- Paul Muldoon: Becoming Opera
Paul Muldoon has been termed “the most significant English-language poet born since the Second World War,” praised as a wonderfully “shape-shifting Proteus” who leaves his readers “authentically touched or delighted”—yet also accused of writing poetry that is “endlessly evasive, polyvocal and outlandish.”1 As the New Yorker’s poetry editor and the recipient of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, Muldoon has an influence that is now beyond dispute; however, as the above reviews suggest, his poetry’s slipperiness still ignites heated critical debate. His “protean poetry,” hinging on an uninhibited wordplay and an intricate interreferentiality, is often contrasted with the rootedness and moral stability in the work of Muldoon’s one-time tutor Seamus Heaney.2 Word patterns and rhyme schemes echo compulsively between Muldoon’s poems and volumes, and the poetry shifts unsignaled between tonal registers and ventriloquized voices, refusing to land didactically on a particular political or philosophical position. Most negative takes on this “shape-shifting,” Rajeev Patke suggests, share the sentiment that “the poet is happy to lose some part of agency to the random potentialities of language as sound” (282); such readers apparently fear that sound may outstrip a poem’s sense. Muldoon has himself stoked this critical fire by professing that devices [End Page 252] like rhythm and rhyme are not “artificial,” but are rather “inherent in the language.” Words, he asserts, “want to find chimes with each other, things want to connect. . . . I believe in the serendipity of all that, of giving oneself over to that” (Redmond interview 4).
Against Muldoon’s detractors, this essay argues that far from chiming itself into meaninglessness, the poetry actually approaches opera. Muldoon’s use of musical devices like multivocal ensemble and recurring leitmotifs, strategies that work to shape and structure an opera’s score, suggest that he has long been concerned with clearing a signifying acoustic space in which to sing. In recent years, moreover, Muldoon has committed himself to the idea that song and poetry are intimately part of the same world (McGrath, NYTimes .com), taking up with a “three-car garage rock” band called Rackett and writing several full-length operas in collaboration with composer Daron Hagen. This essay will focus on these critically neglected musical ventures, suggesting that they are indicative of Muldoon’s lifelong literary interests and proposing them as pedagogical primers for his poetry. Muldoon’s lyrics and libretti, in other words, might teach us how to read (and to hear) a poetry on the threshold of becoming opera. As Elmer Kennedy-Andrews puts it, “Muldoon’s central poetic concerns [parallel] his excursions into other media. Indeed, operatic theatre’s mixed marriage of words and music might well be considered a particularly suitable vehicle for the expression of the Muldoonian vision” (“Introducing” 17). But what is this so-called “Muldoonian vision”; to what purpose does his poetry so suitably harness sound?
A glance at Muldoon’s idiosyncratic political perspective offers a point of entry to these questions. Although he conceded in 2006 that “what had been the day-to-day violence of Northern Ireland” still fundamentally shapes his work, Muldoon rarely deals directly with the Troubles, finding himself instead inspired by sectarian clamor to ideological evasiveness and equivocality. “I’ve not espoused one [political] position over another,” he explains, “because I don’t really have much time for [those] positions. . . . [A]nybody who knows anything about [the conflict] knows that it’s a lot more complex than that” (Koch interview 14).3 Ulster’s strident identity politics were the [End Page 253] stuff of Muldoon’s childhood soundtrack: he was born in College-land, a small nationalist enclave in largely Protestant County Armagh, and the Orange Order was founded in the neighboring parish of Loughgall. He spent most of the Troubles living in Belfast, reading English at Queen’s University and working for BBC Radio between 1973 and 1986. This proximity to the Troubles’ tit-for-tat violence left the poet intimately familiar with Ulster’s fractious tribalisms, over-exposed even in cloistered literary circles to the cacophonous volley of essentialisms—competing claims to “kith and kin”—mobilized...