Nesbit Likes: The Sightseers by Paul Muldoon

Writing, when it comes down to it, is only a matter of walking. Like placing one foot in front of the other, you select a word and place, select and place. Of course, it becomes far more fluid; in fluency, this happens quickly, as any runner would know. In poetry, it’s perhaps of equal importance in how you arrange these words on the page. The attention to stanzas, in particular, is important in creating atmosphere and story telling.

The Sightseers is a great example of how a poem can shift in tone through the use of stanza length, and how it’s used to aid the climax. The first two quatrains detail how the narrator and his family drive to see the first round-a-bout in mid-Ulster, Ireland. It’s a light adventure. We’re introduced to details of three deaths in a relatively neutral light as he mentions the graveyard; this foreshadows the dark ahead.

The poem shifts to tercets and with it, the tone and feel. The uncle describes his experience with the B-specials (a special constable police force) and the violence and oppression that came with it. The full rhyme at the end assists in delivering the impact and, to be honest, it’s terrifying. The way it is told, as if in an equally neutral light, implies this wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary, furthering the horror and magnitude of the event. To add, the poem is the perfect length. Long enough to carry the information and create the build to the end, and short enough, that when we’re finished we’re left alone with a potent, unforgettable image.

I’m quite new to reading Muldoon’s poetry, having only just got down to the few collections of his poetry I have on the shelf. This was one of the first I read and god did it hit hard. This has been bookmarked for a long time and I hope you enjoy it!

The Sightseers

My father and mother, my brother and sister
and I, with uncle Pat, our dour best-loved uncle,
had set out that Sunday afternoon in July
in his broken-down Ford

not to visit some graveyard—one died of shingles,
one of fever, another’s knees turned to jelly—
but the brand-new roundabout at Ballygawley,
the first in mid-Ulster.

Uncle Pat was telling us how the B-Specials
had stopped him one night somewhere near Ballygawley
and smashed his bicycle

and made him sing the Sash and curse the Pope of Rome.
They held a pistol so hard against his forehead
there was still the mark of an O when he got home.

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