Fluid Disjunction in Paul Muldoon's "Immram" and "The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants."

By Putzel, Steven D. | Papers on Language & Literature, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

Fluid Disjunction in Paul Muldoon's "Immram" and "The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants."


Putzel, Steven D., Papers on Language & Literature


Over the past twenty years Paul Muldoon has taken his place as one of the more important current poets. Although his work is still most often considered in the context of Irish literature in general and Ulster poetry in particular, he has long since received much broader recognition. By conjoining lyric and narrative voices, by making the most of the polyglot nature of English as spoken and written in Ireland and by interweaving disparate literary traditions, Paul Muldoon has to some extent achieved what Mikhail Bakhtin claimed was impossible: he has constructed a "hybrid," multiple-voiced poetic language, a dialogized language that is both difficult and extremely effective (Bakhtin 327-29). Like other post-modern writers before him, Muldoon revels in this polyglossia, this carnival of language that eschews closure and that favors disjunction over consonance.

Perhaps the most revealing examples of this language play can be found in what Frazier calls Muldoon's "reinvention of the long poem" (131). Certainly many full-length studies will be necessary to discuss language and politics in these long poems which conjoin lyric and narrative forms: "Immram," which concludes Paul Muldoon's 1980 volume of poems, Why Brownlee Left, "The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants," which concludes the 1983 volume, Quoof, "7, Middagh Street," which concludes the 1987 volume, Meeting the British, the 1991 volume Medoc, which is both a collection of short poems and a sustained mock-epic poetic novel, and the long fantasy "Yarrow" which dominates the 1994 volume, The Annals of Chile. Rather than attempt a sketchy overview of all of these poems, I will concentrate here on the work of the early 'eighties. Both "Immram" and "The More a Man Has" are marvelously self-conscious explorations of language in general and of the vagaries of the English language as spoken and written in Ireland in particular. In fact, the author himself has claimed that "in so far as ["The More a Man Has"] is about anything, the poem is about the use or abuse of the English language in Ireland" ("New Books" 118). This claim suggests that Muldoon's interest is solely structural or semiological and that "The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants" in particular and all of his poems in general present the codes that form the basis of Hiberno-English. Muldoon is, in fact, doing a great deal more than his claim suggests. From the introduction early in the volume of a personal language represented by the word "Quoof," Muldoon's childhood term designating a hot water bottle, to the Armagh slang, the borrowing from Scottish English, the American cliches, the numerous puns, and the comical and seemingly incongruous literary allusions, Muldoon pushes the limits of traditional usage, traditional juxtapositions and traditional "meaning." The result is a masterpiece of multi-leveled parody. It is not the language paradigm that interests Muldoon, but the undermining of the paradigm. This was equally true of the earlier narrative "Immram," in which Muldoon intertwines his own life with Raymond Chandler novels and ancient Irish voyage sagas.

Although discussions of canon formation and what Bakhtin calls writers' "ideological horizons" are currently fashionable, a common by-product of canon expansion is the ghettoization of writers. In Muldoon's case, he is a member of the Ulster Movement, one of "the younger Irish Poets," and one of the major Irish poets who have been influenced primarily by Joyce rather than by Yeats. Accurate as this classification is, and important as Irish history, politics and literary tradition are to Muldoon's work, he has shown himself to be much more than a regional poet. What we might call the First Wave of Muldoon criticism has concentrated on defining the poet's place among other Irish poets. Hence we have Adrian Frazier's study of poems by Paulin and Muldoon, Mary DeShazer's review of texts by Muldoon and Michael Longley, Edna Longley's erudite studies comparing Muldoon to MacNeice, Kennelly, Durcan, Heaney, Mahon and others, John Drexel's comparison of Muldoon, Carson and McGuckian, Richard Brown's study of Heaney and Muldoon's use of puns, as well as Dillon Johnston's important early overview.

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