Paul Muldoon’s Transits:
Muddling through after Madoc
This piece is 10,200 words or about twenty printed pages long.
In the latest issue
To be fair to Deane — as Muldoon isn’t, quite — the offending TLS piece is an imaginary dialogue between Joyce and W. B. Yeats in which the two look for signs of the persistence of their favourite motifs and techniques in contemporary Irish literature. It is thus with a degree of calculated anachronism that Deane’s Yeats announces that Muldoon, Derek Mahon, John Montague, and Brian Moore ‘keep up some of our most hallowed traditions. Exile, for instance.’ [Note 2]
Most poets would relish being mentioned in the TLS by Yeats, so why is Muldoon so tetchy? In part, no doubt, because of the politics implicit in a list of ‘exiles’ who are — in Deane’s words — ’Northerners all’. Having just objected in The Prince to the success of Northern Irish poetry being cited as ‘proof / that all’s not rotten in the state’ (35), the politically independent Muldoon now resists the insinuation that British rule has driven literature out of the Six Counties — a claim only sustainable by overlooking the many writers from the Republic (Padraic Colum to Eamon Grennan) who have worked in America. Some such impulse motivates ‘I’ve been twice in Fintona’, which makes an Ulster joke about would-be cosmopolitanism [Note 4] while (it may be) signalling an awareness of sectarianism, [Note 5] the better to deny that the poet has been forced, like a victim of the eighteenth-century Penal Laws, into ‘exile’. But if Muldoon primarily objects to being co-opted by Deane’s republicanism, which would blame British misrule for the Irish diaspora, his insistence that he is not ‘in exile’ connects to larger issues of importance to contemporary poetry. I want to touch on them in this essay before I explore some border zones and get into muddles.
These poets are more than symptoms of the Zeitgeist. Muldoon’s change of address had a creative logic: always interested in American, especially Native American, topics — not surprisingly since the Ireland of his childhood was more Americanised through popular culture than it had been for Montague and Mahon — he saw in Princeton an opportunity to explore this material more fully, or, rather, a chance to satisfy the appetite for new material which follows from his tangential, non-exhaustive methods. (He may also have sensed that his poetry could enjoy greater freedom to develop beyond the Faber norms exploded by Madoc (1990) in a country where Language-type experiment is acceptable to the point of being institutionalised.) Yet the ‘exiles’ listed by Deane all responded to the socio-economic changes that Montague notices in Mount Eagle (1987) when he describes ‘this strange age / of shrinking space’. [Note 12] Mahon for reasons of age but also temperament mostly observes what Muldoon was caught up in even before the younger poet became an American citizen: the changed conditions of the diaspora, given that transatlantic travel is no longer one-way and necessitated by poverty but is an everyday effect of the prosperity of a Celtic tiger that is profiting (however unevenly) from tourism and globalization.
For I, Vera of Las Vegas, am the Way,
In Quoof (1983) truth was a pebble of quartz, transposed from Frost’s poetry into a Native American’s briefcase, [Note 26] but in Vera ‘truth’s a business that needs a little illusion’ (45), lying in the words of a gender-liminal character in a city that gambles on chance. And so we head into muddles.
