This new dazzling collection of poetry, full of shifting semantics and shrewd allusions, will rock your world
With its double-sided title, the latest release from poet, professor and occasional rock guitarist Paul Muldoon, Songs and Sonnets, immediately sets in motion a dizzying dance of definitions. The word "sonnet" derives from the Italian sonetto, meaning "a little sound or song", while "song" can mean "any poem that is suitable for combination with music". For "sonnet", read "song". Definitions in Muldoon always give way to the indefinite, a fact compounded by that compound title, which reprises the Songs and Sonnets of John Donne – who was, argued the writer and director Jonathan Holmes recently, the "Cole Porter of his day". Porter, Tin Pan Alley's showiest wordsmith, has long been the leading light for Muldoon as he infiltrates the American songbook. Donne, in turn, leads us to Muldoon's 2006 elegy for Warren Zevon, "Sillyhow Stride", which locates the deceased rock musician on Grammy night, "as incongruous / there as John Donne at a junior prom". That Zevon's songs were, as Muldoon wrote, "inextricably part of the warp and woof" of his 1983 poetry collection Quoofamplifies the interplay of words and music across Muldoon's extensive oeuvre right up to the "round songs", as Muldoon has termed them, of his most recent poetry collection, Maggot (2010).
"I welcome the idea of poetry … taking in the song tradition from which it sprang," Muldoon said when called upon in 2008 to evaluate Carla Bruni's settings of WB Yeats. He constantly reiterates the root of lyric poetry: as oral recitation performed to the accompaniment of a lyre. Introducing his selection of Donne's verse for Faber, Muldoon is attuned to the metaphysical poet's complicating "play on the homophonic Sun and the Son of God", and the same punning possibilities on "liar"/"lyre" seem to go to the dissembling heart of Songs and Sonnets. He riffs on shifting semantic variations, on the relation between art and artifice, illusion and elision, energy and entropy. Craft, here, encapsulates concealment and coercion, forgery and feigning, harmony and distortion.
In "Shoot 'Em Up", we see only through the "sugar-glass" windows of cinematic simulation as the piano, never "quite in tune", plays the time as out of joint. A mention of the "varmints" leads to "Pip and Magwitch", a split sonnet that hinges on the deployment by al-Qaida terrorist leader Anwar al-Awlaki of Charles Dickens's Great Expectations to conceal an explosive device in 2010. It is perhaps significant that the word "rime" can also mean a "rent, chink or fissure".
As well as following false trails, we may unearth some genuine leads: "Le Flanneur", for Flann O'Brien, calls across to the sonnet "Honey", as O'Brien's employer at the Irish Times, RM Smyllie, smiles knowingly to Buddy Holly's coroner, RE Smiley. "Dent" remembers the critic Michael Allen for having "taught us to admire / the capacity of a three-legged stool // to take pretty much everything in its stride", and that "three-legged stool", the mainstay of Yeats's sonnet in his "Two Songs of a Fool", may be the sonnet itself, that most capacious of forms with its striding, enjambed lines. Coordinates and fixed reference points float free to exhilarating effect in the linguistic adventures of the sat-nav sonnet "Recalculating". "One needs extreme difference to make metaphors", Muldoon has quipped in relation to Donne, and in "Giraffe" the mind strains to find any degree of likeness that might connect the two dislocated halves of this sundered sonnet, mimetic of how the "mouth's out of sync / with her own overdub".
As always with Muldoon, it is at the level of form – where end-rhymes become open-rimes at the poem's pressure points – that the lines blur and fret. "Given just how much pressure you've applied / As you've tried to make / Everything fit / And follow in the world / Because you've taken note of it", the singer serenades his muse in "Continuity Girl", only for the divisive, discontinuous device of broken rhyme ("No gennapoleonic / Officers perempt- / Orily ordering gins and tonic") to give the lie to the surface meanings, just as the visual effects of broken rhyme throw eye and ear out of sync. When Christoper Ricks, comparing Donne with Bob Dylan, asserts that "alliteration and rhyme are ways of having one thing lead to another", he could be commenting on Muldoon's lyrical strategies in Songs and Sonnets.
Fans of Muldoon's band, Rackett, will recognise "Mad for You", "Good As It Gets", "11 o'Clock" and "Resistance" as song lyrics from their 2007 album Resistance, but anyone who listens to Muldoon's captivating reading of "Hey Rachel" will hear how these songs need no musical support. "I was delighted to see that Leonard Cohen performs Byron's 'We'll Go No More a-Roving' as a poem-song", Muldoon enthused in a recent lecture for the Poetry Society – and perhaps that hyphenated category "poem-songs" best describes these songs and sonnets. They are complex, charged performances that vibrate in the interim between one thing and the other. They'll rock your world.