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Just Like That

Barra Ó Seaghdha

The End of the Poem: Oxford Lectures in Poetry, by Paul Muldoon, Faber and Faber, 432 pp, £25,
ISBN: 978 0571227402
Horse Latitudes, by Paul Muldoon, Faber and Faber, 80 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-0571232345

Few poets are happy to be described as mere emanations of their region of origin. It has been convenient for journalists and academics to group together the poets who emerged from Northern Ireland in the late 1960s and 1970s under the rubric of Ulster poets, Northern Renaissance and so on. That this poetic flowering coincided with the outbreak of civil conflict and violence drew particular attention to it. In a period when poetry in western Europe at least was largely detached from everyday politics, the Troubles in Northern Ireland drew poets into unusually direct contact with the political. Whether they liked it or not, they were unable to avoid being caught in a web of questions. Was there a connection between the release of personal creativity and the violence in society? Were poets to be spokespeople for their communities? Was there an obligation on artists to engage with societal conflict?

Questions such as these swirled around the work of John Montague (to the extent that this poet of a pre-Troubles generation was pulled back to his regional roots), Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon and others. The way in which questions of identity, community, guilt and responsibility worked themselves into the core of Seamus Heaney’s poetic world, and the way in which he had to work himself free of them again, is too well known to need repetition here. But it is difficult not to talk of Heaney with the emergence, from a relatively similar background – rural, Catholic, nationalist, Northern Irish – towards the end of the 1970s, of the precocious figure of Paul Muldoon. These writers have always spoken respectfully of each other, but one could, on the one hand, imagine Heaney thinking that his poetic life would have been easier without this anti-self shadowing him for the last thirty years, and, on the other, see Muldoon less as a free-floating, autonomous, creative intelligence than as someone endlessly engaged in proving that he is no Seamus Heaney.

There is a kind of inevitability to the fact that, in becoming Oxford Professor of Poetry, Muldoon once again shadowed Heaney, whose earlier tenure of the position led to the publication of The Redress of Poetry. The End of the Poem gathers the fifteen lectures Muldoon delivered during his five years in the role. For admirers of Muldoon, the prospect of seeing one of the most prominent English-language poets of today engaging closely with the work of selected predecessors (and a contemporary or two) is quite alluring. The hope must be that light will be thrown in two directions: on the poets under examination, obviously, but also on the thinking and practice of the examiner. As Muldoon is famously enigmatic and oblique in his own work, readers will be hoping for a revealing glimpse of the workshop from which these challenging works emerge.

The first lecture is particularly important. We may assume that Paul Muldoon, though in many ways a law unto himself, spent some time deciding on the format, the tone, the balance between analysis and personal whim or fancy, and the sustainability of his approach over the fourteen lectures to follow. Each chapter/lecture begins with the full text of a poem, which then becomes the focus of the examination of the writer in question. (One minor irritation here: as printed, the writer’s name is part of the poem, appearing between the title and the text.) Muldoon chooses to open with WB Yeats’s “All Souls’ Night”. Muldoon introduces himself in characteristic style, immediately ironising his own title and undermining any grand interpretation of his project:

I want to say a word or two about my choice of this somewhat booming, perhaps even slightly bumptious, phrase, “the end of the poem,” for the general title of this series of lectures.
And, overdoing the modesty game perhaps, a little later:
. while I was confident that the three most perspicacious readers in the audience - you know who you are - would continue to find it rich and resonant over the entire five years, I was less confident of being able to persuade anyone else that the phrase might be rich and resonant for more than five minutes.

The phrase “the end of the poem” is open to multiple interpretation and offers Muldoon plenty of room for manoeuvre. In this case, it is to be taken literally: Muldoon focuses on the place and date that appear at the end of the poem, “Oxford, Autumn 1920”. He thus chooses to begin with a poem set in the place where the lecture is being given; and he tells us that it is possible that the poem was begun in 1920 on the date on which the lecture is being delivered. We could perhaps call this a time-rhyme, a rhyme in time.

