One Thousand Things Worth Knowing
"The informational content of Muldoon's 12th collection (after The Word on the Street: Rock Lyrics) may well approach the claim of its title. We learn, for example, that 'some early fragmentation bombs were the calcified brains of Celtic warriors' and that 'The best baseball bats are turned from hibiscus.' ... read more.Through montages of esoteric vocabulary tamed by virtuoso technique and erudite wit, the Irish poet's lyrics bristle with dodgems, merkin-toads, and dunnocks, moving confidently if restlessly through topics and locales as varied as the American Civil War, Northumbrian monasteries, chicken farms, and contemporary Havana. A world traveler and voracious student of history, Muldoon seeks to articulate eccentric connections through time and space, mapping a virtual geo-linguistic universe as personal as it is omniscient. Though frequent access to Wikipedia and the Oxford English Dictionary may be necessary to fully appreciate Muldoon's encyclopedic intricacies, the brilliant surfaces of his poems alone can inspire readers 'to think of literature as magical rather than magisterial.'" - Fred Muratori, Library Journal
"One Thousand Things Worth Knowing: Poems is another wild, expansive collection from the eternally surprising Paul Muldoon, 2003 winner and poetry editor at the New Yorker. 'Watchfulness' is the buzzword surrounding this one, and it seems as great a place as any to start the 2015 reading year." - Publishers Weekly
"In 2003, Irish poet Paul Muldoon won the Pulitzer Prize for his collection Moy Sand and Gravel. Moy? It means gentle or mild. Muldoon's poetry is replete with words many readers will not know. It's part of his style. The 35 poems in his 12th collection, One Thousand Things Worth Knowing, add to the growing list: lapstrake, groop, refulgent, plenilunar, comal, byre.... read more.
Arcane words aside, his poems have panache, a touch of wit and playfulness. They're often allusive and opaque (some might call this artifice). In "Cuba (2)," a poem about a visit Muldoon and his daughter made to Havana, he writes: "The best poems, meanwhile, give the answers to questions only they have raised." Enigmatic indeed. Muldoon asks for some effort, and readers are richly rewarded.
The long opening poem, "Cuthbert and the Otters," is dedicated to the Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney, Muldoon's close friend. Like many Muldoon poems, it seems to be about one thing, but as a reader delves deeper, it's about so much more than, in this case, "the hope of staving off our pangs of grief": Muldoon "cannot thole [bear, endure] the thought of Seamus Heaney dead," so he wraps his grief within a tale of Cuthbert, a seventh-century Celtic monk.
Some of these poems are about artwork. Rita Duffy's painting Watchtower 2 is used on the book's cover and also inspires a poem within. Another longish work, "Charles Émile Jacque: Poultry Among Trees," provides the title to this book: as Muldoon tries to build a coop at his New Jersey home with the aid of Poultry Keeping for Dummies, he reflects upon his father's reliance on the practical handbook One Thousand Things Worth Knowing for his own dealings with chickens. One poem "Recalculating," is completely built upon analogies: "Tea is to leaf as journalist is to source. Source is to leak as Ireland is to debt."
Other works explore dodgems, catamarans and the Civil War. One poem about avoiding pitfalls leads to Lewis and Clark, "quicksilver-scoots" and "mercury in our scats." The last piece--another long one, "Dirty Data"--morphs Lew Wallace's Ben-Hur with Irish history and Bloody Sunday. Given the breadth of topics and the remarkable vocabulary, readers who exit One Thousand Things Worth Knowing will be much smarter and wiser than they were when they entered." - Tom Lavoie, Former Publisher
Paul Muldoon's first poetry collection, New Weather, was published in 1973, when he was just 20. At the time, Seamus Heaney, already famous after Death of a Naturalist (1966), taught Muldoon at Queen's University Belfast, and called him "the most promising poet to appear in Ireland for years''.
In the intervening decades, as Muldoon became one of the world's most revered post-war poets, Heaney remained his guide and champion. Muldoon's 12th collection, his first since Heaney's death in 2013, opens with "Cuthbert and the Otters", a long, pain-flecked and glitteringly varied elegy to his mentor.... read more.
Born in 1951 in Armagh, Muldoon has won the TS Eliot Prize and the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. He was the Oxford Professor of Poetry until 2004, is the current president of the Poetry Society and lives in the United States, where he is poetry editor of The New Yorker. Muldoon gave the eulogy at Heaney's funeral, praising his "signal ability to make each of us feel connected not only to him but to one another".
One of the most exciting and uncompromising features of Muldoon's poetry is the way his writing combines snippets of the ancients (terracotta warriors, Benedictine nuns, the life of Moses) with up-to-the-minute vernacular and freshness (mash-ups and selfies). He excavates linguistic and historical treasures from across the centuries and shines a magnifying glass over his spoils.
"Cuthbert and the Otters", based on the legend of St Cuthbert, pulses with admiration for Heaney's work, in particular the new versions of early literature and his emotional engagement with human history. One line is a complete and desolate sentence: "I cannot thole the thought of Seamus Heaney dead."
That line hits hard because it's one of few in the book with real, sudden clarity. Anyone already wary of opaque contemporary poetry may want to tread carefully here. Or, at least, play a game of how far you can get through a Muldoon poem without reaching for a dictionary. You might survive "darne" in the third line, feeling pretty smug, only to come unstuck by "flitch", "staithes", "sarabande", "frenum", "smolt", "skald" or "catafalque", all just a few lines on.
