Are Muldoon poems for horses?

Scripps Howard News Service
Published Friday, November 20, 1998

HAY by Paul Muldoon (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $22)

Language flies from Paul Muldoon like sweat from a stevedore. ''Hay,'' his eighth book of poems, confirms again the remarkable originality, the fathomless energy and ingenuity, the breathtaking facility of the poet, who was born in Northern Ireland and is now an American citizen.

That said, a great deal of ''Hay'' seems merely clever rather than diabolically brilliant. If language and form are going to grip us by the throats and shake us until the dogs bark and the cats meow, then let it be for the tours de force.

These include the book's first poem, ''The Mudroom''; the last, ''The Bangle (Slight Return),'' a sequence of 30 fractured sonnets; and, toward the middle, ''The Wire'' and ''Third Epistle to Timothy.'' Violently dream-like but precisely detailed, all feature Muldoon's headlong momentum, his reckless rhyming lines, his telescoping of time, space and memory, his tendency to collapse the voluptuous ironies of love and sex with the harsh reprisals of recent Irish history and memories of childhood and coming-of-age.

Then there are the poems that look as if Muldoon could write them with two hands tied behind his back -- for example, ''Sleeve Notes,'' a series of 21 brief poems eliciting the experience of listening to the rock albums that meant the most, it seems, to Muldoon, and ''Hopewell Haiku,'' a sequence of 90 rhyming examples of that form amounting to a sort of trivia we are not accustomed to from this poet.

But there it is. For its faults, ''Hay'' offers on many pages more authentic poetic thrills and chills than most poets provide in an entire book.

Poets ought to remember that in the beginning was neither the sentiment nor the observation but the word, a primordial compact of creativity that Muldoon honors (almost) every time he sets pen to paper.


(Fredric Koeppel is book review editor at The Commercial Appeal in Memphis.)

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