January 2007

Jason B. Jones


Horse Latitudes and The End of the Poem by Paul Muldoon

Faced with the task of reviewing a new book of poems, Horse Latitudes, and a collection of lectures, The End of the Poem, by Paul Muldoon, one might think that the obvious approach would be to produce a reading of the poems after the fashion of the lectures. To craft, as it were, a Muldoonian reading of Muldoon. But then, inevitably, one would actually read The End of the Poem, and realize that, even hung over on the morning after a Rackett performance, Muldoon would still know enough about poetry to make his criticism inimitable. After all, this is a man whose "other favourite bathroom reading [is] The New Princeton Handbook of Poetic Terms (or, if I'm expecting to stay a while, The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetic Terms)." (His first favorite is apparently The New Yorker.) How can a mere mortal emulate such mastery of form?

The End of the Poem collects Muldoon's lectures as Professor of Poetry at Oxford University, in which capacity he served between 1999 and 2004. The fifteen lectures construe "the end of the poem" in different ways: as literal end, as aim or purpose, as boundary from other texts, etc. Every lecture save the last takes as its focus a single poem, although Muldoon brings into each chapter a vertiginous number of inter-, con-, and paratexts. Indeed, he affirms in the first chapter, on Yeats's "All Souls' Night," a positive "responsibility as readers to try, insofar as it's possible, to psych ourselves into that moment [of the poem's creation], as well as into the mind through which it made its way into this world, not only in terms of placing a text in its social context, but in terms of its relation to other texts." "Other texts" here might include the entire published and unpublished corpus of a writer, or indeed the various Anglo-American/European literary traditions, or the biography or correspondence of the poet -- in short, any text of even putative relevance.

This task is even harder than one might imagine, because the first three lectures of The End of the Poem, on Yeats, Hughes (and Plath), and Frost, take up words such as cryptocurrent and conglomerwite, portmanteau neologisms which mark a poem's ambivalent relationship to its precursors. To conglomerwrite is to forge a new collation of several important precursor allusions into a single phrase or image. And a cryptocurrent is somewhat like a motif, except it's entirely unstated; more than this, a cryptocurrent is a pattern of things that the poet explicitly refuses to say. A characteristic gesture in these chapters is to point up, for instance, "how Hughes resists what would be the obvious word to fill out the syntax"; elsewhere in that lecture he speaks of "poetic recusancy" to describe Hughes's apparently physical inability to use the obvious, appropriate, even readymade word. Not that Muldoon ever gives the obvious reference. He quotes Sylvia Plath quoting Matthew Arnold in a journal entry, one in which she feels herself to be "already in another world -- or between two worlds, one dead, the other dying to be born." Muldoon's gloss sends us, not to Arnold's "Stanzas from the Grand Chartreuse," from which this last clause is lifted, but to Yeats's A Vision, which he claims Plath's words "faintly echo." For Muldoon, because the journal entry is about Hughes, and Plath connects in her mind Hughes and Yeats, the apparent allusion to Arnold actually frees her to comment on Hughes.

Such interpretive virtuosity may well be off-putting, or at least unconvincing, inasmuch as Muldoon's less interested in justifying his connections than chasing down the possibilities they open up. There's something almost paralyzing about the level of interconnection Muldoon posits between any poem and every preceding poem. "All Souls' Night" turns out to be a meditation on a series of images in Keats's poems and letters; Stevie Smith's "I Remember" consolidates a whole modern tradition of British poetic inaction from Hardy to Thomas to Larkin. Chapters on Hughes, Lowell, Smith, and Arnold extend the amount of knowledge requisite for poetic understanding to the entirety of a poet's biography, as well.

Only almost paralyzing, though. Because the difference between The End of the Poem and a conventionally historicist account of poetry is its attention to poetry's newness and surprise. To Muldoon, an allusion does not pin down or deplete poetic meaning; rather, it is an opportunity to recharge language itself. The work of poems, at least in part is to "clear their own space," which can only be done by engaging fruitfully with prior poems, selves, or events. Muldoon claims that the "poem itself is, after all, the solution to a problem only it has raised, and our reading of it necessarily entails determining what that problem was. Only then may we determine the extent to which it has, or has not, succeeded. That is the only decent end of the poem and our only decent end is to let the poem have its way with us, just as the poet let it have its way with him or her." How one can possibly hope to be "decent" to Muldoon's own poems, given the example he's just shown, is difficult to conceive.

Muldoon opens his chapter on "Dover Beach" with a sort of anxious joke about being Professor of Poetry at Oxford: "'To be a professor of poetry is tantamount to declaring that one is not a poet.' This acerbic little aperçu by A. Dwight Culler, from the introduction to his 1961 edition of Poetry and Criticism of Matthew Arnold, is one upon which I've been maggoting these past four years." (On the splendid verb maggoting, see also the second sense in the OED: "A whimsical, eccentric, strange, or perverse notion or idea," with "maggot-monger" as a purveyor of such notions.) Arnold suppressed "Dover Beach" for many years, and indeed largely left off the writing of poetry. That Muldoon might be anxious about a similar fate is perhaps suggested by the title of his new collection of poems, Horse Latitudes, which refers to those zones 30 degrees north and south of the equator where there are no favorable trade winds. Ships stood, in the days before steam and diesel, largely still. If, on the one hand, publishing a collection of poems simultaneously with the collection of lectures is a way to ward off Culler's gibe, still, on the other, there's a hint of midlife poetic crisis.

