Paul Muldoon and Linguistically Innovative Poetry
The year Muldoon's Madoc: A Mystery was published also witnessed, in the pages of The Irish Review, a bracing exchange between J. C. C. Mays and Edna Longley regarding innovation in contemporary Irish poetry. For Mays, the seeming diversity of recent Irish poetry was a chimera; in reality, the poetry scene was as bland and uniform as the rapidly expanding suburbs in Dublin and other urban centers: "There are a lot of writers but they are all the same sort - like the houses thrown up around Irish towns by the building industry. The differences between so many Irish poets are the same as the differences between these pattern-design buildings: the claim that one poet is from one townland, and another has a particular line on the North, and another has feminist ambitions, and another writes about leaving his wife, offers readers a choice as real as whether they should live in a suburb with red-tile roofs, or with post-modern porches, or with neo-Georgian accessories."1 In Mays's opinion, "the most gifted writers... in Ireland have either given up or left": poets associated with Michael Smith's at that date moribund New Writers' Press - Trevor Joyce, Augustus Young and Geoffrey Squires - and a younger generation clustered around the short-lived journal The Beau - Randolph Healy, Billy Mills and Maurice Scully.2 In Mays's eyes, the fate of these poets replays than of certain preceding generations, that of Brian Coffey and Denis Devlin in the 1930s and John Jordan, Pearse Hutchinson and Eugene Watters in the post-war period.
In her response, Longley contests the reductive binarism she understands informs Mays's account: in contrasting "a supposed orthodoxy" to "a supposed unorthodoxy," or "marginalised Irish modernism," Mays erroneously "presumes that there is only one margin and the centre holds." Specifically, she contends, Mays's case ignores Northern Irish poetry and the crucial role therein of Louis MacNeice: "the axis changes, the axle tilts, if Louis MacNeice is seen as more central and influential than Austin Clarke....MacNeice absorbed the complementary challenges of Yeats and Eliot more deeply than did the Irish imitators of either. He may thus have helped to make Paul Muldoon a more plausible neo-Modernist subversive than some of the candidates listed by Mays."3 While his polemic against pattern-design poetry does not name names, it is tempting to see Muldoon sheltering under one of those "post-modern porches" inveighed against by Mays. Be that as it may, Longley's suggestion that MacNeice's dialogue with Yeats and Eliot in part enables Muldoon's poetic innovations directly counters Mays's version of Irish poetic modernism, in which, as Mays has argued elsewhere, Thomas MacGreevy is perceived as a progenitor of sorts.4
In To Ireland, I (2000), Muldoon, among other concerns, would appear to make his own intervention into this debate. Intriguingly, Muldoon's idiosyncratic and necessarily selective gazetteer of Irish literature includes entries on Coffey, Devlin and MacGreevy. (And this in a book which signally omits any discussion of Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon and Michael Longley, all of whom are included in Muldoon's Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry (1986), while the Irish modernists are not.) The entries on Coffey and Devlin are not only back-to-back but humorously repetitive: of Coffey, Muldoon says: "Like many mould-breakers, Coffey is thought of, if he's thought of at all, as a 'difficult' poet"-a remark substantiated by a quotation from Mays's introduction to Coffey's Poems and Versions 1929-1990 which concludes: "It [Coffey's writing] will puzzle or cause affront to anyone who thinks poetry exists on the side, as an adjunct or comfortable adornment."5 The entry on Devlin opens: "The same might be said of Denis Devlin" - which is precisely what Muldoon proceeds to do: "Like many mould-breakers, Devlin is thought of, if he's thought of at all, as a 'difficult' poet. As his editor, J. C. C. Mays points out...."6 This feline playfulness with Coffey and Devlin, and Mays's commentary (which sounds sententious in this ludic context: "Sense is elided [in Devlin's poetry], meaning is syncopated, because it has to be"), is equally in evidence in Muldoon's claim that Devlin is alluding to Joyce's "The Dead" in the following lines from "Lough Derg": "Against the craftsmen's primary-coloured skies / Whose gold was Gabriel on the patient roofs, / The parabled windows taught the dead to rise" (Muldoon's emphases). On the face of it, this is patently absurd, as are Muldoon's further conjectures that, in Krapp's Last Tape, Beckett is "thinking of 'Lough Derg,'" as shown in the two texts' lacustrine settings or reminiscences and certain word choices made by Beckett".7 Muldoon craftily elides allusion with what is, in its strict sense, the intertextual nature of language, collapsing any distinction between authorial intention (to allude) and the fact that any use of language is inevitably a citation. Indeed, in repeating himself verbatim, Muldoon's prose cites itself in a manner familiar to admirers of "Lefty" Clery in Muldoon's poem "Twice," who manages to appear "grinning from both ends of the school photograph, / having joked behind the three-deep rest of us to meet the Kodak's / leisurely pan: 'Two places at once, was it, or one place twice?'"8 In short, the singular achievement Mays ascribes to Coffey and Devlin is supplanted by Muldoon's characteristically iterative procedure.
