No 12 - Autumn 2007
Review of Paul Muldoon
Paul Muldoon: The End of the Poem. London: Faber, 2006. 406 pp. ISBN 978-0-571-227402 £25.00 hb.
Paul Muldoon: Horse Latitudes. London: Faber, 2006. 107 pp. ISBN 978-0-571-23234-5, £14.99 hb.
Paul Muldoon: General Admission. Oldcastle: Gallery, 2006. 104 pp. ISBN 978-1-85235-410-7, €13.90 pb.
Given the famous 'difficulty' of his own poems, Paul Muldoon has been unusually clear about the theoretical positions which inform his readings of the work of other poets. In an interview with John Redmond, he celebrates the way “Words want to find chimes with each other, things want to connect … I believe in the serendipity of all that”(1); in The End of the Poem he quotes favourably Octavio Paz's “… all texts might properly be thought of as 'translations of translations of translations'”(2), and in the same volume gives his own emphasis to Frost's suggestion that “The way to read a poem in prose or verse is in the light of all the other poems ever written”(3), an idea he had already explored at length in the 1998 Clarendon Lectures published as To Ireland, I:
I'd like to suggest that the extraordinary appetite and aptitude for
“intertextuality” among these writers goes beyond a mere interest in
the allusive, or the parodic, but is symptomatic of several deep-seated
senses. The first is of concomitancy. There's a sense of two discrete
coexistent realms. Two texts. Concomitant with that, though, is the
fact there's no distinction between one world and the next. Or one
text and the next. If there's a fine line between the notions of
“allusiveness” and “elusiveness”, it's so fine it's constantly breaking
down. Concomitant with that is a touching disregard for the figure of
the author. Joyce belongs in Bowen, Bowen, Allingham, and those
anonymous ninth-century Irish poets in Beckett. All, indeed, are
This is clearly a disguised form of self-explication, common to the critical writings of all poets, and nothing to disturb the well-disposed reader. Muldoon has been equally clear and self-explicatory about the supposed 'difficulty' of his own poems. Endeavouring to advise a reader on how to approach one of his own collections, Madoc: A Mystery, and the 'allusive texture' which he confusingly refers to as 'the other thing', he suggests:
I would say, “Start there, and go with it. Read it as a ripping yarn.
Don't get too concerned about the other thing. If you want to get
involved in the other thing, you can. And in fact there is a lot of it
there. If you don't know who Burr or Blennerhasser is, well, you may
have to go and find out. But that's okay. There are lots of things we
have to go and find out. We have to go and find out, what red, what
wheel and barrow are, at some level”.(5)
Some readers may find the glancing reference to William Carlos Williams and imagist theories of meaning a slightly disingenuous way of dealing with the difficulties raised by Blennerhasser, let alone the rest of the densely allusive text of Madoc: A Mystery, but there is nothing new or unfamiliar in any of this. As Harold Bloom reminds us, it was Shelley who “speculated that poets of all ages contributed to one Great Poem perpetually in progress”(6), and as far back as 1929 Eliot was arguing that “genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood”(7), an idea which was as useful for the early modernists as Muldoon's own talk of ripping yarns serves his own purposes. Whether Muldoon's understanding of intertextuality and the difficulty of meaning is inspired by Shelley and Eliot, Bakhtin and Kristeva or Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence, we can be grateful that in To Ireland, I and The End of the Poem, he has begun to answer his own disarming but profound question at the opening of his 1998 Bateson lecture, “So, what can I tell you?”(8). So, what can he tell us in The End of the Poem?
In the fifteen lectures delivered during his tenure as Oxford Professor of Poetry, Muldoon explored a variety of senses in which the phrase 'the end of the poem' might be helpful in understanding his chosen texts, all of them, apart from Matthew Arnold, by twentieth century poets. The question is one of boundaries: among others, what are the barriers between a poem and its author; does the prose poem obliterate the moment where verse ends and prose begins; how does revision in Dickinson and Moore affect our reading of 'the latest full effort'; what are we to make of a poem 'disowned' by its author, as Auden disowned “Spain”; how does the private inform the public in a poet as culturally privileged as Lowell; whether there is ever an 'end' in gender. This is rich territory for a poet of Muldoon's vast erudition, and he explores it with intensive close readings alongside biographical speculation, all informed by his passion for etymology and the anagrammatical properties of words. This presents some daunting problems for the reviewer faced with four hundred pages of lectures delivered over five years, and I will try and illustrate the characteristic effect by concentrating on two of the lectures, those on Yeats's “All Souls' Night” and Frost's “The Mountain”. All page numbers given refer to the Faber edition of The End of the Poem.
