HOW POEMS WORK
By Paul Muldoon
This much I know. Just as I’m about to make that right turn
off Province Line Road
I meet another beat-up Volvo
carrying a load
of hay. (More accurately, a bale of lucerne
on the roof rack,
a bale of lucerne or fescue or alfalfa.)
My hands are raw. I’m itching to cut the twine, to unpack
that hay-accordion, that hay-concertina.
It must be ten o’clock. There’s still enough light
(not least from the glow
of the bales themselves) for a body to ascertain
that when one bursts, as now, something takes flight
from those hot-and-heavy box pleats. This much, at least, I know.
— From Hay (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998).
I had decided to look at a piece by the great American poet of the mid-centry, Elizabeth Bishop — her patient, investigative line always informed by tradition; her reliance on (amounting to a deep affection for) the over-abundant facts of the world — but, on reading her, slid directly to the Irish American Paul Muldoon. Ever since his first collection, written in his mid-20s as a student of Seamus Heaney’s at Queen’s University, Belfast, Muldoon’s work stood as a signpost indicating possible alternative routes poetry might take after the achievements of Bishop, Robert Lowell, Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes et al.
Many poets play fast and loose with language, but few of Muldoon’s generation have had so much deranged fun with so many aspects of verse. From imported quotes to concrete visual games, ventriloquism and the unbelievably expanded moment, Muldoon has acted the prodigy, trickster and troubadour, all sharing a warmth of sensibility that makes his readers want to repay his effort in kind.
Though it may not look like it, this is a sonnet, the title poem of a book containing 10 others, all equally inventive. The sonnet is an 800-year-old form, born in Italy and then, of course, adopted by many languages and literatures with stunning results. The English took to it with such fervour they altered its stanzaic pattern and claimed the new beast for themselves. In the original Italian, as I’ve recently learned, “sonnet” connotes “little song” or “little sound.” Given Muldoon’s penchant for etymology and all things arcane, he may have had this in mind while writing the bent and playful 14-liners in Hay.
Following standard sonnet analysis, it would certainly be difficult to say just what the argument or problem set out in his octet (the first eight lines) might be; or, more so, what resolution, or response, is being offered in the sestet (the final six). One of poetry’s enduring charms is that it allows, even encourages us to admit, at times, to loving a poem without knowing exactly why. The best poems continue offering up pleasures even as they frustrate attempts at fully decoding them.
I’ve gone back to this sonnet and found myself giggling out loud at the word “load” (such a cumbersome, fat rhyme for “Road”) balanced at the end of the first four lines (the quatrain), just being itself, about to tip over and spill. The sight of “lucerne,” “roof rack,” “fescue” and “alfalfa” all within three lines is a wicked delight. I can’t help thinking “alfalfa” is laughing at the pursed lips of those long U sounds. And those wavering, uneven line lengths barely held together by rhyme — I’ve been in a Volvo as ramshackle as this one.
Personable, humorous and highly intelligent, Muldoon hits this register so often he’s made it his own. We want to go along for the ride, however bumpy, with a voice that admits its own ignorance and invests in the world’s vast network of connections more than in any compressed, singular Truth. It’s amazing to watch him convey this aesthetic by bursting open the bound-up, pressurized bale of the sonnet form.
Ken Babstock’s last collection of poetry, Methodist Hatchet, won the Griffin Prize. This column originally appeared in the Globe and Mail on Saturday, May 5, 2001. Look for more reprints from Babstock’s column in the coming weeks. If you are interested in writing a How Poems Work check out our submission guidelines. You can follow @KBabstock on Twitter.