Muldoon – A Mystery

Michael Hofmann

  • Madoc – A Mystery by Paul Muldoon
    Faber, 261 pp, £14.99, October 1990, ISBN 0 571 14489 6

Looked at in one way, Madoc – A Mystery is an extraordinary and unpredictable departure, a book of poems the size of many novels, with a title poem nigh on two hundred and fifty pages long, doubling Muldoon’s output at a stroke. But in another way, it does remarkably little to change the sense one has of Paul Muldoon. It is a book for initiates, more of the same. Each of his previous five volumes has ended with something a little longer, a relaxing gallop after the dressage – even ‘The Year of the Sloes, for Ishi’ in New Weather (1973) was four pages long. Further, the structure of Madoc is actually identical with that of Muldoon’s last book, Meeting the British (1987) – in fact, it seems like a monstrously curtailed and distended parody of it: the prose poem at the start, a section of short poems (no more than six), and then the pièce de résistance, which, for all its length, occupies just one line on the contents page, as though the poet were telling us it’s no big deal.

Madoc is a bigger canvas rather than a bigger splash. Perhaps it is Muldoon’s fault, perhaps he has pre-empted himself. Already the most characterful and most imitated of contemporary poets, he offered more trademarks than perhaps was good for us: the pluperfect tense; the hoary Rip Van Winkle idioms stretching and disbelieving; the outrageously resourceful rhyming that came to preoccupy him more and more; the factual, ironical provincial-newspaper beginnings; the little seahorse emblems breaking up the poems and jointing them; the plain definite-article-plus-substantive titles; the erotic memoirs; the druggy meltdowns; the recurring totemic props that made each successive book more like a new religion than a book of poems. He has seemed for some time like a man in need of a challenge, the eponymous man in a previous long poem of his, ‘The more a man has the more a man wants’. In ‘Madoc’, Bucephalus the talking horse lectures us

that Madoc himself is, above all, emblematic
of our desire to go beyond ourselves.

The impulse for ‘Madoc’ came from a selection of Byron that Muldoon made for his American publishers. (One finds oneself adopting this rather unlikely preterite and literary-historical tone, partly because the poem is a conundrum and cries out for a methodical approach; and partly for want of a strong or reliable personal response to it.) There, Muldoon re-acquainted himself with the literary politics of the Romantics, Byron’s poetics, his digs at Southey and Coleridge. He read up on ‘the Pantisocratic society of Aspheterists’ (Coleridge), and even perused Southey’s poem Madoc, about ‘the Welsh prince, long believed by his countrymen to have discovered America in 1170’ (Chambers Biographical Dictionary). Muldoon’s ‘Madoc’ is thus a ‘remake’ – a notion that crops up in the opening prose poem in the collection. The title is from Southey, the principal character is Coleridge, and the prevailing spirit is not unlike that of Byron in Don Juan:

Prose-poets like blank-verse, I’m fond of rhyme,
Good workmen never quarrel with their tools;
I’ve got new mythological machinery,
And very handsome supernatural scenery.

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