“All Souls' Night” is “difficult to read without a proper regard for its intertextual relations” (p. 31) Muldoon tells us, and then has great teasing fun by printing the poem before the lecture but without the subtitle “Epilogue to A Vision” which we find in the Collected Poems. This is teasing because the presence of A Vision and Yeats's young wife of three years Georgie Hyde-Lees form precisely the kind of “intertextual relations” which make these lectures so stimulating. Georgie Hyde-Lees is important as the “presiding spirit not only of the poem but of A Vision” (p. 14), Yeats's “madcap system for categorising human nature” (p. 17) and the “contiguous spirit-world” (p. 10) which is at least one of the themes he attempts to unravel in “All Souls' Night”. But Muldoon clearly doesn't want the poet's wife in his lecture too early, so he begins with All Souls' Night itself.
“All Souls' Night” is “tailor-made” (p. 7) for Muldoon's inaugural lecture, being given in Oxford on All Soul's Day, “the city where Yeats wrote the poem in the autumn of 1920” (ibid.). Yeats himself clearly wanted to make a point about this context, ending the poem as he does with the words “Oxford, Autumn 1920”. The tolling of the “great Christ Church bell” (p. 8) leads us into the poem, and into the spirit world that in “the convention of a feth fiada” (pp. 12-13) in Irish literature is often announced by the tolling of a bell. All Souls' Day was popularly known as All Hallows in medieval English, translating to our Halloween and perhaps Samhain, the Celtic New Year, for Yeats. As Muldoon reminds us, Samhain was “the name of the house magazine of the Irish Literary Theatre” (p. 10) edited by Yeats.
Having introduced the spirit world he believes is the “marvellous thing” (p. 21) “All Souls' Night” has to tell us of, Muldoon begins to draw our attention to the familiar spirits he finds ghosting the poem. Keats is the first of these ghosts, found specifically in the words “brimmed” and “bubble” from “Ode to a Nightingale” (p. 12), but also in the echo of 'the great Christ Church Bell' in “Forlorn! The very word is like a bell” (ibid.), the rhyming of “breath” and “death” in both “All Souls' Night” and “Ode to a Nightingale” (p. 22), and the repetitions of “midnight” and “soul” in both poems (p.23). Muldoon also draws a connection between the “Canary wine” of Keats's “Lines on the Mermaid Tavern” (p. 24), “a light sweet wine from the Canary Isles” (ibid.) not unlike muscatel, and Yeats's description of his newborn son Michael “better looking than a newborn canary” (ibid.). At the very least, this ease with etymology, allusion and biography is entertaining, at best brilliant and stimulating. Most obviously, and I think interestingly, he finds Keats in the final words of “All Souls' Night”: “Oxford, Autumn 1920”. Keats's “To Autumn” was published in 1820, one hundred years before Yeats wrote his own poem, which is exactly one hundred lines long.
