REVIEW by Fo Orbell

NWR Issue 109

One Thousand Things Worth Knowing

by Paul Muldoon

The Irish poet Paul Muldoon’s powerful and eclectic new collection contains broad and multifarious themes in his characteristically playful but profound work. One Thousand Things Worth Knowing is Muldoon’s twelfth collection; his first, New Weather, appeared in 1973. Muldoon has in the past compared his early work to TS Eliot himself: ‘If you look at something like The Waste Land, there are lots of snatches of ballads and songs and the apparently inconsequential things that we have around us.’ Muldoon’s new collection continues to use references to both classical history and popular culture.

The opening poem, ‘Cuthbert and the Otters’, is based on the legend of St Cuthbert and is a long and heartfelt elegy to Seamus Heaney, his longstanding friend and mentor, who died in 2013. There is overwhelming sadness here: ‘I cannot thole the thought of Seamus Heaney dead.’ While the line ‘but the Danes are already dyeing everything beige. / In anticipation, perhaps, of the carpet and mustard factories’ is an example of Muldoon’s mischievous tone as he makes a connection between the Viking invaders of the past and contemporary life on the river Tyne. The collection is full of juxtapositions in time and space; we move from St Cuthbert in the Middle Ages to selfies of the twenty-first century with the poem ‘Seven Selfies from the Chateau D’If’.

Paul Muldoon has racked up an impressive backlist, publishing over thirty collections in the past forty years, and has garnered awards such as the TS Eliot and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Born and raised in Northern Ireland, Muldoon was Oxford Professor of Poetry until 2004 and now lives in the United States, where he is Poetry Editor of The New Yorker and Professor of Humanities at Princeton University.

However, Muldoon’s work has been criticized for being arcane and oblique, not only for apparently varied and obscure subject matter, but also for sometimes dense and ‘difficult’ vocabulary. You may find yourself either reaching for a dictionary or searching Wikipedia whilst trying to decipher some of his more complex poems, but it’s worth persevering (and good practice for Scrabble enthusiasts). Words such as ‘scrips’, ‘gabfest’ and ‘oppidum’ appear in ‘Dromedaries and Dung Beetles’, which is inspired by Rupert Brooke’s famous ‘The Soldier’; Muldoon traced a distant relative who fought at Gallipoli and died in North Africa during the Second World War: ‘Think of Private Henry Muldoon putting his stamp / on the mud of Gallipoli.’ But there are moments of clarity and simplicity, as in ‘Recalculating’:

Particle is to beach as pebble is to real estate
Realty is to reality as sky is to earth.
Earth is to all ye know as done is to dusted.

Muldoon once said in an interview, ‘Form is a straitjacket in the way that a straitjacket was a straitjacket for Houdini.’ This sheds light on the way the poet plays with form and structure. He enjoys using traditional verse forms such as ballad or dramatic monologue, and alters their length and form to create new structures of astonishing innovation and originality. Cuthbert and the Otters’ is made up of twenty-seven stanzas in a mirror-like structure: the first rhymes with the last; the second rhymes with the second-last, and so on. Muldoon regularly uses interlacing rhymes to give cohesion. ‘Paul Muldoon: “Pompeii”’ is made up of three stanzas which rhyme with each other in an echolike structure. Muldoon is once again concerned with death and our sense of mortality: ‘Jayne’s rubberized bathing costume. / How that costume clung’ is echoed in the following stanza by ‘Then there’s the rose that blooms / on a coal miner’s lung.’ Thus, form connects the numerous metaphors and allusions and heightens the intensity of a poem’s sentiment.

This book is a momentous and inspirational collection of poetry; to say that it’s not an easy read is an understatement, but with tenacity you will uncover and be bedazzled by the hidden gems within.

Fo Orbell is working on an MA in Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University.


previous review: Blood Work
next review: By Fax To Alice Springs


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