Pineapples and Pomegranates
Pineapples and PomegranatesIntroduction
Topics For Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Paul Muldoon 2002
Paul Muldoon's "Pineapples and Pomegranates" was first published in his collection Moy Sand and Gravel (2002), which won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 2003. Muldoon's poem recalls the speaker's first encounter with a pineapple, as a thirteen-year-old boy growing up in Northern Ireland. The speaker muses on the pineapple's significance as a symbol of generosity or "munificence." The speaker then comments on the difference between "munificence" and "munitions" and expresses a wish for peace somewhere on the planet. The poem concludes with the speaker's assertion that he is talking about pineapples and not pomegranates. Muldoon dedicated the poem to the memory of Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, who died in 2000.
Although the poem is partly about the difference between two fruits, it also alludes to the ongoing conflicts in Muldoon's native country of Northern Ireland and in Amichai's home of Israel. Like other Muldoon poems, "Pineapples and Pomegranates" addresses the slippery quality of language, as well as the elusive nature of peace. In this poem, Muldoon also employs a deft and unique use of rhyme, word-shifting, and repetition to emphasize his themes. The fourteen-line poem can also be considered a version of the sonnet.
Muldoon was born June 20, 1951 in Portadown, County Armagh, Northern Ireland. The son of Patrick Muldoon, a laborer and market gardener, and Brigid Regan, a schoolteacher, Muldoon grew up Catholic in the mostly Protestant town of Collegelands near a village called the Moy. As a young teenager, Muldoon studied the Gaelic language and Irish literature at St. Patrick's College, where he also began writing poetry. He also studied literature and philosophy at Queen's University in Belfast, where he met and worked with a number of prominent Irish writers who later became known as the Ulster Poets. This group of writers included Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, who became Muldoon's tutor at the university and who encouraged Muldoon to write poetry.
In 1971, Muldoon published his first collection of poems, Knowing My Place. In 1973, he published New Weather, which was praised for its verbal virtuosity and which established Muldoon's reputation as an innovative force in contemporary Irish poetry. Muldoon went on to publish other poetry collections, including Meeting the British (1987), The Annals of Chile (1994), Poems 1968–1998 (2001), and Moy Sand and Gravel (2002), in which "Pineapples and Pomegranates" appears. He has also edited several anthologies, including The Faber Book of Beasts (1997) and The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry (1986). Muldoon's other writings include translated works, children's books, plays, and his lectures on Irish literature.
From 1973 to 1986, Muldoon worked as a radio and television producer in Belfast for the British Broadcasting Company. Since 1987, he has lived in the United States, where he is a professor of humanities and creative writing at Princeton University. Muldoon has received many distinguished awards, including the 1994 T. S. Eliot Prize; a 1996 American Academy of Arts and Letters award in literature; a 2003 Pulitzer Prize in poetry and 2003 Griffin International Prize for excellence in poetry for Moy Sand and Gravel; a 2004 American Ireland Fund Literary Award; and the 2004 Shakespeare Prize. Muldoon is married to novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz and has two children.
Muldoon begins "Pineapples and Pomegranates" as a personal anecdote or story by recalling the speaker's first encounter with a pineapple, at the age of thirteen. The poet emphasizes the sense of touch in recalling this experience as he writes, "I would grapple / with my first pineapple." These two lines establish the pattern of rhyming the last words of every two lines, as in the full rhyme of "grapple" with "pineapple." Throughout the poem, Muldoon continues to use rhymed couplets, rhyming every two lines.
In the next two lines, the speaker further describes his memory of the pineapple, noting, "its exposed breast / setting itself as another test." The metaphor in line 3 personifies the fruit by likening the pineapple to a female body part. By describing the pineapple in this way, Muldoon emphasizes the fruit's exoticness and its seductive qualities. In these lines, Muldoon uses the exact end-rhyme of "breast" and "test."
In lines 5 and 6, the idea of the pineapple as an object of temptation is further reinforced, as the speaker explicitly states that the pineapple is a test "of my willpower." However, the speaker also notes that even then he knew "that it stood for something other than itself alone." This quality of standing for something else seems to add to the pineapple's mystery for the boy. This line also begins the speaker's musings on things other than the pure memory of the pineapple.
In these two lines, the speaker claims that he had "absolutely no sense / of its being a worldwide symbol of munificence." Muldoon overtly points out the pineapple's function as a symbol of munificence, or generosity, while contrasting this adult awareness with his former naiveté. By using the word "symbol," Muldoon also emphasizes the speaker's position not only as an adult, but as a literary person and, presumably, a poet.
Notably, in line 8, Muldoon also finally concludes the sentence he began at the start of the poem. The length of this sentence creates a sense of fluidity, reflecting the speaker's free associations from the initial recollection of an adolescent experience. In running the sentence across the first seven lines, Muldoon uses enjambment, rather than stopping sentences where the lines end. This long sentence also makes up the first eight lines of the poem, which form an octave. Traditional sonnets often begin with an octave that establishes a situation or question, which is then resolved, or answered, in the ensuing six lines, or sestet.
In line 9, Muldoon follows the long first sentence with a very short one: "Munificence—right?" The brevity of the sentence expresses the interruptive quality of this new thought, which departs from the speaker's previous musings on the pineapple. The em dash and the question "right?" also introduce an element of doubt, as the speaker shifts from thinking about the pineapple to thinking about the word "munificence." Muldoon follows this sentence with, "Not munitions, if you understand / where I'm coming from."