another beat-up Volvo
So the poem is less about hay than the receding subvarieties thereof, and the book is named inter alia after an inaccuracy corrected by honest doubts. [Note 34] Meanwhile, ‘The Point’ assures us that O’Clery rammed his pencil into the schoolboy Muldoon’s ‘thigh / (not, as the chronicles have it, my calf)’. We are told that ‘the Japanese nightingale’s not a nightingale / but a Persian bulbul’. More alphabetically a fawn wants to correct ‘Pleaides’ to ‘Perseids’, and the poet’s father insists that he is from ‘Killeeshill’ not ‘Killeter’. [Note 35]
towards what Graves called the ‘esoteric’ or ‘pied’. I assume he’s using the word ‘pied’ in the sense given by the OED of a ‘mass of type mingled indiscriminately or in confusion, such as results from the breaking down of a forme of type’. That’s to say, the urge towards the cryptic, the encoded, the runic, the virtually unintelligible. [Note 40]
Muldoon will later point out — as though with the Las Vegas IRA in mind — that ‘pied’ words flourish among clandestine cells, secret societies (103). But he more immediately and elaborately sees the poet as the agent of the ‘pied’, translating and muddling language, producing hybrid formations, especially as they shift between cultural zones. Words such as the Irish ‘boreen’ that have been smuggled into English without the sanction of the OED, like ‘emphysemantiphon’ and ‘Oscaraboscarabinary’ — both, like ‘boreen’, used in ‘Cows’, that poem about illicit Irish border-traffic, and both grafts of Muldoon’s own invention: almost-private language, like the family word for hot-water bottle that is the title of the title-poem of Quoof. The near intelligibilities of later Muldoon — ‘again I heard Oglalagalagool’s / cackackle-Kiowas’ and the like, and the problems of enunciation which overextend the middle of such terms as ‘emmmmmmmmmmmmphasize’ and disrupt the beginning of such words as ‘al-al-al-al-aleatory’ (an instance I’ll return to), [Note 41] cannot be rationalised under a single umbrella doctrine (this is not the sort of Language poetry which hopes to bring down capitalism by subverting the signifier), but they have much to do with the liminalising Amergin impulse to garble and encode.
Mother o’mine. Mother o’mine. That silver-haired mother o’mine.
The archly laboured translation of lapsus is calculated to underline ‘slip’, a word which figures so variously in ‘Yarrow’ that it scarcely needs the cue of To Ireland, I for its importance to be noted.
It was thirty years till I reached back for the quiver
In the days before xerox machines, a carbon copy was the best way of replicating a piece of writing. But the ‘slip’ on which the carbon did its copying is here the scene or slur of a shift — ‘marrow’ becoming ‘yarrow’. The lapsus that seems to be manifest in more than the name of this paper can ‘slip’ into meaning ‘mistake’, and in other uses — the ‘slip // of a girl’, for instance, who comes to the poet in a dream that his mother could hardly approve (104) — it contributes to what will become an obsession in ‘Yarrow’ with mistakes. This impacts on verse-style, blocking a frequently frustrated flow of recollection. When he writes about his mother’s cancer, or as it may be Sylvia Plath, the poet gets things wrong, he slips, and has to correct:
‘Ovarian,’ did I write? Uterine.
In Hay the topic is signalled by ‘Errata’, a list-poem which makes hay with blunders and typos. For readers much of the fun lies in working out how the mistakes were made, whether they can be found in Muldoon’s own work, and whether they were mistakes when written or have subsequently become so (‘For “married” read “marred”’?), but the poem stirs larger thoughts — which resonate through The Annals and Hay — about whether poetry has a privileged ability to put mistakes right, to achieve one of the effects that Heaney calls redress. [Note 42] ‘Errata’ is alert to the expressive, Joycean side of mistakes, and to the psychoanalytical view of them as cryptically loaded. [Note 43] Yet it is also comically aware that, as psychologists of error tell us, many mistakes are reversions to the norm in contexts that do not require it, [Note 44] are tricks of the usual rather than manifestations of the repressed. If errata, from this perspective, lose something of the impacted significance claimed for them by Freud, they remain poetic in their ability to register the complex implication of speaker and situation in statement: as one psychologist writes, ‘Slips are exquisitely sensitive to the many factors that shape normal speech and action.’ [Note 45] Meanwhile ‘Errata’ stirs thought about the relationship between rhyming and error. Since errors often rhyme, is the rhyming mind prone to error — Plato might assent — and poetry a medium of mistakes? And thus the poem begins:
For ‘Antrim’ read ‘Armagh’.
No alert reader of Muldoon could get even this far and think the poem simple, however slight. While the first line flags the substantial differences between almost adjacent places, it also raises the possibility that the poet’s border obsessions might throw errata into reverse and make him mistakenly correct what is for him the less familiar reading. And all the lines in the poem, in fact, are capable of being read as invitations to introduce as well as remove mistakes, which consequently become alternatives. Certainly, ‘mother’ emended to ‘other’, and through that rhymed with ‘father’, around the ‘harm’ of trying to run a ‘farm’, uses the same keywords as, and concentrates the psychodrama of, ‘Milkweed and Monarch’ and much of the stuff of The Annals of Chile.
