A Muddle of Mice – Brief Poems by Paul Muldoon

muldoon-norman-mcbeathPaul Muldoon (born 20 June 1951) is an Irish poet from County Armagh, Northern Ireland. His father worked as a farmer (among other jobs) and his mother was a school teacher. Talking of his home life, he has said, I’m astonished to think that, apart from some Catholic Truth Society pamphlets, some books on saints, there were, essentially, no books in the house, except one set, the Junior World Encyclopaedia, which I certainly read again and again. People would say, I suppose, that it might account for my interest in a wide range of arcane bits of information. At some level, I was self-educated. 

His poetry is known for his difficult, sly, allusive style, casual use of obscure or archaic words, understated wit, punning, and deft technique in meter and rhyme. According to the Poetry Foundation website, Muldoon’s work is full of paradox: playful but serious, elusive but direct, innovative but traditional. He uses traditional verse forms such as the sonnet, ballad, and dramatic monologue, but alters their length and basic structure, and uses rhyme and meter in new ways. His work is also notable for its layered use of conceit, allusion, and wit. The cryptic wordplay present in many poems has often been called Joycean, but Muldoon himself has cited lyric poets such as Frost, Thomas, and MacNeice as his major influences. 

Muldoon is a widely (and wildly) ambitious poet. Consider his long poem Madoc: A Mystery, extracts from which appear below. It takes its title from a  Robert Southey poem concerning a Welsh prince who discovers America in the twelfth century. This strange poem narrates in 233 sections (the same number as the number of native American tribes), what might have happened  had  Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey actually fulfilled their 1794 plan to go to America  to found a Pantisocratic community (‘equal rule for all’) on the banks of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. To complicate poetic matters, which Muldoon is often doing, each one of these sections is named after a philosopher. It incorporates maps and geometric diagrams. In his Irish Poetry since 1950, John Goodby claims it is by common consent, the most complex poem in modern Irish literature … a massively ambitious, a historiographical metafiction. Critical opinion continues to be divided. The Irish novelist, John Banville, one of Muldoon’s admirers, was baffled when he reviewed the poem for The New York Review of Books: I cannot help feeling that this time he has gone too far. Muldoon’s view dismisses such readings, I quite enjoy having fun. It’s part of how it is, and who we are.

Muldoon is always going too far. It is part of his attraction and also part of what is frustrating about his work. Each time a new collection is published I buy it, read it with an initial frustration and perplexity and then find, on a re-reading,  that there is much to admire in his amazing breadth, scope and dexterity. As he puts it himself, The point of poetry is to be acutely discomforting, to prod and provoke, to poke us in the eye, to punch us in the nose, to knock us off our feet, to take our breath away. He has been compared, rightly in my view, to James Joyce. Finnegans Wake may be one of the most frustrating books ever written, but would I be without it? Perhaps William Logan best understands what is both most frustrating and most fascinating about Paul Muldoon’s poetry, he is  in love (not wisely but too well) with language itself. . . . Too often the result is tedious foolery, the language run amok with Jabberwocky possibility (words, words, monotonously inbreeding), as if possibility were reason enough for the doing. Yet Logan also offered this commendation, In our time of tired mirrors and more-than-tiresome confession, Muldoon is the rare poet who writes through the looking glass.




The art of poetry and the art of the haiku are not readily complimentary. Many of the best haiku writers today avoid other forms of poetry. And many of the best  poets either avoid haiku or use it sparingly and without great conviction. Paul Muldoon is different. Just as he has shaken, disrupted and reanimated such forms as the sonnet, he has done the same with the haiku.  Not only has he added his trademark use of rhyme and half-rhyme to the recipe, he has also applied his characteristic wit, humour and conceit. He favours the haiku sequence, extracts from three of which appear below. And they bristle and bustle and busy themselves with the minutiae of his daily life, operating not just on an individual level but echoing and re-echoing throughout the sequences. Muldoon has managed to take an often twee form and apply his lucid and ludic skills to invigorating and animating its triadic structure.



Brief Poems by Paul Muldoon


Were it indeed an accident of birth
That she looks on the gentle earth
And the seemingly gentle sky
Through one brown and one blue eye.



