Assessing Paul Muldoon.

Assessing Paul Muldoon.

Assessing Paul Muldoon.

Reading between the lines.
Nov. 28 2006 7:25 AM

Paul Muldoon

The poet of giddiness.

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Now imagine reading 89 more of these po-mo rhymed haiku. Now imagine reading the additional 90 that appear as "Hopewell Haiku" in Hay (1998). The sheer bulk pushes beyond hilarity, beyond tedium, beyond uselessness into blissful idiocy.

There is a place for that in art, but not a very big one. For better and worse, Muldoon's giddiness mirrors the present moment in American poetry: Most poets under the age of 40 tend these days to write flighty, quirky, funny, elliptical poems—call them Experimental Lite. Muldoon is much bigger than that, more serious, more weighty, imbued with a passionate commitment to the language for whose attention he—writing in English as an Irish poet—competes. As a result, he provokes questions that poets merely devoted to the higher giddiness do not. Why does "Sillyhow Stride" (along with "At Least They Weren't Speaking French," "It Is What It Is," and "Turkey Buzzards," addressed to his sister) feel driven by love, eviscerating in its quest for consolation? Why do we stumble on this heartbreaking nugget in the midst of 180 gift-wrapped bonbons:

That stag I sideswiped.
I watched a last tear run down
his tear duct. I wept.

The End of the Poem by Paul Muldoon

A new collection of essays, The End of the Poem (based on the lectures Muldoon delivered as the Oxford professor of poetry at Oxford University between 1999 and 2004) does not so much answer these questions as make us more determined to live with them. The essays treat single poems by (among others) Marianne Moore, Ted Hughes, Stevie Smith, and Matthew Arnold; the first essay is devoted to W.B. Yeats' "All Souls' Night," one of the great elegies in English-language poetry. Because Yeats sets out two glasses of bubbling wine to attract the ghosts of his dead friends (they drink the "wine-breath" while we drink the "whole wine"), Muldoon suggests that the words most worthy of our attention while considering this poem are cork and lees—the only problem being that these words don't actually occur in "All Souls' Night." Lees does occur in Yeats' wife's name: Georgie Hyde-Lees. And the mayor of Cork had died after a lengthy hunger strike just a few days before Yeats wrote the poem in Oxford, where Muldoon delivered his lectures. Of Yeats' tender conjuring of his dead friends, Muldoon says almost nothing, preferring to read "All Souls' Night" as a bristling assembly of associations. "Names are nothing," says the bereft Yeats, but Muldoon suggests by his procedures that words are everything.

More disconcerting is the pleasure Muldoon takes in anticipating our finger-wagging disapproval of his naughtiness: "I want to make the first of several suggestions which may strike some of you … as being quite outlandish." And again: "I have a final suggestion … which will, I'm certain, strike some as being totally off-the-wall." Certain indeed. The bad-boy routine demands that somebody plays the schoolmaster. Despite the fact that he has now lived in the United States since 1987, Muldoon's relationship to authority has everything to do with his Irishness. In his first collection of essays, To Ireland, I (based on the Clarendon Lectures he delivered at Cambridge University), Muldoon points out that an Irish writer is bound "to have a quite disproportionate sense of his or her own importance," being constitutionally drawn to "the large rhetorical gesture, the great public poem." This is a burden. While American poets are generally troubled by their cultural irrelevance, Irish poets are blinded (or not) by the commonplace assumption of their relevance. Sen. Yeats once offered American poet Ezra Pound this ridiculous piece of advice in a public letter: "Do not be elected to the Senate of your country"—as if such a thing were possible for poets in the United States.

Muldoon's entire career, his manner of being verbal in the world, is predicated on the refusal of automatic relevance. His rhetorical gestures are large, yes, but they are massively self-deprecating, distrustful of every familiar gesture of moral rectitude or emotional sincerity. Few American poets inhabit this dilemma in exactly this way (Muldoon's tellingly sober essay on patrician Robert Lowell describes one who did), but Muldoon cannot exist outside it. An American poet who aspires to Muldoon's level of high-wire linguistic shenanigans is liable to seem charming, but against thecultural odds, Muldoon must labor to be irrelevant. Of all things, that is most difficult.

Muldoon is not unaware of the paradoxical power of dropping the mantle of authority; he knows what he's doing. Over the last 15 years, each of his books has been both more wildly giddy and more heartbreakingly lyrical than the one before it, and Horse Latitudes is his most maddening but also his most completely satisfying volume so far: a book that truly mourns. Nobody wants to play the schoolmaster, because everybody knows that the bad boy seems more alive, more charismatic, and more sensitive than all his classmates combined. This one grew up to be a great poet.

James Longenbach's most recent book is The Resistance to Poetry. The University of Chicago Press will publish his new book of poems, Draft of a Letter, next spring.