Loads of Learned Lumber

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Paul Muldoon, _Maggot_

FOR YEARS I have been ready, should anyone ask me which Muldoon volume to try -- no one ever has -- to recommend Quoof. "The More a Man Has, the More a Man Wants" seems, if not the best, perhaps the quintessential Muldoon long poem, and the rest of the book has all the perversely ingenious rhyming, the yoking of unlikely concepts, and the deadpan, too-cool humor that make Muldoon unmistakeable.

Now, I think I would recommend Maggot. It has all of the above, but Muldoon sets himself even more daunting formal challenges, keeps even more plates spinning... all without seeming to make any visible effort, nattering away as if free-associating while the plates spin in perfect equilibrium without his seeming even to approach them. There's no single poem here that, for me, dislodges "7 Middagh Street" or "Incantata" from the top of the pile, but it's a really strong volume.

Muldoon is too much a trickster to be a confessional poet, but there is pain here, too, and a wisdom about it that Muldoon has not reached before. He has written about pain and loss before -- but a problem master formalists share (Alexander Pope, James Merrill, say) is that we automatically assume surfaces so perfect must conceal shallows. The young Muldoon was one of those poets about whom people (not me) would say, "Undeniably clever, but...." Maggot is always clever, but there's a bruised remorsefulness, an agenbite of inwit, even when Muldoon is rhyming "bento box" with "hollyhocks" and writing a poem about his testicles.

In his NYRB review of the book, Nick Laird suggests Maggot reflects the emotional strain of an episode (or more than one) of marital infidelity, with the betrayed dolphin of "A Christmas in the Fifties" and a few other poems figuring the betrayed wife, perhaps. Could be, for all I know. But the serial infidelities described in the poem "Maggot" seem more the fulfilment of a formal scheme than an autobiographical confession. Still, would Laird make the suggestion if he didn't know something? In the NYRB, no less. Oy.

The blurbs on the book emphasize Muldoon as influence: "the poet's poet of his generation," "Muldoon has enfranchised a whole generation," "one of the five or so best poets alive; to most of Britain and Ireland, he seems the single most influential" (that last by the rarely-off-the-mark Stephen Burt). High though his standing is, he doesn't seem nearly the influence on American poetry that Ashbery is, or Frank O'Hara, or even Jack Spicer. Who knows, though, I may be missing something. I would sure like to think Muldoon is a major influence on contemporary poetry.

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