The Volkswagen parked in the gap.
But gently ticking over,
You wonder if it’s lovers
And not men hurrying back
Across two fields and a river.



A mink escaped from a mink-farm
in South Armagh
is led to the grave of Robert Nairac
by the fur-lined hood of his anorak.



The night I wrote your name in biro on my wrist
we would wake before dawn; back to back: duellists.



The plovers come down hard, then clear again,
for they are the embodiment of rain



I cleared all the trees about my cabin, all
that came within range of a musket ball.


The Breather

Think of this gravestone
as a long, low chair
strategically placed
at a turn in the stair.



from Madoc: A Mystery


The woodchuck has had occasion
to turn into a moccasin.



Coleridge follows a white spaniel
through the caverns of the Domdaniel.



De dum, de dum, de dum, de dum, de dum.



Coleridge leaps out of the tub. Imagine that.



De dum, Te Deum, de dum, Te Deum, de dum.



Through the hoopless hoop of the black rainbow.



Until it strikes him, as if by some fluke;
this strict, unseasonable, black snowflake.



Again stamps his cloven hoof
as he conjugates the verb ‘to have’,



The pile of horse-dung at the heart of Southeyopolis
looks for all the world like a dish of baked apple.



Through the hoopless hoop of an elk-horn bow.



We last see him crouching in blood like a jugged hare.
As to where he goes? It’s a matter of pure conjecture.




from Hopewell Haiku


A muddle of mice.
Their shit looks like caraway
but smells like allspice.



A stone at its core,
this snowball’s the porcelain
knob on winter’s door.



from the side of the kettle
my ancestors scowl.



For most of a week
we’ve lived on a pot of broth
made from a pig’s cheek.



The first day of spring.
What to make of that bald patch
right under the swing.



A hammock at dusk.
I scrimshaw a narwhal hunt
on a narwhal tusk.



I, too, nailed a coin
to the mast of the Pequod.
A tiny pinecone.



It seems from this sheer
clapboard, fungus-flanged, that walls
do indeed have ears.



At my birthday bash,
a yellow bin for bottles
and a green for trash.


Sunflower with fenceposts.
Communion rail. Crozier. Cope.
The monstrance. The host.



An airplane, alas,
is more likely than thunder
to trouble your glass.



A small, hard pear falls
and hits the deck with a thud.
Ripeness is not all.



Two trees in the yard
bring neither shade nor shelter
but rain, twice as hard.



Fresh snow on the roof
of a car that passed me by.
The print of one hoof.



from News Headlines from the Homer Noble Farm


From his grassy knoll
he has you in his crosshairs,
the accomplice mole.



He has, you will find,
two modes only, the chipmunk:
fast-forward; rewind.


The smell, like a skunk,
of coffee about to perk.
Thelonious Monk.



Behind the wood bin
a garter snake snaps itself,
showing us some skin.


Like most bits of delf,
the turtle’s seen at its best
on one’s neighbor’s shelf.



How all seems to vie,
not just my sleeping laptop
with the first firefly.



from 90 Instant Messages to Tom Moore


Jim-jams and whim-whams
where the whalers still heave to
for a gammy-gam.


A barracuda
is eating a small nurse shark.
Each smiles like Buddha.


A drunken girl blabs
how he had put in an oar
but she caught a crab.


Tied to the drift rails
and flogged with a bull’s pizzle,
a sailor still wails.


The glass of red wine
with which I saw eye to eye
until half past nine.


Completely at odds.
We’re now completely at odds.
Completely at odds.



Paul Muldoon’s official website.

The Poetry Foundation page on Paul Muldoon.

James S. F. Wilson interviews Paul Muldoon for the Paris Review.

John Kerrigan on muddling through Paul Muldoon’s poetry.

A selection of haiku by Paul Muldoon on the Terebess site.

An essay by William J. Higginson on Paul Muldoon and the Japanese art of haiku.


One thought on “A Muddle of Mice – Brief Poems by Paul Muldoon

  1. Pingback: Dangerous Pavements – Irish Haiku | Brief Poems

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