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Paul Muldoon’s ‘The End of the Poem’

What a joy to read! Who would have believed any academic lectures on any topic could be like these: clear as a bell—if there still are bells that chime. Take the stuff on Emily Dickinson. No less than three men named Franklin appear in Muldoon’s discussion, but each of them is carefully distinguished so that innocent visitors are not confused. The first Franklin is a mere editor and plainly dispensable; but Dickinson’s I tried to think a lonelier thing soon brings the frost-bitten Sir John into view—

I tried to think a lonelier Thing
Than any I had seen –
Some Polar Expiation – An Omen in the Bone
Of Death’s tremendous nearness –

It seems that Sir John Franklin’s disappearance among everlasting snow and ice on the Boothia Peninsula, in 1847, became part of Emily Dickinson’s own vision of cold, solitude, and dying—a suspicion all the more likely when we learn that Lady Franklin had for years sent out one rescue mission after another, that McClintock had finally established her husband’s fate in 1859 (“an Eskimo woman said that they fell down and died as they walked”—for more on this see Pierre Berton’s The Arctic Grail), and that Dickinson’s poem was written around 1862. Another contains the lines:

When the Astronomer stops seeking
For his Pleiad’s Face –
When the lone British lady
Forsakes the Arctic Race –

Now, I ask you, (and Muldoon asks us both), how can the “lone British lady” be other than Lady Franklin herself, whose ill-advised husband, his ships frozen in, his seamen starving, trudged through arctic snow in the ‘race’ to find the Northwest Passage? Lady Franklin had her own wild dauntlessness. She was I believe the first to scale Mt Wellington in far off Tasmania—something that secures our sense of travel and travail, of going where neither Friar nor Franklin went before, and though it’s a bit of a leap from the Gulf of Boothia to the Derwent Estuary (might something spill?), I plead in extenuation the spirit of Paul Muldoon catching wave after wave on seas of poesy.

The Mountain

The mountain held the town as in a shadow.
I saw so much before I slept there once:
I noticed that I missed stars in the west,
Where its black body cut into the sky.
Near me it seemed: I felt it like a wall
Behind which I was sheltered from a wind.
And yet between the town and it I found,
When I walked forth at dawn to see new things,
Were fields, a river, and beyond, more fields.

Here Robert Frost is talking about a rocky height in Vermont (supposed to have a spring near its peak) that also has river flats at its foot. He tells how the spring floods left

Good grassland gullied out, and in the grass
Ridges of sand, and driftwood stripped of bark.
I crossed the river and swung round the mountain.
And there I met a man who moved so slow
With white-faced oxen, in a heavy cart,
It seemed no harm to stop him altogether.

“What town is this?” I asked.
“This? Lunenburg.”

Though it could just as well have been Hobart Town, for few homes lie more under the spell of darkness than Hobart, and few mountains cast a longer shadow than Mt Wellington. To sleep there too would be to miss “stars in the west”—to sleep on its steeper slopes would be to miss half the stars in the sky—while its black mass provides shelter from at least some wind.

Frost suggested in an essay of 1951, Poetry and School, that “the way to read a poem in prose or verse is in the light of all the other poems ever written”. Muldoon takes his cue from this, for nearly all the poetry ever written is drawn into his discussion of his new book The End of the Poem. He suggests that Frost’s The Mountain echoes Milton in more ways than one. Frost writes:

When I walked forth at dawn to see new things,
Were fields, a river, and beyond, more fields…

“That ‘new'”, writes Muldoon, “sends me back not only to the last couplet of Lycidas (‘At last he rose, and twitched his mantle blue: / Tomorrow to fresh woods, and pastures new’) but the final lines of Paradise Lost:

The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.

The author is beguiling, affable, and both deeply serious and deeply illuminating without ever being too solemn about what he’s up to. This is no heavyweight academic mentor but a guide who dips here and there like a scavenging ocean bird, though always methodically, moving from one verse to another and one poem to another through the work of Yeats, Frost, Dickinson and a dozen more, making their work much more interesting than a casual reader might discern—and fun too.

Those of us whose interests run more to science than poetry, and who hardly read more than a handful of poems a year, work mostly at disambiguation. We disapprove of double tongues and triple meanings: our main work is discriminating X from Y. This is necessary. More than that, in a rational world it’s essential. But it makes us impatient of cultivated vagary, elusive notes, mere music—fearful of getting lost between sense and sensibility.

That’s where Muldoon is useful. He reassures us that poetry is worth our attention. And The End of the Poem itself is an admirable performance. It not only points the associational trail from line to line and verse to verse, it’s a continuous argument linking seventeen poets and their imaginations from Yeats’s All Souls’ Night in Chapter One to Seamus Heaney’s Keeping Going in Chapter Fifteen.

There are plenty of minor pleasures along the way. Because Robert Frost greatly admired William James (James was “one of Frost’s heroes”), this provides Muldoon with an excuse for including a passage from a letter written by James to Henri Bergson. It refers to Bergson’s L’évolution créatrice of 1907, a book that appeared in English in 1911 as Creative Evolution:

O my Bergson, you are a magician, and your book is a marvel… In finishing it I found… such a flavor of persistent euphony, as of a rich river that never foamed or ran thin, but steadily and firmly proceeded with its banks full to the brim.

All Souls’ Night

Midnight has come, and the great Christ Church Bell
And many a lesser bell sound through the room;
And it is All Souls’ Night,
And two long glasses brimmed with muscatel
Bubble upon the table. A ghost may come;
For it is a ghost’s right,
His element is so fine
Being sharpened by his death,
To drink from the wine-breath
While our gross palates drink from the whole wine.

