Paul Muldoon’s friend and mentor, the late Seamus Heaney, once remarked that reading Muldoon was like being in a room with two informants: one a compulsive liar and one who always tells the truth. The trick, Heaney suggested, is ‘trying to formulate a question that will elicit an answer from either one that can be reliably decoded’.
Muldoon’s poems are renowned for their sleight of hand, for saying one thing then offering alternatives to whatever it is that a word or image has provoked. If variety of ideas and theme can make for engaging poetry, Muldoon has made association his own, inimitable domain. For readers new to his work, this can be unsettling. Expecting immediate accessibility and transparency can lead to frustration. One way of negotiating the tricky terrain Muldoon has mapped, often without scale, is to go along for the ride, to enjoy the scenic route with a guide who may or may not be offering a reliable commentary on what’s encountered along the way. Muldoon has been accused of being wilfully obscure, but this is harsh, as it overlooks the poet’s own admission that language can be unpredictable and spontaneous, despite the resulting work being the product of an intense editorial resolve.