For ‘Moncrieff’ read ‘Monteith’. [Note 46]
‘Errata’ does go on. Is there no end to error? It is a difficult poem to read aloud, syntactically inert after a text like ‘The Mud Room’ and entirely, if apologetically, imperative. It might be related to Hay’s experiments with concrete poetry, in ‘The Plot’ and ‘A Half-Door near Cluny’, where language is more seen than heard (though both frame interlingual puns). ‘Errata’ is obviously not so pictorial, and it makes an issue of rhyme, but it still presents language as writing — a foregrounding of écriture paradoxically achieved by reinscribing the apparatus of determinate reading — because an ‘Errata’ list is an index to a printed text, an invitation to cross words or just letters out and write others in.
not Milady Clark, who helped the U.D.A.
‘Errata’ goes on and on:
For ‘spike’ read ‘spoke’.
‘Lucid’ could be Muldoon’s reply to those critics who have accused him of postmodern frivolity, or a declaration of what has happened to his style, after the extravagances of Madoc and The Annals, in Hay. ‘For “religion” read “region”.’ How true of Ireland. ‘For “ode” read “code”.’ Amergin rides again. ‘For “Jane” read “Jean”’ — the name of Muldoon’s wife, whatever about Jane. ‘For “rod” read “road”’, though apparently not ‘road’ for ‘read’. And so it goes, to ‘For “loom” read “bloom”’, which takes us back to the question, is there no end of error?, because the text just stops, on an alternate para-rhyme but with no demonstrable conclusion.
Perception is enriched in II by homing in on muddle and correcting an initial impression by introducing another sense. III is more virtuosic in relating error to consonance, since the perfect internal rhyme of ‘whin-bright’ with ‘whin-bright’ is strengthened by the middling ‘might’, only for the correction of ‘might’ to ‘will’, which seems to spoil the pattern, to reinforce it by relating the end-rhymes (already de trop in a haiku) ‘Hill’ and ‘bill’. [Note 51] It is a technically subtle instance of muddle and errata producing a harmonious verse.
which we shouldn’t fail to miss on this occasion, is yet another device used by Joyce to ensure that ‘The Dead’ is indeed a story of ‘public life’, in which Joyce undercuts the rhetoric of cultural nationalism, revelling in the very thing he repudiates, ... It’s a brilliantly effective way of addressing an issue raised by Gabriel, confronted by Miss Ivors, when ‘he wanted to say that literature was above politics’. Joyce knows that literature is never above politics ...
Muldoon’s identification with the views of Joyce, rather than with those of his character Gabriel Conroy, is hindered as well as helped by the way ‘we shouldn’t fail to miss’ (‘For “miss” read “notice”’) repudiates what it revels in, leaving the reader uncertain how confident the poet is in what he convincingly but he knows simplistically asserts.
Like ‘Errata’ this exploits the paradoxical possibilities of reversal, but to tellingly different effect. At first it looks as though the instability arises from the persona’s toppling over his own sense of being done down; how ‘chastened and humbled’, rather than ‘humiliated’, is someone who has just defensively called himself ‘insightfully caring’? By the last line there has to be a inversion, the anticipated instruction to delete becoming one to substitute; but this is a way of testing readers, of seeing that they are on-side: the poem puts them through the indignity of checking that they know that ‘costly dislike of cant’ should be preferred to ‘hardness of heart’. The reversal-test finely mixes sardonic wit with knowing self-pity, an effect more than matched when Hill — recalling the murder of Cinna the poet by the mob in Julius Caesar, in mistake for Cinna the conspirator — writes, ‘For Cinna the Poet, see under errata’ (38).
there’s many a slip
It is typical that this philosophical flurry should turn on the idea of a slip, and find a correlative for indeterminacy in the reinforcing disruption of the word ‘aleatory’. Taken pretentiously, the passage says that Muldoon is only in the world as a result of the chance that his father did not go to Australia, but more evocatively it imagines a zone of semantic esemplasticity, where the River Hay’s ‘meanderings’ (with a misprint-style pun on ‘meanings’) come to nothing — as any good map will confirm — on a border which sounds like the one that separates the old Queen’s County in Ireland from the Northern Territory still under the crown (a sort of Antipodean River Moy).
