Puns intended: The covering and uncovering of meaning in the poetry of Geoffrey Hill and Paul Muldoon

‘For ‘ludic’ read ‘lucid’

(‘Errata’, Paul Muldoon)

The position of the pun in everyday language and the range of reactions to it demonstrate how divisive a device it can be. Puns are delighted in as well sneered at, groaned at and often considered the lowest form of wit, as famously advocated by Samuel Johnson. Jonathan Culler suggests that groaning at puns might be ‘viscerally to reaffirm a distinction between essence and accident, between meaningful relations and coincidence, that has seemed fundamental to our thinking.’[1] Perhaps the unease brought about by puns is symptomatic of a deeper discomfort that language can reveal itself to be treacherous, able to disorientate us in a conflation of meanings. The pun suggests a lexical confrontation with the Freudian notion of the uncanny; words that once seemed familiar now seem unfamiliar in that they create cognitive dissonance, forcing us to pin two conflicting meanings to one utterance. Culler asserts that the pun is central to our understanding of language and that wordplay has become a postmodern trope, highlighting the ambiguous and shifting relationship of words to their meanings. This instability can unveil the attachment of multiple homophonic ‘signifieds’ to one signifier and ‘evokes disparate meanings in contexts where each differently applies.’ (p.5) The duplicity of language becomes a double-edged sword; we take pleasure in unravelling the puzzles, whilst our puzzlement raises serious questions about how reliable language can be in our quest for knowledge and the assertion of truth.

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The ambiguity of language as a whole, illuminated through the pun, becomes altogether troubling when we wish to find ways of representing the true nature of the world and expressing this knowledge through language. As Walter Redfern suggests, puns offer simultaneously an uncovering and a covering up of meaning that can be seen as producing undesirable ambiguity, offering play at the same time as dissatisfaction.[2] This duplicity is perhaps desirable in literature but becomes problematic when it arises in the language of law, religion or politics. Poetry is potentially a medium where the ambiguities of the pun can be accommodated, played with and explored away from the ‘serious’ language of moral and political affairs. But if the pun is indeed a ‘foundation of letters’ as Culler suggests, the poetic exploration of its implications within language as a whole will have far-reaching ramifications, potentially undermining the essential meaning of moral and political statements. This essay will examine the tension between these ideas in the poetry of Geoffrey Hill and Paul Muldoon, focusing on the ways in which both poets employ puns and wordplay to question the nature of the obscurity inherent in language and what this means for a true articulation of knowledge.

In the collection Quoof, written in the aftermath of the Republican hunger strikes of the 1980s, Paul Muldoon foregrounds the way in which language can be an insufficient mode of communication through the use of discomforting wordplay and wilful obscurity. The power structures at work within language and the potential for violence that stems from this resulting oppression are present in many of the poems throughout the collection. Quoof is the collection in which Muldoon comments most explicitly on the political situation in Northern Ireland, in contrast to his generally apolitical stance, and his use of puns to cover and uncover the implicit power structures at work in language is mirrored by a thematic interest in political resistance to English authority. The meaning of the title poem ‘Quoof’[3] is revealed as the Muldoon family word for the hot water bottle. The word becomes an object and this physicality allows the poet to carry it from the domestic space of the family home to the unfamiliar and alien environment of a New York hotel room. The unfamiliar ‘quoof’ becomes familiar once we are given the code and allowed to identify the word with a hot water bottle, but this familiarity is removed by the end of the poem. The variation on the sonnet form separates the last six lines from the first eight, highlighting a split or movement away from the familiar in the second stanza. There is no explicit reference to the ‘quoof’ in the second section of the poem which removes the physicality it was granted in the first section and turns it instead into a ghostly presence that seems to exist behind the final lines of the poem. There is a visual reminder of quoof in the word ‘spoor’ but it remains out of reach, precisely because it is ‘yet to enter language’. The homophonic pun on ‘yeti’ and ‘yet to’ works to yoke the elusiveness of the ‘shy beast’ and the ‘quoof’ together but, whilst playful on the one hand, the poem ends on a feeling of dissatisfaction. The scene that has been set, of a sleazy encounter in a hotel room, loads the word ‘enter’ with sexual overtones and the inability to articulate ‘quoof’ becomes an inability to achieve sexual satisfaction. This feeling of impotence due to an inability to articulate meaning is reinforced by the ‘sword’, foregrounded by the split in the sonnet form, which is both a phallic image and a pun on ‘word’.