In Yeats’s choice of the word “Autumn”, Muldoon sees a direct reference to Keats’s famous ode. This might seem a rather large imaginative leap but Muldoon demonstrates just how saturated Yeats’s poem is with Keatsian language. A look at the first stanza demonstrates the point:

Midnight has come, and the great Christ Church Bell
And many a lesser bell sound through the room;
And it is All Souls’ Night,
And two long glasses brimmed with muscatel
Bubble upon the table. A ghost may come;
For it is a ghost’s right,
His element is so fine
Being sharpened by his death,
To drink from the wine-breath
While our gross palates drink from the whole wine.

 

Rather grossly tabulating the references, we have these: “Forlorn! The very word is like a bell”; “with beaded bubbles winking at the brim”; “whose strenuous tongue/ Can burst joy’s grape against his palate fine”; “half in love with easeful Death,/ Called him soft names in many a mused rhyme,/ To take into the air my quiet breath …”; “To cease upon the midnight with no pain,/ While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad …”; and “the coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine”. Quibbles over the precise degree of reference entailed aside, it can be agreed that Yeats is, in a sense, conversing with his predecessor. In Yeats’s great meditative poems we can also find a Keatsian combination of intellect and sensuality, while Yeats’s stanza form recalls the Keats of the odes.

Remaining for the moment with these more or less provable references, we may take the next step and ask if Muldoon has brought anything new to the table. The idea of intertextuality, whereby texts are seen – or read – as participating in a dialogue with others in a more or less autonomous textual space is a commonplace of modern literary criticism. It is part of a movement in modern thought which stresses the language system over the individual’s expressive ability, the system of power over the individual’s ability to act, and so on. In certain of its forms, it offers a convenient balance of the radical and the safe: on the one hand, its vocabulary and rhetoric suggest a radical break with traditional humanistic thought; on the other, its pessimism about individual action and its stress on the autonomy of language mean that the individual need do nothing more radical than emit regular puffs of vocabulary.

Harold Bloom’s book The Anxiety of Influence has been influential for several decades: it proposes a reading of literary history in which fear of domination by the gestures or language of the powerful creative spirits of the past is the primary motivation of writers who themselves seek to innovate. Bloom’s position is a dramatic or, more precisely, melodramatic recasting of the idea of tradition and the individual talent. Instead of growing out of and being sustained by the art of the past, artists are perpetually trying to find a new territory on which to build something original, something not already shaped by the prestige and authority of the masters. The great artists of today have the power to break free; the minor artists are unable to do so.

Muldoon pays particular attention to Yeats’s revisions, suggesting that, among other factors, they are guided by a wish to avoid too clear an echo of a predecessor’s voice. But Muldoon does not appear to be using the Yeats/Keats connection to suggest, for example, that Yeats is deluded in thinking that his is an original voice, or that originality is itself an illusion, or that Yeats is paralysed by fear of repeating Keats. In any case, if we returned to All Souls’ Night, even with a heightened awareness of the Keatsian coloration of the language, it would be difficult to see any evidence of paralysis or anxiety of influence:

Such thought – such thought have I that hold it tight
Till meditation master all its parts,
Nothing can stay my glance
Until that glance run in the world’s despite
To where the damned have howled away their hearts,
And where the blessed dance;
Such thought, that in it bound
I need no other thing,
Wound in mind’s wandering
As mummies in the mummy-cloth are bound.

 

Whatever the anxieties that beset Yeats the man, the voice of the poem, Yeats’s voice in the poem, has an unhurried confidence in its ability to set out its world, to provide a worthwhile spiritual/intellectual journey for the reader, to wind the reader into the folds of the poem. This creative confidence extends to any explicit or implicit dialogue with Keats: Yeats seems free to allude to, echo and converse with a past master – and indeed to adopt and adapt his stanza form – without anxiety that his own power might be diminished as a result. This is not entirely surprising, given that establishing lineage – familial, national, political, literary, intellectual, spiritual – and communicating back up the line was so central to Yeats’s activities in all spheres.

