SOURCE: Lucas, John. “Escape Artist.” New Statesman 114, no. 2943 (21 August 1987): 23-4.
[In the following excerpt, Lucas compliments Muldoon's poetic techinques in Meeting the British, calling the collection “the best of his five full volumes of poetry.”]
Like its predecessors, Paul Muldoon's new volume, Meeting the British, is full of poems whose real subject seems to be how to write a poem. I don't at all mean that Muldoon apes those old-new American writers whose only subject was poetry (didn't they do any living?); the point is rather that a Muldoon poem invariably has a canny, almost wittily defiant air about it, a manner of implying that neither it nor its author will allow themselves to be docketted as this or that kind of Irish performance.
And yet, paradoxically, Muldoon's poems are wonderfully adroit performances, whose absorbed perceptions and habits can feel close to aesthetic heartlessness but only, perhaps, to the drab certainties of bourgeois moralists. ‘Sushi’ begins with someone saying: ‘Why do we waste so much Time arguing,’ and the same voice returns at later points to complain, with justice, of an absence of talk, of love. Meanwhile, the protagonist is attentiveness itself, as he studies the ‘translucent strips / of octopus, / squid and conger, / pickled ginger / and pale-green horseradish …’ In ‘Overlooking the River Stour’ Hardy gazed intently and guiltily at what was before him in order not to have to think about what was behind him—a woman, whose love no longer interested him. The rhythms and vocabulary of that poem are clinically, obsessively exact. ‘Sushi,’ by contrast, is distinguished by its teasing rhymes, the susurrus of its vocables, its untroubled relishing of the actual. These are all Muldoon trademarks and if they remind us of MacNeice (they should), they also remind us of how we still badly underrate that poet, whose own refusal to be pinned down doesn't so much marginalise him, as has often enough been asserted, as call into question the worth of such terms as centrality and relevance.
At all events, there is nothing marginal about Muldoon's way of writing. His apparent indirections and inconsequentialities compose a rich testimony to things being various. They operate to great effect in such elegies as ‘The Soap-Pig’ and ‘Brock,’ the latter of which brilliantly telescopes a series of imaginings about the badger's ‘underground’ encounter with the disasters of 20th-century history: ‘this old brock's / been to Normandy and back / through the tunnels and trenches / of his subconscious. / His father fell victim / to mustard-gas at the Somme.’ It ends as a loving, wry vision of his recently-dead father:
in his Sunday's suit's bespoke lime and lignite, patrolling his now-diminished estate and taking stock of this and that.
‘Profumo,’ whose technique and manner are derived from the earlier and even finer ‘Cuba,’ begins: ‘My mother had slapped a month-long embargo / on his very name. The inhalation / of my first, damp / menthol fag behind the Junior Common Room.’ Forbidden delights are tasted not just in the cigarette itself but, I imagine, in the French word for smoking; and they are further hinted at in the ‘spontaneously-combustible News of the World / under my mother's cushions / as she shifted from ham to snobbish ham.’ The News of the World famously carried Christine Keeler's version of her affair with Profumo: the mother may be trying to hide her own discomfort at having been caught reading it or is refusing her son a glance at its pages. Then she chides him for his own, innocent, adolescent crush: ‘A...
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way and read Masefield'sCargoes.’ It's explosively comic, this appeal to a bracing poem as a way of banishing impure thoughts. And it's one way of meeting the British.
Another way is contained in the volume's teasing title-poem. I assume that it's told from the standpoint of a French-speaking Indian in 18th-century Canada, who encounters ‘at the dead of winter’ General Jeffrey Amhurst and Colonel Henry Boquet, neither of whom ‘could stomach our willow-tobacco,’ nor the use of French, and who ‘gave us six fishhooks / and two blankets embroidered with smallpox.’ The stupidity and malevolence of the gift say a good deal about the nature and character of British Imperialism.
Such a manner of saying is at the polar extreme from direct utterance. And this is the concern of the volume's long, closing poem sequence, ‘7, Middagh Street,’ the house in New York where Auden presided over a strange collection of writers and free spirits and where he came to reject the ‘loose, immodest tone,’ as he chose to see it, of his earlier political poetry. The sequence includes pastiches of Muldoon's contemporaries and turns repeatedly about the responsibilities of the artist to art and to politics, to his dreams: ‘If Yeats had saved his pencil-lead / would certain men have stayed in bed?’ Technically, intellectually and imaginatively, the sequence is an extraordinary achievement, perhaps the finest of Muldoon's long poems, just as Meeting the British may be the best of his five full volumes of poetry. Certainly, it's head and shoulders above anything else so far published this year.
Paul Muldoon 1951-
Irish poet, editor, librettist, translator, playwright, children's writer, and lecturer.
The following entry presents an overview of Muldoon's career through 2002. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 32 and 72.
A renowned poet who emerged from the Irish literary renaissance of the 1960s and 1970s, Muldoon has earned distinction for his firm poetic voice, linguistic skill, and complex postmodern sensibility. His first full book of poems, New Weather (1973), published when Muldoon was only twenty-one, signaled the beginning of an impressive oeuvre including the collections Mules (1977), Why Brownlee Left (1980), Quoof (1983), Meeting the British (1987), Madoc: A Mystery (1990), and The Annals of Chile (1994). Muldoon often employs complex and idiosyncratic rhymes and puns to reshape poetic conventions and to convey his unique view of contemporary life. His poems examine diverse ideas and questions involving Irish identity, gender, race, and nature. By blending literary genres and integrating aspects of comedy, film, television, and other elements of popular culture in his poetry, Muldoon has recast the poetic narrative in a multidimensional manner, employing reinvented forms to explore issues of love, death, loss, identity, and the roles of poetry and the poet in society.
Born in Portadown, County Armagh, Northern Ireland, in 1951, Muldoon spent his childhood in the town of Collegelands, near a village called the Moy. The son of Catholic parents, Muldoon was raised in a Catholic section of the predominantly Protestant region. Muldoon's father, Patrick, worked as a laborer and market gardener, while his mother, Brigid, a schoolteacher, taught in a local school. After attending primary school in Collegelands, Muldoon went to St. Patrick's College, where he learned Gaelic and studied Irish literature. While at St. Patrick's, Muldoon began writing poetry. He wrote and published his first poems in Gaelic, later switching to English to give himself greater linguistic control. During this period Muldoon also discovered the poetry of Robert Frost and T. S. Eliot, poets who have consistently influenced Muldoon and his work. After leaving St. Patrick's, he enrolled at Queens University in Belfast, where, in addition to studying literature and philosophy, he met a number of Irish writers, most notably Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, James Simmons, and Seamus Heaney, a group who would later become known as the Ulster Poets. The group gathered weekly to discuss poetry and to critique each other's work. Heaney became Muldoon's tutor within the university and encouraged Muldoon to publish his work. Heaney eventually included some of Muldoon's poems in a magazine he was guest editing, bringing Muldoon to the attention of the publishing house Faber & Faber, who released New Weather. Prior to New Weather, Muldoon had released only a small pamphlet of poems entitled Knowing My Place (1971). After earning his undergraduate degree in 1973, Muldoon worked for the next thirteen years as a radio and television producer for the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) in Belfast. While working for the BBC, Muldoon continued to write and publish an impressive body of poetry, including Why Brownlee Left, for which he won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize in 1982, and Quoof. Muldoon left the BBC in 1986 to pursue an academic career, starting with fellowships at the universities of Cambridge and East Anglia. After moving to the United States in 1987, he held a series of temporary teaching posts at various American universities before accepting a position as the Howard G. B. Clark Professor of the Humanities and Creative Writing at Princeton University in 1990. Muldoon has received numerous literary awards and honors throughout his career, including the Eric Gregory award for New Weather, a 1990 Guggenheim fellowship, the 1994 T. S. Eliot award for The Annals of Chile, an American Academy of Arts and Letters award in 1996, and the 1997 Irish Times Poetry prize for New Selected Poems: 1968-1994 (1996). He is also a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a professor of poetry at Oxford University.
Muldoon's poetry is well known for the formal and linguistic complexity of its verse, and for merging details from his life in Northern Ireland and the United States with a wide array of literary forms and references drawn from Irish, Greco-Roman, British, American, and Native-American cultures. New Weather represents Muldoon's desire to break from the Irish poetic tradition, particularly the imposing precedent of William Butler Yeats. The collection reveals Muldoon's preoccupation with points of contradiction and incongruity, while also introducing subjects that became recurring motifs for him—the failure of the quest and the continuous intrigue of the journey. The volume's final poem, “The Year of Sloes, for Ishi,” draws upon Native-American culture and creates parallels to events in Irish history. In Mules, which includes the poems “Lunch with Pancho Villa” and “Mixed Marriage,” Muldoon examines the conflicted allegiances that shape his world view, using hybridized images that juxtapose various dichotomies, both real and fantastic, to convey his understanding of the political and personal tensions that surrounded him in Northern Ireland. Why Brownlee Left employs a quest motif to explore the concept of difference at a deeper and more complex level. With this volume, Muldoon established a structural pattern that he repeated in subsequent books, involving a series of short poems—ballads, sonnets, and short lyrics—preceding a longer narrative poem. The centerpiece of Why Brownlee Left is “Immram”—Gaelic for “wandering”—whose title derives from the ancient Irish poem “Immram Mul Duine.” The poem splices together elements drawn from the Irish vision-quest genre, detective fiction, film noir, and comedy to create a lyrical narrative that addresses issues of identity, the meaning of “home,” and the impossibility of directing or controlling one's life. The poems of Quoof are marked by frenetic wordplay and increased stanzaic experimentation, as well as a more sophisticated treatment of recurring topics such as family, language, the quest, love, death, and Ireland. Quoof, whose title refers to the Muldoon family's private word for a hot water bottle, ends with one of his best known poems, “The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants.” Returning to Native-American literature for the poem's central analogy, Muldoon utilizes a cycle of trickster myths from the Winnebago Indians, delving into issues of identity and questioning the validity of knowledge about oneself, others, and events—particularly with respect to the violence and civil strife in Northern Ireland.
As editor of The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry (1986), Muldoon set out to identify and catalog the most significant Irish poets since Yeats. Rather than write a traditional editorial introduction for the collection, Muldoon instead published a lengthy transcript of a 1939 debate between Irish poets F. R. Higgins and Louis MacNeice regarding the state of Irish poetry, which served to reflect many of Muldoon's own views on the subject. Meeting the British, Muldoon's last volume of poetry written before moving to the United States, returns to the theme of wandering, using shorter lyrical lines to suggest movement and change. The volume's long poem, “7, Middagh Street,” refers to the Brooklyn, New York, residence where English poet W. H. Auden settled following his relocation to the United States in the 1940s. Muldoon's long and complex epic narrative, Madoc—subtitled “A Mystery”—combines two storylines into one narrative. The first plotline is a retelling of the story of the twelfth-century Welsh prince, Madoc. According to legend, Madoc sailed west, discovered America, and settled among a Native-American tribe of Mandan Indians. The second plotline is an imaginative rendering of a never-realized scheme—conceived by nineteenth-century British Romantic poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey—to sail to America and establish a utopian pantisocracy on the banks of Pennsylvania's Susquehanna River. Each of the volume's poems is parenthetically titled with the name of an ancient philosopher or intellectual. The two storylines converge in a narrative presented by a descendent of Southey, named “South,” who retrieves the story from the back of his own eye using a device called a retinograph.
In contrast to Madoc, the poems that comprise The Annals of Chile are more personal, lyrical, and emotionally charged, allowing Muldoon to explore ideas of loss—both personal and cultural. These themes are addressed in poems such as the elegiac “Incantata”—written for Mary Farl Powers, an artist and Muldoon's former lover—and in the collection's long poem, “Yarrow,” focusing on 1963, a year marked by the passing of Robert Frost, Louis MacNeice, and Sylvia Plath. These poems revolve around Muldoon's relationships to those who died before him juxtaposed against incidents from his daily routines and current milestones—events which shaped his consciousness and informed his art. Hay (1998) is a diverse assemblage of poems whose various forms, styles, and subjects reflect Muldoon's continuing effort to present a more personal and accessible side in his work. Poems such as “The Mud Room” and “The Bangle (Slight Return),” revisit themes of identity, literature, and the potential for discovery facilitated by rhyme and poetic form. Muldoon has also published a series of shorter volumes, including The Prince of the Quotidian (1994), a diary-like account of the poet's daily activities in Princeton, New Jersey, and Kerry Slides (1996), which centers around Muldoon's return visits to Ireland. In addition to his poetry collections, Muldoon has produced several librettos, most notably Shining Brow (1993), which is an operatic biography of architect Frank Lloyd Wright written in collaboration with composer Daron Hagen. Muldoon has also served as the editor of The Essential Byron (1989) and The Faber Book of Beasts (1997), and has published a collection of his lectures on Irish literature in To Ireland, I (2000).
From the publication of his earliest poems Muldoon has been widely lauded for his sophisticated verbal techniques and his experimentation with poetic form. New Weather has received considerable critical acclaim and has been praised for introducing Muldoon's singular poetic voice. Despite his strong preoccupation with Irish culture and tradition, reviewers have often noted the absence of both explicit references to Northern Irish politics and expressions of Muldoon's own political beliefs in his poetry. Commentators have acknowledged the linguistic complexity of Muldoon's poetry, drawing attention to its inventive wordplay, use of neologisms, innovative stanzaic treatment, and comic elements. Many critics have also lauded Muldoon's postmodern mode of splicing together themes and techniques borrowed from other genres and media. However, some reviewers have argued that such poems are oblique and obscure, noting that several of Muldoon's works appear to be deliberately inaccessible, hermetic, and artificial. Madoc, in particular, has been criticized for employing a highly stylized structure and failing to examine emotional, core issues. Other critics have disagreed with this assessment of Muldoon's poetry, citing such poems as “Incantata” and “Yarrow” in The Annals of Chile as examples of Muldoon's most passionate and personal works. In general, most critics have agreed that Muldoon is a highly original poet whose writing offers insight into challenging questions surrounding the nature of poetry, cultural history, national allegiance, and self-identity.
SOURCE: Wilson, William A. “Paul Muldoon and the Poetics of Sexual Difference.” Contemporary Literature 28, no. 3 (fall 1987): 317-31.
[In the following essay, Wilson discusses Muldoon's break from the Yeatsian tradition of Irish poetry, particularly as evidenced in Muldoon's patterns of sexual signification and linguistic dichotomies that reflect the poet's effort to come to terms with his sense of paternal loss and the deconstructed culture of the postmodern world.]
As part of his deconstruction of Irish criticism, Seamus Deane described two dominant styles in Irish history and letters:
One is “Romantic,” a mode of reading which takes pleasure in the notion that Ireland is a culture enriched by the ambiguity of its relationship to an anachronistic and modernized present. The other is a mode of reading which denies the glamour of this ambiguity and seeks to escape from it into a pluralism of the present. The authors who represent these modes most powerfully are Yeats and Joyce respectively1.
(Heroic Styles 5)
Of all the poets connected with the increasingly important Ulster Movement, Muldoon most strongly resists the seductions of the Yeatsian idea of a Celtic cultural hegemony. Pursuing and extending the Joycean mode of reading history and culture, he sets his verse in the pluralism of contemporary Ireland, a nation transfigured by cultural invasions from the Continent and, most recently, from North America. As had Joyce before him, Muldoon portrays this pluralism in sexual terms.2 Younger by a decade than the others in the Movement—James Simmons, Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon—Muldoon confronts contemporary pluralism from the vantage of one who came of age in the late sixties, a confused and confusing era of mass political and cultural upheaval, whose effects can be felt everywhere in his four volumes of verse.3 This period of sea-change also brought poststructuralist deconstruction to its maturity, and it is helpful to read Muldoon's verse against this analytical backdrop of logocentrism and semantic dissemination.4 While Seamus Heaney, for example, digs for the origins of a personal voice, for a musical verse “with the aura and authenticity of archaeological finds,” Muldoon wanders about a discordant world that is increasingly inimical to such romantic concerns. In Muldoon's world authentic “finds” are but illusions of meaning, and the romantic “poetry as revelation of the self to the self” (Heaney, “Feeling” 5) is rendered problematic by the anxiety that is fundamental to language per se. It is Muldoon's emphasis upon the logos in a pluralistic, decentered culture, rather than the authentic voice in a romantic register, that most clearly establishes his work's dialectical relation to the more widely recognized strain of Irish poetry, represented at its best by Heaney, John Montague, and Richard Murphy.
A reader would indeed be insensible if he did not immediately see in Muldoon's work his fascination with the word, its promises, its anxieties, its comic differences, features that can be found from New Weather (1973) through Quoof (1983). An early lyric titled “Identities” describes this fascination. The speaker in the poem is a political refugee. At a seaside resort he falls in with a woman, likewise in flight. Her father was a power in the late regime and is now imprisoned somewhere in the interior. The woman proposes a marriage of convenience with the poet as a means of escape to freedom. This exchange of identity will be effected, she claims, by an unnamed friend who will “steal” the necessary papers. The last stanza, however, reveals rather enigmatically that the exchange of identities, however convenient, is finally unrealizable. Left alone after falling into the woman's world, the speaker says: “I have been wandering since, back up the streams / That had once flowed simply one into the other, / One taking the other's name” (Mules and Earlier Poems 19). After his encounter with the woman, the abandoned poet can no longer be confident about identity, about the appropriateness of a name's connection with things. Rather, he must wander back into the interior of the imprisoned father, pointlessly looking for the paternal, prelapsarian origin in a changed landscape where names, like identities of things, are now arbitrary, no longer simply flowing one into the other. This lyric describes the fall, if you will, into a deconstructed world.
“Identities” is also important for a study of Muldoon's poetics since, out of his concern with words and identity sketched here, we can abstract a pattern of narrative situation that informs many of his significant poems. The poet meets a woman who offers him a liberating union through the offices of stolen papers, of words. This proposal, which seems to fail inevitably, is made in the context of the absent father, the embodiment of a past dispensation, whose origins the poet then searches for. In short, the narrative pattern of “Identities” is a template for much of what follows in Muldoon's career. The woman, seen as either mother or lover, is the keeper of duplicitous words while the father, dead or otherwise absent from the scene, is the meaningful center of an old relationship with the natural world, a traditional pastoralism that seems irretrievably lost in the poet's own life, and one that he perforce elegizes.5 The origin of this gender-specific dichotomy is seen in “The Mixed Marriage”:
My father was a servant-boy. When he left school at eight or nine He took up billhook and loy To win the ground he would never own.
My mother was the school-mistress, The world of Castor and Pollux. There were twins in her own class. She could never tell which was which.
She had read one volume of Proust, He knew the cure for farcy. I flitted between a hole in the hedge And a room in the Latin Quarter.
(Mules and Earlier Poems 72)
As a child the poet moves between the doubling female world of imaginative literature and the male world of quotidian reality. But the boy's easy passage from one to the other is, alas, the privilege of innocence.
In this maturity the poet of experience confronts a pluralistic world where the immediate relationship with Nature, the presence of meaning epitomized by the life of the father, is conceived only as absence. Why Brownlee Left, a volume about departures and decentered worlds, concludes with “Immram,” a burlesque of the Irish saga Immram Mael Duin (The Voyage of Maeldune). As the narrator charts the journey in search of his father, he takes the reader through an antinatural landscape more violent and forbidding than those depicted in the Irish source. Muldoon has displaced both classical and romantic pastoralism from his poem—panders with mile-long Cadillacs and bestial sex shows have violently displaced the shepherd who benignly retires from his flock to sport with Amaryllis in the shade. In the “Morgue / Of all the cities of America” (42) we see unveiled in urban culture, a cadaver with no distinguishing marks, only numbered streets and boulevards generically named Central and Ocean. Among the various characters encountered by the narrator—pool-sharks, pimps, drug smugglers, and Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Tennyson (Tennyson wrote “The Voyage of Maeldune” in 1879-80)—only one figure seems to approximate the paternal presence he seeks. The virtual image of the patriarch is found in a parodic locus amoenus called the Park Hotel:
He was huddled on an old orthopaedic mattress, The makings of a skeleton, Naked but for a pair of draw-string shorts. His hair was waistlength, as was his beard. He was covered in bedsores. He raised one talon. ‘I forgive you,’ he croaked. ‘And I forget. On your way out, you tell that bastard To bring me a dish of ice-cream. I want Baskin-Robbins banana-nut ice-cream.’
To recall Howard Hughes in his dotage is to give this specter a local habitation and a name. But no positive metaphysical value can be gleaned by the narrator from the wasted entrepreneur and individualist whose intellectual soul is expressed in what is now called a “strong consumer preference.” Thus, at the end of “Immram,” the disconsolate son returns, as he did in “Identities,” to his point of departure:
There was a steady stream of people That flowed in one direction, Faster and deeper, That I would go along with, happily, As I made my way back, like any other pilgrim, To Main Street. …
Muldoon supplements the epic quest for the father with lyrics on the same subject. Although these lyrical treatments may acknowledge the Yeatsian strain, it is an ironic gesture at best, for his lyrics are not “elements of continuity” or “divination,” as Heaney defines poetic authenticity (“Feeling” 41).6 In “The Mirror,” for example, a grieving son seeks to finish his dead father's work and is frightened by the man's ghost held captive in a redundantly dead world, in a “monstrous old Victorian mirror” (Quoof 12). The title poem of Muldoon's third volume wonders at the disappearance of Brownlee, a man whose relationship with the earth was especially rich and fruitful. Thus, his abrupt departure is an unnatural act that institutes discontinuity in the once pastoral world:
Why Brownlee left, and where he went, Is a mystery even now. For if a man should have been content It was him; two acres of barley, One of potatoes, four bullocks, A milker, a slated farmhouse. He was last seen going out to plow On a March morning, bright and early.
By noon Brownlee was famous; They had found all abandoned, with The last rig unbroken, his pair of black Horses, like man and wife, Shifting their weight from foot to Foot, and gazing into the future.
The cause of the father figure's departure is not divined here, but the absence of the paternal center is nonetheless the sine qua non of Muldoon's poetic world, if only because it determines his world's future.
Not only is the father not found by the son, but once departed, the patriarch cannot viably return, a point Muldoon makes in mythic terms in the second section of “Armageddon, Armageddon,” the final poem in Mules. We are given an image of last things in Oisin's return to Ireland after an absence of three centuries.
[the hero] thought nothing of dismounting From his enchanted steed To be one again with the mountains, The bogs and the little fields.
There and then he began to stoop, His hair, and all his teeth, fell out, A mildewed belt, a rusted buckle.
In “The Mixed Marriage” we hear that the father's achievement is the winning of the land; in “Immram” we meet a decrepit billionaire in his retreat at the Park; in “Armageddon” we learn that the result of a heroic return is not the restoration of order effected by Ulysses, but senile disintegration. These archaeological finds—Oisin's belt and buckle—afford little “restoration of culture to itself” (Heaney, “Feeling” 41).
Muldoon's treatment of the absent father is, I think, most suggestive in “Cherish the Ladies,” a recent lyric he punningly calls “my last poem about my father.” While in the midst of presenting a matter-of-fact picture of his father watering his cattle, the poet suggests that such quotidian detail is ill-suited to a modern audience:
In this, my last poem about my father, there may be time enough for him to fill their drinking-trough and run his eye over
his three mooley heifers. Such a well-worn path, I know, from here to the galvanized bath. I know, too, you would rather
I saw behind the hedge to where the pride of the herd, though not an Irish bull, would cherish the ladies with his electric cattle-prod.
As it is, Muldoon says, he must return to the picture of workaday farm chores:
he opens the stand-pipe and the water scurries along the hose till it's curled
in the bath. One heifer may look up and make a mental note, then put her nose back to the salt-lick of the world.
Thus, even in an act of memory, in the epitome of the romantic consolatory imagination, the father cannot be reconciled with the son's world of figuration. Indeed, the father so resists metaphoricity that in the last line the poet sublimates the well-known trope from the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5.13) in the quiddity of his father's work. That is, against the stable world of the father, against “the salt-lick of the world,” the son can only posit his unnatural modern world in the conditional mood. In a movement made inevitable from “Identities,” the poet here turns literally and figuratively to the remaining half of the mixed marriage, to the ladies behind the paternal hedge (“Mixed Marriage”) where tropes tease the sexual innuendo from the tools of modern husbandry.
This turn to woman is the second part of the pattern extracted from “Identities.” Given the absence of the father, the poet must turn from the lost, idealized world of unity, where the father knows how to “cure” disorder (“The Mixed Marriage”), to the female world of the imagination, where tropic language promises to restore the poet to the presence of meaning. This dichotomy in Muldoon's verse is a subtle variation on the traditional split in Irish consciousness, one neatly summarized in sectarian terms by Seamus Heaney:
The specifically Irish Catholic blueprint that was laid down when I was growing up has been laid there forever. I think of … the sense that there's some kind of feminine intercession that you can turn to for comfort—this is part of the Irish Catholic thing. … You could say that the Protestants' poem is “Our Father, which art in heaven”—a kind of sturdy negotiation with the boss—whereas the Catholic prayer is “Hail Mary”: “pray for us now and at the hour of our death. Amen.” And so on. Much more supplicatory.
In Muldoon, however, this search for feminine intercession finally leads him not to traditional consolation but to différence. That is, while the poet yearns for unity with the male boss, he wanders in a world of feminine differentiation: while caught in the literary salon, he longs for the hole in the hedge.
As one thinks of Muldoon's volumes of poetry, one is hard pressed to recall a woman there who is not essentially connected with textuality, from the mother who reads Proust, the woman in “Whim” who reads O'Grady's translation of Cuchulain, the girl in “Sky-Woman” whose nether parts form an umlaut in the poet's mind, to “The Girls in the Poolroom” who literally rave about Camus and the twenty-third psalm (it is their nostalgic gesture to the lost pastoral patriarchy). But to fall into the textual realm is to fall from idealized unity into division, into the play of signification and différence. In Muldoon's poetry, there are losses that nothing, let alone words, can restore. In “October 1950” the poet thinks about his origins and begins with a bare statement, whose crudeness shades into adolescent sexual revulsion: “Whatever it is, it comes down to this; / My father's cock / Between my mother's thighs” (Brownlee 9). This description reveals the essential pattern of Muldoon's sexual poetics: the principle of male unity comes down to, falls into female division. Often portrayed as the purveyor of narcotic weeds and psychedelic mushrooms, woman rules over a world of systematic semantic dissemination where male consciousness revels in différence to the limits of hallucinatory dilation (see, for example, “Trance” and “The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants” in Quoof).
As intended consolation for the lost father, then, Muldoon's encounters with women are doomed to failure since they embody the division he flees. “Kissing and Telling” charts the distance between expectation and fulfillment:
Or she would turn up The Songs of Leonard Cohen on the rickety old gramophone.
And you knew by the way she unbound her tresses and stepped from her William Morris dresses
you might just as well be anyone.
Goat's-milk cheeses, Navajo rugs, her reading aloud from A Dictionary of Drugs—
she made wine of almost everything.
How many of those she found out on the street and fetched back to her attic room—
to promise nothing, to take nothing for granted—
how many would hold by the axiom she would intone as though it were her mantra?
I could name names. I could be indiscreet.
Beginning enigmatically with “Or,” the poem presents a scene that has infinite possible correlations existing outside it, a semantic field that is never saturated. This initial gesture is an acknowledgment of the essential différence inherent in the woman's domain. In a room where drugs are treated as words and vice versa, identity is unstable—“you might just as well be anyone.” Moreover, her axiom—to promise nothing, to take nothing for granted—may have its historical origins in the sexual liberation of the sixties, but it is nonetheless self-canceling. An axiom that denies axioms deconstructs itself, leaving nothing for anyone off the street, save perhaps Jacques Derrida himself, to hold on to. The deconstructed signification of her axiom is a poor mantra, and the poet acknowledges that presence of meaning is deferred here in the conditional predication of his vocation—“I could name names”—and in the punning last sentence, in the doubling of “I could be indiscreet.” After all, it was discretion, literal separateness, that he sought to move beyond.
One can trace the persistence of différence in the playful signification in poems that apparently succeed in recapturing lost unity. In “Promises, Promises” the poet stretches under a tobacco-shed in North Carolina to enjoy a truly modern smoke. While in his marijuana buzz, he muses about the colony Raleigh left behind as he hoisted sail, about the colonists' submerged presence in the genetic pool of the Indians, and finally about a woman he left behind in London:
I am stretched out under the lean-to Of an old tobacco-shed On a farm in North Carolina, When someone or other, warm, naked, Stirs within my own skeleton And stands on tip-toe to look out Over the horizon, Through the zones, across the ocean. The cardinal sings from a redbud For the love of one slender and shy, The flight after flight of stairs To her room in Bayswater, The damson freckle on her throat That I kissed when we kissed Goodbye.
This imaginative flight to London is the poet's metaphoric reversal of Raleigh's desertion, but, as in all significant play, the meaning of the return is different from what is intended, and its presence is deferred. Following the différence in Muldoon's metaphors, we see that the return seems punctuated full-stop by her damson freckle, but this mental rendezvous is itself turned into another departure by the last word of farewell.
So far this analysis of Muldoon has brought him to the impasse familiar to those who have but a passing acquaintance with Anglo-American deconstructive literary criticism. We have not moved beyond the kenosis, the self-emptying. There is, however, a form of verifiable transcendence, at least in thought, when one becomes self-conscious that one's perception is not privileged but perspectival.7 That Muldoon approaches this transcendence is evidenced by his playful jibes at his own poetics. In “The Girls in the Poolroom” he jocoseriously points to one way through this tangle:
The girls in the poolroom Were out on their own limbs.
How could I help But make men of them?
(Mules and Earlier Poems 61)
What the poet proposes here is to literalize a figure of speech; that is, in order to free himself of female différence, he wishes to masculate women.
That the masculation of woman as the restoration of unity is but a fanciful supposition is a point made again in Quoof. On the acknowledgment page Muldoon quotes a passage from Rasmussen's work on the Netsilik Eskimos about a great shaman who transforms herself into a man, but the strategic position of this feat of masculation shows that its realization lies beyond the margins of Muldoon's verse. What is at most possible in the search to restore unity is seen in “Something of a Departure”:
Would you be an angel And let me rest, This one last time, Near that plum-colored beauty spot Just below your right buttock?
Elizabeth, Elizabeth, Had words not escaped us both I would have liked to hear you sing Farewell to Tarwathie Or Ramble Away.
Your thigh, your breast, Your wrist, the ankle That might yet sprout a wing— You're altogether as slim As the chance of our meeting again.
So put your best foot forward And steady, steady on. Show me the plum-colored beauty spot Just below your right buttock, And take it like a man.
In an apparent silence, in an apparent freedom from words, Muldoon plays with gender as he plays with genre. As the blazon becomes the prelude to buggery (Elizabeth is to “take it like a man”), the poet seems to move beyond female différence into the realm of literal male unity by approximating a homosexual act. But the masculation of Elizabeth is only apparent because words have not truly escaped the lovers: the scene is heavily dependent upon simile, textual allusions, puns, and double-entendres.
Although “Something of a Departure” may be one of the nastiest valedictions in the language, its playfulness points a way beyond the impasse of division in Muldoon's sexual poetics. As the poet anatomizes the woman, he hints of a desired transformation of Elizabeth into Hermes (“the ankle / That might yet sprout a wing”). This synechdoche describes the possibility of moving beyond female différence. Hermes, the father of Hermaphrodite and Priapus, is a suprasexual god of secrets and revelation as well as the protector of liars, thieves, and swindlers.8 Insofar as the poet can associate himself with Hermes he can, like Odysseus, move safely through the hostile and hallucinatory world ruled by women.
We see an example of Muldoon's safe transit in the title poem of Quoof:
How often have I carried our family word for the hot water bottle to a strange bed, as my father would juggle a red-hot half-brick in an old sock to his childhood settle. I have taken it into so many lovely heads or laid it between us like a sword.
An hotel room in New York City with a girl who spoke hardly any English, my hand on her breast like the smouldering one-off spoor of the yeti or some other shy beast that has yet to enter the language.
Here the poet imitates the actions of his father at a double remove. It is important to note that he doesn't literally repeat those actions. Rather, the likeness rests in a simile, not metaphor: he carries his bed-warmer as his father carried his. The father inhabits his solid, familiar, but irretrievable domain—he juggles the warm brick into the settled world of childhood. The son, however, is in a wanderer's haven with a thrice alien companion—a female New Yorker who doesn't speak much English. The poet achieves a form of contact with the masculine world of his father by separating himself from this redundantly different woman with a unique word, a linguistic element which seemingly defies différence since it refers to one object only. Quoof will not be found in the Dictionary of Drugs, or any other hallucinatory lexicon. This private word separates the two lovers; and, as magical as Hermes' moly plant, quoof allows the poet safe passage through Circean différence. Separated for the moment from his companion, the poet is free to approximate her masculation in the figure of the yeti, the Tibetan man-bear, but he ultimately moves beyond this wish fulfillment in the last simile. In the asexual figure of “some other shy beast / that has yet to enter the language,” the woman as proprietress of words is confronted with a mythical beast who is her own negation. The “rough beast” on its way to Bethlehem frightened Yeats, but that image of apocalypse has been smoothed and softened here. Thus the poet is paradoxically, if momentarily, freed from female différence with the logos of his own devising. The word quoof does allow the poet to reiterate his affinities with the original world of the father. If Muldoon cannot finally keep himself from the different world of a woman's bed and restore himself to the paradise of the paternal field, hermetic prophylaxis will at least assist his safe transition from bed to verse (as a wit once said of Lord Byron).
Muldoon's pluralistic poetics can be seen not only as a reaction against the example of Yeats and his heirs9 but also as a direct challenge to the generalized aesthetic approach to poetry that demands the poet create in his work a self-sufficient, autonomous world. There is a frank, central, and self-conscious acknowledgment of the inadequacy of poetry to establish a self-sufficient metaphysical presence in Muldoon's gesture to the shy beast that exists beyond the margin of discourse, beyond tropes and figuration. Thus, when Heaney says of a hermetic puzzle in Mules, “the wrong quest [is] the quest for the poem's relationship to the world outside it” (“The Mixed Marriage” 213), he misses what is most pointed about Muldoon's achievement and what most forcefully displaces him from Heaney's romantic tradition. The clear vision of this extralinguistic world frees Muldoon from the illusion of aesthetic autonomy and safeguards him as he moves through the urban violence, the narcotic distortions, and the anorexia of mass culture that give his poetry its characters, plots, and themes. The hermetic pose of the poet allows him to understand the different world, but not to judge it: the absence of a paternal center determines that his verse will be morally neutral, that like Brownlee's team it will shift from one foot to the other, looking into the future.
This prophylaxis is necessary, for the real world is antithetical to the poet and his “sturdy negotiation with the boss” for his return. At the beginning of “Immram,” one of Muldoon's several Telemachia, the poet is told a central historical truth. In Foster's poolhall, a large black man, literally dressed to kill, smashes the poet over the head with a billiard cue and says, “‘Your old man was an ass-hole. / That makes an ass-hole out of you’” (Brownlee 38). The awareness of poetry's irrelevancy in a second-best, orphaned world, a Foster home, is the foundation of Muldoon's historical consciousness. Muldoon demythologizes poetry's connection with the world of action for reasons that are as pragmatic as they are imperative. It is the real world of the Troubles, international as well as Irish, that threatens the poet, threatens to eradicate his enabling language. Dublin in 1904 was hostile to the aspirations of Stephen Dedalus and Mr. and Mrs. Bloom, but the final word to issue from that drowsy cityscape was “Yes.” Obscured by hallucinogens and wearied by the violence of the IRA and the UDR, Muldoon's vision of cosmopolitan life ends with “‘Huh’” (“The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants,” Quoof 64). This expression of disengagement affords the poet hermetic protection from a culture that moves randomly between apocalyptic and entropic extremes. Without recognizing Muldoon's form of poetic self-preservation, we cannot begin fully to appreciate his increasing importance for the Ulster Movement in particular and for postmodern poetry in general.
Deane has analogous discussions of Irish literature and criticism in “Irish Poetry and Irish Nationalism,” “The Appetites of Gravity,” and “The Literary Myths of the Revival: A Case for Their Abandonment.”
Muldoon puts distance between himself and the Yeatsian tradition in his prose as well. In a recent review of Seamus Heaney's Station Island, Muldoon chides Heaney for some anachronistic touches and concludes that Heaney can best serve himself by resisting “the idea that he is the best Irish poet since Yeats” (20).
Muldoon won the Eric Gregory Award for his first volume of poetry, New Weather (1973), which was followed by Mules (1977) [both recently reprinted in Mules and Earlier Poems (1986)], Why Brownlee Left (1980), and Quoof (1983). These volumes of Muldoon's poetry are published in the United States by Wake Forest University Press, in Winston-Salem, N.C. Dillon Johnston, editor of the Press, has kindly given his permission to quote from the poetry of Paul Muldoon.
It is not necessary to test the worth of Muldoon's poetry by launching it on the meta-Derridean sea. The concepts of logos, différence, presence, absence, and dissemination are those that are most useful with Muldoon's poetry, and their definitions and permutations can be found in Derrida's works passim. A convenient description of the linchpins of deconstruction is found in Derrida xvi-xx.
For a cogent account of the broader Irish tradition Muldoon defines himself against, see Bradley 79-96.
For readers sired by the modern romantic tradition, one of the most disconcerting features of Muldoon's poetry is its chimerical manipulation of the first person voice. In any one lyric the speaker seems authentic, but the subject matter is often repulsive or inconsistent with another “I” encountered elsewhere in his verse. For example, there are several poems that seemingly treat Muldoon's father in memoriam, although he did not die until 1984. One cannot say that Muldoon creates identifiable masks, for to say what is identifiable about a hermetic narrator (see below, n. 8) is to engage in a contradiction in terms. Muldoon is seeking to move beyond the authentic romantic tradition and the impersonal poetics fathered by Browning and inherited by Pound and Eliot.
The implications of this awareness for postmodern poetry and criticism are explored in Harries 87-88.
Dillon Johnston analyzes the function of hermetic poetics in Muldoon and Thomas Kinsella. He too argues that the achievement of Muldoon is best seen in terms of hermetic play rather than traditional hermeneutics. Muldoon's hermetic poses have caused reviewers difficulties. Employing the aesthetics of the romantic and Yeatsian tradition, Seamus Heaney calls Muldoon “one of the very best” but nevertheless faults the “hermetic tendency … [that] leads him into puzzles rather than poems” (“The Mixed Marriage” 213). To depreciate Why Brownlee Left David Annwn draws on Heaney's criticism of Theodore Roethke and borrows the phrase “constructs for the inarticulate” (74). Adrian Frazier comes closer to appreciating Muldoon's intentions when he notes that Muldoon's narratives are “based on the idea that a mystery will be solved, that the clues will lead up to an answer on the last page. In fact, on the level of plot, they don't” (133). Frazier neglects to see that the hermetic mystery has been part of Muldoon's enterprise from the outset.
Since Muldoon positions himself against the Yeatsian strain in Irish poetry, it is tempting to see him in a Bloomian relationship with his artistic progenitors, especially Seamus Heaney. Mary DeShazer, for one, sees in Why Brownlee Left a search for both “a literal father and a literary ‘precursor,’ that paternal giant whom the young poet must confront and conquer in order to achieve artistic autonomy” (129). Since Muldoon is playfully and self-consciously antithetical, it is perhaps best to view these Oedipal antagonisms from a brighter perspective, to keep Bloom in the bud, as Muldoon does. In his review of Station Island, Muldoon gives singular praise to “Widgeon,” calling it a “small masterpiece” worth quoting in full (20). It is a short lyric least like Heaney's other poems but very much in the Muldoon “hermetic tendency,” and it is indeed dedicated to Muldoon. Throughout this review, Muldoon implicitly acknowledges that Heaney is his major precursor. However, the responsibility for this poetic father is not, as in Bloom's theory, his own; rather, Muldoon places the blame for Heaney's preeminence on Robert Lowell.
Annwn, David. Rev. of Why Brownlee Left by Paul Muldoon. Anglo-Welsh Review 69 (1981): 74-77.
Bradley, Anthony G. “Pastoral in Modern Irish Poetry.” Concerning Poetry 14 (1981): 79-86.
Deane, Seamus. “The Appetites of Gravity.” Sewanee Review 84 (1976): 199-208.
———. Heroic Styles: The Tradition of an Idea. Derry: Field Day, 1984.
———. “Irish Poetry and Irish Nationalism.” Two Decades of Irish Writing. Ed. Douglas Dunn. Cheadle, Cheshire: Carcanet Press, 1975. 4-22
———. “The Literary Myths of the Revival: A Case for Their Abandonment.” Myth and Reality in Irish Literature. Ed. Joseph Ronsley. Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfred Laurier UP, 1977. 317-29.
Derrida, Jacques. Writing and Difference. Trans. and ed. Alan Bass. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1978.
DeShazer, Mary. Rev. of Selected Poems: 1963-1980 by Michael Longley and Why Brownlee Left by Paul Muldoon. Concerning Poetry 14 (1981): 125-31.
Frazier, Adrian. “Juniper, Otherwise Known: Poems by Paulin and Muldoon.” Eire-Ireland 19 (1984): 123-33.
Harries, Karsten. “Metaphor and Transcendence.” Critical Inquiry 5 (1978): 73-90.
Heaney, Seamus. “Feeling into Words.” Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978. New York: Farrar, 1980.
———. “The Mixed Marriage.” Preoccupations.
Johnston, Dillon. “The Go-Between of Recent Irish Poetry.” American Committee for Irish Studies Convention, May 1985.
Kinahan, Frank. “An Interview with Seamus Heaney.” Critical Inquiry 8 (1982): 405-14.
Muldoon, Paul. Mules. Winston-Salem, NC: Wake Forest UP, 1977.
———. Mules and Earlier Poems. Winston-Salem, NC: Wake Forest UP, 1986.
———. New Weather. London: Faber and Faber, 1973.
———. Rev. of Station Island, by Seamus Heaney. London Review of Books 1-14, Nov. 1986: 20.
———. Quoof. Winston-Salem, NC: Wake Forest UP, 1983.
———. Why Brownlee Left. Winston-Salem, NC: Wake Forest UP, 1980.
Knowing My Place (poetry) 1971
New Weather (poetry) 1973
Spirit of Dawn (poetry) 1975
Mules (poetry) 1977
Names and Addresses (poetry) 1978
The Scrake of Dawn: Poems by Young People from Northern Ireland [editor] (poetry) 1979
Immram [illustrated by Robert Ballagh] (poetry) 1980
The O-Os' Party: New Year's Eve (juvenilia) 1980
Why Brownlee Left (poetry) 1980
Out of Siberia (poetry) 1982
Quoof (poetry) 1983
The Wishbone (poetry) 1984
Mules and Earlier Poems (poetry) 1985
The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry [editor] (poetry) 1986
Selected Poems: 1968-1986 (poetry) 1986
Meeting the British (poetry) 1987
The Essential Byron [editor] (poetry) 1989
Madoc: A Mystery (poetry) 1990
The Astrakhan Cloak [translator; from the collection by Nuala Ní Dhomnaill] (poetry) 1992
Shining Brow: An Opera in Two Acts and a Prologue [with Daron Aric Hagen] (libretto) 1993
The Annals of Chile (poetry) 1994
The Prince of the Quotidian (poetry) 1994
The Last Thesaurus [illustrated by Rodney Rigby] (juvenilia) 1995
Six Honest Serving Men (play) 1995
Kerry Slides [photographs by Bill Doyle] (poetry) 1996
New Selected Poems: 1968-1994 (poetry) 1996
The Faber Book of Beasts [editor] (poetry) 1997
Hay (poetry) 1998
Bandanna: An Opera in Two Acts and a Prologue [with Daron Aric Hagen] (libretto) 1999
The Birds [translator with Richard Martin; from the original play by Aristophanes] (play) 1999
To Ireland, I (lectures) 2000
Poems 1968-1998 (poetry) 2001
Vera of Las Vegas [with Daron Aric Hagen] (libretto) 2001
Moy Sand and Gravel (poetry) 2002
SOURCE: Quinlan, Kieran. Review of Selected Poems: 1968-1986, by Paul Muldoon. World Literature Today 63, no. 1 (winter 1989): 104.
[In the following review, Quinlan offers a positive assessment of Selected Poems: 1968-1986.]
“Kaleidoscopic,” “visionary,” and “charismatic” (the words used on the book jacket [of Selected Poems: 1968-1986] by as sensible an Ulsterman as Seamus Heaney) are all terms frequently applied to Paul Muldoon's work and aptly descriptive of its main thrust—which is to say that the poems by this relatively new voice from Northern Ireland are not always easily accessible, even when they are at their most inspiring. Still, there is a marked development from the tentativeness of the items selected from New Weather (1973) to the extreme confidence of those from Meeting the British (1987).
As one might expect of a writer from Muldoon's region of the world, the nuances of political commitment are never too far from the poet's consciousness, though that consciousness ranges internationally and is by no means confined to the echoes of a local row. The more recent poems, however, in which Muldoon plays off against Auden playing off against Yeats—“As for his crass, rhetorical // posturing, ‘Did that play of mine / send out certain men (certain men?) // the English shot … ?’ / the answer is ‘Certainly not’”—and in which Lorca, Dalí, MacNiece, and others strut their various consequences upon their 1930s stages, suffer occasionally from requiring a detailed knowledge of both half-forgotten and all-too-familiar political contexts. Muldoon is better in a poem such as “Gypsy” or in “Sushi,” where the apprentice “had scrimshandered a rose's / exquisite petals” from the tail end of a carrot: “it might have been alabaster / or jade / the Master so gravely weighed / from hand to hand / with the look of a man unlikely to confound / Duns Scotus, say, with Scotus Eriugena.” Muldoon's “say” shows him disarmingly aware of his own art even as he offers it for our expected admiration.
SOURCE: Bedient, Calvin. “The Crabbed Genius of Belfast.” Parnassus 16, no. 1 (1990): 195-216.
[In the following excerpt, Bedient lauds Muldoon's rejection of the traditional motifs of Irish poetry in Meeting the British and Selected Poems: 1968-1986.]
In the recent work of two Belfast poets, Paul Muldoon and Medbh1 McGuckian, a calculated art of disturbance makes a stunning appearance. Born in Belfast at the beginning of the 1950s, both poets are brazenly set on shattering the “human” or conventional aspects of reality. Each is in constant training for shock. The equivalents of petrol bombs are going off in their imaginations, moving the shapes of things around crazily. Yet McGuckian leaves Belfast itself out of her nightmare: Desire, not Belfast, is the site of the battle of which she gives an astonishingly colorful, inwardly spinning, dazed, and elegiac report. As for Muldoon, he laughs at Belfast with a sensibility of brass, and at his most mocking and aggressive makes art triumph as farce. …
Not that Paul Muldoon is a slouch. Indeed, he fits Ortega y Gasset's characterization of the new dehumanized art of the early twentieth century as masculine and youthful (“For a while women and old people will have to cede the rule over life to boys”). Brilliantly impertinent, he's an anarchical, cartoonish ruckus-raiser whose high spirits burst the bounds of academic proprieties. Consider the moment in his long poem “The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants” when his anti-hero spies on a girl mischievously named Beatrice, who is in what might be one of Belfast's numerous outhouses:
Gallogly pads along the block to raise his visor at the first peep-hole. He shamelessly takes in her lean piglet's back, the back and boyish hams of a girl at stool. At last. A tiny goat's-pill. A stub of crayon with which she has squiggled a shamrock, yes, but a shamrock after the school of Pollock, Jackson Pollock.
Apparently this is to say that Northern Irish art is writ in shit—all that the Galloglies, Muldoon's countrymen, deserve. The language characteristically darts and taunts. But, allowing himself to soften at times, Muldoon can also make language feel and resonate. He's richly talented and very finished, very smart.
