The New Narrative
- The Oxford Book of Narrative Verse edited by Iona Opie and Peter Opie
Oxford, 407 pp, £8.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 19 214131 7
- Time’s Oriel by Kevin Crossley-Holland
Hutchinson, 61 pp, £4.95, August 1983, ISBN 0 09 153291 4
- On Gender and Writing edited by Michelene Wandor
Pandora, 166 pp, £3.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 86358 021 1
- Stone, Paper, Knife by Marge Piercy
Pandora, 144 pp, £3.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 86358 022 X
- The Achievement of Ted Hughes edited by Keith Sagar
Manchester, 377 pp, £27.50, March 1983, ISBN 0 7190 0939 1
- Ted Hughes and Paul Muldoon
Faber, £6.95, June 1983
- River by Ted Hughes and Peter Keen
Faber, 128 pp, £10.00, September 1983, ISBN 0 571 13088 7
- Quoof by Paul Muldoon
Faber, 64 pp, £4.00, September 1983, ISBN 0 571 13117 4
‘When We talk of narrative poetry today,’ James Fenton asks in the September issue of Poetry Review, ‘are we referring to the kind of story in which, you want to know what happens next? I think not. I think that kind of story is deliberately excluded from consideration.’ It’s a well-timed question, with Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion’s advocacy of narrative in The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry being so widely and respectfully read, and well-directed too, since it clarifies what’s confused in the Penguin introduction by the editors’ simultaneous recommendation of Post-Modernist ‘secrecy’ and the Keatsian ‘long poem’. The kind of story which flows from A to Z is clearly not what young poets have in mind when they speak of ‘a renewed interest in narrative’. Endymion is not the ‘Polar Star’ of their poetry, though Fenton’s minor masterpiece ‘A Vacant Possession’ may, and conceivably should, be what they strive to match. Reflexive, aleatory and cornucopian, the New Narrative deploys its fragmented and ramifying fictions to image the unpredictability of life, and its continuous shadowing by What Might Be. It seems, in short, no accident that Paul Muldoon – whose brilliant new book Quoof gives support to most of the claims being made for ‘narrative poetry today’ – should have told John Haffenden in an interview for Viewpoints that he found Robert Frost’s fable of imagined unlived lives, ‘The Road Not Taken’, exemplary.
If Fenton’s distinction between the narrative kinds is just, so is the note of regret and rebellion that he strikes in the phrase ‘deliberately excluded from consideration’. In art, nothing should be so excluded: and it’s possible to feel in any case that, by seeking narrative involution, young poets are in some danger of neglecting an essential resource of the Story. Certainly, to read a collection like The Oxford Book of Narrative Verse, newly-edited by Iona and Peter Opie, is to be reminded of the powerful appeal that’s made in poetry by ‘the kind of story in which, you want to know what happens next’. The Opies’ choice is often cautious and occasionally perverse. In some respects, moreover, their book belongs – with its ‘Babes in the Wood’, ‘Pied Piper’ and ‘Goblin Market’ – on the nursery shelf, beside their anthologies of children’s rhyme and fairy-tales. Here are the poems one grew up on, or imagines one did: Alfred Noyes’s ‘The Highwayman’, Poe’s ‘The Raven’, Kipling’s ‘East and West’. And here are the texts one’s governess would have liked, had one had a governess: Auden’s ‘Ballad of Barnaby’, about a tumbler coming to God, Longfellow’s ‘Wreck of the Hesperus’, and, far from anything so arcane as ‘The Road Not Taken’, an improving Frost poem about treating farm-workers right, ‘The Code’. Yet, for all its quirks of selection and moralistic bias, the Opies’ book is invaluable, and its place on the bedside table secure; it witnesses irresistibly to the excitement and reassurance provided by ‘poems that tell’, in the editors’ words, ‘a straightforward and complete story’.
Are these the satisfactions of ‘subject-matter’, or of form? When Fenton writes in Poetry Review about a ‘poetry of intrinsic interest’, gesturing towards ‘the possibility of an intrinsically interesting story’, he probably is describing the kind of work which would unfold most freely in a ‘straightforward and complete’ narrative: yet the sheer compulsion of ‘what happens next’ registers regardless of ‘intrinsic interest’. One of the most successful texts in the Oxford Book – Cowper’s ballad of ‘John Gilpin’ – simply tells how this citizen rode, or was carried, from Cheapside to Ware and back again: but, nugatory in content, the poem is substantial in achievement. Narrative defines itself here as that which has the power to make matter without consequence ‘consequential’; and ‘intrinsic interest’ slips into a secondary role.
