Thursday, June 21, 2007

The End of the Poem

Paul Muldoon, The End of the Poem, Oxford Lectures on Poetry. (Faber and Faber, 2007), UK £25.

How do you write about poetry? And when you write about poetry, who are you writing for? Paul Muldoon’s book gathers the fifteen hour long lectures he delivered during his Oxford professorship, so the initial audience would presumably have been largely an academic one. The tone and pitch of these talks reflect that; there’s an elaborate cleverness and often an archness of address as Muldoon plays with the forms of academic discourse. But it’s very much also a book for readers of Muldoon’s poetry: its methods, ifs shifts and feints, its teasing humour, its incessant connection-making, are precisely those of the poems. The poetry lover will segue easily from Horse Latitudes to The End of the Poem and the voice and the territory will be comfortingly familiar. Muldoon’s first decision was to to focus each of these lectures on a single poem, which makes for a pleasing structure, and promises the kind of forensic analysis of particular words in particular places you might expect, and relish, from a practising poet, as well as a practical way of tackling some the ‘ends’ of poetry. It immediately foregrounds the primacy of the poem rather than the poet: these are not to going to be encapsulations of a total oeuvre so much as reflections of a personal choice of a single significant text.

The choices themselves are both expected and surprising. On the one hand a canonical list: Yeats, Hughes, Dickinson, Bishop, Frost, Lowell, Moore, Auden – your average course in a certain kind of twentieth century poetry – and on the other, poems in translation by Pessoa, Montale, Tsvetayeva. The method of close textual analysis of a single poem work less well here, since the attention is, necessarily, on translations rather than originals and Muldoon’s highly culture-specific ruminations don’t easily migrate from English. Translation of its nature imports its targets into the terms of the source culture, but that doesn’t mean we can really see a Montale or a Tsvetayeva in a tradition of English-language perception. But more of that later.

What the focus on single poems does is to shine the torch on very specific parts of the process: a microscopic close reading where the attention is on the individual word. But actually the interest is often more on how the particular lexical choice ramifies outward, relates to other words in other poems. Muldoon’s variety of close attention is about making connections. He is very interested in how poems relate to each other, but it’s a very personal and idiosyncratic sense of connection that drives the essays. His choice of method allows him a leisurely, meandering, serendipitous reflection where one thought leads to another which prompts another in closed circles of associative thinking. The essays don’t so much discuss the poems as circle purposefully around them, from the critical to the biographical to the loosely speculative and ruminative, led by ear or memory or some other prompt to an unexpected destination. The result can be disconcerting in that the poem under discussion often seems to crumble under the weight of rumination and you are left marvelling at the connections rather than any more enlightened about the poem itself.

This is probably to miss the point. This is a book at least as much a tour around the brain and imagination (the brainy imagination?) of Paul Muldoon as it is an engagement with poems. The primary relationship which the reader has in these pages is with the darts and shifts and lateral thinking swagger of the guide. All poetry criticism by poets does this to some extent, but here you have a real sense that the poet is as much discovered as discoverer. You don’t come to these essays to be released into the otherness of other poets so much as be coiled back into the mind that considers them. The book opens with a discussion of Yeats’ ‘All Souls Night’ which moves easily from discussion of sound patterning, ‘the mimesis of the tolling bell in the predominantly spondaic metre of what is now the first line’ to a history of the festival of All Souls Night and its relation to Halloween and Samhain, which was ‘if you recall, the name of the house magazine of the Irish Literary Theatre...’ to an anecdote about a college professor introducing Yeats as the author of ‘Ode to Psyche, ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ and ‘Ode on Melancholy’, which itself introduces the core idea: the relationship between Yeats’ poem ‘All Souls’ Night’ and Keats, underscored in his mind by the fact that one hundred years elapsed between ‘To Autumn’ and the writing of ‘All Souls’ Night’ and that Yeats’s poem was one hundred lines long.

Some of this argument is plausible and interesting, although the certainty of the statements is surprising. Not x may be connected to y, but x proceeds unmistakably from y. This may be part of the game Muldoon plays consistently throughout the book – of turning academic seeming procedures on their head. On the line ‘The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine’, Muldoon, for instance, has ‘no doubt – though some will say I should – that the musk­ ghosts the muscatel...’

The book is peppered with these sort of certainties or mock-certainties. Another oddly persistent thread is the focus on the secret life of poems where words or ghosts of words or unchosen synonyms of words are codes concealing, as often as not the names of the poets. The occurrence of the word ‘drains’ in Keats’ ‘Ode to A Nightingale’ somehow connects with ‘lees’ and is therefore ‘an indicator of what lies under the surface these lines [by Yeats] which centre on his wife, Georgie Hyde-Lees.’ That Nomen est omen becomes one of the subplots of the argument. In Frost’s ‘The Mountain’, for example, we are to take it that ‘The mountain held the town in a shadow’ contains a reference to the name Robert Lee Frost, since you could also render it ‘The town was in the lee of the mountain’, while in ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’, ‘woods’ recalls ‘forest’ which is a near anagram of Frost. And not just Frost: Marianne Moore is at it too who, in the word ‘fen’ in

If you will tell my why the fen
appears impossible, I then
will tell you why I think that I
can get across it if I try

is really referring ‘to the reading of her own name as “marsh”, the second sense in which it appears in the OED...’