‘For “demain”,’ Virgil began to sing
The sense that everything is up for correction, even correction itself, ushers in a grand final page, which ends up in places which can be found on a map but which seem more literal than geographical:
‘For “errata”,’ Virgil smiled, ‘read “corrigenda”.’
It could hardly be more apparent that muddles now fascinate Muldoon. But the passage only succeeds because it concludes a book that is frequently much more subtle in its implication of poetry in error. The title of ‘The Bangle (Slight Return)’, for instance, is disturbed by the proximity of that ‘Mud Room’ word ‘brangle’ — is its title, in fact, a typo? [Note 64] — and in ‘BRUCE SPRINGSTEIN: The River’, the shortest transit-poem in Hay, a ‘For x’ substituting-structure is folded into the statement:
So it was I gave up the Oona for the Susquehanna,
This is a good poem to finish with, because Seamus Deane could say that giving up the Oona sounds like going into exile. Yet the texture of the verse, with its cats-cradle of end and middle half-rhymes, refuses to seal off (as exile must) one place from another. ‘For “Shannon” read “Shenandoah”.’ If the writing attests to a certain weightlessness attendant on mobility, it does so by letting the words keep connections open, by edging into a literal muddle and implying the possibility of mistakes.
[Note 1] The Prince of the Quotidian (Oldcastle: Gallery, 1994), 36.
[Note 2] ‘In the Republic of Letters: A Dialogue between W. B. Yeats and James Joyce on the Occasion of their Reincarnation on the Expiry of Copyright’, Times Literary Supplement, 17 January 1992, 12.
[Note 3] The label was successfully attached by Malcolm Cowley, Exile’s Return: A Literary Odyssey of the 1920s (1951; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982).
[Note 4] I grateful to Peter McDonald and Edna Longley for clarifying and confirming that, in some parts of Ulster, ‘He’s been twice in Fintona’ is an undercutting, though not uncordial, comment on a person’s pretensions to cosmopolitanism.
[Note 5] On Fintona’s history of anti-Catholic discrimination, see Clair Wills, Reading Paul Muldoon (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1998), 166.
[Note 6] ‘Molly Bawn’, in The Dead Kingdom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 64–5, p. 64.
[Note 7] ‘The Figure in the Cave’, in John Montague, The Figure in the Cave and Other Essays, ed. Antoinette Quinn (Dublin: Lilliput, 1989), 1–19, pp. 18–19.
[Note 8] John Montague, Born in Brooklyn: John Montague’s America, ed. David Lampe (Fredonia, NY: White Pine Press, 1991), 32–6.
[Note 9] ‘Beauty and the Beast’, in The Hudson Letter (Oldcastle: Gallery, 1995), 65–6, p. 65.
[Note 10] ‘Night Thoughts’, in The Yellow Book (Oldcastle: Gallery, 1997), 12–13, p. 12.
[Note 11] This comes through even when, as in ‘America Deserta’, he is looking back to New York. For a trenchant analysis of the aesthetic ideology of exile which Mahon partly inherits from modernism, and which defines itself against tourism — an élitist set of assumptions that sustains some of the strongest writing in The Yellow Book — see Caren Kaplan, Questions of Travel: Postmodern Discourses of Displacement (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1996), ch. 1.
[Note 12] ‘She Cries’, in Mount Eagle (Dublin: Gallery, 1988), 48.
[Note 13] Why Brownlee Left (London: Faber, 1980), 23.
[Note 14] To Ireland, I (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 6.
[Note 15] Fintan O’Toole, The Ex-Isle of Erin: Images of a Global Ireland (Dublin: New Island Books, 1997), 134.
[Note 16] Black Hole, Green Card: The Disappearance of Ireland (New Island Books, 1994), 27, 22, 51.
[Note 17] James Clifford, Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997).
[Note 18] To Ireland, I, 25.
[Note 19] Shining Brow (London: Faber, 1993), 62 — though the question is one of many passages that did not make it from libretto into Daron Aric Hagen’s opera.
