Nursery Rhymes for the Middle-Aged
Paul Muldoon and the Question of the Lyric
The Word on the Street
by Paul Muldoon
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $23)
The Word on the Street is a collection of song lyrics by the poet Paul Muldoon, many of which were put to music and recorded by his band, the Wayside Shrines (though, importantly, not all of them). As a piece of writing, The Word on the Street has all the ambition of a stapled booklet inside a CD jewel case, and the key to enjoying it is to expect nothing more. The lines are unchallenging and rhyme like a metronome—to use Muldoon's own word, they're doggerel. An example might be from "Head In," where, "One night at the CBGB/Would bring me back to earth/I met a girl named Phoebe/Who loved to bodysurf," but it's hard to choose a representational excerpt from text that all looks pretty much the same.
During an interview with Muldoon before his reading at Town Hall last Thursday, it was fairly clear he understood that his new book cannot walk in stride with his poetry. He described it as "light verse," saying, "The pressure per square inch in this kind of writing is a little lower than in a conventional poem." He agreed that the book is best experienced in conjunction with music, though "it's nice to think people would get something from reading them on the page also." That's a pretty weak expression of confidence in the value of this volume, but the Town Hall crowd did get a kick out of Muldoon's recitation of what felt like nursery rhymes for the middle-aged. Maybe it was just a book that aimed low and hit its mark.
Except that Paul Muldoon is one of the finest poets alive, with a professional pedigree that makes you think he'd know better. While teaching at Oxford, Muldoon served as president of the UK's Poetry Society, until he crossed the Atlantic to teach at Princeton and take over as the the poetry editor of the New Yorker. He's published more than 30 collections and won a Pulitzer Prize. So much of his work is complicated, subtle, and rewarding, and he's one of the most powerful tastemakers in contemporary poetics. Publishing The Word on the Street is either a goofy lapse of judgment or a bold-yet-reputation-shriveling decision meant to do more than amuse.
Muldoon is very interested in the gray and wavy line we use to conceptualize poetry, and The Word on the Street certainly challenges it. "Poetry could embrace much more and include much more under its rubric," said Muldoon. He added, "I'm much more interested in what can be included than what can be excluded." Muldoon spoke of songwriters he considers to be poets, including Patti Smith, Lou Reed, and Leonard Cohen. During the reading, he even mentioned Gotye. But would posterity still consider them poets if they'd never put their words to music?
During the reading, Muldoon mentioned how Paul Simon, one of the greatest lyricists of all time, would always write the music first, because he believed that if the music wasn't interesting, the lyrics wouldn't be. "The lyrics don't really matter very much. So I don't know why we're here," said Muldoon, right before he read some more lyrics.