There’s an illuminating Muldoon moment in the Moore essay: Moore he says, may be worrying that she’s too Moorish ( in the Moors of Spain sense) and then he remembers reading in the third edition of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica that ‘ the greatest peculiarity in Moorish architecture is the horse-shoe arch’ and then he comments on his own methodology:

Now, I know that this kind of reading may sometimes seem a little fritillarian (in the dicey sense which underlies both the butterfly and the flower so familiar to this audience), perhaps a little fiddle-headed, but what can I do? I’m sitting at a desk I acquired from the gentleman who looks after surplus furniture at Princeton. His name is Sam Formica. On the desk are two books. One is The Botany of Desire : A Plant’s-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan. The other is Archie G. Walls’s Geometry and Architecture in Islamic Jerusalem.

This sums up the dizzying parade of serendipity that characterises this book and make it a somewhat exhausting read. The sense of the connectedness of texts may be what drives the book but it takes a particular cast of mind to pursue and relish some of these connections which are imagined, intuited, guessed at since they mostly cannot be proven. In his lively discussion of Ted Hughes’ ‘The Literary Life’, which remembers a visit by Hughes and Plath to Marianne Moore in her Brooklyn eyrie, the occurrence of ‘stair’ and ‘nest’ in the opening lines

We climbed Marianne Moore’s narrow stair
To her bower-bird bric-à-brac nest, in Brooklyn

sends him both to Philip Larkin’s ‘The Less Deceived’ (‘...stumbling up the breathless stair/To burst into fulfillment’s desolate attic’) and the stare’s nest in Yeats’ ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’.

Muldoon has extraordinarily highly developed auditory antennae which make him especially alert to the resonance of words, and this coupled with an absorption in the tradition of poetry makes it second nature for him to pursue a word back through its occurrence in other poems – almost as if poetry were an unending series of echoes and poets locked into a sonic cycle that makes every lexical choice seem somehow predetermined. In Muldoon’s sense of it, poems live in perpetual relation to other poems. There’s an interesting moment in the piece on Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘12 O’Clock News’ where he follows an Anglepoise lamp from Bishop to Derek Mahon’s ‘The Globe in North Carolina’, and on to Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children before returning to another version of the lamp in a Bishop short story. Again the trigger for this journey is verbal: it’s the occurrence of ‘poise’ in Mahon’s poem which leads him to Anglepoise. The rub of the word before the rub of the lamp, or the rub of the word as the rub of the lamp.

Mahon and Heaney both appear in this essay in terms of their indebtedness to Bishop. Since all poems echo other poems, it follows that all poets are indebted to other poets and much of Muldoon’s labours are directed at the forensic detection of influence. It’s as if the anxiety of influence had mutated into a near-pathological celebration of influence, or a sense that poems can only really function as the subjects of influence. But ultimately it’s reductive; you end up with a sense of poetry as a closed circle, an area of pure text, a hall of mirrors and echoes. Muldoon’s susceptibility to sound, to seeing patterns and structures of connectedness is in the end too definitively his own to be truly releasing for the reader.

The inter relatedness of all poems is most consciously taken up in the discussion of Montale’s ‘ Eel’, or more specifically, Robert Lowell’s translation of it, which is very much not the same thing. Before analysing and comparing a series of translations of this poem, Muldoon spends a good deal of time demonstrating the radical influence of Lowell’s version on Seamus Heaney. Lowell’s piling up of adjectives in a line like ‘where my carved name quivers,/happy, humble, defeated..’ is echoed in Heaney’s adjectival triadism in ‘lost, unhappy and at home’ and likewise the ‘black lace balcony’ in the second section of ‘The Eel’ – which, as Muldoon points out, is actually another poem Lowell mistook for a continuation of the poem – directly influences the ‘black plunge-line nightdress’ in ‘The Skunk’, the love poem ‘which, as we know, is already indebted to Lowell’s ‘Skunk Hour’. The problem is that this kind of criticism, for all the certainty with which it is presented, is just as likely to be a mile wide of the mark as it is to hit home. Seamus Heaney may indeed have been pushed around by these lines until he could take no more, but then again he may not have been. The black nightdress may simply have been a black nightdress, rather than a remembered Lowellism. Sometimes you can feel that Muldoon is over-addicted to the drunkenness of things being similar. He quotes these lines from an essay on translation by Octavio Paz

On the one hand, the world is presented to us as a collection of similarities; on the other, as a growing heap of texts, each slightly different from the one that came before it: translations of translations of translations.