Muldoon has had complaints on this score before and has defended his writing of "difficult" poetry by saying he is writing "for a difficult age", drawing inspiration from the complexity of the Elizabethan and Metaphysical poets. With his newest collection, you get the impression that scarcely anything has proved more difficult for him to approach than the death of his mentor.
The cumulative effect of his obscure allusions is like a new mysterious breed of cryptic crossword clue. Muldoon anticipates incomprehension in places, and has some sport with words that sound alike but whose meanings slip into one another. Calamine, calomel and chamomile are mistaken for each other by characters in the poems, as are candelabras and chandeliers, despite the poet's insistence on the importance of knowing which is which.
The collection is dazzlingly complex. But amid the lengthy, lacy poems there are brief, primal sobs too. "Pelt" is a stinging vignette of rain rattling on a car roof, which Muldoon compares to the sound of holy water falling on a coffin lid.
Bereavement is almost everywhere. But with Heaney gone, these poems show what a master Muldoon is in his own right. One Thousand Things Worth Knowing is not friendly to readers in search of a quick rhyme. It's a mighty collection to be picked apart as you try to light a path through the verse. In that respect it's a lot like grief: it gnaws away at the edges of your brain long after you think you've put it aside. - Charlotte Runcie, The Telegraph
Even if you work for a small, essentially well-meaning weekly, you don't have to wear a Je Suis Charlie pin to connect with the fellow journalists who died in last week's terrorist attack in Paris. Whatever the content, circulation, or point of view, the staff of a regularly published magazine or newspaper consists of editors, writers, designers, compositors, advertising and business staff, working together for a common cause, in our case, to ensure that Town Topics makes an appearance every Wednesday, which, as it happens, coincided with the day of the January 7 massacre.
As the story unfolded, I was already well into a column about Paul Muldoon's new collection One Thousand Things Worth Knowing (Farrar Straus & Giroux $24), and my point of view was strictly apolitical. It was the music, wit, scope, playfulness, and sometimes challenging allusiveness of the poetry that engaged and intrigued me. I was glad to feel no obligation to contend with the moral and political complexities of a terrorist atrocity. My original focus was on the contrast between Muldoon's sheer shoot-from-the-hip inventiveness and the nightly bloodbaths of cable television my wife and I have been watching for the past months, up to our vicarious necks in Homeland (a jihadist massacre at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad) and The Americans (Cold War sex, married KGB spies living a double life of family values, and cut-throat espionage). In fact it was BBC America's Orphan Black and its delirious pleasure in its own improbabilities (sex, urban violence, and kinky domesticity involving embattled clones in Toronto) that helped get me into the mood for Muldoon's new work. I was playing around with the show's impact on our mutual suspension of disbelief and how that related to what used to be quaintly termed "poetic license," as in the free flow of fancy and other serious, sometimes strenuous fun and games going forward in Muldoon's aptly titled volume, which was formally published yesterday, January 13.... read more.
Look at the Cover!
A look at the painting as it should be seen, 180 x 120 cm, oil on linen, has an impact that can't be fully appreciated in postage-stamp-sized multiples. Instead of a small, distant, vaguely odd-looking contraption overlooking green hills, what you see resembles a prison guard tower crowned by a surveillance camera aimed like an immense weapon at the countryside beyond a corrugated metal wall. The only human you can imagine walking up the iron stairway to look through the thing on top would be armed and uniformed, not someone there to admire the view that Muldoon presents "as if the whole country is spread under a camouflage tarp/rolled out by successive British garrisons/stationed in Crossmaglen."
Explaining what gave her the idea, Rita Duffy mentions how she was on the way home after attending a lecture by Muldoon's mentor Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) about his mentor Paddy Kavanagh (1904-1967) when she noticed the watchtowers and came up with the idea that she might transform one of them "into a work of art." Upon writing to the Northern Ireland Office, she got a call from a colonel who asked her which tower she wanted. She "managed to get inside" the one that "looked down on the main Belfast-Dublin road, which sat on the hills that Cú Chulainn defended Ulster on," but just when it was looking as if the tower project might happen, it stopped ("it is very hard to get anything done in Northern Ireland"). She is "still hopeful that some day the project will re-emerge."
Never Too Late
If you agree that "It's Never Too Late for Rock'n'Roll," the title of Muldoon's lyric for the lead track on Wayside Shrine's album, The Word On the Street, your immediate association with Duffy's image will almost certainly be with Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, who share a stake in Dylan's composition, "All Along the Watchtower." Nothing on the page or the canvas can match the excitement of either version when "the wind began to howl," Dylan singing raw and true, Hendrix wailing into eternity. But Muldoon's poem actually, quietly covers more ground, with the camouflage imagery and the memory of teenagers whose "vision of Four Green Fields shrinks to the olive drab/the Brits throw over everything." The second part of the poem begins with reference to how a neighbor's internment alerted the teenagers to the fact that "we're not the first tribe/to have been put down or the first to have risen/against our oppressors. That's why we've always sided with the Redskin/and the Palestinian."