The shift from "munificence" to "munitions" is striking, as the two words sound similar but convey radically different meanings. "Munitions" refers to armaments or weapons, particularly explosives such as bombs or grenades. By slipping from "munificence" to "munitions," Muldoon subtly expresses how easily and quickly words and ideas can change from benevolence to violence. The end of the sentence reinforces this idea of the slippery slope to violence. The casual figure of speech "if you understand / where I'm coming from" also refers to the poet's country of origin, Northern Ireland, a place marked by violent conflict. Muldoon's adolescence during the 1960s was marked by the beginning of increased civil strife in Northern Ireland, known as the Troubles.
From the end of line 10 through line 13, the speaker expresses a desire for peace as he continues to muse on the meanings of the words "munificence" and "munitions": "As if the open hand / might, for once, put paid / to the hand grenade / in one corner of the planet." The act of munificence or generosity is expressed by the metaphor of the extended open hand, which the speaker wishes would put to rest the munitions represented by the hand grenade. In addition to using end-rhyme again in lines 11 and 12, Muldoon also repeats the word "hand" in these lines. By repeating the word in different contexts, "open hand" and "hand grenade," the poet again emphasizes how easily a shift from munificence to munitions (and back) can occur.
The phrase "in one corner of the planet" highlights the fact that violent conflict is a worldwide phenomenon. Muldoon dedicated the poem to the memory of Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai. In addition to strife in Northern Ireland, Muldoon is likely referring to Amichai's home of Israel, another site of continual conflict, where permanent peace has remained elusive.
Muldoon concludes the poem with one end-stopped sentence: "I'm talking about pineapples—right?—not pomegranates." In this line, the poet again invokes a shift from one word to another similar-sounding word, "pineapples" to "pomegranates." Although the words sound similar, the symbolic meanings of the two fruits contrast sharply. The poet has already stated that pineapples are a symbol of generosity. Pomegranates, however, are a symbol of temptation that literally lead to hell. In Greek myth, Persephone, the daughter of Demeter (the goddess of agriculture), is consigned to live six months of every year in the underworld because she ate six pomegranate seeds, given to her by Hades, king of the underworld. By comparing pineapples and pomegranates, Muldoon again shows how quickly things can shift from beneficence to destruction.
Muldoon's second use of the question "right?" interrupts the final line and conveys the speaker's sense of doubt about what he is saying. Rather than confidently offering the hope that peace is achievable, the poet-speaker doubts whether or not he even knows about what he is talking, and the poem concludes on an uncertain note.
The poem began as a personal recollection of an innocent and mostly enjoyable adolescent memory. However, rather than offering a definitive answer to the octave, the poem's last six lines, or sestet, contrast with the first eight lines by focusing on adult doubts and preoccupations with world violence. The short sentences, rhymes, repetitions, and word shifts in the last six lines bolster the sense that memory and reality are hard to pin down.
Memory and Reminiscence
The poem begins with the poet-speaker's recollection of his first encounter with a pineapple, as a young adolescent of thirteen. He recalls the excitement he felt, and the fruit's seductive and exotic qualities. The speaker also remembers realizing that part of the fruit's seductive appeal lay in its mystery and in its symbolic importance. He notes too, however, that as a young person he did not know that the fruit was a "worldwide symbol of munificence." This largely sweet memory is soon overlaid with references to the memory of civil violence, which marked the poet's later adolescence in Northern Ireland. Muldoon makes the transition from positive memory to disturbing memory by invoking a series of similar sounding words, starting with "munificence" and "munitions."
- Research the history of the conflict, or Troubles, in Northern Ireland from the 1960s through the present day. Create a time line of events. Then give an oral report discussing the nature of the conflict, the parties or groups involved, and what conditions have nurtured peace between opposing factions.
- After coming upon pineapples in the West Indies, Christopher Columbus wrote about the fruit, which was consumed as food and used in wine-making. Imagine that you are Columbus encountering the pineapple for the first time, and write a short essay or a poem that describes the fruit's properties and your reactions to tasting a pineapple for the first time.
- Research the history of pineapple cultivation in Hawaii and its impact on the region. Write and perform a play that shares this history, perhaps focusing on plantation laborers or the activities of the Dole Company.
- Research how pineapples are grown on modern plantations using mulch paper and other methods. Prepare and deliver a presentation that explains how pineapples are cultivated. Use charts, photographs, and other graphics to aid you in your presentation.
- According to Greek legend, Persephone, the daughter of the goddess of agriculture, was forced to spend half of every year in the underworld because she had eaten six pomegranate seeds. Research the legend of Persephone and then write your own version of the tale as a play, a song, or a poem. As you draft your piece, feel free to change details such as how many seeds Persephone ate, her motives, or the outcome of her action. Then give a reading of your version of the legend.
Throughout the last six lines of the poem, words mutate or change, as the speaker free associates from one idea to another. This happens first with the shift from "munificence" to "munitions" in line 9. Although the words sound similar and share the first four letters, they bear very different meanings, as "munificence" refers to generosity and "munitions" refer to explosives. By juxtaposing these words, Muldoon emphasizes the mutability of words, and the idea that words, ideas, and perhaps even things can shift with startling ease. This sense of mutability is reinforced by the final word shift from "pineapples" to "pomegranates" in line 14. In this final pairing, the shift is again from something positive (the munficent pineapple) to something more menacing, as pomegranates symbolize temptation that leads to time in the underworld.