It is certainly true that for Muldoon awareness of tradition is stitched into his sensibility, and both criticism and poetry are written within this awareness and often in conscious competition with his forebears; the work pursues a constant dialogue with Seamus Heaney, for instance, and you might wonder how persistent this thread would be if Heaney’s shadow were a little shorter in terms of geography and fame.

Another of the consistent interests in this book is his concern with how the ‘I’ of the poems relates to the actual biographical person, the degree to which the voice is the authentic bearer of news of the self, or is necessarily fictionalised, transformed by the act of writing. Self transformation, self disguise, the multiple dispositions of the self are engines of Muldoon’s poetry, and this is why a figure like Fernando Pessoa, and the heteronyms to whom he allocated his work, is important: ‘That Pessoa wrote in the guise or semblance of so many poets raises that much broader question about the extent to which the personality of any single poet may be thought of as being coterminous with his or her poems. . .’

Pessoa, in these kinds of discussions, can often seem more idea than poet: a handy exemplar of self-division, but he’s really too complex, too sui generis to be representative of anything, and the heteronyms are not so much clinically differentiated selves as aspects of the one unstable, xx Pessoa self. What he wrote under his own name or in the guise of a ‘semi-heternoym’ like Bernardo Soares are all fictions of instabilty, all manifestations of ‘the wound-up little train’ of the heart. In a letter in 1935 Pessoa explains that Alberto Caeiro, Álvaro de Campos, Ricardo Reis and Bernardo Soares all proceed from different states of mind

How do I write in the name of these three? Caeiro, through sheer and unexpected inspiration, without knowing or even suspecting that I’m going to write in his name. Ricardo Reis, after an abstract meditation which suddenly takes concrete shape in an ode. Campos, when I feel a sudden impulse to write and don’t know what. (My semi-heteronym, who in many ways resembles Álvaro de Campos, always appears when I’m sleepy or drowsy, so that my qualities of inhibition and rational thought are suspended...
(To Adolfo Casais Monteiro – 13 January 1935, Zenith, 474)

In the same letter Pessoa also differentiates between a heteronym and a semi-heteronym. Bernardo Soares is a semi-heteronym ‘because his personality, though not my own, doesn’t differ from my own but is a mere mutilation of it.’

Pessoas’s heteronyms are an extreme version of what all poets do, and the greatest fiction of all is surely the notion that there is a single stable ‘I’ underlying anything written. ‘To fake is to know oneself’ (Fingir-se é conhecer-se), Pessoa wrote on another occasion, and that’s surely what is intended in the opening lines of ‘Autopsychography’, the poem which Muldoon discusses, given here in the translation by Edward Honig and Susan M. Brown

The poet is a faker. He
Fakes it so completely,
He even fakes he's suffering
The pain he's really feeling.

And those of us who read his writing
Fully feel while reading
Not that pain of his that's double,
But one completely fictional.

So on its tracks goes round and round,
To entertain the reason,
That wound-up little train
We call the heart of man.

Muldoon is actually less interested in Pessoa’s self-divisions than he is in applying his associative procedure to individual words, almost as if Portuguese and English inhabited the same linguistic continuum. Referring to the Portuguese text of the last quatrain of ‘Autopsychography’

E assim nas calhas de roda
Gira, a entreter a razão,
Esse comboio de corda
Que se chama coração.

Muldoon observes:

The use of the word gira at the pivotal point of the second line is a telling one, surely, since the first version of Yeats’s A Vision had been published in 1927, and would have been read enthusiastically by an occultist like Pessoa, particularly one with an interest in the “gyres” of history, in the automatic writing of Georgie Hyde-Lees, in Yeats’s theory of the mask.

How likely is it that the use of the perfectly commonplace Portuguese verb girar (to turn, rotate) was determined by a recherché word like ‘gyre’ in English? Muldoon seems to be applying the sonic values of English to Portuguese and extrapolating from that, but this is Pessoa viewed from outside, through the necessarily falsifying microscope of another language, in which, again, cara (face) seems conclusively related to Alberto Caeiro, ‘whose name also conjured up carneiro meaning both “sheep”. . . and “burial niche”. None of these lexical speculations tell us anything of real interest about the poetry. The forensic analysis of versions of Montale or Marina Tsvetayeva are too too much caught up in the webs of English language traditions to bring us close to the core of those poets.

In the end I came away from this book admiring its idiosyncratic brilliance but longing for the wider view; longing to escape from the associative labyrinth, from words, which may be an odd thing to say. Maybe what I’m really saying is that for me the close-up view can actually be distorting – and can only really work in conjunction with the wide angle shot of the work as a whole.


Unknown said...

A wonderful tour through that amazing boiling book! Must say, it was one of my favorite reads of the year.

Anonymous said...
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palmcop said...

Gosh, there is so much effective material here!

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