Ruben Moi
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‘Quaat?’ asks Derek Mahon of Muldoon’s poetry and language in 1983.1 ‘Muldoon makes us think about language in all its senses,’ Edna Longley states in 2003.2 ‘The weirdness of his linguistic adventure cannot be overstated,’ corroborates John McAuliffe in 2015.3 Both Longley and McAuliffe – probably Mahon too despite his critical query – have always understood and engaged with the preternatural language of Paul Muldoon’s poetry. They articulate precisely the critical position that now, after Muldoon’s twelve volumes and forty-five years of publication, tends to establish itself in the reception of his poetry. Jefferson Holdridge, also always very sensitive to Muldoon’s language, states: ‘There is no denying Muldoon’s admirable ability to look into the abyss (within as well as outside him) and to survive the experience.’4 He explains cogently many of the human concerns that Muldoon’s poetry confronts, and the importance of his poetry. Despite their astuteness and comprehension, none of these scholars, nor any others, attend at substantial length to Muldoon’s language. Longley’s reviews and articles and Jonathan Allison and Peter Denman’s essays suggested a critical dimension that has remained unexplored up to this point. After Kendall, Wills and Holdridge’s books and the essays collections by Kennedy-Andrews and Kendall and McDonald, specific and new studies of Muldoon’s poetry will enhance the critical debate and the hermeneutic dimension of his poetry. Anne Karhio’s ‘Slight Return’: Paul Muldoon’s Poetics of Space offers one such critical insight. This book, The Language of Paul Muldoon’s Poetry, provides another approach to Muldoon’ writing.5

Muldoon’s ‘linguistic adventure’ and ‘admirable ability to look into the abyss’ characterise both his language-adventurous verses – for example ‘The Point,’ ‘Rune,’ ‘The Plot,’ ‘Crossing the Line,’ ‘Errata,’ ‘Madoc,’ ‘Famous First Words,’ ‘The Grand Conversation,’ ‘A Brief Discourse on Decommissioning,’ ‘Milkweed and Monarch,’ ‘From the Sign of the Black Horse, September 1999,’ ‘Hard Drive,’ ‘Dirty Data,’ ‘@,’ ‘The Humors of Hakone,’ Cuthbert and the Otters,’ ‘Maggot’ and ‘Wayside Shrines’ – and his narrathanotographic verses, e.g. ‘Hedgehog,’ ‘The Year of the Sloes, for Ishi,’ ‘The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants,’ ‘Madoc,’ ‘The Bangle (Slight Return),’ ‘Incantata,’ ‘Yarrow,’ ‘Milkweed and Monarch,’ ‘Now, Now,’ ‘Aftermath,’ ‘Turkey Buzzards,’ ‘Sillyhow Stride: In Memory of Warren Zevon,’ ‘Maggot,’ ‘Wayside Shrines’ and ‘Cuthbert and the Otters.’ Frequently, perhaps always, the Derridean experimental raids on the linguistic and the astonishing Adornian insights into the horrible coalesce. Muldoon’s alphaphiliac, linguipotent and audiofetishistic language – his avidity for finding the precise letter, sign or word, whether they already exist or not; for the mining of the single letter and language phenomenon; for finding the next chime; for the dissemination of sound and sense across volumes; for the explorations of turning the line and continuing with a difference old, obscure, new and novel forms of poetry; for the perpetual imagination of new metaphors, analogues and tangents, of which many are frequently taken from the semiotic seas of language itself; for the hermeneutic expansion of the sentence way beyond syntax; for meta-linguistic perspicuity and speculation; for parapostmodernist poetics; and for incessant immersion into language – offers unique insights into the abyss and the survivability of our radically darkened and frequently alienated human condition. His narrathanotographies question, howl and laugh at illimitable death, disease and sorrow. His vitalogues, for example ‘The Sonogram,’ The Footling,’ and ‘The Birth’, celebrate, enjoy and wonder over birth, life, felicity. Many less categorisable verses engage with situations when these extremes of death and life are confused, muddled and confounded. Muldoon’s many subjective correlatives, for example mules, Paris, Armageddon, Immram, Madoc and Maggot, intensify appropriate compassion and confusion. His alterratives, such as ‘The Electric Orchard,’ ‘Whim,’ ‘October 1950,’ ‘Ireland,’ ‘Immram,’ ‘The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants,’ ‘Gathering Mushrooms,’ ‘Trance,’ ‘Madoc,’ ‘The Plot,’ ‘Errata,’ ‘Plan B,’ ‘The Humors of Hakone,’ ‘Yup,’ and ‘Dirty Data’ engage with the aesthetic, cognitive and philosophical concerns of life. His italicette – ‘Just throw him a cake of Sunlight Soap, let him wash himself ashore’ – and sonnetics conduct a prolonged immersion with the sonnet for multiple reasons. Muldoon’ poetry, in such poems as ‘Quoof,’ ‘Madoc,’ ‘Incantata,’ ‘Crossing the Line,’ ‘The Plot,’ ‘Errata,’ ‘At the Sign of the Black Horse, September 1999,’ ‘@,’ ‘The Humors of Hakone,’ ‘Dirty Data’ and ‘Cuthbert and the Otters’ evince an unswerving allegiance to alphabetic curiosity, lexical scrutiny, syntactic amplitude, grammatical intricacies, linguistic phenomena, semiotic weirdness, meta-theoretical language discourses and to translations at large, to all of the specific lingual features that mark so characteristically almost each and all of his poems. One very significant reason for Muldoon’s many remarkable verses, voices and visions is the language of his poetry.