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An underlying threat of violence troubles the poem, first appearing in the ‘red-hot half-brick/in an old sock’ that is another imagining of what a ‘quoof’ might be. The quoof becomes a weapon once again: ‘I have taken it into so many lovely heads/or laid it between us like a sword.’ The phallic symbolism of ‘sword’ genders the violence and the patriarchy invoked draws attention to the related power structures inherent in language. The backdrop of the hunger strikes, protests that began when Republican prisoners were denied the signifier ‘political prisoner’ by the British government, relates the idea of impotence in the face of these hierarchies to a real political context. The seeming playfulness of the word games in ‘Quoof’ belies a deeper allusion to a more sinister space where the ambiguities of language become dangerous and hint at possibilities of violence and oppression. The movement from ‘breast’ to ‘beast’, foregrounded by the enjambment of the final four lines, reinforces the patriarchal power structure that has already been established in the first stanza through the allusion to paternal lineage and moves towards a more violent vision of masculinity, connecting sexual dominance to a bestial urge. Word play once again becomes a device for drawing attention to the dangers lurking in the depths of these ambiguities, by highlighting the frameworks of power and meaning behind language that make the games possible.

Muldoon deliberately draws attention to the figure of the male poet performing these tricks with his use of the first-person mode of address. He alone has the power to remove the obscurity of the word ‘quoof’, as it has been passed down through his family and when this power begins to take on violent undertones the danger inherent in the obscurity is once again highlighted. By contrast, in Geoffrey Hill’s ‘Canticle for Good Friday’,[4] the omniscience of the poetic voice is undermined by the ambiguities of language within the poem. The playful tone of Muldoon’s ‘Quoof’ is absent here but there seems in this poem a possibility for redemption, perhaps from the threat of violence that Muldoon draws our attention to. Doubting, through the evocation of Thomas and the ambiguities thrown up by the language of the poem, seems here to offer strength; a strength that is needed to make sense of the world, riddled as it is with uncertainties.

The first sentence of the poem hinges on the multivalence of ‘staggered’, which offers both a colloquial sense of bewilderment and a more physical unsteadiness under the weight of the cross. The possibility of reading ‘staggered’ as conversational in tone immediately undermines any god-like perspective the omniscient poetic voice might wish to assume and we are immediately alerted to the conflation of earthly and divine at the very heart of the poem. The visual pun on ‘deliberate’, signifying both adjective and verb, brings doubt and ambiguity to the fore at the end of the first stanza, the form of which holds the image of the crucifixion between two powerful ambiguities. The doubts of Thomas are made present through the poetic voice, even at the site of crucifixion and these doubts seem to imply a position that necessarily looks beyond divinity for answers.

The tangible world of the poem is vividly depicted through the meaty physicality of the language, forming shapes in the mouth that emphasize the visceral quality of the descriptions: ‘Thomas (not transfigured) stamped, crouched’, ‘claw-roots of sense’, ‘carrion-sustenance’ and ‘Creation’s issue congealing’. This emphasis on the corporeal underscores the suffering that is part of the human condition, but also works to place the concerns of humanity before those of the divine, to which there is but oblique reference throughout the poem. The sense of doubt and uncertainty, evoked through the figure of Thomas, is displaced onto the absent presence of Christ through the parenthetical phrases. These phrases act in a similar way to a pun in the sense that they uncover and cover-up meaning simultaneously, drawing attention to the paradoxical state of God as man. As Christopher Ricks asserts, the final parenthetical phrase which ends the poem, ‘(and one woman’s)’, embodies ‘a profound paradox, a crux and an aside, an admonition and a reassurance’[5] that seems central to Hill’s concerns. Hill foregrounds a paradox at the heart of Christianity that prompts us to hold religious knowledge at arm’s length in favour of the more concrete knowledge available in our interactions with the physical world. Language becomes a conduit through which we must receive and articulate all knowledge and the inherent ambiguities of words provide a space for doubt. For Hill, doubt seems to be the truest position.

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Muldoon’s poem ‘Mules’, from the 1977 collection of the same name, similarly explores the coming together of heaven and earth, in the hybrid form of the ‘gaunt, sexless foal/Dropped tonight in the cowshed.’[6] The doubt that pervades the heart of Hill’s poem, despite the attempt to speak from a position of religious reverence, is here reversed in that doubt seems to promise a reconnection with the possibility of a heavenly realm rather than a severance.

We might yet claim that it sprang from earth

Were it not for the afterbirth

Trailed like some fine, silk parachute,

That we would know from what heights it fell.

