Poetry Chronicle 3: Paul Muldoon's 'Tribe of Paul'
Biographical Note: Paul Muldoon was born in 1951 in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, and educated in Armagh and at the Queen’s University of Belfast. From 1973 to 1986 he worked in Belfast as a radio and television producer for the British Broadcasting Corporation. Since 1987 he has lived in the United States, where he is now Howard G.B. Clark ‘21 Professor in the Humanities at Princeton University and Chair of the University Center for the Creative and Performing Arts. Between 1999 and 2004 he was Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford. Paul Muldoon’s main collections of poetry are New Weather (1973), Mules (1977), Why Brownlee Left (1980), Quoof (1983), Meeting The British (1987), Madoc: A Mystery (1990), The Annals of Chile (1994), Hay (1998), Poems 1968-1998 (2001), Moy Sand and Gravel (2002), and Horse Latitudes (2006). A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Paul Muldoon has won the 1994 T.S. Eliot Prize, a 1996 American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, the1997 Irish Times Poetry Prize, the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, the 2003 International Griffin Prize, the 2004 American Ireland Fund Literary Award, and the 2004 Shakespeare Prize.
The Tribe of Paul
Scientists Manqé and Ecologists Maudits and find vectors and vibrations arcing between the world of poetry and the world of ethnology, of animal behaviour. Successful poetry creatures find themselves shadowed, followed — for the fold of their protective size and motion, for their endeavour, their repertoire of ability, and their unfolding of new territory; territory which is often abandoned as the beast budges on and develops. For The Muldoon is always moving on. ‘The hedgehog gives nothing / Away, keeping itself to itself’.
Another Muldoon quote, from an interview: ‘the writer is to be an outsider, to belong to no groups, no tribes, no clubs … to be a free agent, within the state of oneself or roaming through the different states of oneself’. No tribes or clubs, yet through different states, where that successful poetry-beast pushes and pries so the ministering and mimicking hopers go, copying or just coping.
So: many younger poets follow the practice and ranging of Muldoon closely, pillaging plenty in his wake: from his voiceprint; from his polyphonic plays on rhyme; from his controlled experiments with form, especially the sonnet, the sequence, the repetitive call and answer stanza; from his alertness to the timbre, polyvalency and history of single words, or larger, gleamier or gloamier elements of language; and from his rifling, resetting and reclaiming of mythologies. This is a big territory; the ‘salt-lick of the world’ gives up its minerals generously when this creature has been and gone.
But the point is he is gone, waking up follower-poets like worms as he goes. Who are The Muldoon’s commensalists, those poets that feast at the host’s table? Patsiching is one thing, but imitation is powerful and necessary. Read the slim volumes published in the last quarter-century of every British poet you know, and realise how deeply-cathetered, how oxygen-tented, that trickster Muldoon has got into the marrowbone and throats of so many writers. We are probably most of us here in the Tribe of Paul, even though he won’t have us.
Now, he won’t have us, but we will have him. For what’s influence anyway but apprenticeship? New poets are not amateur poets; they are apprentice poets, follower-poets. It’s a kind of literary stalking; it’s when we are unreasonably infatuated with writing and reading poetry as a medium of intense expression. The poet grows beyond one influence only to be captured by another, and weathered into a further knowledge of artistic practice, and even prejudice.
Prejudice, like strong influence is never neutral, and Muldoon’s influence has biases and quirks, especially in poetic effect and affectation. His influence is either a stepping stone or it is a millstone. Which poems teach them best by example? Which poems carry a selfish gene of artistic endeavor, opening the trade forwards to posterity via imitation? First of all which poets taught Muldoon in his apprenticeship?
Asked if he regarded Robert Frost as a model in his work, Muldoon replies: ‘I don’t think there are any models as such. I don’t care very much for the notion of a single canon of a poet’s work to which one must be faithful. Frost is a good man to learn from in that he has no particular nervous tics, no characteristics but the strong, classic, lyric line. But the most important thing for me in Frost was his mischievous, sly, multi-layered quality under the surface. One thing that does come across for me in my own poems is a wryness, a mischievousness in the voice, and I’m never quite sure whether I want to believe that voice, this person who’s presenting a piece of the world to me.’