So here it is, staring me in the face again, not only one of the most openly political sentiments in a book that begins with a tour de force of eloquent denial dedicated to Heaney and ends with a 19-page-long bravura performance called "Dirty Data" starring Ben Hur, Ben Hourihane, and Billy the Kid, but one that offers additional insight into the poet's lifelong fascination with the American west. Asked once about how he came to write his Wayside Shrines lyric "The Youngers (Bob and John and Jim and Cole)," Muldoon mentioned growing up immersed in The Golden Book of California, movies about Jesse James and the Great Northfield Minnesota raid, and an illustrated history of the James/Younger gang. Look at the lyric itself, however, and you're hard put to find a word about the Troubles or "our oppressors." Listening, you hear a clever, charming, hard-rocking song about a relationship gone south. You'll find elaborate variations on similarly evocative material in fast and loose interplay with profundities all through One Thousand Things. If you keep your wits about you, you may detect occasional traces of the Princeton faculty member, New Yorker poetry editor, now an inhabitant of the metropolis after two decades as a local resident. The verse will be light and larky and downright silly one minute, only to dazzle and daze you with in-flight references requiring visits to the archives of Google, from which you emerge with enough esoteric information to fill ten pages of footnotes.
"I love clichés," Muldoon admits in a 2004 Paris Review interview. If you're at all familiar with his lyrics for the "3-car garage band" Rackett and the still active musical collective Wayside Shrines, you'll see common cause between the poetry on the printed page and the lyrics ringing changes on familiar pieces of the present like Pathmark, Jiffy Lube (which also turns up in One Thousand Things) and "Employee of the Week" parking spots. Muldoon has a hunger for everyday words, standbys of the culture, catch phrases, slogans, brand names, not to be patronized or mocked but put in play, sometimes as titles of Wayside songs like "Cleaning Up My Act," "Feet of Clay," "Dream Team," "It Won't Ring True," and "Julius Caesar Was a People Person," and now in the new poetry: "a little meet and greet," "the elephant in the room," "at daggers drawn," "hell for leather," "a smear campaign," along with references to a McDonald's Triple and a Port-a-John, and couplets like "We'll swear this is the last time as we swore the rain/would never darken our doors again."
It Really Happened
In the opening poem, "Cuthbert and the Otters," you're taken all over the place, from Durham to Desertmartin to Delphi, while "An altar cloth carried into battle/by the 82nd Airborne" shares a stanza with "A carton/of Lucky Strikes clutched by a G.I. on the bridge/at Toome." It's all swirling around Muldoon's stint as a pall bearer at the funeral of the man whose death he finds intolerable, but rather than say so in plain terms, he twice distances himself and the reader from the reality by using an archaic verb: "I cannot thole the thought of Seamus Heaney dead," end-stopping the line to close the third stanza and sounding and end-stopping it again to close the 22nd. If you check the facts all through One Thousand Things, you'll more likely than not find that the things you thought he might be making up really happened, if not in quite such far-fetched combinations. In "Pip and Magwitch," for one, it turns out that what sounds improbable, Anwar al-Awlaki leaving a paperback of Great Expectations "all bundled up with a printer-cartridge bomb," is well documented, unlike Magwitch's attempts to mask his breath with a Polo Mint, "his cigar twirling in its unopened sarcophagus/like an Egyptian mummy."
While Muldoon keeps company at length with Lew Wallace and Ben Hur, he finds Keats "for sure" in a short Civil War poem by Whitman; all he needs is the one word "loitering" (an echo of "alone and palely loitering in 'La Belle Dame Sans Mercy'"). As it happens, the same day the television set in a doctor's waiting room was covering the scene in Paris as the net closed round the Charlie Hebdo terrorists, I was reading at random in a pocket-sized volume of Keats's letters. Call it imagination, or fancy, depending on the depth of thought or feeling, it was cheering stuff. Even when writing of his brother's death a mere two years before his own, Keats is unstoppable, irrepressible. On his joy in drinking a glass of claret, he appears to have sketched out notes for "Ode to a Nightingale": "It fills one's mouth with a gushing freshness, then goes down cool and feverless" — whereupon his fancy takes flight as "the more ethereal part mounts into the brain, not assaulting the cerebral apartments, like a bully looking for a trull, and hurrying from door to door, bouncing against the wainscot, but rather walks like Aladdin about his enchanted palace, so gently that you do not feel his step."
Reading, smiling, you wonder "Where's it coming from?" Never mind. What matters is it's coming and it keeps coming. The same thing happens reading Muldoon at his best, whether in, above, or beyond politics. Never mind, it's cheering stuff, like Keats's claret bullying its way through the cerebral apartments to Aladdin's palace. That's how it is in One Thousand Things Worth Knowing. - Stuart Mitchner, Town Topics
For 40 years Paul Muldoon's rococo artfulness has been a standing rebuke to poetry's more mundane and literal tendencies. Obsessively formalist, Muldoon's linguistically omnivorous poems have, since The Annals of Chile (1994), used elaborate rhyme schemes to take on difficult material.
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Muldoon's new book continues in the same mode. Anyone interested in new writing will want to read One Thousand Things Worth Knowing (Faber, £14.99), but, as ever, its weirdness cannot be overstated.
The book, like many of its poems and individual lines, often goes the long way around its subjects, then suddenly coheres. Many readers will have the feeling they have seen Muldoon do all this before, at exactly the same time that they get the feeling that no one has ever done anything like this . . .