Struggle and Conflict
The poem alludes to the violent conflict that took place during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, which intensified during the 1960s and 1970s. Muldoon alludes to the conflict when he uses the word "munitions" while reminiscing about his youth. He refers to the Troubles again when he adds, "if you understand / where I'm coming from," since he literally comes from Northern Ireland. Muldoon follows this sentence with another that expresses a wish for peace, an end to munitions such as "the hand grenade / in one corner of the planet." The last part of this sentence may also allude to the Arab-Israeli conflict in the homeland of Yehuda Amichai, to whose memory Muldoon dedicates the poem. Throughout the late twentieth century, both Northern Ireland and Israel were the sites of ongoing violent conflict and struggle.
Doubt and Uncertainty
Muldoon conveys a sense of general uncertainty by repeating the question "right?" in lines 9 and 14. This questioning phrase undercuts the speaker's confidence. The sense of doubt is reinforced by the mutability or shifting of words throughout the poem. Nothing in the poem seems entirely stable or fixed, and this instability generates a sense of anxiety. Rather than expressing the confident hope that peace is possible, the speaker concludes the poem by doubting that the object about which he thought he was musing—the pineapple—is not in fact something entirely different.
Muldoon's poem is a variation on the sonnet form. The English or Shakespearean sonnet consists of fourteen lines, which follow a pattern or rhyme scheme of abab cdcd efef gg. (The rhyme scheme refers to the rhyming of the last words of each line.) "Pineapples and Pomegranates" departs from the traditional sonnet form by using rhymed couplets or two-line pairs throughout, making its general rhyme scheme aa bb cc dd ee ff gg. The first or "a" rhyme is "grapple / pineapple." The second or "b" rhyme is "breast / test," and the rhymed couplets continue in this manner.
"Pineapples and Pomegranates" also differs from traditional sonnets in its meter. Strict or traditional sonnets use iambic pentameter, which means that each line consists of ten syllables that form iambs, or unstressed-stressed syllable pairs. In this poem, the number of syllables varies from line to line, so that some lines, such as line 3, have only four syllables, while others, such as line 14, have fourteen syllables. The varying line lengths help create a sense of fluidity and movement within the structure of "Pineapples and Pomegranates."
Rhyme and Word Shifts
Muldoon is known for his unusual use of rhyme and pairings of similar sounding but very different words. In this poem, similar sounding words mutate so that "munificence" becomes "munitions," "pineapples" slides into "pomegranates," and the last two syllables of "pomegranates" also echo "grenade" from an earlier line. This highlighting of the slippery quality of words reinforces the ideas of mutability or how things change, particularly from positive associations in "pineapple" and "munificence" to violent or ominous ones in "pomegranates" and "munitions."
As mentioned, Muldoon uses rhymed two-line pairs, or couplets, throughout "Pineapples and Pomegranates." These rhymes are mostly full rhymes, which are easy to hear, such as "bones / alone" or "paid / grenade." By using these exact rhymes in most of the poem, Muldoon sets up a dependable structure, which creates a sense of security. However, as also mentioned, the word "pomegranates," while rhyming with "planet" as expected, also echoes the sounds of "grenade" in line 12. This unexpected Muldoonian fuzzy-rhyme disrupts the formal pattern and thus creates a sense of instability, which reinforces the theme of doubt in the poem.
Muldoon also makes the poem cohere by repeating certain words, such as "munificence" in lines 8 and 9, "hand" in lines 10 and 12, and "right?" in lines 9 and 14. Although these repetitions create a tone of doubt, they also hold together disparate ideas, creating a sense of wholeness in the face of uncertainty.
Although the poem is ostensibly about two different fruits, Muldoon alludes to the political context of his youth in lines 9 and 10, when he writes, "Not munitions, if you understand / where I'm coming from." During the era in which the poem is set, tensions escalated between the pro-British Protestant majority and the large Catholic minority in Northern Ireland, resulting in increased violence from the late 1960s through the 1990s, during a time period known as the Troubles. The conflict was both religious and political, as Catholics tended to favor union with the Republic of Ireland, while Protestant Loyalists wished to remain united with Great Britain.
In 1968 and 1969, civil rights marches to protest the treatment of Catholics were brutally broken up by Protestant Loyalist (pro-British) forces. In 1972, violence increased further after "Bloody Sunday," when British paratroopers killed thirteen people in Derry, Northern Ireland. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) or Catholic forces bombed and killed several British elected officials. The Northern Ireland Muldoon refers to was a site of ongoing political violence, with bombings, riots, and civil warfare continuing for decades as peace agreements between the warring factions failed to take hold. Throughout the Troubles, both innocents and combatants on both sides were killed in the violence. By the time Muldoon wrote "Pineapples and Pomegranates," however, much of the violence had settled down as cease-fires between IRA and Loyalist forces began to succeed in the 1990s.
Given that the poem is dedicated to the memory of Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, the poem probably also alludes to ongoing violence and the failure of peace treaties in the Middle East. As with the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Israel has been the site of terrible political violence throughout the late twentieth century.