[Note 20] See Peadar Kirby, Ireland and Latin America: Links and Lessons (Blackrock: Trocaire; Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1992), chs 7–8, and Tim Pat Coogan, Wherever Green is Worn: The Story of the Irish Diaspora (London: Hutchinson, 2000), ch. 8, both reporting among other sources the comments of the Montserrat poet E.A. Markham during his term as writer-in-residence at the University of Ulster at Coleraine in 1991. Cf. the illusory Welsh ‘brogue’ detected among the Mandan Indians at Madoc (London: Faber, 1990), 149.
[Note 21] See e.g. ‘The Boundary Commission’, in Why Brownlee Left.
[Note 22] The Annals of Chile (London: Faber, 1994), 33–5.
[Note 23] Bandanna (London: Faber, 1999), 15.
[Note 24] Vera of Las Vegas (Oldcastle: Gallery, 2001), 9–10.
[Note 25] Cf. the protagonist of Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman, or come to that, Trench, identified by Vera as Norma Capote (48) — not quite Normal and not a Tru(e)man.
[Note 26] ‘The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants’, in Quoof (London: Faber, 1983), 40–64, p. 40.
[Note 27] The Rivals III.iii.19–20, in Sheridan: Plays, ed. Cecil Price (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975).
[Note 28] I am grateful to Paul Muldoon for permission to cite this informally circulated typescript (fol. 66).
[Note 29] Bandanna, 38.
[Note 30] Hay (London: Faber, 1998), 3–9. ‘The’ is sometimes used in Irish names to claim the headship of a sept or family (very much the poet’s role in this book), making the full quibble ‘The Muldoon’; cf., e.g., ‘The O’Rahilly’, Annals, 84. For related convolutions see ‘a remake of The Hoodlum Priest’ (Muldoon backwards) in ‘The Key’, Madoc, 3–4, p. 3; ‘“Ready when you are, Mr DeMilledoon”’, in ‘BLONDIE: Parallel Lines’, Hay, 40; and the detection of Imram Curaig Máile Dúin in the Christian name of Swift’s Lemuel Gulliver (To Ireland, I, 128).
[Note 31] The Haw Lantern (London: Faber, 1987), 48–9.
[Note 32] Cf. ‘where they wallow in whiskey and bainne clabair’ (a traditional dish of thick, sour milk) and ‘Buy stalwart plants from a stalwart Prod, albeit a dissenter’, in Annals, 39–198, pp. 48, 76.
[Note 33] ‘Long Finish’, 78–81, p. 81.
[Note 34] Cf. the confusion of meadow-plants in the epigraph to ‘Third Epistle to Timothy’, also in Hay, ‘You made some mistake when you intended to favor me with some of the new valuable grass seed ... for what you gave me ... proves mere timothy’.
[Note 35] Hay, 10, 11, 55, 98.
[Note 36] New Weather (London: Faber, 1973), 4.
[Note 37] Cf. John Kerrigan, ‘Ulster Ovids’, in Neil Corcoran, ed., The Chosen Ground: Essays on the Contemporary Poetry of Northern Ireland (Bridgend: Seren, 1992), 237–69, pp. 250–1.
[Note 38] Hay, 23.
[Note 39] Cf. Quoof, 50, Annals, 3–5.
[Note 40] To Ireland, I, 5. On Joyce’s hermetic self-naming see p. 83.
[Note 41] Annals, 181; Madoc, 244; Hay, 124.
[Note 42] See the title-lecture of his The Redress of Poetry (London: Faber, 1995), and contrast Muldoon’s comments in ‘Getting Round: Notes Towards an Ars Poetica’, Essays in Criticism, 48 (1998), 107–28, p. 126.
[Note 43] For a stimulating, psychoanalytically informed discussion of Muldoon’s word-scrambling up to Annals, see Guinn Batten, ‘“He Could Barely Tell One from the Other”: The Borderline Disorders of Paul Muldoon’s Poetry’, South Atlantic Quarterly, 95:1 (Winter 1996), 171–204.
[Note 44] See e.g. James Reason, ‘Lapses of Attention in Everyday Life’, in Raja Parasuraman and D. R. Davies, eds, Varieties of Attention (Orlando, Fla: Academic Press, 1984), 515–49, and numerous other papers, leading to his Human Error (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
[Note 45] Bernard J. Baars, ‘The Many Uses of Error: Twelve Steps to a Unified Framework’, in idem, ed., Experimental Slips and Human Error: Exploring the Architecture of Volition (New York: Plenum, 1992), 3–34, p. 5.