There are other discoveries in this first lecture, other ghosts such as Donne, Marvell and Blake, and political martyrs like Terence MacSwiney who died in Brixton Prison in October 1920 (p. 26), or Kevin Barry who was hanged on All Souls' Day 1920 (ibid.). The political dimension may not seem particularly relevant, but Muldoon's belief is that “it's part of our responsibility as readers to try, insofar as it's possible, to psych ourselves into that moment, as well as into the mind through which it made its way into this world, not only in terms of placing a text in its social context, but in terms of its relation to other texts” (p. 27). Some of the suggestions may strike us “as being quite outlandish” (p. 14) and I'm not convinced Muldoon always makes his case. I can't quite see why he finds the poet's wife Georgie Hyde-Lees and Keats “under the surface of these lines which centre on his wife” (ibid.) because the word “lees” is a synonym for “drains” (as a noun) and Keats uses the word drains (as a verb) in “Ode to a Nightingale”. Georgie Hyde-Lees may well be there for others reasons – such as the reference to A Vision in the subtitle – but not because of an etymological root which Yeats may never have known of. I also found the presence of “William Sharp, better known by his pseudonym 'Fiona Macleod'” (p. 23) difficult to discover in “The fume of muscatel / Can give his sharpened palate ecstasy” (ibid.). Clearly the poet's wife was on or in his mind, and Yeats did believe William Sharp in life had always been in close touch with the spirit world, but this seems like “a stretch” (p. 68) to me, even if I can't prove that wasn't Yeats's intention. But Yeats was a notoriously poor speller, and I'm not convinced that he was the kind of writer who would spend long hours with dictionaries, searching the etymologies of archaic words to leave clues for future readers buried in his texts. But “All Souls' Night” is the occasion for a great reading of a great poem, and the excitement generated by the opening lecture works its way through the entire series.
Robert Frost has long been known to be an influence on Muldoon's own poetry, and in his explication of “The Mountain” one can see why. Despite his popular image, Frost often wrote about faith and what it means to believe, but with what Ian Hamilton called an “utterly uncomforting and resolute sense of futility”(9). What it means to believe is clearly the major theme of “The Mountain”, focused in the talk of a spring at the top of the mountain itself:
'That ought to be worth seeing.'
'If it's there.
You never saw it?'
'I guess there's no doubt
About it's being there. I never saw it.'
Muldoon goes on to argue that this is an obvious reference to Berkeley's concern with unbelief and what it is to say that something 'exists'. Berkeley's answer was that for a material thing such as a mountain to 'exist' is for it to be perceived by the senses – esse est percipi – whereas for a non-material thing such as a human being to 'exist' is to perceive by the senses – esse est percipere. In The End of the Poem esse est percipi is incorrectly translated as “To see is to be perceived” (p. 69), and I don't know whether this is a mistranscription from the original lecture or a problem of editing, copy-editing or proof reading, but the point about Berkeley is well made. The dialogue clearly is a reference to Berkeley, and for reasons additional to the arguments explored in The Principles of Human Knowledge. Frost was at Harvard, where he studied Latin and Greek and hoped to be taught by one of his heroes William James, though James was unfortunately away due to sickness. We know Frost read James, as he read Berkeley and Bergson, but the biographical information merely supports what is perfectly clear on the page in the above quotation from “The Mountain”.
The lecture on “The Mountain” is a wonderful example of Muldoon's gifts as a close reader. He helps us see Marianne Moore's insight into Frost's methods (p. 58) and the way one poem in a writer's oeuvre can “flow into” and “fill out or be filled out by” another (ibid.); how the blank verse of “The Mountain” helps to reflect the blanks of perceiving already discussed above (pp. 59-60); the way lines echo the music and specific rhythms of Milton in “Lycidas” and Paradise Lost (pp. 62-63); Wordsworth in “The Old Cumberland Beggar”, “Michael”, “Tintern Abbey”, “Intimations of Immortality” and The Prelude (pp. 64-68), and Shelley in “Mont Blanc” (p. 71), and even how the Ladd of Aladdin may be found in the Ladd mentioned in “The Mountain”. And as ever with Muldoon, there is the illumination earned by comparing individual poems within a writer's oeuvre, to show the way obsessions recur and reflect the life of the poet, in Frost's case making a brilliant connection between “The Mountain” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” (p. 61).
This is all stimulating stuff, but “The Mountain” does show Muldoon making some of the connections which he himself has described as a “stretch” (p. 68). Following a suggestion from his friend Gerard Quinn he argues that “embedded in the word 'Ireland' is the word 'élan', which might refer us to the élan vital” (p. 66) of Henri Bergson within whose name the berg of Lunenberg is embedded (p. 67), a connection which is interesting because Muldoon finds a “rhapsodic description of élan vital ” (p. 67) in Frost's “West-Running Brook”. Within that same 'Ireland' Muldoon also discovers an eland (p. 68), a connection which is of interest because certain lines in “The Mountain” remind Muldoon of certain lines in Wordsworth's “Michael” (ibid.) in much the way that Berkeley is discovered in “bark” (ibid.) and the “lea” (p. 69) which is a synonym for “pasture”,“fields”, and “grassland”.