Born like McGuckian into a Catholic Belfast family, he may not show how politics collides with “life's daily round,” but his references to the Troubles are frequent enough to posit that treacherous turmoil as the probable reason that his style is as irritably jumpy as a grasshopper in a hot field. Perhaps it doesn't altogether romanticize him to say that his sensibility is explosion-shy; perhaps his poetry is in the main a reaction, a symptom. With few exceptions his work is bitter, if spunky enough to turn bitterness into gamesmanship.
Indeed, he threatens to remain the Brillo pad of Irish poetry, wiry, harsh, scouring, ready to assault any black-bottomed pan (and to him they're all black).2 Heaney puts this bad-boyism down to a healthy reaction against Yeats's nationalistic sublimities. But mockery is as much provocation as it is distance. Certainly Heaney arrests one when he says that “Muldoon is changing the rules of the game”—a remark that plays to Lyotard's notion of the “postmodern” as the make-up-the-rules-as-you-go strain of art. But unless he is being wicked, I find too generous his compliment that Muldoon's “swerves away from any form of poker-faced solidarity with the political programs of the Northern Catholic minority … have kept him so much on his poetic toes that he has practically achieved the poetic equivalent of walking on air.” Who needs a poet who walks on air?
Who needs a brilliant callowness such as “Bechbretha” throws our way in Meeting the British, as Merlyn Rees, the Northern Secretary of State, reacts to a bee scare at a garden party (and of course it might as well be the Belfast Catholics who rolled their “thingamy / into one ball / and lodged in the fork of a tree”) by making a mad sprint for Government House and, once inside, hugs “his breasts / like a startled nymph”? (A beekeeper eventually brushes the swarm into a box and covers it “with the Union Jack.”) This poem embodies the prejudices of “the Northern Catholic minority”—that which Heaney wants to cordon off from poetry. And it's a point in Heaney's favor. Muldoon simply gets bitterness off his chest (not to be confused with startled breasts). His somewhat addictively racy art is (with superb small-sized exceptions) negative, comic. Its swash-buckling shenanigans aside, it's like the realistic novel as described by Ortega in Meditations on Quixote: it attacks the mirage of the ideal with the “real” as if thirsty for a draught of sand.
Both Muldoon and McGuckian lack Heaney's gift for happiness, reason, love, sensory repose; you'd think that for Northern Irish poets born after 1949 these qualities were extinct. Their handkerchiefs are soaked in gasoline or blood, not in la lavande or, like Heaney's, in the water of holy Irish wells. There isn't in the work of either of them a whisper of Heaney's kindness, or of Stephen Dedalus's, for that matter, when, discovering that his younger sister Dilly has bought a French primer with a rare bit of money, this normally self-absorbed youth cautions himself, “Show no surprise. Quite natural,” and, remembering his mother's wasted life, concludes: “She is drowning. … Misery! Misery!”
Certainly none of Muldoon's ex-girlfriends or wives need thank him for any good word he has to say about them. (True, if they like poetry, they should admire “Holy Thursday” from Why Brownlee Left, with its perfect and unexpected objective equivalent for a couple bowing out of a relationship and leaving love to others: A waiter who settles himself at the next table but one, eats, rearranges the table, “smiles, and bows to his own absence.”) In one of the new poems, “Sushi,” a woman keeps nagging at the speaker (“It's as if you've some kind of death-wish. / You won't even talk”) while he observes, minutely and lovingly, the cook's preparation of raw fish and an apprentice's scrimshandering of a rose's exquisite petals from the tail-end of a carrot. The Master gravely weighs this last “from hand to hand / with the look of a man unlikely to confound Duns Scotus, say, with Scotus Eriugena.”3 The textual guffaw of this flip close fails to distract the speaker from his recognition that he's more artist than lover (last heard from, the woman says, “I might just as well be eating alone”), or that what he most appreciates is a man's judgment, a man's passion for how a thing is done.
This last (and writing in a register where no false note ever enters is Muldoon's sole agenda) explains and may derive from his idealization of his father. In his handful of poems on the latter, the poet, otherwise often a patchwork of reactions, a sump of irony, an imp of disdainful invention, gets close to something primary. He brushes against childhood and its apparent proximity to a unitary, sacred world. In one of the new poems, a fox has caused a ruckus on John Mackle's goose farm (“Such an alarm”):
I got up and opened the venetian blind. You lay three fields away
in Collegelands graveyard, in ground so wet you weren't so much buried there as drowned.
That was a month ago. I see your face above its bib pumped full of formaldehyde.
You seem engrossed, as if I'd come on you painfully writing your name with a carpenter's pencil
on the lid of a mushroom-box. You're saying, Go back to bed. It's only yon dog-fox.
Silly goose, the father in effect had said, to get so alarmed over a dog-fox—a comforting grumble from one whose face, however, has since been “pumped full of formaldehyde.” Against the perfect line-breaks of the poem (especially the placement of “buried”), the unstated truth that death itself is the one alarm beyond allayment, not least the death of a protective father, strains but refuses to weep.
Compare “October 1950” from Why Brownlee Left (a poem omitted from Selected Poems: 1968-1986):
Whatever it is, it all comes down to this; My father's cock Between my mother's thighs. Might he have forgotten to wind the clock?
Cookers and eaters, Fuck the Pope, Wow and flutter, a one-legged howl, My sly quadroon, the way home from the pub— Anything wild or wonderful—
Whatever it is, it goes back to this night, To a chance remark In a room at the top of the stairs; To an open field, as like as not, Under the little stars. Whatever it is, it leaves me in the dark.
Inside its carapace of life-rejection (“might he have forgotten to wind the clock?”—an allusion to the hilarious opening of Tristram Shandy) flutters a wowed romantic heart (“anything wild or wonderful”). Furtively, the “little stars” are as sweet and life-forgiving as Fulke Greville's (“ye little stars that live in skies / And glory in Apollo's glory”). The assortment of things in the Bin-of-Life middle stanza is more than clever, it's a fine disorder. “Fuck the Pope,” a Belfast Protestant graffito, not only adds dissonance to the already dubious intercourse of father and mother (throwing the squealing cat of a certain consequent northern life onto the screwing pair); it further makes sinister, it adds local social terror to, the already gnomic “cookers and eaters.” Similarly, “a one-legged howl,” which would be decidedly wild and either wonderful or woebegone, sends ambiguous shivers back through “wow and flutter,” a phrase that teeters between shock and pleasure even as it tells of reproductive distortions. (In British dialect, a “wow” is a howl.) The bitterness of the poem is undecided, leaving the window open to the thief, wonder. Skillfully lackluster as a sonnet, eaten away, the poem is very much a performance; it enjoys attitude. It's a fine literary equivalent of a barroom song.
“The Fox” differs in being less clever and bitter. Moving with even more surprise, it winds through to a realization with admirable verbal cleanliness. The lines on the wet burial ground, for instance, are at once the most casual and naggingly troubling in the poem, all the more arresting for bitterness withheld: In them, morbidity is confronted, tempted, refused. There's no posturing. The poem doesn't say, “I'm hurt but I'm game.” Rather, with deceptive casualness it's after a certain discovery, and what you may think of Paul Muldoon (or yourself) is not the least on its mind.
“The Coney,” also in Meeting the British, brings Muldoonian high-jinks to the site of the dead father, and here they're more charming than disfiguring. Near a septic tank a coney (rabbit) lies curled inside the tweed cap where the father kept his whetstone—an object that the son (the scythe dulling so much quicker in his hands) has since used up (an index to his disillusionment with the old ethic of agricultural work, which, like Heaney, Muldoon nonetheless celebrates, in his own flip-tongue fashion, in “Gathering Mushrooms,” where the father, coaxing mushrooms into growth, attains a rhythm seemingly good “till kingdom come”). The coney speaks:
He whistled to me through the gap
in his front teeth; ‘I was wondering, chief, if you happen to know the name of the cauliflowers in your cold-frame that you still hope to dibble in this unenviable bit of ground?’ ‘They would be All the Year Round.’ ‘I guessed as much’; with that he swaggered along the diving-board
and jumped. The moment he hit the water he lost his tattered bathing-togs to the swimming-pool's pack of dogs. ‘Come in’; this flayed coney would parade and pirouette like honey on a spoon: ‘Come on in, Paddy Muldoon.’ And although I have never learned to swim I would willingly have followed him.
This, with its perfectly managed irregular couplets (Geoffrey Stokes has noted Muldoon's “deceptively easy … surfaces”), is also remarkable for its mellowed bitterness. Indeed, it's as if the father's gravitational pull, emanating from the old cap, steadied the poet, flayed though he is. “All the Year Round”: constancy combined with a vigilant competence (“My father had always left the whetstone / safely wrapped / in his old, tweed cap”) is no mean inheritance. It supports the spirit and smooths the way for a self-accepting laughter. The coney is Paddy Muldoon's comic alter ego; in writing this poem, among others, Muldoon himself, however “flayed,” pirouettes like honey on a spoon—this last an original simile that captures at its best his talent for being sinuously fresh.
There are a number of Muldoon's poems that, space permitting, it would be a pleasure to talk about. All told, Selected Poems, even if it includes several weak early pieces from the first two volumes (New Weather and Mules) and excludes some good later ones, is a remarkable collection. Meeting the British, like Why Brownlee Left and Quoof, has throughout a powerhouse torque and hum. And Medbh McGuckian's three volumes would also afford a strong “Selected.” Odd that the Troubles should seem to have fostered (dibbled, provoked) the gifts of this formidable duo, as if there were something after all to the words Muldoon puts into Auden's mouth in “7, Middagh Street”: “history's a twisted root / with art its small, translucent fruit / and never the other way round.”
Of course, Yeats, too, had his flare-ups of social bitterness, and Muldoon's clown's trick of pulling out his pockets to show their cultural emptiness, their holes, was also occasionally performed by Yeats. But Muldoon wants no part of a brotherhood-in-misery with the Irish giant, toward whom he shows only his poetical behind. For Yeats's tone still rings with the pain of hope, and hope is an abyss over which Muldoon refuses to peek.
The Council of Valence condemned as pultes Scotorum (“Irishmen's porridge”) and “an invention of the devil” Eriugena's doctrine that evil has no existence. Eriugena proposed that God and the world are merged in “Nature.” By contrast, Duns Scotus (“Doctor Subtilis”) maintained a strict orthodoxy.
Batten, Guinn. “‘He Could Barely Tell One from the Other’: The Borderline Disorders of Paul Muldoon's Poetry.” South Atlantic Quarterly 95, no. 1 (winter 1996): 171-204.
Batten examines Muldoon's ambiguous linguistic and metaphorical evocation of parental authority and sexuality, psychic loss, and the mournful search for allusive family and cultural origins in The Annals of Chile.
Birkerts, Sven. “The State of Poetry.” Partisan Review 55, no. 3 (summer 1988): 484-89.
Birkerts praises the development of Muldoon's poetry in Selected Poems: 1968-1986.
Coffey, Michael. “Don't Look Back.” Village Voice (8 September 1998): 133.
Coffey evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Hay.
Disch, Thomas M. “The Occasion of the Poem.” Poetry 160, no. 2 (May 1992): 94-107.
Disch praises individual segments of Madoc: A Mystery, but concludes that the sum of its parts fails to convey any overall meaning or coherence.
Eder, Richard. “To Understand Is to Be Perplexed.” New York Times Book Review (10 June 2001): 14.
Eder praises Muldoon's artistic development in Poems 1968-1998.
Griffiths, Paul. “The Singing Architect.” New Yorker (17 May 1993): 98-100.
Griffiths finds Muldoon's verse in Shining Brow to be ill-suited to Daron Hagen's musical score.
Hofmann, Michael. “Muldoon—A Mystery.” London Review of Books 12, no. 24 (20 December 1990): 18-19.
Hofmann evaluates Muldoon's stylistic departure in Madoc: A Mystery, calling Muldoon “one of the most metamorphic poets alive.”
Jenkins, Nicholas. “For ‘Mother’ Read Other.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5000 (29 January 1999): 9-10.
Jenkins evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Hay.
Malone, Christopher T. “Writing Home: Spatial Allegories in the Poetry of Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon.” ELH: English Literary History 67, no. 4 (winter 2000): 1083-108.
Malone provides a comparative study of the presentation of Irish national identity, cultural history, and conflicted notions of communal loyalty in the verse of Muldoon and Seamus Heaney.
Osborn, Andrew. “Skirmishes on the Border: The Evolution and Function of Paul Muldoon's Fuzzy Rhyme.” Contemporary Literature 41, no. 2 (summer 2000): 323-58.
Osborn offers analysis of Muldoon's approach to rhyme, as developed from New Weather to Meeting the British, drawing attention to his innovative use of half- and slant-rhyme schemes to create semantic resonances and allusions in his poetry.
Putzel, Steven D. “Fluid Disjunction in Paul Muldoon's ‘Immram’ and ‘The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants.’” Papers on Language and Literature 32, no. 1 (winter 1996): 85-108.
Putzel examines Muldoon's subversion of Anglo-American language and the various literary, historical, and political motifs in the poems “Immram” and “The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants.”
Wheatley, David. “An Irish Poet in America.” Raritan 18, no. 4 (spring 1999): 145-57.
Wheatley argues that Hay is a “transitional” work that displays Muldoon's evolving and highly complex poetic style.
Additional coverage of Muldoon's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: British Writers Supplement, Vol. 4; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 113, 129; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 52, 91; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 32, 72; Contemporary Poets, Ed. 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 40, 129; DISCovering Authors Modules: Poets; Literature Resource Center; and Poetry for Students, Vol. 7.
SOURCE: Jones, Paul. Review of Madoc: A Mystery, by Paul Muldoon. Southern Humanities Review 27, no. 2 (spring 1993): 198-200.
[In the following positive review, Jones argues that Madoc: A Mystery is “the most ambitious and successful long poem that we've seen in a long time.”]
Paul Muldoon established a name for himself among the poets of Ireland at an early age. New Weather, his first book, was published before his twenty-second birthday. Four books and a Selected Poems later, readers have some idea of what to expect from him. What we have come to expect is surprise and innovation, along with a subtle wit and sharp ear.
We have also come to expect a certain design in each of his books. The usual design is a collection of short poems widely varying in form, mostly under a page in length, followed by a longer, more narrative piece that throws a different light on the short poems that went before. In Mules, the long poem was a series of sonnets called “Armageddon, Armageddon.” In Why Brownlee Left, “Immram” was based on a ten-line stanza. In Quoof, “The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants” marked a return to a version of the sonnet sequence. In Meeting the British, “7, Middagh Street” recreated an imagined conversation between W. H. Auden, Salvador Dali, Gypsy Rose Lee, Carson McCullers, Benjamin Britten, Louis MacNiece, and others, using further variations on the sonnet. Each long poem is rife with literary and historical allusion and with quite a bit of illusion, fostered by Muldoon's canny ability to find rhyme in places yet unplumbed by other poets and to use rhythm in ways undreamed of by American New Formalists.
Now in his new book, Madoc, Muldoon has turned the formula on its head. Madoc begins with shorter poems—but this time only seven of them—followed by the long title poem(s). The mystery poem itself is made up of a series of short poems or literary fragments, in the best Modernist sense, each headed with the name of a historic thinker enclosed in brackets, from [Thales] to [Hawking].
The story of Madoc is a combination of “what ifs,” the foremost being “What if Robert Southey and Samuel Coleridge actually crossed the Atlantic and attempted to found their Pantisocracy?” Their adventures are complicated not only by various word plays and references to the bracketed names above each stanza, but also by references to Southey's long poem Madoc. In Southey's epic, a Welsh prince, Madog ab Owain Gwynedd establishes a colony along the southern branches of the Missouri sometime in the twelfth century. At the time Southey's book was published (1805), Indians discovered in the same area were found to be speaking a nearly untranslatable language; several linguists proposed that the speech was a variation on Welsh. Literature, history, exploration, and science were, as they have become again, well braided and confounded.
Muldoon's variation is, as his readers might have guessed, entirely original, wide-ranging, and carried forth with the utmost gusto, humor, and intelligence; Muldoon, the young rowdy, the hoodlum poet, is also Paul the serious thinker grappling with the complex issues of the past and present. Besides Coleridge and Southey, Byron, Tom Moore, George Catlin, Lewis and Clark, and the Mandan and Modoc Indians contribute to the mystery, which quickly becomes Joycean in its language play and folding of the narrative.
On the page headed by [Watt]—for James Watt, who invented a revolutionary new kind of steam engine—the reader finds the narrative chugging ahead:
Coincidentally, as she charges his porringer from a piggin of steamed milk,
Edith skites his immmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmaculate
pea-green waistcoat; this is much more than Southey can endure.
The philosopher of science Sir Karl Popper's name heads the page that contains these lines:
We last see him crouching in blood like a jugged hare. As to where he goes? It's a matter of pure conjecture.
Immediately following, the [Adorno] page displays more great examples of Byron-like hudibrastic rhyming with Muldoon's own slanting touch:
§ April 19th, 1824. On the shore at Missolonghi Byron's ball-and-chain is missing a link.
§ Independence Day, 1826. A gasp on a cello or viola reverberates through Monticello.
The polygraph at its usual rigmarole. The gopher pining for a caramel.
§ Jefferson clutches a bar of lye-soap on which is scratched the name BEELZEBUB.
Later in the poem is the [Camus] entry, a journal jotting: “June 16th, 1837. The Mandan villages are ravaged by smallpox.” Permutations on the phrase “De dum, de dum” to “De dum, Te Deum” and back again occur in no fewer than thirteen sections including [Theophrastus], [Anselm], [Copernicus], [Kierkegaard], [Marx], [Derrida], and [Hawking].
Hidden in the key to the mystery is the personalization of the work. The Pantisocracy is established between Athens and Ulster in Pennsylvania. Catlin's Indian Gallery visits Ireland, stopping at the site of the framing story in which Southey (a relative of Southey or a stand—in for Southern Ireland?) is captured wandering in the iridescent Dome of the Unitel West located, the narrator tells us, “half-way between Belfast and Dublin.” The briefcase, tea, panther, grouse (capercailles), and especially the key of the short, more personal introductory poems supply a linking to the present and to Muldoon.
Taken out of context, these permutations and references may seem like only slight jokes, but Muldoon manages to address—albeit in a highly non-deterministic manner—questions of religion, language, colonialism, gender, race, violence, nature, and the workings of art. The particular skill and humor brought to bear on these problems never diminishes them, but instead urges the reader, by way of the sheer pleasure involved, to become more involved with the work and the questions.
Even read in context, the poem itself may seem too full of references and too full of itself for some readers, especially those who found “7, Middagh Street” not to their liking. Still, the project is compelling, confident, and not at all half-baked or half-fulfilled. Each piece is an essential part of the larger puzzle, and each piece offers a bit of enchantment taken on its own. Taken as a whole, the work is possibly the most ambitious and successful long poem that we've seen in a long time—James Merrill's excellent work notwithstanding.
SOURCE: Muldoon, Paul, and Lynn Keller. “An Interview with Paul Muldoon.” Contemporary Literature 35, no. 1 (spring 1994): 1-29.
[In the following interview, originally conducted between April 22 and 23, 1993, Muldoon discusses the creative origins and artistic aims of Shining Brow and Madoc: A Mystery, his incorporation of historical and literary references in these works, and his views on contemporary poetry and the formal aspects of his own verse.]
Born in 1951, the poet Paul Muldoon was raised in a Catholic household in county Armagh in Protestant-dominated Northern Ireland. His father was a market gardener, his mother a schoolteacher; as the offspring of this “mixed marriage” (the title of an early poem), Muldoon in his writing seems drawn on the one hand to the reassuring—if currently threatened—solidities of nature or of rural life and on the other to esoteric scholarly learning and flights of verbal fancy. His work is often autobiographical, yet individual identity is of less interest in his poetry than the processes of perception and the energies inherent in language. Thus his poems frequently foreground the associative movement of thought; one thing—“which made me think of something else, then something else again” (Meeting the British 40)—leads to another, each one precisely registered even if contexts shift vertiginously. The surprising movements of consciousness are enhanced by playful metamorphoses of language and poetic form. Muldoon delights in half rhyme, gives rein to puns and homophonic suggestion, and is as interested in sonic links between words as semantic ones; employing a dazzling range in both vocabulary and allusion, he often calls attention to his own high style and imaginative high jinks.
One might say that Muldoon's poetry is concerned with “seeing things,” in several senses of that phrase. First, dream vision and hallucination are often essential aspects of the experiences depicted. Second, the poems make us see the “things” of a fluid and pluralistic reality more truly. They open our eyes to the strangeness, the multidimensionality of our experience, and to often-ignored currents running beneath its surfaces. This emphasis on the complexity of truth has a political dimension. For like the other Ulster poets writing now, when Northern Ireland is bursting almost as much with poetic talent as with violence, Muldoon is compelled somehow to confront “the troubles” in his work. He does so in a more oblique fashion than, say, his former mentor Seamus Heaney or his contemporary Ciaran Carson. For he remains intensely conscious of the ambiguities attending all allegiances and of the very limited power poetry and poets wield in the political arena. But his preference for allegory and parable, for ironic disguise and playful indirection, does not diminish the seriousness with which his poetry considers issues of ideology and politics and of artistic responsibility. As is the case in “Meeting the British”—a poem portraying not an Irish encounter but one in the French and Indian Wars—eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American history often serves as Muldoon's vehicle for exploring the dynamics of twentieth-century Irish history.
Muldoon attended Queen's University in Belfast, where he studied Celtic and Scholastic philosophy as well as English literature; his tutor was Seamus Heaney. His first collection of poems, New Weather, appeared in 1973, the year he obtained his B.A. From 1973 to 1986 he worked as a radio and television producer of arts programming for BBC Northern Ireland. Since 1987, he has lived in the United States. He now directs the creative writing program at Princeton University. His collections of poetry, from Faber and Wake Forest, include Mules (1977), Why Brownlee Left (1980), Quoof (1983)—all represented in his Selected Poems: 1968-1986 (Ecco)—and Meeting the British (1987).
The works discussed at length in this interview are Muldoon's most recent publications, Madoc: A Mystery (1990) and Shining Brow (1993). The long title poem which occupies most of Madoc is constructed from short sections, each headed by the bracketed name of a philosopher. In a highly elliptical collage, “Madoc” depicts what might have happened if the poet-philosophers Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey had realized their scheme to emigrate to America and establish on the banks of the Susquehanna a community based on the principles of “pantisocracy,” or equal rule of all. Madoc is the name of a twelfth-century Welsh prince said to have founded a community in North America—one that perhaps interbred with the Mandan Indians; Madoc is the subject of an epic poem Southey published in 1805. Shining Brow is a dramatic poem, the libretto of an opera commissioned by the Madison Opera Company. The plot concerns the turmoil in the personal life of Frank Lloyd Wright between 1903 and 1914: Wright abandons his wife Catherine and his children for Mamah Cheney, the wife of client Edwin Cheney. The two live for a while in Europe before returning to the Midwest, where Wright builds his “house that hill might marry,” Taliesen—a Welsh word meaning “shining brow.” Taliesen burns, set afire by the Barbadian chef, and Mamah Cheney and her two children are killed in the blaze.
Paul Muldoon—along with the composer Daron Aric Hagen—was in Madison for the opening performances of the opera. This interview was conducted in two parts, on April 22 and 23, 1993. On the day preceding the first part of our conversation, Paul Muldoon had given a reading at the University of Wisconsin; that same evening both he and I had been among the audience attending the première of Shining Brow.
[Keller]: Would you say something about the history of your involvement in Shining Brow?
[Muldoon]: Daron Hagen, the composer, and I were in the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. He got this phone call from Madison Opera, asking if he would write the opera. I happened to be sitting outside the phone booth, between games of pool. (To help the poems into the world, one should intercut them with pool games.) He said to me—I'm not quite sure how serious he was—“You want to write an opera?” and I said, “Sure. Why not?” So, that's how it started. This was Madison Opera's first commission, and they specified that it be an opera about Frank Lloyd Wright. I think they might have even come up with the title, though I no longer recall.
I spent about a year writing it, which is a long, long time. I don't know if it was worth it or not. I think it's worth it in terms of last night's performance, though at the same time, I'm in many ways very skeptical about opera. I hate to think of the amount of money that an opera costs. I hate to think of it being an elitist art form. I hate to think of it being so extravagant in every way. And yet, there's something sui generis about opera; there is nothing quite like it. And it's just thrilling to be involved in it, despite the reservations one has. Those have to do partly with the stereotypical image of the kind of person who tends to be an opera buff—the kind of person to whom one would want to give a pretty wide berth.
It's not your audience?
I don't know who my audience is. I have no sense of an audience. The only thing I know about it is it's very small.
To what extent did you determine the plot and the themes? Of course, Wright's life is a given, but to what extent did you and Daron Hagen together determine what you would treat and how you would treat it, and to what extent was that your territory?
Initially, we sat down together and wrote a treatment, like a film treatment, very detailed. I had made some preliminary sketches, since I felt from very early on that it should focus on the period between 1903 and 1914, which are the years in which drama, in its broadest sense, occurred in Wright's life. He lived a very full and very varied life, but, frankly, presenting an architect going about the business of doing his job is not going to inspire anything very much. In fact, when people used to ask me what I was doing during the time I was writing this, and I said I was writing an opera on Frank Lloyd Wright, they'd look at me as if I'd gone crazy.
It's interesting, though, that you gave only the slimmest representation to the joys of art and artistic creation. There is the passage in which Wright presents his dream to Louis Sullivan, for instance, but for the most part it's a very dark presentation.
It's very dark. I suppose, one of the things in dealing with an historical personage—in this case, Frank Lloyd Wright—is that that person looms quite large in the popular imagination. Wright is generally perceived as one of the great figures of twentieth-century art. We felt that we could use that as a given, though maybe we rely overly on the audience's preconceptions about Wright. I find it hard to judge. But that's certainly one of the difficulties in dealing with an historical character and documentary elements.
How much did you rely on documentary knowledge? I gather that you both did a lot of reading about Wright. Did you then essentially throw that away?
Exactly. We read his autobiographical writings about the period and read Brendan Gill's wonderful biography, Many Masks, for example, but after determining the historical framework, we were much less interested in veracity than verisimilitude. We took some liberties, of course. There are certain things that are presented as historical incidents which did not take place, though they're few and far between. For example, Wright and Sullivan did not meet in the Cliffdwellers Club on the day of the fire at Taliesin, nor did Edwin Cheney come rushing in to tell them about it. That's there for dramatic effect. Mind you, Edwin Cheney did ride on the same train as Wright to Taliesin, so it's not such a distortion, if that word is even appropriate. I mean, everything is a distortion. After all, this is not Frank Lloyd Wright we're looking at. It's not Ed Cheney we're looking at. These are characters that are based on historical characters. After getting the bones of the story down, I set them down as characters and let them look after themselves, let them deal with the inherent drama in their situation.
The drama is tremendous. But it strikes me that the part of Wright's career with which you deal puts him at about your age.
His issues, I presume, are in some way your issues. What do you think?
Well, I don't know. I'm engaged by him, but mind you, I'm engaged by every character in this opera. I don't know if that comes across.
Yes, they're very multidimensional.
That's what I wanted to do. There was no way I was interested in writing a piece in which ciphers would trundle on and off the stage and utter a few banalities. I wanted to do something that was about something real, that was about real crisis, a series of crises, that was about strong emotions and disturbing aspects of the psyche. That's material which opera can deal with in a way difficult to approach in other forms. There was something I wrote in the program notes about allowing these people to come right out and say, “Hey, listen. I'm in deep trouble here. I feel very unhappy. I'm gonna kill myself.” Whatever. The amazing thing about this art form is that you can get away with that.
Yes, opera's so overstated.
And it's all okay. You can teeter on the brink—perhaps even go over the top—and there's something about this medium that allows you to do it. And it doesn't seem completely wacko, the way it would in film or a poem, at least the kind of poem I am interested in.
I want to ask you a question prompted by the opera's theme of purloining, or borrowing, which is so central to the plot and is embodied in the heavily allusive quality of the libretto. What kind of relation to your artistic forebears do you try to establish in your own writing? In the libretto there's Wright in relation to Sullivan, there's you in relation to any number of others. How do you see it?
Well, that goes back to your question that I didn't really answer earlier. Maybe the gist of your question is, do you think you're like Frank Lloyd Wright?
In some ways that is my question.
I hesitate to answer. I wouldn't want to sound such a fool as to compare myself to Frank Lloyd Wright. But I suppose there are ways in which the libretto refers to my life. One of the things about Wright is that he seems to me to be entirely out of touch with his emotional life. In my own life I often find it difficult to express my emotions, and I think it's a common enough thing in the male species, as we hear ad nauseam these days, perhaps. I think there's some truth in it, though I don't want to put in an ad here for Robert Bly. There are aspects of my life that I regret, ways in which I've been cruel. So I do feel very much for Wright. Let me go on, though and say I feel very much for Sullivan, for the character who has had his thunder stolen; one of the things that fired me, in a way, about the relationship between Wright and Sullivan was that I had in the back of my mind some of my own relationships with other writers and other mentors. In other words, there are things happening in this that are about my own life. I have, for example, been divorced in my life, and so I feel very much for Ed Cheney's situation, and Catherine Wright's situation.
The libretto links Wright's stealing and the building of his career with the stealing of lands from the Native Americans and the building of the nation. But how analogous are empire-building and artistic creation? And is artistic creation the issue, or is it more this idea of imagining there's a clean slate out there, on which to write?
I don't know. I'm not sure if artistic creation was uppermost in my mind, to tell you the truth. I don't really have theories about purloining. Of course, “purloining” is a word used in a rather famous text, and that was there vaguely in the back of my mind, but how far even that's relevant, I wouldn't know. I was less interested in the whole business of the “work of art” than I was in the business of the artist making a space for herself or himself in the world. And one of the main distinctions between Sullivan and Wright is that Wright is a charismatic character, who is a tremendous self-publicist. So in that sense, it has to do more with the artist than the work of art. We don't have to look too far to see examples of good artists suffering and second-rate artists thriving. And that often has to do with how they sell themselves.
So it's the empire-building of this particular man, not the artistic endeavor per se. Wright is an artistic robber baron here.
That's right. That's how he is being presented. I'm sure there's a tie-in with, you know, colonialism, postcolonialism …
I wanted to ask you about that.
To tell you the truth, I'm about the worst person to talk on these matters. I'm not a theorist. I don't use that word with any kind of disdain or in any pejorative sense. I just do not think in those terms. That's not to say that I'm a complete ingénu, but I don't think in those terms. Sure, I can conceive of a system in which one would say, “Look, every work of art is based on expansionism, is based on an urge if not exactly to put somebody down, then in some sense, to put something down.” A work of art (we'll still use that term, for the moment) rushes in to fill a vacuum, or whatever existed before.
But it's rarely a vacuum that existed before—that seems to be a premise in the opera.
Exactly. Indeed, maybe it's some other poem—be it a poem written by John Donne or Robert Frost or Elizabeth Bishop. We're touching a little bit on Harold Bloom's theory. I'm not an expert on “the anxiety of influence,” but I can see the argument for that. Basically, I'm a person who can see some value in a great many of the theories that come floating by. What I resist very strenuously is the superimposing of any particular world picture, any kind of ism, that insists on everything falling into place very neatly—as in some great cookie cutter from the sky, or some magician's trunk that will include any mannequin that happens to swim into its ken (what a mixed metaphor!) and all the legs and arms, if they don't fit in, are going to be chopped off. I'm antiprescriptive.
And your work thwarts that: the way in which you insist on mysteries or open-endedness works counter to that simplification.
Well, it's not as if I get up in the morning and say, “Today I'm going to …”
“Thwart those Lacanians.”
Right. I don't think my job in life is to do that. No. I suppose I am interested in exciting myself, amusing myself, disturbing myself.
I want to ask you another question about Shining Brow: did writing this push you in new directions in your poetry? And, as a follow-up, would you like to do more writing for opera?
Yes to both. I think it did. I wouldn't have continued to do it, I think, even though I was commissioned to do it, if I didn't think that something interesting was happening there. What would be the point?
Do you see its effect on things you've written subsequently?
I do—it's quite incredible. The poems I've been writing since have been influenced in a strange way; I still haven't quite broken free of the mold of it.
“Cauliflowers,” for instance—the “going down in history,” the “going down.” Would that motif be an example of something that carried through?
Well, that was in Madoc. So that was before.
When were you writing the libretto?
Shining Brow was written almost immediately after Madoc. The first thing I wrote after Madoc was a children's book, which hasn't been published yet; but then this was the next thing. Now, that phrase, “going down in history”: I had wanted to write a song for an Irish singer, and that was a refrain for an early version of it. Then I decided I would use it in this opera. But there are certain carryovers from Shining Brow to what I'm doing now. One of the things I've been working on is a very complex poem involving nine or ten intercut exploded sestinas. It uses repetition in a way that wouldn't have occurred to me before Shining Brow. There's something about the way repetition is used in this opera that has interested me, and has continued to interest me. Let me say a little bit more about this libretto. It has been published, as you know, and I wanted to write something that would be “good enough” for that.
It's great! We went home after the performance and read parts of it again—the takeoff on Goethe, the blues bit—“I woke up this morning, I was still in my dungarees.” To give those workmen that lovely melodic passage …
That was such fun to do.
It's very powerful, the anger of the downtrodden that pervades the whole opera.
I hope so. I've always wanted to write a blues poem. And this was just a wonderful occasion when that was, I think, appropriate. It's a measure of the extent to which the libretto really does influence the music. That is not often discussed, because, finally, librettists are not much thought of. Yet they have much more effect on the finished product than many people recognize. (Not this composer, by the way, who's a great, great guy. He's extremely literate, very interested in language, very well read. And our collaboration has been wonderful.) But as I was saying, this libretto has been sold as a dramatic poem in its own right. There are dangers in that, I think. There was a review of it the other day in the Irish Times saying, “This isn't very good.” The guy who wrote it was absolutely disinclined to like it. It would be nice to think that a reviewer might, if anything, give it the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he did, of course. It's not as if you can stick something on the back cover saying, “Look, I do wish that as a reader you would remember you cannot hear the music, that you cannot quite read this the way you would read another book.”
But you can read it as you can a dramatic script, don't you think?
I would have hoped so. But let me address the other part of your question: yes, Daron Hagen and I want to do more work together. We have several projects at hand, and we're just trying to decide. If someone wants to take us up and give us a commission, we have a chamber piece that we want to do, called “Nora.”
After Nora Barnacle?
Exactly. Nora and Jim and Jimbo and Stanislaus and Lucia and Sam Beckett and John McCormack would be the main characters. We haven't really gone too far down the road with it, but that's one plan. I'm excited about that. I mean, most people we have mentioned it to say, “That's great!” It's as if I went to a Hollywood producer and said, “We want to do this,” and he said, “Okay!” But, on the other hand, it's kind of daunting. It would be a difficult thing to do; I'm not sure if I'm ready to do it. At the same time, I feel that I've written a number of pieces about literary ménages. Maybe I've done enough of that. Maybe I should go on to something else.
I want to ask you about your long poems and, in particular, about Madoc. First, more generally, what draws you to these longer poetic forms?
I don't know. I just find myself writing them. I seem to have no control over it. I just seem to be drawn to longer forms.
Narrative seems to be one of the things that gets played with when you enter into these longer forms. What do you think you're up to with narrative?
Well, I'm sure it varies. There is a narrative in Madoc. To use the Hollywood producer analogy again, if you went in to a Hollywood producer and said, “In two or three sentences, this is a story of two youthful poets who set up a little colony in North America and, for various reasons, went their separate ways. One turned into a bit of a demagogue, or worse, a despot—as Frost says, ‘I never dared be radical when young for fear of being conservative when old’—and the other subsided into drug abuse, and this is the story of their lives.” That is the narrative, their various adventures along the way. One of them, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, joins, briefly, the Lewis and Clark expedition, then finds himself in the western part of the United States moving from tribe to tribe, while the other, Robert Southey, embarks on this disastrous course of self-aggrandizement and increasing self-delusion. Actually, one might say that in fact this is very much like what happened to them in their actual lives. However, this is just a story. And this is the poem's story. Then one can add, “All of that is told within the framework of a descendant, we think, of Southey's. It's set a little bit in the future, and it's all retrieved from the back of his eye by some remarkable device, which will probably be available to us very shortly, and this guy has a very strange vision of the world. He's some kind of a Sunday philosophy buff, and he's really weird. It's as if his whole way of ordering the world—and we all have a way of ordering the world, somehow, of making sense of it—is very strange. The way he's made sense of the story about where he comes from and who he is, is to filter it through a totally madcap history of Western thought. And that's what happens in the story.” When you put it like that, it's very, very simple. I hope it's comparatively simple.
The book, Madoc?
Yeah. An amusing thing happened to me here, in the Concourse Hotel in Madison, Wisconsin. I was here for rehearsals a couple of weeks ago, and I came down one morning and the bellhop greeted me and said, “I bought your book yesterday, and I read it last night.” I said, “Oh, what book's that?” And he said, “Madoc.” I said, “Really? That's a pretty weird book, don't you think?” or something along those lines, and he said, “Yeah, but you know, I got into it, and I just read it, and I read it from beginning to end.” And I said, “Well, that's wonderful. I wish all the people could read it like that.” Because that's the way to read it: you just start, and you go and you don't worry too much about what Nietzsche has to do with this damn horse, or whatever.
I was going to ask you about your expectations for the audience for that poem. I had a very different experience with it. I took that book with me when I went to visit my sister and brother-in-law a few weeks ago. I took it on the plane and was pretty much through my first reading by the time I arrived. My brother-in-law does American Studies, specializing in Western literature. So I started asking him questions, and before I knew it I was surrounded by reference books, and I spent all my free time that weekend poring over those reference books. It was a fabulous experience. I was reading George Catlin; I was reading Southey, I was reading about John Evans, about Aaron Burr, about Lewis and Clark; I was suddenly learning all this information about various Native American tribes. Not only was the poem coming together for me in many different ways, but I felt as if my own knowledge had significantly expanded. This research changed the poem for me in a fundamental way: when I read it through the first time, the events in the poem seemed so bizarre. Then when I started reading the history, I saw that it's the history that is bizarre!
Oh, absolutely. It's totally bizarre. And much of Madoc is the “real” history. And it's so corny.
People like Evans or Burr—these are characters we couldn't invent in our wildest dreams!
And the serendipity of it all, I found alarming. The more I got involved in it, the deeper I sank. I discovered that this person knew that person and was involved with this other person and that they all knew each other in some way. Burr knew Thomas Moore and Byron and Blennerhassett and so on and so forth. Just unbelievable. I haven't read it myself for a while, or I would be able to comment more extensively on the net—“net,” of course, being a very important word in the whole thing—of historical interrelations.
But the other thing I felt was that I had to do that reading to make sense of the poem. There's one kind of reader, the bellhop here, and you took pleasure in the fact that he read it through. It was a good read. There's another kind of reader who approaches the poem as I did. Do you want your readers to go out and read supporting materials as I did?
If they want. You know, it raises questions about the nature of reading. I'm one of those old fogies who was brought up on the New Criticism and practical criticism; I believe that one of the writer's jobs is to reduce the number of possible readings of a text, to present something that can really only be read one, two, three, or maybe four ways. The kind of writing I'm interested in is self-contained, or as self-contained, as a thing on the page, as possible. Insofar as is possible—insofar as we all have a notion of red, of wheelbarrow, of rainwater, or whatever—I believe in that. I believe that is part of my job. Having said that, however, I'm not too interested in the author. I don't believe that the author is dead, but I do believe that poems somehow write themselves. I suspect that many of my academic friends when we've talked about these things think either that I'm totally crazy, or that I want to have my cake and eat it, too. So, I believe in these things, but then I go and write this poem that, really, can be read in a number of ways. Think of the complexity of the relationship, for example, between the text and the philosopher supertitles—one almost wants them to be subliminal, almost not there at all. In fact, my editor and I talked at one point about whether they should be there. It's a very risky thing to have them there at all, because it almost raises more problems than it solves. Like the notion of Ulysses—when should the chapter titles be there or should there be anything? I mean, you've got the building, and you've still got the scaffolding. Do you leave the scaffolding up?
It's a complex business, and I really don't know what I think about it. The poem seems to work for a lot of people. I'm sure for many, it won't. But even for those for whom it does work, there are problems with it. I can't believe how favorably it has been reviewed. But even some of the most favorable reviewers would express some impatience in the midst of the review. For instance, there's a review by the very good English poet Michael Hoffman in some English magazine where he said, “There were points in reading this when I wanted to throw it through the window.” And that's a very understandable feeling. But basically, I'm with the bellhop here; insofar as what I have to say has any weight (which it hasn't), if I were advising someone how to read this book, 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 Blennerhassett 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.” But it's certainly not as if I'm interested in writing big crossword puzzles; I'm not interested in writing difficult poems for the sake of writing them. It's a complex poem, but it's complex, I think, because it's dealing with something quite complex.
I asked you earlier about your sense of borrowing and stealing in writing. One of the things of interest to me is that you chose to title the work Madoc. Southey titled his epic “Madoc,” and there's a kind of notification of belatedness here, of going over someone else's territory. When Joyce writes a book called Ulysses, Joyce is doing the same thing—but he didn't take a poem like Southey's “Madoc,” which one might say is alternatively outrageous or excruciatingly boring.
Right on both counts, there.
The same thing with your long poem from Why Brownlee Left, “Immram”: you have a precedent text in Tennyson's “Voyage of Maeldune,” and so, as your protagonist is going out, Mr. and Mrs. Tennyson are going out before him. Going before him both times, going in and going out, as I recall. Why this choice of the used?
I don't know if, when I started on Madoc, I knew I was going to call it “Madoc.”
But did you have Southey? Where did Madoc start?
Madoc started with Byron. I did a little edition of selected poems of Byron.
So it was his anger at Southey that triggered the poem?
Yeah. I had begun to think about Southey—Byron's always taking out, not necessarily the heavy artillery, just the old musket and taking a pot shot at Southey, and then I started to think again about the pantisocratic scheme. Of course, that scheme didn't materialize. Then I thought, well, hey, what if it did? And basically, it goes down.
Let me add something: the fact that Southey wrote this poem called “Madoc” becomes emblematic, somehow, of his self-delusion—which, of course, is all very risky. That's the kind of thing that could easily blow up in your face. But then, I'm interested in that. I'm only really interested in things that are risky. I don't see the point anywhere else. Not just for the sake of taking risks—I'm not talking about poetic bungee jumping or hang gliding. But there's a challenge in there. That challenge is not the only thing that interests in formal challenges that coincide with challenges of content. “Immram” of course is based on this older Irish text, what Tennyson was basing his—again, a terrible, terrible poem, though not quite so bad as “Madoc”—his work on. I'm borrowing, or purloining, great mediocre artists. Who was it who said, “mediocre artists borrow, great artists steal”?
I think it was Eliot.
Eliot. He did a lot of it, too. It's not as if I think that if I steal, I'll become a better poet; there's no little syllogism in there. But yes, the voice of “Immram” is stolen, you might say. Purloined from Raymond Chandler and Byron. It's a pastiche of those styles and voices. In a sense, it's stolen, borrowed.
Some people would claim that's the situation with contemporary art.
I can understand that. And some people would go further, and say that's the situation of art and always has been.
Would you say that?
I think, certainly, works of art do not spring fully formed from anybody's brow. They come from context. They come from social, cultural, historical contexts. I also think that what Bloom said about the anxiety of influence makes sense. That said, so what? That doesn't mean that the next time I sit down to try to write a poem that consciously—of course subliminally is a different matter—I'll be saying, “Now today I'm going to subvert whomever.” But, to repeat, these poems do not come out of thin air. Of course they don't. They come through one personality, at one point in history, in one culture, and all the rest.
One of the main issues in Madoc is the fate of this pantisocracy, of this utopian impulse. I see that elsewhere in your work as well—the myth of the frontier, that sort of thing. Do you think that all utopian projects are doomed in the way this one clearly is? Or is that even an interest of yours?
Certainly, that's a poem about a dystopia. What are the great utopian projects of history? Marxist socialism, communism is one. It doesn't seem to have done very well. I'm not saying that some of its basic ideas are not ideas with some value. Somehow, anything that becomes codified—take the religious impulse, for example, based on perfectly legitimate ideas, that there is something beyond us, that we should love our neighbor. Whatever the mottoes are, somehow when they become organized, codified, then I think there's a very fine line between organized religion and organized crime.
Does the historic, the legendary Madoc represent a more positive utopian possibility?
I don't think so. One of the things that interested me a lot about the story of Madoc is perhaps not evident from the poem, though it's evident from other poems of mine—for example, “Bechbretha,” which is a poem about the use of art by politicians. Now, the myth of Madoc was invented by a man named John Dee—or rather, it wasn't invented by him, but he gave it a lot of currency—and it really all had to do with British expansionism in the New World. There is the germ of the story—the myth of Madoc and the Welsh Indians and all the rest of it—but why it had such currency, why it ran and ran, had to do with the fact that the English wanted a rationale for laying claim to as much of the North American land mass as possible. That's what it's all about.
But Evans was in the pay of the Spanish, right? When Evans denied that the Mandan were the Welsh Indians, he was in the pay of those who would have an interest in not furthering the British claims.
Was he in the pay of James Wilkinson at that point? That's right, he was. I had forgotten that.
Why should we give more credence to Evans than to others? My question isn't meant to undermine what you're saying about the dynamics.
I understand, but extrapoem, as it were. Mind you, Evans was sent out by the Welsh.
Isn't it true that he, in fact, spent little of his life in Wales? His knowledge of Welsh culture and Welsh tradition and language was minimal, so that his ability to identify Welsh traces was questionable.
Right, but anyone's ability to detect Welsh traces in the Mandans would have been questionable.
Although Catlin believed it.
Catlin believed it. There are still people who believe it. There's a guy called Barry Fell, who had some connection with Harvard. He wrote a book called America, B.C.; I borrowed sometimes from it (I don't think I purloined anything from it!). Most of what the horse talks in this poem comes from, or is not unrelated to, what Barry Fell says—about the Celts coming to North America, how you find a few scratches in a stone somewhere in Massachusetts, and it looks suspiciously like “ogam,” and you say, well, obviously the Irish got here.
Does that horse owe anything to Ed Dorn's Slinger?
I've read Slinger, though I don't remember it well. There was a review of “Immram” years ago in which it was compared to Slinger, I think just because it's a slightly longer poem. But is there a talking horse in Slinger?
Yes, there is a talking horse. Read it again; I think you would enjoy it. There was no exchange here with that book?
I might have had a subliminal memory of it.
That Bucephalus/syphilis rhyme—it was a wonderful invention!
I'm glad you think so. Often, these rhymes are completely crazy. I'm a great fan of Byron, and I really like these totally crazy rhymes. A lot of the time I just love to say, “Let's see what happens. Just how near the edge can you go without dissolving into outright doggerel?” That's something I'm very interested in. Again, it's a risky thing. Some people may think, for example, that the writing in versified direct speech in the poem that I read yesterday called “The Key,” which is in Madoc—some people may think that I think that's good. But that's a chance I have to take.
Madoc develops an interest in Native American history that has long been evident in your work, at least back to Why Brownlee Left.
Way before then, actually. In the first book I published, which is not readily available in this country, there are a couple of poems, including one called “The Indians and Alcatraz,” which is really the first poem I wrote featuring Native Americans. And there's a longish poem, the first longish poem I wrote, at the end of that book, which was based on Native American iconography. It was called “The Year of the Sloes,” and it's dedicated to Ishi, who was the last member of the California tribe that was discovered early in this century, 1910 or 1911. I suppose I started out in a fairly romantic way. I was interested in fairly crude parallels with the Irish situation. The other day I was saying to the guy who plays Frank Lloyd Wright in this opera—to go back to the extent to which this libretto is closer to me than it might appear—that some of the hokum that Wright talks about Indians is really commenting on some of the hokum I talk. Basically, it is saying, “Hey, look. Stop doing this.” On one hand, I'm very interested in Native Americans: I feel very strongly, and I know a lot about Native American cultures. But maybe I've done it just once too much.