[Note 46] Cf. the ‘one volume of Proust’ in (no doubt) C. K. Scott Moncrieff’s translation that the mother is said to have read in ‘The Mixed Marriage’ (Mules, 42), and the Ulsterman — dedicatee of ‘Burma’ (Hay, 104) — who signed up Muldoon for the Faber list.
[Note 47] Quoted in Bruce Andrews, Paradise and Method: Poetics and Praxis (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1996), 5.
[Note 48] In the former the reader slips through ‘fal’ and ‘alf’ as he or she tracks the not-quite-hay of ‘alfalfa’ both ways around — and the word is circular — ‘alpha’, which is printed at the centre of the text, while ‘blé’ (another crop not hay) is the fragment elevated to a word in the space surrounded by ‘A Half-Door’’s not stable cross-runs of ‘stable’.
[Note 49] Hay, 13–14.
[Note 50] See the title-poem of Quoof, 17.
[Note 51] If the poem is read as a remake of the ninth-century Irish lyric ‘The Blackbird over Belfast Lough’ — Cave Hill overlooks Belfast — quoted with translation in To Ireland, I, 10–11, the correction might be interpreted as a determinedly hopeful response to the Northern Ireland ‘peace process’ of the later 1990s.
[Note 52] ‘Getting Round’, 113; To Ireland, I, 74.
[Note 53] E.g. the interview with Clair Wills (2 June 1987), quoted in her Improprieties: Politics and Sexuality in Northern Irish Poetry (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993), 202, qualified but hardly compromised in ‘Getting Round’, 127.
[Note 54] Keats’s celebrated mistake in his sonnet, ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’.
[Note 55] See Wills, Paul Muldoon, 207–8.
[Note 56] John Redmond, ‘Interview with Paul Muldoon’, Thumbscrew, 4 (Spring 1996), 2–18, p. 3.
[Note 57] E.g. ‘Ellmann’ (correct with two ns) followed by ‘Ellman’, ‘Whitley Strokes’ for Stokes, in To Ireland, I, 26, 53.
[Note 58] ‘The More a Man Has’, 48; cf. Stan Smith, ‘The Acoustics of Rural England’ (Letter), Times Literary Supplement, 25 June 1999, 19.
[Note 59] Selected Poems, 1968–1986 (New York: Ecco, 1987), vi. I am grateful to Dillon Johnston for alerting me to this after I presented a short version of ‘Paul Muldoon’s Transits’ at the Modern Languages Association 116th Annual Convention, Washington D. C., 27–30 December 2000.
[Note 60] Annals, 119. The inconsistency persists in Paul Muldoon, Poems 1968–1998 (London: Faber, 2001), 371, 397.
[Note 61] E.g. Clough’s mistake in naming his Bothie after a Gaelic word for vagina, the 1998 Irish Almanac and Yearbook of Facts in calling C. S. rather than C. Day Lewis ‘father of actor Daniel Day Lewis’; Annals, 62 — see Robindra Kumar Biswas, Arthur Hugh Clough: Towards a Reconstruction (Oxford: Clarendon, 1972), 264 — and To Ireland, I, 75.
[Note 62] ‘There are ways of getting absolved for murder’, Hill quotes from G.K. Chesterton, ‘there are no ways of getting absolved for upsetting the soup’ (in his ‘Poetry as “Menace” and “Atonement”’, The Lords of Limit: Essays on Literature and Ideas [Note London: André Deutsch, 1984], 1–18, p. 7. Cf., in the same book of essays, ‘Our Word is Our Bond’, 138–59, e.g. p. 157.)
[Note 63] The Spirit Level (London: Faber, 1996), 22–6.
[Note 64] Cf., earlier in the sequence, the order of ‘ray’s wing braked // on a bed of bockchoy’ (116) followed by ‘ ... “For ‘braked’ read ‘baked’.”...’ (138), not to mention the astray inverted commas which — e.g. four lines below that corrigendum — trouble the Faber text.
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