This weekend I've read Paul Muldoon's newly published collection of poems, "One Thousand Things Worth Knowing." (The dust jacket sports a very pleasing design by the ubiquitous Quemadura, a brilliant designer and a kind man I will never forget for how he helped me during a brief turn I took as a publisher.)
I say I've read the book, present perfect, but I'm still reading it by way of re-reading it. Muldoon is new to me, and I don't yet find familiar his poetics or his themes.
His strangeness, to me, derives from his different commitments, you might say.
For instance, he utilizes the sonnet and other traditional stanzas with end rhymes (or slant rhymes; that itself is not unfamiliar); but his lines most often aren't in a regular meter, or at least not in a consistent pattern of feet.
Sometimes the effect (of what I might call free verse wrapped around visually recognizable stanzas and traditional rhyme schemes) is like that of a planet nearing the sun, utilizing the acceleration of gravity to whip itself around the star and propel itself away.
The density and earthiness of Muldoon's diction seems very much of a well-established, modern, Irish tradition, recognizable as the idiom of Seamus Heaney, not least of all when the poems allude to The Troubles and growing up in Ireland.
But Muldoon is an American as well. A verse in this book is just as apt to traverse the Civil War or the Southwest as Ireland or England or Viking invasions.
The best example I am able to give you – I'm not suggesting this is one of the finer poems in the book, just that it illustrates what I am currently able to describe - is a poem in the middle of the book called, "Some Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them," about the party of Lewis and Clark and their reliance on mercury-laden laxatives. Here is an excerpt, most of the final three stanzas:
"... Who would have guessed
that J.M.W. Turner was perfecting in his ability to scumble
cumulonimbus and stratocumulus
precisely as Lewis and Clark reached the Pacific coast
"And build Fort Clatsop? The Cheyenne chewed the gum
of both ponderosa
and lodgepole pines. Bear in mind how our fireside banter
may be lost to the generations to come
"but their native scouts
will still be able to follow our route across America
by the traces of mercury
in our scats."
You see what I mean. Stanzas of four lines in an ABBA in a rhyme or slant rhyme pattern; references to the exploration of the Pacific Northwest and to the most famous British landscape painter of the time.
Photo from a tweet by The Irish Times.