In Cuba (2), Muldoon revisits his earlier poem, Cuba, and unspools a trip with his daughter to Havana in leisurely, enjoyably scattershot quatrains:
"I'm hanging with my daughter in downtown Havana
She's worried people think she's my mail-order bride.
It might be the Anseo tattooed on her ankle.
It might be the tie-in with that poem of mine."
Later, he writes, "Hopped up though I am on caffeine / I've suffered all my life from post-traumatic fatigue" and the poem's oddly underwater jaunt ends ominously:
"The Riviera's pool is shaped like a coffin.
So much has been submerged here since the Bay of the Pigs.
Maybe that's why the buildings are wrinkled?
Maybe that's why the cars have fins?"
Unusually, though, the poems don't always have their eye (or ear) in. When Cuba (2) raises its head above the parapet of its immediate context, it is unusually leaden-footed ("In Ireland we need to start now to untangle/ the rhetoric of 2016"), while Watchtower II, cherry-picks facts about green diesel smuggling and trails off: "It must be because steroids/ are legal in the North but not the South the Brits like to eavesdrop/ on our comings and goings. As for kerosene,/ the fact that it's cheaper in the North is enough to sicken/ our happiness. That and the upstarts/ who try to horn in on our operation."
Muldoon's genius, and maybe this is true of all genius, is sui generis, but the pile-up of his signature effects can make for poems that read like stylistic exercises. The book can seem "over the hill" when it crams together his dramatic rhymes, non-sequitur factoids and fragmentary asides (which work so well in live performance), not to mind the obscure proper nouns and modal verbs (could, might, should and would). The opening lines of Barrage Balloons, Buck Alec, Bird Flu and You are typical:
"After those first paintings at Art Research and Exchange
I would never again be able to go home, never mind home on the range.
The Swede who invented the Aga
had previously lost his sight to an explosion. The rain summoned by a blackbird's raga
came sweeping over the Shankill, over the burning car
where Boston and Lowther were dumped, having been fingered in the bar . . ."
Drawing together more and more recherché areas of knowledge, Muldoon seems to be testing the limits of his forms' capacity, as he looks for ways to offset or freshly register the terror and ache of mortality to which his best poems unsentimentally return.
Before he sews together the slashed throat of a chicken ("Her throat left my own throat raw") in Charles Emile Jacque: Poultry Among Trees there is a typically wonderful swivelling between the hard facts of how things are, and dreams of another life:
"Though I might have taken the blueprint of a shack
from Poultry Keeping for Dummies,
I'd fancied myself more of an Ovid in Tomis –
determined to wing it, to tack
together Jahangiri Mahal from a jumble
of 2x4 studs, malachite,
run-of-the mill planks, cedar shingles, more off-cuts
in New Jersey's rough-and-tumble."
Ingenious, witty and metaphysical as his work has always been, it is impossible sometimes to shake off the feeling that Muldoon, pinballing his way through the weak ties of various unlikely Google searches, is the definitive 21st century poet.
Limit and range
The book's opening and closing long poems, though, show the limit and the range of Muldoon's method. Cuthbert and the Otters, written "In Memory of Seamus Heaney", alludes to the Venerable Bede's story of St Cuthbert's secret night-time feeding of otters, witnessed by a monk who is sworn to silence by the saint.
The poem's 27 stanzas rhyme, mirror-wise, first stanza with last, second with second-last and so, digressively, on. Sometimes it's brilliant, sometimes allusive to Heaney and more of the time baffling.
If Cuthbert and the Otters does not seem to have "naturalized" its wild connections (although, as always with Muldoon, this reader may be missing something obvious and revealing about the poem's set-up), the same cannot be said about Dirty Data, the book's closing tour de force. Its 19 sonnets and interlaced rhymes (yet again) bring Muldoon back to childhood and his experience of the Troubles, seen this time through the prism of a potted biography of Lew Wallace, author of Ben Hur and a lawman who did a deal with Billy the Kid and served both the Mexican and US administrations.
Wallace's border crossings are then overlaid with the life of his Irish translator, Seosamh Mac Grianna, and with the plot of Ben Hur.
If that sounds dizzying – we cannot tell if we are in Northern Ireland or the Mexican border or Judaea – the poem's pay-off is that each of these elements seems to cohere: its different threads amalgamate so that it feels dense and suggestive, weighty and limber, effects magnified by Muldoon's "out there" use of soundalike phrases: "Ben Hourihane/ falls fuel of the new Roman turbine" and, when Pontius Pilate "lets that hanky fall,// it swerves as a morning." It surely does.
- John McAuliffe, The Irish Times
Sombre lines of beauty from a supreme trickster.
Paul Muldoon's new collection is a stylish volume. Its elegant layout echoes almost subliminally what we have come to expect from this master of the trickster elements within language. But the cover illustration, a painting of a Border Post in Northern Ireland, tells us that something both sombre and actual is going on. ... read more.
Indeed it is. The long opening poem, the nine-page Cuthbert and the Otters, is a threnody "In memory of Seamus Heaney", which arrives at its keynote on the second page: "I cannot thole the thought of Seamus Heaney dead". The grief is real, and the words it's expressed in, as ever with Muldoon, are exactly chosen. "Thole" sounds a tolling note as it carries across into English both the sense of endurance, from the Latin tolere, and its second meaning of an oar-pin, with all that suggests of a ship of death. But this lament also brings us a history of Irish culture's arrival and dispersal, from the saint in his cell to Irish Americans who "still hold a dirge chanter/in the highest esteem."