The collection in which "Pineapples and Pomegranates" appears, Moy Sand and Gravel (2002), has received considerable critical acclaim as one of Muldoon's finest books of poetry. The book won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in poetry, as well as the 2003 Griffin International Prize for excellence in poetry.
Critics have praised Muldoon's remarkably adept use of rhyme and other verbal techniques, his wit, and his unique engagement with personal and historical themes. A critic reviewing Moy Sand and Gravel for Publisher's Weekly notes, "This first full volume since Muldoon's monumental Poems 1968–1998 reveals one of the English-speaking world's most acclaimed poets still at the top of his slippery, virtuosic game."
Although Muldoon has sometimes been criticized for merely being clever, most critics have delighted in his inventive use of form and word play to address serious topics, such as the Troubles in Northern Ireland, in fresh and unsentimental ways. In her Moy Sand and Gravel review in Library Journal, Rochelle Ratner writes, "Munificence is juxtaposed with munitions [in "Pineapples and Pomegranates"], while aunts is rhymed with taunts and fuss with orthodox [in other poems in the collection], almost daring readers to roll and twist the words in their mouths."
Anna Maria Hong
Hong earned her master of fine arts in creative writing at the University of Texas Michener Center for Writers and is a writer-in-residence at Richard Hugo House. In the following essay, Hong discusses Muldoon's use of word-shifting, rhyme, and repetition to generate complex associations that delve beneath the surface of apparent meaning.
Like many Muldoon poems, "Pineapples and Pomegranates" is not quite what it first appears to be. The title indicates that the poem's subject is fruit, and the poem begins as a personal anecdote with the speaker recalling his first experience with the pineapple. In the long opening sentence, the speaker muses on the fruit's exotic appeal, its seductiveness to his thirteen-year-old, relatively naive self. However, Muldoon's associations soon lead the reader away from the familiar world of objects to more complex and disturbing issues below the surface of daily life. Muldoon makes this transition from one mode to another seamlessly, by employing his distinctive use of rhyme, word-shifting, and repetition.
A master of poetic technique known for his verbal virtuosity and odd, ingenious rhymes, Muldoon also frequently uses association to juxtapose divergent ideas. In this poem, the speaker begins free-associating in lines 6–8, as he recalls that even as a young adolescent, he knew the pineapple "stood for something other than itself alone / while having absolutely no sense / of its being a worldwide symbol of munificence." These lines contrast the innocence of a younger boy with the informed, literary consciousness of the adult, poet-speaker. Although the tone is casual and confiding, the contrast hints at more ominous things to come.
In the next line, the shift to more complex and disturbing concerns begins. As the speaker continues to free-associate from his initial memory of the pineapple, he begins to muse on the words that arise, stating "Munificence—right? Not munitions, if you understand / where I'm coming from." The association seems believable, as the two words "munificence" and "munitions" sound similar. However, these words convey very different meanings, as "munificence" refers to generosity and "munitions" are explosive armaments. This typically Muldoonian word-shifting juxtaposes two divergent ideas, which are held together by sound. By invoking this word-shift, Muldoon ushers in the theme of mutability, of things quickly and almost imperceptibly morphing from one thing into another.
These types of shifts continue throughout the last part of the poem, and in "Pineapples and Pomegranates," this movement tends to go from good intentions to something more sinister. Sometimes the word-shift involves the repetition of a word, as in lines 10–12, when Muldoon writes, "As if the open hand / might, for once, put paid / to the hand grenade." The word "hand" is repeated but in entirely different contexts, as the generous, peace-extending "open hand" becomes the explosive munitions "hand grenade" two lines later. In these lines, the speaker expresses a desire for peace, but that wish is undermined by the word-shifting. As with the fluid transition from "munificence" to "munitions," the verbal closeness of the two phrases "open hand" and "hand grenade" indicates how easily one thing can become another and vice versa. Muldoon's slippery use of language emphasizes how porous the borders can be between two opposing modes.
A final instance of word-shifting occurs in the poem's last line, as the speaker concludes, "I'm talking about pineapples—right?—not pomegranates." After all the free-associating in the poem's first thirteen lines, the speaker returns to the idea of the fruit that sparked the chain of associations in the first place. He immediately interrupts himself by comparing the subject to another fruit, one that sounds somewhat similar, as both multisyllabic words begin with the "p" sound. Once again, the two similar-sounding words convey very different ideas, and the shift is from positive to ominous. The expressed symbolism of the pineapple is generosity, whereas the pomegranate recalls a descent into hell.
In Greek legend, Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, eats six pomegranate seeds and thereafter must live in the underworld for six months of every year. In Muldoon's poem, both the pineapple and the pomegranate are, like the apple in the Garden of Eden, symbols of temptation. The pineapple is associated with adolescent sensual longing, as in the first five lines, in which the speaker compares the first pineapple to a breast. This relatively innocent desire contrasts sharply with the temptation associated with the pomegranate, which leads to life in the underworld. Or does it?
