Alan Walsh on Paul Muldoon


Paul Muldoon: Rara Avis.

The old story about a teenage Paul Muldoon sending his novice poems to Seamus Heaney didn’t run the way people like to tell it. The story goes he posted them to his hero, asking what, if anything, could be done to improve them and the older poet replied very simply; nothing. What Heaney had actually said was that he couldn’t tell Muldoon anything he wouldn’t find out for himself. Rara Avis, was what his teacher, Jerry Hicks, called him when first introducing him to Heaney and it was the older poet that caught him his first break, recommending him to Charles Monteith at Faber poetry and helping him right along to publication while still a student.
The poem Cuthbert and the Otters, from Muldoon’s latest collection features the line everyone hooked themselves onto at the 2013 Durham book festival only a few weeks after Heaney’s funeral:
“I cannot thole the thought of Seamus Heaney dead.”
And it’s very hard to think of Muldoon without half a mind to his fellow Ulsterman. While it might seem to many that Muldoon fell under the master’s influence early on, turning his head from the showboating of poets like Eliot, clashing high and low brow in a single line, to writing about his country and the life around him, Muldoon is more inclined to see influence as a shared thing and has suggested he might have had some impact on Heaney’s work too. It’s hardly impossible. The two are so entwined in popular perception many read Muldoon’s poem Madoc: A Mystery, which tells of Southey and Coleridge trying to set up a Pantisocracy in North America, as a metaphor for the two Ulster poets setting course for major positions in American academia. If he did turn his head it wasn’t all the way. Muldoon has always been a verbal trickster, always mixed and matched meter and tone, and copying his poems into Word has always left the white page awash in wiggly red underlines. He writes in Villanelles, the more complex double sestinas, Persian ghazals and Pantoums. He sets up a neat little acrostic in the poem Capercaillies that reads “Is this a New Yorker Poem or what.” (turned out it wasn’t, they refused it) and shifts gear from sardonic to pathos and back within a line.
Stunt Reading could be the key to it all. It’s a way of reading a poem Muldoon introduced to students during his Oxford lectures. An awareness of what he called cryptocurrents, secret meanings, in-jokes and, like jazz, the notes you don’t hear. Yeats, Tsvetaeva, Hughes, Frost and many others effectively have their poetry rewritten through gamifying the close-reading process into a free-association sport. Like the best of Muldoon’s work, it’s unserious and scholarly, fun but maddeningly intricate and at the same time revealing moments only the highest poetry can aspire to.

By Alan Walsh