Friday 20 September 2019

Frolic and Detour: Profound and playful new poetry from Paul Muldoon

Poetry: Frolic and Detour

Paul Muldoon

Faber and Faber, €16.50

Paul Muldoon photographed by Steve Humphries
Paul Muldoon photographed by Steve Humphries
Frolic and detour

Dr PAUL Perry

Frolic and Detour is an apt title for Paul Muldoon's 13th collection of poetry. It sums up what his poetry is about after all - a titular ars poetica, if you like. Think spontaneously playful; 'ludic' is the word critics like to use about his work.

The 'detour' of the title is something of a Muldoon speciality. The apparent and casual digression - sparked very often by the sleight of poetic hand which in Muldoon's case means an encyclopaedic and labyrinthine knowledge of the etymological meanings of words and then some - create wonderful deviations from dominant narratives or, to put it more simply, what you might have expected. A Muldoon poem is constantly side-stepping the reader. If, for Heaney, the word represented a sign-post to the past, Muldoon follows the words down an Alice in Wonderland-like rabbit hole.

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The erudition of the collection is profound, and will send many readers to Wikipedia sourcing the arcane, and sometimes far-fetched, but ingenious connections Muldoon makes. Often those connections can be moving. Take, for example, the sonnet At Tuam, where 'James Muldoon' 'at the age of four months' died in 1927. A national tragedy is made personal by the family-name, and memorialised in formal reverence.

There is a poem to Bruce Springsteen at 70, and an elegy to the late great American poet CK Williams, 'Charlie' to his friends, and another one to Leonard Cohen. World War I, and the Easter Rising become subject matter in Muldoon's rhizomatic imagination whose range has about it the hyper-textual swagger of the digital age. Puns are never far away. Try this one for size in It Wasn't Meant to Be Like This, 'spinning plate-let-tops, this trompothrombopoesis'.

Donald Trump gets an iambic thump - 'The leopard can't change horses in midstream' - in 'Position Paper' which befuddles all sorts of truisms into witty conceits. And Elgar's 'blood-burnished cello' we are told must have 'fallen face-down in barbed wire'.

Each poem is wrought with elegant rhyme, and very often half-rhyme. (Does anyone do it better than Muldoon?) Still, he is not afraid to bring the cymbals of full-rhyme to bear, 'The crowd that wants to break / W.C. Fields on a wheel may settle for burning him at the stake.'

Muldoon has been quoted as saying that if the poem has 'no obvious destination' we're in for a ride. And Frolic and Detour is some ride. Muldoon is a 'tell all the truth but tell it slant' kind of poet - as Emily Dickinson would have it. With many imitators, he remains sui generis. If Seamus Heaney's poems catch the heart off-guard and blow it open, Muldoon does something similar, but for the brain, and intellect.

As he writes in the opening poem, The Great Horse of the World, Muldoon is keeping a hand on that horse, 'so it knows I'm still here'. If you are interested in and read poetry, there's no doubting that you know Muldoon is here, and will be, for a long time to come.

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