Is an association between Native Americans and the Irish, both of whom the British found so wild and primitive—
One thing very important about that is that the British used Ireland, as it turned out, as a kind of testing ground.
Then they treated the Indians according to what they learned in Ireland.
Absolutely. I say mine is a very crude comparison, but historically it started out as a very crude comparison.
For Irish readers, is this a common identification?
I don't think so.
With Madoc do you think of yourself as writing for an Irish audience?
I'd like to think that some Irish people would read it.
In many ways, that poem seems to me an American poem. Have you seen the American West where that poem takes place?
And would you have written it before you saw it?
Actually, I wrote it before I went.
So your knowledge of the geography is irrelevant.
Except for films and that sort of thing.
Does it strike you in some ways as an American work?
Well, a large part of it. Of course, I think it's set in Ireland.
The character South is in Ireland?
South is in Ireland, I think. I'm pretty sure that Unitel is in Ireland. So you might say it's set in Ireland.
The Republic of?
Yeah. Somewhere near the border. Maybe Southeopolis is Ulster; it's set in Ulster.
Right, even if it's Ulster, Pennsylvania.
Which is a great little town. I suspect it hasn't changed all that much, externally, from the time when it was founded, which was just about the time of the poem. I could say, if I were the kind of person who would tell you straight up, “Well, look. This is a poem about Ireland. This is a poem about the failure of Ireland, as a state.” It's not necessarily the first thing I'd say about it, but it's a perfectly legitimate thing to say about it. I was fearful when I was writing it that, in fact, it would be too obvious that that's what it was about, that the Ulster thing was growing heavy-handed.
What is “crotona” and what is “croatoan”?
“Crotona” is what was inscribed on a post in the poem. “Croatoan” is written by somebody in the lost colony of Roanoke Island, on the piece of wood that was found when Raleigh's forces came back. Nobody's quite sure what it means. It probably refers to a tribe or a place associated with a tribe. Of course, he works out that it's “crotona,” which, of course, was Pythagoras's settlement, his little place in Italy. And that's why “Pythagoras in America,” the Lévi-Strauss essay, is mentioned in the earlier poem and why beans are so big, because that's an essay about eating beans.
Actually, that's one of the overlaps between you and Dorn, that whole Lévi-Strauss thing, and beans, and so forth.
Are you kidding? I must go read this book.
The horse is at some point named Lévi-Strauss, as I recall.
Heavens. Ed Dorn. I hope he doesn't think I've purloined this, because I certainly haven't. I wouldn't want him to think I have. I have certainly read that poem, you know. Maybe I'm just a determined plagiarist.
No, no. I just feel as if the poems talk to each other. Anyway, about Coleridge in your poem: in his decline, he explores various drugs across America. He's one of many drug users in your work. It seems to me that the hallucinatory experience has a lot more value elsewhere in your work than it does, perhaps, when we see what happens to Coleridge. What importance do you attach, in your work, to that sort of hallucinatory perspective?
I suppose my line would be the same as Aldous Huxley's line in The Doors of Perception, which is quoted in “The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants.” I think the world is hallucinogenic.
I would like to ask you about some formal matters. You mentioned to me that you had looked at the [Summer 1992] issue of Contemporary Literature we had sent you in which the so-called New Formalism was at issue. What were your thoughts when you saw that?
One hears of the New Formalism, but I myself had never noticed the old formalism going away. Some of the great writers of the last generation, Richard Wilbur, for example, were using these traditional formal patterns—formal, stanzaic shapes, rhyme and traditional metrics—and I just hadn't thought they had gone away. Basically, I don't like clubs or gangs. I'm someone who writes often in what would generally be construed as formalist terms, traditional terms. I use rhyme, for example; I often use conventional stanzaic patterns. But I wouldn't describe myself as a formalist. I'm not. I would never be described as a New Formalist. I've been described as all sorts of things: as a New Narrative poet, even as a Martian poet. People feel the need for some kind of label, either as commentators or as writers themselves. It seems to me that any decent writer eschews labels. I don't want to belong to any group. One of the things about formalism, for example, as it's called (I hate even to use the word. Everything is formal. Free verse, as Pound ofttimes observed, is formal in its way, and in many ways much more difficult to write than traditional verse. Both, it seems to me, are very difficult.) is that many of the poets who trade on their being formalists or New Formalists are just not very good at it. And to do it, you've got to be very good at it. I object to people in a way sullying the name of formalism. I object to people wanting what I have elsewhere described as “time off for good behavior,” wanting a reduction in their life sentence because they're writing in traditional forms, using rhyme—generally very badly—as if there were inherent virtue in that. By the same token, I hate the knee-jerk reaction to traditional forms, where people say, “That's old fogey stuff. We're living in the twentieth century. Look what William Carlos Williams did.” Well, actually when you sit down and look what he did, that's not so great, either, in many places (though at his best he's a wonderful poet). But any of these prescriptive terms, I think, are diminishing. And if the first thing that strikes one about a poet is that he or she is either a formalist or not, if things have come to that pass, heaven help us! If that's the most interesting thing we have to say about a writer—and it seems to me that the debate about poetry in this country is often centered on such questions—if that is the most interesting question that can be raised about the state of poetry in the United States, then I think things are pretty dull. That's not the most interesting question, but it's a question that's often raised. And it bores me rigid.
Do you have some idea of what the most interesting question about poetry in the United States now would be?
Well, there are a number of poets who are writing whose work I think is very interesting. The question that's raised, I suppose, is, is this engaging? Am I being forced to look at the world in a new way? I don't care if it's written in quatrains or whether it's written two words per line down the middle of the page. All I'm concerned about is, does it affect the way I look at the world? What do I discover?
Now, the Language poets might claim that changing how we look at the world is their aim. Do you read any of that work with interest?
Well, there are a couple of those poets whose work I like—Michael Palmer, for example. Again, I have to say that, as with the so-called New Formalists, I don't understand why anyone would want to belong to a group, why anyone would want to gather behind any banner. I could understand why, if something really revolutionary were happening, people might want to at least loosely associate with movements. But I understand from talking to one or two of the so-called Language poets that they don't really want to belong to it either.
Early on, the group identity may have been useful in getting some visibility.
Absolutely. Frankly, let's face it, this is a publicity matter.
Which is not shameful.
It's not shameful. But let's not beat around the bush. It's for publicity. Anyway, there are a couple of the Language poets whose work I like—basically, the ones who make more sense than the others.
Besides Palmer, who else?
Leslie Scalapino, I rather like. Let me say something more about Language writing, because as I understand it, and I may understand it imperfectly, one of the planks of Language poetry is “stopping making sense.”
I think they want us not to make sense in some conventional ways, or to have to pay attention to how we make sense.
Well, absolutely. I'm interested in that. I'm interested in the unconventional. Insofar as I would be prescriptive about anything, I'd say every poem should change poetry, somehow. But I wouldn't champion nonsense, insofar as that is part of their agenda. I will say this: any fool can make nonsense. Making no sense is easy. I'm a great fan of John Ashbery, and I often don't understand what he's going on about. But there's something about him that I find persuasive. Rhythmically, he's very persuasive. He's got a fantastic ear. And I like his disruptive vision of the world. I like the fact that one of his main planks is that we are assailed by randomness, by a world that doesn't add up. And I understand why and how his poetry is mimetic of that. But having said that, I wonder, do I really need to be reminded again and again of how the world doesn't seem to make sense? Maybe it makes perfect sense. If your vision of the world is chaos and flux, if that's how you get out of bed in the morning, you don't really need anyone to remind you of it. Basically, I'm fed up looking at remakes of John Ashbery poems—and some of them are remakes by himself. Self-parody is one of the great dangers of all poets, I think. Ashbery, as well as almost every other poet, runs the risk of self-parody and, I think, doesn't always avoid it. But to go back to the Language poets—I'm taken by what some of them say and by the writings of some of them, but I certainly wouldn't want to launch on any kind of generalization about them, except this: I don't like generalizations. I'd just as soon they didn't operate under generalizations.
I'm interested in how risk-taking comes into your work in terms of poetic form, beyond what you talked about earlier concerning the risk of doggerel. You play with the sonnet a great deal, often handling it unconventionally. And I was intrigued in the “Cauliflowers” sestina—or rather, squished sestina; it intrigued me that you talked in that poem about genetic mutation, because it seemed to me that mutation is what you were doing with poetic form.
The sonnet, though it's an Italian form initially, of course, came into English, as you know, and there's something very appealing about the sonnet. I remember reading somewhere about the way the thought process of the sonnet—
You mean, with the turn?
Exactly. You establish something, then there's a slight change. And how that way of looking at the world still obtains. The fact that it's such a common form, I think, is no accident, any more than the commonness of iambic pentameter is accidental. Whether you're a Language poet or a New Formalist, there's no getting around the fact that (a) the English language falls into this particular pattern in its stresses, and that (b) most of us hold our breath for a certain duration that roughly corresponds with the duration of the iambic pentameter. Now, many people of course think of formalism, so-called, as somehow imposed on the language, rather than being organic. I don't see it as being anything but natural to the language. So this just happens to be the way a lot of these poems come out. They seem to announce themselves sonnets, two or three lines into the poem. It's a mystery, just as it's a mystery why a painter chooses a particular size or shape of canvas. I believe in the poem writing itself, through the medium of the writer. As writer I'm somehow determining how it comes out. Of course there are dangers that too early in the process one can think, “This is likely to be a sonnet.” After all, though I argue for it being an organic form, the sonnet is not what one sees in nature. So the fact that I am predisposed to write in these conventional forms is an element in why so many of the poems come out that way, even though I would argue that every poem determines its own form.
My understanding about someone like Auden is that he took a more conscious pleasure in identifying a form and saying, “Let me go try it.”
Well, that can be fun, as an exercise. But I regret to say, because Auden was such a great poet, that he became involved in exercises in the second half of his career. I'm much less interested in later Auden than earlier. And he wrote too much. I think it's very difficult, very difficult to keep going as a writer. It gets harder rather than easier. And Auden became, I think, a bit of a versifier, in a pejorative sense. He had fantastic skill, but that is no substitute for the real article. The genuine article emerging in conventional forms is quite different from somebody with a lot of skill simply being able to impersonate poems.
Is the Auden of “7, Middagh Street” still the vital Auden?
I think that's on the cusp. We're talking about the English Auden and the American Auden; that's going into the American Auden. I don't think it has much to do with the fact that he came to this country. It's just that it is hard to keep on writing poems. I'm in my forties and it's a lean decade for many, many poets. I think of so many great poets who had very lean forties and, indeed, fifties and just went off altogether. Auden, Wordsworth. The case of Yeats is less the rule than the exception—the poet who gets stronger and stronger and stronger, and reinvents himself. The forties are bad for so many contemporary poets, so I don't know what I'm going to have to do. Maybe I'm just going to have to write libretti and wait for the forties to blow over, and hope that something good will happen. Maybe I'll have to get a monkey gland transplant!
Tell me more about other people whose work you are interested in.
I'm interested in a lot of poets around the world; there are a lot of great poets working at the moment. Yehuda Amichai. Miroslav Holub. (This is going to be a very spotty list.) In England there's a lot of very good poetry. I'm still taken by the very best of Ted Hughes, for example. I think Ted Hughes is far from finished, despite what some people might say. Craig Raine I think is a very good English poet. Michael Hoffman. There are some very good Irish poets. I think Seamus Heaney is a great poet. Great inspiration, actually, and a challenge, I think, in the best sense, to many poets, including myself, because Seamus has managed to keep going, and to keep producing the goods, not as if he were some kind of factory but producing poems of consistently high standard. That's quite an achievement. But there are a lot of other good Irish poets, too. One of the troubles with the world is that we can only deal with one Polish poet, one Irish poet, one English poet at a time. There are lots of other wonderful Irish poets, including some wonderful women poets like Medbh McGuckian and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill.
She writes in Gaelic, doesn't she?
Yes, but she's translated into English, by myself among others. Ciaran Carson I think is a very good poet, Derek Mahon, Michael Longley. In this country, I'm a big fan of Charles Simic, C. K. Williams—at their best, very good poets. Heavens, once I start naming names I don't want to leave people out. A few women poets in this country: I think Jorie Graham and Louise Glück are interesting poets. Ashbery, I think, is good at his best. Adrienne Rich, she's very good. Mark Strand is doing very good work at the moment. He's been writing very well recently when, as I said, it's so hard to keep going. The fact that one does more of it does not mean one gets better at it. That's the terrible, terrible truth. If anything, one probably gets worse. And the pressures from oneself! One becomes more critical, but at the same time, more self-conscious.
Worrying, can you do it again, or are you just a fake?
Exactly. You know, to psych oneself back into that pure place that a nine year old, say, so perfectly inhabits, so unselfconsciously inhabits, is the ideal, I think, for many writers. Just to have that open, untrammeled, energetic engagement with language, and in a state of wise ignorance. A state of humility, which is the only decent state to be in. It's not even a matter of choosing that state: the only state in which I think anything half-decent might get done is to be humble before the power and the possibility of language, to let it have its way with you, as it were. That's perhaps an unfortunate sexual metaphor; no decent metaphor approaches it—to allow one to be a conduit and wait for something. I suppose the hope is that one might one day be an equal conduit, somehow, that the gauge of one's conduit might be equal to the force coming through it. I don't even know where that metaphor comes from. I see molten metal coming down out of a foundry.
Maybe old age will be the time to get free of that self-consciousness. I see that sometimes—a what-the-hell attitude in old people.
One would hope to get that before old age. Because, who cares? It's not as if there's a world out there clamoring for more poetry. There isn't. It's not as if the world is about to rush out to the bookstore for the latest …
The latest Paul Muldoon.
No way. That, in fact, is a wonderfully releasing thing, too. Because you don't even have to think about that. You just get on with it. And if one's lucky enough, something exciting might happen. Not just exciting for the sake of being exciting. Not different for the sake of being different. Just something with a bit of a buzz to it, really. Otherwise, what's the point? We might as well just go and watch TV. I think in the overall shape of things there's a problem with poetry and its place in the world. A few people read it. Maybe only a few people have ever read it. Not many people were reading John Donne. Five hundred people made Byron famous overnight. Tennyson was selling thousands of copies of books, but so was Rod McKuen.
Do you think poetry has any more vital life in politically beleaguered situations?
It seems to have. The former Soviet Union has a coded language for political expression, as do some of the countries of the Eastern bloc.
Do you think that has something to do with the outpouring of poetry from Ulster in recent years?
Political repression is not necessarily what forced that particular club to blow. But extremity, in a certain sense, yes. This is a dangerous idea, because if you extend it, you end up saying things like, “Political unrest is an energizing thing.” And that's problematic because it's a step away from fascism, essentially, if you associate violence with energy. But the fact that there's a sense of the unfinished about the state of Northern Ireland or, by extension, Ireland as a whole, that the question of who one is in this country and exactly what one's allegiances are remains a question—that has something to do with it. But then, what part of the world is not, in a sense, up for grabs? If you sit in Madison, Wisconsin, you think, “Madison, Wisconsin is in the middle of America—it's not up for grabs.” But I don't know. Maybe it is. America, as much as anywhere else, is up for grabs in a certain sense. We're not talking about the Russians coming down the pike tomorrow. We're not talking about the Mexicans or Canadians invading. But surely, there's a political agenda in this country, too. There's room for so-called political poetry. I don't mean by that propaganda or speech-making. I mean poetry that addresses the condition of being here and now. It did not go out with Robert Lowell. Politics doesn't happen in foreign parts, in Poland, or in Central America, only. We sit around and talk in this country about this gap between poets and the public; maybe the fact that poetry has, in so many instances, retreated into inconsequential gobbledygook, perhaps written by one poet for another, helps explain why people aren't rushing out to buy the latest book of poems.
SOURCE: Driver, Paul. “Upstaging.” London Review of Books 15, no. 16 (19 August 1993): 22-3.
[In the following review, Driver discusses the modern tradition of libretto collaborations and offers a favorable assessment of Muldoon's verse in Shining Brow.]
Architects may come and Architects may go and Never change your point of view Paul Simon, ‘So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright’
Although W. H. Auden, who ranks with Hugo von Hofmannsthal among the master librettists of the age, thought that the meaning of a libretto's words were its least important component (at any rate, so far as the audience is concerned), and that a libretto is ‘really a private letter to the composer,’ he also found that ‘as an art-form involving words, opera is the last refuge of the High Style.’ The syllables are the main thing, the singability. The poet-librettist's verses ‘have their moment of glory,’ the moment in which they suggest ‘a certain melody’ to the composer; ‘once that is over, they are as expendable as infantry to a Chinese general.’ Yet opera is ‘the only art to which a poet with a nostalgia for those times past, when poets could write in the grand manner all by themselves, can still contribute, provided he will take the pains to learn the métier and is lucky enough to find a composer he can believe in.’
Paul Muldoon, who ranks with Auden as a poet for whom the intricacies of verse and rhyme are endless and masterable, and who lives in America, as Auden did, has written a libretto for a composer of whom I confess I haven't heard. He is Daron Aric Hagen, and Shining Brow is an opera about the early life of Frank Lloyd Wright, commissioned by Madison Opera, Wisconsin, Wright's home state. The work was premiered there in April, but not having heard it, I cannot speak for the opera's music. That, though, would not appear to be much of a drawback. Muldoon's text was issued in February as a Faber paperback original, uniform with the other volumes of his fast-growing oeuvre; and its blurb invites us to consider it ‘as a dramatic poem in its own right.’ This it has every appearance of being.
Muldoon's Faber colleagues have been notably inclined of late to the poetic drama, whether in the form of Classical ‘translation’ (Seamus Heaney's The Cure at Troy, Tom Paulin's The Riot Act and Seize the Fire, Craig Raine's ‘1953’), or, pre-empting Muldoon, the opera libretto all in verse that is Raine's The Electrification of the Soviet Union—a Pasternak adaptation set to music by Nigel Osborne. There is a certain admirable posturing about all this, a hunger for the larger canvas, the High Style. The writing and presentation of a verse play is fraught with traditional dangers of the kind T. S. Eliot encountered and Auden described when he wrote that Eliot took ‘the only possible line. Except at a few unusual moments, he kept the style Drab.’ Raine, in his preface to The Electrification, showed that he was painfully aware of these difficulties: ‘Shelley's The Cenci or Coleridge's Osorio exist as warnings: throughout it is difficult not to hear Shakespeare like a ghostly prompter, speaking just before the characters.’ The writing of an operatic libretto, on the other hand, can afford the poet an assured opportunity to spread his wings, widen his range, pursue a lofty prize, and at the same time enjoy a furlough from the lonely desk.
Auden jumped at the chance to be useful in the musical theatre; sometimes, in unseemly fashion, he pushed. Britten would have none of him after a certain date, though their early collaboration on the American operetta Paul Bunyan yielded what now seems a masterpiece; and Auden (with Chester Kallman in tow) pressed his suit on whatever composers he could. Henze accepted it (Elegy for Young Lovers,The Bassarids); Tippett and Harrison Birtwistle resisted. The latter has worked fruitfully (the small-scale pieces Bow Down and Yan Tan Tethera) with Tony Harrison, another poet avid for theatrical and operatic activity; and his most recent full-length opera, Gawain, has an ambitious verse libretto by David Harsent.
Ted Hughes once wrote a libretto for Gordon Crosse. The Story of Vasco, whose subject-matter involves crows, is an interesting opera by a composer who has now, regrettably, stopped composing. The poet John Birtwhistle supplied David Blake with the libretto for his unusual opera, The Plumber's Gift. David Malouf has devised a Kipling libretto, Baa Baa Black Sheep, for Michael Berkeley. Blake Morrison is, with the composer Gavin Bryars, engaged on an operatic version of Jules Verne's story, ‘Dr Ox's Experiment.’ Gavin Ewart has provided saucy verses for Robin Holloway's opera buffa about sexuality, Boys and Girls Come out to Play, currently awaiting the offer of a production. The American poet Alice Goodman wrote two libretti for the American minimalist composer John Adams: Nixon in China, with a text mostly in rhyming couplets, and The Death of Klinghoffer. She has also finished fresh dialogue for a Glyndebourne production of The Magic Flute (all of this under the auspices of the American director Peter Sellars). Robert Lowell meant to write a libretto and duly boned up with intensive attendance at the New York Met, but never delivered. John Ashbery has not, so far as I know, produced a libretto—only the poem, ‘Syringa,’ specially composed for a setting by Elliott Carter—but one can't help thinking he'd love to have the chance. Samuel Beckett rather lightly undertook the penning of a libretto for pre-minimalist American composer Morton Feldman. It has been averred (by Michael Tippett, who always acts as his own librettist) that a good opera plot should be summarisable on the back of a postcard; but the actual text of Beckett's Neither could be contained on one.
For most poets, the chance to extend their own creative territory via opera and the artistic duty to the composer seem to be reasonably compatible imperatives. Alice Goodman's Nixon couplets happily meet a literary challenge, reading well on the page, yet feeding easily into the minimalist machine of the score to be crunched and musically digested. Though he served the lyric stage conscientiously, Hofmannsthal also found in his partnership with Richard Strauss release from an artistic impasse of the kind described in his Letter to Lord Chandos: instead of being constrained to devise drama that was like ‘a tone-poem lacking music,’ he now had music itself at his disposal. Auden may have ordered himself to follow the syllabic protocols of writing for music, but his opera translations apart, there is far more to his libretti than simple adherence to the criteria of singability. In an essay from Moving into Aquarius written when The Rake's Progress was new, Tippett wondered whether Auden's libretto hadn't seduced Stravinsky from his proper musical concerns ‘with a poetic tour de passe-passe.’ Auden's libretti for Henze, too, have a manifest ambition as literary structures that is more than a matter of the modest participation in the High Style which Auden officially permits. Elegy for Young Lovers is set in an Alpine hotel—and, incidentally, dedicated to the memory of Hofmannsthal. Its three acts are cast in respectively 11, 12 and 12 short sections whose laconic titles—‘Who is to Tell Her?,’ ‘Each in his Place,’ ‘The Master's Time’—smack of the chapter-headings from Mann's Magic Mountain. In The Bassarids, the libretto's division of the continuously running opera (a single huge act) into four symphonic ‘movements’ is arguably as much an experimental literary hijacking of musical form as a way of honouring the composer's needs. These verbal endeavours must be counted among Auden's long poems—with the ‘charade’ of Paid on Both Sides, the ‘Christmas oratorio’ of For the Time Being and the ‘baroque eclogue’ of The Age of Anxiety—rather than among the ‘private letters’ received by Mr Stravinsky or Mr Henze.1
Shining Brow is not a private letter to Mr Hagen. It would appear that Muldoon has given some thought to stageability and the question of what can and cannot be sung. His operatic approach is, however, at the opposite pole to that of, say, the poet Anne Ridler, who meticulously produces ‘singing’ (syllabically integral) versions of Monteverdi's stage works, and leaves her own artistic preoccupations to one side. The clarification of literary means effected by Muldoon, apparently on behalf of opera, is more like a clarification of his own manner in writing long poems.
What Muldoon seems to concede to the requirements of a libretto, he stealthily takes straight back again for poetry's sake. If, for instance, the arrangement of lines on a page appears at first to represent merely the disposition of the singing voices, as is usually the case with a libretto, closer inspection is likely to show up a verbal patterning rife with all too Muldoonian half-rhymes, half-tones and half-ironies. For the poet—especially this one—the form of a libretto is a form like any other, waiting to be nudged and toyed with. It hasn't much to do with the music of music.
I don't know whether Muldoon did in fact alter his libretto to suit the composer's developing requirements, as David Harsent informs us he did for Birtwistle, having first laid out Gawain as a verse play of his own, or as Montagu Slater, poet-librettist of Peter Grimes, did for Britten. (The published libretto of Gawain is the musicalised one; Slater published his original text of Peter Grimes as a dramatic poem in its own right, like Muldoon's.) But Shining Brow certainly doesn't propose itself as the sort of opera—the only true sort for Michael Tippett—in which the music finally ‘eats up’ the words. Though the best libretti may do more than just stimulate tunes in the composer's mind and trip off the singer's tongue, it is true that we rarely remember Guillard's words for Gluck, Da Ponte's for Mozart, Boito's for Verdi, Wagner's for Wagner in their own poetical right. When, say, Slater's lines from Peter Grimes stick in my mind, it is inevitably the tunes I am recalling—for instance, the peculiar choral catchiness of:
We live and let live, and look We keep our hands to ourselves.
Insofar as the lines stand out, it is likely to be because they are infelicitous: the music has withstood rather than transformed them, eaten them up. Of course, a good composer can find ways to set practically anything. In his preface to the published libretto of The Rape of Lucretia, Britten reminds us that Darius Milhaud (in Machines Agricoles) even set a catalogue. For his own purposes, Britten sought poetry that was ‘simple, succinct and crystal clear.’ All the more astonishing that he was able to give haunting musical expression to Ronald Duncan's egregiously metaphorical verse:
The oatmeal slippers of sleep Creep through the city and drag The sable shadows of night Over the limbs of light.
The music of a great composer has a strong stomach. But there are limits. They are touched early in Muldoon's libretto, when Frank Lloyd Wright's draughtsmen are asked to sing:
We know pretty much exactly what he has in mind when he mentions his ‘pencil in his hand.’
It is hard enough for a single vocalist to hold a phrase in the forceps of quotation marks—and Wright's mistress Mamah Cheney has just had to attempt as much with the same phrase, one of numerous verbal tags that circulate around the libretto. But for a chorus of 20 men the trick is surely impossible, without recourse to camp gestures. It would be a remarkable compositional skill that could add the necessary little pauses, the twist of irony to the choral texture. Cannily aware that his text might be engorged by the music, Muldoon has fitted it with anti-compositional devices, his own ‘write protect’ labels.
If anything consumes anything here, it will be words sucking the blood of music: the poet gaining inspiration for new forms from a vampirish encounter with the conventions of opera. So much for Milton's ‘sphere-borne harmonious sisters.’ Those verbal tags—which are mostly the historical Wright's own words—might seem to facilitate the composer's use of the leitmotif. But the situation is probably the reverse of musically obliging. Muldoon is adapting a Wagnerian idea for the sake of an innovation in his own verse.
For although Muldoon has attempted to simplify his poetic style, he has not gone nearly far enough for musical purposes. Shining Brow is to a large extent a drama of and about wordplay, neither requiring nor prompting music, and quite possibly stageable just as it is: a kind of taut verse equivalent of Stoppard. But as with John Ashbery's ‘Syringa,’ the new clarity of expression is marvellous for poetic purposes. ‘Syringa’ is one of Ashbery's easiest poems to understand, yet one of his most characteristic and best. Similarly, Shining Brow, with its elegant craftsmanship for the theatre, is a model of directness and transparency in comparison with Muldoon's previous long poems, particularly the most recent, Madoc—A Mystery; not only is it perhaps the most ambitious and assured, but it is also able to shed some backward light of understanding on the earlier, more problematic work.
Muldoon's long poems form an impressively expanding series. Each of his collections ends with a longer piece and the progression in technical scope is plain to see: from the ‘Indian’ lyrics of the modestly extended ‘The Year of the Sloes, for Ishi’ at the end of New Weather to the compact sonnet sequence, ‘Armageddon, Armageddon,’ concluding Mules; to ‘Immram,’ that elaborately stanzaic reworking of a medieval Irish voyage tale winding up Why Brownlee Left.Quoof builds to a conclusion on the extraordinary series of ‘destructed’ sonnets, ‘The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants,’ which records a debt to the Trickster cycle of the Winnebago Indians; and Meeting the British ends with the dazzling series of overlapping dramatic monologues, ‘7, Middagh Street.’ In the Madoc volume, the ratio is inverted: the long eccentric title poem, subtitled ‘A Mystery,’ occupies all but ten of the 216 pages, a fact which adds to the mystery: the reader must tease out the possible relationships of the seven prefatory poems (including one in prose) to the main text. The arrangement seems to show Muldoon at his most capricious—what could have been more logical than to make the poem a book in its own right?
Madoc suggests itself as the high point of Muldoon's experimentalism. The title poem's recondite philosophical posturing and its uncertain link to the imaginary narrative of Southey and Coleridge in America tend to confound the reader as much as stimulate him. Coming as it does between the different kinds of dramatic directness of ‘7, Middagh Street’ and Shining Brow, the mannerism of Madoc begins to look like a wrong turning for Muldoon—a Tristram Shandyish excursion (complete with graphics) of dubious success, whose hyperbolically exaggerated wordplay and ‘letterplay’ Muldoon simply had to get out of his system. For all its relish of paronomasia the libretto never leaves the reader (I don't speak of the auditor) in substantial doubt as to what is going on.
Shining Brow is in direct continuity with ‘7, Middagh Street,’ the monologists of the earlier work having, as it were, jumped into three-dimensional life on stage. Wright, his erstwhile mentor Louis Sullivan and Mamah Cheney are not much less bohemian than the crew of the Brooklyn household; and the spirit and influence of Middagh Street's domineering character, Wystan Auden, are everywhere. This applies to the biography of the librettist as well as to the libretto. Having forsaken Belfast and a career as a BBC radio producer to live on the East Coast of America as poet-librettist, Muldoon has symbolically shifted allegiances to Auden from MacNeice—their speeches respectively open and close ‘7, Middagh Street.’ Shining Brow reflects Muldoon's physical transplantation to the States, and confirms the diverse American and Indian interests of his poetry: its concern is with America's foundation. The subject is prefigured in ‘7, Middagh Street’ by Wystan, who is occupied in providing Britten (another of the poem's monologists) with the libretto for Paul Bunyan, pursuing, as Muldoon has it,
the ghostly axe of a huge, blond-haired lumberjack.
The mythical giant, Bunyan, helped the American pioneers to advance out of the savage wilderness into ‘the life of choice’—a life whose dilemmas are then examined in The Age of Anxiety. Muldoon's theme in Shining Brow is the cultural rather than the historical establishment of the country. The figure of Lloyd Wright looms Bunyan-like over the natural landscape. He is filled with visions of America's true architectural transformation: one which keeps faith with Nature. With his Lieber Meister, Sullivan, he fantasised about how
together we would make our mark on the clean slate of America.
He means to ‘build upon the built-up dark,’ a reference perhaps to obscurely menacing traces of the country's Indian past, the not so clean slate of America. And he does so. He builds Taliesin, his studio-home in southwestern Wisconsin: a house ‘married’ to a hill, the realisation of a concept of architecture as integral to American landscape and life. ‘Taliesin’—a word in Wright's ancestral Welsh—means ‘radiant brow’; it is also the name of a legendary bard who, as a baby, was discovered washed up into a fish trap, and found to boast such a forehead. Already able to talk in rhyme (avatar of Muldoon), he immediately informed his rescuers of his starry poetic destiny.
Convinced like Taliesin of his artistic greatness and mission, the Wright depicted in Muldoon's libretto (which keeps to the facts as detailed in Meryle Secrest's new biography) is something of a monster. (In real life, incidentally, Wright had a conspicuous, though not a radiant, brow.) He betrays Sullivan. He deserts his wife and family to live with Mamah Cheney, wife of a Chicago client. His ‘immorality’ and flamboyance everywhere provoke the hostility of the average folk from whose laws he deems himself exempt. He is hounded by the press. If he partly recalls Paul Bunyan—and the merry versification of the choruses of draughtsmen, reporters and bawdy workmen draws close to Auden's style in that operetta—he also evokes the protagonist of the Auden/Kallman tragedy Elegy for Young Lovers. Like the great poet Gregor Mittenhofer, who ‘morally’ (and more than morally) murders a young couple in order to find the ending of his new poem, Wright would have appealed to Art in resisting accusations of selfishness:
No, there you made a mistake. I was angry for the sake Of an unmade verse Crying out to be made.
He had to pay a horrible price for his shining genius. Taliesin burned down three times. The opera dwells on the first conflagration, which was deliberately caused by a deranged servant who took the lives of Mamah, her two children and four other people. Wright's strongest impulse, as always, was to rebuild. In a lonely oration at the end he declares that he ‘will make of their De Profundis / a Kyrie Eleison’:
That Mamah's dead and gone is itself a grand illusion; she'll be both key- and corner-stone of a newly built Taliesin. She is the house. She is the hill. She is the house that hill might marry.
This soliloquy gropingly resumes the libretto's themes and key phrases as though it were the conclusion of a giant sestina. And that in a sense is what the opera has been: a sestina accommodating within itself a whole host of prosodic and rhetorical forms. ‘Oh, Frank, you've such a way with words,’ Mamah enthuses; and so has Paul Muldoon.
One wonders what Daron Aric Hagen has made of all this verbal ability. If, in my ignorance of his style, I try to surmise how these words could effectively be set, I come up with the opposite extremes of, on the one hand, a Harrison Birtwistle approach—ritualistic, cognisant of the tight formal schemes, hard-hitting, lyrical yet earthy (like his opera Punch and Judy)—and, on the other, a frankly Arthur Sullivanish approach that would make the most of the verbal fun and outrageousness, which sometimes seems conceived as G & S parody:
SECOND DRAUGHTSMAN Your mouth is full of puff pastry. Am I destined for ever to do crewelwork on Frank Lloyd Wright's tapestries?
CHORUS Her mouth is full of puff pastry. Is he destined for ever to do crewelwork on Frank Lloyd Wright's tapestries?
Gilbertianly enough, the Louis Sullivan character appears to be roused from his drunken slumber primarily by the need to rhyme. In Act I Wright's wife Catherine says to him:
We've scarcely spoken in a month.
Slumped in a dimly lit corner of the stage, Sullivan briefly comes to:
Another brandy and crème de menthe.
The only composer equal to the task would probably be one who could miraculously combine the two approaches and, like the poet, generally contrive to have it both ways. In Shining Brow, Muldoon has created a long poem displaying both an exemplary dramatic clarity and an endless aptitude for word-play and humorous equivocation. His verse conveys a sense of headlong energy, yet his technique involves a perpetual circulation of phrases and redoubling of allusion. Just as Wright's great achievement was to construct buildings that seem to fly free of their walls and yet stand firm, so Muldoon, under the dispensation of opera's traditional arbitrariness and nonsensicality, has risked dissolving into pure verbal euphoria, while at the same time maintaining a cohesive and comprehensible structure.
The complete Auden libretti will be published by Faber in December.
SOURCE: Roberts, Michèle. “Strong Tease.” New Statesman and Society 7, no. 322 (30 September 1994): 54-5.
[In the following review, Roberts offers a positive assessment of The Annals of Chile, noting Muldoon's “sharp observation.”]
These are poems obsessed with language. The reader stumbles upon them like shining jewels heaped in a cave, an arranged mass of cut and carved parts, a word hoard brought up out of darkness to be exclaimed at and praised, turned and spun in the palm. It's almost impossible to convey a sense of what the poems are like: they are. They are collections of words fastidiously fitted together, with the utmost craftmanship, to dazzle, amuse, sadden, provoke.
It's as though Muldoon is playing with all the language in the world; there's such richness and prodigality here in the way he allows himself to deploy exactly the word that works. The tightly controlled forms tug pleasurably against the effect of largesse.
At first encounter, the poems [in The Annals of Chile] glitter too hard. You want to put a hand over your eyes; you don't want to stare into the sun. You have to give them a chance. The baffling brilliant surface finally blurs and steadies, crystallises into feeling. “Incantata, in Memory of Mary Earl Powers” exemplifies this, jumping into the thesaurus at the deep end: “I thought of you tonight, a leanbh, lying there in your long barrow / colder and dumber than a fish by Francisco de Herrera, / as I X-Actoed from a spud the Inca / glyph for a mouth: thought of that first time I saw your pink / spotted torso, distant-near as a nautilus, / when you undid your portfolio, yes indeedy, / and held the print of what looked like a cankered potato / at arm's length—your arms being longer, it seemed, than Lugh's.” So Muldoon-speak, in this long poem at least, draws on extraordinary metaphors, on jokes and allusions, on sexy games, yet is focused by being addressed to a vanished Other. Invocation, elegy, a puzzle juggling rhymes tricksy as anything Auden ever dreamed up, the poem continues by swiftly tacking together a collage of fantasy and memory and desire.
The lost loved woman gets her voice back, from beyond the grave: “I wanted … / to body out your disembodied vox / clamantis in deserto, to let this all-too-cumbersome device / of a potato-mouth in a potato-face / speak out, unencumbered, from its long, low, mould-filled box. / I wanted it to speak to what seems always true of the truly great, / that you had a winningly inaccurate / sense of your own worth, that you would second-guess / yourself too readily by far, that you would rally to any cause / before your own, mine even, / though you detected in me a tendency to put on too much artificiality, both as man and poet, / which is why you called me ‘Polyester’ or ‘Polyurethane.’”
The humour of that mutates fast into a grief repressed under cleverness, as though to demonstrate the rightness of the reproach: “The fact that you were determined to cut yourself off in your prime / because it was pre-determined has my eyes abrim: / I crouch with Belacqua / and Lucky and Pozzo in the Acacacac- / ademy of Anthropopopometry, trying to make sense of the ‘quawuaqua’ / of that potato-mouth; that mouth as prim / and proper as it's full of self-opprobrium, / with its ‘quaquaqua,’ with its ‘Quoiquoiquoiquoiquoiquoiquoiq.’” And then, just as you get irritated with this seeming heartlessness, all gloss, that so many male poets have to put on, the poem mutates yet again into a precision of imagery that is tenderly sensual, into the final invocation of the woman artist's ink-stained hands reaching out to touch those of the poet.
Similar kaleidoscopic effects animate and sustain the other poems in this volume. They career between farce and tragedy, showing-off and tears-before-bedtime displays of linguistic sleight of hand, between a joy seemingly solely about words as things and a delight in their capacity to evoke emotion. Writing a poem about the birth of his daughter is a test Muldoon passes with flying colours, mixing his usual gags, euphemisms, lists and words of praise into a rich brew of delight and congratulation whose sharp observation never falters even through “floods of tears.” A lovely strong tease of a book.
SOURCE: Norfolk, Lawrence. “The Abundant Braes of Yarrow.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4775 (7 October 1994): 32-3.
[In the following review, Norfolk compliments The Annals of Chile, drawing attention to the poem “Yarrow” as an example of Muldoon's complex and ambitious verse.]
Paul Muldoon is one of the most inventive and ambitious poets working today. The Annals of Chile is his best book to date.
Such an endorsement, in fact any unequivocal statement, does not affix itself easily to Muldoon, any more than straightforward criticism has to his poetry. His work is oddly ungraspable and Muldoon himself is difficult to place; hipper than Heaney, but junior to him and a less obvious candidate for the canon. He is more fun than most of the Northern Ireland poets, but that is because he has not written enough about The Troubles. He is formidably erudite, for which read “too clever by half.” Critical sentiment is warm, but fundamentally undecided. The bandwagon continues to roll, but the ride gets more and more bumpy. From the publication of New Weather in 1973 onwards, Muldoon's poetry has by and large eluded questions about its own ultimate worth.
There has never been any doubt about his technical facility, nor the acuity of his poetic intelligence. Take “Dancers at the Moy,” from that first collection, where a respectable poem somehow scrambles out from under the dead weight of all the more leaden aspects of W. B. Yeats, or “Lunch with Pancho Villa,” from Mules (1977), whose framing devices and multiplying ironies tie themselves in grotesque knots until a deft tug at the end resolves all. There is a touch of Houdini in all this, and a consequent, nagging suspicion that at root this might be all Muldoon's work is about. Perhaps inevitably, the reason for Brownlee's leaving remained unspecified in his 1980 collection, Why Brownlee Left. Are we being played with?
Quoof (1983) elevated Muldoon to the status he enjoys today. Its swaggering sure-footed title-poem moves without visible effort from Muldoon's family word for a hot-water bottle to a fresh yeti-turd—it is a love poem of sorts—and established itself as one of those prismatic poems by which all previous works come into a new focus. As in his two previous collections, a long narrative poem concludes the volume, “The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants,” which begins with a Sioux Indian landing in Ireland and proceeds via a hijacked milk float to various kinds of sex and sectarian violence, ending with the landing of a human hand on the forecourt of a bombed-out petrol station. It is a comic poem, a very serious one, its roller-coaster narrative line at once so artfully departed from and rejoined that any paraphrase would need to distinguish more varieties of caesura than the Inuit supposedly do snow.
If “Quoof” plays a summary, retrospective role in Muldoon's oeuvre, then “The More a Man Has” points forward. It has proved a very fertile poem. I think Alan Jenkins, Glyn Maxwell, and perhaps Simon Armitage, all owe it something, though the person who owes it most is undoubtedly Paul Muldoon. In it, he established an idiom capable of both marshalling the superabundance of material which characterizes his work and entertaining the notion that poetry might still be, among other things, fun.
Perhaps the fun got out of hand. Or perhaps it was that “superabundance of material.” Madoc: A Mystery was published in 1990, a single poem of 247 chapters, the first product of Muldoon's move to America. In it, Coleridge and Southey's abortive project to found a “Pantisocratic” community in late eighteenth-century America is realized imaginatively via a gallimaufry of quotations, pioneers' histories, real and faked-up episodes of murder and pillage, letters, lists, a talking horse, heaps of literary lost luggage reclaimed by the poet and marshalled beneath the square-bracketed names of philosophers from Thales to Stephen J. Hawking. A further, futuristic device, involving a man named “South,” framed this saga:
So that, though it may seem somewhat improbable,
all that follows flickers and flows from the back of his right eyeball.
One of the gentler comedies of the 1990 publishing season was Muldoon's patent conviction that this made the poem easier to understand. The following is excerpted from the Independent on Sunday:
Paul Muldoon: Now, you realised that the story of Madoc is retrieved from the retina of a man called South?
Blake Morrison: Er, yes.
Initial impressions are of chaotically tangled story-lines, random echoes, weird correspondences, and a network of allusions too recherché to be useful and too insistent to be dismissed. The philosophical headings are particularly exasperating. Here, in its entirety, is “[Empedocles]”:
The woodchuck has had occasion to turn into a moccasin.
Edna Longley in the Irish Times glossed this as, “if ‘going native’ is an irony in the poem, the Indians too pursue tribal quarrels and despoil nature.” I prefer to invoke one of the five apocryphal deaths attributed to Empedocles; that, nearing death and wishing to leave no mortal remains, thus to be thought a god, he threw himself into Mount Etna, which promptly regurgitated (chucked?) back one of his (wooden?) sandals, thus giving the game away. This is suggestive, as is Longley's gloss, as is the near-anagram of “moccasin” and “occasion” for that matter, but none of these is helpful. Madoc remains baffling, clotted with the labour that produced it, a wild goose chase. Again: though we know that underneath it all Muldoon is serious, are we being fooled? Is it possible that at some level Muldoon's work is an enormous hoax? Or as Muldoon, in the guise of a talking horse (no long Muldoon poem being really complete without one), puts it to himself in The Prince of the Quotidian:
There's not an image here that's worth a fuck. Who gives a shit about the dreck of your life? Who gives a toss about your tossing off?
Of the poet: Who gives a toss? Of his poetry: What does it mean? These are the pointless, destructive questions which, to date, Muldoon has (rightly) failed to address and (wrongly) failed to dispel, but I do not think it will be possible to ask either in good faith again. The Annals of Chile buries them.
The book begins casually, with a revisiting of “Ovid's conspicuously tongue-in-cheek / account of an eyeball to eyeball / between the goddess Leto / and a shower of Lycian reed cutters” (from “The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants”) who refuse the goddess a cup of water and are turned into frogs for their stinginess. A few short poems follow. One, “The Sonogram,” is extracted from The Prince of the Quotidian, a chatty page-a-day diary poem written by Muldoon in January 1992. There are also poems about Muldoon's dog (lying on the bed “like an ancient quoof”), the birth of his daughter, the grave of someone else's parents, a frozen water tub. The volume's title is tucked away in a poem entitled “Brazil,” which ends:
“There is inherent vice
in everything,” as O'Higgins would proclaim: it was O'Higgins who duly
had the terms “widdershins” and “deasil” expunged from the annals of Chile.
Whether this is Ambrosio O'Higgins, the Irish (and last) governor of Spanish Chile, or the more famous Bernardo O'Higgins, bastard son of the above, Chile's liberator and first Director-General, remains unresolved. Neither is exactly notorious for the alleged “expunging” of these terms, which will be explicated further on in the volume.
This might be the place to mention Neruda, whose own extraordinary, monumental (and uneven) Annals of Chile, Canto General, looms large as a possible model for this book. Or Vallejo, with whom Muldoon wrestles in a translation of “Piedra Negra Sobre Una Piédra Blanca” which (deliberately?) twists the already puzzling lines, “los húmeros me he puesto / a la mala y” to mean “the very bones in my forearms ache” (from “César Vallejo: Testimony”). Muldoon will worry about these lines later in the volume.
I think the question of the shape of a poet's work, among other things, is being raised through these references; Vallejo's works being disparate brilliant performances, Neruda's having more the look of an oeuvre, unafraid of the odd bad or inconsequential poem—Neruda's own poem on (Bernardo) O'Higgins is rather wince-making in parts—so long as it adds effectively to the whole. Likewise, these prefatory poems appear first as light-footed occasional pieces, gradually darkening in tone until the unspoken menace of the last, “Cows,” breaks cover.
Now let us talk of slaughter and the slain, the helicopter gun-ship, the mighty Kalashnikov: let's rest for a while in a place where a cow has lain.
Placed in the midst of these miniatures is “Incantata,” a beautiful and heartfelt elegy for Mary Farl Powers, an artist and Muldoon's onetime lover. Forty-five eight-line half-rhymed stanzas beginning, “I thought of you tonight …” recapitulate their life together through a welter of anecdote and meditation. It is Muldoon's most transparent poem for some time, and also his most musical. “That's all that's left of …” rings through the lines, accreting memories of Dublin squabbles, Derain's paintings, Samuel Beckett, a holiday in France, filling its present losses with remembered pleasures until, in the final line of the poem, and only there, the two are reunited. It is straightforward, absolutely assured, and very moving. “Incantata” was published in these pages some weeks ago, accompanied by one of Mary Farl Powers's lithographs. One wonders why Faber did not do the same for their jacket.
All elegies work by sleight of hand. The invocation of that which is lost is the occasion of its recovery. A life is detailed, its events revisited, the catalogue of losses grows profuse and enriched, the deficit is gradually transmuted into surplus. Lack becomes abundance. At the last, the original “loss” is mere rubric, a grammatical nicety in the logic of replenishment which is the poem's real business. An elegy asks hard questions of a poet's powers of invention and sustenance, for the dull reality is ever-present and ever-ready to intrude. Banishing its own fundamentally dishonest premise is an elegy's first task, and thereafter the imperative of all such high-wire acts asserts itself with increasing stridency: Don't slip. It is the kind of high-risk poetic strategy that might have been invented for Muldoon and underlies not only “Incantata” but also its far longer, more ambitious and complex counterpart in this collection, “Yarrow.”
Little by little it dawned on us that the row of kale would shortly be overwhelmed by these pink
and cream blooms, that all of us
would be overwhelmed …
So it begins, not in loss but the premonition of loss, a temporality, let it be noted, only communicable in writing. This chink of latitude is all Muldoon needs for all that follows. Yarrow, “these pink and cream blooms,” recurs intermittently through the 150 pages that follow without ever assuming control over the images and incidents surrounding it, as though Muldoon, having already accorded it the title, is reluctant to cede it any more prominence than that. Meaning, in the widest sense, is distributed very evenly through the poem, Derek Mahon's “terminal democracy / of hatbox and crab” here being an occasion for celebration rather than lament. There is no single key.
