WB Yeats told the story of how the twenty-three-year old James Joyce visited him on a whim. Yeats was staying in the Cavendish hotel on what was then Rutland square (now Parnell Square).
Yeats records that Joyce “began to explain all his objections to everything I had ever done; politics, folklore, historical settings of events and so on. Above all, why had I written about ideas? These things were all the signs of the cooling of the iron, of the fading out of inspiration. . . His own little book of poetry owed nothing to anything but his own mind which was much nearer to god than folklore”.
Apparently Yeats was greatly impressed at the impertinence of his young protégé. Indeed it is axiomatic that each artistic generation rises up against its predecessor. Thus the modernist Joyce slew the romantic Yeats.
But in the pursuit of originality there should also be recognition of past achievement. In ancient Greece, when the values of homer’s epics the Iliad and Odyssey reigned, there were at least seven systematic activities including poetry, warfare, farming and rhetoric that were deemed to require a disciplined apprenticeship in pursuit of ‘excellence’. There was acknowledgement that past achievement defined any field, but aspirants knew that rupture was necessary to transcend previous heights. According to the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre: “the greatest achievement in each area at each stage always exhibits a freedom to violate the present established maxims, so that achievement proceeds by rule-keeping and by rule-breaking”. Sometimes a tradition may reach a level of such decadence that it falls into disrepute. This appears to be the fate of the high poetic tradition, in Ireland and elsewhere. It now enjoys a popular readership equivalent to that of the angling notes in the paper of record. This descent is apparent in the extended exercise in wordplay characteristic of the output of its leading Irish light, Paul Muldoon.
In order to scale the dizzying heights of his masterpieces Joyce first had to purge his own Yeatsian tendencies. As Jahan Ramazani in poetry and its others puts it: “although Joyce wrote lyric poetry, the novelist is sometimes unrecognisable in the Elizabethan song forms, sentimental lyricism, and static retrospection of ‘chamber music’ and ‘poems penyeach’”. He cites a rather insipid passage where the iconoclastic brilliance that drives his novels is barely discernible: the twilight turns from amethyst to deep and deeper blue, the lamp fills with a pale green glow the trees of the avenue. Like Joyce, the precocious Muldoon spent much of his early career in the shadow of another poet, Seamus Heaney, but unfortunately his ‘rule breaking’ is a slide into irrelevance.
Rather than altering the approach of his predecessors by a return to simpler forms he builds further layers of riddles into his work. These are so puzzling as to be tiresome.
This polemical critique of Muldoon makes no claim to be exhaustive, but is a delayed reaction to the collection ‘One Thousand Things Worth Knowing’ (2015): the text he contributed to Shaun Davey’s choral ‘One Hundred Years a Nation’, for the rising commemorations last year; and to a characteristically long poem that appeared in the January 2017 edition of the New York Review of Books, entitled ‘Superior Aloeswood’.
Muldoon held the position of oxford professor of poetry from 1999 to 2004, and is now a professor at Princeton as well as poetry editor for the New Yorker. He is a brilliant critic, whose radio essay for the BBC on the legacy of WB Yeats at 150, to my mind, was by far the most perceptive among those offered by Irish intellectuals including John Banville and Fintan O’Toole. But his poetry must be assessed independently, and without favour.
It is obvious that the works of Muldoon I consider are influenced by the mood and techniques of TS Eliot, especially in the way they dispense with hallowed forms of rhyme and metre, extensive recourse to enjambments (the continuation of a sentence without a pause beyond the end of a line, couplet, or stanza), and obscure allusion to mythology. The influence of his friend Seamus Heaney is also apparent in the flinty ‘northern’ texture of language, evocative of Viking raiders.
But rather than altering the approach of his predecessors by a return to simpler forms he builds further layers of riddles into his work. These are so puzzling as to be tiresome. James Joyce famously joked that his ‘Finnegans Wake’ held so many enigmas and puzzles that it would keep professors busy for centuries. But that book of dreamtime is a unique literary experiment. For all its complexity, appreciable linguistic novelty is not Muldoon’s poetic way: they read like difficult crossword puzzles.
