Poet Crossing: Regarding ‘Word on the Street,’ Rock Lyrics by Paul Muldoon

Portrait Of Paul MuldoonPaul Muldoon’s new collection of poems feels nearly inevitable: it is actually a book of rock lyrics, complete with an accompanying CD of a band called Wayside Shrines playing some selections. Mr. Muldoon famously collaborated with Warren Zevon, and much of the poet’s work has played with lyric in some way. The title poem of his last collection, 2010’s Maggot, is a cycle of nine modified Petrarchan sonnets, each woven together by a common refrain at the volta, which toys as much with pop-music sentiment as the rest of the poem does with lyric in the more classical sense of the word: “Where I’m waiting for some lover / to kick me out of bed / for having acted on a whim.” He’s also written a poem, loosely structured as a blues song with one short line repeating twice, about Bob Dylan receiving an honorary degree from Princeton, where Mr. Muldoon, who was born in Northern Ireland, now lives and teaches. The long poem “Sillyhow Stride” is a free-verse elegy for the late Mr. Zevon set at the 2004 Grammy Awards.

In this new collection, the title work finds Mr. Muldoon rewriting “Heard It Through the Grapevine”: “It’s all still sweet / It’s all hunky-dory / But the word on the street / That’s another story.” “The word on the street,” he continues, “Is you’re splitting.” He restrains himself here, structurally at least, punching up his humor and making his lines catchy. “Jersey Fresh” is a giddy recollection of buying fruit at “a roadside stand / Off I-78.” “It’s never too late for rock ’n’ roll,” he offers in one poem.

Of course, this is still Paul Muldoon. While these lyrics follow a more rigid, verse/chorus/verse structure than many of his poems, there are lines that are heavy with allusions and obsessed with their own creation, as is characteristic of the poet. “Dream Team,” for instance, is the only ostensible rock lyric I know of to make use of “petard,” a 16th-century French term derived from the Latin peditum, which is a kind of mild explosive used to open castle gates. The poem references a number of famous duos—Lennon and McCartney, Tonto and the Lone Ranger, strawberries and cream—in order to contextualize a lost friendship:

We used to be buddies

In our college days

The spine and the shudder

The Mets and Willie Mays

The petard on which we’re hoist …

word on the streetThat last line became a proverb after its use, in different form, in Hamlet, when our titular hero replaces his name on a death warrant with the names of his double-crossing school pals Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. It’s basically a complicated way of saying their plan has backfired, though petard’s other meaning—“to break wind”—brings to mind all the hot air Rosencrantz and Guildenstern spout in Shakespeare’s play. Its inclusion here, despite the breezy (get it?) rhythm and nostalgic refrain (“We were a dream / We were a dream …”), suggests a darker side to the dying friendship than the poet reveals on the surface.

Shakespeare notwithstanding, the work in this book mostly resembles the wordy lyrics of another New Jersey poet, Bruce Springsteen. “Jezebel Was a Jersey Belle” is something like “Kitty’s Back”—Mr. Springsteen’s anthem of a Jersey chick who falls for a “city dude”—mixed with the Beach Boys’ “California Girls.” Mr. Muldoon lists female companions from across the country—Delilah from Delaware, Ilana from Illinois (“she wasn’t at all double-dealing / though she dealt heroin”)—before going into the refrain: “Even the dogs in the street could tell / Jezebel was a Jersey belle.”

“Comeback,” one of the strongest poems in the book, begs to be compared to the hustlers, losers and two-timers of Mr. Springsteen’s songs. The first lines are, “We were introduced by Bruce / At the Stone Pony,” the venerable Asbury Park music venue, and it continues with a blistering critique of the music industry:

All that concentrated juice

Standing room only

You were with some suit

From EMI or Sony

Who was so full of toot

He called for “Mony Mony”

It brings to mind the bridge of Mr. Springsteen’s first single, “Blinded by the Light,” which failed to launch the Boss’s career in 1973, but hit No. 1 on the Billboard pop charts when it was covered a few years later—despicably—by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band: “Some silicone sister with her manager’s mister told me I got what it takes / She said, ‘I’ll turn you on, sonny, to something strong if you play that song with the funky break.’”

What both Mr. Springsteen and Mr. Muldoon seem to realize is that a rock lyric does not have to force its poetic prowess. The “go-cart Mozarts” and “racket boys” on the boardwalk of Mr. Springsteen’s lyrics occupy the same place as the fact-checker who can’t properly trace the root of pilus in Mr. Muldoon’s “News Headlines from the Homer Noble Farm,” or the barley farmer who abandons his land without a word in “Why Brownlee Left.” They are symptoms of a larger sadness brewing in the space between the philosophical and the mundane. They want to escape—their town, their class, their lover—but sense the futility of retreat. The nameless band at the center of “Comeback” had “no sooner said farewell / Than it was time to reunite.” They end up back in Jersey, playing the Meadowlands, “just another band / With only two surviving members.”