The pineapple's function as a "worldwide symbol of munificence" may not be as nice as it first seems to be. "Munificence" is a very liberal giving or bestowing. Gifts can be double-edged, and while the pineapple is symbol of generosity, it is also a symbol of empire and colonialism. Christopher Columbus first encountered the pineapple when he "discovered" the West Indies, bringing European domination to the New World. Like Muldoon, Columbus wrote about the fruit, helping to spread its proliferation throughout the planet on plantations that often exploited laborers. In Muldoon's poem, the juxtaposition of pineapples with the ominous pomegranate incites the reader to reconsider the connotations of the first fruit. Similarly, the slip from "munificence" to "munitions" leads the reader to think about the less benevolent aspects of gift-giving associated with the first word.
Words and their meanings become more complex in the world of Muldoon's poem, because the poet's word-shifts encourage the reader to question first-glance meanings. In this poem as in others by Muldoon, definitive, black-and-white definitions disintegrate in the face of word-play, creating a sense of uncertainty. Muldoon's poem is not the usual personal anecdote ending in a reassuring realization about the self. As Clair Wills notes in her introduction to her book-length study Reading Paul Muldoon, "Rather than a subjective journey of discovery, or a drama of consciousness, the poems offer an arena in which layers of meaning, image, story jostle one another, and slip into one another, mutating and transforming in the process." With all the shifting of words and meanings, the reader may feel that there is no firm ground on which to stand in Muldoon's poem.
- Muldoon's collection Poems 1968–1998 (2001) contains his eight previous volumes of poetry.
- Muldoon edited The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry (1986), which features a number of other prominent Irish poets, including Patrick Kavanagh, Louis MacNeice, Michael Longley, and Seamus Heaney.
- To Ireland, I (2000) includes Muldoon's lectures on Irish literature.
- Selected Poems 1966–1987 (1990) comprises poems by Muldoon's early mentor, the Nobel laureate and fellow Northern Irish poet Seamus Heaney.
- The anthology Modern Irish Drama (1991) features plays by several Irish writers, including W. B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, J. M. Synge, and Samuel Beckett. The collection also includes essays and criticism about Irish drama.
- William Trevor's The Collected Stories (1993) contains stories about life in contemporary rural Ireland from several of the acclaimed writer's collections.
- The Longest War: Northern Ireland's Troubled History (2002), by Marc Mulholland, explores the issues and debates about the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
- Translated from Hebrew into English by Bloch and Chana Kronfeld, Open Closed Open: Poems (2000) is Yehuda Amichai's final collection and magnum opus.
- American poet Heather McHugh's collection Hinge & Sign: Poems, 1968–1993 (1994) features poems lauded for their verbal ingenuity. Muldoon selected this collection as one of his favorites.
- Mistaken Identities: Poetry and Northern Ireland (1997), by Peter McDonald, tackles the question of Northern Irish poetry and politics through close studies of a number of important writers, including Seamus Heaney, Tom Paulin, Louis Mac Neice, Derek Mahon, Paul Muldoon, and others.
Muldoon compounds the sense of uncertainty by using another repetition. He has the speaker use the questioning phrase "right?" twice, once in line 9 and again in the middle of the final line. This phrase serves to undermine the speaker's confidence. In line 9, the phrase immediately precedes the first disturbing word-shift to "munitions." In line 14, the phrase enables the shift from pineapples to pomegranates. Rather than ending the poem on a declarative hope or wish for peace, Muldoon has his speaker question whether or not he even knows what he is talking about. This sense of persistent doubt seems to stem from the musings on munitions, grenades, and pomegranates, which harken back to the violence of the Troubles in Northern Ireland during Muldoon's teen years and adulthood. The whimsical word-play leads to serious and distressing memories, which lay beneath the surface of the innocuous-seeming recollection of the pineapple.
In spite of the feelings of doubt and anxiety inspired by the instability of both words and peace in Northern Ireland and elsewhere, to which Muldoon alludes, the poet does not leave the reader hanging in the poem. In the face of this instability, Muldoon meticulously creates structure. This poem is a version of the sonnet, with fourteen lines and an almost entirely regular rhyme scheme of two-line rhymed couplets. In addition to this formal structure, Muldoon's repetitions of words and sounds serve to create a cohesive pattern that holds divergent meanings together. The full end-rhymes throughout the poem, such as "bones / alone" and "understand / hand," generate a sense of satisfying expectation. In addition, the more inventive echoings of sound in instances such as "pomegranates / grenade" add to the sense of structure and cohesion. In a Muldoonian twist, the poem's last word also mimics the meaning of "grenade" when read as the pun "palm-grenade." Although the poem ends with this would-be explosive, the feeling imparted is merely unsettling—not devastating. Using sound and word-play, Muldoon shifts the emphasis back to a sense of security by creating an intricate edifice to house both expansive and destructive impulses in a place where wry musing, and not the weapon, wins the day.
Source: Anna Maria Hong, Critical Essay on "Pineapples and Pomegranates," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
Contemporary Authors Online
In the following essay, the author discusses Muldoon's career.
Paul Muldoon is one of Ireland's leading contemporary poets. His short lyrics, modified sonnets and ballads, and dramatic monologues touch on themes of love, maturation, and self-discovery, as well as Irish culture and history. Terse and highly original, Muldoon's poetry is noted for its multiplicity of meaning. In a Stand review, Rodney Pybus asserted that the poet's works reveal a "quirky, off-beat talent for sudden revelatory flights from mundane consequences. . . . He found very early a distinctively wry and deceptively simple-sophisticated lyric voice.