As it happens, such forms of communication greatly interest Muldoon. He is intrigued by the idea that Yeats, whose interest in spiritualism need not be elaborated on here, “became exercised by the idea that he might be able to partake of Keats’s mental processes, particularly if they were accessible through ‘the general mind,’ or ‘Spiritus Mundi,’ as he terms it in ‘The Second Coming’”. The connection with Keats is underlined in the final sentences of the lecture when Muldoon, again regarding “Oxford, Autumn 1920”, pulls his rabbit (or perhaps his nightingale) out of the hat:

We might remind ourselves that the subject matter of “To Autumn” is cyclical movement and the fact that autumn, a season associated with oncoming death, has a “music” every bit as stirring as that of spring. The cyclical movement of things is much in Yeats’s mind here and it accounts largely for the reference back to the conventional dating of “To Autumn,” written in 1819 but published in 1820, in his “Autumn, 1920,” the centennial aspect underscored by the fact that the poem is precisely one hundred lines long.

The account given thus far of Muldoon’s critical procedure is undoubtedly a simplification, but let us stay for the moment with his conclusion. It poses a question of values which will echo down the lectures yet to come, and which may arise too in connection with his own poetry. Has Muldoon discovered something new about Yeats’s poem or has Yeats become a Muldoon by proxy, an ingenious projection into literary history of the Muldoon mind, of Muldoonery? If we were to accept Muldoon’s suggestion and to reread the poem, how different an experience would it be? The answer will depend on what readers value in both literature and criticism. Some readers may register the Keatsian references more fully than before, but will find that the imaginative journey entailed in reading Yeats’s poem attentively from beginning to end is largely unaffected: the rhyme between Autumn 1820 and Autumn 1920 will be little more than a passing fancy or a curious after-thought. Readers who value ingenuity and novelty, on the other hand, may respond more enthusiastically at first, but will there be any point in returning to the lecture? Watching a magician perform may be fascinating at the moment of performance, but the spectators are simply that – their role simply to be impressed – and little is added to life between performances. And new tricks will go down better than repeats of the same, whereas the point of a good poem or essay is that it can renew itself with rereading and potentially enrich life between readings.

As already acknowledged, this account has not done justice to elements of Muldoon’s critical procedure in the lecture. There are the jerboa-like leaps from Yeats to Keats, from quotation to OED, from biography to poem and back, and so on. There is, for example, one associative chain Muldoon establishes: Oxford, the bells heard at midnight at All Souls, All Hallows, Halloween, Samhain (the Celtic New Year, therefore an end and a beginning; and also the title of the magazine of the Irish Literary Theatre) and the old Irish term “feth fiada”, where the sounding of a bell may signal “a moment of interface between this world and some other”. There is the detailed unwinding or spinning of a verbal thread: wound and blest/blessed, the thread of time and line, line and linen, line (of descent) and linnet, linnet and flax, Blake’s winding sheet and Swedenborg read by Yeats in a translation by Flaxman … There is the suggestion that the two slender glasses on the table hint at the gyres of Yeats’s A Vision. There is the suggestion that words that do not appear are as important sometimes as those that do: the avoidance of heaven and hell (too directly invoking Blake) in Yeats’s poem; the presence-by-absence of Yeats’s wife, Georgie Hyde-Lees, in the deliberate avoidance of the Keatsian word “lees”; the possible avoidance of the word “cork” at a time when the hunger strike of the mayor of Cork was very much in the news. Some of these can be dismissed as unprovable or as irrelevant nonsense.

In this first lecture, however, Muldoon does at times pay attention to sound, rhythm, line and stress, and there are some striking formulations:

The recurrence of the word “and” at the beginning of three consecutive lines results in an extraordinary combination of the incantatory and the carefree, the negligence which in Yeats is often merely apparent, sometimes massively real

At the end of the lecture then, we are still uncertain as to the nature of Muldoon’s project for the series – or, in other words, as to the end of these lectures on the end of the poem. It will become clear, however, what kind of reading Muldoon inclines to. In the process, the question of values already alluded to will be posed more starkly. Put simply, do we look to criticism to enrich our experience as readers of poems or do we look to criticism as a domain in which the performance of the critic is to be appreciated almost independently of that experience?