It's not the only death-haunted poem in a collection that includes "a seaweed wreath /making the spot where it came to grief", and of a swimming pool "like a coffin". Visiting the prison-island of Château d'If, whose very name reminds us that bad luck is a lottery, the narrator has "switched with a dead man in his bunk/and stitched myself into his burlap shroud". Like the "pink cloud hanging over Barry's amusement park in Portrush", scenes from yesterday's Ireland almost crowd out the present.
These other poems seem to be attending to the lament for Heaney, and to the fact of his death. The book places the late laureate within history and contemporary culture. Tutankhamun and grouse shooting, "Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" and Ben Hur, a Massey Ferguson baler and fado: the One Thousand Things... of the title are lined up to pay their respects. And that of course is where a culture-maker should be located by a funeral address: at the very centre of the culture he helped to shape.
But this is a book by Muldoon, so there's much more to it than simple listing. Cuthbert and the Otters has 27 seven-line stanzas. Why 27? Because "In the way that 9 and 3 are a perfect match/an Irish war band has 27 members." Numerology is part of poetry's trickster magic. But these aren't tricks. Trickster figures, saints and shamans, have traditionally helped the passage from one life to the next: the lament is one of poetry's oldest musics. Here it restores not only Seamus Heaney but Paul Muldoon to the great country of living tradition. - Fiona Sampson, The Independent
An intricate tour de force.
"I'm at once full of dread / and in complete denial," writes Muldoon in the opening poem to this, his 12th collection. "I cannot thole the thought of Seamus Heaney dead." The lines are dropped like a stone into the 27-stanza "Cuthbert and the Otters" a poem commissioned for the Durham book festival in 2013, and read there only a matter of weeks after Heaney's funeral, where Muldoon was both eulogist and pall-bearer. "Thole": to bear, to suffer. It's a dialect word familiar from both poets' childhoods, and the word (tholian) which gives Heaney "a little passport", as he termed it, from Co Derry to the Anglo-Saxon world of Beowulf. "Cuthbert and the Otters" weaves together multiple histories: Vikings and Celts jostle for space with "the 82nd Airborne" and "Montgomery of Alamein"; the "coalfields of South Shields" with south Derry. The story of "Cuthbert of Lindisfarne / whose body will be carried aloft by monks fleeing those same Danes" finds its parallel with the cortege winding its way from Dublin to Bellaghy. The north-east of England is saturated with the language of Heaney's north of Ireland soul-landscape: blackberries, cattle, the "peat stain", the Viking traces. Muldoon closes with "Refulgent all. From fulgere, 'to flash'" – evocative of Heaney's own sensuous language, and the "lightning" strike of inspiration affirmed in the elder poet's early essay "Feeling into Words". ... read more.
No one can do this kind of involved poetic narrative better than Muldoon. The connections made are apparently serendipitous, and all the more compelling for that. His technical and linguistic brilliance is probably second to none; the poems are the textual equivalent of a high-wire act, with juggling. So expected now, indeed, may be his virtuoso handling of the unexpected, that the moments which genuinely shock can be those slightly jarring lines where the poet chooses to expose himself at ground level, without the tricks of the trade. If arcane language puts some barriers between the self and a truth he doesn't want to face, at other times the straight-talking, tonally less familiar Muldoon also intrudes – almost involuntarily it seems – on his own complex poetic structures: "We come together again in the hope of staving off // our pangs of grief"; "As for actually learning to grieve / it seems to be a nonstarter".
In a recent interview, Muldoon observed that "the minute one thinks one knows what one's doing … one's probably making a terrible mistake. That's … the most difficult thing to learn." "Who's to know what's knowable?" is a question he posed in an earlier book (Mules, 1977). In a 21st-century context where everything seems instantly "knowable" for everyone, where we are "assailed by information", what is "worth knowing" or what remains unknowable have become pressing questions. Unsurprisingly, a fugitive Keats – "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know" – lurks in the pages of this collection; or, as Muldoon has it in "Recalculating", "Earth is to all ye know as done is to dusted". The earth, however, is now also a Google Earth, and "all ye need to know" there at the touch of a touchscreen. An earlier Muldoon's work might have required an Encyclopedia Britannica to hand, together with the 10-volume edition of the Oxford English Dictionary – or, indeed, the Pearson's Weekly One Thousand Curious Things Worth Knowing (1904), the book presumably consulted by his father on the subject of "how to remove the merry-thought [wishbone] of a fowl" (The Wishbone is, incidentally, the title of one of Muldoon's collections). These days, it's tempting to read him with the book in one hand and an iPad in the other. Without the internet, some of Muldoon's references are probably unintelligible to the reader. Where his first pamphlet, from 1971, was entitled Knowing My Place, this work, tellingly, is of "Things Worth Knowing". As Muldoon's career has progressed, the allusive fabric of the poems has become increasingly private and elusive as it has also, paradoxically, become more expansive, moving further away from a "knowable" point of origin. He's become, in other words, harder to "place".