Muldoon is the youngest member of a group of Northern Irish poets—including Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, and Derek Mahon—which gained prominence in the 1960s and 1970s. As a student at Queen's University, Muldoon studied under Heaney, and refined his own analytical and critical skills in weekly discussions with other poets. In 1971, at the age of nineteen, Muldoon had completed his first short collection, Knowing My Place. Two years later, he published New Weather, his first widely reviewed volume of poetry. The book secured Muldoon's place among Ireland's finest writers and helped establish his reputation as an innovative new voice in English-language poetry.
The poems in New Weather generally illuminate the complexities of seemingly ordinary things or events. Several critics have noted that the collection's multilayered, heavily imagistic, and metaphoric verse explores psychological development with apparent simplicity and eloquence while offering keen insights into the subjective nature of perception. Calling the collection "the result of continuous age and aging," Roger Conover suggested in a review for Eire-Ireland, "Muldoon's is a poetry which sees into things, and speaks of the world in terms of its own internal designs and patterns." A Times Literary Supplement reviewer, however, felt that the poems in Muldoon's "highly promising collection are flawed by a vagueness of focus that dissipates the strength of original ideas."
Muldoon followed New Weather with the 1977 collection Mules, which opens with a poem reflecting Northern Ireland's civil strife. Recurring themes of political and social relevance inform the other pastorals and ballads in Mules. "The Narrow Road to the North," for instance, depicts the debilitating effects of war on a Japanese soldier who emerges from hiding, unaware that World War II has ended. The poem subtly parallels the soldier's deadened emotional state with the toll that the struggle in Ireland has taken on its citizens. As Peter Scupham noted in his Times Literary Supplement review, "Muldoon's taste for anecdote, invention, and parable shows strongly [in Mules]," and claimed that the collection is "a handsome promise of good poems to come." In Preoccupations: Selected Prose, 1968–1978, Heaney deemed Mules "a strange, rich second collection" and judged the poet "one of the very best."
By the time Muldoon's next volume of poetry, Why Brownlee Left, was published in 1980, the poet had attracted considerable attention for his technical acumen, dry verbal wit, and provocative use of language. Some critics considered Why Brownlee Left a more mature effort than Muldoon's earlier collections. According to Alan Hollinghurst in Encounter, "the key to the book" lies in a seemingly straightforward and elemental poem titled "October 1950." Chronicling the poet's own conception, the poem reflects Muldoon's preoccupation with the search for self and acknowledges, noted Hollinghurst, that life "refute[s] any philosophical attempts to organize or direct it." Feeling that Muldoon's poetry in Why Brownlee Left was composed mainly of "blueprints, sketches, [and] fragments," and that Muldoon is not "a truly satisfying poet," Anglo-Welsh Review's David Annwn nonetheless praised Muldoon for his "unnerving knack of capturing most elusive atmospheres, manipulating the inflexions of Anglo-Irish . . . and conveying a whole spectrum of humour."
Muldoon's 1983 collection, Quoof, takes its title from his family's name for a hot-water bottle. The imaginative poems in the volume offer varying perceptions of the world. "Gathering Mushrooms" opens the book with the narrator's drug-induced reminiscences of his childhood, his father, and the turmoil in Ireland. "The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants," the final poem and the volume's longest, is a narrative that follows the exploits of the mercenary-like figure Gallogly as he voyages through Northern Ireland. Writing in the London Review of Books, John Kerrigan asserted that the poetry in Quoof is "a bewildering display of narrative invention . . . written with that combination of visual clarity and verbal panache which has become the hallmark of Paul Muldoon." Muldoon, in an interview with Michael Donaghy in Chicago Review, commented on the violence in Quoof: "I don't think it's a very likeable or attractive book in its themes."
Meeting the British, Muldoon's 1987 collection, contains several poems of recollection as well as more unusual selections such as "7, Middagh Street," which, according to Terry Eagleton in the Observer, blends fantasy and history with "dramatic energy and calculated irony . . . to produce a major poem." A series of imaginary monologues by such prominent artistic and literary figures as W. H. Auden, Salvador Dali, Gypsy Rose Lee, Carson McCullers, and Louis MacNeice, "7, Middagh Street" contains provocative commentary on the importance of politics in Irish art. Comparing Meeting the British with Quoof, Mark Ford in the London Review of Books found that whereas "Quoof tended to push its metaphors, trance-like, to the point of no return, its mushroom hallucinations not deviation from but a visionary heightening of reality: the poems in Meeting the British seem more self-aware.... Meeting the British adds some wonderful new tricks to Muldoon's repertoire." Deeming Meeting the British Muldoon's "most ambitious collection," Mick Imlah, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, noted that the volume proves an innovative addition "to a difficult and delightful body of poetry." Responding to several critics' attempts to compare the poet's style to that of his contemporaries, Conover proclaimed that Muldoon's "poems are too individual to characterize very effectively in terms of anyone else's work.... [His] conception of the poem is unique."