A type of poetry that enacts conspicuously its own language attains a distinctly discernible alienated aspect, a sense of enfolding doubleness, as much as interpretational incertitude and hermeneutic plurivocity. Muldoon’s language, thus, opens up for multiplication of meanings. The purposes, points and pitfalls of the manner in which the poem has been composed demands as much hermeneutic scrutiny as the ideas, acts and events with which the poem interacts, and, thus, charges these ideas, acts and events with the originary and the hardly traceable, with the different and the deferred. This language always disrupts, dissuades and disseminates any easy route to interpretation, to conventional classification, to stable paradigms of philosophy and literature theory, or to historical conceptualisations and social formations. It is a language that de-familiarises the human condition in order to understand it better. It is a language that continually questions its own right and possibility to articulate the dialectics of rationality and the utter darkness human beings face and frequently cause. It is a type of poetry that is recurrently monstrous and restive to its own creative and critical community, generally unseen and unacknowledged in historical discourses and socio-political debate, but a type of poetry that shows signs of liberation in future from institutions of domination, dicta and dogma. Just as the protean diversity of Joyce’s Ulysses presented an imaginative vision of mutability and plurality in reciprocity with Yeats’s oeuvre at the very emergence of the Irish Free State in 1922, Muldoon’s poems suggest moments of possible futures in correspondence with Heaney’s poetry during the Troubles and beyond. Furthermore, Muldoon’s poetry offers a nisus of emancipatory pluralities that disseminate the tensions of noetic cogency and caducous persiflage, and that suggest a semiosis to liberate terminological, theological and teleological language and cognition from their perpetuation of permanence and predeterminism. Muldoon’s alphabetic aesthetics and language-focussed poetry often acquire their significance from the many deregulated discourses with which they critically interact.

Muldoon’s ceaseless propensities for the pitfalls and possibilities of language originate from several impulses. Muldoon wrote his first poems in Irish, probably due to inspiration by his teachers. His predilection for writing poems instead of essays in school due to laziness, suggests individual talent and didactic wisdom. Irish and English present the impetus, literature, culture and language of the dual tradition into and beyond which Muldoon writes himself. Another trace could be his exposure to and his radical irreverence for the Latin and liturgy he met in church. How Muldoon’s poetry relates to the pantheon of poets far beyond those that are already established, for example his interactions with James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, Seamus Heaney, Robert Frost, Michael Longley, Ciaran Carson and the Belfast Group, indicates another impulse. Translations, between languages, forms, genres and cultures, tend to perpetuate his linguistic fervour. Nuances between English and American suggest one strand in these translations. The terror and violence he met in Northern Ireland and observes in the world – why and how do you write poetry amidst such horror? – and their many languages that weigh upon and interfere with poetry, propose another source for his language. The perennial question of giving word, form and sense to death, disease, mourning and grief might appear as a creative challenge more immediate to most people. How the emotions of life, birth, joy and felicity, not to mention fear, anxiety and confusion, can be articulated again for new generations under altering social conditions and technological development, appears as more incumbent question by each new day. Muldoon’s transmutable language stems from multiple places, discourses and contexts.

Muldoon’s narrathanotographies, alterratives, italicettes and subjective correlatives, as much as his alphaphilia, audiofetishism, adlinguisticism and p@stmodernism, show forth a language diversity that ceaselessly questions language as much as death and life, and the ineffable space between them. Such language intimates the spiritual, the unknowable and the metaphysical, and to explore the metaphysical as an empty signifier or to imagine the non-metaphysical and the non-being for one’s own language and one’s own existence, as Muldoon’s poetry frequently does, suggests small moments and instances of future liberation from the many religious, ideological and historical impositions upon life and language. Such submersion in language is, as the language of Paul Muldoon’s poetry makes evident, perpetually energising, and presents some beastly poems to change, possibly the past that bears upon us, but certainly also the future ahead of us.