Muldoon's own awareness of a changing context is more explicitly the subject of this book than any previous collection. It's as if, conscious of both literal and virtual surveillance – see "Rita Duffy: Watchtower 2" – the poems try to keep one step ahead, resistant to being "decoded", offering a Muldoonian form of counter-surveillance in which every square mile (or sonnet) is densely packed with information. Like Lewis Carroll's Walrus, Muldoon talks "of many things" – if not shoes, ships, sealing-wax, cabbages and kings, then chickens (quite a lot of chickens) and horses, saffron and civil war, bicycles and barrage balloons. But it's a collection that poses more problems for its reader than simply chasing the relevant "data", or checking the "facts" (some of which are unexpectedly right; others – like the body temperature of a chicken – probably wrong).
The long poem that closes the book is "Dirty Data" ( "dirty data": computer data that contains erroneous information – misleading, duplicated, inaccurate, incorrectly spelled). It's a tour de force, addressed to Lew Wallace, in which Ben Hur meets Bloody Sunday and the Troubles. It's full of dirty data – the misquoting of Churchill ("Such is the integrity of their kraal"), the misphrasings ( "Ben Hourihane / falls fuel of the new Roman turbine"; Pilate's hanky "swerves as a morning"). It tells "dirty" and contested (and repeating) histories too in which the "data" itself is in dispute. As such, its own intricate patterning of lines and stories ( "To add to the confusion") raises questions about the patterns and structures imposed, out of the relentless stream of (mis)information, on the telling and interpretation of history. In this, it may well be – as his closing line has it – "a wickiup call" for our time. - Fran Brearton, The Guardian
Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Muldoon's poetry is a "world-book" in itself - earthy and erudite, its meanings allusive and elusive. Muldoon isn't going to give you crystal-clear insights tied up with a bow or spoonfeed you easy homilies or epiphanies. You'll have to sink your teeth into these poems and do some chewing. But what a reward you'll get in return!
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Spanning many facets of culture (both high and low) and history (both personal and recorded), Muldoon's poems are playful and solemn, often at the same time. He delights in the ambiguity of words - their pronunciations and meanings - but also takes that ambiguity, and the insight or confusion that can come from it, dead seriously.
Longtime admirers of Muldoon will find him in great form in his 12th book of poetry, while newcomers will find One Thousand Things Worth Knowing an excellent introduction to his oeuvre. - Rebecca Oppenheimer, The Ivy Bookshop
Some of the best poems Muldoon has written in years. - David Wheatley, The Literary Review
A professor at Princeton, poetry editor at the New Yorker, rock musician – of which more later – and the subject of extensive critical attention, the Northern Irish poet Paul Muldoon is at the summit of a career which began in spectacular fashion with the publication of New Weather in 1973, when the poet was just twenty-one. One Thousand Things Worth Knowing, his twelfth collection, represents a consolidation rather than an extension of the elaborate and highly distinctive poetic voice he has established in the intervening four decades. His characteristic verbal hi-jinks – endless rhymes, concealed or oblique linkages and parallelisms, abrupt shifts of register, serpentine syntax, an urge to pun that borders on the pathological – provide further evidence of the poet's astounding technical gifts, but they are so familiar by now to Muldoon enthusiasts that the surprise they engender has itself become an oddly predictable part of the reading experience. There is monotony in incessant variety, a dulling of the senses from over-abundance, and Muldoon's often very lush and complex poems can induce a strange kind of complacency regarding detail, itself interesting inasmuch as it is hard to gauge the extent to which the effect is intended. Muldoon remains most obviously compelling when a sudden candour ventilates the labyrinthine back channels of his poems, when artfulness and artlessness are intertwined. ... read more.
One of his most involving earlier poems, "Incantata", an elegy for the artist Mary Farl Powers, is the exemplary work in this vein, its astonishing allusive range and syntactical intricacy anchored and licensed by the explicitness of its elegiac intention. "Cuthbert and the Otters", the opening, and most deeply engaging, poem in One Thousand Things Worth Knowing, operates according to a similar principle, and is every bit as powerful. It is an elegy for Seamus Heaney, Muldoon's longtime friend and mentor, who died in 2013. The fact of Heaney's death is addressed with a striking directness throughout, though these moments of frankness are woven together with various recondite materials from the life of St Cuthbert to create an intricate, delicate, careful work. The opening lines give a sense of the poem's agility, despite the daunting lexical range:
"Notwithstanding the fact that one of them has gnawed a strip of flesh
from the shoulder of a salmon,
relieving it of a little darne,
the fish these six otters would fain
carry over the sandstone limen
and into Cuthbert's cell, a fish garlanded with bay leaves
and laid out on a linden flitch
like a hauberked warrior laid out on his shield,
may yet be thought of as whole."
A Muldoon poem will often contain, in concertinaed form, a single word which suggests how the poem unfolds more generally, much in the way the "about" which begins W. H. Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts" does a good deal of anticipatory work for a poem which is about the about-turning of one's perspective. Muldoon's opening word here has this kind of richness, the potentially discrete elements that compose "Notwithstanding" being significant not just for their subtle foreshadowing of the poem's concern with multiples of three,but for their clear elegiac connotations. Muldoon himself is unable to withstand the grief brought about by Heaney's death: "I'm at once full of dread / and in complete denial. / I cannot thole the thought of Seamus Heaney dead". "Thole", the pivotal, estranging word at the heart of that confession, is an important instance of Muldoon's language wavering between possible meanings at the point of apparent revelation. An old Scots verb meaning "to endure", "thole" is also a noun referring to a "pin, typically one of a pair, fitted to the gunwale of a rowing boat and on which an oar pivots"; here, as so often for Muldoon, linguistic ambiguity seems to be sought out as an expression of emotional disorientation. It's also a condensation of the phrase "thought of as whole", which concludes the opening sentence. The poem as a whole moves between contraction and expansion, obliquity and explicitness, fragmentariness and wholeness, the past and the present.