Muldoon's next collection was the ambitious Madoc: A Mystery, summarized by Geoffrey Stokes in the Village Voice as "quite funny, very difficult, highly ambitious, more than a little unsettling, and . . . subtitled 'A Mystery.' Which it surely is." Named after the title of a Robert Southey poem concerning a Welsh prince who discovers America in the twelfth century, the narrative flow of Madoc revolves around "what might have happened if the Romantic poets Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge had indeed come (as they planned in 1794) to America and created a 'pantisocracy' ('equal rule for all') on the banks of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania," commented Lucy McDiarmid in her New York Times Book Review piece on Madoc. Coleridge becomes entranced by peyote and Native American culture while Southey becomes vengeful and tyrannical after a loss of idealism. The question, in the words of Thomas M. Disch in Poetry, is whether or not Madoc's "helter-skelter narrative pattern, with its excursions into such parallel lives as those of Thomas Moore, Lord Byron, Lewis and Clark, Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson, and George Catlin, add up either to a memorable drama or to a coherent vision of history?" Despite finding Madoc "readable for its entire length," Disch's answer remained: "I don't think so." Michael Hoffman in the London Review of Books concluded, however, that each "reading—and still more, every new bit of information—makes Madoc a cleverer and more imposing piece of work." Stokes countered Disch, and commented: "The question is whether it's worth stepping into Madoc even once; the answer is an unqualified yes."
"The Annals of Chile is easier of access and more emotionally direct than Madoc, while more allusive and arcane than [Muldoon's] earlier work," argued Richard Tillinghast in the New York Times Book Review. "Incantata," one of two central poems in The Annals of Chile, remembers Muldoon's lover Mary Farl Powers in a "beautiful and heartfelt elegy" in the words of Times Literary Supplement reviewer Lawrence Norfolk. "It is Muldoon's most transparent poem for some time, and also his most musical." "Yarrow," the second, "jazzily juxtaposes swashbuckling daydreams . . . with real life's painful memories of a druggy girlfriend's breakdown and the death of [Muldoon's] mother," commented Michael Dirda in a Washington Post Book World review. Mark Ford, in a review of Annals in the London Review of Books, found the themes of "less scope for the kinds of all-synthesizing wit characteristic of Muldoon." William Pratt concluded in World Literature Today that for those readers "who enjoy having a leg pulled, Muldoon is your man; to those who expect something more substantial from poetry, Muldoon rhymes with buffoon." Los Angeles Times Book Review's Katherine McNamara, however, found that in Annals, "every word, every reference, every allusion, carries meaning. Muldoon never flinches in his brilliant verbal workings." In his review of The Annals of Chile for Poetry, F. D. Reeve characterized Muldoon as "a juggler, a handspringing carny, a gandy dancer, a stand-up comic, and intellectual muckraker," and went on to state: "He bends language as easily as Geller, the psychic, bent spoons."
The 1996 Kerry Slides, in which Muldoon's poems are accompanied by the photographs of Bill Doyle, received significant praise from Patricia Monaghan of Booklist who dubbed it "an inspired collaboration." The title of the book refers both to the Irish dance of that name and to Doyle's photos of Kerry County in southwestern Ireland. "Muldoon's short poems," Monaghan remarked, "are only obliquely connected to Doyle's black-and-white photos," yet at the same time she felt that their "wild rhymes and witty wordplay encapsulate history, myth, language, and landscape." Monaghan found Doyle's photos to be "dreamlike despite their sharpness," and went on to note "his eye sees beyond the picturesque to the archetypal."
Muldoon's 1998 Hay is a diverse collection, covering subjects from the personal to the political and the universal, offering a range of forms and styles that includes sonnets, sestinas, haiku, and much more. William Logan of New Criterion observed: "Poems shift and ratchet, one time slipping into another, one place substituting for another, scenes turning themselves inside out, lines jolting and stuttering, mysteriously repeating according to some Masonic code, subject to sudden outcries of 'hey' or 'wheehee' or 'tra la.'" The dust jacket for the book describes Muldoon as a "prodigy" who has now become a "virtuoso." It is Muldoon's technical virtuosity that some reviewers of Hay fastened upon as a drawback in the work. Reviewing the book for The New Republic Adam Kirsch noted: "if virtuosity is all that a poet can display, if his poems demand attention simply because of their elaborateness and difficulty, then he has in some sense failed.... It is true that Muldoon sometimes writes directly, with plain emotion, even sentimentality. But those are not his most characteristic poems, nor his best. When he is at his most original, Muldoon is rather a kind of acrobat, piling up strange rhymes, references, and conceits in a way that is disorienting and exhilarating." According to Logan: "Muldoon is . . . in love (not wisely but too well) with language itself.... Too often the result is tedious foolery, the language run amok with Jabberwocky possibility (words, words, monotonously inbreeding), as if possibility were reason enough for the doing." Yet almost as if in spite of themselves, both Logan and Kirsch also offered praise for Hay. Logan concluded: "Everyone interested in contemporary poetry should read this book.... In our time of tired mirrors and more-than-tiresome confession, Muldoon is the rare poet who writes through the looking glass." In a similar vein, Kirsch remarked: "at a time when poetry has all but forgotten the possibilities of adventurous form, when the majority of poets are trivially self-expressive and the minority with higher ambitions pursue a formless complexity, Muldoon's ability to construct his poems is rare, and admirable."
Muldoon once told CA: "I started [writing poetry] when I was fifteen or sixteen. I'd written a few poems before then, as I suppose most people do. It seems to me that children of eight or nine—though I don't remember writing anything myself when I was that age—are in a way some of the best poets I've come across. Poems by children of that age are quite fresh, untrammeled by any ideas of what a poem might be or what a poem should look like. While I think it's perhaps a little romantic to suggest it, I believe it's something of that quality that people a little older are trying to get back to, something of that rinsed quality of the eye.