Benevolent imitative practice is particularly striking in the influence of Muldoon’s 1986 Selected Poems on the work of: Simon Armitage — especially in sleight-of-hand rhyme, and the use of idiom in Zoom!, Book of Matches, Dead Sea Poems, and the compressed micro-narratives on astronomy and ruthlessness in CloudCuckooLand; on Maurice Riordan— in terms of syntax and subject, especially sex and sexual politics in A Word from The Loki and Floods); on Ian Duhig — the subjects chosen, his use of language and his logomania, his plays on mythology, the diction of early poems in The Bradford Count and The Mersey Goldfish); and on Oliver Reynolds — his wryness of diction and polyphonic rhyming in Skevington’s Daughter and The Player Queen’s Wife. The whole way Muldoon uses ‘syntax as attitude’ hypnotises Reynolds to replicate the effect. The poem ‘Auden Hotel’ is a clone of ‘7, Middagh Street’.
We see poets such as: Deryn Rees Jones — her experiments with form, long narrative and the sequence, especially in her recent collection Quiver, more of which soon; and Paul Farley — his fabulist and surreal narratives, the taunting diction, in The Boy from the Chemist is Here to See You and The Ice Age; and Don Paterson — pretty well everything. Muldoon’s work, you could argue, permitted Don Paterson to become the poet he is. ‘Write what you don’t know’, argued Muldoon to his creative writing students. Paterson takes him at his word with fine results, and the strongest characteristic gained from Frost through Muldoon, ‘the strong, classic, lyric line … the mischievous, sly, multi-layered quality under the surface’ . What survives in mutation from Muldoon to all of these is an apparent but controlled freedom of movement, of form with language – something Muldoon picked off from Byron, from Frost.
In an interview with Chris Greenhalgh in the Hull-based journal Bete Noire in 1991, shortly after the publication of Zoom!, Armitage acknowledges Muldoon as a model but ‘just as those poets have assimilated and produced. I think that’s the way you develop as a writer. Mature poets steal. Eliot’s right and it’s well said’. What he got from Muldoon wasn’t just the voiceprint for certain poems, but wryness, that uneasy voice of the speaker in poems like ‘In Gooseberry Season’ or the sequence ‘Dead Sea Poems’ where the reader isn’t quite sure whether they want to believe that voice, that person who’s presenting a piece of the world to them. In fact, you’re not even sure if you like it.
What Armitage also gained was the permission to rhyme boldly, and even badly. He goes on to say of this influence, ‘I think half-rhyme is another way of being formal without being punctilious because I’m not trying for some exact, symmetrical sound or trying to refract sounds at a particular angle, I’m just looking for a muffled echo that will hang the piece together either through the anticipation of a sound to come, or the recollection of a sound that’s gone.’ Reading the early published poems of Armitage and Don Paterson alongside Muldoon is informing.
You suddenly start to hear a Robert Service Version of Muldoon ticking in the metre. The laddishness of self-presentation is also striking. Yet Muldoon’s is a persona, but the others are very much Simon and Don truanting in the pool room:
I was fairly and squarely behind the eight
That morning in Foster’s pool-hall
When it came to me out of the blue
In the shape of a sixteen-ounce billiard cue
That lent what he said some little weight.
the opening of Simon Armitage’s ‘Canard’ in Zoom!
We first crossed swords in The Duke of Marlborough
when his cue ball jumped from the threadbare table
and came like a comet through the smog in the tap room
to break the ice in my whisky and water.
The first lines of Don Paterson’s ‘The Ferryman’s Arms’, in Nil:
About to sit down with my half-pint of Guinness
I was magnetized by a remote phosphorescence
and drawn, like a moth, to the darkened back room
where a pool-table hummed to itself in the corner.
With ten minutes to kill and the whole place deserted
I took myself on for the hell of it.
Imitation as sheer emulation pushes a poet to see the original and their own work more clearly, sometimes beating the original at its game, which is its verse strategy. Deryn Rees Jones, the Welsh poet, published a number of excellent collections, but it is with the narrative Quiver that we see her telling entirely new weather (I am indebted to Zoe Brigley’s work on this poet for the next field observation). In one poem we are micrometers away from the Imitations of Robert Lowell or the variations on Antonio Machado in Don Paterson’s The Eyes.
Rees Jones’s poem, ‘Clone’ is a brilliant and playful ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ of Muldoon’s poem ‘As’ from Moy Sand and Gravel. Her epigraph, like any Lowellian imitation, carries that little word ‘after’, as in ‘after P.M.’ Here is the original:
As naught gives way to aught
and ox-hide gives way to chain mail
and byrnie gives way to battle-ax
and Cavalier gives way to Roundhead
and Cromwell Road gives way to the Connaught
and I am Curious (Yellow) gives way to I am Curious (Blue)
and barrelhouse gives way to Frank’n’Stein
and a pint of Shelley plain to a pint of India Pale Ale
I give way to you.