The duplicity or, rather, multiplicity of reference is writ large in To Ireland, I - as in the apparently faux connections drawn between three works by Devlin, Joyce and Beckett - and, in this respect, the book can be read as a wry retort to John Carey's exasperated review of Meeting the British, in which he bewailed Muldoon's "arcane, allusive poetry."9 Allusion is all, suggests To Ireland, I. Indeed, Muldoon might almost be mimicking Carey's critique of his poetry in his words on Thomas MacGreevy's poem, "Homage to Hieronymous Bosch": "Like a number of MacGreevy's poems, this is genuinely 'pied' in the Gravesian sense. That's to say, it's virtually unintelligible without a supporting apparatus," which Muldoon supplies in part through linking the text back to - "you've guessed it again" - Joyce's "The Dead". 10 It is noteworthy that Muldoon draws our attention to Wallace Stevens's letter of approbation to MacGreevy, in which the American praises MacGreevy's verbal fluidity: "You pass in and out of things in your poems," writes Stevens, a comment Muldoon judges "a perfect description of his [MacGreevy's] method in a poem like Cron Trath na nDéithe, or 'The Twilight of the Gods.'" This kind of poetic bi-location again recalls that of Clery, who, as Clair Wills observes in a fine reading of "Twice", is a "trickster figure," one whose antics are figurative of poetic shape-shifting: "Like Clery the poem doesn't recognize a terminus, a boundary between here and there."11 In Muldoon's reading, the boundaries of MacGreevy's poem dissolve; the text is shown to be permeated by, not just Joyce's short story, but by Irish voyage tales including Imram Curaig Maile Duin, "The Voyage of Muldoon's Curragh." In a mind-bending interpretative performance, Muldoon argues that, via "The Dead," this poem informs some of MacGreevy's imagery in Cron Trath na nDéithe, specifically the lines: "The brightness of brightness / Towering in the sky / Over Dublin."12 As his reference to Robert Graves suggests, Muldoon's critical strategy looks back to The White Goddess's unpicking of the "esoteric meaning" concealed in old Irish and Welsh poetry relating to an alphabetic calendar: the alphabetic arrangement of To Ireland, I clearly plays with Graves's alleged poetic code, which is introduced in Muldoon's very first entry on "Amergin."13 The vertiginous experience of reading Muldoon's exegeses, however, feels more like that of following Roland Barthes's hyper-formalist procedures in a work like S/Z, than that of construing Graves's earnest "historical grammar."
Muldoon's discussion of MacGreevy is juxtaposed
with the entry on MacNeice, which is both alphabetically contingent and
a deliberated choice. In contrast to the critically inert pairing
of Coffey and Devlin, the conjuncture of MacGreevy and MacNeice cuts conventional
literary history withershins (or "widdershins," in Muldoon's parlance in
of Chile). Muldoon argues plausibly that MacNeice's radio play
Mad Islands also draws on Imram Curaig Maile Duin. Less
plausibly, perhaps, Muldoon argues that MacNeice's poem "The Taxis" - "In
the first taxi he was alone tra la, / No extras on the clock" 14
- also alludes to the Irish work and to "The Dead" and the cab-journey
which provides the narrative viewpoint of MacGreevy's Cron Trath na
Molly MaloneMuldoon writes: "It seems to me that the 'Merely multiple' is a prefiguring of the "multiple" personalities of the speaker of 'The Taxis,' while the nonsense refrain 'tra la' is prefigured in the 'Tr . . .' of the last line of Cron Trath na nDéithe."16 The shared preoccupation with "multiple" consciousnesses aside, the echo of the phoneme "tr" is slender evidence of any direct connection between the two texts. Yet Muldoon argues for precisely that: that MacNeice had read the poem in 1934 (when MacGreevy's Poems was published) and that the phrase "incorrigibly plural" in MacNeice's "Snow" and the reference to "the twilight of the gods" in his "Aubade" are indebted to MacGreevy's poem.17 I can find no evidence that MacNeice had or had not read MacGreevy; certainly, there is no reference to his work in MacNeice's published writings. But, arguably, this is to miss Muldoon's point. In the intertextual realm of To Ireland, I the "whimful" suggestion that MacGreevy is an influence on MacNeice circumnavigates the Scylla and Charybdis exemplified by the respective literary histories by Mays and Longley with which I began. Both MacGreevy and MacNeice represent an emergent (Irish) post-modernism to the extent that they both successfully grappled with the modernist legacy of Yeats and Eliot (and Joyce), albeit to different poetic ends.