Muldoon remains most obviously compelling when artfulness and artlessness are intertwined
The transitions between these states are elaborated affectingly throughout, and not only through journeys down etymological rabbit-holes. At one moment, Muldoon writes that he "once sustained concussion, / having been hit by a boom in Greenwich, / and saw three interlocking red triangles on my beer mat". In this concussed context, some of Muldoon's characteristic tropes, such as the abrupt switches between subjects, or the alertness to malapropism ("Did I say 'calamine'? / I meant 'chamomile'"), acquire a fresh urgency and fitness; they seem less like a poet self- consciously alerting a reader to the naturally occurring errata in thought and expression, than the misperceptions of one whose understanding of the world has been knocked seriously out of focus.
At their very best, as in this poem and a few of the sonnets collected here, Muldoon's habitual compositional tics pass on such concussive effects. The endless punning and off-rhyming (for this volume's winning pair, choose between "Onassis" / "nauseous" or "bonhomie" / "burn unit phenom") results in a feeling that each word has become a kind of mirage; a functional node in the system of the poem, with a concrete meaning and weight, and at the same time an arbitrary, shape-shifting figment fixed into place by Muldoon's superb associative ear. His particular skill as a poet lies in this mediation between figuration and abstraction; he keeps us involved with the just-about-sustainable narratives and images his poems glancingly evoke, while foregrounding their often arbitrary provenance. The sonnet "Los Dissidentes" opens with a characteristically madcap sequence of images, seemingly generated by the demands of the rhyme scheme:
"Coming to anything late in the day has an allure
all its own. The river plummets here with such aplomb
it brings back Slim Pickens's holler
as he bronco-busts the H-bomb
in Dr. Strangelove."
This is both a vivid, funny, highly charged metaphor and a Houdini-esque linguistic escape act, an unstable mixture of premeditation and improvisation; a series of "footfalls already pre-empted by their echoes", as Muldoon put it in Madoc: A mystery (1990). Muldoon's particular appeal is that he never seeks to privilege one mode over the other: his poems remain precariously suspended between constraint and freedom, narrative and dissolution, sense and nonsense. At times he brings to mind the concrete specificity of Elizabeth Bishop or Heaney himself (as when, in one of his slow-release time-lapse metaphors, he describes a "slow handclap of grouse"); at others, the immersive cartoonish weightlessness of John Ashbery. His long poems in particular seem, through the intricacy of their "complex joints", perennially on the verge of collapse, and yet somehow they remain intact, implausibly secure. "Dirty Data", the sonnet sequence which concludes this volume, is among the most successful of these precariously assembled longer works. Made up of bits of contorted or disguised "data" ranging from "half-truths and old-style spelling errors" to mangled accounts of Churchill's funeral, via digressions on Ben-Hur, Billy the Kid and Bloody Sunday, among many other subjects, it suggests a kind of lateral argument about politics and cultural production in the age of internet surveillance, the thrust of which remains tantalizingly unclear. What is made explicit is that the act of connection itself – its perils and serendipities – is what interests Muldoon, as he declares in the opening sonnet:
"The goshawk nests in lodgepole and ponderosa pine
while a Mescalero girl twists
osiers into a basket that does indeed imitate
what passes for life, given how ring wants nothing more than to intertwine
There are some extraordinary intertwinings in this poem, which in their bewildering complexity, their dulling variety, do indeed begin to resemble something like "what passes for life".
For some years now Muldoon has been moonlighting as a songwriter and guitarist for the fluidly constituted, Princeton-based rock band-cum-"musical collective" currently known as Wayside Shrines, and he has published two collections of his song lyrics – these are, in some ways, a bit of a breather from the "gilt hen egg[s]" his poems written for the page resemble. Muldoon's grasp of the conventions of the rock song is as secure as his knowledge of the lyric tradition, as demonstrated by titles exemplary for their generic blandness: "Feet of Clay", "You'd Better Think Twice", "Cleaning Up My Act" and so on. He is clearly having a great deal of fun with the licence the genre affords him; "Badass Blues", one song in The Word on the Street (2013; Faber £12.99), concludes with a representative few lines, which will either elicit a guffaw or groan (or worse) depending on your disposition: "Now Egypt's squelching the Internet / And Charlton Heston's belching on the set / They've sure got them badass blues". The provocative badness of these lines verges on the Seidel-esque, but ultimately seems more a product of the urge to adhere to generic conventions than a desire to investigate taste or persona. Yet the best of these entertaining pieces are not just curious marginal additions to Muldoon's – by now substantial – poetic corpus; they should inform how his page- poems are read, since they demonstrate that Cole Porter, Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan have been influential presences in Muldoon's imagination for as long as Auden, Bishop or Heaney have. - Oli Hazzard, The Times Literary Supplement
Speaking to the Paris Review ten years ago, Paul Muldoon remarked “we're all, as we age, getting duller and duller in most instances... you need to have all your wits about you, and you're losing them all the time. The more you've done in a particular vein, the less there is to do.”