The immediate effect of this non-order of priorities is an impression of something close to chaos: a maddening whirl of incidents and images, references and recherché allusions. “Yarrow” thrusts its reader headlong into several very different worlds: winter 1963 in Muldoon's home village of The Moy in South Armagh; the imaginative inner life of his childhood, stuffed with Stevenson and H. Rider Haggard; childish gangs, their quests and secrets; a love (sex?) affair with “S—,” as fiery in her politics as her amours; the suicide of Sylvia Plath; the Profumo affair; the history, or histories, of Ireland; a bombing, or possible bombing. … This list is very far from being complete. Intermittent snapshots of a present-day Muldoon wrestling with the remote control of his VCR supply a flimsy scaffold of freeze-frames and cross-fades, amounting almost to a caveat—how not to read this poem.
For “Yarrow” is anything but random. Huge lists of things are strung through its stanzas—of poets, novelists, their books, their characters, places, saints, food, drink, weapons, modes of transportation. Our hero himself is a compendium of heroes: King Arthur, Cuirithir, Cúchulainn, a dash of David Balfour and a pinch of Allan Quatermain. Armed with a “hog-weed blow- / gun,” sustained only by fusel oil, Anchor Steam (“the best beer in the U.S.”—a lie), “seal-flipper terrine” and “pages torn from Old Moore or Wisden,” he leaps from S—'s bed to the Spanish Main and back again. When he is late for tea one night (an unforeseen excursion on a U-Boat), his mother upbraids him for not peeling the spuds while his father metamorphoses into a kale-loving Popeye. Stopped for running “those five red lights in downtown New Haven,” S— invokes George Oppen:
“there's a poet with fire in his belly”; this was to the arresting “officiffer”
who had her try to walk a straight line back to the Porsche:
after calling him “the unvoiced ‘c’ in Connecticut” …
So far, so fun. Add this “c” to “the phantom ‘a’ in Cesarean” (“Footling,” earlier in the volume) and the “‘if’ in ‘California’” (“Immram,” from Why Brownlee Left) and one gains a sense of the diligence with which “Yarrow” recoups and subsumes within itself Muldoon's work to date. Examples like this could be multiplied almost endlessly.
Unsurprisingly, and first impressions notwithstanding, “Yarrow”'s own internal relations are intricate to a mind-boggling degree. The puzzling term “widdershins” is scooped out of “Brazil” and glossed as “‘Wither’ as in ‘widdersinnes,’ meaning to turn / against the sun,” its Gaelic equivalent chased down and traced to the name of a seed catalogue browsed through by his mother, “Tohill, from tuathal, / meaning ‘withershins’—with its regrettable overtones / of sunworship.” A “carbon-slip” torn from this lexically loaded source functions as a kind of amulet fluttering through the poem, metamorphosing into “the short slip, / who caught that fiendish Gagoogly from King Solomon's Mines” or S—'s even shorter “diaphanous half-slip, / with its lime-white gusset.”
“How much longer,” she cajoled, “must we rant and rail
against the ermine yoke of the House of Hanover?
When might the roots of freedom take hold? For how much longer must we cosset Freedom's green shoot and Freedom's little green slip?”
A “house in Hanover” later in the poem “stands like a ship on the slips.” A page later, “the hounds were straining at their slips,” and some time after that “the carbon slip” is lost. This is only a partial account of only one word, but the whole poem is tongued and grooved in this way.
As with the patterning of its vocabulary, so with the checks and balances of its tone. Muldoon is expert at curbing his more lurid idioms, keeping them within the ambit of “Yarrow”'s cool but jaunty, almost insouciant tone.
It was now too late for Erec to pull out of Enid while she masturbated her clitoris and S— and I, like, outparamoured the Turk
in the next room: the scent of Vaseline; her fondness for the crop: the arrière-gout of patchouli oil and urine.
The demotic pull and archly decorous push of “like” and “arrière-gout” let just the right amount of steam out of this steamy vignette. This kind of near-invisible monitoring operates throughout the poem. Every word is calculated. There are no coincidences. Likewise there are no, like, slips. A work more attentive to the calibration of its language than this one is hard to imagine. To what end?
Muldoon's mastery of the language is as oft-remarked as his pleasure in it. Both are in evidence here, but with an unsurpassed degree of control. The multiple collisions and overlays, the interpenetrations and contradictions between “Yarrow”'s various rhetorics are the real story of this poem. S— upbraids him for not being political, for not being involved (“the only Saracen I know's a Saracen tank”), his mother wants him over the sink (hairwashes, more spud-peeling), “ghastly gagooglies” rocket towards him out of nowhere, and someone's mined the cows' drinking trough. What is a poet to do?
Our hero rushes about (a great deal of traveling gets done in “Yarrow”), juggling his proffered roles. Refrains (“That was the year that …,” “Again and again …”) ring through the verses. Everything recurs, though changed by the poem's intricate, near-invisible lexical procedures. Heroin claims S—, cancer Muldoon's mother. S—'s clitoris used to taste of nutmeg, now it tastes of “monk's hood, or aconite,” neither of which, like the great compendium of plants offered fruitlessly as cures for Mary Farl Powers's cancer in “Incantata,” will help Muldoon's mother. Our hero keeps slaying his enemies and his enemies keep popping back up. “Yarrow” reads and re-reads itself (demanding, incidentally, the same of its readers).
Appropriately enough for a poem as happy under S—'s skirt as aboard ship with a crew of anachronistic Romans, as necessarily lush and flush with inventions as with losses and waste; appropriately enough for a poet dogged by suspicions of incomprehensibility, “Yarrow,” and the collection, end with the cracking of an “indecipherable code”:
it has to do with a trireme, laden with ravensara. that was lost with all hands between Ireland and Montevideo.
“Ravensara” is a variety of Madagascan nutmeg. As to “Montevideo,” where else would The Annals of Chile reach its conclusion if not Uruguay? The lines send us back into the volume in search of further explanation—a gesture typical of the whole book. The reader shuttles back and forth, drawn by associations and resonances which swell above the din of “Yarrow”'s hectic surface activity. Gradually the poem's vector reveals itself.
Yarrow will always be about to overwhelm the kale. It is to the faintest trace of movement within this moment that the poem cleaves. Beneath its crazed activity and intermittent wackiness, this is a fundamentally calm poem. The volume's earlier lyrics are gathered in its retrospective gaze, or make good their own prospective promises, or both. Viewed through “Yarrow,” the paradoxical image of Muldoon's unborn child's thumb glimpsed in “The Sonogram”—“a gladiator in his net, passing judgment on the crowd”—prefigures the syzygy of our own roles as both spectators and players. And, of course, as the makers of both entries and exits ourselves. The genocides, successive invasions, and fertile miscegenations which are the annals of Chile (and Ireland) are also previsions of the individual lives which flicker, always and already extinguished, always and already alight, and which are sustained in this magnificent poem. “Yarrow” is a new kind of elegy, an elegy for the unborn and the dead alike.
SOURCE: Howard, Ben. Review of Selected Poems: 1968-1987, by Paul Muldoon. Poetry 165, no. 2 (November 1994): 101-05.
[In the following review, Howard evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Selected Poems: 1968-1987.]
For the Irish poet Paul Muldoon no value is more central to the poet's vocation than that of personal independence. Speaking to Kevin Barry in 1987, Muldoon expressed his belief that “a writer's job is to be an outsider, to belong to no groups, no tribes, no clubs. So far as any of us can, it's to be a free agent, within the state of oneself, or roaming through the different states of oneself” (The Irish Literary Supplement, Fall 1987). And in the fluid interiors of his poems, Muldoon has remained remarkably independent, sailing with poise and grace through perilous waters. Like his forerunner Louis MacNeice, who resisted the claims of Marxism and Catholicism, Muldoon has been his own best navigator, steering a course through the crosswinds of nationalism, internationalism, Catholicism, deconstructionism, formalism, aestheticism, and the warring ideologies of Northern Ireland. Parabolic, enigmatic, and richly allusive, his poems refract those ideologies but subscribe to none of them. At their most complex they also enlist the conventions of the medieval quest, motifs from Native American culture, imagery from the poet's rural childhood, fragments of the Irish-Gaelic tradition, and parodic references to the works of modern poets, particularly Yeats. The result is an inclusive but subversive art, where the most sacred cow is both welcome and subject to demolition. In contrast to the worlds of Seamus Heaney, Thomas Kinsella, and John Montague, where the sense of a center can still be felt, Muldoon's vision is comedic, pluralistic, and deeply iconoclastic. Under the spell of his irreverence, one can exult in the poet's autonomy and the artist's freedom, while also being aware that something has been lost.
[Selected Poems: 1968-1987] is a selection from Muldoon's first five books of poems, all of them written before the poet's fortieth year. A reprint of the 1987 Ecco Press edition, this rigorous selection presents the best of Muldoon's earlier work, most of it in the form of short stanzaic lyrics. Four of the five sections of the book end with longer poems, affording a look at Muldoon as narrative and dramatic poet. One of the longer poems, entitled “The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants,” features a hero named Gallogly, an Irish Everyman whose surreal adventures include a joyride in a stolen milk van, the shooting of a corporal in the Ulster Defence Regiment, and an encounter with one Beatrice, whose “grand'mère,” together with Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, “sat in the nude / round the petits fours / and repeated Eros is Eros is Eros.” “7, Middagh Street,” the most ambitious and entertaining of the long poems, presents monologues by Gypsy Rose Lee, Benjamin Britten, Chester Kallman, Carson McCullers, Salvador Dali, and W. H. Auden, all of whom lived at that Brooklyn address in 1940. In part a send-up of modernist pieties, the poem is also a meditation on the artist's social responsibilities. At one point the voice purporting to be Auden's quotes Yeats's conscience-stricken question, “‘Did that play of mine / send out certain men … the English shot … ?’” To which Auden's abrupt reply is, “‘Certainly not.’”
That answer represents one side in a debate which has been prominent in Muldoon's work from the beginning. An early instance can be found in his fictive encounter with Pancho Villa, who urges a poetry of political engagement:
‘Look, son. Just look around you. People are getting themselves killed Left, right and centre While you do what? Write rondeaux? There's more to living in this country Than stars and horses, pigs and trees, Not that you'd guess it from your poems. Do you never listen to the news? You want to get down to something true, Something a little nearer home.’
“Lunch with Pancho Villa”
In response to this challenge, the narrator destroys his own fiction. It was, he tells us, “All made up as I went along / As things that people live among.” In its deft use of Romantic irony the poem resembles Weldon Kees's sonnet “For My Daughter,” which describes a daughter's decline into moral decay but ends with the erasure of its own creation (“I have no daughter. I desire none”). But if Kees's negation serves to underscore his despair, Muldoon's serves to affirm the power of imagination and the autonomy of the poet, who will, if he chooses, continue to write about pigs and trees.
Muldoon was born in 1951 and grew up amidst the sectarian violence of Northern Ireland. During the Seventies and early Eighties he lived in Belfast, where he worked as a producer for the BBC. Like Seamus Heaney, his tutor at Queen's University, Belfast, he has been expected to bear witness to political upheaval, and his concern with the artist's responsibilities may be understood in that context. More broadly, however, Muldoon's position may be seen as continuous with the Gaelic poetic tradition, where the poet has always played a public role. Whether it be the bardic poet praising his chieftain, or the late-bardic poet lamenting the loss of the Gaelic order, or Yeats declining “to set a statesman right,” the Irish poet has stood at a threshold between the public and private worlds. In Muldoon's poems that intersection is often an occasion for comedy, as in his poem on the Cuban missile crisis. The main speaker is the narrator's father, who scolds his daughter for staying out all night and urges her to make her peace with her Creator:
My eldest sister arrived home that morning In her white muslin evening dress. ‘Who the hell do you think you are, Running out to dances in next to nothing? As though we hadn't enough bother With the world at war, if not at an end.’ My father was pounding the breakfast-table.
Obediently the sister makes her confession, finding the priest less concerned with the end of the world than with the state of her virginity:
‘Tell me, child. Was this touch immodest? Did he touch your breast, for example?’ ‘He brushed against me, Father. Very gently.’
Though not vehemently anti-clerical, “Cuba” may be read as a comment on the puritanical and parochial attitudes of Irish Catholicism, especially where sex is concerned. But it would be a mistake to read the poem as autobiographical. “As it occurs in the poems,” Muldoon insists in The Irish Literary Supplement interview, “my family is from the earliest invented, invented brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers.” Literal fact is subordinate to poetic invention. And to read a poem as if it were a vehicle for history, autobiography, or polemics is to violate its primary nature. Muldoon explores this issue further in “The Frog,” a comic parable, which first appeared in his fourth collection (Quoof, 1983):
Comes to mind as another small upheaval amongst the rubble. His eye matches exactly the bubble in my spirit-level. I set aside hammer and chisel and take him on my trowel.
The entire population of Ireland springs from a pair left to stand overnight in a pond in the gardens of Trinity College, two bottles of wine left there to chill after the Act of Union.
There is, surely, in this story a moral. A moral for our times. What if I put him to my head and squeezed it out of him, like the juice of freshly squeezed limes, or a lemon sorbet?
With sufficient ingenuity one could squeeze a moral out of Muldoon's allusion to Trinity College (Dublin), a symbol of the Protestant Ascendancy, and to the Act of Union (1800), by which Ireland was assimilated into the United Kingdom. But is this poem not a warning against all such interpretations? The frog, one notes, may not survive the interpreter's handling.
“The Frog” is remarkable not only for its mischievous glance at national obsessions but for the assurance of its ironic tone and the supple beauty of its lines, particularly its play of slant rhymes and liquid consonants in the opening stanza. Evident from the start, those qualities are most prominent in Meeting the British (1987), Muldoon's fifth collection. In one delightful bagatelle, set in a sushi-bar, Muldoon admires the artistry of an apprentice chef, who creates “a rose's / exquisite petals” from “the tail-end of a carrot.” This spectacle prompts an intricate reflection, as notable for its music as for its multiple allusions:
Is it not the height of arrogance to propose that God's no more arcane than the smack of oregano, orgone, the inner organs of beasts and fowls, the mines of Arigna, the poems of Louis Aragon?—
With its variations on a single syllable and its effortless balance of line and phrase, this sensuous tour de force is the verbal counterpart of the chef's achievement. And its cosmopolitan flavor, more noticeable in Muldoon's later work, sets it apart from the regionalism of much postwar Irish verse.
For those who would prefer the regional outlook and the elegiac voice, the tragic sense of history and the reverential stance, Muldoon's way of writing may be both disconcerting and disappointing. As Seamus Heaney has remarked, “Paul's changing the rules of the game.” And for those attuned to Irish poetic conventions—the bardic manner and the backward look, the sense of place and the tone of historical grievance—the change may be less than salutary. But for anyone concerned with the rejuvenation of language, the revaluation of historical icons, and the debunking of outworn modes of thought and feeling, the poems of Paul Muldoon will come as a welcome renewal.
SOURCE: McNamara, Katherine. “The Riddle of the Expunged Words.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (11 December 1994): 13.
[In the following review, McNamara lauds the symbiotic relationship between Muldoon's two collections The Annals of Chile and The Prince of the Quotidian.]
In 1794, the English poets Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge planned to (but did not) come to America, meaning to set up a Pantisocracy, an equal rule for all, on the banks of the Susquehanna River. Paul Muldoon, an Irish poet who teaches at Princeton, nearly 200 years afterward, imagined what it would have been like if they had come West, and wrote a funny, tragic history of Western philosophy he called Madoc: A Mystery (1991).
In 1954, Ross Macdonald, who wrote his brooding, father-quest mysteries in Santa Barbara, said: “My fellow admirers of Coleridge will perhaps forgive me for suggesting that ‘Christabel’ is an unfinished mystery novel in verse, whose subject is the elucidation of guilt and the ritual exorcism—a guilt which arises from man's ability to sin against himself, both consciously and unconsciously.”
Making such a triangulation is good practice for reading Paul Muldoon's profound new poems, The Annals of Chile. Muldoon, “this picaro of the information highway,” is called “one of the most metaphoric poets alive.” “Paul's changing the rules of the game,” Seamus Heaney is said to have said.
Or, he's playing the poets' oldest game, but makes it new. As Robert Graves knew, “poetry is rooted in love, and love in desire, and desire in the hope of continued existence.” In that human loam are planted Muldoon's ancient roots. He was a young man in the '60s. His poems travel back through the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll (Clapton and Hendrix) of that age; but deep through them also flow themes, and figures, of Irish legends: love, the ecclesiastical frustration of its desire, the poet's circuit (a seasonal/eternal going away and coming back), the death of a lover or a mother, the poet's desire (and failure—and so his grief) to restore life.
What are “the annals of Chile”? They are a riddle, and point to the mystery-riddle inside the poems. The poet calls up O'Higgins, (presumably Bernardo, the liberator of Chile in the early 19th Century):
“There is inherent vice in everything,” as O'Higgins would proclaim: it was O'Higgins who duly had the terms “widdershins” and “deasil” expunged from the annals of Chile.
Here is the mystery: these “expunged” words. Only by moving with him through the poems will we comprehend how their meaning may be uncovered.
“Yarrow,” the book's most complex poem, is a vision-poem of atonement. Knowledge of disaster and loss suffuses it. “all of us would be swept away.” As though watching a video, the poet reels back through memory and buried knowledge. His mother appears: she “thumbs through a seed-catalogue / she's borrowed from Tohill's of the Moy.” His father “studies the grain in the shaft of a rake.”
These images carry pain. For balm, he chews on yarrow, used by the Chinese for divination, and by medieval monks for healing medicines, and by Achilles to stanch the bleeding wounds of his soldiers. His “ma ticks off a list / of seeds: Tohill, from tuathal, / meaning ‘withershins’—with its regrettable overtones / of sunworship—in our beloved Goidelic.”
Just as O'Higgins said “There is inherent vice / in everything,” so also this mother taught her son the Catholic vice inherent in sex, and it haunts him, nearly with the madness of King Lear. She is doubled and shadowed by S—, the poet's lover during the '60s, done in by her own hand. In them he recognizes the deep and ancient link, for men, between women and (frustrated) desire and war. He is tormented, and his poems are haunted, by images of war. Even the sweet bucolic of “Cows” is menaced by a “command wire at the trough” that may be linked to a bomb.
Graves said that the poet's ancient work was to reconcile warring partners. In an earlier book, Muldoon went looking for his missing father, who “disappeared / and took passage, almost for Argentina … / While he has gone no further than Brazil.”
Now, the poem called “Brazil” is one key to unriddling the title, for this Brazil is Breasal's Island, or Hy-Brazil, the mythic Irish land of pleasure and feasting. It is the world of dream and longing in which his mismatched parents lived while they spent their hard, hungry lives on the farmland, seeded from Tohill's catalogue, that is about to be swept away. It is the verbal video of the poet-son's books of legendary heroes, his imagined flights of derring-do beside Mike Fink, Arthur and Cuchulain. But Hy-Brazil doubles, in the poem's mind-movie, into S—'s terrible, drug-filled dreams of “kingdoms naked in the trembling heart.”
The poet (like Ross Macdonald) searched for the lost father (“It seemed I would forever be driving west”). He headed west in the '60s and got as far as California. There, the vision goes psychedelic, as one image writhes against another and wipes it out. Drugs call up false prophecies; and he has a very bad trip. In his mastery of these images, Muldoon is the peer of Thomas Pynchon, whose “Vineland,” a true myth-fiction of California in the '60s, delineates an American naivete and our endless fascination with evil.
But why has the poet tried to solve the riddle of the expunged words? We can turn for insight to the companion to The Annals, called The Prince of the Quotidian, published simultaneously (by Wake Forest) and meant to resolve “questions” raised by that volume. The poet is visited by a revenant. “A man with a belly like a poisoned / pup … much the worse for drink,” who demands he return to the real work: “making metaphors.”
he slaps my cheek; “Above all else, you must atone for everything you've said and done against your mother: meet excess of love with excess of love. …”
The poet—this must have been fearsome—will go back to the beginning. The Annals, dedicated to the memory of his mother, opens with a rendering of Ovid's Leto. In homage (he once had made light of that daughter of the Titans), he acknowledges her “vindictive” power to reduce men, who scorned to aid a woman and her children in need, to frogs, eternally cursing and babbling in their muddy pool.
We come to the last word: deasil, mentioned once and not repeated; this key we must find by ourselves. In Irish, deasil means to travel in the direction of the sun. For the ancients, wrote the scholar Thomas F. O'Rahill, “to go dessel or right-handwise, thus imitating the course of the sun, was not only the right way to make a journey, but it was likewise beneficial in other affairs of life, and was likely to lead to a prosperous result.”
We now comprehend: In atonement, the poet has gone on a poet's circuit back through his poems; he has gone widdershins through the legends and history that enriched them, and the memories of experience that formed them, at every moment watching and listening for psychic echoes of the expunged words. By circling back through heart-wrench, he has tried to heal, and to reconcile all parties, to put them at one, as the poet once was obligated to do with his art. This poet longs for the gift of curing, but is given only perfect grief and the ashes of fury, as in the beautiful “Incantata,” when he cannot call back his lover from the death she accepted. (Inversely, in “The Birth,” weeping, he sings his new daughter into the world, by calling its lovely things to surround her.)
Deasil is a lost word of rightness; for the poet, its promise cannot be fulfilled in life. The wheel turns, his vision ends; and he is left standing, emptied (this is the real fate of visionaries) but minus relief, without respite. Nothing sentimental in this hard, clean end.
To go the right way, for us, is to read the annals from beginning to end, in their reasonable order, unearthing their meanings, for there is nothing accidental in these poems; every word, every reference, every allusion, carries meaning. That is the art, the gorgeous music of language, the poet has made of his harrowing vision-memories. As the poet—this is his triumph, it is what marks this book with what may be greatness—Paul Muldoon never flinches in his brilliant verbal workings, while his “I,” the tormented boy/man, the ancient mariner singing to us his holy and unholy visions, endures real suffering; and if he is not granted rest, we who are reading are given a version of the perfected, the classical peace we might feel at the end of a sun-wise journey, in which we have seen revealed to us “how art may be made.”
SOURCE: Ford, Mark. “Little Do We Know.” London Review of Books 17, no. 1 (12 January 1995): 19.
[In the following positive review, Ford asserts that The Annals of Chile is “Muldoon's most open and lyrical collection yet.”]
‘What are we going to write about now?’ one of Ulster's more engagé poets half-jokingly inquired soon after the IRA's ceasefire was announced. One would imagine that Paul Muldoon will be among the Northern Irish poets least directly affected by whatever happens—or doesn't—in the Province. His poetry has always reflected political events in the most delicate of styles, avoiding overt judgments, sentimental ideals, commitments or solutions, instead teasing out angles of irony and embodying states of impasse—‘that eternal interim,’ as he calls it in ‘Lull’—with a sophistication that must be its own reward.
The upbeat-sounding title of Paul Muldoon's precocious first volume, New Weather (published in 1973 when he was 21, and at long last reissued), was drawn from a poem called ‘Wind and Tree’ that broods bleakly on the dangers of involvement of any kind—sexual, political, familial. Muldoon here figures all relationships as an inescapable series of mutual destructions, but interestingly connects his poetry—or the fact of his poetry—to his own willingness to be ‘broken’:
Often where the wind has gathered The trees together and together,
One tree will take Another in her arms and hold.
Their branches that are grinding Madly together and together,
It is no real fire. They are breaking each other.
Often I think I should be like The single tree, going nowhere,
Since my own arm could not and would not Break the other. Yet by my broken bones
I tell new weather.
How neatly and unobtrusively the verb ‘tell’ is poised between passive and active meanings: does the poet merely register the ‘new weather,’ or does he announce it? Muldoon's entire ars poetica seems to depend on preserving that doubt, expanding the hinterland between reality and fantasy, engagement and awareness, history and myth, until they come to implicate each other without the poet's ever having to situate himself explicitly on either side of the equation.
His longest poem to date, Madoc: A Mystery (1990), developed this theme gruesomely and exhaustively. Madoc braids together an extraordinary number of narratives—Lewis and Clark's 1805 journey West, a hypothetical account of Coleridge and Southey's attempts to found a utopian community in Pennsylvania, the political career of Thomas Jefferson's Vice-President. Aaron Burr, Southey's own epic Madoc, the entire history of Western philosophy—but the poem's bewildering imaginative scope and range of reference are continually focused by Muldoon's insistence on the multiple connections between violence and idealism. In dreams begin not only responsibilities, but tyranny and genocide.
Muldoon's new volume, The Annals of Chile, consists, like Madoc, of a smattering of short poems followed by one very long one, called ‘Yarrow,’ but despite their similar formats and concerns the books could not be more different in terms of tone and effect. While Madoc was wry, elliptical, often harsh to the point of brutality, The Annals of Chile is Muldoon's most open and lyrical collection yet. It is tempting to see this polarity in terms of gender. Although the Fricker sisters Sara and Edith (married to Coleridge and Southey respectively) feature periodically in the Pantisocratic episodes of Madoc, most of the book's trajectory seems determined by male imperatives of the era, such as conquest and subjection. In contrast, men figure only fleetingly in ‘Yarrow’—which is, among other things, an elegy for the poet's mother—while the book's most memorable shorter poems deal with the birth of his daughter and the death of a close friend, the artist Mary Farl Powers.
The Annals of Chile articulates a much more organic understanding of origins and terminations than other Muldoon volumes. His previous long poems in particular tend to be sealed off within the self-reflexive confines of their own ludic patterning, a maze of mirrors one enters arbitrarily and inexplicably: the action of ‘Immram’ (Why Brownlee Left, 1980), for instance, is initiated by ‘a sixteen-ounce billiard cue’ with which the narrator is suddenly threatened ‘out of the blue’ in Foster's pool hall, to which he returns at the end of the poem; Madoc opens and closes in some futuristic domed city called Unitel inhabited by Geckoes who decipher the rest of the poem by harnessing a retinagraph to the right eyeball of a certain South; and ‘7, Middagh Street’—the poem in Meeting the British (1987) about Auden, Dali, MacNeice and Co—both begins and ends with the first words of John Masefield's ‘Cargoes’ (‘Quinquereme of Nineveh’), like a serpent with its tail in its mouth.
Codes and allusions proliferate in ‘Yarrow’ too, but are not allowed to structure its meanings or progression to the same extent; underlying—or parallel to—its display of verbal pyrotechnics and narrative layerings is an organic development on which words and fantasies make no impression. This is the recognition with which the poem opens:
Little by little it dawned on us that the row of kale would shortly be overwhelmed by these pink
and cream blooms, that all of us
would be overwhelmed.
Even were his mother
to make one of her increasingly rare
appeals to some higher power, some Deo this or that, all would be swept away by the stream that fanned across the land.
The insidiously swamping yarrow is obliquely linked in the poem to his mother's death from cancer, and it is a sprig of yarrow which he plucks from a ‘funerary vase’ while ‘in a den in St John's, Newfoundland’ that stimulates the various reminiscences which make up the poem.
Within this quite conventional framework ‘Yarrow’ is as eclectic and multifaceted as any of Muldoon's other long poems, a patchwork of literary and historical references likely to be comprehensively tracked down by only the ablest of Muldoon scholars. Much of ‘Yarrow’ reverts to 1963—the ‘year MacNeice and Frost and Plath all kicked the bucket’—when Muldoon was 12 and immersed in boys' adventure fiction: his favourite books are remembered thick and fast: the Westerns of Jack Schaefer, King Solomon's Mines,The Lost World,Kidnapped,The Sign of Four,Rob Roy,The Day the Cowboys Quit and so on. Popeye, Charlemagne, road movies, the Knights of the Round Table, the Trojan Wars, pirate tales, the Bible, Montezuma, American World War Two bomber raids, ‘How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix,’ furnish other roles and stories for Muldoon and his childhood friends.
Counterpointing their games of make-believe are details from the life of a female friend called S—, a heroin addict whose experiences are evoked by Muldoon with the hard urban wit he first developed in ‘Immram.’
That was the year Mike Fink was a bouncer at ‘The Bitter End’ on Bleecker Street: ‘The times are out of kilter,’ he remarked to S—, eyeing the needle-tracks
on her arms.
S— seems perpetually in and out of hospitals and rehab clinics, in one of which she slits her wrists and like a self-punishing Manson groupie writes ‘Helter-skelter / in her own blood on the wall.’ S—'s extreme life and eventual suicide connect her to Sylvia Plath, another woman whose untimely death is frequently mourned in the poem, and over whose ‘Edge’ Muldoon frankly puzzles as if in an Eng. Lit. seminar:
‘Her blacks crackle and drag.’ Whose ‘blacks’? Is it the woman on the funeral urn or the moon? Are they both ‘masturbating a glitter’?
‘Surely not’ must be the answer to this last question, since the act is ascribed by Plath to one of the sinister male twins of ‘Death & Co.’
The overall impact of ‘Yarrow’ depends less, however, on the patterns and coherences it posits between its various characters, than on the rich particularity with which each episode is invested. At his most schematic—in Madoc, say, or ‘The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants’ (Quoof, 1983), which is based on the Trickster cycle of the Winnebago Indians—Muldoon can be a rather forbidding writer: one approaches these poems as one would a vast, impossibly tangled crossword puzzle or treasure-hunt. ‘Yarrow’'s structure and methods of linkage are far more straightforward: many of its sections (all arranged in three-line stanzas) begin with one of a series of formulaic phrases that are repeated so often they develop an aura of ritual—‘Little did I know,’ ‘Would that I might,’ ‘Again and again,’ ‘That was the year,’ ‘Even now,’ ‘All I remember,’ ‘All would be swept away.’ In addition, the poem's present is clearly established: it is 1:43 by the clock on the VCR in his Newfoundland den which contains a plaster of Paris cow's skull, a stuffed bird, and a wall-mounted prize carp or bream—though this last, rather more characteristically, is initially presented as the arm of the boxer-poet Arthur Cravan who mysteriously disappeared in Mexico in 1918 soon after his marriage to Mina Loy. (Why, though, does he confound her with the actress Myrna Loy? Some impish joke I must be missing …) The images of Muldoon's parents inspired by the yarrow sprig are similarly fixed:
For the moment, though, she thumbs through a seed-catalogue she's borrowed from Tohill's of the Moy while, quiet, almost craven,
he studies the grain in the shaft of a rake; there are two palm-prints in blue stone on the bib of his overalls
This tableau is referred to a number of times subsequently in the poem, and develops into a poignant contradiction of the endless metamorphoses and imaginary voyaging of the young Muldoon and his gang, or the druggy transgressions of S—. The yarrow plant's flower is likened to ‘something keeping a secret / from itself, something on the tip of its own tongue,’ and to an extent the whole poem is suffused with emotions that never quite find their way into words, an involuntary reticence indicating dimensions of experience that can be gestured towards but not controlled or aesthetically shaped. In the poem's final section Muldoon explicitly compares his own sense of being at a loss with the satisfactions and ideals of a ‘conventional’ art able to recover and preserve the events it commemorates. The deepest meanings for which the poem has searched refuse to surface, and their continued suppression seems connected with the total and irreversible nature of the poet's loss:
though it slips, the great cog [of memory], there's something about the quail's ‘Wet-my- foot’ and the sink full of hart's-tongue, borage and common kedlock
that I've either forgotten or disavowed; it has to do with a trireme, laden with ravensara, that was lost with all hands between Ireland and Montevideo.
Why Montevideo? South American countries and cities are barely mentioned in ‘Yarrow,’ but the short poem ‘Brazil’—of which a line supplies the book's enigmatic title—makes another allusion to Ireland with a reference to O'Higgins: perhaps Ambrosio, the adventurer from Sligo who became governor of Chile in 1789, but more likely his radical son, Bernardo, who proclaimed the independence of Chile nearly twenty years later. In a less coded way, the cities and countries of Latin America seem to symbolise some exotic realm to which both the poet and his mother guiltily aspire:
When my mother snapped open her flimsy parasol it was Brazil: if not Brazil.
then Uruguay. One nipple darkening her smock.
This poem should perhaps be read with Muldoon's earlier ‘Immram’ in mind, which imagines a whole alternative life for Muldoon's father as an émigré settled in Brazil. In Why Brownlee Left such fantasies of escape are set strictly against the lives which the characters end up with—or abandon. In The Annals of Chile, on the other hand, Muldoon seems more concerned to discover ways of interrelating the imaginative and the actual.
This is exactly what ‘Lefty’ Clery achieves in ‘Twice’—a simultaneous double life as himself. He stands
grinning from both ends of the school photograph having jooked behind the three-deep rest of us to meet the Kodak's leisurely pan: ‘Two places at once, was it, or one place twice?’
Muldoon's daughter, however, in the book's only other sonnet, appears unwilling to present herself at all:
though she's been in training all spring and summer and swathed herself in fat and Saran-
Wrap like an old-time Channel swimmer, she's now got cold feet and turned in on herself, the phantom ‘a’ in Cesarian.
Eventually the medics must ‘gralloch-grub’ (‘gralloch’ = a deer's entrails) for the uneager babe and ‘haul’ her from the womb. Her birth is unobtrusively contrasted with the many women's deaths lamented in the book, which seems dominated by narratives of coming into and leaving the world. These themes offer less scope for the kinds of all-synthesising wit characteristic of Muldoon. In ‘Incantata’ he tells how Mary Farl Powers once dubbed him ‘“Polyester” or “Polyurethane”’ on account of his ‘tendency to put / on too much artificiality, both as man and poet.’ The Annals of Chile reveals more clearly than any previous Muldoon collection his awareness of the limitations of that ‘artificiality.’
SOURCE: McCarthy, Thomas. Review of The Prince of the Quotidian, by Paul Muldoon. Eire-Ireland 30, no. 4 (winter 1996): 188-90.
[In the following review, McCarthy discusses Muldoon's decision to write a new poem for every day in 1992 and praises the subsequent collection of the works in The Prince of the Quotidian.]
In the New Year of 1992 Paul Muldoon decided to write a poem every day. He was newly arrived at Princeton where he had become director of the Creative Writing Program. The result is this forty-two page poetry journal [The Prince of the Quotidian]. If the project sounds Louis MacNiece-like, that is no coincidence. Muldoon, more than any other Ulster writer, has inherited many of the qualities and stylistic mannerisms of MacNiece.
And what are those qualities? Well, an acquisitive intelligence, a comfort with the detritus of modern life, an ability to absorb non-Irish experience without the tendency to flee back into a set of Irish references. He also shares with MacNiece a healthy does of self-irony and a belief in friendship: “I insert myself like an ampersand / between Joyce Carol Oates & Ingemar Johansson” (16). “To Dean I say, ‘I'm not ‘in exile,’’ / though I can't deny that I've been twice in Fintona” (36). Johansson was the Swedish boxer who knocked out Floyd Patterson; in company with Joyce Carol Oates he would certainly be as threatening as a day spent in Fintona. Muldoon's rejection of the heroism of exile plays an important part in setting the record straight. Like MacNeice's move from Ireland to London to Cornell, Muldoon's move is also a kind of intellectual's commuting. To be genuinely “exiled” is to be permanently removed from one's context. A poet like Muldoon has established any number of contexts for his work and his life. Long before he removed himself physically from Belfast, Muldoon had been surfing the poetry internet. His world is not lyrical, like Austin Clarke's and Kavanagh's, but it is intertextual, dependent upon educated guesses, like the work of Beckett or Flann O'Brien. He creates powerful localities, but he ain't provincial:
Much as I'm taken by Barry Douglas Play Rachmaninov with the Ulster Orchestra I remember why I've had enough of the casuistry
by which pianists and painters and poets are proof that all's not rotten in the state …
Muldoon's work reminds us—the word “remind” is too imprecise here—that poetry is a relative thing. His resolve to write a poem a day was in itself a challenge to the notion of inspired genius. His poems are “given” but not in the traditional sense; rather, they are an accretion formed around his literary life. Like contemporary works of art they are both poems and possible technical ideas about the nature of poems. They resonate, and then only when they are studied. He writes:
We followed Lafitte and the great McIlhenny and all the pirate krewe on a flat-boat through Honey- Island swamp in search of the loup garou
These lines are reprised: “The moon hangs over the Poconos / like a madeleine. / Warren Zevon. Van the Man. Bob Dylan.” (34). Warren Zevon's big hit was (you guessed it) Werewolves of London.
Food, travel, books, music—these are constant references in The Prince of the Quotidian. The “okra / monious gumbo” is more than a slimy Southern vegetable and Paul Prudhomme is surely more than a famous cajun chef. Yet “the bittern and curlew” of home reminds us of two Irish soldiers in exile General Alejandro O'Reilly and Francis Ledwidge.
Muldoon warns us not to seek patterns in his “crazy quilt.” But this is a daft warning, possibly tongue-in-cheek. This book is its own kind of health warning; it is a picture of the poet's intellectual context, our context as well as, quite simply, a journal of poetry.
SOURCE: Quinlan, Kieran. Review of The Prince of the Quotidian, by Paul Muldoon. World Literature Today 70, no. 1 (winter 1996): 190-91.
[In the following review, Quinlan argues that The Prince of the Quotidian will likely satisfy only admirers of Muldoon's previous works and those fond of postmodern verse.]
One can look at Paul Muldoon's short collection The Prince of the Quotidian (twelve of the forty-eight pages in the book are blank; text in the ones not blank rarely occupies more than half of its allotted space) in at least three ways. For the Muldoon aficionado, it will give further evidence of his ample talent, his postmodern responsiveness to a multiplicity of cultural voices and idioms and style. To those who expect poems to speak immediately to them, these lines (in spite of Muldoon's claim elsewhere that the poet must write about what is before him), with their constant allusions to personal friends, contemporary writers, the annual MLA meeting, et cetera, will prove enormously frustrating and insignificant (with the possible exception of a poem such as the one that begins “The Feast of the Epiphany”). To those, finally, who come to Muldoon via Yeats and Heaney looking for variations on established Irish themes, there is the occasional “traditional” (on the surface at least) reference: Muldoon's Canadian nephew is to be “ignited by the quaint / in this new quotidian … // okra- / monious gumbo” but is not to “forget the cries of the bittern and the curlew,” though such pieties are deconstructed also by gently mocking references to “a Christmas poem from Doctor Heaney” and to the Field Day enterprise of “Monsignor Friel” and others (“Why should this band of balladeers and bards / add up to so much less than the sum of its parts / like almost every Irish stew?”). Readers 2 and 3 will be further frustrated by the blurb on the back cover, which explains that “Questions raised by The [sic] Annals of Chile—published concurrently with The Prince of the Quotidian—are resolved in the confidential, clarifying contexts of this journal recounting one month in the poet's life.” Clarifying!
Muldoon's point, of course—if point is not too pointed a term for his undertaking—is that, to refer to a disorienting Phil Collins song of a few years back, “this is the world we live in.” Muldoon has been translated from rural Armagh (via Queen's, Belfast, et cetera) to Princeton (as had Wolfe Tone before him) and is the chronicler of the strange new world of his current abode. At times the contrast between past loyalties and present unreality is powerfully evoked: “I open the freezer. The blood-besmirched / face of Kevin McKearney / implores me from a hospital gurney; / ‘Won't you at least visit my grave in March?’” Here Muldoon echoes (at least for those in reader class 3) Heaney's ongoing meditations on his responsibilities to a murdered cousin, but he does so with much more abruptness and unmediated disturbance. Still, in spite of such arresting and serious occasions, one wonders in general how long this “opera so terminally bouffe” can stay ignited. Meanwhile, if you like the meta-inter-textual thing (with an Irish twist), Muldoon is “your man.” If not, not.
SOURCE: Muldoon, Paul, Earl G. Ingersoll, and Stan Sanvel Rubin. “The Invention of the I: A Conversation with Paul Muldoon.” Michigan Quarterly Review 37, no. 1 (winter 1998): 63-73.
[In the following interview, originally conducted on April 4, 1996, Muldoon comments on his national identity and influences, his approach to writing, and the composition of “The Briefcase,” “Madoc,” and “Yarrow.”]
The following conversation took place April 4, 1996, during the poet's visit to the State University of New York, College at Brockport, where he was a guest of the Brockport Writers Forum and Videotape Library. Speaking with him were Stan Sanvel Rubin, the Director of the Writers Forum, and Earl G. Ingersoll, Distinguished Teaching Professor of English.
Paul Muldoon was born and raised in County Armagh, Northern Ireland. In 1973 he received his B.A. from Queen's University, Belfast, where his tutor was Seamus Heaney, and his first book of poems, New Weather, was published. For thirteen years he worked for the BBC in Northern Ireland. He came to the United States in 1987, and he presently directs the creative writing program at Princeton. He is the author of seven books of poetry, most recently The Annals of Chile, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1994. He is also the author of three opera librettos and the editor of The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry.
FOR SEAMUS HEANEY
I held the briefcase at arm's length from me; the oxblood or liver eelskin with which it was covered had suddenly grown supple.
I'd been waiting in line for the cross-town bus when an almighty cloudburst left the sidewalk a raging torrent.
And though it contained only the first inkling of this poem, I knew I daren't set the briefcase down to slap my pockets for an obol—
for fear it might slink into a culvert and strike out along the East River for the sea. By which I mean the “open” sea.
[Rubin]: “The Briefcase” is the final poem of a series of seven in Part I of Madoc, followed by a 150-page poem. I don't know that anything like that has ever been done before, in terms of the balance of parts.
[Muldoon]: It does seem a shade lopsided, doesn't it?
[Rubin]: The “I” in “The Briefcase” has been interpreted to be the speaker of the longer poem. Were the seven poems written with that thought in mind?
No, I hadn't thought of it in those terms. The speaker, that “I,” in “The Briefcase” is probably more like the historical character, “Paul Muldoon,” who lived for a while in New York City. The poem was describing a trip across town in a bus. I used to teach at Columbia. So that's partly what's going on there. But then even that “I” is something of an invention, as all our “I”s are “Adventures of the Letter I,” in Louis Simpson's great phrase. We're all inventions of ourselves at some level. However, it's probably more like myself than the character through whom the long poem is refracted, let's say, from the back of whose eye the great, long poem is discovered. When I say, “the great, long poem,” I mean the long, long poem. And it is somewhat lopsided. I've always been interested in writing somewhat longer poems, and this, of course, is one of the longest of those. It's not exactly Paradise Lost, but it's a bit more than the lyric poem. The book, as you say, does seem a little strange, and I suppose most of my books in some way seem, or indeed are, a little strange, and that's how I like it.
[Rubin]: I'm just wondering about the placement of those seven. When did you conceive of this organization for the book?
Very much at the end, yes. The kind of structure these books have had runs the risk sometimes of looking a bit programmatic, as if I've set out with a plan, as it were, and the book is going to have that beginning and that end. But really it's a process of discovery, and the ordering of the poems in the books—while it's very important to me and while there's an argument—an arc through each of these books—it's something that's discovered in the course of putting the book together. But everything relates—nothing strange about that. That's not a measure of its being programmatic but simply that all of these poems are coming from one small personality, and certain obsessions recur throughout them. Does that make any sense?
[Rubin]: Yes, but one last question related to this issue: did you in fact write those seven poems first, or did you begin the larger project first?
I think the first poem that I wrote was “The Briefcase,” probably the first poem I wrote just after I came to live in this country. Then I probably started on the long poem, “Madoc: A Mystery.” I know I started it in Yaddo and spent about eighteen months writing it. The other poems were probably written along the way—can't remember exactly—so a bit of coming and going.
[Ingersoll]: I'd like to ask a question about nationality. “The Briefcase” has its setting in this country, and a number of your poems now are also set in this country, rather than in Ireland, and I'm curious how you see yourself: still an Irish poet? an American poet? neither? both?
Well, I think I'm an Irish poet. I was born there and lived most of my life there, until I was about thirty-five or so. In so far as I might belong to that tradition, which it would be an honor to belong to that tradition, I think I still do. I've been described as turning into an American poet, whatever that means, or reinventing myself as an American poet. I've certainly not set out to do that. But the fact that I live here is bound to be reflected in my work, just as the fact that I lived in Ireland is reflected in my early work. I'm happy to move between the two places, and that's one of the great things about living at this time in the world: one can come and go, back and forth between two countries, and enjoy the advantages of both.
[Ingersoll]: Does it worry you that you might be considered an American rather than an Irish poet?
No, it doesn't. I don't really care too much about what people call me. People have called me all sorts of things. To be called an American poet I don't think is quite appropriate, but it's not inappropriate. I'm actually an American citizen. I'm happy to belong to any group that'll have me, but then on some level I'm with Groucho Marx: I don't want to belong to any groups at all—particularly those that'll have me. I don't mean to sound facetious about your question. I mean, I'm primarily an Irish poet, I would say. My poetry reflects my life and its complexities.
[Ingersoll]: I was noticing during your reading last night that like most poets you preface your reading of individual poems with notes. I assume you read in Ireland, and I'm wondering whether you do that with American poems to be sure your Irish audiences get the references.
Well, actually something springs to mind about one of those poems I read last night, a poem called “Footling” about the birth of my daughter by Caesarean section. In the poem I used the brand name Saran Wrap, which of course doesn't feature in Irish and English supermarkets—Cling Film, or its equivalent—so there's occasionally an allusion like that that has to be clarified. I think probably the context would clarify it. But I see what you're getting at, and I think it's a very valid point. I mean, one uses slightly different vocabulary in each country and so that's obviously going to affect the way that one writes. I suppose that at some level the fact that I don't live within the language in which I primarily write is problematic, or could be problematic. I was saying to someone the other day that it's possible one of the reasons why I wrote this long poem “Madoc,” which is set to begin with in the future and then at the turn of the eighteenth, or beginning of the nineteenth century, might have been at some level a postponement of the program, as far as there might've been one, of what language one would write in.
[Ingersoll]: I ask it in part because of my interest in how aware you are of audience as you're writing a poem—who you feel you're writing for, who your readers will be?
The first thing to be said about that is that there are usually very few. At some level, I obviously know that some of them live in Britain and Ireland, and that there are some in this country too. I mean, just to answer your question in a banal way, I do know for the most part that both groups will understand pretty much most of what I write in terms of those allusions, those references, the language I use, or if they don't, they have the opportunity to look up a few words. The important thing is that it is always a small group; I think for most poets that's the case. I don't have an ideal reader, I suppose. I don't have a sense of a reader over my shoulder, except maybe that it's someone like myself, as the first reader of the poem, you know. It probably varies also from poem to poem. One's constantly trying to make decisions and judgments like “Can I really write ‘Saran Wrap’ in this poem? What are the problems that are going to arise with that? My English readers are not going to get it. Is that going to be a problem?” At some level, one should be thinking all those things. But really one would go mad if one were to think through the ramifications of every word. I mean, they have to be thought through; that's part of the writer's job, to make sense of the possible ways in which each of these words will be read.
[Ingersoll]: Your reader, ideal or otherwise, is a very well-read reader. I'm thinking, for example, of the importance to “Madoc” of an awareness of Coleridge and Southey.
A little awareness of them. I think a lot of the information one needs was probably contained within the body of the poem itself.
[Ingersoll]: I was thinking also of that fascinating poem “7, Middagh Street.” It has Auden and Carson McCullers and various other personae.
This was the household in Brooklyn, 7, Middagh Street—Midday Street—where Auden and Chester Kallman and Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears and various other odds and sods were assembled. Salvador Dali features in the poem. I don't know if he visited on Thanksgiving Day, 1940, which is when the poem is set, but MacNeice was there on that day. There are a number of people arranged around the dinner table talking about various things, including notions of responsibility and the efficacy of art.
[Rubin]: Has the art of poetry any efficacy?