"I wrote lots of poems as a teenager, many of them heavily under the influence of T. S. Eliot, who seemed to me to be quite a marvelous person. I devoured Eliot and learned everything I could about him. He's a bad person, though, for anyone trying to write to learn from, since his voice is so much his own; I ended up doing parodies of Eliot. I read a lot of poetry, modern poetry as well as poetry by writers all the way through in English and indeed in Irish. And gradually I began to learn, particularly from writers who were round about, like Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, and other Irish writers who were writing about things I knew about. I think it's quite important to have people round about who remind one that writing poetry is not an entirely weird occupation, that one isn't the only one trying to do it.
"As to choosing poetry rather than some other form of writing, in a way I chose poetry over the weekly essay. We had a teacher who used to assign an essay every week, and rather than an essay, I wrote a poem one week because it seemed to me a much easier, certainly a shorter, thing to do. In a way it was out of laziness that I felt I might try to write poems, and I continued to do it. I'd love to be able to write prose, and I've written the occasional little autobiographical piece for radio or whatever, but I find it takes me so long to write a sentence, or to write anything. I don't have a natural fluency in writing. The poems I do try to write are aimed to sound very off-the-cuff, very simple and natural, as if they were spoken, or as if they were composed in about the same time as it takes to speak them. But I spend a lot of time getting that effect; it doesn't come naturally.
"There is a school of thought that holds that the writer is dead, and really anyone can read whatever they like into this text, as they insist on calling it nowadays. I think one of the jobs of a writer is to contain and restrict the range of possible meanings and readings and connotations that a series of words on a page can have. There's an element of the manipulative about the process of writing. The writer is very truly a medium if things are ideal. The writer should be open to the language and allowing the language to do the work. I don't want to sound like somebody who's heavily into Zen, but I really do believe in all of that; I believe in inspiration in some way.
"On the other hand, there is this other part involved in the writing, the part that is marshaling and is looking on as an acute, intense reader. When I am writing, I'm in control of this uncontrollable thing. It's a combination of out of control and in control. What I'm interested in doing, usually, is writing poems with very clear, translucent surfaces, but if you look at them again, there are other things happening under the surface. And I am interested in poems that go against their own grain, that are involved in irony, that seem to be saying one thing but in fact couldn't possibly be saying that. I am interested in what's happening in those areas, and I do try to control that and hope that I have controlled it. But sometimes when I reread a poem much later (which I don't usually do), I wonder, What on earth was I thinking of there?"
Source: "Paul Muldoon," in Contemporary Authors Online, Thomson Gale, 2004.
In the following review of Moy Sand and Gravel, Ratner praises Muldoon for alerting readers "to new ways of seeing the world around them."
Following on the heels of Poems 1968–1998, Muldoon's latest volume exhibits a tantalizing mix of dichotomies. The language of rural Ireland (where he was raised) co-habits with that of a professor at both Princeton and Oxford. First, consider "moy" in the title: the OED defines it as an adjective meaning "mild, gentle; demure; also, affected in manners, prim" or as a noun, meaning a "measure for salt; bushel." And all the words that follow are chosen with equal care for heightened ambiguity. Munificence is juxtaposed with munitions, while aunts is rhymed with taunts and fuss with orthodox, almost daring readers to roll and twist the words in their mouths. The poet convincingly joins such disparate elements as guns and butter in these narratives, using unfamiliar imagery and missing pieces, reminiscent of John Ashbery's poetry. Even when he's writing about the familiar, as in his masterly love poem "As," he alerts readers to new ways of seeing the world around them. The use of traditional forms might well make this book accessible to those not accustomed to reading poetry. An important purchase for all libraries.
Source: Rochelle Ratner, Review of Moy Sand and Gravel, in Library Journal, August 2002, p. 101.
Muldoon, Paul, "Pineapples and Pomegranates," in Moy Sand and Gravel, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002, p. 26.
Ratner, Rochelle, Review of Moy Sand and Gravel, in Library Journal, August 2002, pp. 101–02.
Review of Moy Sand and Gravel, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 249, No. 24, June 17, 2002, p. 57.
Wills, Clair, "Introduction," in Reading Paul Muldoon, Bloodaxe Books, 1998, pp. 9–23.
Heaney, Seamus, Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968–1978, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980.
In this collection of essays, Heaney writes about his poetics and those of other poets, including William Wordsworth and W. B. Yeats. His essay "The Mixed Marriage: Paul Muldoon" focuses on Muldoon's second collection Mules.
Holland, Jack, Hope against History: The Course of Conflict in Northern Ireland, Henry Holt, 1999.
A journalist of Catholic and Protestant Northern Irish descent, Holland describes the thirty-year conflict in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles, tracing the history from 1969 through 1999.
Kendall, Tim, Paul Muldoon, Seren Books, 1996.
Kendall's study interprets Muldoon's poetry through Muldoon's The Annals of Chile, providing biographical information as well as information about Irish history and mythology.
Kendall, Tim, and Peter McDonald, eds., Paul Muldoon: Critical Essays, Liverpool University Press, 2004.
Scholars from Ireland, England, and the United States discuss Muldoon's work. Several of the essays began as papers at a 1998 conference on the poet, held in Bristol, England.