Assessing Paul Muldoon.

Reading between the lines.
Nov. 28 2006 7:25 AM

Paul Muldoon

The poet of giddiness.

Horse Latitudes by Paul Muldoon

Whatever else he is (rhymester, punster, taster, prankster), Paul Muldoon is an elegist: His most ambitious poems, such as "Incantata" from The Annals of Chile (1994), are commemorations of the dead, poems in which his unstoppably virtuosic language feels driven by an equally unstaunchable wound. Now, at age 55, Muldoon has reached that point in late middle age—the horse latitudes, the eerily calm sea—when such wounds are dealt out daily. What's more, having been born and raised in Northern Ireland, Muldoon has settled into the comfy life of the Princeton professor: The language of his poems is pulled simultaneously toward violence and domesticity, giddiness and sincerity.

The endlessly equivocal coexistence of these qualities is the driving force of Horse Latitudes. Listen to the blockbuster shenanigans of "Sillyhow Stride," an elegy for rock star Warren Zevon, who was a close friend, and for his younger sister, Maureen Muldoon, who died of the same cancer that felled his mother:

every frame a freeze-frame
of two alcoholics barreling down to Ensenada
in a little black Corvette, vroom vroom,

for Diet, yeah right, Diet Mountain Dew,
that individual carrying his cross knowing the flesh
123456is a callus
on the spirit as surely as you knew the
123456mesotheliomata

on both lungs meant the situation was lose-lose,
every full-length cross carrier almost certainly up to
123456some sort of high jinks,
else a great Prince in prison lies,

lies belly-up on a Space Lab scaffold where the
123456turkey buzzards pink
Matsuhisa-san's seared toro,
turkey buzzards waiting for you to eclipse and cloud
123456them with a wink

as they hold out their wings and of the sun his
123456working vigor borrow
before they parascend through the Viper Room or
123456Whisky A Go Go,
each within its own "cleansing breeze," its own
123456Cathartes aura.

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Every element of Muldoon's style is vividly present here. The high-wire excess of the syntax. The breakneck, devil-may-care speed. A complicated rhyme scheme (in this case, an almost-version of Dante's interlocking terza rima) that reins in the syntax. Sound effects that seem always about to explode into nonsense. A grab bag of allusions ranging from John Donne ("else a great Prince in prison lies") to the Hollywood pop scene ("the Viper Room"). A whacked-out mixture of dictions, from the medical "mesotheliomata" to the childish "vroom, vroom" to the arcane "Cathartes aura," the binomial name of the carrion-feeding turkey buzzard. Finally, the most important element, a lyrical stone in the midst of the cacophonous stream, a piercing recognition of the frailty of the human body: "the flesh is a callus/ on the spirit."

What is the relationship of such C-major sincerity to such cacophony? Does the cacophony create a foil for the sincerity, allowing it to emerge? Or is the cacophony defensive, a shield against sentimentality? Could it therefore be jettisoned? Confronted with the work of a less intricately subtle poet, one could answer these questions confidently. But Muldoon's poetic practice leaves us hanging between alternatives, constantly readjusting their relationship. Even if we feel that the giddiness is over-the-top in one poem, we also feel certain that no single poem exemplifies the full effect of his work.

At issue here is not the difficulty of Muldoon's poems. Modernist writers T.S. Eliot and James Joyce are more difficult, but their obscure references and jazzed-up surfaces never seem merely playful. Neither does Muldoon's playfulness feel like Samuel Beckett's or John Ashbery's: However strange, their writing serves the most familiar human feelings of bewilderment and alienation, and there is none of Ashbery's decorous shyness in Muldoon's verbal assaults. Compared to these writers, Muldoon can seem like the bad boy in the back of the classroom. He stands apart for his indulgence in giddiness for giddiness's sake—an indulgence that in Horse Latitudes can seem, more than ever before, weirdly inseparable from his true seriousness.

But not all the time: Excess—a willingness to take it all too far—is itself central to Muldoon's success. In contrast to "Sillyhow Stride," consider one of the "90 Instant Messages to Tom Moore."

The seamstress thimble
seems to have taken a shine
to Seigneur Cymbal.

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