At this point, particularly as he is directly invoked by Muldoon in the second lecture, we must return to Harold Bloom. The poem under discussion is “The Literary Life”, from the volume in which, late in life, Ted Hughes finally told the story of his stormy relationship with the American poet Sylvia Plath, culminating in her suicide. It might be thought that the Hughes/Plath story has received sufficient attention by now, and that it is not for his late poems that Hughes will go down in literary history, but Muldoon’s focus is on the dynamics of the relationship between three poets: Hughes, Plath, and Marianne Moore, the senior American woman poet of the time. Hughes tells of a visit to Moore’s apartment in Brooklyn, of Moore returning carbon copies of poems that Plath had sent her, of Plath’s despair at this perceived snub, and of Moore’s attempt at reparation on a visit to Britain after Plath’s death. Hughes’s poem literally belittles Moore. Picking up at times on her own imagery, she is depicted as a bower-bird, decorating her nest; her face is tiny as a bobbin; she is neat and hard as an ant; and (towards the end of the poem) the face “seemed tinier than ever”, the lips “a child’s purse/ made of the skin of a dormouse,/ her cheek, as if she powdered the crumpled silk/ of a bat’s wing.” Mixing close textual analysis, biographical detail and associative leaps, Muldoon clearly demonstrates Hughes’s view of Moore as a sterile poetic curiosity whose sense of life and poetry markedly contrast with his own (even though their explicit subject matter, such as animals and birds, overlap significantly).

Harold Bloom does not enter the discussion by the front door, as it were. Instead, Muldoon introduces him through the absence of the word “loom” from a poem full of references to spindles, bobbins, thread, crewel-work and so on. Muldoon (who says that The Anxiety of Influence “remains one of the most illuminating contributions to our understanding of the working of poets and poetry”) quotes this passage from the introduction:

Poetic history, in this book’s argument, is held to be indistinguishable from poetic influence, since strong poets make that history by misreading one another, so as to clear imaginative space for themselves. My concern is only with strong poets, major figures with the persistence to wrestle with their strong precursors … But nothing is got for nothing, and self-appropriation involves the immense anxieties of indebtedness, for what strong maker desires the realisation that he has failed to create himself? Poetic influence, or as I shall more frequently term it, poetic misprision, is necessarily the study of the life-cycle of the poet-as-poet

It is clear how this approach can be applied to the Hughes-Moore-Plath triangle. Hughes clears space for himself by undermining Moore. Within the Hughes/Plath marriage, Plath has to fight for space to be herself against the overwhelming confidence, greater reputation and sexual power of her husband. At the same time, she is – as someone of driving ambition but prone to self-doubt – both seeking validation from her living precursor Marianne Moore and writing poems that implicitly lay claim to Moore’s territory. More generally, given that the question of poetic influence so preoccupies Muldoon, Bloom’s theory validates his repeated recourse to biographical detail. Its importance for Muldoon might also explain why he shows less interest in poems, or bodies of poems, than in real or imaginary links between life and poem, between poem and poem, between poet and poet (of which spiritualism – Yeats – or the Ouija board – Plath – is merely an aggravated case).

We are now in a position to dispense with the notion that these lectures are in any meaningful sense about “the end of the poem”. Rather, as with the vacuous titles of many international literary conferences, the term is a unifying device that allows Muldoon to speak about whatever takes his fancy: the place and date at the end of the poem (Yeats); the idea that there is no end to a poem, as it cannot be separated from the life (Hughes); the idea that what is missing or incomplete in one poem can be found in another poem by the same poet, so that the individual poem goes beyond its ostensible end (Frost); where poetry ends and prose begins (Bishop); whether, in the case of revision or re-editing over time, the “latest full effort” at a definitive version is the end; ‘whether there is an “end” in gender’ (Stevie Smith); poems that have a political end (Lowell); the degree to which a translation can be identical with, have the same end as, the orginal poem (Montale/Lowell); anonymity and heteronymity, and where the poem bows out and the personality of the poet steps in (Pessoa); revision again, with the idea of finishing as decoration (Moore); the end of the poem, as in its submarine depths (H.D.); the purpose of a poem (Tsvetayeva); the function of a poem (as intellectual deliverance) and the idea that being a professor is the end of being a poet (Arnold); whether a poet can eliminate a poem previously published, and why this might happen (Auden); how a poem ends satisfactorily when it solves the problem it has raised (Graves, Day-Lewis, Heaney).