I think it has. Absolutely. I think at some level the minute one starts believing that it hasn't there's no point in doing it. It has to have efficacy at some level. Now we're not talking about necessarily changing the world. And that's the great debate, of course, in that particular poem. Those are the terms of the debate between Auden, who at this point had decided art makes nothing happen, or “poetry makes nothing happen,” as he puts it in his elegy for Yeats, contrary to what he had believed. But he'd had one or two experiences which made him doubt that art did have any impact on the world. And then on the other side of it I have Louis MacNeice, the Northern Irish poet, counter that with the notion that art, poetry, must make something happen, that at some level it has to change the world, not necessarily in terms of mind-bendingly, extravagantly, huge ways, you know, that would equal a cure for cancer or AIDS, or that would either bring peace to the world or topple governments. Not necessarily in any of those ways. But just in ways as simple as the fact that ideally one should never be able to look at a briefcase again after reading that poem, certainly not an eelskin briefcase—never be able to look at it again in exactly the same light. Maybe, at some level, never to be able to stand at a bus stop again in exactly the same light, never to look in a culvert again in exactly the same light, never to think of what the open sea might mean in the same light. I know that sounds like a rather tall order, but basically that is the order by which I live. I know my poems fall drastically short of those ambitions; however, those are the ambitions.
[Ingersoll]: In that poem, Auden is rather rough on Yeats, and it's been thought that you shared Auden's criticism of Yeats.
I think Yeats will survive. That's a very specific reference to Yeats, where at one point, you know, he inquires of himself, “Did that play of mine send out / Certain men the English shot?” Basically, I think it's a little bit of posturing and self-aggrandizement. We're allowed to say that about Yeats? Surely. That doesn't mean I don't think Yeats is a great poet, but he was a posturing old jerk too.
[Rubin]: In your introduction to the Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poets, you excerpted a discussion between F. R. Higgins and Louis MacNeice from a 1939 radio broadcast, and you quote MacNeice saying: “I think the poet is a sensitive instrument designed to record anything which interests his mind or affects his emotions.” He goes on to say: “He will be fulfilling his function if he records these things with integrity and as much music as is appropriate.” This is not exactly the world-transforming function, is it?
No, that particular description of poetry is not necessarily the changing, alchemical view of poetry I'm suggesting. But, to be true to the world may be a way of transforming it. To find new shapes in it that are somehow rare before they are discovered. In some poems, discovery is what I'm interested in.
[Rubin]: Are you siding with both Higgins and MacNeice? Why did you put that discussion there?
I put it there because I had a very mischievous editor at that time, who said, “Maybe we shouldn't have an introduction to this book.” It's probably a terrible mistake. It appealed to me since it meant I didn't have to write it.
[Rubin]: But did you in fact choose it?
I did. Basically, in this particular instance, F. R. Higgins is coming out with all this nonsense about the ritual, blood music, some notion of purity of Irish poetry, and more than anything else that's a vision of Irish poetry I wanted to debunk, not necessarily to set up anything in its place. Mind you, I do think the poems in this anthology do give you a sense of Ireland which does reveal much more about how that country might truly be than Higgins's very narrow vision of it.
[Ingersoll]: You think very highly of Louis MacNeice, don't you?
Yes, I do. MacNeice was from Northern Ireland—he was born there—and spent a great deal of his life in England. In England he was the Irish poet who didn't quite fit in. And in Ireland he was essentially the English poet who didn't quite fit in, and he was somewhat overshadowed by Auden. I think that's changing now. Which is certainly not to say that Auden is in some sort of decline. He's not. Actually Auden's reputation has survived quite remarkably. There's a new biography of Auden I've been reading by Richard Davenport Hynes. A number of biographies. His stock is still very high, despite the fact that ordinarily, as you know, when poets die their reputations usually go into something of a slump for twenty or thirty years—or two or three hundred. But MacNeice is a quite remarkable poet, particularly later MacNeice and even posthumous MacNeice—I mean the poems published after he'd died—absolutely, extraordinarily nightmarish nursery rhymes, poems like “The Taxis” and “The Introduction.” Quite extraordinary poems, really nothing like them. And they're poems that have been, to some extent, influential in some of the things I do. There's a tone, a strain in what I do that belongs to that same strand of slightly disturbing, nightmarish activity.
[Ingersoll]: I asked the question in part as a follow-up because someone has counted the number of pages of this collection that you give to various poets. They've noted that Kavanagh and MacNeice are important to you.
Well, all anthologies have agendas, as you know. To be at all interesting they have to have them. People don't usually admit to that. But then most anthologies are particularly boring. I didn't want this one to be boring. I wanted it to make a point about contemporary Irish poetry, and I set MacNeice and Kavanagh at the head since virtually everything of interest in contemporary Irish poetry can be related to those two poets. That's not to say that other poets don't play a part, that Yeats doesn't play a part—indeed, that Joyce, more significantly perhaps, doesn't play a part. But they're there as the portals of a particular moment in Irish poetry of the recent “Revival,” as it were. You know, the poetry that came into prominence in the Sixties. You can't really understand Seamus Heaney, for example, without knowing Patrick Kavanagh. You can't understand Derek Mahon and Michael Longley without understanding MacNeice—as well as Carson, Durcan, or indeed a number of younger poets.
[Rubin]: Perhaps Robert Lowell had some influence on both Seamus Heaney and yourself.
Oh yes, I'm sure. Well, of course, that's another aspect that can easily be overlooked. One of the great things about poetry in English is that you can read it anywhere: you can be sitting in the back of a ditch somewhere in the middle of nowhere, reading Robert Lowell. And not only poetry written in English but poetry in translation, especially in the Sixties in England. We were reading poets like Miroslav Holub and Yehuda Amichai—poets from all parts of the world and taking that in with our Kavanagh supplement.
[Rubin]: I'd like to ask you about the influence of Heaney on your own work.
His influence was significant, particularly earlier on. I hope this doesn't sound strange, but it was really by example more than line to line, at some level. I was introduced to Heaney by my English teacher when I was sixteen or seventeen. Seamus was very welcoming, and has continued to be very supportive of my work. He was terrific help in getting published. The fact that we're from a few miles from each other and have similar backgrounds, of course, will help people to see the similarities or the points of contact between our work as well as the differences.
[Rubin]: What is it that called you to write poetry in the first place?
I'm not sure exactly how to answer that. I know that I'd written something when I was about twelve, probably something earlier than that. I think some of the best poetry in the world is written by eight or nine year olds, before they have all sorts of silly ideas about what a poem is. And then I know that I had to write an English essay one weekend—about the adventures of a penny, or whatever it was—I wrote a poem, and the English teacher had me read it out in class. I thought, That's all right. Next stop, Brockport. So I started there. So much of it, I think, was about habit and being open to certain phrases that most people are open to or they see something and get a image and they think, Oh, that's interesting and then they go on to the next step. Writers, as you know, are in the habit of using these phrases or images as ways of trying to make sense of themselves and their worlds. When you ask why I started to write, I honestly don't know, but I suppose at some level that's why I write. I write to make sense of myself.
[Rubin]: What keeps you disciplined as a writer? What is important to your own continuing to write?
The possibility of something exciting happening.
[Rubin]: Do you try to work every day?
It varies. It depends on what I'm doing. I write a little bit most days. If I'm working on a longer thing, yes. Apart from poems, I write other things. With most lyric poems, shortish poems, I spend a couple days. I do sit at my desk and potter about and fiddle around and check if there's any new e-mail that's come through.
[Ingersoll]: Other things? Short stories, novel?
No, I've never tried either of those.
[Ingersoll]: You once said the forties are a difficult time for poets.
Just historically, a lot of poets have had a bad time in their forties. Writers start publishing in their late twenties or early thirties—I think that's when most poets probably begin to publish. I started a little bit earlier than that. At some level, I feel as though I've had very lucky innings, and I suppose I'm thinking about myself: when is it going to stop, or has it already stopped? How am I going to keep myself honest?
[Rubin]: Well, your ambitions seem to have changed. “Madoc” is a 200-page poem. “Yarrow” in The Annals of Chile is about 150 pages. You seem to be thinking, perhaps in lieu of narrative fiction, of the large poem.
I have been, I have been. But not at the moment, not doing it at the moment. Promised my wife I wouldn't.
[Rubin]: What are problems you face as a poet in these long, ambitious poems?
They take a lot of time.
[Rubin]: It would seem that reading something as driven by language and association and clear consciousness as “Yarrow” is it would be impossible to be writing anything else at the same time. It seems as though everything you know is going into that one poem. Would you say something about the composition of a poem such as “Yarrow”?
“Yarrow” was written over a period of about eighteen months to two years. It began as something slightly different. I had a few images, and a few ideas for it. I did want to write something about the winter of 1962-63, very bitterly cold winter, the winter Sylvia Plath died in London. The poem is set in contemporary Newfoundland but goes back and forth to that period of my childhood and has to do with all sorts of adventure stories—the imaginative life, I suppose, of a child of ten, or eleven. Someone described it somewhere—and I thought it was awfully good, although I don't think it's the last word on it—as being a little bit like The Prelude written by Thomas Pynchon. It's the background of a poet's mind, or whatever—I don't think that's a very important aspect of it—a child's mind, but written with somewhat loopy style.
[Rubin]: It is associative, in short bursts, and yet they seem so carefully placed. How much forethought—and post-thought—goes into that kind of structuring, and how much gets cut away?
A huge amount. That poem is actually a series of twelve intercut, exploded sestinas. There are twelve core sestinas in it. Some of them have six lines, some of them a dozen, I think, but basically some notion of the sestina is the central form. And there are variations on the end words and the rhymes, but that's why you have that kind of ghost of it lurking behind. It's extremely complex, and it's complex as a framework, mostly for the writing of the poem. I don't think it's necessary to disentangle it as a reader of the poem, though it can be done, but hardly worth it I would suggest. But the framework is there. I shouldn't say “hardly worth it,” because if it matters, it either matters or it doesn't. It matters, I suppose finally, because it's the path it formed for this kind of obsessive circling and hovering about a particular moment, and return to a moment, that the poem is engaging with. As I say, I spent a long time writing it.
[Rubin]: It would seem you associate yourself with the New-Critical idea, and the idea out of Eliot, of the impersonality of the poet and at the same time a poem such as “Yarrow” has an awful lot of personal and subjective material in it.
Yes. Mind you, I think the personal and the impersonal are part of the same thing, really. I mean, the impersonality of the poet, sure; but again it goes back to who that “I” is. And the I is not unlike myself. On the other hand, it's an invention. One appeals to the bits and pieces of one's own life—in my own case, not so much because of veracity but because of verifiability, that I know I can make this sound as though it's “true.”
SOURCE: Kendall, Tim. “Fathers and Mothers: On Paul Muldoon's Life.” In Paul Muldoon, pp. 9-24. Chester Springs, PA: Dufour Editions, 1996.
[In the following essay, Kendall provides an overview of Muldoon's family background, education, publishing career, and critical reception, drawing attention to the formative experiences and personal relationships that shaped the development of his poetry.]
Paul Muldoon was born on 20 June 1951, in Portadown, County Armagh. His parents Patrick and Brigid (née Regan) Muldoon had been living in Dungannon, County Tyrone, and the family moved soon afterwards to the nearby village of Eglish, where two more children, Maureen and Joseph, were born in 1953 and 1954 respectively. After Joseph's birth the family settled in Collegelands, County Armagh, where it would be based for the next thirty years.
Muldoon's parents both came from poor Catholic families. Patrick Muldoon's mother had died when he was seven, and his father remarried—in Muldoon's own phrase—“an unsympathetic woman.” Forced to hire himself out as a farm labourer from a young age, Patrick received no secondary education, and throughout his life could read and write only with difficulty. Brigid's background was also financially unprepossessing, but as the youngest of her family she had the advantage of sibling support. Her education at St Joseph's Convent, Donaghmore, and St Mary's College, Belfast, where she trained as a teacher, was partly underwritten by older brothers and sisters. It was her success in gaining a post at the local primary school in Collegelands which took the family in 1954 to the area of North Armagh now designated, by one recent literary guide to Ireland, as “Muldoon Country.”1
Muldoon has described his father as “close to the soil—it sounds romantic but it's what he was.”2 Following his wife wherever her teaching career took her, Patrick tried any kind of work that happened to be available: shepherd, navvy, farm-worker, shop-keeper, builder's labourer, and, as he is most familiarly presented in Muldoon's poetry, cauliflower- and mushroom-grower. Muldoon has noted that his parents were a toned-down version of the Morels in Lawrence's Sons and Lovers,3 and ‘The Mixed Marriage’ from Mules (1977) captures this almost geometric dichotomy between them:
My father was a servant-boy. When he left school at eight or nine He took up billhook and loy To win the ground he would never own.
My mother was the school-mistress, The world of Castor and Pollux.
There were twins in her own class. She could never tell which was which.
She had read one volume of Proust, He knew the cure for farcy.
Much of Muldoon's poetry embodies, and attempts to reconcile, the split inheritance of bookishness and agricultural life. However, despite comparisons with Sons and Lovers, he seems to have chosen different sides from Paul Morel. Muldoon has described his father as “anything but a coarse, lumbering man—he's very refined man.”4 Brigid, by comparison, is variously portrayed as narrow-minded, religiose and snobbish. There is still enough in Muldoon's work to indicate that his relationship with his mother was (and even two decades after her death, still is) far more complex than these passing negative references would suggest. Brigid died of cancer in 1974; written almost twenty years later, the oblique and agonizing elegy ‘Yarrow’ betrays an intense personal grief which can only now, it seems, begin to be salved.
The first four years of Muldoon's life, spent in Eglish, feature hardly at all in his poetry (‘The Right Arm’ from Quoof is a rare exception), but his short autobiographical essay ‘A Tight Wee Place in Armagh’ remembers them in some detail. One end of the house which the family rented in Eglish had been transformed into a shop by a previous owner. The shop sold Bird's Custard, Saxa Salt, bootlaces—“the kind of thing anybody could see nobody wanted, at least not badly”;5 Muldoon's father maintained it only in a desultory way, much preferring to chat with customers than to sell them anything. Most of Muldoon's memories from these years, however, focus on the back yard:
My sister running very fast through the yard, tripping, falling onto a sharp stick that went halfway down her throat. My father keeping a few hens … When one hen ate a crawful of hay he tied up her feet, hung her on a nail, opened her up with a razor-blade, removed the hay, sewed her up again with a needle and thread he borrowed from my mother, and sent her on her way.6
They kept pigs too, and Muldoon recalls his father spotting the pig-killer, James Blemmings, coming across the Oona Bridge a quarter of a mile down the valley. The children were kept inside, which seems only to have excited their curiosity about how the pig-killer “did it.” ‘Ned Skinner’ from Mules, although fictionalized and displaced onto an uncle's farm, is clearly inspired by the incident:
Ned Skinner wiped his knife And rinsed his hands In the barrel at the door-step.
He winked, and gripped my arm. ‘It doesn't hurt, not so's you'd notice, And God never slams one door But another's lying open. Them same pigs can see the wind.’
During these years Muldoon's mother would cycle the ten miles to the primary school in Collegelands where she taught. Finally in 1955 the family bought an acre of land in Collegelands and built a bungalow on it. Muldoon's “uncle-in-law” Dinny McCool was a water-diviner, and had already pointed out the best place to sink the well; Muldoon recalls that he always felt the house was somehow an “afterthought to the well.” But when the mains water supply eventually reached the house, the well became defunct; it was boarded over and bricked up “like the door of a room where someone had claimed to have seen a ghost.”7
The area around Collegelands is renowned for its fertility, producing good-quality pasture and a wide range of crops from which Muldoon's father benefited as a market-gardener—apples, potatoes, barley, strawberries, cauliflowers, mushrooms. The “college” of Collegelands is Trinity College, Dublin; many of the Muldoons' neighbours were families whose ancestors had been tenants of Trinity College for several generations, up until the founding of the Irish Free State in the 1920s. The result is, according to Muldoon, “a little enclave of Roman Catholics living within the predominantly Protestant parish of Loughgall, the village where the Orange Order was founded in 1795.” In ‘Armageddon, Armageddon’ Protestant Loughgall is described as “An orchard full of No Surrenders”; possibly the religious geography of the area made the Catholic community suspicious, since Muldoon has commented that his family, being “blow-ins,” were always “a little isolated.” Certainly his mother's class-consciousness (“there's still something of the priest/doctor/teacher triumvirate in rural communities”8) did not help matters. As newcomers the children “were somehow removed from the place,” and the problem was exacerbated by their mother ordering them not to mix with their peers: “‘Stay well away from those louts and layabouts at the loanin' end,’” she commands in ‘Yarrow.’ Such isolation was offset by the all-pervasiveness of the Roman Catholic Church, which perhaps held even greater sway amidst a slight siege mentality. Muldoon has complained that
The Catholic church presided over almost every aspect of our lives, both literally—the building itself was two fields away—and metaphorically.
The experience was not a happy one. The Catholic Church is presented as repressive in Muldoon's work, and in an untypically self-revealing moment he has claimed there is “a very fine line between organized religion and organized crime.”9
Apart from the countryside around Collegelands, the most common backdrop for Muldoon's poetry is the nearby village of the Moy. The word “Moy” would figure largely in any Muldoon concordance, being granted at least one mention and usually more in most of his collections. The extent of this attachment can be gauged from the poem ‘The Soap Pig,’ which reports that during the late seventies, when Muldoon was living in Belfast, his flat came to be known as Chez Moy—a real home from home. The Moy even lends itself to Muldoon's poetic techniques: he grew up with the half-rhyme Moy/magh (as in Armagh), which as Blake Morrison has pointed out, sounds uncannily like one of his own inventions.10 Muldoon has also made clear a deeper engagement with the place and its history:
It's an area very rich in history and folklore, just as every square mile of Ireland is coming down with history and is burdened by it. The Moy itself was built by a man called James Caulfeild, who was at one stage Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Earl of Charlemont, which is a little sister hamlet to the Moy. This story may be totally apocryphal, but Caulfeild is supposed to have designed it on the principle of an Italian town, Marengo.11
The merging of the familiar and the exotic in this account typifies Muldoon's treatment of his childhood home. His father's mushroom farm, the village of the Moy and the “brawling townlands” around it, become fixtures in his work against which to explore anything from psilocybin-induced hallucinations to sexual encounters with a syphilitic Cathleen ni Houlihan.
The 1947 Education Act, enabling the rural farming classes to pursue a secondary education, had ensured that Muldoon and his brother and sister would experience none of the difficulties in finding a good education that their parents had suffered. Muldoon's mother in particular was highly ambitious for her children, who were at one stage packed off to elocution classes and then piano lessons; each “failed miserably,” and the piano which had been bought at great expense was sold and replaced by a tape recorder. It was a worthwhile exchange: “we all sat round the fire talking into the tape-recorder and making our own amusement.”12 Surprisingly, there were few books in the house; comics were frowned on, improving publications like Look and Learn and Classics Illustrated were subscribed to, but the only book Muldoon remembers is a copy of The Poems of Rupert Brooke, which his mother cherished because she had received it as a prize from her teacher training college. ‘Ma’ from Mules notes that “Old photographs would have her bookish,” before sardonically revealing the limitation of the pose: “She reads aloud, no doubt from Rupert Brooke.” Nevertheless, despite the paucity of books, as a child Muldoon still seems to have read voraciously. ‘Yarrow’ is, among other things, a homage to the adventure stories he consumed: King Solomon's Mines,The Sign of Four,The Lost World,Rob Roy,Treasure Island, ‘An Occurrence at Owl-Creek Bridge.’ Film and television Westerns were another favourite: Rawhide,Bonanza, and slightly later, John Ford's Cheyenne Autumn (1964), which, in its more sophisticated treatment of American Indians, alerted Muldoon's own sympathies. It is important not to underestimate the influence of film on Muldoon's poetry. He describes the technique of his Troubles masterpiece ‘The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants’ as “cinematic,”13 and employs Hitchcockian strategies (such as the famous “MacGuffin”) elsewhere in his work. Occasionally a poem's landscape seems to have come straight out of a Western: ‘The Field Hospital’ from New Weather, for example, is partly inspired by The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Sergio Leone's spaghetti Western in which “the civil war scenes must be a most faithful reconstruction of what it would have been like.”14
After attending the primary school at Collegelands where his mother taught, Muldoon progressed to St Patrick's College, Armagh, which was run by the Vincentian order. The dedication of New Weather to “my Fathers and Mothers” perhaps acknowledges Muldoon's indebtedness to the exceptional teachers he met there:
One man, Sean O'Boyle, who was a scholar of the Irish language and music, taught me Irish and gave me, and everyone round me, a sense of this marvellous heritage of song and culture in Gaelic. I was also blessed—it may sound corny, but I really do feel blessed—by a man called Jerry Hicks, a singer, who taught English. These were people whose knowledge exuded from them.15
Muldoon's intellectual and poetic development was profoundly shaped by such men. No doubt inspired by O'Boyle's teaching, his first published poems were in Irish, although he soon gave it up because he lacked “a real control of the language.”16 Another teacher, Gerard Quinn, introduced him to Robert Frost's work, which has remained arguably the largest influence on Muldoon's poetry. The poem ‘Gold’ from Meeting the British (1987) remembers Quinn's enthusiasm for Frost; and when questioned about Frost as late as 1985, Muldoon still prefaced his reply with the acknowledgement that he was “to some extent reflecting the ideas of my friend Gerard Quinn.”17 Muldoon was first encouraged to write poetry by another English teacher, John McCarter, who was willing to accept a poem in lieu of the weekly essay. McCarter had been involved in the Dublin literary scene, and gave Muldoon “the sense that there were writers alive in Dublin.”18 He also introduced his pupil to The Faber Book of Modern Verse, which Muldoon claims almost to have learnt by heart; and to the poetry of T. S. Eliot, whom Muldoon for a time thought “was God.”19
Believing there might be writers alive in Dublin may have been encouraging for a young poet, but a more extraordinary poetic renaissance was underway closer to home, in Belfast. Seamus Heaney published Death of a Naturalist in 1966; Derek Mahon's Night-Crossing appeared in 1968; and the following year Michael Longley's No Continuing City was published. Partly through his teachers and partly because of the considerable publicity it began to attract, Muldoon had become aware of the so-called Belfast ‘Group’ which had been operating under the auspices of Philip Hobsbaum since 1962; and he read each collection as it came out. Admiration was tempered with emulation: “These people were publishing poems about walking through fields and I thought, ‘I can do that’—it was a very familiar activity to me.”20 In April 1968 his English teacher Jerry Hicks introduced Muldoon to Longley and Heaney after a poetry reading they gave at Armagh Museum. Hicks is said to have presented Muldoon to Heaney as a poet who would one day surpass him, adding in a whisper, “Rara avis.” The story sounds apocryphal—or sounds, at least, like it ought to be—as does the rumour that Heaney carried Muldoon's poetry around the literary circles of Belfast, enthusing to his friends “This is it.” Destined to become twenty-first-century thesis fodder, the relationship between Heaney and Muldoon has already begun to be mythologized.
However, Muldoon certainly did find his poetic elders welcoming. He had by now written dozens of poems, two of which—‘Thrush’ and ‘Behold the Lamb’—he sent to Heaney for his opinion. These poems both appear in New Weather, but neither is particularly successful. It is a tribute to Heaney's critical skills that he immediately sensed Muldoon's potential, and accordingly published both poems in an issue of Threshold, a magazine he was guest-editing. Heaney also steered Muldoon's work to Karl Miller, then literary editor of The Listener, and to Charles Monteith at Faber & Faber. Written around this time and dedicated to Heaney, Muldoon's ‘Unborn’ offers some insight into the elder poet's rôle:
Then the poem will live, will live Outside my life.
I will wrap It in paper. Leave it on your step.
It was not only Heaney whom Muldoon found approachable and encouraging. Michael Longley, for example, detected enough promise in Muldoon's work to mention him, in a 1971 essay on Ulster poetry, as a “particularly interesting” writer who had already produced “poised and original” poetry.21 Muldoon's early publication history is a record of extraordinary precocity and extraordinary luck. By the time he went up to Queen's University, Belfast, in 1969, he had already published poems in The Honest Ulsterman; before he left, in 1973, he had published a pamphlet with Ulsterman publications, a selection in the Faber & Faber Poetry Introduction 2, and, at the age of only twenty-one, his first Faber collection, New Weather, for which he had also received an Eric Gregory award.
Muldoon was as fortunate in his university as in his secondary school. With Philip Hobsbaum having taken a post in Glasgow, the Group had lost some of its momentum, but it was still operating when Muldoon arrived in 1969:
There were weekly meetings for a time in Seamus Heaney's house, and later in a pub, where new poems were discussed. It was very important for me, since a writer must be a good critic of his own work. There was no sloppiness in the group, everyone was quite outspoken. It was a very healthy kind of society, and I use the word ‘society’ to describe the group. It's scarcely a group at all, even though it's become a critical convenience to see them as presenting a united front to the world: you only have to read them to be aware of the variety. They're not united by any kind of manifesto.22
Muldoon's friends from these years make a high-powered list: Seamus Heaney, who briefly tutored Muldoon at Queen's; the Longleys, of whom Edna has remained Muldoon's most persuasive advocate; the critic Michael Allen, to whom Why Brownlee Left is dedicated; and fellow students Ciaran Carson, Frank Ormsby and Medbh McGuckian. Remembering that Muldoon “was writing amazing poems when he was a mere boy,” Carson recalls their friendship during these years in a way which suggests that the legendary meticulousness of the Group was not necessarily inescapable:
On the odd occasion, he might show me a poem and I'd read it and say ‘Aye,’ or, ‘I think it works’ and he might say, ‘Aye, I think so myself,’ or whatever. And vice versa.23
How far the remarkable convergence of energies at Queen's helped Muldoon's poetic development is, ultimately, imponderable, but there is little doubt that he has benefited from the sense of belonging to a poetic community, however loosely-knit: his switch from the past tense to the present when discussing the Group (“It's scarcely a group at all”) is not accidental.
When he was not writing poetry, or, by his own admission, playing snooker and drinking cider, Muldoon studied for a B.A. in English, with subsidiaries in Celtic and Scholastic Philosophy. He did not especially enjoy the course—which he has described as the “if it's Friday it must be Trollope” approach to English literature.24 Nevertheless, references to Thomas Aquinas, Scotus Eriugena and the like, dotted through Muldoon's work, may constitute the remnants of his subsidiary topic; and the mammoth Madoc—A Mystery (1990) is, in passing, an idiosyncratic potted history of Western philosophical thought. Other events during Muldoon's time at Queen's did not go unnoticed:
Though my student days coincided with a period of extreme political unrest in Northern Ireland, I myself never took any direct part in political activity. My family would have had Nationalist or Republican leanings, of course, but were firmly opposed to political violence. I've often considered how easily, though, I might have been caught up in the kinds of activity in which a number of my neighbours found themselves involved. As it was, I preferred to try to come to terms with the political instability of Northern Ireland through poetry, often in an oblique, encoded way: in New Weather, for example, a poem like ‘The Year of the Sloes, for Ishi’ was written as a direct response to Bloody Sunday, 1972, a fact that may not be immediately apparent to many readers.
‘The Year of the Sloes’ is one of several poems which parallel the plight of the native Americans with that of Northern Irish Catholics. The passage is also suggestive of Muldoon's response to the violence in other ways: he states that his poetry is written only so that he himself can “come to terms with the political instability”—there are no grandiose claims for art as a midwife to society. The different course Muldoon imagines he could “easily” have taken signals more his interest in alternative lives than any real possibility that he might ever have resorted to political violence. Frost's ‘The Road Not Taken,’ a poem greatly admired by Muldoon, should be considered the starting-point for this obsession:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.
Much of Muldoon's poetry can be seen as an attempt to take both roads, one literally and the other imaginatively: his 1990 volume Madoc—A Mystery, for example, imagines what would have happened if Coleridge and Southey really had emigrated to the United States to establish their planned Pantisocracy. However, Muldoon's belief that he could easily have become “caught up” in political violence—with the image of entrapment lending the scenario a modicum of credibility—still seems one of Muldoon's less convincing alternative lives.
It was at Queen's that Muldoon met his first wife, Anne-Marie Conway. The couple were married during the Ulster Workers' Council Strike in 1974, while, Muldoon notes, his mother was already dying of cancer. The marriage was not to be a happy one, for which Muldoon blames his own “incorrigible immaturity”; a sequence of poems in Why Brownlee Left (1980) tells of the subsequent break-up and divorce. By the time of his wedding Muldoon had found a job as a radio producer for the B.B.C. in Belfast. He would continue to work for the B.B.C., both as a radio and television producer, for the next thirteen years, making a wide range of programmes including magazines, documentaries, and dramatized features on the arts in Ireland. Muldoon has given several reasons for his decision to leave the B.B.C. in 1986: dissatisfaction with the way the Corporation was developing; the feeling that he had covered the arts in Ireland to the point of exhaustion; his father's death in 1985 and the subsequent sale of the family home in Collegelands; and most importantly, the “realization that if I continued to work in television I'd probably never write another poem.”
During his time at the B.B.C., Muldoon's poetic reputation grew steadily on both sides of the Atlantic. For a first volume, New Weather had received an extraordinary number of reviews, and an ensemble of praise: Alisdair Maclean, in The Listener, was only slightly more enthusiastic than the norm when declaring that “There can have been few more impressive first collections.” Mules (1977) and Why Brownlee Left (1980) were each published simultaneously by Faber & Faber in London and Dillon Johnson's Wake Forest University Press in the United States. Again the acclaim was almost uniform: Anne Stevenson, Peter Porter, Peter Scupham, Douglas Dunn and Seamus Heaney all gave Mules favourable reviews, with Heaney declaring his friend “one of the very best”; and Why Brownlee Left, which won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and was made quarterly Choice of the Poetry Book Society, was praised by Derek Mahon, Gavin Ewart, Andrew Motion, Fleur Adcock, Alan Jenkins and Peter Porter. The influential Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry, edited by Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion and published in 1982, confirmed Muldoon's elevated status among his older contemporaries (he is the youngest poet in the anthology) by giving him fifteen pages—tied with Douglas Dunn, and behind only Heaney. The list of Muldoon's admirers constitutes a fairly inclusive Who's Who of British and Irish poetry; and clearly—often all too clearly—Muldoon has since become the poetic father of a new generation including Simon Armitage, Ian Duhig and Don Paterson. However, suspicions have sporadically been voiced that Muldoon is a poet's poet, innovative and technically flawless, but aloof from the common reader. Only with Quoof (1983), another Poetry Book Society Choice which won more plaudits even than earlier volumes, did sales really pick up, although Muldoon was still far from achieving the big-league popularity of a Heaney or a Hughes.
After the break-up of his marriage, Muldoon began a relationship with the artist Mary Farl Powers; the elegy ‘Incantata,’ published in The Annals of Chile (1994) after her death from cancer in 1992, is a powerful celebration of their life together. Aside from ‘Incantata,’ the influence of Powers on Muldoon's poetry can only be guessed at, although her print Pink Spotted Torso is the starting-point for the helpfully-titled ‘Mary Farl Powers Pink Spotted Torso’ in Quoof. Much of Muldoon's pamphlet The Wishbone, published by Peter Fallon's Gallery Press in 1984 and dedicated to Powers, was written around the end of their relationship, which it charts in an extremely cryptic, almost private style. As Muldoon has rather coyly commented, “around that time I was trying to write a couple of poems that brought to its logical conclusion the idea of leaving.”25 Believing his poetry had taken a wrong turn, Muldoon salvaged just five of twelve poems for his next volume, Meeting the British (1987).
Muldoon's father died in 1985, and Meeting the British is dedicated to his memory. It seems feasible that Muldoon's profound, unproblematical love for his father made his death easier to mourn than his mother's had been eleven years earlier; certainly a comparison of the simple elegy ‘The Fox’ with the frantic and, at times, desperate evasions of ‘Yarrow’ would support such a conclusion. After his father's death Muldoon no longer felt “the same kind of tug” towards Northern Ireland;26 but another reason for leaving the North soon presented itself. Several months later he met the American poet and novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz at an Arvon writing course. Between January and September 1986 they lived in Dingle, County Kerry, where, taking advantage of a small stipend from the Irish government-funded Aosdana scheme, Muldoon completed Meeting the British. He had also been busy in the meantime. In 1986 he edited The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry, an anthology which, setting out to represent “the most consistently impressive Irish poets after Yeats,” outraged many of the prime movers on the Irish literary scene. In place of an introduction, Muldoon quotes verbatim—and without comment—an exchange between Louis MacNeice and F. R. Higgins, which MacNeice unsurprisingly wins. Having been told by Higgins that as an Irishman he cannot escape from his “blood-music that brings the racial character to mind,” MacNeice (and tacitly Muldoon) replies:
I have a feeling that you have sidetracked me into an Ireland versus England match. I am so little used to thinking of poetry in terms of race-consciousness that no doubt this was very good for me. However, I am still unconverted. I think one may have such a thing as one's racial blood-music, but that, like one's unconscious, it may be left to take care of itself.
However, Muldoon's editorial disappearing act infuriated reviewers less than the anthology's exclusivity. Within the confines of its genre the book is a masterpiece, tactlessly candid. Just ten poets are represented: Kavanagh, MacNeice, Kinsella, Montague, Heaney, Longley, Mahon, Durcan, Paulin and McGuckian; reviews also made cases for Clarke, Devlin, Murphy, Simmons, Boland, Ní Dhomhnaill and others. Deploring such omissions, Derek Mahon in the Irish Times hoped the volume would “sink without trace,” and wondered whether Muldoon had “lost his reason.” Mahon was not alone in imagining a Northern conspiracy theory, but in fact the anthology is the result of nothing more sinister than considered value judgements. Whatever arguments are made in support of other writers, the most striking, if understandable, omission is Muldoon himself.
Muldoon's absence from the anthology was to some degree rectified later in 1986, when Faber & Faber issued his Selected Poems; the American edition, published the following year by Ecco Press in New York, also incorporated a selection from Meeting the British. If the publication of a Selected Poems was a stocktaking exercise, Muldoon did not need long to take stock. Meeting the British appeared in the spring of 1987. Reviewing it in the Times Literary Supplement, Mick Imlah heralded the volume as “perhaps the most eagerly awaited poetry book of 1987”—no small compliment to Muldoon's reputation, given that Seamus Heaney's The Haw Lantern was published in the same year. But amidst the usual fanfare, no less a critic than John Carey, in the Sunday Times (London), wrote one of the most hostile reviews Muldoon's poetry has ever received, declaring it “tricky, clever, tickled by its own knowingness,” and comparing Heaney's “Derby winner” with Muldoon's “pantomime horse.” Carey's review has remained the most powerful and convincing case for the prosecution, articulating unignorable anxieties about what he calls Muldoon's “arcane, allusive poetry, packed to the gunwales with higher education.”
Having spent the academic year 1986-87 on fellowships at the Universities of Cambridge and East Anglia, Muldoon moved to the United States, where he married Jean Hanff Korelitz in August 1987. For the next three years he accepted various invitations to teach, at Columbia, Princeton, Berkeley and Massachusetts. But despite his switch from the B.B.C. to academia, and from Northern Ireland to the United States, he had not abandoned all links with his first employers. In 1989 the B.B.C. broadcast Monkeys, a highly acclaimed account of the events leading up to the arrest and subsequent acquittal of the businessman John De Lorrean; although Muldoon's input was “finally very small,” he had edited and adapted the transcripts of the F.B.I. and Drug Enforcement Agency tapes to produce a condensed, coherent narrative.27 Muldoon returned to Princeton in 1990, to take up a lectureship. He has since conducted courses in Irish literature, in translation, and in modern British poetry, but is chiefly involved with an undergraduate creative writing program:
I suppose what I try to instill—although I don't like the word instil, it's not as if I have any particular wisdom in these matters—what I try to suggest is that [students] become interested in language and the adventures that they might have with language if they allow themselves to be taken over by the possibilities of language and if they are humble, as it were, before language. Rather than using language to—quote, unquote—express themselves.28
Muldoon's career change seems to have produced the desired effect of allowing him to devote more time to literature. Within two years of leaving the B.B.C. he had published The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry, his Selected Poems, and Meeting the British. These were followed by Monkeys and, also in 1989, The Essential Byron, selected and introduced by Muldoon and issued by the Ecco Press of New York. Muldoon had never made a secret of his admiration for Byron's poetry, and certainly the Byron described in the introduction sounds more than a little like a kindred spirit:
Byron's mature style is wonderfully discursive, ranging from Aristotle through hitting the sack to hitting the bottle of sack, while relishing the rhyme on “Aristotle” and “bottle” along the way.
The mixture of high and low culture, the weird but insistent logic of punning, and the sheer delight in outrageous rhymes confirm Byron as an important influence throughout Muldoon's poetry. Byron is actually the immediate inspiration for Muldoon's next volume, Madoc—A Mystery (1990); the 246-page title poem grew out of Muldoon's edition of Byron, who is often quoted and who actually appears in the poem on several occasions. Proclaimed a “tour-de-force” by Lucy McDiarmid in the New York Times Book Review, and “a dazzling achievement” by Lachlan MacKinnon in the Times Literary Supplement,Madoc nevertheless resurrected doubts about Muldoon's accessibility: many reviews expressed exasperation, and Bluff Your Way in Literature, as ever attuned to the fashions of the coteries, declared that “the mad Madoc—A Mystery fully lives up to its subtitle, being simply incomprehensible.”
Settled at Princeton, Muldoon remained productive. Having worked on Madoc daily for eighteen months, he began a more modest project. Following his children's book The O-O's Party, published by Gallery Press in 1980, Muldoon now returned to the genre with The Last Thesaurus—a poem about a small, linguistically gifted dinosaur (who, in an act of self-sacrifice, ends up being eaten by a Tyrannosaurus Rex). Then in 1992 came The Astrakhan Cloak, published by Gallery Press as a joint venture between Muldoon and Nuala Ní Dhomnaill: Ní Dhomnaill's Irish language poems appear on the left-hand page, opposite Muldoon's parallel translations. In January of the same year Muldoon wrote a poem a day, and the resulting ‘January journal’ was issued by the Gallery Press as The Prince of the Quotidian in 1994; occasional in theme, and not originally intended for publication, the book is an idiosyncratic insight into Muldoon's (sometimes transitory) views on subjects as various as U2 and Field Day. However, his major undertaking during this period was the libretto Shining Brow, commissioned by Madison Opera, Wisconsin:
Daron Hagen, the composer, and I were in the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. He got this phone call from Madison Opera, asking if he would write the opera … He said to me—I'm not quite sure how serious he was—‘You want to write an opera?’ and I said, ‘Sure. Why not?’ So, that's how it started. This was Madison Opera's first commission, and they specified that it be an opera about Frank Lloyd Wright. I think they might have even come up with the title, though I no longer recall …29
The libretto took Muldoon a year to complete, and the opera received its premiere in Madison on 21 April 1993. Aware that libretti usually attract scant attention, Faber & Faber marketed Shining Brow as “a dramatic poem in its own right”; nevertheless, apart from a long and intelligent review by Paul Driver in The London Review of Books, and an unsympathetic Irish Times piece by Peter Sirr, it went largely unnoticed in Britain and Ireland.
In July 1992, Muldoon's daughter Dorothy was born—“One of the most joyous things that's happened to me in a long time, I think perhaps ever.”30 Published in 1994, The Annals of Chile includes poems about the gestation and birth—‘The Sonogram,’ ‘Footling,’ ‘The Birth’—which offset the predominantly elegiac tone of the collection. Publicity generated in Britain by The Annals of Chile suggested that Muldoon's reputation was entering a new sphere: Ruth Padel in The Times declared it “humbling and absorbing to watch an original intelligence, perfectly tuned to its time, swing into full maturity”; the London Magazine announced there were “few contemporary poets, if any, who can match his achievement”; and Giles Foden's grammar betrayed only the vestiges of circumspection, as he argued in The Guardian that “if [Muldoon] is not the greatest of contemporary poets working in English today, his influence is without doubt the greatest among the younger generation of British poets.” The Annals of Chile was awarded the prestigious T. S. Eliot Memorial Prize in January 1995, for the best volume of poetry published in Britain during 1994. Later in 1995 Gallery published a verse play, Six Honest Serving Men. And future projects were already being mooted: another collaboration with Daron Hagen; a film script—“a smallish-scale, modest film”;31 a critical—judging by ‘Yarrow’ and ‘Incantata,’ highly critical—poetic autobiography. Whether all or any of these possibilities will be fulfilled, as he approaches mid-career Muldoon has already displayed the Yeatsian gift of abandoning past achievements and remaking himself, finding new challenges. As he explains,
what I want to avoid is self-parody—a risk that all writers are up against in one way or another. That doesn't mean though that I'm interested in doing something different for the sake of doing something different, but I'm certainly not interested in repeating myself—or repeating a poem, whatever it has had to say.32
Kavanagh, P. J. Voices in Ireland (London: John Murray, 1994), 34.
‘Reclaiming Poetry,’ interviewed by Alan Jenkins, Sunday Times (London), 14 December 1986.
‘Paul Muldoon,’ interviewed by John Haffenden, Viewpoints (London: Faber, 1981), 131.
Muldoon, P. ‘A Tight Wee Place in Armagh,’ Fortnight (Belfast), July/August 1984, 19.
‘An Interview with Paul Muldoon,’ interviewed by Lynn Keller, Contemporary Literature (Madison), 35 (1), Spring 1994, 17.
‘Way down upon the old Susquehanna,’ interviewed by Blake Morrison, The Independent on Sunday (London), 28 October 1990.
Interviewed by John Haffenden, 130.
‘A Tight Wee Place in Armagh,’ 23.
‘A Conversation with Paul Muldoon,’ interviewed by Michael Donaghy, Chicago Review, 35 (1), 81.
Interviewed by John Haffenden, 134.
Interviewed by Michael Donaghy, 84.
Interviewed by John Haffenden, 132.
Interviewed by Alan Jenkins.
Longley, M. ‘Poetry,’ Causeway, ed. Longley, M. (Belfast: The Arts Council of Northern Ireland, 1971), 109.
Interviewed by John Haffenden, 132-3.
Ciaran Carson interviewed by Rand Brandes, Irish Review 8, Spring 1990, 79.
Interviewed by Alan Jenkins.
‘An Interview with Paul Muldoon,’ interviewed by Clair Wills, Nick Jenkins and John Lanchester, Oxford Poetry III (1), Winter 1986/7, 18.
‘Lunch with Paul Muldoon,’ interviewed by Kevin Smith, Rhinoceros 4, 1991, 77.
Interviewed by Lynn Keller, 3.
Muldoon in America, interviewed by Christopher Cook, B.B.C. Radio 3, 1994.
Interviewed by Kevin Smith, 92.
SOURCE: Reeve, F. D. “On Shoemakers and Snails.” Poetry 170, no. 1 (April 1997): 37-51.
[In the following excerpt, Reeve offers a favorable review of The Prince of the Quotidian and The Annals of Chile.]
Wake Forest University Press and Farrar, Straus and Giroux teamed up to present Paul Muldoon's latest comedy in two parts, both parts now available in paper. Muldoon is a juggler, a handspringing carny, a gandydancer, a stand-up comic, an intellectual muckraker. He bends language as easily as Geller, the psychic, bent spoons. To read the little book, The Prince of the Quotidian—putatively a journal of a scribbler's month in the New Jersey suburbs (Muldoon heads Princeton's writing program)—as notes for the big, The Annals of Chile, is to interpret the work as an update of The Waste Land, a farcical, parodic translation of romance back into its roots in ritual. A cycle based on sex and love, it begins with the transformation of people into frogs (the Latona-and-the-Lycians story from the Niobe portion of The Metamorphoses) and the ritual ends in the long, semi-autobiographical section called “Yarrow,” neither in the bosom of the Mother Church nor in Nirvana but with a clownish self-creation out of the world's commercial, intellectual, and geographic failures:
In a conventional tornada, the strains of her ‘Che sera, sera’ or ‘The Harp That Once’ would transport me back to a bath resplendent with yarrow
(it's really a sink set on breeze- or cinder-blocks): then I might be delivered from the rail's monotonous ‘alack, alack’;
in a conventional envoy, her voice would be ever soft, gentle and low. …
I can no more read between the lines of the quail's ‘Wet-my-lips’ or his ‘Quick, quick’ than get to grips with Friedrich Hölderlin
or that phrase in Vallejo having to do with the ‘ache’ in his forearms. …
there's something about the quail's ‘Wet-my-foot’ and the sink full of hart's-tongue, borage and common kedlock
that I've either forgotten or disavowed; it has to do with a trireme, laden with ravensara, that was lost with all hands between Ireland and Montevideo.
Expert in his cadences, persuasive with his patter, a technical master-builder, a sarcastic reporter of falsehood, and secret believer in social and philosophical justice, Muldoon is our Charlie Chaplin—compassionate visionary, consummate actor. His references sweep from classics to commercials:
this last time I saw her, in New Haven, she leaned over, so, and whispered, ‘This darling bud, this bud's for you,’ then settled back on the packing-crate.
Punching and laughing as he goes, he ranges from the Amores and The First Oration against Catiline to “the latest issue of the TLS,” in which Seamus Deane
has me ‘in exile’ in Princeton: this term serves mostly to belittle the likes of Brodsky or Padilla
and is not appropriate of me; certainly not of anyone who, with ‘Louisa May’ Walcott, is free to buy a ticket to his emerald isle. …
Under the “Mac Flecknoe” voice is a solid literary world, for Muldoon has tied the string of the past to his arrow before letting it fly. He may well say with Frost:
It takes all sorts of in and outdoor schooling To get adapted to my kind of fooling.
He glosses tradition by casting a casual shopping trip to New Hope as a sonnet in which an old postcard turns up with the line “I'll be waiting on Tuesday at Broadway and 52nd” when 52nd Street was the center of New York jazz, and the events of the day become the poem, which turns into:
This slow air played on the ocarina is a lament for my long-lost cousin, Marina.
Marina, Pericles's daughter born at sea, was long believed to have been murdered but was miraculously restored to her father as a grown woman. The dream-world, like the sea-world, is a world of new birth. The music-world, like the world in a poem, contains the meaning of experience. And Eliot's “Marina” bears an epigraph from Seneca's play Hercules furens, a line Hercules speaks when he recovers from the mad fit in which he killed his children. Muldoon's parodic sonnet reduces the reference to:
Louise confirms what Jean has already guessed; something has sickened and died under the dining-room floor. The Volvo wagon, meanwhile is about to give up the ghost.
The hard suburban surface has its cracks, but its ridiculous tenants hang on, subverted but unreformed by the gargantuan good humor of this Ovidian intelligence telling stories of love and its changes from the beginning of the world—that is, from the day it was baptized, every day wherever it is, the Prince of the Quotidian.
SOURCE: Burt, Stephen. “A Delightful Muldoodle.” New Leader 130, no. 8 (5 May 1997): 18-19.
[In the following review, Burt lauds Muldoon's skillful verb usage and accomplished verse in Kerry Slides.]
Something like a consensus now deems Paul Muldoon the best Irish poet younger than Seamus Heaney, and American readers are figuring out—only about a decade late—that he's among the most inventive poets in the English language. Muldoon published his first book of poems in 1972, when he was in his early 20s, and has been expanding his ambitions and sharpening his wit ever since. Among his hallmarks are: sonnets, comic or extravagant approximate rhymes, self-suspicion, abrupt transitions, sex and violence, explorers and quests, and grammatical constructions that shift and roll like spinning, and probably rigged, roulette wheels.
Every five years or so since the '70s Muldoon has published another dense, ambitious volume of poetry, including at least one long narrative sequence; in between these elaborate projects come small books of short poems and divertissements (usually on Ireland's Gallery Press). Heaney has memorably dubbed the big books (like 1994's The Annals of Chile, or 1991's Madoc) “Mulbooms,” and the slim in-between sequences “Muldoodles.”
