First Packet Nerves

So here’s the two page essay I wrote on Paul Muldoon for my first packet. Two pages isn’t enough really, to say everything I wanted to about this book – I wanted to talk more about his cryptic style and actual content, but I didn’t want to go over the limit. Liam was fairly clear that he disliked being inundated with overlong essays from anxious students!

Moy Sand and Gravel, in Riddle and Rhyme

Paul Muldoon may well have been a leprechaun in a previous life: he is as tricky as Rumpelstiltskin. However, permitting poets the role of riddlers, and admiring the elaborate structures of formal verse, I set out gladly with my pen and trusty Internet Search Engine in an attempt to discern the patterns behind Paul’s latest Pulitzer prize-winning collection, Moy Sand and Gravel, applying what lessons I could to my own work.

Paul loves rhyme the way that Byron’s Don Juan loved women – with an inability to be faithful to any one kind for long. Most of the poems in this collection contain liberal use of end rhyme, whether perfect, slant or, a particular favorite of his, identity rhyme. (In “One Last Draw of the Pipe” ten of the fourteen lines end in the same syllable, draw.) Likewise the rhyme schemes vary from simple abab patterns to the amazingly complex. I am keen to try the pattern he uses in “Whitethorns,” for example, where every line of the first stanza rhymes with the corresponding line in the second. Not only does this offer a subtle effect totally immune to singsong-ness, but the second stanza resonates in gentle echo of the first.  He also puts terza rima to good use in “The Unapproved Road.” I plan to experiment more now with interlocking rhyme schemes. “The Grand Conversation” (abccabdd) and “John Luke: the Fox” (aba cbc dbd ebe) both have charm without the underlying implication “And look how clever I am!” unfortunately present in poems such as “The Braggart” (aaa bbb.) Such heavy handed use of rhyme also leaves him open to accusations of forced rhymes in instances where he uses obscure words to complete his scheme. Why, in “News Headlines from the Homer Noble Farm” does he compare turtles to delf (an excavation, usually a quarry or mine) if not mainly for the rhyme with shelf?

Paul is considerably lighter handed with his meter. Many poems indeed, such as “The Whinny”, have none discernible, despite an end rhyme scheme. It’s a technique that appeals to me – I sense it is rather better to write a sonnet which has no pretensions towards iambic pentameter than to write one which has a laboriously counted ten syllables per line and yet doesn’t quite achieve the rhythm. There are fourteen such sonnetypes (by which I mean any fourteen line poem with an end rhyme scheme) in this book. It’s also clear Paul knew the rules before he started breaking them, as illustrated by more formally metrical poems such as “Two Stabs at Oscar,” a parody of Oscar Wilde’s “Ballad of Reading Gaol.”

Many poems required my considerable scrutiny before they gave up their meaning. Often it was with a treasure-hunter’s joy that I reached the final X-marked spot, as in “Summer Coal” where the key to the map was the understanding that the two first person stanzas are in opposing points of view, or in “When Aifric and I Put in at That Little Creek,” where a Google search of Masatiompan revealed it as the mountain from under which St. Brendan set sail for America. Yet, in “As” the swamp of pop culture, brand names and history became too murky. Here I became convinced that no amount of research would upset my conclusion that the author was making connections entirely on his own ear and what Frank O’ Hara called “nerve.” Similarly the final long poem in the book “At the Sign of the Black Horse, September 1999” seems no more than a deliberately obscure convolution of his son’s Celtic-Judaic heritage.

However, I will forgive Paul Muldoon his occasional lapse into over-indulgence, even if he does occasionally seem to need a gentle reminder of what happened to Rumpelstiltskin at the end of the fairytale. There’s so much here to admire – translations of Valéry, Horace and the ancient Briton Caedmon, ekphrastic poems, poignant laments over the troubles of Ireland, ambitious and artful sestinas. He really does appear to have mastered the art of spinning straw into gold. Moy Sand and Gravel, as a whole, is a gem.

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