The title poem of Quoof (1983) is a sonnet that still sounds as fresh and oddly typical as ever. Its unlikely choice of subject, a family word for a hot water bottle (a “quoof”), satirises the dreamy, Esperanto idealism that we may all, one day, be able to truly understand one another.6

More than three decades after its publication, McAuliffe testifies to the unappeasability and potential longevity of ‘Quoof,’ Muldoon’s monstrous little poem that, like his early poem ‘The Hedgehog’ in New Weather, risked its own extinction by folding in on its own language and form under the barrage of impositions, and that was met with congeries of critical questioning and confessions of incomprehension. ‘Quoof’ still puzzles and prods language, interpretation and imagination. The uncanny unheimlichheit of Muldoon’s linguistic beast slouches with all the significance of language, from childhood, adolescent sex, alienation and speculation on the human condition, to, as McAuliffe’s comments hint of, its apprehension of translucent communication, linguistic idealism and universal ecumenism. Language splits, misconstrues, distances and alienates as much as it unites, constructs, centres and disarms. Muldoon’s enactments of the lesser known depths of language result in poems that explore in other, in reiterative and in new ways human experiences and human conditions, the phenomena we know, or think we know, and the vast contact zones with the unknown and the unknowable. Such poems may also suggest, like ‘Quoof’, that other forms of human contact and communication beyond ordinary alphabetic government provide alternative ways of preserving the human, and of connecting people and conjoining communities. A language like Muldoon’s certainly indicates that the fractured, the split, the heterogeneous, the plural and the different are integral to all ideas and concepts that can still largely only be conveyed by congealed vocabulary: unity, history, wholesomeness, harmony, centre, democracy. ‘Quoof,’ like ‘Madoc,’ offers a shibboleth to separate critics in manner and methods that are likely to look different from a retrospective vantage point. ‘Quoof’ certainly does in McAuliffe’s recent evaluation. The language of Muldoon’s poetry is distinct, diverse and different.

Will Muldoon’s way with language disappear in the new models and formats of language and thinking in the continual unfolding of the IT-revolution? Perhaps it will, just as so many languages and language phenomena get lost by the day, just as the linguistic turn of the previous century tends to recede into the domains of language and literature. Perhaps it will not. IT-facilities produce new terminology, formats and possibilities, as much as they sustain and solidify old concepts and pitfalls. Language is generative and dynamic, it informs perpetually new poets, new writers and new artists, as well as Muldoon. However, Muldoon’s weird and wonderful and highly idiosyncratic language is one potent reason why his poetry is likely to be read by and to inspire future generations too.

Is language the most significant in Muldoon’s poetry? To the extent that language in his poetry might be distinguished from other aspects, it arguably is. Does language present the only value? Far from it. Perhaps his elegiac strain, his sense of birth and vitalogy or his cornucopia of the carnivalesque provide topics for future substantial research. In-depth analyses of the political implications that Muldoon on occasions hints at have largely surpassed the critical corps, poses another field of research. What would a feminist approach to his poetry reveal? Does his many Atlantic crossings bear upon the relations between Europe and America, in a time when these two continents appear to estrange each other more than at any previous point in history? What about class and social cohesion? Or the extremely precarious situation of the individual in so many corners of the world? The popular in Muldoon’s poetry, for example, suggests itself as a little explored topic. Another open field is a sustained study of all his publications beyond his poetry volumes – libretti, drama, children’s books, critical essays, rock lyrics, CDs – that would enlarge the scope of research on Muldoon’s writing, as would other specific and yet unimagined approaches. Entirely new topics and hermeneutics that originate from his poetry are likely to emerge. Whatever specific approaches to Muldoon’s poetry future research assumes, the fact remains: language, in all its generative plurality, constitutes a protean feature for comprehending Paul Muldoon’s poetry.


Mahon, ‘Quaat?’ 27–28.


Longley, ‘Twists and Turns: Paul Muldoon’s Moy Sand and Gravel,’ 65.


McAuliffe, ‘Paul Muldoon: One Thousand Things Worth Knowing.’


Jefferson Holdridge, ‘Festering Ideas: Paul Muldoon’s Maggot,’ The Irish Studies Review 19, no. 3 (2011), 346. See also The Poetry of Paul Muldoon.


Karhio, ‘Slight Return’: Paul Muldoon’s Poetics of Place.


John McAuliffe, ‘Poetry: Paul Muldoon, Ireland’s Enigmatic Riddler of Rhymes,’ The Irish Times, 5 November 2016,, accessed 17 April 2019.

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