Nor does Muldoon’s work compare favourably with that of TS Eliot. Another modernist rupture came about with Eliot’s seminal ‘The Waste Land’ (1922). It is by most measures a difficult poem to make sense of, just like the quest for the holy grail on whose symbolism it draws. Yet nestling in the obscurity are moments of arresting feeling that succour the reader, such as the opening sequence:
April is the cruellest month,
breeding lilacs out of the dead land,
mixing memory and desire,
stirring dull roots with spring rain.
Anyone can inhabit these lines which stimulate curiosity for the difficult quest ahead. Here at least, the poet abides by Aristotle’s maxim: “to write well, express yourself like the common people, but think like a wise man”, even if the rest of the poem demands profound textual analysis.
Of course applying Aristotle’s maxim tout court denigrates most poetry since the middle ages, and I suggest that all of the great poets accommodate, to some degree, the demotic and the esoteric. It is widely held that Eliot’s high modernism fell over the edge into the terrain of ‘academic poetry’, nevertheless there are concessions to a popular audience.
There is little evidence of Muldoon living among ‘the common people’ in the opening poem of his last volume: ‘Cuthbert and the Otters’. Dedicated to Seamus Heaney, an outpouring of a universal grief may be expected. It is, however – like almost every other poem in the collection – impenetrable to a point of alienation.
The title revives a touching tale about the seventh-century Northumbrian Saint Cuthbert whose recitation of the psalms attracted the attention of the local otters, but unlike Heaney’s ‘St Kevin and the Blackbird’, the tale itself is only alluded to. Here, we are expected to find out about it for ourselves, and are then subjected to obscure references that fail to arouse sympathy. Is he likening Heaney to St. Cuthbert? Are we, his readers, the otters? It is hard to know, or care.
Already in the first stanza we must negotiate archaic words such as ‘darne’, ‘fain’, ‘limen’, ‘flitch’, that display the erudition of the author. There is no concession to the general reader here, and it continues in resolutely inaccessible, but oddly static, language.
There are also a series of non-sequiturs that appear as riddles such as in the second stanza: ‘it’s true they’ve yet to develop the turnip clamp / and the sword with a weighted pommel / but the Danes are already dyeing everything beige’. Is it really worth the bother of finding out what he means in this morass?
We also find hints at humour: ‘the Benedictines still love a bit of banter / along with the beatitudes. Blessed is the trundle bed, / it readies us for the tunnel / from Spital tongues to the staithes’. And personal recollection: ‘I once sustained concussion, / having been hit by a boom in Greenwich, / and saw three interlocking red triangles on my beer mat’. This may be free association from a highly-learned man, with a fondness for resurrecting abandoned words, but even so it is hard to identify its poetic qualities.
There may be merit in the pure imaginative flow that Percy Shelley likened to the burning coal of inspiration, but Shelley contained his poetry within sympathetic metre and rhyme that allowed a reader to float along the lyrical stream of his consciousness.
The only obvious concession to Muldoon’s grief arrives in the line ‘I cannot thole the thought of Seamus Heaney dead’, but use of the archaic ‘thole’ reveals this as a private commemoration, limited to northern poets. This is comparable perhaps to Shelley’s elegy to Keats: ‘I weep for Adonais – he is dead’. Adonis, the Greek god of fertility is hardly a household name, but the dying ‘Adonais’ attains an immortality in art, while the use of the verb ‘thole’ just reeks of scholarly nostalgia. What of Muldoon’s contribution of a song-poem to the Rising commemorations? Here we find the poet speaking more directly to ‘the common people’, and we find fairly predictable symbols of Irishness beginning with ‘from glen to glen’, the opening lines of ‘Danny Boy’, and continuing with an inevitable stag and yellow bittern. There is a predictable reference to macho warrior Finn MacCool but no summoning of characters from more subtle and colourful sagas such as ‘The Wooing of Étaín’, or ‘The Second Battle of Moytura’ to represent the origins of the nation. The second half displays the influence of hip-hop and launches some populist digs at the ‘establishment’:
when that rent’s in arrears
now Finn McCool gave way to cool
our very monks lived by the rule
of gombeen financiers
It struck the right notes for a windswept Miriam O’Callaghan on the night, and the musical accompaniment is genuinely rousing, but it could easily have been written to parody a decadence that is explicitly ventilated in one of his latest poems, ‘Superior Aloeswood’, about Leonard Cohen, published in the January edition of the New York Review of Books.