I need some mind that, if the cannon sound
From every quarter of the world, can stay
Wound in mind’s pondering
As mummies in the mummy-cloth are wound;
Because I have a marvellous thing to say,
A certain marvellous thing
None but the living mock,
Though not for sober ear;
It may be all that hear
Should laugh and weep an hour upon the clock.

There are eight more verses—but here two will do. Muldoon follows the complete set by announcing that he “wants to say a word or two”, ruminatively says five hundred, then interestingly remarks on the various ways people read poetry. “One may scan the poem as a shape on the page, taking in aspects of its geometry, well before one embarks on what we think of as a conventional line-by-line reading.” For academic support he quotes Walter Fenno Dearborn as follows (Dearborn wrote The Psychology of Reading in 1906):

That which we ordinarily do when we run over in ‘our mind’s eye’ the lines of a page which we have just been reading or of a passage which we have committed to memory offers an instance of a movement of attention over a field that is not present in the visual sense, except as a memory image… As is well known, many can recall during the recitation of a memorized passage a pretty constant image of the general appearance of the page and of an occasional word or group of words.

Before long, too, but barely before we have fully grasped the strange relation between mnemosyne and layout, the memorizing of thoughts and their spatial configuration on a page, the author tells a story about Yeats, who but for alphabetic accident might be Keats, and indeed was once mistaken for the latter by a one time president of Colgate University.

Apparently Yeats was to give a reading at Colgate, and the president, who insisted on personally presenting the distinguished visitor “and had obviously boned up big-time, introduced Yeats as the author of Ode to Psyche, Ode to a Nightingale and Ode on Melancholy.”

“This is not only an honest mistake of the sort that anyone who stands up to speak is likely to make (writes Muldoon) but it’s not entirely without basis. For this very line, on which we’ve lingered quite a while, includes at least two words that Yeats has borrowed from Keats. The words are ‘brimmed’ and ‘bubble’ and they come directly from Ode to a Nightingale:

O for a beaker full of the warm South
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim.

“Ode to a Nightingale also includes the line ‘The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,’ and I’ve no doubt—though some will say I should—that the musk ghosts the muscatel just as, towards the end of the Keats poem, we have

Forlorn! The very word is like a bell

This dismal note sends Muldoon back to “the great Christ Church Bell”, something used earlier for whimsy: “Now, I suppose that some of the first readers of All Souls’ Night might have had a momentary sound—picture of the great bell of the twelfth-century Augustinian priory church in Christchurch, Hampshire, or the great bell of the Anglican cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand…” And so on.

Here we shall leave our guide, grateful for his revelations—but not before stitching shreds and patches or our own. For it is well known that the city of Christchurch in New Zealand, with its tolling cathedral bell, is also the capital of the province of Canterbury and the source of more than merely canonical Canterbury Tales—there are local Franklins too.

Again, though Frost may not have been aware of it few mountains are as impressive as the Southern Alps, and few rivers like those of Canterbury make—using his phrase—such “a widespread brawl on cobblestones.” Long braids of blue water and crumbled schist weave highways to the sea. And the ghost of Samuel Butler would agree that when the first colonists arrived in 1840

The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.

Two poems by Paul Muldoon

Yarrow (excerpt)

Little by little it dawned on us that the row
of kale would shortly be overwhelmed by these pink
and cream blooms, that all of us

would be overwhelmed, that even if my da
were to lose an arm
or a leg to the fly-wheel

of a combine and be laid out on a tarp
in a pool of blood and oil
and my ma were to make one of her increasingly rare

appeals to some higher power, some Deo
this or that, all would be swept away by the stream
that fanned across the land.

All would be swept away: the altar where Montezuma’s
daughter severed her own aorta
with an obsidian knife; where the young Ignatius

of Loyola knelt and, raising the visor of his bucket,
pledged himself either Ad Major
or Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, I can’t quite remember which.

For all would be swept away: the barn where the Pharaohs
had buried Tutankhamen;
where Aladdin found the magic lamp and ring;

where Ali Baba
watched the slave, Morgiana,
pour boiling oil on the thieves in their jars;

where Cicero smooth-talked the senators;
where I myself was caught up in the rush
of peers and paladins who ventured out with Charlemagne.

All would be swept away, all sold for scrap:
the hen-house improvised from a high-sided cattle-truck,
the coils of barbed wire, the coulter

of a plough, the pair of angle-iron
posts between which she’ll waver, one day towards the end,
as she pins the clothes on the clothes-line.

For the moment, though, she thumbs through a seed-catalogue
she’s borrowed from Tohill’s of the Moy
while, quiet, almost craven,

he studies the grain in the shaft of a rake:
there are two palm-prints in blue stone
on the bib of his overalls

where he’s absentmindedly put his hands
to his heart; in a den in St John’s, Newfoundland, I browse
on a sprig of Achillea millefolium, as it’s classed.

It is what it is

It is what it is, the popping underfoot of the Bubble Wrap
in which Asher’s new toy came,
popping like bladder wrack on the foreshore
of a country toward which I’ve been rowing
for fifty years, my peeping from behind a tamarind
at the peeping ox and ass, the flyer for a pantomime,
the inlaid cigarette box, the shamrock-painted jug,
the New Testament bound in red leather
lying open, Lordie, on her lap
while I mull over the rules of this imperspicuous game
that seems to be missing one piece, if not more.
Her voice at the gridiron coming and going
As if snatched by a sea wind.
My mother. Shipping out for good. For good this time.
The game. The plaything spread on the rug.
The fifty years I’ve spent trying to put it together.

Posted in Arts and Letters, Notes, Poetry.

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