Rees Jones duplicates the verse strategy of ‘As’:
As Mandelstam becomes Mandelson
and concomitant becomes commitment
and the King of Siam becomes Kojak
and the pea-flower becomes the black-bellied honey lover
and the madness of George III becomes Queen Victoria
and identical twins become mother and daughter
and affect becomes effect
and cwifer becomes quiver
so this becomes you.
That is appropriation as imitation, dispossession as one part of the law, but it is mianly an homage from poet to poet. What these examples show is that imitation is always in mutation. It is in mutation both between the generations of poets and their poems as they work within their time and in mutation within the poems as they pass through time and before their readers. The point is I think that Muldoon chose models like Frost who he describes as having no nervous tics, no characteristics but the strong classic line, and he’s able to play variations upon that opened space before moving on. But if you have Muldoon as one of your models, his work can take you a long way with particular effects, but could close you down if you haven’t the articulate energy to move on from him. And, after all, he doesn’t want you.
Imitation can be limitation, imitation that disables invention, that is entirely copying a poet’s voiceprint, an error of the writing process that derives often from the character of the follower-writer, afraid of challenging beyond an existing poet’s linguistic territory, or a simple characteristic unawareness that they have remade a perfectly designed wheel. In a poet such as Matthew Caley, a contemporary of Simon Armitage, sharing in the late eighties the same nexus of small publishers, Smith Doorstop in Huddersfield, Slow Dancer in Nottingham, that unawareness is rife. In a poem such as his long sequence, ‘Orpheus in the Lone Star Diner’:
This “fly on the wall” documentary
finds her in a flea-pit hotel.
The call of nature
was never so elementary.
She’s not well,
and the landlady, an Irish Spinster,
wants her out by Tuesday.
She shares this foot-square
with a duvet and two cockroaches.
This poem heavily traces over Muldoon’s ‘Imramm’, and gambles it rhymes. Even the simulated “Muldoonian” withheld rhyme: approaches/cockroaches crawls on the ear crabwise, rather than springs and surprises. Another disabling example, the copied voiceprint in Alan Jenkins’s In The Hot House. In the syntax of ‘subsiding gently, might he not / be more than pleased with himself?’ and Muldoon’s vision in ‘a single star in the curtainless window, / a star tatooed on her left breast’. There are poems in Greenheart and In the Hot House that are brass rubbings of the poems in Mules and Quoof.
Caley and Jenkins are capable of some wonderful writing, and Jenkins’s poetry in subsequent collections such as Harm, The Drift and A Shorter Life, have danced a long way from his Muldoonian apprenticeship. Now he plays variations on everybody in a kind of forgiveably extended adolescence. The point of any poem is to find out what we mean, and to find out what we mean we must first find out who we are. When poets imitate too cosily, as in these two writers, they risk yielding their identity; their work becomes anti-matter to the matter of the original. The poems don’t even have their own metabolism; they require the oxygen-tent of the original to get by.
Don’t take these miniature case studies at face value. As Muldoon says, ‘we mustn’t take anything at face value, not even the man who is presenting things at face value.’ And goes on to say, ‘For all our simplifications of the world – and a work of art is a simplification in terms of its process of selection, a continual reduction of the variables in what a thing might mean – that process of simplification must not become simplistic’. The variables affecting these poets are various.
Their instances of imitation are a tradition as natural as natural selection, and as ruthless in rendering up what works and what doesn’t. Most of these writers moved beyond, and in that moving have imitated the lead-poet’s behaviour, found their new weather. There are a cloud of contenders to be sealed of the Tribe of Paul.
Except there is no such thing, no gathering. Not a tribe, instead more of a tribute band, with the odd soloist making the running. And so to wind up with a pastiche, or variation, or imitation – after Ben Jonson, ‘An Epistle Answering to One that Asked to be Sealed of the Tribe of Ben’:
‘An Epistle Answering to One that Asked to be Sealed of the Tribe of Paul’
As Quoof gives way to Quiver
and ‘Footling’ gives way to ‘Floods’
and ‘Longbones’ gives way to ‘Landing Light’
and ‘Capercaillies’ gives way to CloudCuckoooLand
and ‘The Coney’ gives way to ‘The Lammas Hireling’
and ‘The Waking Father’ gives way to Skevington’s Daughter
and The Annals of Chile gives way to ‘The Alexandrian Library’
I give way to you.