Couplings: Agon and Composition in Paul Muldoon's Ekphrastic Poetry

Article excerpt

Abstract: In the course of more than thirty years of prolific writing, Paul Muldoon has earned a reputation for surprising his readers again and again. To a significant extent, this continued ability to "make it new" is closely linked to Muldoon's characteristically relational writing. Often described (in tones of eulogy or of deprecation) as the epitome of a postmodernist practice, his work has tested the limits of intertextuality -and his penchant for quotation, pastiche and parody has rather often sought referents in other media, notably in the visual arts. Taking a specific instance of ekphrasis in Muldoon's poetry for its point of departure and its focus, this article proceeds to address broader themes in his work, as well as to consider his practice against the framework defined by a major alternative for reading the relationship between word and image: as rivalry and struggle, or as peaceful and mutual enablement.

Key Words: Muldoon, postmodernism, intertextuality, intermediality, ekphrasis

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In the course of more than thirty years of prolific writing, Paul Muldoon has earned a reputation for surprising his readers again and again. To a significant extent, this continued ability to "make it new" is closely linked to Muldoon's characteristically relational writing. Often described (in tones of eulogy or of deprecation) as the epitome of a postmodernist practice, his work has tested the limits of intertextuality -and his penchant for quotation, pastiche and parody has rather often sought referents in other media, notably in the visual arts. Such formal strategies duly find their representational match in objects and beings whose identity (social, familial, biological -all of these with a potential political undertow) is characteristically indecisive, half-way or hybrid; and, parallel to his poetry, his (comparatively scant) critical writings have tended to stress an interest in "promicuous provenance", and in texts that foreground "a range of strategies ... for dealing with the ideas of liminality and narthecality" (Muldoon 2000: 5). In connection with these features, that he believes to be central to an Irish verbal and representational culture, Muldoon has coined two memorable words, "conglomewriting" and "imarrhage", by which he means the tendency "towards the amalgam, the tendency for one event or character to blur and bleed into another" (Muldoon 2000: 56, 74, 77).

These are some of the features that have contributed to Muldoon's fame in the present critical environment -but also to some misgivings around his willingness to gratify current expectations, and in particular to write with an academic audience in mind whose critical and political values he so completely seems to meet. Not surprisingly, a fair share of the critical appreciation Muldoon has recently obtained wonders about the degree of irony to be read beneath this (real or apparent) complacency, this willingness to provide a favourite drilling ground for reading strategies nourished by the allure of indeterminacy (cf Kendall and McDonald 2004: 1-5; Lyon 2004: passim). In much of what follows I will be concerned with the intersection between this equivocal position with regard to current critical mores and the intermedial nexus as prompted by Muldoon's practice of ekphrasis. My point of departure will be a poem published in 2002, and known to most readers as "Anthony Green: The Second Marriage", included in Muldoon's collection Moy Sand and Gravel. By this formula ("known to most readers as...") I mean to signal the fact that the poem was originally commissioned for a publication on poetry and art promoted by the National Museums and Galleries of Northern Ireland, which asked a number of poets to respond to art work in the Northern Irish collections; and that in the ensuing volume -A Conversation Piece, also issued in 2002- Muldoon's contribution appeared exactly under the same title as the painting: in full, Mr and Mrs Stanley Joscelyne: The Second Marriage. …

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