Rather than being fanciful, Muldoon's surprising conjunction of MacGreevy and MacNeice strikes me as highly enabling for readers and critics of twentieth-century Irish poetry. It allows us to see resemblances between poets the polemics have sometimes sharply differentiated. In an interesting mixed generic work of criticism and poetry, What is a Mountain?, published the same year as To Ireland, I Billy Mills-one of the poets identified by Mays as working that vein opened by MacGreevy and further mined by Coffey - pugnaciously asserts: "Larkin, Hughes, Raine and the rest are not what I'm other to (try Heaney, Boland and Muldoon, for starters)."18 Though leery of poetic labels including "experimental" and "linguistically innovative" (terms held at arms' length by means of scare quotes in What is a Mountain?), Mills promotes what he calls "alternative Irish poetries" to the dominant mainstream.19 The danger of this kind of willed exceptionalism can be a small readership: Mills's press, hardPressed Poetry , produces books in what amounts to an artisnal fashion (thus, the first issue of Mills's Logical Fallacies , for instance, is a holograph edition of ten copies, "8 of which are for sale").20 It can also occlude the kind of productive juxtapositions of which Muldoon's MacGreevy/MacNeice might be taken as a provocative example.
To conclude with one such conjunction: Muldoon's "Yarrow," from The Annals of Chile (1994), and Trevor Joyce's work in progress "From a Phantom Hyper-Sestina" (Ana), a version of which is collected in Mixum Gatherum (2005). Muldoon and Joyce are rarely if ever spoken of in the same breath; yet their respective oeuvres are among the most formally exciting bodies of work in contemporary Irish poetry. The structure of "Yarrow" has been well described by others, including Tim Kendall and Clair Wills.21 In line with Muldoon's innovations in the formal properties of sonnets, villanelles, etc., the sestina in "Yarrow" might be described in Heideggerean/Derridean parlance as "under erasure": that is, cancelled, crossed-out, but still visible. By this I don't mean something akin to Basil Bunting's cancellation of words, phrases, lines, even whole poems from Shakespeare's sonnets, paring away the extraneous in an attempt to reveal the sequence's essence.22 Rather, Muldoon's sestina extends to startling lengths the kind of "ad lib" rendition of the sonnet form practiced by Patrick Kavanagh in "Canal Bank Walk" - the latter finding a gloss in Kavanagh's reflection that the sonnet's appeal for him lay in its "strict rules, which like other rules Shakespeare broke so wonderfully."23 Rules and their violation are central of course to the thematics of "Yarrow," and find one personification in the figure of Arthur Carven, Dada pugilist, anarchy played to Queensbury Rules.
The structure of Joyce's "From a Phantom Hyper-Sestina"
is as fascinating and as highly formalist as "Yarrow." The sequence
has its origins in Boticelli's four panels illustrating "The Story of Nastagio
degli Onesti" in Boccaccio's The Decameron, the summary of which,
in the first English translation of 1620, is as follows:
Anastasio, a Gentleman of the Family of the Honesti, by loving the daughter to Signior Paulo Traversario, lavishly wasted a great part of his substance, without receiving any love from her againe. By perswasion of some of his kindred and friends, he went to a countrey dwelling of his, called Chiasso, where he saw a knight desperately pursue a young Damosell; whom he slew, and afterward gave her to be devoured by his Hounds. Anastasio invited his friends, and hers also whom he dearely loved, to take part of a dinner with him, who likewise saw the same Damosell so torne to peeces, which his unkind Love perceiving, and fearing least the like ill fortune should happen to her; she accepted Anastasio to be her Husband.
The connections between Muldoon and Joyce should
encourage us to look askance at the poetic partition of the polemics.
We could take a leaf from the defamiliarizing sight of "Lefty" Clery in
"Twice" and, like the speaker of that poem, squinny some of the received
accounts of innovative Irish poetries.
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