Kerry Slides is surely a Muldoodle. The poet's previous small-scale book, the diaristic sonnets collectively titled The Prince of the Quotidian, gave us a series of friendly peeks at Muldoon's social life and household in and near Princeton, where he teaches: “The more I think of it, the more I've come to love / the tidal marshes of Hackensack, / the planes stacked / over Newark …” Kerry Slides represents Muldoon's return to things (obtrusively) Irish, to troubled history, coastal rain, rural hospitality and divided loyalties. Its 31 poems (30 in English, one in Irish, all untitled, and collectively dated “1986-1995”) seem to be the fruit of repeated visits to County Kerry, on Ireland's southwest coast, whose capes, beaches and villages remain famously wet, famously beautiful and famously distant from all things urban (not to mention from Muldoon's own upbringing in County Armagh, Northern Ireland).
The first, best sonnet in Kerry Slides shows, if not quite Muldoon at his most powerful, then how good he is on off days and holidays, in the most casual among the tones he owns:
On a night when a hay-stack, silver-wet bulges out from under a fishing-net so I can barely tell sea from land I remember the wreckers of Inch Strand
who would gather there on a stormy night and tie a lantern or hurricane-light to some wild-eyed pony's mane or tail that it might flash and flare and flick and flail
like a lantern tied to a storm-tossed mast, till the captain who'd hoped to escape Dingle Bay's insidious shallows and shoals
now suddenly found himself foundering, fast, surrounded by wild-eyed men in capes wielding pikes and pitchforks and heavy poles.
These feigning, cunning locals join the ever-increasing tribe of Muldoon's symbols for himself: The author who contrives to puzzle, trick or strand his readers also teaches them a lesson. Consciously, gratefully, delightedly, we let ourselves be deceived in literature (the poem suggests) so that, in life, we may not be fooled again. The repeated or's, the flamboyant self-revisions, the objects compared to themselves or their clones—as “a lantern” resembles “a lantern”—are especially Muldoon's, and set up one of his favorite points: that the right context can make almost anything pass for almost anything else.
No poem here exceeds 14 lines; several are two-line epigrams, and all but four are printed facing Bill Doyle's attractive, sometimes predictable black-and-white photographs: a cloth-capped scarecrow; a corbelled stone hut; a lost-looking row-boat in choppy water, seen from directly overhead; a smart-looking man in an open coat, trudging among high weeds, shouldering three hoes. Facing-page photographs often, as here, create the chicken-and-egg problem: Who is illustrating whom? Should we imagine a Paul Muldoon who wrote each poem to accompany its photograph, or did Doyle pick, or even take, photographs to go with already-written poems?
Sometimes the photos and the poems are comic comments on each other, as when a man driving sheep among hedges turns his back to this couplet: “This cobalt-quiffed ewe among the fuchsia's / part blue-rinsed Grandmama, part Sid Vicious.” (It may only be funny for readers who've actually seen herds of sheep with flanks, backs or pates dyed a luminescent, punk-rock blue: In this dependence on local referents it, too, typifies, not so much Muldoon, but Muldoodles.) The ambiguity of the photographs, the questions about what, if anything, each documents, chimes with the poems' own ambivalence over whether their images count simply as local color, or as part of a political record:
Not only do Dingle houses effervesce like sherbets in rain, giving one a sense of Fez,
perhaps, or somewhere in Spain, but I've come upon a ruined shed at the end of an overgrown lane
with the half-door a rumpled shade of mint or peach—the jerkin of a fus- ilier after a fusillade.
This comes opposite a cowboy-style hat hung, crown out, on a reinforced timber fence, door or wall; the reinforcing planks and ribbons around the hat could suggest a crucifix. The photograph also creates a joke on “Fez,” in Morocco, as against “fez,” a hat. And what door or shed could be “a … shade / of mint or peach”—ambiguous, that is, between pale green and pale orange? (A door that doubles as a political border? Maybe.) Muldoon's poem slides from comically extravagant, fetched-up exotica (which melts as we examine it) into local color, into gunfire. Is that last line an execution by firing squad, like those the Irish Easter Martyrs faced? If not, what do we make of Muldoon's use of Dante's terza rima?
But it would be tendentious to give every one of the Great Leaps Muldoon makes some clearly political motive: The transcontinental stretches and loops his imagination favors stand not only for political analogies, but for the Seven-League Boots built into all kinds of language, for the saving power in puns and asides:
Every time I order a bagel with lox and a schmear in some New York or ‘New York style’ deli I leap from the ‘lox’ in Leixlip to the ‘schmear’ in Smerwick (to the ‘butter creek’ in the lee of the ‘butter mountain’)
and the dragon-prowed ships appear whose end is destruction, I say, whose God is their belly full of butter and cheese and cream cheese and the extra-thick milkshakes in a New York or ‘New York style’ soda fountain.
If the Vikings, if the barbarians, raid us again, perhaps they will turn out to want, not Armageddon, but simply better (or enough) food. Just enough apocalyptic energy gets into that sixth line to discredit apocalyptic temperaments, or to show us why Muldoon is so often driven to construct a flexible, durable alternative to them. (The photo on the opposite page is of a white sign reading, in part, “ANTIPOST BETTING ON ALL MAJOR EVENTS / HORSES DOGS FOOTBALL POLITICS.”)
The top implement in Muldoon's tool kit is the verb, or wrench, called “reminds me of,” and being constantly reminded is a good way to figure out what's really on your mind, and to bring to entertaining scrutiny very many of your readers' sensibilia while you're at it. Bringing out these odd relations often requires sheaves of allusions, some of which American readers can get:
A Wrenboy's wand clatters down our slates. It's 1969. A damp little holiday cottage in Camp. A few sodden sods of turf in the grate.
I hold the front page of The Armagh Observer to the fireplace. O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of Ian Paisley's face in a blind rage.
You will need to know that Wrenboys wear elaborate costumes and sing traditional music on St. Stephen's Day; you probably do know who Ian Paisley is, and you might have noticed “O dark, dark, dark” as a joke about Eliot, about the religious (or would Muldoon call them religiose?) commitments in the Four Quartets. “O dark dark dark,” Eliot wrote of his Londoners, “They all go into the dark, / The vacant interstellar spaces …” Some of Muldoon's epigrams could be titled after Ben Jonson's formula “On an X”—“On the Blasket Islands,” “On Luminescent Sheep Dye.” Indeed, one of them—printed opposite a wet, smooth, squarish stone girdled by a wet rope—could be called “On the Whole World”:
A fisherman nurses his ‘Ranga on the rocks,’ the rusty cocktail named after a shipwreck, then knocks it back. The actual.
This is light verse only if you're not listening, and it ought to make as much sense in Denver as in Dingle. Other epigrams won't: They depend on your recognizing Peig Sayers' autobiography (a dreaded set text in Irish language classes), or Fionn and the Fianna, or (former Republic of Ireland Prime Minister) “Charlie” Haughey. Muldoon's major lyrics can be just as odd or as obscure, but they don't revolve around their data points the way much of Kerry Slides can. This elegant book should be nobody's introduction to Muldoon; but readers who have found, elsewhere, how wonderful this poet can be (the Farrar Straus or Faber and Faber Selecteds will do fine) may find Muldoon's travel sequence-cum-photo album not only diverting, but accomplished and delightful—even profound.
SOURCE: Vendler, Helen. “Anglo-Celtic Attitudes.” New York Review of Books 44, no. 17 (6 November 1997): 57-60.
[In the following excerpt, Vendler compliments both Selected Poems: 1968-1986 and The Annals of Chile, though she expresses reservations over Muldoon's tendency toward emotional detachment and cryptic allusions.]
When the United States became a superpower after World War II, Americans became less deferential toward English writers, with the consequence that, on the whole, postwar American readers knew little of the poetry being written in the British Isles and Ireland. Auden maintained a hold on the American audience because he lived here, and Dylan Thomas flashed briefly through the country, but apart from those two imports, modern British poets made almost no impression on the United States. We were content to let them (and the poets of the Commonwealth countries and Ireland) work in their separate sphere. This depressing situation was compounded by the gradual but widening divergence between British and American culture, and by the utter failure, in the service of a mistaken nativism, of American public (and even private) schools to keep British poetry, in a systematic way, in the elementary and secondary curriculum. The American presses that still publish poetry have tended predictably to favor American poets over others writing in English.
Several things have happened recently to change this situation. On the English side, there was a rather surprised recognition that modern American poets other than Eliot deserve to be read. On the Irish side, there was the phenomenon of Seamus Heaney, a poet whose work effortlessly made its way everywhere. Sylvia Plath's poetry attracted the attention of English critics; Robert Lowell lived for seven years between England and America, publishing in both countries; English poets such as Donald Davie and Thom Gunn moved to the United States, teaching students both in classes and by example; Heaney taught for many years at Harvard.
Commonwealth authors, too, appealed to audiences on both sides of the Atlantic: Derek Walcott, educated in a British-derived system and writing under the sign of Yeats and Auden, moved to the United States and was powerfully influenced by the poetry of Robert Lowell. International conferences, too, ensured that poets broadened their literary acquaintance. These transatlantic transfusions have affected publishing: Carcanet, Bloodaxe, and Faber have scouted out contemporary American poets and brought them to the English audience, and some enterprising American trade publishers (among them Farrar, Straus and Giroux, the Ecco Press, and Norton) have taken on British and Irish poets.
Understandably, British or Irish poets published in the United States tend to be ones who have already acquired American connections or an American address. Of those under review here, James Lasdun has taught at Bennington and Princeton, and Glyn Maxwell has had a fellowship in creative writing at Boston University; the Northern Irish poet Paul Muldoon teaches at Princeton and lives in New York. Like Davie, Heaney, Gunn, Walcott, and other transplanted poets brought up on metrical forms, Lasdun, Maxwell, and Muldoon carry out their experiments in stanza or meter with gaiety and panache. Their spirited ventures in form offer a rebuke not only to the unarduous free verse practiced by many American poets but also to the unmusical willed employment of “form” by poets who have not absorbed it unconsciously. It is not that the three poets at hand are always successful, but that they are at home with form. They resemble someone who grew up in a good cook's kitchen; people who cook from cookbooks are creatures of a different order.
British English, Irish English, American English, and Commonwealth English sometimes seem like four separate dialects (with subdivisions such as Scottish English, Caribbean English, and so on). Whether we can all learn to enjoy one another's idiom is still an open question (Trainspotting, after all, had a sequence with subtitles). And it is not merely idiom that is the problem. To understand a topical writer like Paul Muldoon we should have some sense of his family and childhood in County Tyrone and the Irish political and ethnic conflicts that figure in his work. To what extent can a poet who, unlike a novelist, has no space for the leisurely introduction of a reader into an unfamiliar setting, bring readers of another country to care about social issues or about ethnic oppression those readers haven't themselves encountered? What was possible for Yeats is not always possible for his successors. …
Paul Muldoon's Selected Poems, taken together with his recent book The Annals of Chile, will give an American reader moments of both admiration and exasperation—admiration for the originality Muldoon has aimed at from the beginning, exasperation at the many private references (especially for a non-Irish audience) in his work. His work has been the subject of debate between critics who praise his brio and those who find him sterile. When I first read Muldoon, I thought—to put it bluntly—that his lyrics were impressively constructed but too often had a hole in the middle where the feeling should be. My former student Steven Burt (who now often reviews poetry himself) argued the point persistently with me, insisting that one could deduce the unstated feeling in a Muldoon poem from the contours of his language, much as one can deduce the shape of a bronze from the mould used to cast it.
Just when I was trying to use Burt's lost-wax theory, Muldoon published The Annals of Chile. In it there appeared, surprisingly, the emotionally explicit “Incantata,” a long elegy for Muldoon's former lover, the artist Mary Farl Powers (daughter of the American novelist J. F. Powers), who, like Muldoon's mother, died young of cancer. In this poem, by contrast to earlier ones in which Muldoon's means of expression seemed to obscure feeling, the feeling appears to exceed the means. This is certainly a better kind of imbalance for an elegy than the other way round, but still an imbalance. The poem can sometimes skirt sentimentality:
I saw you again tonight, in your jump-suit, thin as a rake, your hand moving in such a deliberate arc as you ground a lithographic stone that your hand and the stone blurred to one and your face blurred into the face of your mother, Betty Wahl, who took your failing, ink-stained hand in her failing, ink-stained hand and together you ground down that stone by sheer force of will.
Muldoon's small subsequent volume, The Prince of the Quotidian, revealed a different imbalance—an adolescent resentment unexpected in an adult poet—generating some rather unlovely bite-the-hand-that-fed-you poems aimed at two of Muldoon's earlier poet-sponsors. And finally (to come to the end of this list), there is imbalance in Muldoon's tendency to go on too long in his long poems (whereas the short ones are often miracles of elliptical concision).
A new book on Muldoon [entitled Paul Muldoon] by Tim Kendall (editor of the Oxford-based magazine Thumbscrew and a Research Fellow at the University of Newcastle) will at last permit American readers to understand the poet's basic references: these include stories from Irish history and legend; contemporary Irish literature and politics; the adventure books Muldoon devoured as a boy; the philosophers he read at Queen's University; the writers (Swift, Byron, Auden, and MacNeice) whom he most admires; fantasies of the Southern hemisphere (Brazil, Peru) and of drug-running; parallels between the English colonization of Native Americans and the Irish; noir detective novels; talking horses borrowed from Gulliver's Travels; stray clichés about mothers in Irish; and so on. Kendall's is just the book that's needed for people sensing something in Muldoon that they want to get at, but feeling at a loss before his Joycean game of baffle-the-reader.
Muldoon is a comic writer with considerable savagery of mind, making always for the brutal detail. He mocks solemnity, idealism, and the centered self—not least as he has encountered them in Seamus Heaney (his tutor at Queen's University) and other predecessors. He sets himself extremely ingenious formal tasks. Kendall points out, for example, the fantastic principles of rhyming and structure in “Yarrow,” Muldoon's 150-page autobiographical elegy for his mother: “The second half of the poem,” Kendall says in conclusion, “is a mirror image of the first half. Effectively, ‘Yarrow’ consists of a series of concentric circles.” These formal strategies are almost private cryptograms: nobody reading “Yarrow” (except perhaps another Muldoon) would perceive, without a lot of counting and back-looping, its obsessive schemes. What identifies Muldoon as himself, however, is his peculiar way with line-length and rhymes.
These devices give Muldoon's best autobiographical lyrics an odd, memorable, off-kilter air, as with his sonnet “Glanders.” Muldoon was already, as a child, hoarding new words, and he recalls in the poem how he first heard the word “glanders” (a bacterial disease of horses) from the local “bonesetter,” or healer, a veteran of the First World War named Larry Toal. Muldoon's unlikely sonnet is, one could say, a Heaney poem told aslant: Heaney would have found pathos in Larry Toal's war reminiscences or a balm in his homemade healing, perhaps. But Muldoon, a cooler poet altogether, skews his reminiscence to emphasize the observant child's ear for language. The child notes not only the new word “glanders” but also Larry Toal's slang (“came within that” for “almost learned”; “went west” for “died”). In spite of the intimacy of the event he records, Muldoon distances himself from his own childhood by looking at Larry Toal with an anthropologist's eye, describing him as the tribe's “local shaman”:
When you happened to sprain your wrist or ankle you made your way to the local shaman, if “shaman” is the word for Larry Toal, who was so at ease with himself, so tranquil,
a cloud of smoke would graze on his thatch like the cow in the cautionary tale, while a tether of smoke curled down his chimney and the end of the tether was attached
to Larry's ankle or to Larry's wrist. He would conjure up a poultice of soot and spit and flannel-talk, how he had a soft spot
for the mud of Flanders, how he came within that of the cure for glanders from a Suffolkman who suddenly went west.
Offbeat rhythms (lines from dimeter to pentameter), off-rhymes (“ankle” and “tranquil,” “spit” and “spot”), satiric rhyme (“Flanders”/“glanders”), bizarre mixtures of diction, deliberate repetition (“wrist or ankle”/“ankle or … wrist”) and fairy-tale motifs (the smoke-tether) are all characteristic of Muldoon's earlier style.
The later style, as it appears in “Yarrow,” would need footnotes on every other page. Like Pound, Eliot, and Joyce, Muldoon would like us to have read the books important to him, especially the ones he knew well as a boy. Here is a sample of “Yarrow,” with its “mélange adultère de tout” (to cite an Eliot title fitting Muldoon's style):
The magical toad entrusted to me by Francisco Pizarro might still be good against this bird that continued to prink itself, alas,
even as we left Sitanda's kraal and struck out, God between us and all harm, for the deep north: that was the year Jack McCall would deal
the dead man's hand to Earp, the year Captain Good was obliged to shave in inco-oil and S— got hooked on “curare”;
the year Scragga and Infadoos joined Quatermain in reciting “The Jackdaw of Rheims” as we plunged deeper into Kukuanaland.
I haven't the faintest idea what most of these literary allusions allude to, chiefly because I wasn't born a boy in the British Isles, and didn't borrow adventure stories from the public library. Of course it is fun to throw such stuff at The Waste Land as if to say, “Not all of us spent our youth reading Augustine, Dante, and Nerval.” And perhaps Muldoon only wants us to sense the general atmosphere of fantasy derring-do that a young male adolescent lives in. Everywhere in “Yarrow” Muldoon tangles earlier periods of his life with later ones, earlier sections of the poem with subsequent ones. The bird in the quotation above is the one that in Muldoon's childhood perched for weeks on the west spire of Armagh Cathedral; S— is a heroin-addicted girlfriend from a later period. The whole “crazy quilt” of “Yarrow” (Muldoon's own epithet) might be understood as a form of postmodern autobiography that aims to replace with a random mosaic of memory the teleological Christian model of Pilgrim's Progress (which still supplies the plot-line, even if unconsciously so, for most first-person life stories).
The best parts of “Yarrow,” for me, are Muldoon's recollections (with ambivalent feelings) of his mother, who died of uterine cancer when he was in his early twenties. She was a schoolteacher, better educated than his market-gardener father, but doomed by her profession to class inhibitions compounding those of her Catholicism. Against the portrait of his mother Muldoon places the portrait of S— as she gradually degenerates from drugs; and in addition to these two women there recurs the figure of Sylvia Plath, emblem of a nihilism never far from Muldoon's thoughts. One respects Muldoon's daring in making up an autobiography so finicky in its finesse, so coarse in its obscenities, so caught between the circumscribing mother and the violent and jeering S—, all ringed round by adventure-fantasies ranging from the Fenians through Charlemagne down to Wyatt Earp.
Many readers of The Annals of Chile will prefer the lament for Mary Powers to the more difficult and oblique “Yarrow,” but I would rather have Muldoon at his most bitter, provoking, and exciting. He has written the story of his own life several times by now in long poems—“Immram,” “The More a Man Has,” “Yarrow,” and “Incantata”—and will no doubt restage it in coming decades. The only sure thing is that the telling will be done stylishly each time—perhaps not with the rather alienating monomania of form that characterizes “Yarrow,” but with something more emotionally yielding that is still difficult enough to amuse its author.
I will myself go on hoping for more lyrics like Muldoon's best—taut, formally brilliant, and wryly bleak. These qualities are illustrated in “Cows,” in which Muldoon wonders whether the truck that almost ran him down a moment ago but is now peculiarly halted on a back road might be a terrorist plant. Even in anxiety, Muldoon, it seems, can be seduced by language:
This must be the same truck whose tail-lights burn so dimly, as if caked with dirt, three or four hundred yards along the boreen
(a diminutive form of the Gaelic bóthar, “a road,” from bó, “a cow,” and thar meaning, in this case, something like “athwart,”
“boreen” has entered English “through the air” despite the protestations of the O.E.D.): why, though, should one tail-light flash and flare,
then flicker-fade to an after-image of tourmaline set in a dark part-jet, part-jasper or -jade?
The etymological excursion turns out to be a veiled political allegory: in words such as “boreen” the language of the conquered people slips through the garrison-lines of the conqueror and, with Celtic wiliness, contaminates Anglo-Saxon. Yet nobody writing a political poem would end it, as Muldoon does, with a series of Paterian lines discriminating the signaling of the suspect tail-light from the colors of the Irish dark. The poem gives one to think: it requires the reader to link the lurking truck via etymological pedantry to the closing aestheticizing lines sliding “from finikin to fine finikin” (Stevens). Its sweep of reference (the Irish “troubles,” Gaelic etymology, the O.E.D., Apocalyptic gems) is not easy for Americans, but not impossible either. At least some of Muldoon's expertly (if perversely) handled lines are bound to make their way in America.
It is encouraging to see some young writers from abroad being published and reviewed in the United States, but this cheerful fact should not blind us to the fact that other gifted English poets (Mark Ford, for instance) have not yet found a publisher here. Nor should we forget that powerful older poets of the British Isles are still almost wholly unknown to Americans—Hugh MacDiarmid (Christopher Murray Grieve) of Scotland and R. S. Thomas of Wales, to name only two. When, if ever, will they be as much a part of our literary culture as Lowell or Bishop?
SOURCE: Korn, Eric. “The Frog's Incog.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4938 (21 November 1997): 16.
[In the following review, Korn asserts that there is “much to praise” in The Faber Book of Beasts, calling the work a “subtle and provoking collection.”]
“In poetry, as in life, animals bring out the best in us,” says Paul Muldoon; though a few mink and a few minke might chitter and dweeble their dissent, and there's a half-reclaimed dancing bear on the Mappin Terraces of London Zoo, who met a few men and did not bring out the best in them, in consequence of which she has little mad outbursts of robotic movement, like an old alcoholic shuffling and jiggling about Camden Town station just down the road. The Zoo, largely staffed by people in whom animals do bring out the best has set observes and optimistic caseworkers around her, to wheedle her back into bear humanity, and out of what they explain to visitors is no more than a particularly persistent bad habit, such as anyone might develop if they were forced to stand on hot plates. Cruelty to animals is the oldest racism; chucking a superfluous puppy or piglet on the fire the first joke, the first boast, the first act of prayer.
There's not too much in The Faber Book of Beasts about cruelty to animals, for or against: no John Peel and no weeping over sparrows, deliciae meae puellae; no little hunted hares (Ralph Hodgson, the Georgian animal-fancier, is not represented here); no dancing dogs or bears, except by implication in Robert Frost's lament over our own mind-forged manacles: “The world has room to make a bear feel free; / The universe seems cramped to you and me.”
This is a collection expressly designed to facilitate lucky accidents and felicitous juxtapositions; the poems are arranged not by author, nor by date, nor by species, but alphabetically by title. Hence the cloud of flies engendered by Blake and Lovelace and Holub, and a neighbouring Flea, on a romantic embassy (or pimping expedition) for Dirty Dean Donne: “It suck'd me first and now sucks thee.” Like far too many creatures, in and beyond these pages, these insects serve a human agenda; many are over-burdened with symbol like ill-used carthorses, or pushed too metaphorically far like all the dead nags between Ghent and Aix. (“How,” conveniently, takes its place behind the rest of the pack.) Likewise, “Pied Beauty” and Pied Piper call mysteriously to one another. The arrangement also brings an agreeable element of chaos; Thom Gunn's “Tamer and Hawk” keeps awkward company with “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and “This Little Piggy,” hardly an animal poem in any sense. Without (ideally) hypertext links, cross-references, or at the least a zoological index, you may not connect Chesterton's donkey “ears like errant wings” with Swift's self-deluded ass: “One fault he hath, is sorry for 't / His ears are half a foot too short.”
Any self-promoting ass can complain about omissions; I won't deplore the absence, say, of Dunbar's splendidly opaque depiction of the hedgehog (“hard hurcheon, hirpland, hippit as ane harrow, thy rigbane rattillis”) or Kingsley Amis's powerful “Shrimp in the Rubbish-Bin”: “I ask you, human beings all, / Was this the way to treat me, / To do to me what you have done / And then not even eat me?” It is fairer to regret the poems that are so perfunctorily biological that they don't earn their place: Eliot's Hippopotamus may be biting ecclesiastical mockery, but is not memorable as natural history. If Muldoon needed, a hippopotamus, I'd have preferred Belloc or Flanders. Likewise, Eliot's Jellicle cats are a verbal exercise only (Thom Gunn's Apartment Cats are much more feline), and the birds of Cape Ann no more than a twitcher's boast-list (“Leave to chance the Blackburnian warbler”). Herrick's “Captiv'd Bee” has a lot on its mind, but not apiculture. Lawrence looks at his snake with a fresh surprise, but is mainly there to show off his pyjamas and his sensibility; tortoises, at least baby tortoises, which don't provoke Lawrence's phallic anxiety, are more affectionately considered; bats (“disgustingly upside down / Hanging upside down like rows of disgusting old rags”) are beyond the narrow sweep of his sympathies. A Lawrentian character in Point Counterpoint derides Shelley for wanting his skylark to be spirit, not birdflesh, but his own bats Chiroptera never wert.
Children's vocabularies and literary imaginations are flooded with pictures of animals exotic and extinct, which is why it is so hard to see a camel afresh. It's remarkable how much zoo-sympathy is expressed and how little empathy, how little plain observation. Exceptions are the mad and a few moderns, preferably with the discipline of agricultural experience: Christopher Smart, John Clare, Gunn, Hughes, Heaney, Norman MacCaig. For the rest, the animal is an emblem, or a distorting mirror, a fabulous beast or a beast in a fable: “The mangled Frog abides incog, / The uninteresting actual frog: / The hypothetic frog alone / Is the one frog we dwell upon,” as Christina Rossetti bracingly points out. Auden's reindeer herds in “The Fall of Rome,” moving “silently and very fast,” are at best thrilling noises off. Walt Whitman, starting from Paumanok, flies like a bird in the first line of the extract; but thereafter merely lists seventeen states, and misspells Canada for some dark reason. Not much animal observation there, though his readiness to “look at them long and long” (or “sometimes half the day long” in the less ambitious version quoted here) could stand as an epigraph to the whole enterprise.
Sensible people don't review anthologies, since at some point you have to stop complaining about the dearth of good invertebrate poems (Marianne Moore's jellyfish is perilously close to the Kraken; Cowper and Lovelace celebrate the snail as an emblem of self-sufficiency, without tapping the metaphorical richness of its sex life) and instead celebrate what's new to you, and expose yourself to sneers. There's much to praise in this subtle and provoking collection, and I boldly admit I didn't know, or didn't remember, Thomas Flatman's “Appeal to Cats in the Business of Love” (“Only cats, when they fall / From a house or a wall, / Keep their feet, mount their tails, and away!”), Ciaran Carson's adaptation of Baudelaire (“Great Auk / Brought down to earth, his gawky, gorgeous wings impede his walking”), or Christopher Reid's funambulistic performance, “Two Dogs on a Pub Roof,” a hundred lines rhyming to one gruff woof, a rowdy growling Rottweiler of a poem.
SOURCE: Kirsch, Adam. “The Virtuoso.” New Republic (30 November 1998): 56-60.
[In the following review of Hay, Kirsch contends that Muldoon's inventive verse is too often a facile display of technical and stylistic virtuosity, whereby complexity and difficulty serve to “impress,” rather than “convince,” the reader.]
“Virtuoso” is a loaded compliment, an honorific that conceals a reproach. It implies performance, as distinct from creation: a performer stands before his audience and impresses them, while a creator must enter into his audience and engage them. In music, the two roles are usually separate, and so there is a natural place for the virtuoso, with his showmanship and his displays of technical control. In poetry, however, it is much less clear that one should aspire to the “virtuosic.” In poetry, the performance is the creation. The skill that the poet displays in writing his poem remains in the poem itself, and it is one of the elements that attracts us to it. Hopkins's technical daring, or Horace's vaunting pride, is a part of what makes their poetry appealing. But if virtuosity is all that a poet can display, if his poems demand attention simply because of their elaborateness and difficulty, then he has in some sense failed. For we only want to see such a performance once, and poems demand to be read again and again. In this sense, the “virtuoso poet” is a contradiction in terms.
On the dustjacket of Hay, Paul Muldoon's eighth book of poems, a critic lauds him as a “prodigy” who has “gone on to become a virtuoso.” It is characteristic of Muldoon, though, that in the book itself we find the following haiku:
A horse farts and farts on the wind-tormented scarp. A virtuoso.
Clearly this is a poet aware of the risk of the label, and he goes out of his way to mock it. And elsewhere in the volume we find Muldoon making larger and more substantive claims for his own poetry. In “Anonymous: Myself and Pangur,” a poem in which the poet compares his own activity to the activity of his cat, he writes: “I, sharp-witted, swift, and sure, / shed light on what had seemed obscure.” The defensive “anonymous” of the title, and the light-hearted premise of the poem, are meant to distance Muldoon from this praise of his own work, to make it seem like a joke; but the message, that what seems merely difficult in his poetry is actually meant to convey a deeper truth, is heartfelt. Muldoon does not want to be seen simply as a clever, witty performer.
Yet he cannot escape that verdict so easily. It is true that Muldoon sometimes writes directly, with plain emotion, even sentimentally. But those are not his most characteristic poems, nor his best. When he is at his most original, Muldoon is rather a kind of acrobat, piling up strange rhymes, references, and conceits in a way that is disorienting and exhilarating. In Hay, we find a sort of double sestina with twelve end-words; a poem in which every line ends with the word “hand”; two picture-poems; a sequence of poems based on classic rock-and-roll albums; and a verse-diary made up of ninety haiku. Clearly Muldoon does not choose these forms because they allow the most natural expression for some urgent idea, or because they are inherently musical. The element of the dare—can he meet the challenge that he has set himself?—is always present, and often predominant.
Muldoon's interest in unlikeliness—in forms and metaphors that risk being seen as pursuing oddity for its own sake—allies him with the Metaphysical tradition in English poetry; and frequently he uses techniques that can be traced back directly to Donne. Like Donne, he will juxtapose dissimilar images in order to tease out some relationship between them: the classic poetic “conceit.” To emphasize their constancy, Donne compares himself and his lover to the legs of a compass:
And though it in the center sit, Yet when the other far doth roam, It leans, and harkens after it, And grows erect, as that comes home.
Such wilt thou be to me, who must Like the other foot, obliquely run; Thy firmness makes my circle just, And makes me end, where I begun.
In his new book, Muldoon writes on the same theme, using as his metaphor Siamese twins:
We were joined at the hip. We were joined at the hip like some latter-day Chang and Eng, though I lay in that dreadful kip in North Carolina while you preferred to hang
loose in London. …
Here, as often, Muldoon's conceits are consciously humorous, amused at their own improbability. In Hay, for instance, we find this description of an old pair of boots:
a pair of my da's boots so worn it was hard to judge where the boots came to an end and the world began. …
And this, on the taste of raspberries:
Raspberries. Red-blue. A paper cut on the tongue from a billet-doux.
And the poem “The Little Black Book” is a catalog of conceited metaphors for sex: “I fluttered, like an erratum slip, between her legs”; “I practiced my double back flip between her legs.” From here, it is only a short distance to the lowest form of conceit, the pun, where the strangeness lies not in the images or ideas but in the words themselves: “metaphysicattle,” “whited sepulchritude,” and, attributed to Joseph Brodsky, “there's an Auden in every Adenauer.”
At its best, however, Muldoon's use of the conceit can move beyond joking, producing something genuinely new and strange. This is what happens in “Good Friday, 1971. Driving Westward,” from Muldoon's first book, New Weather (1973). The title of the poem pays homage to Donne's “Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward.” Apparently entirely secular, it tells of the poet taking a drive with a girl to the west of Ireland, in the course of which their car hits something in the road. The collision is a minor episode: “I had seen nothing, perhaps a stick / Lying across the road. I glanced back once / And there was nothing but a heap of stones.” Only in the last stanza, when the couple stops in a village for lunch, does the memory of Good Friday intrude, shockingly, into the poem:
She stood up there and then, face full of drink, And announced that she and I were to blame For something killed along the way we came. Children were warned that it was rude to stare, Left with their parents for a breath of air.
Without any overt statement, the death of an animal on the road has been turned into the death of Christ: the “something killed” for which we are all “to blame.” And the reaction of the scandalized parents reminds us forcibly of the real scandal of Christianity, the mystery of guilt and expiation which they would prefer to keep hidden away from the children. The poem's Metaphysical quality lies in the sudden transformation of an incident into a metaphor, so deftly and unexpectedly that we are really surprised by it.
The conceit, then, is one species of Muldoon's daring; but it is a comparatively familiar one, with a literary pedigree, easy to recognize and assimilate. What makes Muldoon's poems truly distinctive is a much more total kind of strangeness, in which not just the images but the plot, diction, references, and formal scheme are so complex as to border on incomprehensibility. Yet Muldoon's strangeness is not a purely Dadaist or Surrealist strangeness, of the sort we expect from John Ashbery, in which the poem acts as a record of the poet's free associations. Ashbery's strangeness is casual, while Muldoon's makes a point of being formal, though he bends his forms to the breaking point. It is the play between his self-imposed constraints and his eclectic language and references that gives his poems their element of spectacle, of show—of virtuosity.
Consider the sequence that concludes Hay, “The Bangle (Slight Return).” The title refers us back to an earlier poem in the volume, called “The Bangle”; but the later poem has no apparent relationship to it. Instead it seems to describe the poet having dinner with a woman in a Paris restaurant. Yet this narrative is only one part of a collage, which also includes Virgil narrating the Fall of Troy, a sea voyage, and the poet's father emigrating to Australia in search of work. The first sonnet, of thirty in the sequence, is as follows:
“The beauty of it,” ventured Publius Vergilius Maro, “is that your father and the other skinnymalinks may yet end up a pair of jackaroos in the canefields north of Brisbane.” We heard the tink
of blade on bone, the Greeks' alalaes as they slashed and burned, saw Aeneas daddle-dade his father, Anchises, and his son, Iulus, to a hidey-hole on the slopes of Mount Ida.
“The beauty of it is that I delivered them from harm; it was I who had Aeneas steal back to look for Creusa, I who had her spirit rub like a flame through his flame-burnished arms, I who might have let him find his own way through the streel of smoke, among the cheerless dead, the dying's chirrups.”
At first, the passage seems like nonsense, a miscellany of allusions and registers. But amid the seeming randomness we notice the rhyme scheme, which Muldoon insists on even as he takes great liberties with his rhymes. If we allow that “alalaes” rhymes with “Iulus,” and “Maro” with “jackaroos,” we can see that this is an orthodox sonnet, with an octave and sestet. Traditionally, a poet might use a sonnet to gain regularity, sonority, compactness; but for Muldoon the form seems to be present only so that we will notice that he is writing a sonnet. Again, the suspicion of virtuosity comes to the forefront. Muldoon uses the rhyme scheme as a tightrope. The point is not to get safely across it, but to come as close as possible to falling off.
The poem becomes clearer if we realize that, in this sequence, meaning is treated just like the sonnet form; it is not there primarily for its own sake, but to be manipulated as cleverly and unexpectedly as possible. In this first sonnet, Muldoon puts several balls in the air: Virgil, Muldoon's father, the woman Creusa, and an assertion of the poet's mastery over his creations. Already there are some connections among these themes. The poet's father is evidently going from Ireland to Australia, where he may come to harm; and this chimes with the mention of Anchises, Aeneas's father, whom his son rescues from the destruction of Troy. To follow this analogy, it would be up to Muldoon to save his own father from ending up a “jackaroo” in Brisbane. And, indeed, he can do this—because in this poem the father is a fictional character, and Virgil has told us that the poet has power over his characters (“I delivered them from harm”). Thus Muldoon is both Aeneas and Virgil, the rescuer of his father and his father's creator.
This is a contorted reading of the passage, but its contortion does not lessen its validity. Quite the contrary. Muldoon forces us to read with a heightened attention in order to keep track of his meanings, in exactly the same way that we must be alert to pick up his rhyme scheme. And as this sequence proceeds, the difficulty becomes greater and greater: the “Creusa” of Virgil's poem merges into Muldoon's own dinner companion; the boat on which his father is sailing to Australia is identified with Marvell's line, “as one put drunk into the packet-boat”; the language swerves from Muldoon's English to the waiter's French. The poem proceeds by a kind of controlled chaos, teasing the reader with its sudden shifts of scene and plot.
Only in the penultimate sonnet does Muldoon offer some kind of resolution, some key to the poem, in Virgil's address to the poet:
The beauty of it is that your da and that other phantasm no more set foot in Queensland
than the cat that got the cream might look at a king. That's the sheer beauty of it. Ne'er cast a clout, heigh, in midstream. No brilliant. No brilliantine, ho. No classifieds
in The Tyrone Courier. No billabong. No billy-boil. No stately at the autoharp. …
In this list, elements from earlier in the sequence are recovered (The Tyrone Courier, for example, is a newspaper that the poet's father is said at one point to be reading) and negated one by one; they have all been the poet's invention. And so the challenge of the first sonnet—how is Muldoon to rescue his father as Aeneas did Anchises?—is answered. He saves his father by recalling him from the dangers into which Muldoon's own poem had thrust him. The poem has circled back on itself, as we are reminded by the phrase “the beauty of it,” which we first saw in the opening line of the sequence. What seemed completely aleatory (or, as Muldoon has it, “al-al-al-al-aleatory,” echoing the Greeks' war-cry of “alalae”) has in fact been following a premeditated course.
This fact acquits “The Bangle (Slight Return)” of the charge of randomness, but it does not dispel the suspicion of idleness. In one sense, it is unfair to call Muldoon's puzzle-making gratuitous; all poetry is gratuitous, in that it did not have to be written. Any poem that employs a strict form is, moreover, a type of puzzle: the poet sets himself an obstacle in order to make the poem seem more accomplished, more of a feat. Still, Muldoon's best poems—there is usually one long show-piece in each collection, from “Immram” in Why Brownlee Left (1980) through “7, Middagh Street” in Meeting the British (1986) to the 150-page “Yarrow” in The Annals of Chile (1994)—incline very heavily to difficulty for its own sake. In these poems, subject and theme are far less important than treatment and style.
In Hay, the poem “Errata” consists entirely of imagined corrections to some unspecified text, and one of them is “for ‘ludic’ read ‘lucid’”: Muldoon implies that his playfulness is a higher form of clarity. It is possible, of course, that there is a master-design behind each of Muldoon's puzzles, which may reveal itself after repeated close readings. In this, as in its linguistic inventiveness and splintering of narrative, Muldoon's poetry is reminiscent of Joyce's prose, almost more than of any other poet's style.
If such a key does exist, however, it is guarded rather too well by the poet. Muldoon's displays impress more than they convince. And the reverse is also the case: when Muldoon seems intent on convincing us of his sincerity, when he writes directly about some personal experience, we are less impressed. His sensibility seems almost split between dazzle and sentiment, between the desire to perform and the desire to communicate or to bear witness. The topics that call forth this second style from Muldoon are the most intimate ones: his childhood, his family, his relation to Ireland and its turmoil.
Take, for example, the poem “Bran,” from Why Brownlee Left:
While he looks into the eyes of women Who have let themselves go, While they sigh and they moan For pure joy,
He weeps for the boy on that small farm Who takes an oatmeal Labrador In his arms, Who knows all there is of rapture.
This is an almost awkwardly sentimental poem, in which a grown man reminisces about his childhood dog. There are no conceits here, the rhymes are fairly straightforward; Muldoon does not need or want to put this statement through the mill of his more complex style. In part, we may attribute this simplicity to Muldoon's own stylistic evolution: the poems of his first few books are by and large far less conceited and complicated than those in The Annals of Chile and Hay. Yet even in his new volume Muldoon generally softens in the face of certain tender subjects, as in the title poem:
This much I know. Just as I'm about to make that right turn off Province Line Road I meet another beat-up Volvo carrying a load
of hay. (More accurately, a bale of lucerne on the roof rack, a bale of lucerne or fescue or alfalfa.) My hands are raw. I'm itching to cut the twine, to unpack
that hay-accordion, that hay-concertina. It must be ten o'clock. There's still enough light (not least from the glow
of the bales themselves) for a body to ascertain that when one bursts, as now, something takes flight from those hot-and-heavy box pleats. This much, at least, I know.
Here we have the complex rhymes (“Volvo” and “alfalfa”) and the delight in strange words (“lucerne or fescue”) that we see also in “The Bangle (Slight Return)”; but this poem has a very short trajectory, aiming at exactly the kind of small, quasi-spiritual affirmation (“this much, at least, I know”) that is so often found in contemporary poetry. Also common is the twinge of sexual regret in “White Shoulders”:
My heart is heavy. For I saw Fionnuala, “The Gem of the Roe,” “The Flower of Sweet Strabane,” when a girl reached down into a freezer bin to bring up my double scoop of vanilla.
Such poems suggest that the emotional sources of Muldoon's poetry are fairly simple, even familiar; and so, when we find such great unfamiliarity in some of his poems, we are tempted to conclude that their elaborate form is divorced from their function, which, in poetry, must always be some sort of statement, some communication. It is possible to express simple, even banal, emotions beautifully—by writing a song, say, as Yeats did in “To an Isle in the Water”:
Shy one, shy one, Shy one of my heart, She moves in the firelight Pensively apart.
She carries in the dishes, And lays them in a row. To an isle in the water With her would I go.
And it is possible that a very complex set of emotions, or emotions fleshed as ideas, will require stylistic obscurity for their expression. Eliot is the best example in modern English poetry of a poet whose difficulty is completely integral:
Dayadhvam: I have heard the key Turn in the door once and turn once only We think of the key, each in his prison Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison Only at nightfall, aethereal rumours Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus. …
It may be nearly impossible to say for certain what Coriolanus has to do with the preceding passage; but the sound and the rhythm, and the general mythic atmosphere that Eliot has created over the course of the whole poem, make the reference so natural that its actual strangeness is barely noticed. Difficulty, at its best, functions as it does in the best parts of “The Waste Land”: each element, no matter how strange, is inextricable.
Muldoon falls somewhere between these poles; his sensibility is less complex than his style. Only in one poem, “Incantata” from The Annals of Chile, is there a real sense that the poet is making his virtuosity do more substantive—more truly poetic—work. This is partially because the subject matter of the poem—it is an elegy for a dead lover—has an inherent emotional power. Indeed, at the beginning of the poem, Muldoon's style seems fatally at odds with that power:
I thought of you tonight, a leanbh, lying there in your long barrow colder and dumber than a fish by Francisco de Herrera, as I X-Actoed from a spud the Inca glyph for a mouth. …
Those four lines have so many clashing signals and registers—a dead body is “dumber than a fish,” Francisco de Herrera is juxtaposed with an Inca glyph, the American brand-name “X-Acto” follows a bit of untranslated Gaelic—that one doubts Muldoon's ability to resolve them all into a coherent mood. Yet he solves the problem with an ingenious conceit: the last twenty stanzas of the poem are a long list of things, evidently things known to and shared by the poet and the dead woman, that have vanished with her death. Virtuosity almost enforces the logic of a list, as the performer does a series of ever-more-astounding tricks; but memory also resorts to listing, piecing together items whose inner connection—whose syntax—has vanished with time. Thus Muldoon builds an ever-extending catalog, in ecstatic long lines, whose miscellaneity is part of its force:
That's all that's left. …
Of the bride carried over the threshold, hey, only to alight on the limestone slab of another threshold, of the swarm, the cast, the colt, the spew of bees hanging like a bottle of Lucozade from a branch the groom must sever. …
Of A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, of Seurat's piling of tesserae upon tesserae to give us a monkey arching its back and the smoke arching out from a smoke-stack, of Sunday afternoons in the Botanic Gardens, going with the flow of the burghers of Sandy Row and Donegal Pass and Andersonstown and Rathcoole, of the army Landrover flaunt-flouncing by with its heavy furbelow.
High culture and junk food, nature and art, marriage and death all find a place in Muldoon's poem; and after some initial resistance, we agree to their assembly. “Incantata,” more than any other of Muldoon's long poems, involves as well as impresses.
After “Incantata” and “Yarrow,” the stunningly complex poem that makes up well over two-thirds of The Annals of Chile, Muldoon's inventiveness seems to have cooled a bit in Hay. This book demonstrates the dangers that can arise when ingenuity becomes a habit, to be sustained for its own sake. Too often in Hay, Muldoon allows his premise—to record the changing of the seasons in a series of haiku (“Hopewell Haiku”), to write an autobiography by means of comments on rock albums (“Sleeve Notes”)—to do too much of the work, resulting in a poem that is less than the sum of its parts. And the poems in which there is less planning and more actual inventiveness—the opening “The Mud Room,” the closing sonnet sequence—have neither the scope nor the energy of his best displays.
The best poem in the volume, for sheer technical daring and exuberance, is the double-sestina “Green Gown.” It is another collage, in which the green gown “sported by Lecherie in The Faerie Queene” is at the center of a web that includes an attempted seduction, a game of pool, a pretentious academic discussion of poetry, and thoughts of Rilke. The odd-numbered stanzas have one set of end-words, the even-numbered stanzas have another, and they go through the stylized rotation of the sestina form in parallel; the envoy combines all twelve end-words. It is a labor just to realize that the pattern exists, and then to identify the permutations of end-words: “roes” becomes “Rose” and “Averroes,” “ivory” chimes with “Faerie,” “Fauré,” and “Porphyry.” When it is all over, one marvels at what Muldoon has managed to accomplish. The problem is that it is hard to remember what he said.
Still, at a time when poetry has all but forgotten the possibilities of adventurous form, when the majority of poets are trivially self-expressive and the minority with higher ambitions pursue a formless complexity, Muldoon's ability to construct his poems is rare, and admirable. Virtuosity may not be enough to make Muldoon's poems an inexhaustible resource, as the best poetry is; but it is enough to make them a source of pleasure.
SOURCE: Wills, Clair. “Introduction.” In Reading Paul Muldoon, pp. 9-23. Great Britain: Bloodaxe Books, 1998.
[In the following essay, Wills provides an overview of Muldoon's poetic style, his personal and intellectual perspective, and critical approaches to his work.]
What makes a poem by Paul Muldoon a Muldoon poem? Muldoon is at once the most characterful of contemporary poets, and the most elusive. There's a distinctive Muldoonian (or should it be Muldoonesque?) ring to his work which may be easy to spot, and even to imitate, but is perhaps less easy to define. Take the following poem, ‘Twice,’ which appeared in Muldoon's seventh poetry collection, The Annals of Chile, published in 1994:
It was so cold last night the water in the barrel grew a sod of water: I asked Taggart and McAnespie to come over and we sawed and sawed for half an hour until, using a crowbar as a lever
in the way Archimedes always said would shift the balance, we were somehow able to manoeuvre out and, finally, stand on its side in the snow that fifteen- or eighteen-inch thick manhole cover:
that ‘manhole cover’ was surely no more ice than are McAnespie and Taggart still of this earth; when I squinnied through it I saw ‘Lefty’ Clery, ‘An Ciotach,’
grinning from both ends of the school photograph, having jooked behind the three-deep rest of us to meet the Kodak's leisurely pan; ‘Two places at once, was it, or one place twice?’
Searching here for the fugitive Muldoon trademark we might note, first of all, the poem's characteristic whimsical, almost throwaway tone; for all the learned presence of Archimedes there's a chatty familiarity about these lines (those off-beat verbs, ‘squinnied’ and ‘jooked’) which sits lightly with the traditional sonnet form. The relaxed conversational measure cuts across the rhyme scheme to such an extent that we hardly notice the strict formal patterning, but it also complements it. You have to admire the poet's technical aplomb—the rhyming of ‘manoeuvre’ with ‘manhole cover,’ or the Irish word ‘ciotach’ (meaning left-handed) with ‘Kodak.’ These bold, inventive rhymes are a definite mark of the Muldoon style. The finnicky precision with which he describes the ‘fifteen- or eighteen-inch thick’ lump of ice is also typical. Muldoon writes as though he has all the time in the world to get his description exactly right, but at the same time bends to the extreme concision of the sonnet's laconic form. Then there's the weird, rather disconcerting image of ice forming as though growing ‘a sod of water.’ But the real flourish is the final image—so concise and so revealing—but perhaps above all, so impudent. Muldoon takes a childish Peter Pan-like pleasure in the self-replicating grinning schoolboy—how delicately he implies that the poet's gift too lies in his refusal to grow up, to act according to propriety. This cheeky tone befits a poem about doubleness, about having it both ways, about messing about with the laws of space, time and perspective. Clery is a trickster figure, a kind of magician who is able to divide himself in two, to clone himself, by running from one end of the photograph to the other. He is able to disrupt the normal laws of space and time, and this is an art he shares with the poet. The poet too is adept at self-creation by sleight-of-hand.