Even a casual reading of the list would suggest that there is a teasing element here: a little game in which Muldoon appears to defer to lecture protocol by suggesting that he is about to explore a facet of the overall title, but in fact mocks that protocol by twisting the term to fit his real subject and sometimes dropping any reference to it well before the end of the lecture. The game element can also be read as a dual manoeuvre: on the one hand, the cleverness of the game and the panache with which it is played put the lecturer in a position of authority; on the other, if a detail or an argument were questioned, the lecturer could suggest that he has provided an imaginative construct, a possible truth, and that only the unimaginative and unplayful would nitpick. To offer a comprehensive list of unimaginative disagreements would indeed be tedious, so a few representative examples will suffice.

In the lecture on Frost, Muldoon makes both of Henri Bergson’s parents Irish-Jewish; the father was Polish. In the same lecture, which conveys a real affection for Frost, Muldoon discovers an African eland in the word buck, on the basis that eland – along with (courtesy of Gerard Quinn) élan, hence the Bergson reference – can be extracted from the word Ireland, which also occurs in the poem and encourages Muldoon to find a reference to George Berkeley in the word bark. Any reference to cold weather in Muldoon’s Frost seems to be a covert reference to his own name; presumably, if Vermont-based Frost had written only about summer weather, this would have been auto-reference in reverse. Nomen est omen, as Muldoon tells us more than once and demonstrates in his own fashion more than once too often. In tying the Christ imagery in a section of Tsvetayeva’s “Poem of the End” (from the 1920s) to a specific source in the Russian Futurist Manifesto of a decade earlier, Muldoon overlooks the prevalence of religious/messianic thinking and vocabulary across Russian politics, literature and philosophy of the period. It is misleading to suggest that Tsvetayeva’s play on the word separation in that poem outKhlebnikovs Khlebnikov: in a poem about the dramatic collapse of a love-affair, her hammering on the word separation is expressive of the emotionally stunned state of the poem’s speaker; the poet may have been liberated by the Futurist example but she does not follow Khlebnikov in making poetry a self-sustaining or autonomous domain. Muldoon, characteristically, is less interested in the internal history and logic of Tsvetayeva’s poems than in her connection to other poets or thinkers – and indeed in her life story. (A reading of the chapter on Khlebnikov in Marjorie Perloff’s 21st-Century Modernism/The “New” Poetics would suggest that a Khlebnikov/ Muldoon axis might be worth establishing.) In the lecture on Pessoa, much is made of the fact that a poem and a translation share in part the (perfectly common) rhyme scheme abab and the same (perfectly normal) rhyme in the form of bem/têm and além/vem. This – along with much else in the book – amounts to arbitrary critical diktat, absolutely anything being connectable to anything else in this fashion. (It is worth noting how often Muldoon describes poets as “consciously or unconsciously” making the connections he ascribes to them.)

One section of the Marianne Moore lecture may stand in for many; to call it capricious would be disrespectful to goats. For Muldoon, the word tarnish in one poem

brings to mind another relevant word, “varnish,” one meaning of which is to “to embellish or adorn.” [Moorish/Moore-ish art]. It’s a version of this word, with this meaning, which Shakespeare puts in the mouth of the Moor of Venice: “I will a round unvarnished tale deliver/ Of my whole course of love…”

The sequence Moor, Othello, blackamoor is now connected to two images of black pansies: in another poem (“Armor’s Undermining Modesty” [the poet’s name can also be found in the word armor]), having found an echo of Moorish zigzag or herring-bone in “the fish-spine/ on firs”, Muldoon points us towards the words “pansy-face” and “blackened” at the end of the poem – reminiscent, therefore, of “jet-black pansies” by the “herring-bone-laid bricks” in another poem, “Virginia Britannia”, which through the “live oak’s darkening filigree” brings us back to the idea of tarnishing. But – let there be no confusion - it is the discoverers of Virginia who are truly tarnished, as these pansy references are (and here Muldoon’s prose heats up far more than Moore’s poetry) “followed immediately by a scathing commentary on the disgrace of slavery”. Readers who wish to follow the further leaps that eventually bring Muldoon back to line two of “Poetry”, the poem under discussion in the lecture, may refer to pp 262/3.