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Muldoon is now sixty-three years old but dullness is less in evidence than ever. Indeed, One Thousand Things Worth Knowing is characterised by a determinedly youthful smartness. Like a child home after the first day of school, the collection has a hyperactive enthusiasm for facts: historical anecdotes, pop culture arcana, scientific curiosities, weird etymologies. For Muldoon, everything is worth knowing. The result is a collection of poetry that is often baffling but always invigorating.
The clearest influence behind Muldoon's data-rich late style is Auden. John Bayley observed that Auden's tone 'could be paraphrased from a guidebook, or a work of psychology' and much the same might be said of Muldoon: where Auden impresses with the inscrutable justness of each unusual word, every one of Muldoon's weird facts presents the reader with a poker-faced challenge. Take these characteristic lines from the first poem in the collection 'Cuthbert and the Otters':
"The wax moth lives in a beehive proper. It can detect sound
frequencies up to 300 kHz. The horse in the stable
may be trained to follow a scent.
What looks like a growth of stubble
has to do with the chin drying out."
If Auden was a guidebook, Muldoon is a scientific journal. The lines impress first in their formidable tonal control: Muldoon manages a disciplined relaxation of register from the scientist's precision ('300 kHz') to a layman's guess ('has to do with'). The qualifying modal verb 'may' and the proverbial flavour of the line about the horse expertly mediate between the pseudo-scientific and folk registers, reminding us that however prose-like and factual his verse might seem, Muldoon is master of his craft. What on earth is he on about though? Google suggests he's telling the truth about the bees, but what about the horses? Can horses not in the stable be trained to follow a scent? My instinct is that these are the wrong questions to ask. Muldoon, in scientist mode, juxtaposes these data almost experimentally to see how they react. For some readers they remain inert; sometimes bonds of meaning are forged. It is perhaps unfair to pick out such unforgiving lines for close attention but they do contribute to the occasional sense that One Thousand Things Worth Knowing is the sort of thing an internet search engine would write were it capable of poetry. Fortunately, Muldoon’s verse is often more approachable than this. At its best it has the air of an intellectual game or a crossword puzzle- and if you manage to actually get a reference you are rewarded tenfold. In 'Los Dissidentes', the sound of a waterfall 'brings back Slim Pickens' Holler/ as he Bronco busts the H-bomb'. The appropriation of the comic plummet from the finale of Dr Strangelove is an excellent example of Muldoon's ability to co-opt pop culture in order to provide arresting ways of re-imagining even the hoariest old subjects of poetry.
In spite of these clever youthful spirits, thoughts of mortality flicker beneath the surface of the collection. The death of Seamus Heaney is understandably fresh in Muldoon's imagination and the deaths of artists, Irish heroes, and statesmen scattered through his poetry all reflect aspects of Heaney's personality and what his loss might mean. In 'St Cuthbert and the Otters' the corpse of the poet blurs eerily with the corpse of the Northumbrian saint. In the striking short poem 'Honey', Muldoon meditates movingly on the material circumstances of the death of Buddy Holly (quite a different sort of artist to Heaney): the ripped leather jacket, and the cash and pen top found in his pocket. In 'Dirty Data', the longest and perhaps the most successful poem in the collection, Heaney's death is matched by Churchill's, another national icon. In this poem Muldoon's associative capacity really sparkles. Ben Hur's life, Churchill's funeral and Bloody Sunday flash together in strobe-like succession. This might all be rather strained were it not for Muldoon's unanswerable eye for small correlations of movement and feeling. This capacity is witnessed most strikingly in the way that the golden dolphins which dip their heads marking Hur's laps of the Circus Maximus stand for the cranes lowered at Churchill’s funeral:
"The dolphins continue to
the obeisance of the dock cranes."
Muldoon's customary prosy mode is infected by a jumpy metre and the short lines fly about the page in a manner that wittily mimics the poet's frenetic mind. His willingness to scrabble vigorously through the past in search of the odd apt moment or striking image is a refreshing alternative to the more solemn scholarly approach taken by a poet like Geoffrey Hill. Indeed, One Thousand Things Worth Knowing often feels like Mercian Hymns on acid.
Rather like Hill, Muldoon has developed a late style rich in opaque allusion and incomprehensible reference. Even an educated reader cannot hope fully to understand either poet without Google at her right hand. However, while Hill has managed to maintain the mystical urgency of his early work, I couldn't help but feel that Muldoon's verse has lost something. His occasionally forced conversational style ('I'm hanging…in downtown Havana' he announces in 'Cuba (2)') and pursuit of scientific and historical fact have squeezed out the openness to resonant imprecision in his early work. His great early poem 'The Year of Sloes for Ishi' has a greater openness to 'poetic' language and a capacity for the emotionally arresting but vague statement ('the silence/ Deeper/ Than that of birds not singing) that is lost in One Thousand Things Worth Knowing. Nevertheless, as Muldoon is well aware, 'the more you've done in a particular vein, the less there is to do'. To be writing verse as fresh and as different as the poetry in One Thousand Things Worth Knowing demands respect, if not a measure of awe. - James Marriott, The Literateur
The most accomplished poetry collection I read this year is Paul Muldoon’s One Thousand Things Worth Knowing. - James Shapiro, Books of the Year, The Irish Times