From Chaucer to Auden, Henryson to Frost, the Oxford Book steers a steady course: but that course is hardly inevitable, and one Road Not Taken by the Opies, arguably as enticing as the path they do pursue, makes the New Narrative look, if not reçu, then at least less novel. For, contrary to the current wisdom, there have always been ‘secret narratives’ of some sort in the English tradition: refractory anecdotes, oracular pronouncements, dark allegories and curious conceits. In Time’s Oriel, indeed, Kevin Crossley-Holland reaches back to Anglo-Saxon to find at the springs of our tradition an enigmatic story-poem called ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’. A woman speaks; she is angry but indirect; living with one man, she loves another; there’s a hinted tale of rape and raiding; the helpless observer of her own predicament, the woman threatens, laments and sings until her love for Wulf is inextricable from the texture of her song:
Can you hear, Eadwacer? Wulf will spirit
our pitiful whelp to the woods.
Men easily savage what was never secure,
our song together.
The emotional impact of that last reflexive turn is beautifully conveyed in Crossley-Holland’s translation. Though his style lacks real vehemence and a density adequate to render an inflected language, it communicates everything elegiac in ‘Wulf’ with exactitude and elegance. In this haunting text, where the ingrained litotes of Old English poetry accords with a human situation, where obliquity and understatement are at once expressive and essential to the story, Crossley-Holland seems to find a natural subject. His own poetry is most moving when it copes with loss and adumbrates events. Elegies and snatches of story, a poem in memory of his grandmother and a miniature tale of unrest in India: these are among the best things in Time’s Oriel; and, with those instances to hand, it’s neither surprising to find ‘Wulf’ so sympathetically translated nor disconcerting to hear that woman’s voice, with its Old English accent, accompany the poet’s ‘Bavarian Miscellany’ or his Motionish tales from Empire, ‘Postcards from Kodai’ and ‘South-West Monsoon’.
For Motion and Morrison in the Penguin Book, the ‘renewed interest in narrative’ is linked, through ‘a preoccupation with relativism’, to the vividly metaphoric writing of the Martian School. No longer an ‘insider’, the poet today is an ‘anthropologist or alien invader or remembering exile’, construing the world from a detached, relativistic but rapt perspective; and, while this leads some writers towards the New Narrative, it encourages in others ‘a preference for metaphor and poetic bizzarerie’. As the argument stands, it looks a bit fortuitous; there’s a suspicion, perhaps, that diverse interests are being served; ‘a preoccupation with relativism’ has been around so long (since Browning? Montaigne? Sextus Empiricus?) that to invoke it in literary criticism, where it’s become such a cliché, inevitably looks like cheating. Which is not to say that the editors’ case collapses. Some recent poems, like Craig Raine’s ‘In the Kalahari Desert’, do combine metaphoric élan with narrative interest, and Muldoon’s Quoof, in a rather different way, supports the editors’ arguments. It’s essentially a question of the evidence advanced. Motion and Morrison might have cited, for example, the women poets that they invoke but do not quote, because there’s a sense in which contemporary women writers necessarily feel detached from the circumstances which most concern them. To the extent that they define their position against that of society at large, and so become ‘feminist’, such authors are forced into a stance resembling that of the ‘anthropologist or alien invader or remembering exile’. They analyse the mores of our sexist and tribal society; they see the world afresh with a gendered, if not Martian eye; questioners, dissenters and self-styled outcasts, they are among our most eloquent ‘inner émigrés’.
Hence the enormous interest of Michèle Roberts’s contribution to the new Pandora anthology On Gender and Writing. In a volume remarkable for its intelligence and verve – one thinks of Angela Carter on writing fiction, Alison Hennegan on lesbian journalism, Fay Weldon interviewing herself – Ms Roberts’s piece stands out, and stands central. Honest, unflustered and incisive, it offers a feeling but unsentimental account of a feminist poet’s predicament, and the grounds of her alienation; and then, intriguingly, goes on to argue, like Motion and Morrison but with more conviction, for the essential interdependence of a metaphoric emphasis in poetry and narrative Post-Modernism:
I find it hard to write about anything that is a whole or is a beautiful simple unity, and yet that is what the novels and poems I grew up on implied was possible. I’ve had to see things as broken, separated into their component parts, and these I am examining, through the process of metaphor. Thus the narratives I employ cannot possibly be single lines in time, from A to Z: I have to go backwards and forwards and around, just as the eye travels in a cubist painting. Narrative turns to glue; I’m an archaeologist reassembling shards ...