Let us refer back to our quotation from Harold Bloom: “ … strong poets make that history by misreading one another, so as to clear imaginative space for themselves. My concern is only with strong poets, major figures with the persistence to wrestle with their strong precursors …” We are not concerned here with the personal psychology of Paul Muldoon: to what degree he believes in the connections he makes; to what degree he is deliberately parodying learning; to what degree his intellectual characteristics are driven by a distrust of naive emotion; to what degree he and friends like Tom Paulin and Gerard Quinn are encouraging each other towards ever more fantastic associative leaps; and so on. Taking The End of the Poem as a strategic move within the literary field, we could see Muldoon as behaving like a strong poet. Whether or not he is a strong poet, he is undoubtedly given to misreading other poets, in diverse ways and for diverse reasons, among which the need to clear imaginative space for himself is presumably one.

The idea of strength demands attention in two ways. To read Erich Heller on Rilke, to read Gabriel Josipovici on Proust, to read Henry James on Flaubert, to read Mandelstam on Dante or Randall Jarrell on Marianne Moore, to read Frank O’Connor on Irish literary history or Denis Donoghue on American poetry, to read VS Pritchett on almost any fiction writer, is to be enriched, by contact with a mind that has opened itself as fully as possible to its subject, in one’s own subsequent encounters with that subject. To disagree over matters of detail or even of broad interpretation is neither to lose faith in the critic nor to lose all faith in one’s own intuitions or beliefs, even though one may modify them. Reading The End of the Poem is not like this. It might be possible to read a handful of these lectures with a mixture of curiosity and scepticism, but as lecture after lecture repeats the same associative-critical process, as the immense variety of nature is reduced to one species (the jerboa, perhaps), as our travel companion on the long train journey gives us no time or space to gather our own thoughts, we are faced with a simple choice: refusal or submission. There are indeed paragraphs worth treasuring in this book, ideas on translation, on the semi-autonomous growth of the poem away from its maker’s conception, on stunt reading and writing, and so on. But instead of opening up other writers, Muldoon seems to reduce the entire field of literature to one proliferating Muldoon. As readers, then, we meet a mind endlessly meeting itself. There are philosophies and theories of literature that suggest that this is all there is, but somehow the push-and-pull of testing language against world, self against language, self against other, seems a more genuinely creative option, one which allows for a degree of non-understanding, non-control – in short, for respect.

It may be going too far to suggest that the choice offered to the reader of The End of the Poem is very much that offered to the reader of Horse Latitudes, Muldoon’s latest poetry collection. One accepts Muldoon’s world or one does not, but it is very much a personally constructed mental world. In the poems too, there is very little space for readers to be themselves. The poems do not create a house built by Muldoon that readers can enter on their own terms and then explore. Instead, the poems seem to be coded blueprints for the house of Muldoon. Cracking the code involves thinking like Muldoon, trying to puzzle out the jump from a to p or the echo of d in t, trying to become Muldoon – and we will never be as much Muldoon as he is himself. This is not an argument against modernist or supposedly obscure poetry and in favour of a return to some supposed past ideal of clarity, common sense and controlled imagination. But it may be that the relentless concentration on coded information is often at the expense of space, movement, rhythm, breath. Muldoon seems afraid to let the poem out of his control. What becomes suffocating is the sense that, rather than emerging – as with Mallarmé, Tsvetayeva, Celan – from a struggle towards expression, the obscurity is deliberately manufactured . (This is what makes academe’s love affair with Muldoon so predictable: Muldoon creates poems that perfectly illustrate the theories whose rightness is illustrated by their realisation in Muldoon’s poems.) In contemporary composition, there are numerous ways of being musical, of treating sound in space, without returning to the nineteenth century; in Boulez, Ligeti, Lachenmann or Feldman, the “voice” will differ from one work to another, even if we recognise a common signature. Just as Muldoon’s lectures pay relatively little heed to acceleration and deceleration of voice, to length of breath, to silence, to the unfolding of energy within a poem, there is perhaps too much sameness of tone from poem to poem. The brilliance of Muldoon is to be found in the technical and conceptual leaps that his poems display, in ingenuity of rhyme and structure rather than in rhythm. Against this, it could be said that underlying Horse Latitudes, and giving it unusual poignancy at certain moments, is the tension between Muldoon’s free-standing, rule-driven, non-organic poetic space and the realisation that symbolic autonomy can do little or nothing against the brutal removal from life of friends and lovers as one gets older.