I am not saying these intertextual readings rooted in etymological and anagrammatical passion are at fault in theory. But they do need to be read with some care. The mistranslation of Berkeley could lead to endless confusion, and the sloppiness of naming Aaron and the Waters of Meribah when it was actually Moses (Exodus 17 and Numbers 20) can hardly be explained by poor proof reading. The odd thing is that Muldoon is concerned to 'privilege' authorial intent to a fault, and yet the author concerned often seems to be a thinly disguised Muldoon himself rather than the author of the text in front of him. This is a delight, most of the time, a high-wire performance which generates great fun and insight. But you would want to be careful recommending The End of the Poem to undergraduates without Muldoon's omnivorous reading or lateral imagination. A work of genius, I think, but caveat emptor.
The serendipity Muldoon celebrates in his criticism has always been a feature of his poetic practice. The elegiac music of “Incantata” and “Yarrow” always reminds me of the minimalist music of John Adams, the early films of Jean Luc Godard. The incantatory “Of” of “Incantata” introduces a music which could go on forever, celebrating not just the life lived but the unlived lives of dreams, the paths not taken. Rhyme and image generate meaning seemingly at random, and it is only when we read Muldoon's imitators that we see the serendipty is not random at all, but the evidence of genius. And all of this has theoretical grounding in Bakhtin and Kristeva's intertextuality, Bloom's anxiety of influence, Freudian word associations.
“It Is What It Is” is one of the finest poems in Horse Latitudes, beginning with the banal “popping underfoot of the Bubble Wrap / in which Asher's new toy came”, and following the bewildered poet along “the foreshore / of a country towards which I've been rowing / for fifty years” to his mother “Shipping out for good”, leaving the poet with nothing but “The fifty years I've spent trying to put” the bits of his life together. This is an ending in a new sense in Muldoon's work, where endings were usually about possibilities, but seem to be closing in with the new elegiac tone and the omnipresence of death. Death haunts Horse Latitudes, dedicated to his recently deceased sister, and including the extraordinary poem “Turkey Buzzards” which starts with the most unlikely of subjects and moves inexorably, with all the familiar Muldoon randomness, towards the poet's “dear Sis” and “whatever tears / at your vitals”. One of the criticisms levelled at Muldoon in the past has been an evasion or absence of emotion, but this new volume deploys all the old evasions and apparent blind turnings, and yet has a new poignancy, almost a new desperation, as if the endings are indeed getting too close for comfort, and the poet is no longer sure where to turn.
The uncertainties and riddles continue throughout the volume. “Tithonus” offers a series of historical negatives, from “Not the day-old cheep of a smoke detector on the blink” down time to the “whittering of your great-great-grandmother ('such a good seat') / whose name was, of all things, Blanche” before ending without any explanation with “what turns out to be the two-thousand-year-old chirrup / of a grasshopper”, a kind of nihilistic refusal of meaning which finds its meaning in the music of the poetry. In the surreal “Eggs”, we begin with the poet “unpacking a dozen eggs” and after a journey that takes us anecdotally back to his mother and his grandmother, finishes with the poet himself apparently giving birth to himself among the “new-laid eggs / from any one of which I might yet poke / my little beak”. “The Landing” offers us “A squid hauling itself through kneedeep shallows” and ends with the same squid, presumably, shining “a beam on the seabed to cancel its own shadow”, a refusal to leave even shadowy traces which might tell us a great deal about what is going on here. Muldoon is refusing to be caught, and we can only follow him and wait to see what happens.
