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Harry Clifton, ‘Arguments without End’, review of Paul Muldoon, The End of the Poem, in The Irish Times ( 28 Oct. 2006 ), Weekend Review.

[ Literary Criticism: Paul Muldoon’s anarchic streak is almost snuffed out as he does the academic thing. ]

“The thing about the Oxford lectures,” as one eminent poet said to me, “is that you have to write the bloody things.” That might be more of a problem for some than for others. The public delivery of mellifluous, world-historical prose on cruise control for an hour or so isn’t every poet’s idea of a good day out. For every genial Heaney or barnstorming Brodsky, there is a nervous Eliot checking his notes on the train to Cambridge in 1926, aware that the T. R. Henns are out in force - or a Patrick Kavanagh, transistor on the podium as the racing commentary comes through, subverting the whole thing altogether.

One would think Paul Muldoon, with a track record for anarchy in the imaginative realm, would fall into the Kavanagh category. Not so, however. “The end of the poem”, as phrase and concept, is banged like a divot into our consciousness at every end and turn of this extensive lecture series. We are never allowed to forget that he is doing the academic thing, the 19th-century expository thing, the “as I hope to argue”, “as I will later prove” thing.

It doesn’t work, of course. It never did and it never will. But there is a charm in watching the Germanic earnestness with which he goes about the whole task, even as anarchy - if not exactly cheerfulness - keeps breaking through.

The question of whether muscatel, not to be confused with muscadet, does indeed “fume” is one that I propose to do a great deal of research on over the next five years, and I’ll report back to you when I have a finding - though, as I’m sure you’ll realise, the likelihood of my making any finding will depend largely on funding.

The best words about poetry - the aperçus, the immortal asides - are rarely said in formal contexts such as this, which is why we treasure the letters of Keats and Coleridge, Crane and Bishop. Muldoon, aware of this, makes it his business, like a timid master of ceremonies, to introduce a string of brilliant off-the-cuff presences from this and previous centuries, deflecting the limelight from himself. Intentionally or not, the lectures add up to a kind of commonplace book, a guide to the poet’s own reading.

If “the end of the poem” means anything, it would appear to be the absence of either beginning or end to the poetic process, but instead, to paraphrase Robert Frost, an interminable chain of readings and writings, prose and verse, life and art, shape-shifting into one another, with the individual poet and poem no more than a provisional link in the nexus of intertextual space. A poem, then, is an embodiment of relative - not absolute - truth, though with some connection to a hidden “ur-poem” that may underlie everything, and of which the poems of our culture are but transitory fragments, dictated to us like Czeslaw Milosz’s “secretaries”, who never see the beginning or end of the sentence:

Secretaries, mutually unknown, we walk the earth
Without much comprehension.
Beginning a phrase in the middle
Or ending it with a comma. And
how it all looks when completed
Is not up to us to inquire, we won’t read it anyway.

Provisional though the poem may be, Muldoon’s chosen group of poets are, on the whole, a solidly conservative lot, who certainly wouldn’t “end it with a comma”. No modernists, beats or experimentalists here - no Joyce, and more surprisingly, no Eliot, whose The Waste Land (with notes) and “Tradition and the Individual Talent” are very much the ur-texts behind what is said here. Instead, we get Robert Frost’s more plain- spoken “The way to read a poem in prose or verse is in the light of all the other poems ever written”. If I mention Eliot and Joyce, it is because they, more than any of his chosen poets, embody the act of conscious as distinct from unconscious borrowing - a topic that obsesses Muldoon from the outset. The left hand, for any self-respecting post-modernist, must always know what the right is doing. There is no room, in the act of writing, for innocence any more. We are the historians of our own literary impulses, even as we enact them. Not to know this, for a poet, is the sin of sins.

Did Yeats, in his poem “All Souls’ Night” intend “muscatel” to echo Keats’s “musk-rose” of a hundred years previously? Is Bergsonian “élan” implicit in Frost’s use of “ Ireland” in his poem, “The Mountain”? Is the title of Ted Hughes’s “Moortown Diary” an oblique reference to a quarrel with the poet, Marianne Moore? Are we following a line of inquiry here, or playing a parlour game?

Let’s just say, as we remember what an honourable tradition it is for a poet to clear a lecture hall, that the best way of taking these texts is as variants of Muldoon’s own little poem, “Something Else”, which dramatises its own associative leaps, from eating lobsters to the death of Nerval, “... which made me think / Of something else, then something else again”.

[ Harry Clifton teaches at the School of English in University College Dublin. ]

 

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