Someone Else

Adam Phillips

  • The End of the Poem: Oxford Lectures on Poetry by Paul Muldoon
    Faber, 406 pp, £25.00, October 2006, ISBN 0 571 22740 6
  • Horse Latitudes by Paul Muldoon
    Faber, 107 pp, £14.99, October 2006, ISBN 0 571 23234 5

Paul Muldoon excluded himself from Contemporary Irish Poetry, his 1986 Faber anthology, but he included a poem by Seamus Heaney that was dedicated to him. We don’t of course know why the poem was dedicated to him, or indeed whether it is in any sense about him. It is a suggestive poem about what the living can get from the dead:

Widgeon
For Paul Muldoon

It had been badly shot.
While he was plucking it
he found, he says, the voice box –

like a flute stop
in the broken windpipe –

and blew upon it
unexpectedly
his own small widgeon cries.

Muldoon has said often enough in interviews that he likes ‘ventriloquising’ in his poetry, likes being able to do himself in different voices; but I take this poem to be, among other things, a warning and a question to Muldoon from the poet who was once his teacher, and about whom, at least on paper, Muldoon has the most genial and admiring of mixed feelings.

Where Heaney more often than not has been on the side of the reconciled and the intelligible, though not on the side of the angels, Muldoon has tended towards the enigmas of departure and the virtues of never arriving. Muldoon’s poetry has thrived on accidents of attention and intention, always preferring the gratuitous destinations that words set off by association, or that he is pushed towards by the arbitrariness of intricate rhyme schemes. His poetry is full of messages and morals, but they are always deferred or inferred or ironised; Heaney is not smitten by irony or obliqueness or modern literary theory (another way of saying this is that Muldoon’s misgivings about what he calls in these lectures Lowell’s ‘cultural imperialism’ are more telling than Heaney’s profuser admirations). In ‘Widgeon’, though, Heaney is on Muldoon’s case, warning him of the violence done to the poetry by imitators and fans – including oneself. But, perhaps more important, Heaney’s question to Muldoon is about the cost of giving up on the idea of the real thing, of preferring the gratuitous discovery to the passionate quest (‘he’ clearly hadn’t shot the bird for its voice box). A widgeon is a duck, and its call, which travels a long way, is more of a whistle than a cry, at least when it speaks in its own voice. It won’t have escaped either Heaney or Muldoon that widgeon, in the 18th century, also meant ‘a fool, a ninny, a simpleton’ (OED). Weak imitations have something deathly about them, something pleading. What is at issue is authenticity, and what we happen to get from what we seem to want. The voice box is not the voice, but there is no voice without it; the dead leave us the voice boxes that are their poems, but they may not be enough. Though Heaney’s voice could not be more distinctive, he also sounds like other people. Muldoon only ever really sounds like himself.

Only ever really sounding like oneself is a very odd thing to do. Muldoon’s fascinating Oxford lectures, published as The End of the Poem, are about poetic influence more than anything else, and they might be seen as part of Muldoon’s puzzle about himself. A poet clearly influenced by many people, Muldoon is generous and expansive in his naming of names; he is the exemplary poet as fan. His poems are packed, and often fitted out, with literary allusions, and yet barely a cadence or a phrase sounds derived. He seems as a poet not self-invented, which would be too knowing, but self-conceived. Like the idea of ‘new weather’, the title of his first extraordinary book, his poetry seems impossibly original. The End of the Poem attempts to show us how hard-won originality in poetry can be; and it is not incidental that Muldoon has chosen to write about poets – Yeats, Hughes, Frost, Bishop, Dickinson, Stevie Smith, Lowell, Montale, Pessoa, Marianne Moore, H.D., Tsvetaeva, Arnold, Auden, Graves, Heaney, Day-Lewis – whose idiom is peculiarly distinctive (Day-Lewis being the possible exception, but Muldoon, characteristically tricky, chooses to write about a poor poem by him called ‘A Failure’). The distinctive poet, in Muldoon’s account, never imitates; however allusive (and elusive) he or she is – and for Muldoon the poet is someone with word-radar, someone wittingly or unwittingly tracking and trading on other writings – the poet renders the language inimitable. Poets are writers who can’t be copied.

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