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I love watching poets having fun. Think of Don Paterson shooting the breeze with Bill Herbert in the South Bank Show special of the New Gen Poets; Carol Ann Duffy somehow avoiding saying ‘Fuck’ on television reading ‘Adultery’ straight to camera; Kenneth Koch doing anything; ditto Edwin Morgan. 

Watching Michael Symmons Roberts read from Drysalter recently, I could see it was a real effort of mind and concentration to rise to the challenge of writing the 150 poems of 15 lines each which comprise the book. At the same time, I could tell he had really enjoyed himself.

One of the poets I always think of as having an absolute ball, whatever he is up to, is Paul Muldoon. ‘Paris’ is a lovely example of his in-plain-view sleight-of hand. For example, look at all those suggestive, wobbly ‘l’ sounds which run through the poem. From the second word on, every one of them seems freighted with deeper meaning: ‘table’, ‘scarcely’, ‘strategically deployed’, ‘girl’, ‘couple’, ‘curls’, ‘plate’, ‘like’, ‘little’, ‘faintly’, ‘Limbo’, ‘simple’, ‘travelled’, ‘neutral place’,’settled’, ‘talk’, ‘table’.

I love the way the poem’s internal rhymes bounce off each other in unusual places, abjuring the predictability of line-ends (‘scarcely’ with ‘strategically’; ‘Mass’ with ‘place’). Where words do chime with each other (‘couple’ with ‘people’; ‘overdone’ with ‘gone’) they are separated by whole stanzas. Nothing seems to want to come together, which is the poem’s point. 

This is replaced by a sense of order in the poem’s final stanza, the first four lines of which deploy an ABAB pattern of half-rhyming end-words. It is no accident the poem ends on the word ‘table’, unspooling itself back to the place it started. It feels both calculated, natural and inevitable all at once, as though imposing order on the speaker’s sudden realisation of the protagonists’ plight. 

Paris

A table for two will scarcely seat

The pair of us! All the people we have been

Are here as guests, strategically deployed

As to who will go best with whom.

A convent girl, a crashing bore, the couple

 

Who aren’t quite all they seem.

A last shrimp curls and winces on your plate

Like an embryo. “Is that a little overdone?”

And these country faces at the window

That were once our own. They study the menu,

 

Smile faintly, and are gone.

Chicken Marengo! It’s a far cry from the Moy.

“There’s no such person as St Christopher,

Father Talbot gave it out at Mass.

Same as there’s no such place as Limbo.”

 

The world’s less simple for being travelled,

Though. In each fresh, neutral place

Where our differences might have been settled

There were men sitting down to talk of peace

Who began with the shape of the table.

 
Paul Muldoon, from The Penguin Book of British Contemporary Poetry