atlantic.  It's therefore an absolute delight to feature a poem from his latest collection, Maggot.

The Fish Ladder

Forty years since I proved a micher
and ate blackberries
along the plank road by a dilapidated weir
that had somehow failed to pave
the way from being a local eyesore

to something on which we might rest assured,
a corduroy causey thrown down by Caesar
across the Fens
being cut and dried by comparison.
Though a flax dam

in which our enthusiasm may be damped
as we grope
towards clarity with the high-strung
sea trout and salmon
is not to be confused with the bog hole

in which my father proved a last ditcher
during World War II, a flax dam may be the very
pool in which we find ourselves in the clear.
Less and less, though, will bog water stave
off the great gobs of gore

that come and go like Jonah's gallows gourd
from the wound where a doctor still views his tweezer
through the lens
of day-today life in a Roman garrison.
Even Jonah has run himself ragged as he swam

against the workload with which he'd been swamped
those last few months in the hope,
I expect, of skipping a rung.
Sometimes the more we examine
things, the less we understand our dual role

as proven escape artist and proven identity switcher.
Just look at how two ferries
have gone down within plain sight of the pier
but only one tatterdemalion wave
has managed to stumble ashore.

poem by Paul Muldoon; reprinted from Maggot (FSG: New York, 2010), with permission from the author