In her modest questioning of ‘the kind of poetry in which, you want to know what happens next’, her implicit rejection of ‘East and West’, ‘The Highwayman’ and the other ‘straightforward and complete’ stories one ‘grew up on’, Ms Roberts articulates a view of narrative as vibrantly contemporary as it is feminist. The woman’s voice, now as in Old English poetry, is empowered by being marginal; after Modernism, it’s hard to construe the world imaginatively in a narrative A to Z.
The point is not that All Good Feminists must be obsessed with Narrative, and still less that feminist narratives are of one kind: but there is, in some of the best recent women’s writing, an implicit recognition that, since telling tales formally expresses a way of viewing the world, narrative is a feminist as well as Post-Modernist issue. In Michéle Roberts’s own work – and particularly her new novel The Visitation,[*] where narrative fragmentation lends the text a complex coherence at its climax – the problem is engaged impressively. And in the writings of Marge Piercy, the influential American feminist whose poetry is under review here, there’s a similar sensitivity. Already admired in Britain for her novels and polemics, Ms Piercy’s reputation can only be enhanced by the publication of Stone, Paper, Knife. It is, admittedly, an uneven book: but its recklessness is not uncaring. On the contrary, Ms Piercy’s commitment to Life and art (decidedly in that order and with that emphasis) is passionate, unremitting and unashamed; and if her technical command wavers it’s because the urgency of her utterance distracts her. There is too much unfocused anger in Stone, Paper, Knife, and a great deal of dogma: it’s nevertheless enthralling to overhear, or be lectured by, this woman’s voice, as it strives to articulate new ways of telling.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, that telling involves a subversion of the ‘straightforward and complete’ narratives one ‘grew up on’. Thus, in ‘A story wet as tears’, Marge Piercy recalls ‘the princess who kissed the frog/so he became a prince’ in order to impose on the tale a conclusion unknown to the Opies: ‘Though courtship turns frogs into princes,/marriage turns them quietly back again.’ In ‘Laocoön’, she makes the familiar myth of unexpected suffering, where we pity the men attacked, an allegory of men’s aggression against women. And, in the first poem of her book, ‘Mrs Frankenstein’, she reformulates a traditional narrative A to Z to communicate the wretched and disjointed story of Heterosexual Love Under the Aegis of Sexism. Having assembled her monster, that is, and married him, and ‘rubbed his back’ and ‘fed’ him ‘vitamins’, the heroine of ‘Mrs Frankenstein’ discovers that what she thought was a happy ending was only the start of a catalogue of abuses:
A is for anguish
she said, the way I feel
when you stand on my face. B
is for beautiful, like this rose.
No, you don’t wipe your ass
with it usually. C is for
a very nice part of my body ...
And so on, through all the permutations of marital misery and resentment, to ‘Z’, which stands ‘not for zoosphere / but, Zanzibar’, where the monster apparently fled with a bundle of credit cards ‘and his rich / and pliant mistress.’
Ms Piercy is not invariably so tart. ‘Being left’, for instance, deals lyrically with the topos of abandonment, and the result is a feminist variant on ‘The Road Not Taken’. For, after chastising her lover for smashing the remains of their affair and gravely wounding her – in the way men do (according to feminist orthodoxy), because they want every story to end with ‘blood spurting / to sign finale’ – she asks him why he must tie things up and ‘raze the ground behind’:
Do you believe if you left
me alive you would
be tempted to come back?
We both know
back isn’t there. The tree
puts out new leaves or dies.