This takes a longer form, making it all the more painful to endure. The theme here is beneficial rot: when the Aloeswood or agarwood is digested by bacteria it produces agar, a resin valued for its fragrance in incense and other aromas. We are also subjected to an inventory of cheeses and wines which experience a similar bacterial breakdown; nods to the biblical Nicodemus who embalmed Jesus (with such spices) in John’s gospel; numerous references to characters from Moby Dick; and more curiously, varieties of oysters.
It seems that these references have something to do with: ‘The Tower of Wrong / being built by Trump’, and ‘Bashar al-Assad training his bombardiers / on his own citizenry’ (grace a Putin), or perhaps: ‘why the electorate choose the likes of Ronald Bozo and George W. Bozo / as commander-in chief has already defied exegesis’. This is bewildering because the political rot can hardly be construed as beneficial. Moreover, if the poet cannot understand how these men came to power then where does that leave the rest of us?
The lines: ‘Though we’d hoped to meet at the blue plate oysterette / you’d been confined to barracks / on account of the side effects, I surmised, of steroids’, reveal a debased succession to Eliot’s withered, but still lyrical ‘Prufrock’: the muttering retreats / of restless nights in onenight cheap hotels / and sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells’. The patient is no longer etherised upon a table but seems to be in remission.
There is no concession to the general reader here, and it continues in resolutely inaccessible, but oddly static, language.
Muldoon bears no personal responsibility for his own self-expression, and for getting on in the world. His ‘success’ nonetheless suggests the poetic tradition, which in epic form provided heroic models against which the ancient Greeks measured themselves, has devoured its own self through conceptual innovation over the past century of seismic technological shifts.
Will Self argues that the novel has been consumed by the digital leviathan. He poses the question, assuming the vast majority of texts will be read in digital form on devices linked to the web: ‘do you also believe that those readers will voluntarily choose to disable that connectivity?’. ‘if your answer to this is no’ he says, ‘then the death of the novel is sealed out of your own mouth’.
It will survive he says but only as a state-supported indulgence, like classical music. He further contends that ‘the hallmark of our contemporary culture is an active resistance to difficulty in all its aesthetic manifestations, accompanied by a sense of grievance that conflates it with political elitism’. This leaves even less scope for poetry to attract a popular audience, especially given an inherent predilection for mystery. Conversely, considering Muldoon’s stature, what remains of the tradition survives by recourse to even greater abstraction. This is the “rule breaking” of an already dated post-Modernism.
Since the nineteenth century – linked perhaps to the increased pace of life set on by the railway, the steamship and the telegraph – poetry has been in decline relative to prose. But until recently it has filtered through and resonated with a wider audience. Much of what remains has collapsed into self-parody.
Paradoxically, however, versifying endures through slam, and song especially. These bring a visceral immediacy, although the scope for depth is diminished, and the great exemplars of the past are increasingly forgotten. This is perhaps a necessary dislocation. More hearteningly Ramazani observes: ‘I began writing this book as a consideration of poetry’s dispersal into its others. But as I studied ever more examples of just such melding, I found time and again that poems reassert themselves as poems even in the moments of seeming to fuse with their others’. The timeless, and primal, pattern of poetic speech reasserts itself notwithstanding the excesses of the current masters.
Poetry needs to grow a new skin for the old ceremony. Until then it will inhabit the space between the angling notes and the church of Ireland notices, and political decay may continue apace. We need to measure ourselves against new heroes.