The notion of self-creation here might be opposed to ideas of lyrical self-expression—Muldoon's poems often seem like marvellous edifices which have been spun out of themselves. (His fellow Northern Irish poet Seamus Heaney once described Muldoon's technique as ‘walking on air’). The upshot of this is that although the poem projects a very definite voice, we get precious little idea of the person behind that voice. ‘Twice’ masquerades as an anecdote—a personal recollection. But the memory of the frozen barrel of water is so unlikely that we know we are on surreal terrain even before Muldoon admits his fiction (the ‘“manhole cover” was surely no more ice / than are McAnespie and Taggart still of this earth’). This isn't a personal memory after all. Then there's the difficulty of relating the two halves of the poem. The grammar of the poem (it's all one sentence) insists on connection through the use of colon and semi-colon. Yet we puzzle over the link between the image of Muldoon and a couple of friends levering a lump of ice out of a barrel, and the schoolboy prankster. At one level these elements are yoked together by the round piece of ice, which—when the poet ‘squinnies’ through it—acts as the lens of a camera. The ‘manhole cover’ becomes a kind of lens which offers a vision onto another, parallel realm. The image recalls the passage in Frost's poem ‘After Apple Picking’ where the poet skims a pane of ice from a drinking trough and holds it up to the world ‘of hoary grass’ (‘I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight.’). In ‘Twice’ the circle of ice is much harder to access (it's so thick it has to be sawed out); it becomes a device for viewing the past in a particular way. It offers a slant on reality—or perhaps, given the image of the camera, a take. And if we follow the logic further we might notice that the two moments are related on another level, through the figure of Archimedes. As the poet tells us, the Archimedean point is the point at which a lever is balanced, but Archimedes also invented the first lens (he used polished mirrors arranged in an arc to focus light in such a way that the Romans' ships caught fire). So far from a reflection on remembered experience the poem is an intellectual conceit. Though the comparison is perhaps not as violent as many in Muldoon's work it is certainly ingenious; it works by means of the juxtaposition of heterogeneous ideas—reminding us that Donne, and metaphysical poetry as a whole, is a key influence on Muldoon.
There's a further twist in the poem found in the hints of the underworld, of something corrupt. The names Taggart and McAnespie signal “Irishness,” but (again, typically) they are also emblematic, even allegorical. Etymologically the name Taggart derives from the Irish for ‘son of the priest’ (sagart), and similarly McAnespie means ‘son of the bishop.’ (The poem was published soon after the scandal surrounding the discovery that the Catholic Bishop of Galway, Eamonn Casey, had fathered a son in the 1970s—a fact which may, or may not, be relevant!) When we realise that Clery too is a “cleric,” and a left-handed one at that, it's clear that something “sinister” is going on. We might read Clery as an ill-omened figure, on the side of the devil and the underworld, able to harness divine power through illegitimate filial succession. But rather than an occasion for moralism on Muldoon's part the poem revels in this perverse lineage, in Clery's brazen ability to play with the rules. Despite the suggestions of godlike power, this is a conjuring trick not a miracle. Clery's trick upsets the laws of perspective—it introduces the element of time so that the still school photograph becomes a moving picture. The Archimedean lever, the lens—these work according to laws or principles, like the principle of perspective, but the poem suggests that once you have mastered the rules you don't have to be bound by them. Like Clery the poem doesn't recognise a terminus, a boundary between here and there—it says you can be in different places at once—you can do it twice, and from opposite ends of the spectrum.
Muldoon has used the word ‘whimful’ to describe his own poetry. It's a word which conjures all things not grave or earnest, yet at the same time suggests a level of seriousness. Rather than whimsy, this is poetry taking whim seriously, and subverting or diverting the straight lines of authority in the process. This wily, irreverent, even unprincipled side of his work is one of its most attractive aspects—there's something cool, almost glamorous about Muldoon's verbal agility, his mocking legerdemain—but it is also one of the most exasperating, since it offers us no clues to where he stands. Muldoon refuses to position himself, to say where he's coming from. Of course at one level the poetry is very firmly rooted in a sense of place, in contemporary Northern Ireland: in Belfast where Muldoon lived for sixteen years, but more often in the rural environment of his childhood home town, the Moy in County Armagh. In fact, Muldoon's childhood is represented in the most extreme detail; the poetry is full of references to his parents, his schooling, his friends, and above all his books. (Reviewing The Annals of Chile, Helen Vendler complained in exasperation, ‘Muldoon would like us to have read the books important to him, especially the ones he knew well as a boy.’)1 There's a surfeit of allusions ranging from the most arcane to the most intimate (even obscene). But paradoxically the wealth of cultural and autobiographical reference doesn't help to ground the poetry. It's almost as though there are too many pointers, and no real way of knowing how to read them. The poems affect a kind of take it or leave it attitude, what one unsympathetic critic has called a ‘cliquish nonchalance’2—a cocky assurance that we'll follow Muldoon down whatever densely private avenues he chooses to lead us. There's an almost maddening equanimity about a poem like ‘Twice,’ for example. It remains absolutely balanced between two separate visions, teasing us with our inability to choose between the real and the copy. More than just a playful image, this doubleness is integral to Muldoon's work. It ensures that we can never be quite sure how to take him; above all this is a poetry which preserves doubt.
If we cannot be sure of our ground reading the condensed lyric poems, we are even more at sea in the long narrative poems for which Muldoon is renowned—poems such as ‘Immram,’ ‘The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants,’ ‘Madoc—A Mystery’ and ‘Yarrow.’ Such poems are a maze of semantic levels, with constant restless metamorphosis of identities, locations and events. Learned references to literature and history are juxtaposed with childhood memories, contemporary events in Northern Ireland with the plight of the American Indians, bizarre and phantasmagoric visions with the trivia of his day-to-day life. Muldoon draws parallels between different cultures, times and identities, but they are far too multifarious, kaleidoscopic and chaotic for us to pin any one of them down. If, as one critic put it, each successive book is ‘more like a new religion than a book of poems,’3 how do we find a way in? Here again doubleness, doing things twice (or three or four times), is a characteristic poetic device. Muldoon uses repetition as one way of holding the mass of material together. Words, images and phrases occur in different contexts throughout the poems, and one of the ways we can begin to make sense of the narratives is by puzzling over these connections. We can interpret one occurrence of, say, nutmeg (in ‘Yarrow’) in terms of another thirty pages later. In ‘Madoc’ Muldoon parodies the detective story element in his work by announcing the ‘mystery’ element but offering the reader too many connections (‘no body, no motive, but stacks of clues’).4 Muldoon's long poems are large canvases full of relationships which work by addition, by the piling up of elements and the repetition of figures; they lack—or seem to lack—the central focus which would give it all meaning. The last thing we are likely to find in a Muldoon poem is a unifying perspective, a standpoint from which all the multifarious elements can be set in relation to each other. Instead we find distorted perspectives, such as the warping lens in ‘Twice,’ or perspective split in two, as in the recent poem ‘Between Takes’: ‘I was standing in for myself, my own stunt double.’
So how are we to understand this technique? Mark Ford has described Muldoon's long poems as ‘sealed off within the self-reflexive confines of their own ludic patterning, a maze of mirrors one enters arbitrarily and inexplicably.’5 But can a poem be justified purely in terms of the intricacy of its internal patterning? In response one might point out that Muldoon is not just creating formal patterns, but opening a space in which apparently chance connections and fortuitous verbal echoes can turn into new discoveries. Rather than a subjective journey of discovery, or a drama of consciousness, the poems offer an arena in which layers of meaning, image, story jostle one another, and slip into one another, mutating and transforming in the process. At first sight, this lack of an organising subjectivity in Muldoon's poetry might suggest that his work should be viewed in terms of postmodern practices of random accumulation, as an experiment in serendipity. But at the same time it is impossible to miss the poetry's strong sense of purpose and direction—impossible partly because Muldoon keeps emphasising his authorial control over the proceedings (as in the recent riddling poem ‘Rune,’ which concludes with a message to the reader: ‘Go figure’). As opposed to those forms of postmodern poetry in which it is up to the reader to produce connections, Muldoon keeps dropping hints that there is indeed a purpose and a pattern which we should try to understand. Despite the often apparently chaotic surface of his verse, and the lack of a single coherent perspective, there is a sense in which every element has been ordered, and nothing is random. Yet at the same time the poetry's purposefulness sits oddly with its cryptic, arcane and allusive qualities. Take the Irish etymology of the names in ‘Twice,’ for example. We might think that, once decoded, these names would offer a crucial clue to the meaning of the poem. But do they?—or are the names merely another of the false trails which Muldoon likes to lay—and, ultimately, how are we to tell a false trail from a true one? From this point of view, the ‘whimful’ character of Muldoon's work, far from suggesting arbitrariness, indicates a high degree of authorial control. But this artful engineering of unpredictability is of course something rather different from the way in which a more traditional kind of poem might be said to be unified by the author's subjectivity.
Something akin to this apparent conflict—between a poetry in which the contingent echoes and interconnections of language create meaning for the reader and one where everything is subservient to the author's control—has been acknowledged by Muldoon in a recent lecture. In ‘Getting Round: Notes towards an Ars Poetica’ he argues on the one hand for a kind of Keatsian negative capability on the part of the poet; it's not the poet's ingenuity which ‘sees’ a connection between words and images, rather ‘a connection sees me.’6 On the other hand he offers a dizzying reading of Robert Frost's poem ‘The Silken Tent’ which uncovers (or perhaps forces) mind-boggling levels of literary and autobiographical allusion. So far from ‘unknowing,’ Frost's poem, in Muldoon's reading, exemplifies an intense knowingness. Using a phrase perhaps more fitting for himself Muldoon calls it ‘calculated capriciousness.’ Muldoon insists that ‘it's the poet's job to take into account, as best he or she is able, all possible readings of the poem,’ a description of his poetic technique which puts it at the furthest remove from serendipity and felicitous accident. What's disorientating about Muldoon's work is that he represents the extremes of both positions. In claiming that the poet is ‘the first person to read or, more importantly, to be read by the poem,’ he stresses the spontaneous and unpredictable creativity of language, in opposition to notions of authorial intention and initiative. Yet he also underlines the primacy of the poet (‘the first person to read …’), and so rejects contemporary theories which would put the poet in the same position as any other recipient of the work, or even at a disadvantage. For Muldoon, the massively complex and allusive network of readings, meanings, influences, allusions which is compressed in a poem is both a labyrinth in which even the poet is lost and a supreme example of craftsmanship and control—a matter of design.
Certainly there are risks in this kind of poetic technique. Muldoon's poems have been portrayed by the less sympathetic as hermetic, even wilfully inaccessible, more dependent on a virtuoso play with language and literary tradition than on considered thought and feeling. Muldoon's sometimes exaggeratedly detached stance, his preference for complicated and “artificial” verse forms, his fondness for obscure literary and historical allusions, and the technical brilliance of his work have led to suggestions that the stylistic surface of his poetry, while dazzling, hides a philosophical and moral emptiness, that his verbal ingenuity outstrips his capacity for genuine empathy and insight. So Helen Vendler can write, ‘When I first read Muldoon, I thought—to put it bluntly—that his lyrics were impressively constructed but too often had a hole in the middle where the feeling should be.’7
Vendler's comment is a telling one, indicative of the kinds of doubt and insecurity that haunt us as we read Muldoon. An ironic stance often suggests superior knowledge, authority and control. If we took his irony in this way, then Muldoon's poetry might indeed appear committed to a process of rarefying the real world, transforming it into an aesthetic object which follows the whim of the writer. But paradoxically Muldoon's characteristic ironic tone may also be a sign not of cynicism, but of engagement. For irony can also articulate the consciousness of failure, and of lack of authority. True to the legacy of romanticism, Muldoon's poetry continually struggles with the desire to transform experience into an aesthetic artefact, while recognising the impossibility of fully grasping it. Lack of knowledge, failure, the elusiveness of understanding—these are not phrases readily associated with Muldoon's work, and certainly the knowing tone of many of the poems seems to belie such a stance. But the tension between these dimensions of irony, between control and lack of control, is central to an understanding of Muldoon's poetry as a whole.
The difficulty of locating the ‘feeling’ in Muldoon's poetry, of figuring out where he is coming from, is part of the experience of reading his work, and it would be foolish to deny it. On the contrary it seems fitting that we should have difficulty in situating a poetry which so consistently refuses to situate itself, and it may be that such scepticism about Muldoon's achievement is a paradoxical sign of its importance. Though thoroughly immersed in poetic tradition, Muldoon's poetry could be characterised as avant-garde in so far as the terms on which it might be accepted are not quite settled—we have a choice about whether we follow him or not, and in what way. On the one hand it isn't enough to interpret the work as a virtuoso performance of a new critical extended aesthetic pattern. But Muldoon doesn't sit easily in an experimental or postmodern framework either (an experimentalism which is at any rate in danger of becoming codified into an established and all too recognisable set of techniques). Muldoon's poetry forces us to take a risk, to gamble on its significance. In a sense this is true of all good poetry, of course—innovative work will always need to create the conditions in which it can be read. But Muldoon's work 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.
In fact, what seems most compelling about Muldoon's work is precisely that his adroitness and ingenuity in the use of language are not deployed at the cost of feeling. So far from banishing nostalgia, or as a recent poem puts it, feelings of ‘longing and loss,’ the poetry maintains an exquisite tension between sentiment and cynicism, yearning and a self-conscious suspicion of yearning. Muldoon's sense of cultural and geographical displacement, as a pervasive feature of contemporary experience, is interwoven with the nostalgic pull of his rural childhood in Armagh, most obviously in poems about his family, and his father in particular. His poetry keeps returning to a historical and biographical ground which, in one sense, is astonishingly, almost obsessively specific. But at the same time it voices the deep modern suspicion that such returns can never give us the security we seek, are never quite to be trusted. It is this very tension which gives his work its particular poignancy. In one sense, then, it would be gauche to appeal to the “facts” of Muldoon's life for some purchase on his poetry, for there the borderline between fact and fantasy, reality and imagination, the apparent fixity of the past and the flux of the present is a blurred and shifting one. But at the same time, to deny the relevance of such details entirely would be to go against Muldoon's own sense of those indelible traces which survive through all the dislocations of the contemporary world.
Paul Muldoon was born in 1951, eldest child of Patrick Muldoon, later a mushroom farmer and vegetable gardener, and Brigid Regan, a schoolteacher. After a few years living in the village of English in County Tyrone, the family settled on a farm in the townland of Collegelands, near the small town of the Moy in Armagh. It is this childhood landscape which, through all his many later migrations, has remained the constant in Muldoon's work. Indeed it might almost seem that his increasing temporal and geographical distance from the life of the Moy has caused an ever more urgent encounter with that inheritance in his poetry. For Muldoon has moved many times. In 1969 he left home to study for a degree in English at Queen's University Belfast, and it was here that he established a close relationship with the poet Seamus Heaney, who was teaching at that time at Queen's. This was an immensely important encounter for Muldoon. Heaney encouraged the younger author's writing, and introduced him to other figures of the Belfast ‘Group,’ including the poets Michael Longley and Derek Mahon. But as important as the support of older writers were his relationships with the other young aspiring poets among his fellow students, such as Ciaran Carson, Frank Ormsby and Medbh McGuckian. It was at university, too, that he met his first wife, Anne-Marie Conway. The vibrant poetry scene in Belfast at this time, its sense of new energies, undoubtedly helped to accelerate his poetic apprenticeship. Seamus Heaney brought Muldoon's work to the attention of Faber and Faber, and at the age of 21, Muldoon published his first collection, New Weather, to considerable critical acclaim.
After leaving university in 1973, Muldoon stayed on in Belfast, working as a producer of an arts programme at BBC Radio Northern Ireland for the next thirteen years. These years were turbulent ones for Muldoon personally. His marriage ended in divorce, and his subsequent relationship with the artist Mary Farl Powers also broke up painfully. They were also years of terrible political violence in Northern Ireland—with frequent terrorist bombings, riots, sectarian warfare and the repeated failure of political settlements. The many traumatic events of the period included the hunger strikes at the Maze prison, which provoked extreme levels of violence outside the prisons and claimed the lives of ten Republican prisoners. The experience of living in a society literally being torn apart by conflict is explored, often in oblique and phantasmagoric ways, in Mules, in Why Brownlee Left, and above all in Quoof, which was written at the time of the hunger strikes and is perhaps his most disturbing volume.
In 1986, after the death of his father, Muldoon left Northern Ireland. He spent short periods living in Dingle in the Irish Republic (on a writer's grant) and in England on academic fellowships at Caius College, Cambridge and the University of East Anglia in Norwich. In 1987 he settled permanently in the United States with his new wife Jean Hanff Korelitz. Since his emigration Muldoon has published several books, including the major collections Madoc—A Mystery,The Annals of Chile, and—most recently—Hay. And at the same time he has ventured into new forms of writing—for television, for theatre, and for the opera. He now lives in Princeton, New Jersey, where he is Professor of Creative Writing.
Muldoon's poetry is intimately bound up with his own personal history, with the local histories and people of his home town of the Moy, with his experiences of living in Belfast during the 1970s and early 80s, with emigration, with childhood, marriage and family. His preoccupations with the power of the past, with the nature of violence, as well as the resources which might combat it, are always focused though the lens of his own family and locality, filtered through an understanding of his personal inheritance. Yet despite this autobiographical aspect Muldoon's poetry could never be described as confessional, anecdotal or conventionally self-expressive in the manner of much contemporary lyric poetry. One of the most striking aspects of his work is his habit of mythologising elements of his biography—so for example in his second volume of poetry the relationship between his mother and father becomes emblematic of larger dualities and conflicts. He represents himself as a ‘mule’ or go-between in a mixed marriage between his school-teacher mother and farming father, between the “English” and “Irish” elements of Northern Irish identity, between the longing for poetic transcendence and a stubborn sense of materiality. In later work, figures such as Brownlee and the mercenary Gallogly become emblematic versions of aspects of his own experience, ways of thinking about the nature of destiny, our capacity for violence, and the work of poetry itself.
For obvious reasons Muldoon is often compared with his fellow Northern Irish poet Seamus Heaney, with whom he shares a rural, farming background. Both grew up as members of the Catholic minority in the North, in a society laden with religious and political tensions. Heaney was certainly an important model for Muldoon. Not only was he producing work in Belfast, but more importantly he showed how poetry could be made from the inconspicuous everyday details of a rural farming life. Beyond Heaney, this sense of a world of possibilities concealed in seemingly inauspicious situations can be traced back to Patrick Kavanagh. All three poets have their roots in the border country, though in Kavanagh's case his birthplace was County Monaghan in the Irish Republic. A sense of the epic potential latent in the apparently trivial incidents and conflicts of rural life is something all three poets have in common. Indeed in ‘Epic’ Kavanagh's mock concern about writing about a local village feud in the year of ‘the Munich bother,’ is allayed by the ghost of Homer: ‘He said: I made the Iliad from such / A local row. Gods make their own importance.’
But at the same time the emphasis in Muldoon's work on reinvention as much as expression of the self suggests other points of comparison, notably another Northern Irish poet, Louis MacNeice. MacNeice's interest in parable, allegory and the creation of mythopoeic worlds is an important influence on Muldoon's early poetry, and on Why Brownlee Left in particular. Indeed, it is telling that the Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry, which Muldoon published in 1986, begins with selections from Kavanagh and MacNeice, almost as though he were nominating them as the poetic godfathers of current Irish poetry. Of course current Irish poetry includes his own, but Muldoon performs a typical disappearing act in this book, offering neither an editorial introduction nor any selection of his own work. Yet somehow the fact that he's nowhere in the book implies that he's everywhere. Muldoon takes his poetry out of an Irish context, and suddenly it all looks like a context for his work. The only trace of him to be found is in a poem by Seamus Heaney dedicated to Muldoon, ‘The Widgeon,’ a poem which is itself an eloquent comment on Muldoon's felicitous yet suspect habit of ventriloquising others and thus turning everything into himself. Finding the voice-box of a bird which he has shot, he ‘blew upon it / unexpectedly / his own small widgeon cries.’
Muldoon's airy metamorphoses and his distrust of “the authentic” should perhaps warn us not to appeal too readily to the facts of a life history, or the pressures of a particular social and cultural climate, in seeking to understand his work. These circumstances have been reconfigured and transformed by the imagination from the very moment they begin to take effect. Nevertheless, a Muldoon himself has stressed, the poet ‘is necessarily a product of his or her time,’ and may even be the person ‘through whom the time may best be told,’ though he insists that for that very reason he should remain free of politics. The very fact that Muldoon finds it necessary to comment on the poet's political role is some measure of the importance of his Northern Irish background. In contrast to Britain or North America, poets in Ireland, throughout the twentieth century, have found themselves confronted with the inescapable question of the poet's responsibility, the balancing of political loyalties and engagements against the duty to the imagination, the relation of poetry to the realm of public affairs. Again, Heaney is an important figure here, who has conducted a serious debate on these questions in his poetry over many years. In several hugely influential discussions Heaney has written lyrically of the need to stay true to the imaginative power of poetry, its metaphysical force, in order to be faithful both to external reality and to the inner laws of the poet's being. For Heaney the efficacy of poetry is unequivocally aesthetic. In his collection of essays, The Redress of Poetry, Heaney discusses the particular ways poetry makes imaginative redress, and considers how this differs from political redress. He describes the redress of poetry in metaphysical terms, stressing its liberating effect on the spirit. Poetry presents
a reality which may be only imagined but which nevertheless has weight because it is imagined within the gravitational pull of the actual and can therefore hold its own and balance out against the historical situation. This redressing effect of poetry comes from its being a glimpsed alternative, a revelation of potential that is denied or constantly threatened by circumstances.8
It is no qualification of Heaney's judgment to acknowledge that the specific social and historical pressures in Ireland, and Heaney's need to bear witness to them, have a bearing on his concept of redress. But it does confirm a sense that it is almost impossible to think of poetry in Ireland outside a broad rhetoric of response, responsibility and redress. Indeed Heaney himself has acknowledged that his idea of ‘poetry as an answer, and answering poetry as responsible poetry,’ derives from his biography. And it is perhaps inevitable in any country with a wounded history that the relation of poetry to society, lyric to history becomes central.
We tend to think of lyric as the representation of an inner life through personal address, or solitary meditation and reflection. Certainly the concept of an inner life is not an easy one, particularly in the current philosophical climate, and arguably it has never really been possible to abstract it from social and historical forces. Indeed one way of understanding the concept of an inner life is as something social—peopled by the past (through mourning) and the future. It may be, however, that Irish poetry is particularly well placed to represent this, for lyric in Ireland has always been thought through history. I mean by this that the close relationship between poetry and politics or history in the Irish literary tradition, which at various moments has been a cause for concern or a matter for censure, may instead be the source of the vibrancy of contemporary lyric. Yeats's early invocation of the nineteenth-century poets Davis, Mangan and Ferguson, for example, was an attempt to forge an alliance with highly politicised verse; his own poetry, though often in the service of self-definition, always attempted to define that self in relation to social parameters, in the context of national and nationalist upheaval. More recently, Heaney's early insistence that he wanted to open the English ‘well-made lyric’ out to the pressures of Irish history also registers a sense of the limitations of anti-modernist lyric verse. It is here that we see a traditional rural inheritance being used to radical poetic effect, perhaps precisely because it is a dislocated inheritance. In volumes such as Heaney's Wintering Out and North and John Montague's The Rough Field, a new and challenging relation between language, landscape and history is forged, one which demands that the traditional lyric make room for mythic, epic and historical dimensions.
The burden of much recent Irish poetry has been to take account of the ghosts of the Irish past, without being trapped by them into inherited forms. There has been an intense and widespread rethinking of the relation between lyric and history—and this context is fundamental for an understanding of Muldoon. But though the question of what poetry ‘makes happen’ is central to Muldoon's work, his response is subtly different from that of Heaney. For Heaney's discussion is couched in terms of balance and resolution; he presents poetry as offering a vision of ‘illuminated rightness,’ a ‘glimpsed alternative’ to the confusions of society. Alluding to Robert Frost, he argues that the poems of the Ulster poet John Hewitt are best read as ‘personal solutions to a shared crisis, momentary stays against confusion.’ Referring to the situation in Northern Ireland, he suggests that poetry represents ‘a principle of integration within such a context of division and contradiction.’ While this account is of great importance for Muldoon (who, like Heaney, is greatly indebted to Robert Frost), he is resistant to any claims for poetry's moral or social force. Muldoon has described his stance as a consequence of his religious background: ‘This may be largely an emotional response to the baggage of my religious upbringing—all these ideas of “solace” and “succour,” never mind “restitution” and “redemption,” which are perfectly appropriate to religious, but not, I think, literary discussion.’9 Yet there may also be a generational effect here—unlike Heaney and other slightly older writers who took part in the early civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, Muldoon's adolescence was overshadowed by the beginning of the Troubles, perhaps fostering a feeling of political impotence rather than ethical responsibility. Either way Muldoon doesn't seek to bring the issue of redress to imaginative resolution in the manner Heaney suggests. Rather, his is a poetry of disturbance, of lack of fit, a poetry whose elements are always somehow awry. Muldoon's poetry poses redress as a problem—it registers the need to balance real life with an imagined counterpart, but worries about whether this is possible. In other words it is not that the poems achieve balance (with its connotations of equilibrium and even stillness), but that they keep struggling with the problem.
“Struggle” may a misleading word in this context however. For, despite the seriousness of the issues with which Muldoon's poetry is concerned, he deals with them with sharp-sighted wit and humour. This humour is integral to Muldoon's belief in what poetry can do. A harmonious imaginative redress may lie beyond the grasp of even poetic language, which—like all language—cannot escape the contingency and instability of meaning. But in its ability to offer insight into what seems like a blind play of forces, to distance us from ourselves through humour, perhaps even to offer us glimpses of the transcendent, poetry can give us ‘relief’—as Muldoon suggests in his long poem ‘Yarrow’—a temporary cure or respite from our pervasive ills.
At the risk of oversimplification I want to suggest that it is this hesitancy about the idea of poetic significance or utility which is distinctive to Muldoon, and sets him (along with certain of his contemporaries) apart from the older generation of contemporary Irish poets. As I have said, the desire for redress, for cure, even for liberation is fundamental to Muldoon's work. But the longing for poetic redress is pitched against a consciousness of poetry's failure to balance out against the historical situation which we most commonly call irony. In one sense the distinction I am drawing is between a poetry attuned to the traditional reflexes of romanticism and one imbued with a postmodern suspicion of poetic efficacy, but Muldoon's, of course, is both. He is a poet who doesn't offer us, as readers, the security of either political solutions or aesthetic resolutions. Muldoon's genius lies in his ability to transgress established borders and boundaries, between England and Ireland, and Ireland and America, but also between forms and styles of poetry.
This book is primarily a study of a poetic sensibility, and my critical judgments have been directed towards this end. In the pages that follow I have tried as far as possible to enter into the movement of Muldoon's poetry. Although I have elucidated references and allusions where necessary, I have always stayed close to the texture of the poems. This texture is in turn part of a broader interweaving of echoes, through which Muldoon builds the coherence of each collection. The individual poem invariably resonates, through a pattern of chimes and allusions, with the distinctive voice of the volume in which it appears. Muldoon has said that ‘I look upon each poem as being a little world in itself,’10 and we enter each book too as though it were a self-contained world. Accordingly I have devoted a chapter to each of the major collections, exploring the development of Muldoon's concerns, and of his conception of the poet's task, from volume to volume. Muldoon's is a broad and varied body of work, but for reasons of space I have regretfully left aside a critical consideration of his opera libretto, his plays, his children's books and translations.
The Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges once remarked that a good reader is harder to find than a good writer. Since he was quite clearly a very good writer he may well have felt he could afford to be generous about readerly virtues. But even if we need to reckon with an element of flattery in Borges' remark, he was still making a serious point. It is not just that reading properly is a skill, but also that it is extremely demanding. It requires of us, amongst other things, an effort of the imagination, the kind of openness which allows unexpected connections to come into view, and a readiness to live with indeterminacy. But perhaps most of all reading presupposes a willingness to follow the writer on unknown paths—a readiness to learn from him how to read him, and so be led in directions which open up new ways of thinking. Reading Muldoon involves a curious doubleness on the part of the reader. One the one hand, we need to be alert to the many levels of artifice and allusion which have gone into the making of the poem. On the other, we have to relax our reassuring hold on any unifying perspective, travelling across the canvas of the poem, rather than trying to stand back from it and survey it. We have to be open to contingent, unpredictable encounters, taking pleasure in the accidental, serendipitous interconnections of language. Only such a double stance will enable us to acquire the right style of attentiveness, to be traversed by the language of the poem—or to be ‘read by it,’ as Muldoon puts it in his discussion of Frost. This book is the record of my experiments in being ‘read by’ Muldoon—and so learning to read him.
Helen Vendler, ‘Anglo-Celtic Attitudes,’ New York Review of Books, 6 November 1997, 59.
John Carey, ‘The Stain of Words,’ Sunday Times, 21 June 1987, 56.
Michael Hofmann, ‘Muldoon—A Mystery,’ London Review of Books, 20 December 1990, 18.
Mark Ford, ‘Little Do We Know,’ London Review of Books, 12 January 1995, 19.
Paul Muldoon, ‘Getting Round: Notes towards an Ars Poetica,’ Essays in Criticism, 48 (2), April 1998, 109.
Seamus Heaney, The Redress of Poetry (London: Faber, 1995), 3-4.
Muldoon, ‘Getting Round,’ 126.
John Haffenden, Viewpoints: Poets in Conversation (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), 133.
SOURCE: Disch, Thomas M. “Job Opportunities in Contemporary Poetry.” Hudson Review 52, no. 2 (summer 1999): 313-22.
[In the following excerpt, Disch offers a negative assessment of Hay.]
I have for a long time been of the opinion that writing poetry, like good manners at dinner, should be a commonplace among any group of cultivated people, and is not a specifically “professional” accomplishment. There will always be those who excel at it, as there are those who are handsomer or dance with more panache. But the often aggrieved expectation that the creation of a body of poems entitles one to a stipend sufficient to subsist on and have free holidays at an artists' colony seems to me grasshopperism at its most presumptuous. Yet such has become an article of faith not only among poets of the middle rank, especially those who conduct writing workshops for a living, but also among the swelling ranks of bureaucrats who manage the foundations, colonies, and government offices devoted to the arts' own little welfare state within the larger one. For the price of just one jet bomber, these advocates insist, every poet in the country could be sent to Jamaica for a month of poetry bake-offs.
It may well be that there are some poets who would not fill even the slenderest of volumes without being funded by a trust fund or the federal Maecenas. I have one grasshopper friend who insists this is a universal truth and offers Sylvia Plath as an instance of the toll exacted on a poet's nobler nature by household chores. But there are persuasive counterexamples …
Among full-time professional poets at the apogee of their professional careers there is no one now in better odor than the Irish-American Paul Muldoon. All five of the back-cover blurbs on his ninth volume of poetry, Hay, hail him as “one of” if not outright the “most”—and then take your pick: accomplished (twice), inventive, ambitious, beautiful, or, simply, greatest (twice). Surely, Muldoon has an abundance of talent and has honed his craft to a fine edge. His poetry machine would seem to be always activated, so that in a sequence of ninety haiku (with rhyming first and third lines) he strikes off riffs of verse at virtually every footstep. Some are spot-on, some take unriddling, a few are opaque as concrete (“From the white-hot bales / Caravats and Shanavests / step with white-hot flails”). Yet for every closed door I am confident the author could supply a key, and on the whole Muldoon's haiku are quicksilver, with the brushwork of a Sargent watercolor. Much the same can be said for stretches of Muldoon's longer poems.
The question for such a poet is what task to adopt worthy of the machinery. Muldoon's chosen task has been the Wordsworthian Sublime with a twist of surrealism, a choice that implies that the poet's daily life, when mediated by his Muse, is the stuff theogonies are made of. His old girlfriends are the White Goddess, and his free associations vatic utterances. It follows from this that each of his poems becomes a kind of Holy Writ on which Muldoon himself may then write an entire Midrashic literature, the key to which is a perfect knowledge of Muldoon's taste in wine and pop music, his pets' peculiarities, all the books he's ever read, and the history of Ireland. The rhyme schemes of poems in one book reappear in later poems in reverent homage to the poet's ever vaster and more mellifluous oeuvre. He is a law unto himself.
From this description it must be evident that I am not among those, like Richard Tillinghast of the New York Times Book Review, who consider Muldoon “one of the two or three most accomplished rhymers now writing in English,” unless one quibbles over “rhymer” and narrows the field by ninety percent. I think Muldoon's solution to the problem that all abundantly gifted and fertile poets face at mid-career is not one calculated to enlarge the spirit any more than a set of exceptionally well-wrought crossword puzzles, and my own candidate for “one of the two or three most” etc. would be the no less abundant Albert Goldbarth, whose latest collection, Beyond, is, line by line, almost the antithesis of Hay.
SOURCE: Kitchen, Judith. “Tensions.” Georgia Review 53, no. 2 (summer 1999): 368-84.
[In the following excerpt, Kitchen praises Muldoon's verse in Hay, though finds the collection inferior to his previous volume, The Annals of Chile.]
It's early morning. I'm sitting in a corner window on the thirty-fifth floor of a hotel in San Francisco. Outside, nothing but fog, saving me from my own strong fear of heights. Where yesterday I could look out on city streets, moving lights, water in the distance, today there is nothing. No little cat feet, but a dense gray wall of impenetrability. Though if I should go down in the elevator and walk out the door, I could move through it easily enough.
Suddenly, a whir in front of me, and a wire mesh cage holding two men appears from above. They move past and disappear; I only know they are there because the ropes outside my window sway back and forth, revealing the tension of the cage in its circumscribed movement below me, thirty some floors above street level. Looking through the window on my right, I see two more men in a similar cage, though theirs is narrower, surrounded by what looks all too much like flimsy green canvas. They wear hard hats—one yellow, one white—and are tethered to their narrow walkway by yellow fabric straps. For fifteen minutes, with black tape and a razor, they work on one section of a ledge. Holding the building together with black duct tape, or so it appears, though now they are rubbing and rubbing. Out of the fog, the sudden appearance of the technicians who hold the structure together.
When I look out again, one of the men is gone, the one with the white hat. Where did he go? And how? He's thirty-three stories up, and the windows don't open, do they?
Sometimes the world hands you metaphor. For the past hour, I've felt a bit unsettled, the way I feel when reading Robert Hayden's “Those Winter Sundays”—the mystery that still resides in the phrase “fearing the chronic angers of that house.” I've also felt astonished, the kind of astonishment that quickens every time I hear “In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo” and think, Where did that come from? And I've been unexpectedly delighted, as in “Time held me green and dying / Though I sang in my chains like the sea.” At my window I have, I now realize, experienced the underlying tensions of a poem.
What has happened to tension? That tug of war between the line and what the line can contain? The standoff between form and content? The tectonic slippage between what is stated and what is implied?
Tension is not simply a matter of craft, but of something internal—the poet's willingness to launch him- or herself into unknown territory. All too often, I open a book to find what I have come to call the “standard poem of self-expression”—slack lines of reportorial poetry in which the poet recounts circumstances with the assumption that, because he or she is thinking “correctly,” the reader will, by definition, agree with what is being said. And I may. But I do not read only for confirmation of my own ideas. So the sameness—if not of content, then of technique and, worse, stance—worries me. What is the future of an art whose practitioners won't take genuine risks, including the risks of self-discovery, and who congratulate themselves for speaking what amount to no more than preconceived or prepackaged “truths”?
Randall Jarrell worried about something similar—but he was concerned about the critics: “May one of them say to the others, soon: ‘Brothers, do we want to sound like the Publications of the Modern Language Association, only worse? If we don't set things straight for ourselves, others will set them straight for us—or worse still, others won't, and things will go on as they are going on until one day even you and I won't be able to read each other, for sheer boredom.’” Now poets seem to have left themselves vulnerable to the same charges. Sometimes I suspect my own abilities to keep an open mind, but mostly I've come to realize that my boredom is at stake—and that contemporary poetic practices have done little to alleviate it. In a profound way, boredom is the ultimate test in art: if the work stops being genuinely interesting, it doesn't matter. Art that disturbs us is always more interesting than art that proclaims, or just solicits approval. I like the risk-takers. The poems that hold my interest are the ones that exhibit some form of tension.
The one remaining man (the one with the yellow hat) pushes a button and one side of his walkway drops a few inches. He's standing on a sloping board! I'm terrified by the very thought of it. And then a hand—only a hand, seemingly disembodied—appears through the railing above him, handing him something—more tape? some putty?—but whose hand is it, and how did it get there?
When Robert Frost wrote in his Notebook “for my pleasure I had as soon write free verse as play tennis with the net down,” it was necessary to think about what he conceived of as his “net.” Surely it was not merely the empty husk of traditional forms—the sonnet without substance—but a second net of his own devising. Jeffrey Meyers, a recent Frost biographer, has stated that “he maintained that his verse sprang from the strain or tension that evolves when a strong rhythmic pattern, based upon strict or loose iambic meter, is played against the irregular variations of common speech.” So Frost built his own net, a warp of form through which to weave the weft of colloquial speech, the “sentence sound” that gave his poems their particular flavor. Note the surprising force in the ten one-syllable words that open the blank verse of “Directive”: “Back out of all this now too much for us.”
The concept of warp and weft is a useful one—although it's often impossible to tell one from the other in the finished fabric. Still, we do know that the warp provides a structure across which the weft has been woven. Form, of course, supplies one external frame, but often the warp is internal. The poet may choose any of a number of aspects of craft—patterns of speech, patterns of sound, an appeal to the visual, extended metaphor, image, tone, narrative, lyric intensity—and then put them together in any of a number of combinations. That is, one poet may seem to work sound against a structure of “given” metaphor while another may do the opposite, working metaphor against a pattern of sound. The problem is to tell warp from weft, and possibly it can't be done in any ultimate sense. Yet it's an interesting way to think about poems, and it may be that readers intuitively understand when a poet is working in more than one direction. The result—the individual poet's unique blend—can be seen as one source of tension in a poem.
In the 1960's, when both Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath shifted from formal structures toward free verse, the result was an emphasis on content. But it was content enhanced by the way their lines became more compressed, their imagery more raw and urgent. Interestingly, their poems remain compelling when so many modern-day “reruns” do not, so it cannot be merely the confessional mode (now all too familiar) nor the content itself (the ante of victimization has been raised in several successive rounds) that makes their poems survive the test of time. I suspect that, for both Lowell and Plath, the poem was a quest, a necessity, rather than a statement.
Personal experience makes a natural warp, but over the years I've realized that, without some other element of craft, content is what is ultimately boring. Content-driven poems are good for the first reading, but they often have little to fall back on—and any retold story usually does begin to fray. The poems that remain as surprising the twentieth time as the first (and perhaps more surprising for some newly perceived nuance) have elements that hold our interest over and above content, and in the face of shifting attitudes. Pablo Neruda infuses his work with the magic of metaphor, welding the abstract to the concrete. William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore intrigue the eye, while Wallace Stevens and Theodore Roethke pique the ear. In this way, they create intricate spaces for new and ever more intricate readings.
And now the hand is hitching a strap to the railing and the second man (the white hat) is climbing back over it into the cage. The scene looks exactly as it did before. If I'd looked away, I might never have known what had gone on, how they went about their business in and out of the cage. And in front of me, still the fog, still the ropes that sway with the weight of what they are holding, out of sight below me. And beyond them, the city I cannot see, but know is there. …
Paul Muldoon is America's master of form. (That's right, he has become a citizen, though Ireland may not gladly give him up.) He is so adept, has so much dexterity, that in fact form doesn't serve as much of a “net”—he seems to need to generate increasingly elaborate superstructures (forms within forms), almost as though in building them up he can create the effect of tearing them down. For Muldoon, it's ideas that matter. He is so referentially brilliant that idea and form together can strike spectacular sparks—but only sparks. Muldoon needs to engage emotional as well as intellectual material in order to create the great poems of which he is capable. In his previous book, The Annals of Chile (1994), he gave us one of the most important poems of the last half of this century in “Incantata” and a significant long poem in “Yarrow.” I find it hard not to read his new book, Hay, in the afterglow of this accomplishment.
But what is a poet to do when he or she has written something of genuine importance? Wait years for the next great poem? Or follow William Stafford's advice to “lower your standards and go on”? Muldoon seems to have opted for keeping his engines idling, demonstrating once again his ready wit and facility with words as he explores just about every aspect of living. “Sleeve Notes” is a commentary on twenty-one pop musicians or groups from Jimi Hendrix to Dire Straits; a sequence of one hundred haiku chronicles the changing seasons in New Jersey. Some of the latter work beautifully in the traditional sense:
Beyond the corn stooks the maples' firewood detail. Their little red books.
Others have the feel of mere reportage:
I've upset the pail in which my daughter had kept her five—“No, six”—snails.
Rhymed haiku, perfect syllable counts, but to what end? The enterprise does not quite live up to its promise, reveals nothing new about the old form, marks time but does not remake it.
In Hay, Muldoon reveals his linguistic agility, his erudition, his knowledge of pop culture, his cunning wit, his playful perceptions, and his ability to toss them all into one grab bag and pull them back out in innovative poetic exercises. What this collection hints at, gives us glimpses of but does not truly provide, is poetry—the kind that takes off the top of your head. The poems of Hay are mental puzzle-making, material looking for significance, causing me to suspect that this book was published too soon after the last one, that his publishers have done him no favor exhibiting his facility without demanding more depth. Even poems with the immediacy of personal content, like “Longbones,” end up feeling a bit contrived, orchestrated to fit their rhymes rather than allowing form to reveal inner urgencies. The long finale, “The Bangle (Slight Return)” is so playful—it takes its cue from Oscar Wilde, adds Australian geography and slang, incorporates an earlier play on “errata” to undercut its own vocabulary—that, while it is decidedly a tour de force, one wonders what force it is touring.
Oddly, the book's two concrete poems are among its most moving. “The Plot” simply spells out “alfalfa” over and over until the empty space in the middle of the poem asserts its “alpha” between two “alfas,” and something begins to sprout. “A Half Door Near Cluny” takes “stable” and makes the reader see stables, table, tables, able, lest, stab, blest, until the brain cannot but add blessed, establish—house and stable meshed with what the door reveals, conceals. With stark simplicity, Muldoon has shown us how a word can contain multitudes.
Three poems in Hay demonstrate the tensile strength of Muldoon's best work, easily walking the tightrope of craft while below him content swirls and boils. “Wire,” a sestina in which the repeated words become increasingly ominous, superimposes memories of war-torn Ireland on an innocent walk in the Connecticut countryside until the speaker imaginatively enters the territory of the terrorist, all innocence transformed by the distorting lens of suspicion: “the endless rerun / of Smithfield, La Mon, Enniskillen, of bodies cut // to ribbons as I heard the truck engine cut / and, you might have read as much between the lines, / ducked down here myself behind the hide. As if I myself were on the run.”
“Third Epistle to Timothy” also contains an imaginative entry into the life of another, as Muldoon reconstructs his father's days as an eleven-year-old servant to the Hardys of Carnteel. The boy is subjected to hard physical labor and the fire and brimstone of his boss's religious fervor, coupled with the fervent history of the Irish cause. The tenth and final section fuses that experience with those of literature, ending with as dark a vision of the future as of the past:
That next haycock already summoning itself from windrow after wind-weary windrow while yet another brings itself to mind in the acrid stink of turpentine. There the image of Lizzie, Hardy's last servant girl, reaches out from her dais of salt hay, stretches out an unsunburned arm half in bestowal, half beseechingly, then turns away to appeal to all that spirit troop of hay treaders as far as the eye can see, the coil on coil of hay from which, in the taper's mild uproar, they float out across the dark face of the earth, an earth without form, and void.
In a substantive and quite astonishing feat, “They That Wash on Thursday” rhymes each of its fifty lines on the word “hand”—fifty lines in which Muldoon moves from the initial gamelike quality of his rhyming to a hard look at the hard life of the speaker's mother and the hands of the women he has loved, from wry self-mockery toward a serious conclusion where Ireland and America coexist in his daughter's freehand drawing of “a green field on a white hand.”
I believe that Paul Muldoon will be seen as one of America's finest poets (as he is already considered one of Ireland's); added to his previous accomplishments, the range and substance of these three poems confirms this prediction. For Muldoon, content is the tension because he always plays his tennis with more than one net.
And now there is a third figure—a dark-haired young man without a hat, wearing blue straps—in the cage. The two others are lowering the cage and he is leaning out, examining the corner of the building, testing the windows for tightness. The two stand by with their razors and tape. Now the one without a hat is talking on a telephone. He cups his hand around his ear, as though to hold sound at bay. I, of course, can hear nothing.
SOURCE: Birkerts, Sven. “About Paul Muldoon.” Ploughshares 26, no. 1 (spring 2000): 202-08.
[In the following essay, Birkerts offers an admiring commentary on Muldoon's challenging and idiosyncratic poetic style.]
I first heard of Paul Muldoon through the affectionate enthusing of Seamus Heaney, who donned his conspiratorial mien—as if agents of some imagined opposition might be lurking near—and confided that his somewhat younger compatriot was “the real thing.” I sought the work out, though I'll confess I was some time coming to it. This would have been in the mid-1980's, the time of Quoof and earlier collections. Accustomed to the solid subject-focused work of Heaney, who had taught Muldoon as an undergraduate, I thought Muldoon was working a bit too hard at the “Musee des Beaux Arts” thing, enthroning obliquity. But eventually, I made my connection. I readjusted whatever lenses I use to read poetry, and then, suddenly, they did not seem oblique at all. They seemed right, and much of the work of others, through that peculiar inversion of readerly tastes, now came across as lumberingly obvious.
Born in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, in 1951, Muldoon grew up in a house without many books. “Believe it or not,” he writes, responding to my question about literary influence, “the only reading material we had in the house was The Junior World Encyclopaedia, which I read and reread as a child. Other books must have come from the local lending library … But the Encyclopaedia was my text of texts.” The critic is tempted to take this cue and run with it, to find here the very source of the jackdaw-building principles of the poems, which, especially in more recent years, can scarcely curb their lore-braiding. On top of everything else, Muldoon is, in his poems, a retriever of the golden fact, a breaker-open of the habit-encrusted outer shell of words, a maker of Cornell collages from the materials of perception and recollection.
It is not usual for a poet of Muldoon's years to have not only an oeuvre—eight volumes of poetry, as well as numerous chapbooks, plays, and children's books—but an oeuvre disclosing significant shifts and evolutions. But Muldoon, more than most, is an artist in high flight from self-repetition and the deadening business of living up to created expectations. His books seem always to be in reaction to the work that has gone before, though not in an arbitrary and willed way, but in a way of testing, pushing hard at latent elements, and exploring hints dropped in earlier poems. Thus we see the balanced take on the unemphatic daily in New Weather (1973) open out to the more engaged social and political querying of Mules (1977); the transitional Why Brownlee Left (1980) ushers in the more subjectively idiosyncratic Quoof (1983), with its ramped-up wordplay and more venturesome rhyming. Meeting the British (1987) showcases, in “7, Middagh Street,” Muldoon's gift for eccentric impersonation, as he imagines himself inside the language-skin of figures like W. H. Auden, Louis MacNiece, Carson McCullers, and others who passed through Auden's ménage à terre.Madoc: A Mystery (1986) plays out a complex historical imagining, in the words of reviewer Lucy McDiarmid, “what might have happened if the Romantic poets Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge had indeed come (as they planned in 1794) to America and created a ‘pantisocracy’ (‘equal rule for all’) on the banks of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania.” I suspect, only half in jest, that Muldoon fastened on the subject so that he could work some acrobatic variations on that most beautiful word, “Susquehanna.”
