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.