Paul Muldoon’s Poetry Society Lecture, 2012

Back in 2012 I won a competition run by the Young Poets’ Network to report on the Poetry Society’s Annual Lecture, given that year by Paul Muldoon.

The resultant article is available here, on the YPN website.

Below is my analysis of ‘The Birth’, from Muldoon’s The Annals of Chile, which won me the opportunity.

Why is ‘The Birth’ by Paul Muldoon a great poem?

For me, it is for two reasons: the extraordinary and unexpected technical make-up of the poem, and the way that Muldoon crafts something so celebratory out of an unusual and daring linguistic assortment.

The first of these, Muldoon’s skill and originality, is apparent in the use of rhyme. Who else would dare to rhyme ‘task’ and ‘lemniscs’, ‘widgeon’ and ‘zuizin’? And what about the wonderful internal rhyming of ‘Kickapoos’ and ‘peekaboo’? Further links between unlikely pairs of words are made with Muldoon’s use of alliteration, as in ‘gralloch-grub’, and the fantastic onomatopoeia that punctuate the poem, from the surprising but classic ‘hubbub’ to the utterly uncommon ‘tallow-unctuous’. The poem is a network of echoes and assonance, its structure flexible yet tightly woven. ‘The Birth’ demonstrates Muldoon’s absolute mastery of the musical qualities of words, of their phonetic variances and connections; it is a poem that demands to be read aloud, to be tasted on the tongue.

The celebratory theme goes hand in hand with the unusual but precise technique. This is a joyful poem, one that revels in the birth of the poet’s daughter, in the quirks of the world she has just entered, and also in language. Somehow Muldoon turns references to the commonplace (‘lime-green scrubs’) and the repellent (‘gralloch’ being the entrails of a deer, and therefore a rather graphic reference to the birthing process!) into rhapsody, moving from the almost industrial process of near-butchery undertaken by the ‘windlass-women ply[ing] their shears’ and ‘gralloch-grub[bing]’, to a list of nature’s unlikely yet wondrous phenomena.  Muldoon finds the extraordinary in the ordinary, and celebrates it. The joy and wonder expressed are palpable, and yet these emotions are communicated through incongruous images of mushrooms and warblers and Native American tribespeople. To me, the poem’s greatness lies in the way that Muldoon conveys timeless emotion with a vocabulary that is uniquely his.

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