The rhyme that holds ‘earth’ and ‘afterbirth’ together, acts much like Hill’s visceral vocabulary to underscore the physicality of the mule’s origin, but the comparison of the afterbirth to a ‘fine, silk parachute’ leaves the possibility of heavenly descent open. This possibility is, however, undermined by the ambiguous meaning of the final line, which suggests the Biblical sense of the ‘Fall’. The stress on the verb ‘know’ and the messy, physicality of the ‘afterbirth’ that roots the origin of the foal firmly in the human world, rather than springing directly from the earth or descending from heaven, create a sense that hybridity is a natural state in a world where origins are socio-historically located. As Ian Gregson argues, ‘Mules’ is ‘concerned not just with a biological metaphor for a hybrid of heaven and earth, but with the way languages and perspectives mingle, and in a sense reproduce.’[7] The ‘gaunt, sexless foal’ is the offspring of a horse and a donkey, brought into being through the human interference with natural mating habits, casting an unnatural light on its origin. The concern with origins and their ‘authenticity’ is fraught with political significance for a poet from Northern Ireland, as Gregson also points out. The oblique way in which Muldoon refers to this anxiety of origins suggests that any desire for absolute knowledge in this area is immediately thwarted by the impossibility of finding inherent truth in language. Neil Roberts identifies ‘a sense of language as fallen, of the poet’s words gagging on themselves’[8] in the poetry of Geoffrey Hill, a sense that can be seen to also come through here in Muldoon’s ‘Mules’.

Ricks suggests that ‘for Hill, there are few truths which are beyond a doubt, and even the word beyond has its equivocation’ (p.21).The space of the parentheses seem to hold within them the possibility of understanding alongside the acceptance that the desired understanding is beyond comprehension. They suggest a disclosure of meaning outside the world of the poem, whilst simultaneously closing around that revelation to keep it firmly within the poem world. In ‘September Song’ the pivotal moment of the poem is found in the parenthetical line (I have made/an elegy for myself it/is true)[9]. The birth year on the head stone at the start of the poem corresponds with Hill’s own and the admission of the parenthetical statement is apologetic, perhaps imbued with an awareness of Adorno’s much-quoted claim that ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’. But Hill’s poem here seems to directly engage with its position as situated after Auschwitz; it can be read as an attempt to locate the moral self in the post-holocaust world, where the Enlightenment project has seemingly led to ‘the final solution’.

Hill’s fascination with the possibility or otherwise of ethical judgement brings him to write a double of himself into the position of a child victim of the holocaust, drawing attention to the centrality of the self in all judgements and moral statements and in the very act of writing the poem. Neil Roberts suggests that the ‘punning insertion of a notorious historical euphemism into a tomb inscription announces and inaugurates the atrocities of language that will be in effect the main theme of the poem’[10].

            born 19.6.32 – deported 24.9.42

Undesirable you may have been, untouchable

            you were not.

The sense of uncertainty and ambiguity within the poem suggests the break down of the legitimacy and logocentrism of reason, as advocated by Derrida: ‘As estimated, you died’, ‘Just so much Zyklon and leather, patented/terror so many routine cries’ and ‘The smoke/of harmless fires drifts to my eyes.’ The idea of death being ‘estimated’, links back to the ‘deported’ of the headstone inscription which denies the finality of death, and the enjambment that balances the ‘patented’ equally between ‘leather’ and ‘terror’ works to undermine the possibility of authentic representation. The fetishistic overtones of patent leather, combined with the idea of a form of terror requiring intellectual property rights, can be read as evoking the technological sublime to describe the ‘final solution’, distancing humanity from a very human atrocity.

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The dialogic nature of the poem, as highlighted by Roberts, seems to posit that the position of the poet comes with the responsibility of ensuring the treacherous nature of language does not obscure ‘concrete historical’ atrocity, whilst simultaneously drawing attention to the inherent difficulty of language successfully communicating truth. David Bromwich suggests that Hill expressed a ‘lifelong meditation on the need to reconcile the power and command of words with an act of moral testimony’[11]. The difficulty of making this act of moral testimony as a poet is emphasised in the ‘smoke of harmless fires that drifts to my eyes’; the act of testimony can never be divorced from the act of creation the poet engages in, implicating the poet as in collusion with the power structures that allow such atrocities to occur. Hill writes that:

in the constraint of shame the poet is free to discover both the ‘menace’ and the atoning power  of his own art. However much and however rightly we protest against the vanity of supposing it to be merely the ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’, poetic utterance is nonetheless an utterance of the self, the self demanding to be loved in the form of recognition and ‘absolution’.[12]

