Harry Clifton, review of Poems 1968-1998 by Paul Muldoon, in The Irish Times (26 May 2001)

Details: Harry Clifton, ‘Remembering the Redemptive Power of Art’, review of Paul Muldoon, Poems 1968-1998, in The Irish Times (26 May 2001), “Weekend” [unfindable at 05.20.2023].

Poetry as poetry and poetry as work - this enormous volume, 30 years in the writing and 50 in the living, begs as many questions as it settles. Forget the encomia on the dustjacket, except to note that, for an Irish poet - or, more precisely, a poet who happens to have been born in Ireland - it is surprising that no Irish voices are added to the chorus.

In Northern Ireland, and the British poetry-academic world as a whole, Muldoon can do no wrong. In the South, down the years, the attitude has been distinctly cooler - whether through envy, sheer stupidity, or superior discrimination, time alone will tell.

In the meantime, what Poems 1968-1998 does confirm is one thing - the utter brilliance of his beginnings. Can any poet have set out his stall as celestially as Muldoon does in ’The Electric Orchard’, which kicks off the whole oeuvre?

The high up singing and live fruit liable to shock or kill
Were forbidden. Deciding that their neighbours
And their neighbours’ innocent children ought to be stopped
For their own good, they threw a fence
Of barbed wire round the electric poles. None could describe
Electrocution, falling, the age of innocence.

We are instantly in the presence of a unique, fully-achieved voice and imagination, allied to phenomenal technique. True, it is still imagination largely without object, celebrating itself, forming itself, a small discrete universe, out of its own gases, as in “Seanchas”.

Nothing. And no heroes people this landscape
Through which he sees us off.
The lifted wondering faces of his sheep
Stare back at us like nimble rain clouds, their bellies
Accumulate and are anonymous again. But having shape,
Separate and memorable.

But attachment to the things and situations of this earth isn’t long in coming, and from then on, the world is its oyster. Small masterpieces, never overstaying their welcome, succeed each other over the next 15 years, a pre-lapsarian idyll of erotics, local knowledge and sly pokings under the skirts of Dame Philology. Ethics, politics, all the wrong responsibilities, are kept disarmingly, at times comically, at bay, while something else is upheld - the claims of art, of the free play of the autonomous human imagination, and in “Gathering Mushrooms”, perhaps his finest single lyric, the promise of a larger realm.

If we never live to see the day we leap
Into our true domain,
Lie down with us now and wrap
Yourself in the soiled grey blanket of Irish rain
That will, one day, bleach itself white.
Lie down with us and wait.

By this time, however, something else has crept in the back door. Call it the US, the post-modern mindset or the Zeitgeist of the 1980s. Whatever, this exquisite verbal receptivity, almost too sensitive to the age, takes it in and gives it back, like innocence turned inside out, in its most cynical, shape-shifting aspect. “Immram” (1980), for all its wit and cleverness, starts the rot, and on it has gone, through long poem after long poem, to the word-wilderness of “The Bangle (Slight Return)”.

For ‘lass’ read ‘less.’
Time nor tide wait for a wink
From the aura
Of Ailsa Craig. For ‘Menalaus’ read
For ‘dinkum’ read ‘dink.’
For ‘Wooroonooran’, my darlings, read ‘Wirra Wirra.’

Was there no one in all those years, no editor, no critic, to take him gently aside and call a halt? Or were they all too busy applauding, themselves caught up in the same frenzy that has left so little in its wake? Entertaining some of these later texts may be, in a brittle, emotionally hollowed-out way, but nothing compensates for their loss of faith in reality.

Thankfully, that is not the whole story. Short poems like “Hay”, a touchstone of truth akin to Robert Frost’s “For Once, Then, Something”, have always gone against the grain. And “Incantata”, a late elegy for Mary Farl Powers and an À la recherche du temps perdu of Irish life in the 1980s, redeems the latter half of the volume.

This is poetry as pretext for autobiography, in a different register from the earlier lyrics, but the fidelity to the redemptive power of Art remains, as ever, at the centre.

I thought again of how art may be made, as it was by André Derain,
Of nothing more than a turn
In the road where a swallow dips into the mire
Or plucks a strand of bloody wool from a strand of barbed wire
In the aftermath of Chickamauga or Culloden
And builds from pain, from misery, from a deep-seated hurt,
A monument to the human heart
That shines like a golden dome among roofs rain-glazed and leaden.

Muldoon’s, so far, is a story of optical illusions - longer and longer not being better and better; the US, and various gigantisms, being tinier than the psychic space of Ireland. Reversing his early ’Waking Father’, one might say that the higher upstream you go, the realer the fish become. He badly needs, now, in his 50th year, with so much magnificent work behind him, to get back to the innocence of first beginnings.

[ Harry Clifton is a poet and critic. His last collection, Night Train through the Brenner, was published by Gallery Press in 1994. ]

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