Between Robert Frost and Bon Jovi: The Many Contradictions of Paul Muldoon

MR. MULDOON BEGAN his career with these lines: “The early electric people had domesticated the wild ass/ They knew all about falling off.” 

At once archaic and forward-looking, optimistic and hopeless, the words already predict and characterize Mr. Muldoon’s style: He electrifies language. He uses each word not only aware of its entire history, but also activating it. With Maggot, one of his most consistent, enthralling collections, he creates a quietly connected series in which every syllable is packed with meaning. In it, he rhymes “dork” with “Scythian torc”; composes a lengthy ethereal sequence about traveling in Japan and struggling to write the poem that the reader is reading; and, in “Balls,” creates poetry’s greatest sex joke since Donne’s “Loves Progress.” The very title, Maggot, suggests myriad understandings: As a noun, the word signifies those off-putting creatures that arise hopefully out of a corpse, the single sign of life among death–but also in the word’s verb form, “to fret,” a word that can also mean “to gnaw,” in the manner of a maggot. 

The entire book is a kind of maggoting, in every sense imaginable, predominantly derived from the paradoxes of life continuing on both in spite–and because–of death. Consider, as Mr. Muldoon would want his readers to, the etymology of the word “metaphor”–itself the operative function of any poet’s work, but also the dominant linguistic technique of the recurring signifier “maggot,” a sustained metaphor throughout the collection. “Metaphor” comes from the Greek metaphero, meaning “to carry over,” suggesting, at once, the literal connotations of the noun maggot (organic life “carrying over” as a result of death), but also the symbolic nature of such reciprocity as a poetical trope.

Such a delightfully antithetical (and antithetically delightful) notion repeats itself in the strange contradictions of Maggot’s best images: “maggots, for their part,/ are content to be in a crowd scene from which they’ll nonetheless depart/ about as gracefully as Swift would retire/ from a debate on the slave trade,” or a girl with a tattoo that reads, “I REGRET THIS.” For all his claims of ignorance, Mr. Muldoon has crafted a highly nuanced, interconnected text, one that demands to be appreciated at all levels of interpretation.

 

THE DAY I left Vermont, Mr. Muldoon was on his way to a Jon Bon Jovi concert in Saratoga Springs. We were driving in his Prius.

“Are you a Bon Jovi fan?” he asked.

“No.”

“Me neither. But I feel like I should go to this. It’s a sociological experiment.”

He drummed on the steering wheel of his car, singing Bon Jovi lyrics, hiding his Irish accent beneath an approximation of Mr. Bon Jovi’s Jersey croon.

“You give love a bad na-ame!”

There is a potential poem here.

He said he “takes a stab or two at playing guitar.”

It was strange to hear him say this. He talks of his poetry with a similar air of informality: a hobby he takes a “stab” at. I recalled a conversation we had in his office the previous month. We sat surrounded by the collections of influential poets, his own books buried away on the shelves.

“I don’t think of myself as a professional poet at all.” His voice was serious, but his face was still half-smiling.

“Do you think there are any professional poets?” I asked.

“Um.” He paused for a long time.

“Because that begs the question: If you are not a professional poet–”

“Who would be, is that it? There’s something about being a poet that’s different from being a physician. If I were a physician and I were to say to you, ‘Yeah, I sort of try to be a physician,’ you would think, ‘Well I better find somebody else to do this.’ If one could pass oneself off as not just a poet, but a good poet, maybe it would be easier to say, ‘I’m a poet.’ But because I wouldn’t want to be a poet at all unless I were a good one, and I think this is true of many people, one would tend not to say it. Maybe it’s just time to embrace it and say this is what I do. For better or worse. This is what I do.”

mmiller@observer.com