This desire for absolution is, paradoxically, demonstrated in the complexity and ambiguity of the language the poet chooses, for this, as Jeffrey Wainwright suggests, implies intelligence and an engagement with the notion of genuine moral and political choices. The disconcerting relativity of the meanings of words, defined as they are by the perspective of the speaker, has led Hill to produce ‘a poetry continually marked by deep suspicion of the art itself, perpetually aware of its artifice and of the dangers of a self-satisfied confidence in authenticity.’[13]

The doubt that pervades ‘Canticle for Good Friday’, other later poems in For the Unfallen and King Log, made explicit through puns, anxious self-reflection and ambiguity can be read as an anxiety about the limitations of representing the world through language and the poet’s subsequent tentative position. Ricks suggests that Hill:

knows that any device of language is an axis, not a direction. The very thing which may do such-and-such may do its opposite. So it must be added that, though it is true that the unsayableness of a typographical like a bracket may truly embody a recognition of the morally, spiritually and politically unspeakable, it is no less true that this very unspeakableness may choose exactly the same form: a voiceless and dehumanised ‘language’, denying the warm humanity of the voice and steeling its cold eye.[14]

This reversal of Hill’s speechless parenthesis can be located in the awkward playfulness of Muldoon’s ‘Between Takes’, where the stretching of the puns and the poem’s rhyme scheme to their limits deliberately evades any possibility of a lyric moment. This heightened sense of performance and awkward playfulness creates an archness that estranges the real and highlights the uncanny lurking beneath language when the conventions and accepted structural norms are rejected. The first two lines flag up the postmodern concern with the nature of identity and the repetition of the word ‘double’, literally becoming its own double, forces a rhyme that can perhaps be considered the poetic voice ‘steeling its cold eye’:

            I was standing in for myself, my own stunt double

            In a scene where I was meant to do a double[15]

The enjambment that obscures the connection between the second ‘double’ and ‘back-somersault off the bed’ initially disorientates, only to reveal the male performative act that the poem both is and is about. By drawing attention to the unashamed stretching to the limit of rhyming convention, Muldoon is flexing his poetic muscles in order to undermine the possibility of the reader finding legitimate knowledge in a straight-forward engagement with the words of the poem. The word play and formal devices push the reader into engagement with the structures of language, the hierarchies these reveal and the potential for underlying violence in figurative language when it leads us away from the path of direct communication. This is a feature explored in Muldoon’s later work, a comparable example from Hay being ‘Symposium’, where the uncomfortable splicing of familiar proverbs creates a disturbing sequence of images that draw attention to the absence of a real-world referent. The coalescence of proverbial phrases by the poet causes disorientation and holds within it the threat of violence, as discussed earlier in relation to ‘Quoof’. The power to represent or misrepresent the world is in the hands of those who exercise control over the definitive possibilities of language.

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            The importance of the position of poetic voice in the poetry of both Hill and Muldoon, combined with their use of puns and word play to obscure and frustrate meaning, locates the central concern of their projects in a similar area. However, whereas Hill’s voice often speaks from the position of an omniscient poet-God, at times crucially undermined to cast doubt on the tenability of such a position, Muldoon’s voice speaks from a position inflected with a postmodern sensitivity to the multiplicity of viewpoints. As Ian Gregson posits, ‘this is a political point in the widest sense. The question of whose point of view prevails, whose voice is heard, mirrors in personal experience what happens in the state.’[16] This position connects Muldoon to the Irish literary tradition of Joyce and Beckett, who place the relationship between literal and figurative meanings at the centre of their works, exploring the power structures of language and its ambiguities through the liberal use of puns and word play. Gregson goes on to suggest that Muldoon can be read as presenting a final mistrust in the postmodern aesthetic, ‘using postmodern techniques self-consciously to evoke a lack of moral responsibility’. This self-reflexive questioning of what is potentially obscured by the moral and political relativism of postmodernist discourse is present in ‘Errata’, where the relentless instruction to read one signifier for another heightens the ‘slip’ between language and the world. The didactic commands of the authoritative male poet are an explicit display of how language, and by implication our comprehension of the world, can be manipulated by dominant discourses:

            For ‘Antrim’ read ‘Armagh’.

            For ‘mother’ read ‘other’.

            For ‘harm’ read ‘farm’.

            For ‘feather’ read ‘father’.[17]

The overwhelming feeling evoked in this first stanza is a sense of alienation, with the familiar comforts of home and family being subverted. The commanding voice of authority is explicitly opposing the pastoral of Irish poetic tradition in its reading of danger and distance into ‘mother’ and ‘farm’. It also undermines masculinity in the conflation of ‘feather’ and ‘father’ and the suggestion that ‘Antrim’ and ‘Armagh’ can be easily inter-changed creates a relativist disregard for the socio-historic specificity of experience. This in turn undermines a sense of moral choice and responsibility, which is highlighted as a possible side-effect of the post-modern experiment.

