Flo Reynolds Reviews Paul Muldoon, ‘The Word on the Street: Parnassus and Tin Pan Alley’


Paul Muldoon
Paul Muldoon

Young Poets Network winner Flo Reynolds shares her experience of listening to the Poetry Society’s Annual Lecture, which this year was given by Paul Muldoon. If you missed the lecture you can read it in the current issue of Poetry Review.

Paul Muldoon, as he stepped onto the stage at the Southbank Centre’s Purcell Room, was a man of contradictions: his smart pinstriped suit was belied by his flyaway grey curls, his obvious depth of knowledge in contrast to the jokes that peppered his lecture. It was contrast – oxymoron, dichotomy – that Muldoon addressed in the Poetry Society’s Annual Lecture this year, namely those between poetry and song, high and pop culture, Parnassus and Tin Pan Alley.

But are we right to differentiate between these things, Muldoon began by asking. Not all cultures differentiate between poetry and song: not Muldoon’s family life growing up in Ireland, not the Ancient Greeks, and not the cultures of many of the poets who came together for Poetry Parnassus, of which the Annual Lecture was part. Are we right to separate poetry and songwriting as we do, or is there something to be said for making less of a distinction between the two? What is there to be learned from the other cultures that we have experienced through Poetry Parnassus and the ways that they approach writing?

Muldoon went on to explore the ways in which what we tend to separate can in fact be mixed. He read in a mixture of Irish and English, invoking the tradition of macaronic verse, a bilingual form that switches language from line to line. Irish’s contribution of nonsense verse to the English poetic tradition was highlighted, as was the asiling, a political Irish form that blurs the line between poem and song. The new works that Muldoon read, from his forthcoming collections ‘Word on the Street: Rock Lyrics’ and ‘Songs and Sonnets’, not only played with different languages, but also with rhyme schemes, devices common to both songs and poems such as the refrain or chorus, and Muldoon’s trademark playful rhymes. The Annual Lecture was the first time I have ever heard ‘blossom’ rhymed with ‘plasma’, and served as a fantastic reminder of the uniqueness of Muldoon’s writing.

However, Muldoon went on to admit that poetry and song both have their own strengths. His new ’36 Views of Slieve Gullion’ from ‘Songs and Sonnets’ is clearly a poem. The material is too ‘dense’ to be a song, Muldoon argued, in that the language of the poem brings more meaning with each reading. A song on the other hand is supposed to be instantly comprehensible, and yet can do things that are often taboo in contemporary English poetry. Songs can be political, can make use of different registers of language, can ask us to ‘Pump it Up!’ where a poem could not. Yet songs need music to complete them; the poem has its own music, whereas the lyric is incomplete without it.

This brought Muldoon onto the social aspect of writing lyrics, something which he clearly savours. He talked about his musical collaborations, with musicians as unique as the Princeton Laptop Orchestra! It is through collaboration that the line between poetry and song can be simultaneously crossed and maintained, the poet writing lyric and the composer providing the music. New works of Muldoon’s such as ‘The Adult Thing’ are a perfect example of this; the poem could be set to music, because of its song-like structure, and yet Muldoon is, perhaps paradoxically, publishing it on paper. Music can make poetry more accessible, and inform or modify its rhythms and structure; in turn, poetry can help to elevate a piece of music into a higher plane of meaning and complexity.

So what does Muldoon’s lecture mean for us, the new generation of poets in the making? Above all it serves as an invitation: to experiment, to mix form and language and convention, to make reference to sources of culture that have touched us no matter how high- or low-brow they may be, and not to be afraid to ‘Pump it up!’ if the poem requires it.

Flo Reynolds

Flo Reynolds is a student of English Literature at UEA, knitter and beekeeper, proud poet and secret songwriter. She has a debilitating obsession with Virginia Woolf, and when not reading, writing, knitting or keeping bees, she blogs at literania.blogspot.com.


Published October, 2012


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