One interesting undercurrent to The End of the Poem returns us to a suggestion made in the opening section, that Muldoon’s poetic identity is that of an anti-Heaney: rhyme vs rhythm, deadpan vs song, air vs earth, collage vs archaeology, puzzle vs mystery, magician vs diviner, autonomy vs community, encycyclopedia vs narrative, appropriation vs empathy, intelligence in technical command vs intelligence in service, and so on ... Nothing that is said here is intended as an argument for particular poems of Heaney’s over particular poems of Muldoon’s, though it inclines towards the ethos enacted in some of Heaney’s poetry and prose. It is curious then to find Muldoon moving onto Heaney territory in another fashion (or, cuckoo-like, squatting in Heaney’s nest) by writing about poets who have figured significantly in Heaney’s imaginative and critical world: Yeats, Hughes, Plath, Bishop, Lowell, Montale … This could be seen as another move in the game of Bloomian space-clearing. There has been a strong reaction in recent decades against the prominence, both as poet and as public figure, of Robert Lowell. The reaction is both generational and ideological: the Humpty Dumpty on the wall is always in for a fall; many are irked by Lowell’s assumption that he could speak for or to the nation as of right (or birthright, being one of the Lowells of Boston); and Lowell’s personification of poetry as individual voice makes him a particular target for writers and critics who have a very different concept of the domain of writing. Muldoon – who by no means rejects Lowell outright – is part of this reaction, but there is a little extra edge to his comments on Lowell: he spends several pages of the lecture on Montale’s “L’anguilla/The Eel” demonstrating how the poetic practice of Seamus Heaney’s Fieldwork volume is rooted in a misconceived translation. Muldoon, of course, provides a reason of his own:

One of the reasons I’ve just spent as long as I have on the subject of the influence on Heaney of part two of Lowell’s version of “The Eel” is to substantiate the idea expressed here by Octavio Paz that all texts might properly be thought of as “translations of translations of translations,” often to an extent which is shocking to the conscious mind of the writer who has given him – or herself over to the unconscious.

Heaney is also the last of the three poets dealt with in the last lecture of The End of the Poem. He picks up on Heaney’s acknowledgement of the limitations of art – “But you cannot make the dead walk or right wrong” – and offers his own interpretation:

This is not to say that a poem, such as any of the three I’ve looked at here, doesn’t have some efficacy in the world, doesn’t effect some change in the world. It must change something, as these three examples [poems by Robert Graves, Cecil Day-Lewis and Seamus Heaney] so elegantly display. One of the ways in which they do so is to clear their own space, bringing us “all together there in a foretime,” if I may borrow that phrase from section 3 of “Keeping Going.”

Muldoon then relates this to his own formulation, that the “poem itself is, after all, the solution to a problem only it has raised, and our reading of it necessarily entails determining what that problem was. Only then may we determine the extent to which it has, or has not, succeeded.” This is a nice formula but there is a certain technocratic edge to a definition of poetry in terms of problems and solutions. It is appropriate, in light of the symbolic Heaney/Muldoon relationship that has been outlined in this essay, that Muldoon should appropriate lines from Heaney (themselves borrowed, questioning – and triadic) to define his own final - and more reductive - formulation of “the end of the poem”:

[We] recognise [...] that to carry itself forward in the world – testing itself, and us, against a sense of how it itself “was/ In the beginning, is now and shall be” - is indeed the end of the poem.

It is perhaps appropriate also, first, that Heaney’s question mark after “shall be” has disappeared, and, second, that the touch of borrowed grandiloquence conceals an impoverishing vision of poetry.


Barra Ó Seaghdha has contributed essays, reviews and interviews in the areas of literature, cultural politics and music to publications ranging from Graph, which he co-edited, and Reinventing Ireland (Pluto Press) to the JMI (Journal of Music in Ireland). He works in the Teaching English as a Foreign Language sector.

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