And the title poem's method is instantly familiar to anyone who's read Muldoon: "Horse Latitudes" juxtaposes the outbreak of war in Iraq with a former lover's struggle with cancer. That the poem's focus is partly on Iraq is, he has explained, to be inferred from the fact that each section of the poem carries a place-name beginning with B, one where a significant battle involving horses was fought, except that Baghdad is missing. (In the language of The End of the Poem, it's cryptocurrent.) While the mind boggles at collating such an array of information, the poem also has its moments of quiet brilliance: "Proud-fleshed Carlotta. Hypersarcoma. / For now our highest ambition / was simply to bear the light of the day / we had once been planning to seize." The justification for Muldoon's title comes suddenly into focus: Proud flesh (hypersarcoma) is a kind of excessive, ulcerated growth as a wound tries to close; it is a particular problem with horses. And the horse latitudes are so-called because becalmed ships would throw overboard horses in the hopes of becoming light enough for the scant wind to push. The epithet "proud-fleshed Carlotta" economically evokes the power of cancer to deflate (at least potentially, or temporarily) even the most proud and ambitious of us; that it comes in the first poem of nineteen suggests how one carries on nevertheless.

Almost every poem in this collection has at least one such detail worth unpacking, and all feature the formal inventiveness that characterize Muldoon's poetry. Indeed, the longer poems here are show-stopping. "90 Instant Messages to Tom Moore" (thoughtfully glossed in FSG's American edition as "nineteenth-century Irish poet Tom Moore") are each haiku of a sort:

What we knew as scutch
back home is "Bermuda grass."
A crutch is a crutch.

            The Arabian
            constantly raising the bar.
            Its penis-paean.

Pulsars, Tom. Spin-spin.
Even the moon's novelty
has worn a bit thin.

The haiku are almost an index of the collection -- for example, the Arabian in XXX is presumably the same "Arabian stallion" that, in "Alba," "still managed a salaam / despite Carlotta's jettisoning his six mares / in an effort to break the deadlock." And "The Old Country," a poem satirizing clichés about Ireland, "where every town was a tidy town," is a sort of sonnet sequence ronde, wherein the last line of each poem becomes the first line of the next, until the first line of the first poem re-emerges as the last line of the last. One almost wants to read Muldoon with The Book of Forms in hand, just to be sure one doesn't miss a trick. Mercifully, however, one probably needn't know that "Soccer Moms" is an extended villanelle (wherein the first and third lines of the first two stanzas form a refrain) to grasp the poem's sympathetic account of aging, motherhood, and desire.

The last poem in the collection, "Sillyhow Stride," an elegy for Warren Zevon, gives Muldoon the undesired opportunity to reflect on his losses. Death seems prouder by the year:

I want you tell me if grief, brought to numbers, cannot be so fierce,
pace Donne's sales pitch,
for he tames, that fetters it in verse,

throwing up a last ditch
against the mounted sorrows, for I have more, Warren, I have more

This cancer-ridden collection had opened with Carlotta's "Hypersarcoma" on its first page, and its last features Zevon's "mesotheliomata"; along the way, we learn that his sister, to whose memory the book is dedicated, "had sunk so low / she might not make the anniversary of our mother's death from this same cancer, this same quick, quick, slow / conversion of manna to gall." Muldoon's frustration with these sorrows emerges in his language. Recurring throughout this poem is a conversational "yeah right" -- for example, "Diet, yeah right, Diet Mountain Dew," which takes on a variety of meanings: Sometimes "yeah right" registers a memory not-quite-forgotten; other times it's a kind of sneer, whether at death, or the poetic ability to transcend death, or a world that produces child-soldiers in Africa. From soup to nuts, this collection is marked by two of death's most baffling forms: the supervitality of life that is cancer, and the bizarre wars that showcase just how many people will choose destruction over life.

I have always had a soft spot for Muldoon, one quite separate from his abilities: My British Literature II syllabi always ended with "Milkweed and Monarch," and so teaching his poems meant that the semester, usually the spring semester, was almost over. Unfortunately, of course, that also means that we tend to slide past his poems into anxiety about the final exam. The End of the Poem and Horse Latitudes exemplify his stature in contemporary poetry, and show why he repays attention: Able to infuse the most arcane language and strictest forms with urgent meaning, Muldoon unleashes the innovative force of repetition.

The End of the Poem: Oxford Lectures by Paul Muldoon
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
ISBN: 0374148104
416 Pages

Horse Latitudes by Paul Muldoon
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
ISBN: 0374173052
120 Pages