With The Annals of Chile (1994) and Hay (1998), we see the needle of the work flinging back toward center, preserving the outré rhymes and venturesome asides, but returning to a more personal and emotionally exposed subject matter, as in the tour-de-force long poem “Incantata” that closes The Annals of Chile. There is the sense, in these later books, that the poet has drawn the circle wide and returned, interesting in view of the fact that since 1987 he has made his home in the U.S. (he teaches at Princeton University) and is a U.S. citizen.
Or maybe it's not so interesting after all. Maybe these plate shifts on the outer crust have little or nothing to do with the chthonic element, which is all about language and memory and may well obey laws of its own.
Muldoon has noted somewhere, in interview, that he first began writing poems as a way to get around a certain teacher's weekly essay requirement, an easy way, that is, and if one wonders anything about the evolution of this poet's art, it has to be something like: What happened between the initial presumption of ease and the realization that must underwrite any serious writer's perseverance in the face of the extraordinary difficulty of getting the words to stick to the page? The business gets more interesting when we remark the contradiction between the casual-seeming surface—the unemphatic rhythms that tighten suddenly around some image or offbeat association, the details extracted as if by crow's beak from the realms of the overlooked—and the prodigious, patient labor that goes (by admission) into their making.
I don't believe that there is any commonsensical explanation for how this all works. I would go, rather, to the poet's own assertion—that part of the magic of writing poetry is that “one knows as little as possible” about what one is doing. But such a profession of ignorance is not so much a retreat of intellect before the mysteries, an abjuration of responsibility, as it is a hard-fought metaphysical alignment of self to language and perception, a clearing away of expectations and the myriad comfort-giving templates that tell the poet what the poem should be before the poem itself has had a say in the matter.
Yes, this makes it sound as if Muldoon is a language mystic, a believer in annunciations and threads of inspiration. Queried about this, he responded: “I do absolutely think of it”—the process of writing—“as a mystical experience.” Composition, he avers, is a kind of divination. Muldoon speaks of giving himself over “to the force of language, for which one is a conduit or medium.” He does add, however, that “the ‘divining’ metaphor breaks down in the sense that the rod is at once unknowing … and absolutely knowing. In other words, all the intelligence one can muster (and probably some that one can't) needs to be brought to bear on making sense of precisely what it is that is being divined.”
This may seem like a somewhat recondite reflection from a poet so thoroughly immersed in the immediacies of the immanent, the detail-nubbled surface of the world. Then, moreover, there is the admission—this from the master of the windfall trouvé—that Muldoon's favorite poets, the poets who “continue to matter most,” are Donne, Byron, Keats, Frost, and Yeats.1 How do we explain the obscure propagation of taste and influence in any writer's work?
In Muldoon's case—and of course I'm guessing—it seems a steady confrontation between the irresistible force of what has been done and the immovable determination to not repeat or echo the work of the past. For the sounds and verbal connivings of the masters are precisely what stands in the way of the fresh perception.
In the opening lines of “The Mud Room,” the long poem that opens Muldoon's most recent collection, Hay, the poet writes:
We followed the narrow track, my love, we followed the narrow track through a valley in the Jura to where the goats delight to tread upon the brink of meaning. I carried my skating rink, the folding one, plus a pair of skates laced with convolvulus, you a copy of the feminist Haggadah, from last year's Seder. I reached for the haggaday or hasp over the half door of the mudroom in which, by and by, I grasped the rim not of a quern or a chariot wheel but a wheel of Morbier propped like the last reel of The Ten Commandments or The Robe.
Reading, slipping in and out of comprehension like a feverish patient slipping in and out of adjoining dreams, I think: “For better or worse—mostly better—this poem, this book, could not have been written by anyone else writing in English today, or ever.” If one of the triumphs of poetic voice is perfect originality in the wedding of perception to diction, then Muldoon has indeed triumphed. Here is the utterly credible wobble of the speaking voice, the easy melding of a lightly undertaken lyric convention—“We followed the narrow track, my love”—with the poker-faced subversion of that high address—“I carried my skating rink, / the folding one”—chased by a sudden drop into the obscurantist maneuvers that only the deepest spelunking rhymer could fetch forth. I love it, the sense I have of being poised between vastly divergent registers of feeling—between bemused ironic detachment and the drive-by recognition of profundity (always there in the work); how the sound of a word can, mid-line, tip us one way or another. I love the determined tethering of sense to the progress of the outlandish matings (“Haggadah”/“haggaday”), the etymological surprises (“haggaday,” “quern”) that are like little Advent windows into the suddenly cavernous house of language.
Yet I heed, too, the image of the goats who “delight to tread upon the brink / of meaning,” for it describes something of my feeling as a reader, that the downside of Muldoon's exciting brinkmanship is that I quite often find myself treading the fine line between what feels like a strikingly subtle apprehension and what could easily pass for non-sense, which I will maintain is different from nonsense. Not that Muldoon's lines cannot almost always be pursued into some ultimately precise signification, but on these occasions I speak of the forensics-caliber labors of figuring out are not repaid by that which is figured out.
Example. Here is a passage from the same poem, a few lines farther along. Muldoon writes:
There a wheel felloe of ash or sycamore from the quadriga to which the steeds had no sooner been hitched than it foundered in a blue-green ditch with the rest of the Pharaoh's war machine was perfectly preserved between two amphoras, one of wild birdseed, the other of Kikkoman. It was somewhere in this vicinity that I'd hidden the afikomen at last year's Seder.
I delight, as always, in the uncanniness, the adventuring stretch, but I also become aware that I am not so much reading a poem of insidiously complex intent as I am testing myself on a cunning obstacle course, viewing the mere wresting forth of sense a sufficient achievement.
But this path of higher risk is Muldoon's way out and way forward. It is a following out of implications latent in the work at least since Quoof, and the effect on the poetry culture has been tonic. Muldoon has moved the fall-line, giving poets everywhere a new sense of permission about rhyme and narrative logic, not to mention scale and surface texture. Influence moves first, I think, by way of sound and rhythm. The influencer, like some influenza, creating in fellow poets a restlessness—the old words do not want to rest on the page like they used to—as well as a quickening, as from something unforeseen in the breeze. On top of his many achievements—through them—Paul Muldoon is just such an influencer.
The list of Muldoon's influences and favorite writers is not, of course, confined to these five poets who all have five letters in their last names. In written response to this interviewer's questions, he also cited the prose of Sterne, Melville, Joyce, and Stevenson. “Treasure Island is one of my very favorite books. I'd love to be able to write something like that.” Also mentioned favorably were Ashbery and Simic. But the real revelation—and delight—to me was the poet's genuinely serious regard for some of our leading songwriters. I was responding to a pair of lines in the poem “I'm Your Man” in Hay, in which Muldoon offers, apropos Leonard Cohen: “his songs have meant far more to me / than most of the so-called poems I've read.” Asked about this, he responded: “It does seem a little excessive, I suppose, but I'm going to stick to it. I'd say ‘Suzanne’ or ‘Bird on the Wire’ or ‘Joan of Arc’ are much better constructed, are built to withstand more pressure per square inch, than most poetry we meet in most magazines and, alas, find collected in most slim volumes. … Cohen has a fine ear, too, something that's rare enough even among quite highly respected poets. So, I'd go so far as to say that, despite the fact that they're involved in a project which is not strictly ‘literary,’ writers like Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen or Paul Simon or Joni Mitchell or Warren Zevon score an extraordinarily high number of successes. The fact that they are involved in musical enterprises to boot means that they are likely to ‘mean far more,’ if only because one's more likely to be exposed to them. There's nothing strange about this, I think. Nothing mysterious. It's a function of the impact of popular culture, particularly on the second half of the twentieth century, and it's one of the reasons my comment on Cohen might seem not in the least excessive to many people of my generation.”2
Yes, I know that David Foster Wallace does this all the time, but I frankly couldn't think of another way to work in the to-me-fascinating fact that Muldoon—picture it—plays the electric guitar, about which he writes: “I've got one in the basement, along with a very impressive range of effects boxes which allow me to harbor the illusion that I sound half decent. The fact that Leonard Cohen has gone off the road prompts me to think there might be a place for me on it, I suppose, so I'm working towards that end.”
SOURCE: Wheatley, David. “In the Gasworks.” London Review of Books 22, no. 10 (18 May 2000): 30-1.
[In the following review, Wheatley lauds To Ireland, I, Bandanna, and Muldoon's translation of Aristophanes's The Birds.]
Marcel Aymé's novel Le Passemuraille, about a man who can walk through walls, would have interested Thomas Caulfield Irwin (1823-92). Irwin is cited in Paul Muldoon's To Ireland, I for a neighbourly dispute he was having with one John O'Donovan. ‘He says I am his enemy,’ Irwin wrote, ‘and watch him through the thickness of the wall which divides our houses. One of us must leave. I have a houseful of books; he has an umbrella and a revolver.’ Seasoned readers of Muldoon know all about trying to see through inscrutable partitions: for most of his career he has resisted the temptation to come out from behind his poems and explain himself in prose. Before To Ireland, I, Muldoon's critical pronouncements had always been a scarce commodity, not least in The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry with its notorious editorial no-show.
His Clarendon Lectures are unlikely to mean that Muldoon will be knocking down the wall between poetry and prose, but at least they represent a courtesy visit to the genre next door. In Macbeth Malcolm and Donalbain flee Scotland after Duncan's murder, Malcolm to England; ‘To Ireland, I,’ says Donalbain, never to be heard of again. Macbeth is short enough, but noting the inordinate length of many of Shakespeare's other plays Samuel Ferguson offered the public a volume of Shakespearian Breviates in 1882, cutting each play down to two hours. ‘Perhaps nothing the man has done reveals quite so much of his egotism and his self-assurance,’ Arthur Deering wrote in Sir Samuel Ferguson, Poet and Antiquarian (1931). Perhaps nothing Muldoon has done reveals quite so much of his egotism and his self-assurance as his attempt to present in A-Z form the entirety of Irish literature in these four lectures. Two of Muldoon's children's books, The Noctuary of Narcissus Batt and The O-O's Party: New Year's Eve follow an alphabetic pattern, and To Ireland, I begins with the oldest Irish abecedary poet of all, the conveniently initialled Amergin. This ur-bard's ‘Alphabet Calendar’ receives an ingenious reading in The White Goddess, Muldoon reminds us, where its Protean swagger (‘I am a stag: of seven tines / I am a flood: across a plain’) is shown to conceal an alphabet of druidic tree-lore. Amergin probably wouldn't have recognised the Roman alphabet; Ogham would have been more his style. Organising To Ireland, I around the Ogham alphabet, found in ancient Celtic and Pictish inscriptions, is probably beyond even Muldoon's ingenuity, but its immersion in all things Gaelic is one of the book's most striking characteristics. Some of Muldoon's earliest poems were in Irish, though he didn't feel confident enough to publish in that language until Kerry Slides in 1996. In the meantime he had reworked the voyage tale Imram Curaig Mafle Dúin in Why Brownlee Left, translated prolifically from Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and made Irish one of the central elements in The Annals of Chile, where it is spoken by the mysterious S—.
It is from Gaelic literature that Muldoon takes the organising metaphor for what is a Joycean ‘collideorscope’ of ‘conglomewriting.’ If you're sceptical about Beckett or Elizabeth Bowen's familiarity with the Pairlement Chloinne Tomáis or Gerard Murphy's Early Irish Lyrics, Muldoon argues that there's no distinction between one text and the next when the féth fíada or ‘magic mist’ comes down. This gives him a free hand ‘to think,’ in the words of his poem ‘Something Else,’ ‘of something else, then something else again’ in the course of his alphabet-surfing. The fairy realm of the féth fíada may not only be contiguous to ours but ‘contaygious’ too (the book's fourth section takes its title from a ballad beginning ‘In Egypt's land, contaygious to the Nile’). Where Auden has given us the Lords of Limit, Muldoon gives us Lords of Liminality, stalking the long, shifting thresholds between one tradition and another.
Central to Muldoon's ‘contaygiously’ intertextual approach is his reading of ‘The Dead’ from Dubliners, which dominates not just the entry for Joyce but for several other writers, too. When Gabriel Conroy arrives at the Morkans' party, their West of Ireland maid pronounces his name in three syllables, reminding us of its Irish original ‘Conaire.’ For Muldoon, this is only one of many signs of the story's origins in the saga Togail Bruidne Da Derga, ‘The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel,’ via Samuel Ferguson's ‘Conary.’ In the original, Conaire breaks a number of taboos or geasa and suffers a series of attacks by marauders on his hostel, situated somewhere in the environs of modern Dublin. Joyce's Gabriel, too, is guilty of transgressions. His sniffiness about Irish nationalism does not go unnoticed: Miss Ivors taunts him for writing for the Daily Express and not taking his holidays in the Aran Islands, calling him a West Briton. For Muldoon, even his footwear is not above suspicion: Gall-oshes, as opposed to Western Gael-oshes. Miss Ivors's opening challenge, ‘I have a crow to pluck with you,’ is more than an avian revision of the usual cliché: it is a manifestation of the Old Irish bird of battle, the Morrigan, which also lurks behind a ‘murky morning sky’ and the name ‘Morkan’ (though Muldoon resists the temptation to clinch the metaphor by calling the old women ‘battle-axes’). Gretta Conroy's youthful lover, her feelings for whom she has kept under taboo, was in the ‘gasworks,’ which in Muldoon's guesswork quickly becomes ‘geasworks.’ The geas works to keep Gabriel from finding out more than he needs to, until he breaks down his wife's resistance at the end of the story, with disillusioning results.
The bird theme recurs in the goose (another near homonym for geas) that Gabriel carves, and which, via the barnacle-goose, serves to remind us of Nora Joyce's maiden name, Barnacle. When the party is over Gabriel instructs the cab driver to ‘make like a bird,’ or as the crow flies, for Trinity College, the site of his earlier joke about the horse that goes round and round the statue of King Billy on College Green. Apart from its obvious use as an image of political paralysis, the obsessive circular motion refers us back to Ferguson again, who wrote an essay ‘On the Ceremonial Turn, Called Desiul.’ This is the Irish word deiseal, ‘clockwise,’ which Joyce uses in the opening of ‘The Oxen of the Sun’ (‘Deshil Holles Eamus’) and which features in Muldoon's ‘Yarrow,’ where it is contrasted with sinister movement in the tuathal or ‘anticlockwise’ direction.
Another guest at the party is Bergin, whom Muldoon takes to be the antiquarian Osborn Bergin. In his Stories from Keating's History of Ireland (1909), Bergin includes the story of Cú Rói's betrayal by his wife Blathnaid, who signals to her lover Cuchulainn by whitening a stream with a churn of milk. Cú Rói's rivalry with Cuchulainn is central to another tale which, like ‘The Dead,’ revolves around a party, Fled Bricrenn: The Feast of Bricriu. Gabriel has elements of both the betrayed husband Cú Rói and Cuchulainn: his wife's confession belatedly brings out the warrior in him, and he travels westward in the story's visionary conclusion to do battle with the shade of Michael Furey. Snow is ‘general over Ireland’ while he does so; not only here, but in Muldoon's last collection Hay, the colour white functions as a motif of death.
One of Louis MacNeice's best-known poems is about snow and turns up in Muldoon's poem ‘History,’ from Why Brownlee Left. MacNeice's first undergraduate publication in the Cherwell gave his name as MacPiece, suggestive of William Makepeace Thackeray, an author not without Irish connections of his own. The entry on MacNeice here is another tour de force of Muldoonian free association, again revolving around ‘The Dead.’ The character Malins suggests Malin Head in Donegal, from which Tory Island is visible, home of the hermit in Imram Curaig Mafle Dúin, whose way with money reminds Muldoon of Sir Thomas Gresham, the 16th-century banker who shares his name with the Gresham Hotel, where Gabriel watches the falling snow. This becomes the prompt for MacNeice's ‘Snow,’ whose window recalls the fearful taxi partition in Bowen's story. ‘The Demon Lover’ (and MacNeice's ‘The Taxis’), a nexus confirmed by the fact that MacNeice considered sending his son to Bowen's Court during the war and later bought a house in London that belonged to Bowen. The line about ‘no extras on the clock’ in ‘The Taxis’ and the suggestion that ‘someone had bummed a ride’ lead us back to the taboos on supernumeracy in the Imram, whose influence Muldoon detects on MacNeice's 1961 play The Mad Islands, which features a character called Muldoon. And on it goes in the same vein.
With his entry for James Ussher, the 17th-century philologist (and Archbishop of Armagh), Muldoon is nearing the end of the alphabet and confesses to anxiety over that tricky third-last letter still to come. But the ‘The “X” Factor’ misses its chance to retell Myles na Copaleen/Flann O'Brien's joke that the innate Irish resistance to sex and jazz has to do with the fact that three of the seven letters it takes to spell them don't occur in the Irish alphabet (Z is for ‘Zozimus,’ by the way, the pseudonym of Michael Moran, ‘the blind Dublin ballad-maker’ who died in 1846).
All this attention to Gaelic arcana means we can't help feeling the smoke of the féth fíada in our eyes from time to time, as in the entry for ‘Incantata’'s ‘Thane of Calder,’ Samuel Beckett. By concentrating on the Irish background to Gabriel's surname in ‘The Dead,’ Muldoon passes over Monsieur Conaire, who pursues Mercier and Camier to a hotel in Beckett's first French novel. The cognates Muldoon finds for Beckett's name are Old Irish and English, becc and boc, which sound like characters from one of the late plays. He neglects Beckett's French Huguenot background, which the author himself used as a source of onomastics in the matter of his name. At one point in Eleutheria a disgusted spectator clambers on stage and, reading the author's name in the programme, remarks: ‘Bécquet, ça doit être un juif groenlandais mâtiné d'Auvergnat.’ Such an outlandish hybrid suggests an ethnic equivalent of Muldoon's verbal cut and paste, so perhaps the spectator in Eleutheria is thinking of the archaism bécquet, meaning an authorial addition or revision pasted into a margin (Proust was as fond of bécquets as Beckett was of Proust). All of which would further link Muldoon to the world of the Old Irish sagas, so rich in scribbled marginalia. But even as it is, To Ireland, I may be the most provocative and eccentric contribution to Irish marginalia since Shem and Shaun slugged it out in Part II, chapter II of Finnegans Wake.
Bécquet/Beckett couldn't abide opera, calling it ‘a hideous corruption of the most immaterial of all the arts.’ Muldoon has been more receptive: Bandanna is his second published libretto, following Shining Brow in 1993. In the meantime there has also been the excellent Vera of Las Vegas, which he seems resolved not to let into print. Bandanna resembles nothing so much as Othello meets Touch of Evil. Morales, the police chief of a village on the US-Mexican border, has appointed the Irish-American Cassidy his captain, much to the annoyance of his lieutenant, Jake, Jake purloins a bandanna belonging to Morales's wife and uses it to plant suspicions in Morales's mind that Cassidy is having an affair with his wife. Othello isn't the only precedent for the close alliance of kerchiefs and falls from grace: Joyce's HCE is seen sporting a ‘sweatful bandanna loose from his pocketcoat’ shortly before his sexual indiscretion in Phoenix Park. Mona Morales goes into hiding to escape her husband's fury; he finds her in a motel, where he uses the offending bandanna to strangle her before shooting Jake and himself. ‘To live is to sleep, / to die is to awaken. / Dona nobis pacem,’ the chorus comments, calling down forgiveness on all the living and the dead, though Muldoon's Texas is one place at least over which snow is not general.
In his jealousy, Morales complains about his wife's ‘fouling our nest.’ If Bandanna had been an adaptation of Ovid, it might have ended with her doing just that, after sprouting wings to let her escape. Ovid has had a good run in recent years (of contemporary Northern Irish poetry passim); Heaney, Paulin and Mahon have translated from the Greek tragedians; but the comic side of the classics has been strangely neglected. On the face of it, Muldoon and Aristophanes looks like a marriage made, if not in heaven at least in cloud-cuckooland. The Birds feathers its nest with representatives of such exotic species as the Supergrouse, the Ombirdsman and the frigg-it-bird as well as those Muldoon familiars, the widgeon and ‘the famous capercaillie.’ Peisetairos and Euelpides, two fugitives from Athens, are looking for somewhere to live. They meet Tereus, who has been transformed into a hoopoe after a recent spot of rape and cannibalism. Peisetairos suggests to him that the Birds establish a new city in the sky, allowing them to rule over both gods and men. The attractions of Nebulbulfast, as Muldoon calls cloud-cuckooland, are chiefly sex and feasting, with menus that even run to birds on occasion. If Muldoon works in jokes about de-commissioning and a ceasefire, he is continuing the tradition of parabasis, in which the dramatist interrupts the action to make personal comments through the chorus, though in fact Aristophanes uses this device much less in The Birds than in earlier plays. The climax of the play is Peisetairos' confrontation with the gods, whom the birds have been holding to ransom by intercepting their sacrifices and cutting off their food supply. Even Prometheus, that champion of mankind, is outraged. But Peisetairos outwits them all and ends up marrying Queen Maybe, a version (maybe) of Queen Maeve from the Cuchulainn cycle.
In his 1987 review of Meeting the British John Carey complained about the knowingness of Muldoon's poetry, ‘packed to the gunwales with higher education’ and smugly convinced of its irresistibility as an object of academic consumption. Despite the fact that Muldoon is probably second only to Heaney among contemporary Irish poets as scholarly canon-fodder, Clair Wills's Reading Paul Muldoon is only the second full-length study to be devoted to his work. Wills covers much the same ground as Tim Kendall's 1996 study Paul Muldoon, though in less detail (she passes over the plays, librettos and children books) but with a chapter on the 1998 collection Hay. She has also had the benefit of revealing interviews with Muldoon, quotations from which are scattered through the text. The critical short-circuit this sometimes produces is as revealing (thanks for pointing out that echo of T. S. Eliot, Paul!) as it is disconcerting (shouldn't we have seen that for ourselves?) How much of Muldoon does depend on picking up what are essentially in jokes? Never mind the content, the very form of a Muldoon poem is likely to constitute a coded message: ‘Is this a New Yorker poem or what?’ Muldoon wrote acrostically down the left-hand margin of ‘Capercaillies,’ a poem submitted to the New Yorker, though it didn't stop them turning it down. Elsewhere, in the charming ‘Long Finish’ from Hay, Muldoon's reference to his wife as the ‘Princess of Accutane’ (a prescription drug for eczema) suggests the Princess of Aquitaine to Wills, allowing her to identify the poem as a ballade, a form much practised by that good friend of the Princess of Aquitaine's, Charles d'Orléans.
Much of Muldoon's recent writing has been elaborately, even obsessively codified in this way, as in the rhyme schemes of ‘Yarrow’ and the sonnet sequence ‘The Bangle (Slight Return)’ that concludes Hay. In his combination of extreme secrecy and strategic revelation to favoured critics and in interviews, Muldoon is not unlike that other cryptographer, Raymond Roussel, who, fearing that his grand schemes would go unappreciated by posterity, told all in Comment j'ai écrit certains de mes livres. If the puzzles in Muldoon's work were exhaustible simply by noticing puns like Accutane/Aquitaine, reading him would indeed be as unrewarding as his detractors claim. But they run much deeper than that. In her 1993 study, Improprieties: Politics and Sexuality in Northern Irish Poetry, Wills argues that Muldoon's secretive style, far from embracing the private as a refuge from a damaged polity, exploits the political uses (or uselessness) of incommunicability, abetting what she calls ‘the progressive aspects of the destruction of the public space of politics.’ This may sound a little too much like the Personal as the Political (Slight Return), but in Reading Paul Muldoon Wills has noticeably damped down the theoretical zeal of her earlier volume. With all that in-communicability in Muldoon to attend to, she has kept her own style lucidly straightforward and informative, though not without the odd blunder: Patrick Kavanagh may have been the ‘leading poet of the Irish Republic after Yeats,’ but the honour loses some of its lustre when we remember that Ireland did not become a republic until 1949, ten years after Yeats's death. Yeats, incidentally, gets nothing like the attention in To Ireland, I that one might have expected. A passing reference to his pomposity, coming on top of the cutting sarcasm directed at him in ‘7, Middagh Street,’ prompts the question: does Muldoon actually like Yeats all that much? It's a subject to which he promises to return, before taking leave of us with Zozimus and his ballads of ‘Egypt's land, contaygious to the Nile.’ It's been a long but rewarding wait for Muldoon to catch the prose bug: To Ireland, I is a contagion well worth waiting for.
SOURCE: Wills, Clair. “Let Eriny Remember.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5070 (2 June 2000): 6.
[In the following review of To Ireland, I, Wills commends Muldoon's idiosyncratic insight into Irish literary and cultural history, but finds shortcomings in his tendency toward overly esoteric and whimsical interpretations.]
Some poets who turn their hand to criticism adopt a sober academic guise, as if to atone for their verbal transgressions. Paul Muldoon is not one of them. In his most recent lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry, Muldoon entertained his audience with a string of far-fetched contentions. Did you know, for example, that Robert Frost's poem “The Mountain” alludes cryptically to the Irish philosopher Berkeley, in its references to “bark” and “lee”? No matter that neither word actually appears in the poem, let alone appearing together. After all, there is shelter “from a wind” and there are “trees with trunks”—not to mention the clincher that Lee is Frost's middle name.
Muldoon's Clarendon Lectures turn such philological chutzpah into a full-blown method. The four talks which make up To Ireland, I take us on an energetic dash through Irish literature, from “the first poet of Ireland,” the legendary warrior-poet Amergin, via early Irish anonymous or “invisible” authors, to more recent writers (none, though, among the living), with divagations on Sterne, Swift, Bowen, Beckett, MacNeice and, above all, Joyce. Throughout, Muldoon treads what he calls “the fine line between notions of ‘allusiveness’ and ‘elusiveness,’” as he makes connections between texts on what can seem the flimsiest of evidence.
The unpredictable path of To Ireland, I criss-crosses nonchalantly between writing in Irish and English. Muldoon clearly relishes the verbal exuberance of early Irish lyrics, myths and legends, and the detail of the ancient tales he recounts is part of the pleasure of the book. If there's a nub to his fast-moving discussion, it is the notion of suspension between worlds. Thresholds, ante-rooms, even narthexes, pop up everywhere. But perhaps the dominating image of in-betweenness is the féth fiáda, the magic mist which veils the doings of the “fairy” or “gentle” folk—the Tuatha de Danaan, Ireland's ur-inhabitants, conquered and forced underground by Amergin's lot, the Milesians. The ambiguous signs of an unseen parallel realm, a realm of ghosts, of intangible, marginalized presences, guide his maybe not-so-free associations. They provide the constant hovering possibility of an estranging shift of perspective, which Muldoon baptizes “Eriny.”
In their stress on the traffic between the everyday and another world, the lectures, for all their wild ramifications, keep circling round Joyce's story “The Dead.” Muldoon reads the story as Joyce suggests, as a tale of “public life.” But what interests him is the way that political life and public affairs are secreted within, encrypted in words—often the most inconspicuous, non-descript words, or sometimes even words that aren't there. The shimmering boundary between the public and the private (magnified and condensed in the title of the book) is—on this account—the identifying feature of Irish literature, reaching its climax in Joyce's parable. “The Dead,” Muldoon asserts, with only a hint of hyperbole, is prefigured by all previous Irish literature, and echoed in all later work. Joyce himself is “an enormous presence.”
This may already be starting to sound like just the kind of academic criticism which Muldoon is supposed not to practise. But the book's template nips any such tendency in the bud. To Ireland, I is an abecedarium, an alphabetical mystery tour. Amergin's priority here is a double one, and the volume concludes with “Zozimus,” the nom de plume of Michael Moran, a blind Dublin ballad-maker of the early nineteenth century. In between, Muldoon uses the alphabet to create, his complex skein of cognates, etymologies and rhymes. It is not the poem or story which is the unit of analysis here, and frequently not even the stanza, the sentence, or the word. Rather, in a technique familiar from Muldoon's poetry, it is the letters which hold everything together.
Somehow this idiosyncrasy leads to insight. His reading of “The Dead” includes a virtuoso rap on the resonances of Irish myth and legend in the story, building on John Kelleher's own “magnificently provocative” work. Picking up Miss Ivor's “crow” (“I have a crow to pluck with you”), Muldoon makes the eyebrow-raising suggestion that “Morkan,” the family name of the sisters who host the party, is an echo of “Morrigan,” the ancient bird of battle. What's more, he spies the bird again in “murky” and even “almost invisibly” in “Mary-Jane.” In a less occult vein, he shows how Gabriel's speech about hospitality rings the changes on Yeats's introduction to Lady Gregory's collection of Irish tales, Gods and Fighting Men, or tracks the multiple echoes of “The Necessity of De-Anglicising Ireland” by Douglas Hyde, and Standish O'Grady's History of Ireland: Critical and Philosophical.
In Muldoon's account, Joyce, while undercutting the rhetoric of cultural nationalism, is also “revelling in the very thing he repudiates, delighting in what he disdains.” It is in many ways a fascinating disclosure of literature's power to witness and conserve, in an act of what Muldoon calls “conglomewriting.” But why does Muldoon spike his own guns by strewing absurdities amid the aperçus? Why, for example, does he suggest that Joyce's not mentioning a curtain as Gretta looks out of the veiled hotel window is an allusion to the folklorist Jeremiah Curtin; or that the “ghost” of Alfred Nutt, author of Studies on the Legend of the Holy Grail (1888), appears in form of the nutmeg on the dining table? As with the Berkeley cryptogram in Frost, which trades on a genuine allusion, Muldoon dares us to draw a line, to engage in what we might call a “willing suspension of belief.” We should tell him to stop pulling our leg—but then the niggling feeling returns that there just might be something in Muldoon's whackier connections. These have-and-eat-cake manoeuvres are typical of the poet—they seem designed to make us feel like the famed Irish respondent who said he didn't believe in the fairies, but that didn't mean they weren't there.
So far, To Ireland, I, for all its quick intelligence, might sound like little more than a guided tour of one poet's obsessions—a book for Muldoon buffs. There is something irreducibly esoteric about this trip through the weird and wonderful land of Irish letters, and the quirkiness, bordering on whimsy, will no doubt alienate many readers. This is unfortunate, because the book also contains some of Muldoon's most forthright reflections to date on the relations of history, literature and politics. Joyce knew, Muldoon states unequivocally at one point, that literature is “never above politics,” but he is determined to find his own way of cashing this dictum out. The result is neither cultural history nor literary history as conventionally understood. Rather, Muldoon traces the ciphers of historical and political memory in the seemingly contingent details of language, avoiding both the ideological gestures of cultural studies and the potential bathos of notions of the poet-as-witness. The political dimension of literature, he suggests, is not to be found in public position-taking, but in a kind of interference of wavebands. Writers occupy a liminal space between private code and public statement.
Muldoon's own combination of the forthright and the cryptic gives him his fix on Irish literature through the ages. But he also offers outspoken historical backing for this view, writing of “successive invasions of the country, leaving a sense for many so-called native Irish people of their own invisibility.” Ireland, Muldoon implies, is a country where even the living are ghosts. Instancing the post-Famine evictions, he says, “This idea of a parallel universe, a grounded groundlessness, also offers an escape clause, a kind of psychological trapdoor, to a people from under whose feet the rug is constantly being pulled, often quite literally so.” The neighbouring world of the supernatural merges with an unresolved past, whose weight bears down on and trammels the future.
As the discomfort engendered by Muldoon's dubious precedents and wayward etymologies makes clear, the border between belief and disbelief is not an easy place to inhabit. But literature—Muldoon implies—can turn this ambiguity to its advantage. Words can straddle worlds, creating a space where even the ghosts of Ireland's tragic past, the inhabitants of its “eternal interim,” can find a kind of home.
SOURCE: Wheeler, Susan. “Irish Weather over New Jersey.” Publishers Weekly 248, no. 19 (7 May 2001): 216.
[In the following essay, Wheeler presents an overview of Muldoon's poetry, literary career, and personal history, along with Muldoon's own comments on these subjects.]
Volumes of the complete edition of the OED, still in their worn blue dust jackets, spill off a low-slung table in the center of poet Paul Muldoon's office at Princeton University; behind a ring of chairs, the familiar brown spines of the Encyclopaedia Britannica crowd two shelves. Encyclopedias of words and worlds are in his blood, as the “boy from Moy”—the young Muldoon, growing up in the Moy, in County Armagh, Northern Ireland—grew up with only The Junior World Encyclopaedia in his home.
Over the desk are caricatures of Muldoon, from the Guardian and the New York Review of Books; photographs of the poet's wife, the novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz, and their children, Asher and Dorothy; and a haunting photograph of Muldoon's parents' grave. On leave this semester from his post as director of Princeton's creative writing program but not from his other roles—professor of poetry at Oxford, where he has not yet reached the midpoint of his five-year term; long-time director of the Poetry Society, London; and ongoing visiting professor at Bread Loaf—Muldoon is checking his voice mail.
His round glasses give him the look of a plumper Harry Potter, and he stands, head tilted into the receiver, in his characteristic pose: “my arms crossed, click, under my armpits.” Conspicuously gracious on occasions, Muldoon apologizes once, and then again; he finishes a quarter of an hour later and apologizes once more. Over the dozen or so years I have known him (and, in full disclosure, I am currently an adjunct member of his Princeton faculty), I have seen him in various states of health and temperament, but never has he been less than genial and accommodating.
Muldoon's range is prodigious, as is his output, especially for a poet just under 50. Author of eight volumes of poetry, in addition to children's books, plays and the libretti for three operas by Daron Hagen, he has translated Aristophanes, Ovid and poetry from the Irish, including Nuala ni Dhomhnaill's collection The Astrakhan Cloak (Gallery Press, 1993). He has edited two major anthologies—The Faber Book of Beasts (1997) and The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry (1986) as well as, for Ecco Press, The Essential Byron (1989). To Ireland, I (Oxford, 2000), Muldoon's Clarendon Lectures of 1998 on Irish literature preceding his term at Oxford, will be followed by publication of The End of the Poem, by Faber & Faber and Farrar, Straus & Giroux at the end of the term in 2004.
This spring Farrar, Straus & Giroux, his U.S. publisher since 1990, publishes the full texts of his eight collections in Poems 1968-1998. In 1968, Muldoon was all of 17 and, a scant five years later, while he was still a student at Queens University Belfast, his first book, New Weather, was published by Faber & Faber (Faber remains today his primary publisher in the U.K.).
New Weather was a strikingly controlled performance for a poet so young. The poems, most in regular stanzaic forms, exhibited what would become recurrent themes and tropes in his work: a tension between an idealized community and a solitary self; local languages (in one, the speaker and his father fish in the river for “spricklies”); a conflation of histories (especially Irish and Amerindian, but also, here, Creek, Italian and English); narratives based on terse, resonant mysteries and told in precise, startling sentences; a playfulness with the devices of poetry; descriptions of occasions both ordinary and extraordinary; and a central interest in transformation.
With his second and third books, Mules (1977) and Why Brownlee Left (1980), as well as with Quoof and Meeting the British (1987), Muldoon extended his gamut of lyrical styles—dry and urbane, lush and incantatory—sometimes in traditional forms and sometimes in verse seemingly shaped willy-nilly. With Quoof, his skillful rhyming and patterning by allusion and etymology led one commentator to remark, “Muldoon can rhyme cat with dog.” In Madoc: A Mystery (1990), a book-length narrative strung on a 19th-century utopian plan hatched by the poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey, the patterns become almost perilously referential, each page's pint-sized poem a mystery for the reader to decode. “The easiest book is the first one, and then after that it just gets so much harder, in terms of reinventing one's self,” Muldoon says, mentioning the spookiness of reading a list of the attributes of a “Muldoon poem” in a review by the poet and critic Michael Hofmann. “I just didn't want to know about it.” By reinventing, he says, “I don't mean casting around, change for the sake of change, but rather getting back into that sort of core of one's being, and one's emotional, obsessive being. ‘Myself I must remake’ is Yeats's phrase.”
So with the book that followed Madoc,The Annals of Chile (1994), the work becomes more direct and intimate, domestic poems alternating with wide-ranging elegies. Five major poems from the two most recent collections, The Annals of Chile and Hay (1998), employ the same 50 end-rhymes, in the same order, and two of these poems finish the series and then reverse it. A 50-line poem in Hay, “They That Wash on Thursday,” ends each line with the word or syllable “hand.”
“These patternings are really useful, finally, only for the writer,” Muldoon reflects. “The urge to make is what it's about. We're in the engineering business and the architectural business. So you talk about the pattern of a bridge and this echoes that—not even, necessarily, for obvious visual or aesthetic reasons, but because you know that the stress here has to be answered by the stress there. The poem as engineering feat.”
Poetry Review's editor, Peter Forbes, has called Muldoon “the most admired and inventive poet of his generation.” Muldoon is keenly aware that excellence is difficult, if not impossible, to sustain. “One of the things about writing poetry that's terrifying about it is that one generally gets worse at it. Wordsworth, for example, was a genius. But he had it downhill all the way; he just got worse and worse. And there are 90 Wordsworths for every Yeats.”
Born and raised in rural County Armagh southwest of Belfast by a schoolteacher mother and a laborer father, Muldoon began to write poems in grammar school as a way to avoid a class assignment. Until college, he wrote in Irish as well as English. Long before he left Armagh for university in Belfast, lie was encouraged by dedicated mentors; one introduced him to a book called The Faber Book of Modern Verse, “which I read as if it was a comic book, in the sense that I was so totally into it.” Another introduced 16-year-old Muldoon to the reigning Irish poet, Seamus Heaney; later, at Queens College, Heaney became his tutor.
In Belfast, with Heaney and two Queens College students a year ahead of Muldoon, Medbh McGuckian and Ciaran Carson, the young poet fell in with the Belfast Group, which also included Michael Longley and Frank Ormsby. “So there was a tradition of close reading by essentially a workshop of practicing writers,” he says. Muldoon also relied on the critic Edna Longley, the poet's wife, for readings, as well as on Michael Allen, who for many years remained his first reader. “There was a sense, in other words, of a community of other people, and one was lucky, if one can be lucky, to be part of it.”
Concurrently, James Simmons founded a small press and a journal, The Honest Ulsterman; the Belfast Group poets soon started publishing in its pages. “We didn't think of this at the time, but it was ‘our’ magazine—of course they also published many poets from all over the United Kingdom and Ireland and beyond.” In 1971, Ulsterman Publications published Knowing My Place, a “little pamphlet” by Muldoon; some of its poems appeared in his debut Faber collection, New Weather, in 1973. “A small little thing, you know. It probably cost 10 pence, but it was very exciting.”
Seamus Heaney became his firm supporter, accepting Muldoon's poems for a Belfast journal lie was guest editing, Threshold, and introducing him and his work to Karl Miller, literary editor of the English journal The Listener, and to Charles Monteith, then poetry editor at Faber & Faber.
“Faber & Faber are absolutely brilliant publishers. They're very, very supportive,” Muldoon says. “A year or two after my second book, Mules, came out in 1977, it was out of print, and I went to Charles and asked if he would ever think of reprinting it. He was from Northern Ireland, but he had a very plummy accent, and he said, ‘No, I don't think so. What we'll do is, we'll publish another book or two by you, and then we'll publish your selected poems, and then after a while, we'll publish your collected poems. That's what we'll do.’ They had that kind of unlikely vision, which nowadays sounds lunatic.”
For 14 years after he took his degree in English literature, Muldoon worked as a BBC producer in Northern Ireland. Following his father's death in 1985 and a year's fellowship at Cambridge, he moved to the U.S., where after teaching at Columbia, Princeton and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, he settled at Princeton in 1990. Since his arrival in the U.S., he has received the T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry, the Irish Times Poetry Prize, a Guggenheim fellowship and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature.
From its own founding in 1976, Wake Forest Press was Muldoon's U.S. publisher, beginning with Mules and Early Poems (1985). Jonathan Galassi took on Madoc: A Mystery for FSG in 1991. Muldoon says, “Wake Forest was very understanding. They're a terrific publisher, and their distribution is fantastic, but I'm sure that they'd be the first to agree that it's not quite as fantastic as FSC's.”
Among Muldoon's primary influences are Donne, Frost, Yeats and various rock ‘n’ roll musicians (he is keen on my hearing “Darling Lorraine” from Paul Simon's new CD, You're the One). Each of his worlds trails its own language: idiom, tenor and vocabulary.
“Yesterday I was trying to write a poem for children, and I wanted to use the word manky, which means sort of soiled, nasty. I went to my dictionary of Ulster English, and it wasn't in there, and so I just thought the dictionary was no good. Basically, Ulster English is my language. But, having lived here for so long, I speak a language that includes elements from that and from American English, and indeed, British English.” His face softens. “It's a love affair, truly, with the language—no, rather a marriage!”
Yeats's example to Muldoon, besides “remaking,” was in his addressing the matter, the material, of Ireland. Muldoon has said he tries to “avoid propaganda”; he is against expressing “a categorical view of the world.” The critic Sean O'Brien has noted his “disinclination to make a drama out of a crisis.” Yet with characteristic equivocation, Muldoon has also said that a more direct address of politics “might be closer to an aspect of the truth.”
“One of the great things that is happening at the moment in Ireland is that the nation is really now in the imagination business, imagining what other positions are and what it's like to be someone else. It's an opportunity for all of us to reinvent ourselves.”
But it is Robert Frost who reigns presently in Muldoon's pantheon (Robert Frost's poem, “The Mountain,” is the subject of his essay in the January/February 2001 American Poetry Review). “I think Frost is actually—not that we have to make this judgment—the great 20th-century poet. I just love the surface of Frost. It's so alluring, so inveigling, and you always feel that he's putting his arm around you in some way, and leading you into the poem. Then, having brought you in, he usually knocks you around a little bit, rearranges the furniture in the head, as they say.”
In his first book, “Wind and Tree,” a poem that is a direct response to Frost's “Tree at My Window,” enacts this. Stirred by the wind, two trees entwine their branches and grind themselves together, Muldoon writes, but it “is no real fire. / They are breaking each other.” The poem may Coincidentally describe the action of a Frost poem upon the reader, but its closing lines may most aptly characterize the mercurial enterprise of Muldoon:
Often I think I should be like / The single tree, going nowhere, // Since my Own arm could not and would not / Break the other. Yet by my broken bones // I tell new weather.
SOURCE: Newey, Adam. “Walking on Air.” New Statesman 130, no. 4541 (11 June 2001): 70-1.
[In the following review of Poems 1968-1998, Newey contends that Muldoon's “ludic” poetry often lacks “any substantial core” and risks falling into self-parody.]
I worry about Paul Muldoon. I mean, on the one hand, here is a poet of extravagant gifts, a true original who delights in weaving lexical patterns of great wit and complexity; on the other, we have someone who thinks it enough to construct a poem (albeit a brief one) around an agonisingly laboured pun on “Armagh” and “Armani.”
In one sense, that coupling gives the trajectory of his own journey, from low-key Catholic childhood in rural Ulster to high-status stateside professorship (he has been based at Princeton since 1987). Later this year he turns 50, and Faber has brought out this collection of his eight published volumes, which makes it a good moment to assess the career of the most acclaimed (and most imitated) poet of his generation.
Success came to Muldoon early, while a student at Queen's University, Belfast. A schoolteacher brought him to the attention of the Belfast “Group”—Michael Longley, Derek Mahon and Seamus Heaney foremost among them. For a while, Heaney tutored him at Queen's. The realisation that poetry was being written and talked about so seriously so close to home seemed, to the son of a mushroom-grower, a kind of epiphany. “These people were publishing poems about walking through fields and I thought: ‘I can do that.’”
It's a disarming, throwaway, typically Muldoonian remark. But part of the enormous difficulty Muldoon presents for readers is knowing how seriously to take anything he says, or writes. The word that critics love to apply to his style is “ludic.” There are the often abstruse allusions, the casual, even cheeky tone, the endless wordplay. In Muldoon's work, images stack up like a heap of discarded road signs all pointing in different directions; some of his poems read as if created by the William Burroughs cut-and-paste method.
Another difficulty comes from not knowing where the poet stands in relation to his work. Muldoon is everywhere in his work and nowhere. There are plenty of references to his childhood, to the villages and landscapes of Armagh, yet such are the levels of displacement here that you never know whether you are meant to believe these recollections or whether they are part of some wider professorial game. You follow the poet around one corner only to find he has doubled back and seems to be coming up behind you. And finally you discover the impenetrable irony curtain between writer and reader.
This stems, I think, from what we can ascertain of his conception of the act of reading and writing. In the author's note to this collection [Poems 1968-1998], Muldoon describes himself as “the person through whom” his poems were written. This is not some disingenuous antiauthorial conceit: he has said that he tries to instill in his creative writing students a humility towards language, a willingness to follow its logic, rather than treat language as a tool for self-expression. The poetic self is forged out of language, not the other way round. This is true even (and perhaps especially) in extremis. In “Footling,” the poet's wife is about to give birth and, “though she's been in training all spring and summer … [has] now got cold feet / and turned in on herself, the phantom ‘a’ in Cesarian.”
This, I think, explains why Heaney has praised Muldoon's work as being like “walking on air,” why the poems seem to grow out of themselves—and why, to me at least, they appear to lack any substantial core, any heart. Yet there are signs that Muldoon may have reached a turning point. In his most recent volume, Hay (1998), there is a clutch of almost pastoral poems that deal with the natural world around his Princeton home.
Perhaps the greatest threat to any artist in mid-career is the risk of self-parody, from which Muldoon has not been exempt, leaping at times from the ludic to the ludicrous (although another poem, “Errata,” points us in a different direction with the line “For ludic read lucid”). Several poems in Hay have a desperate quality to them, as if the poet were trying to kick his way out of a stylistic straitjacket and finally discover something solid amid the rush of jarring images. Perhaps that book will come to represent the pruning back that stimulates a new season's growth.
SOURCE: Review of Moy Sand and Gravel, by Paul Muldoon. Publishers Weekly 249 no. 24 (17 June 2002): 57.
[In the following review, the critic commends Muldoon's “suburban observation and whimsical memory” in Moy Sand and Gravel.]
[Moy Sand and Gravel, t]his first full volume since Muldoon's monumental Poems 1968-1998 reveals one of the English-speaking world's most acclaimed poets still at the top of his slippery, virtuosic game. Born in Northern Ireland, for more than a decade Muldoon has lived, taught and raised a family in Princeton, N.J. Hay (1998) showed Muldoon incorporating his wife's Jewish-American heritage, and his life as a father, into a poetics previously noted for its formal complexity, its shaggy-dog-story narratives, and its interest in Irish history. This substantial collection furthers Hay's subjects. It succeeds with fast-paced poems of suburban observation and whimsical memory in difficult forms: some inherited (terza rima, sestina, tercets, haiku, catechism, Yeats's “Prayer for My Daughter” stanza), others invented (a sonnet, each of whose first 12 lines ends in “draw”). Occasional poems return to the Irish Troubles Muldoon has long, off and on, described: “A Brief Discourse on Decommissioning” explains “you can't make bricks without the straw / that breaks the camel's back.” The book's most serious poems ground themselves instead in Muldoon's household. “The Stoic” meditates on a miscarriage—“our child already lost from view / before it had quite come into range,” while the long closing poem places Muldoon's young son Asher in a context that combines Irish and Jewish history with the Victorian Wilderness stories, lines cribbed from Yeats, and Muldoon's own comic postures: “I, the so-called Goy from the Moy.” A few of Muldoon's translations (Horace, Caedmon, Montale) seem slight, and several poems, rely, perhaps too heavily, on allusions to Muldoon's own previous work; take those out, though, and what remains is a complicated network of verse declarations, stunts and depictions that may be fun for, and turn out to describe, a whole family.