And before seeing that, we might turn briefly to General Admission. The last poem in Horse Latitudes, “Sillyhow Stride”, written in memory of Warren Zevon leads us straight into the song lyrics of General Admission, the most famous of which, “My Ride's Here”, was cowritten with Zevon and recorded by Bruce Springsteen. We already know, from the lecture on “All Souls' Night” in The End of the Poem that Muldoon is aware of the musical roots of metre, the spondee being characteristic of the melodies accompanying libations(10). But Muldoon's interest goes deeper than musical notation. Since Auden's pessimistic warnings few contemporary poets have attempted libretto-writing. Craig Raine, David Harsent and Alice Goodman are notable exceptions, and Raine saw the problems less pessimistically than Auden in his “Preface” to The Electrification of the Soviet Union. Raine had good fortune in working with Nigel Osborne and Peter Sellars, but Muldoon may yet be the most significant contributor to the genre, in Shining Brow, Vera of Las Vegas and Bandanna continuing Raine's ambitious struggle with the problem Larkin sourly dismissed with the view that “musicians don't like things that mean too much”(11).
Song lyrics do not present the same problems as opera libretti, but there were songs in The Electrification of the Soviet Union. Raine found his own solution to this in the “octosyllabic line, using half-rhyme – and full rhyme when it seemed dramatically required”(12). Rhythmically, General Admission is a rather monotonous book, but then this isn't opera but “three-garage rock”, a joke my son had to explain to me but which is quite funny. I'm tempted to say that you aren't going to get Cole Porter with music born in a garage, but we might at least be encouraged by the example of what Brecht managed to do with Kurt Weil's music. But General Admission makes nothing of the lyric form and everything of content. The poetry of Horse Latitudes doesn't just 'say' things, it shows us things, making new meanings and usages out of old forms such as the sonnet, quatrain, couplet and haiku. The lyrics of General Admission are almost entirely about cultural collisions. They are “Wildly allusive”(13) according to the sleeve-notes, and the allusions may suggest a culture going haywire, or a cultural indulgence which is too general to be coherent and contains no 'confession' in its admissions.
Quite at random, “Brighton Rock” alludes to Kenco, flamenco, mods and rockers, Hancock, trousers at half-mast, flick knives and bicycle chains; “Right Up There” offers Picasso, Astaire, Mussolini, Heaney, Bernard of Clairvaux, Manson and John Suckling; “My Ride's Here” mentions Shelley, Keats, Byron, John Wayne, Jesus and Charlton Heston; “Need To Know” has Custer, Keaton, Buddha, Westward Ho!, Aristotle, Freud, Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Spenser yclept. General Admission is full of the brand names and signature tunes of western culture, and increasingly world culture, with only “Rapparee Rap”, with its critical gestures to Northern Irish politics, and “Just Another Song”, with its mention of Patty Hearst and Liberation, seeming to hint at a reality less than genial. The allusions are more often generated by the demands of rhyme than any coherent narrative, though it is perhaps ridiculous to seek narrative coherence in rock lyrics, after everything that has been said about the coherent incoherence of Muldoon's 'serious' poetry. General Admission seems to me to be the kind of thing that happened to late Byron, and Muldoon is interested in Byron, so perhaps the fate of internationally famous literary figures is on his mind. But the refusal of answers or even questions in General Admission is not the same as the refusals of meaning of Muldoon's poetry: there the refusals are philosophically grounded; they do mean something, even if we are not sure what.
One of the most successful arguments of The End of the Poem is that poets are constantly rewriting their selves and their work. In the poets Muldoon discusses, this is an exciting and unending process. Given that Muldoon is the most exciting and inveterate rewriter of his generation, how does Horse Latitudes further his own imaginative journey? In his lecture on Arnold, he reminds us of Dwight Culler's judgement that “to be a Professor of Poetry is tantamount to declaring that one is not a poet”(14), yet he published Hay in 1998, the year of his Bateson Lecture, and Moy Sand and Gravel in 2002, about half way through the Professor of Poetry Lectures, and these are two of his most original and exciting collections. The poems collected in Horse Latitudes were obviously written alongside the close readings of The End of the Poem. Does the new volume show signs of growth, or creative weariness?