Muldoon’s use of puns, then, can be read as an anxiety about the conclusions that postmodernist discourse has the potential to arrive at.  Muldoon’s work, as Clair Wills argues, ‘raises risk and doubt to a new level – it refuses to resolve uncertainties in the consolations of groundedness and authenticity; it remains radically undecided on questions of poetic efficacy and poetic significance.’[18] Muldoon obscures and doubles meaning to draw attention to the treacherous nature of language when manipulated by oppressive forces that do not represent the multiplicity of experience and voices in the world. The doubt that is central to Hill’s work, embodied in his use of puns and self-reflexivity, strives to situate the voice of the poet in an ‘authentic’ position, where the duplicity of language is highlighted in an attempt to create transparency. Hill is engaged in a modernist quest for clarity but finds his progress frustrated by the implications of speaking in his own voice. Both Muldoon and Hill engage with this question posed by Neil Roberts:

Are the tongue’s atrocities a kind of original sin of language encoded in the system, or is it when a speaker, or discourse, exploits the doubleness of language that treachery and atrocity occur? (p.74)

The possibilities both poet’s demonstrate for covering and uncovering meaning through the masterful manipulation of language offers us a warning. By exploiting the doubleness of language in their own works in different ways, Hill and Muldoon both attempt to draw attention to the possibilities of violence and the dangers of moral relativism that lurk behind the lure of language.

(Originally written in 2009)


[1] Culler, J., ‘The Call of the Phoneme’, On Puns: The Foundation of Letters, (Basil Blackwell, 1988) p. 4.

[2] Redfern, W. Puns, (Basil Blackwell, 1984) p. 9-11.

[3] Muldoon, P., Selected Poems 1968-1983, (Faber and Faber, 1986), p. 77.

[4] Hill, G., New and Collected Poems 1952-1992, Houghton Mifflin Co, (New York, 1994) p. 27

[5] Ricks, C., Geoffrey Hill and ‘The Tongue’s Atrocities’, The W.D. Thomas Memorial Lecture delivered at the College on February 15th 1978, (Swansea UP, 1978), p. 35.

[6] Muldoon, P., Selected Poems 1968-1983, (Faber and Faber, 1986), p. 34.

[7] Gregson, I., “The Best of Both Worlds”: the Hybrid Constructions of Paul Muldoon’, Contemporary Poetry and Postmodernism: Dialogue and Estrangement, Macmillan Press Ltd, (London, 1996), p.40.

[8] Roberts, N., ‘Utterance and Resistance: Geoffrey Hill’, Narrative and Voice in Postwar Poetry, Addison Wesley Longman Ltd, (New York, 1999), p.74.

[9] Hill, G., New and Collected Poems 1952-1992, Houghton Mifflin Co, (New York, 1994) p. 55.

[10] Roberts, N., ‘Utterance and Resistance: Geoffrey Hill’, Narrative and Voice in Postwar Poetry, Addison Wesley Longman Ltd, (New York, 1999), p.77.

[11] Bromwich, D., ‘Geoffrey Hill and the Conscience of Words’, Skeptical Music: Essays on Modern Poetry, (Chicago UP, 2001), p.159.

[12] Hill, G., ‘Poetry as ‘Menace’ and ‘Atonement’, The Lords of Limit: Essays on Literature and Ideas, Andre Deutsch Ltd, (London, 1984), p.17.

[13] Wainwright, J., Acceptable Words: Essays on the poetry of Geoffrey Hill, (Manchester University Press, 2005), p. 5-6.

[14] Ricks, C., Geoffrey Hill and ‘The Tongue’s Atrocities’, The W.D. Thomas Memorial Lecture delivered at the College on February 15th 1978, (Swansea UP, 1978), p. 18-19.

[15] Muldoon, P., Hay, Faber & Faber, (London, 1998), p. 28.

[16] Gregson, I., “The Best of Both Worlds”: the Hybrid Constructions of Paul Muldoon’, Contemporary Poetry and Postmodernism: Dialogue and Estrangement, Macmillan Press Ltd, (London, 1996), p.45.

[17] Muldoon, P., Hay, Faber & Faber, (London, 1998), p. 88.

[18] Wills, C., Reading Paul Muldoon, Bloodaxe Books Ltd, (Newcastle upon Tyne, 1998), p.16.

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