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
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
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.
Now imagine reading 89 more of these po-mo rhymed haiku. Now imagine reading the additional 90 that appear as "Hopewell Haiku" in Hay (1998). The sheer bulk pushes beyond hilarity, beyond tedium, beyond uselessness into blissful idiocy.
There is a place for that in art, but not a very big one. For better and worse, Muldoon's giddiness mirrors the present moment in American poetry: Most poets under the age of 40 tend these days to write flighty, quirky, funny, elliptical poems—call them Experimental Lite. Muldoon is much bigger than that, more serious, more weighty, imbued with a passionate commitment to the language for whose attention he—writing in English as an Irish poet—competes. As a result, he provokes questions that poets merely devoted to the higher giddiness do not. Why does "Sillyhow Stride" (along with "At Least They Weren't Speaking French," "It Is What It Is," and "Turkey Buzzards," addressed to his sister) feel driven by love, eviscerating in its quest for consolation? Why do we stumble on this heartbreaking nugget in the midst of 180 gift-wrapped bonbons:
That stag I sideswiped.
I watched a last tear run down
his tear duct. I wept.
A new collection of essays, The End of the Poem (based on the lectures Muldoon delivered as the Oxford professor of poetry at Oxford University between 1999 and 2004) does not so much answer these questions as make us more determined to live with them. The essays treat single poems by (among others) Marianne Moore, Ted Hughes, Stevie Smith, and Matthew Arnold; the first essay is devoted to W.B. Yeats' "All Souls' Night," one of the great elegies in English-language poetry. Because Yeats sets out two glasses of bubbling wine to attract the ghosts of his dead friends (they drink the "wine-breath" while we drink the "whole wine"), Muldoon suggests that the words most worthy of our attention while considering this poem are cork and lees—the only problem being that these words don't actually occur in "All Souls' Night." Lees does occur in Yeats' wife's name: Georgie Hyde-Lees. And the mayor of Cork had died after a lengthy hunger strike just a few days before Yeats wrote the poem in Oxford, where Muldoon delivered his lectures. Of Yeats' tender conjuring of his dead friends, Muldoon says almost nothing, preferring to read "All Souls' Night" as a bristling assembly of associations. "Names are nothing," says the bereft Yeats, but Muldoon suggests by his procedures that words are everything.
More disconcerting is the pleasure Muldoon takes in anticipating our finger-wagging disapproval of his naughtiness: "I want to make the first of several suggestions which may strike some of you … as being quite outlandish." And again: "I have a final suggestion … which will, I'm certain, strike some as being totally off-the-wall." Certain indeed. The bad-boy routine demands that somebody plays the schoolmaster. Despite the fact that he has now lived in the United States since 1987, Muldoon's relationship to authority has everything to do with his Irishness. In his first collection of essays, To Ireland, I (based on the Clarendon Lectures he delivered at Cambridge University), Muldoon points out that an Irish writer is bound "to have a quite disproportionate sense of his or her own importance," being constitutionally drawn to "the large rhetorical gesture, the great public poem." This is a burden. While American poets are generally troubled by their cultural irrelevance, Irish poets are blinded (or not) by the commonplace assumption of their relevance. Sen. Yeats once offered American poet Ezra Pound this ridiculous piece of advice in a public letter: "Do not be elected to the Senate of your country"—as if such a thing were possible for poets in the United States.
Muldoon's entire career, his manner of being verbal in the world, is predicated on the refusal of automatic relevance. His rhetorical gestures are large, yes, but they are massively self-deprecating, distrustful of every familiar gesture of moral rectitude or emotional sincerity. Few American poets inhabit this dilemma in exactly this way (Muldoon's tellingly sober essay on patrician Robert Lowell describes one who did), but Muldoon cannot exist outside it. An American poet who aspires to Muldoon's level of high-wire linguistic shenanigans is liable to seem charming, but against thecultural odds, Muldoon must labor to be irrelevant. Of all things, that is most difficult.
Muldoon is not unaware of the paradoxical power of dropping the mantle of authority; he knows what he's doing. Over the last 15 years, each of his books has been both more wildly giddy and more heartbreakingly lyrical than the one before it, and Horse Latitudes is his most maddening but also his most completely satisfying volume so far: a book that truly mourns. Nobody wants to play the schoolmaster, because everybody knows that the bad boy seems more alive, more charismatic, and more sensitive than all his classmates combined. This one grew up to be a great poet.