The dustjacket tells us that the 'horse latitudes' of the title “designate an area north and south of the equator in which ships tend to be becalmed, in which stasis if not stagnation is the order of the day”. Is Muldoon in the doldrums? There is a formal energy about Horse Latitudes which cannot be denied, a verve one can hardly imagine Muldoon lacking. But there is also a sense of the language failing to stretch to express its own concerns. The “Horse Latitudes” sequence is technically stunning, another experiment with sonnets which attempts to say something about famous battles all beginning with the letter B, but excluding Baghdad. Knowing Muldoon, one knows the absence is making the point, but what else is said about the appalling political tragedy we seem unable to control? “Might it have to do with the gross / imports of crude oil Bush will come clean on / only when the Tigris comes clean?” Somehow the rhetorical question, which is of course the only question, does not seem to come up to the ambition of the sequence, the language straining for meaning. Again, the elegy in memory of Warren Zevon, “Sillyhow Stride”, is moving as “Incantata” and “Yarrow” are moving, but not quite, a mixture of private grief for his sister and public grief for his friend which feels overburdened by precisely the feature that has made so many of Muldoon's poems wonderful: the brilliant but somehow inappropriate cultural confusions – why are the Everly Brothers called Frank and Jesse – and the slight overwhelming of quotations from John Donne. This may seem uncharitable in a poem which expresses emotion more directly than many of Muldoon's earlier works:
I knelt beside my sister's bed, Warren, the valleys and the peaks
Of the EKGs, the crepusculine X-rays,
The out-of-date blister packs
Discarded by those child soldiers from the Ivory Coast or Zaire,
And couldn't think that she had sunk so low
She might not make the anniversary
Of our mother's death from this same cancer, this same quick, quick slow
Conversion of manna to gall
From which she died thirty years ago. I knelt and adjusted the sillyhow
Of her oxygen mask, its vinyl caul
Unlikely now to save Maureen from drowning in her own spit.
This is raw emotion beautifully, restrainedly expressed, and the poem manages to place the private grief in a much wider political context, for which we ought to be grateful. This is not self-indulgence. And yet the poet has raised our expectations with his own genius. Horse Latitudes seems to be struggling to go beyond the beyond Muldoon has already traversed. For all the immense pleasure individual poems gave me personally, I was left briefly wondering whether Muldoon is the new Milton of Harold Bloom's formulation, or the last ephebe. The question is of course a nonsense, not much more than a game with which the theorists torture us. And Muldoon has always been a long way ahead of the theorists. Any poet who can publish three volumes such as these within a few months witnesses to a triumph of the creative imagination over all theories. The lectures are glorious, the songs are great fun, many of the individual poems are among the finest Muldoon has written. One is left eagerly awaiting to see what this great poet will do next.
(1) John Redmond, “Interview with Paul Muldoon”. Thumbscrew 4 (Spring 1996), pp. 2-18; here p. 4, quoted from Kendall & McDonald, Paul Muldoon: Critical Essays (Liverpool UP, 2004), p. 64.
(2) Paul Muldoon, The End Of The Poem (Faber & Faber, 2006), p. 201.
(3) Ibid., p. 60.
(4) Muldoon, To Ireland, I (Oxford UP, 2000), pp. 24-5.
(5) Lynn Keller, “An Interview with Paul Muldoon”. Contemporary Literature 35.1 (Spring 1994), pp. 1-29; here p. 14, quoted from Kendall & McDonald, Paul Muldoon: Critical Essays (Liverpool UP, 2004), p. 98.
(6) Harold Bloom, The Anxiety Of Influence (Oxford UP, 1997), p. 19.
(7) T. S. Eliot, “Dante”, Selected Essays (Faber & Faber, 1980), p. 238.
(8) Muldoon, “Getting Round: Notes Towards an Ars Poetica”. Essays in Criticism 48.2 (April 1998), pp.107-28; here p.107, quoted from Kendall & McDonald, Paul Muldoon: Critical Essays (Liverpool UP, 2004), p. 1.
(9) Ian Hamilton, “Introduction”, in Robert Frost, Selected Poems (Penguin, 1986), p. 14.
(10) Muldoon, The End of the Poem, p. 9.
(11) Philip Larkin, “An Interview with John Haffenden”, in Further Requirements: Interviews, Broadcasts, Statements and Reviews (1952-1985), ed. Anthony Thwaite (Faber & Faber, 2001), p. 50.
(12) Craig Raine, “Preface”, in The Electrification of the Soviet Union (Faber & Faber, 1986), p. 12.
(13) Muldoon, General Admission, (Gallery Books, 2006).
(14) Muldoon, The End of the Poem, p. 323.
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