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"I want you to tell me if grief, brought to numbers, cannot be so fierce": stanzaic form, rhythm and play in Paul Muldoon's long poems

Martin Ryle, University of Sussex

Regular forms in poetry constitute an arbitrary pattern of recurrence that cuts across speech and language. In Paul Muldoon's long poems, the fundamental unit of recurrence is the stanza. This paper will argue that it is the stanza, rather than the line, which constitutes the rhythmic basis of these poems, and will explore the working of complex stanzaic form in two examples: 'The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants' (1983) and 'At the Sign of the Black Horse, September 1999' (2002).
     Here the stanza-forms deconstruct the canonical models on which they are based, almost as if to parody them; the lines cannot be read as variations on any underlying metrical or syllabic pattern. But the stanzas remain rule-bound, and the element of rigour and recurrence that this provides can be heard beneath the flamboyance of the poems' surfaces: their literary and cultural allusiveness; their baffling transitions in pursuit of multiple narrative lines; their play with contrasts of language, register and feeling. Yeats, Muldoon's main intertextual addressee in 'At the Sign of the Black Horse', makes the stanza the vehicle and sign of a single rhetorical movement; for Muldoon, by contrast, it works in both these poems almost as an aleatory device, its recurrent form freighted with unpredictable new content. Certain songs of Bob Dylan ('Desolation Row', 'Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands', 'Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts', for example) are one likely model or inspiration for Muldoon, whose admiration for Dylan is a matter of record.
    The poems engage with painful themes: war and diaspora, history experienced as fate. Other long poems of Muldoon's have meditated on illness and death: for example, 'Incantata', 'Yarrow', and most recently 'Sillyhow Stride: In Memory of Warren Zevon' (2006). Our concluding discussion of 'Sillyhow Stride' focuses on Muldoon's engagement with Donne's claim (quoted in the poem) that 'Grief, brought to numbers, cannot be so fierce'. Stanzaic rhythm figures strongly in the pleasure of Muldoon's text, its formal play which constantly breaks free of what writing denotes. The question Muldoon raises here, an insistent question for his readers too, is whether that pleasure can or should 'tame' grief, in another phrase of Donne's.

Poems by Paul Muldoon discussed and mentioned in the paper (all volumes published by Faber and Faber, London)

'The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants' (originally published in Quoof, 1983, repr. in Muldoon, Selected Poems 1969-1983, 1986)
'At the Sign of the Black Horse, September 1999' (in Moy Sand and Gravel, 2003)
'Sillyhow Stride - In memory of Warren Zevon' (in Horse Latitudes, 2006)
'Immram' (originally published in Why Brownlee Left, 1980)
'Incantata: in memory of Mary Farl Powers' and 'Yarrow' (in The Annals of Chile, 1994)
'Long Finish' and 'Bob Dylan: Oh Mercy' (in Hay, 1998)
'Bob Dylan at Princeton, November 2000' (in Horse Latitudes, 2006)
'Unapproved Road' and 'The Misfits' (both in Moy Sand and Gravel, 2003)

Other writings by Muldoon referred to in the paper
Paul Muldoon (2008; first publ. 1998 by Oxford University Press), To Ireland, I: The 1998 Clarendon Lectures. London, Faber
Paul Muldoon (2006), The End of the Poem: Oxford Lectures on Poetry. London, Faber

Other poems and songs referred to
Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, 'Mermaid with Parish Priest', in Ní Dhomhnaill, translated by Paul Muldoon (2007), The Fifty Minute Mermaid. Oldcastle (Co Meath), Gallery Press
John Donne, ''The Good-Morrow', 'The Sun Rising', 'The Anniversary', 'A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy's Day, Being the Shortest Day', 'The Ecstasy', 'Love's Deity' (from Donne's Songs and Sonnets)
Bob Dylan, 'Desolation Row' (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965;) 'Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands' (Blonde on Blonde, 1966;) 'Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts' (Blood on the Tracks, 1975)
W B Yeats, 'A Prayer for my Daughter' (from Michael Robartes and the Dancer, 1921)

Critical and contextual studies: books and chapters
Giorgio Agamben (transl. Daniel Heller-Roazen) (1999), The End of the Poem.  Stanford, Stanford U.P. 
Gaston Bachelard (transl. Maria Jolas) (original French ed., 1958; English translation, 1964; this ed. 1969), The Poetics of Space. Boston, Beacon Press
Matthew Campbell (ed) (2003), The Cambridge Companion to Modern Irish Poetry. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press
Neil Corcoran (ed) (2002), Do You, Mr Jones? Bob Dylan with the Poets and Professors. London, Chatto and Windus
Tim Kendall (1996), Paul Muldoon. Bridgend, Seren [includes bibliographical details of Muldoon's volumes to 1996, together with selected pamphlets and unpublished poems; also lists a large number of reviews and critical articles] 
Edna Longley (1986), Poetry in the Wars. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe Books
Edna Longley (1994), The Living Stream: Literature and Revisionism in Ireland. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe Books
Shane Murphy (2003), 'Sonnets, centos and long lines: Muldoon, Paulin, McGuckian and Carson', in Campbell, Cambridge Companion.
Bernard O'Donoghue (1995), ' "The Half-Said Thing to them is Dearest": Paul Muldoon', in Michael Kenneally (ed.), Poetry in Contemporary Irish Literature. Colin Smythe, Gerrards Cross
Clair Wills (1993), Improprieties: Politics and Sexuality in Northern Irish Poetry. Oxford, Oxford University Press
Clair Wills (1998), Reading Paul Muldoon. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe Books [includes bibliographical details of Muldoon's volumes to 1998, together with selected pamphlets, and a short list of selected critical discussions]

Critical articles
Iain Twiddy (2006), Grief brought to numbers: Paul Muldoon's Circular Elegies', in English 55, 12 pp.181-199
Richard Rankin Russell (2006), The Yeatsian refrain in Paul Muldoon's Moy Sand and Gravel', in ANQ (American Notes and Queries), 19, 13, pp.50-57

Muldoon's official website ( includes some bibliographical information and news of the poet's current and recent activities (but is not really very illuminating...). See also the Faber web site ( for a listing of all Muldoon's books currently in print with Faber.
Last update 16 Nov. 2009 - Archived 20 Oct. 2015
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