Paul Muldoon’s Soundprint

Paul Muldoon’s virtuosity with rhyme is often commented upon by critics (“virtuosity” is a frequent epithet where his rhymes are concerned, as are “bravura”, and “high-wire act”). One grand old man once wittily remarked that Muldoon could rhyme “cat” and “dog”, which is nice because while on the surface it suggests some kind of magical rhyming power, the figure also gestures towards the unnatural pairing of some of these rhymes (provoking, sometimes, a proverbial antagonism) while also capturing how any syllable, seemingly, can produce a deluge of rhyming pairs.

Recently I’ve been writing about Muldoon and etymology, and in doing so I’ve been studying a rhyming phenomenon particular to him, which is his use of the same intricate rhyming template in a number of long poems (the number is 9 or 10), published in five collections spanning over fifteen years.

The result is that each poem rhymes not only (or in one case, not even) with itself, but with all other poems using the same template. I’ve called this Muldoon’s “soundprint”, since it combines the idiosyncrasy of a thumbprint with the prescriptivism of a blueprint. What it is not is a rhyme scheme — the poems have those too, but they are a condition of the soundprint’s expression, rather than a feature of it.

In writing about it I thought it would be useful to map out carefully just how Muldoon manages to rhyme the same 90 sounds over 10 poems totalling over 3,200 lines, so I put together a document, “Paul Muldoon’s Soundprint: A reference guide to the ninety rhymes of ‘Yarrow’ and nine other poems“, which I’m publishing here today (click the title or image to download a pdf). I figure others writing on these poems, and Muldoon’s rhyme in general, might find something useful in this technical outline.

Some highlights:

  • The poems total 3,263 lines of verse, which, when a number of internal rhymes are counted, produce 3,388 rhyme-words to express the 90 rhyme templates.
  • Some of these are the same word repeated (=”identical rhyme”), but depending on what you think constitutes a “unique” word, the number of these is something like 2,360-2,400.
  • By far the most common rhyming strategy, which I detail, is “pararhyme” also known as “consonantal rhyme”. This allows one to pair words according to a consonantal template with variable vowel (CXC), as for instance coulter→kilter→culture.
  • You can also move consonants in and out of clusters and syllables, e.g.: kilter→clitoris→Killeter→clatter.
  • Muldoon’s pararhymes admit consonantal mutations, mainly voicing and de-voicing, as for instance coulter→gelder; truck→drag; Baba→Papae.
  • So”cat” and “dog”, no, but “cat” and “god”, yes!
  • In addition to using 90 rhyme templates over and over, many of these poems arrange them into greater patterns: most are palindromic in one way or another (e.g. going straight through all 90, then backwards back to the first, or vice versa) and some employ intricate verse forms such as terza rima.
  • There are a few irregularities and some cryptic surprises: the strophes of ‘Yarrow’ are all either 12, 9, or 6 lines long. One, irregularly, has only 5 lines. The missing end-rhyme template is /l..n/, which almost always gets realized as some version of ‘line’. So the missing line is also a missing ‘line’.

No Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email is never shared.Required fields are marked *