What you have abandoned
is not behind but far ahead
where we shall never
A cynic might say of these calculatedly touching lines that the lover knew well enough what the future held for him, and that he chose to abandon it accordingly. Certainly, Ms Piercy makes it clear throughout Stone, Paper, Knife that she thinks women and men should move together towards a post-industrial pastoral, where technological development is eschewed for the sake of self-discovery and vegetable-growing. A few poems, like ‘Digging in’, make this austere path forwards almost tempting, but most do not succeed. Readers of Marge Piercy’s prose fiction will be surprised by neither the configuration of possibilities which she proposes nor her bias: in what is probably her best novel, Woman on the Edge of Time, a heroine, judged crazy by her ruthless and sexist doctors, time-travels or hallucinates into two alternative futures, one technological, oligarchic and sterile, the other ecologically secure and sexually liberated. ‘Which,’ Ms Piercy seems to ask, ‘will be The Road Taken and The Road Not Taken?’ The question is Sixties and unfashionable, but hardly insignificant as a gesture towards What Might Be. And whatever one thinks of Marge Piercy’s politics, or her verbal finesse, it’s a measure of her integrity that a text like ‘Being left’ – so immediate, so personal in resonance – should be continuous in its concerns with her most ambitiously prophetic narrative.
To place Ted Hughes among the Narrative Poets may seem merely paradoxical. Yet, compared with his creative peers – Larkin, Heaney, or the greatest ‘maker’ of his generation Geoffrey Hill, with his confessedly ‘deficient sense of the anecdotal’ – that is where he belongs. From that early fabling phase, when Sylvia Plath heard about ‘a little wizard named Snatchcraftington, who looks like a stalk of rhubarb’, through Wodwo and Gaudete, Hughes has told tales compulsively, whether to us, his friends or himself. Many of his narratives are truly secret: unpublished, locked away in notebooks and leaked in enticing trickles at poetry readings and interviews, like the stories which lie behind Crow. Others have reached us in the abstract, like the fable supporting Orghast. There’s a mythic substratum to Hughes’s career, a matrix of storytelling in which his ideas are worked out and from which his poetry grows. Indeed, as Graham Bradshaw demonstrates in Keith Sagar’s important new collection of essays The Achievement of Ted Hughes, there’s at least one major text in which this process of growth can be intimately observed. By tracing the composition of Cave Birds, that is, we can see Hughes moving, through a kind of dialogue with Leonard Baskin’s drawings, away from the book’s mythic paradigm towards a poetry more contingent and humane. The earliest texts in Cave Birds belong to the ‘alchemical drama’ of Hughes’s subtitle, while the later and frequently better poems represent off-shoots of the myth, ramifications of the story, points of contact with the conscious world. Yet it would be wrong to dismiss Hughes’s mythology as merely a matrix for composition. If the submerged narrative remains essentially secret when we read a book like Crow, its being there ensures a connectedness in the poetry, a coherence half-perceived but deeply felt. Moreover, the story lends Hughes an attitude. It allows him to adopt the voice in which his best work has been articulated: that of the scop or shaman, the sacred speaker, not the ‘maker’ – the omniscient narrator of tribal myths, discontinuously conveyed.
This is the voice which sounds on the Faber Cassette of Hughes and Paul Muldoon. Northern, bardic, elemental, it does not intimate or lilt or set words together to speak themselves, but addresses an audience directly, divulging mysteries. It moves in the indicative mood. It has no room for doubt, but tells. Take the first text on the tape, which also happens to be the best poem in Hughes’s new volume, River:
Walks the river at dawn.
The thorn-tree hiding its thorns
With too much and too fleshy perfume.
Thin water. Uneasy ghost.
Whorls clotted with petals.
Trout, like a hidden man’s cough.
Slash under dripping roots ...
It’s condensed, impacted writing, apparently removed from the question of narrative: but it grows directly out of Hughes’s mythology, being composed in the shadow of Graves’s scholarly fiction, The White Goddess. An occult narrative has organised this poem. Ostensibly lyric, it’s a diegetic fragment.
‘There is one story and one story only,’ Graves told ‘Juan at the Winter Solstice’,
That will be worth your telling,
Whether as learned bard or gifted child;
To it all lines or lesser gauds belong
That startle with their shining
Such common stories as they stray into.
Hughes has been a little wary of Graves’s advice, mingling his story of the triple divinity – Maiden, Mother and Hag, sacred to poets at each stage of her lunar progress – with a variety of rival myths. As Leonard Scigaj, Jarold Ramsay and Annie Schofield remind us in The Achievement of Ted Hughes, the poet has been greatly influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the tale of Oedipus, and Amerindian trickster fables. Nevertheless, his devotion to the Goddess is consistent and profound. She represents the single strongest thread in his secret mythology. As ‘gifted child’ and, later, ‘learned bard’, he has used her ‘story’ to explain such disparate phenomena as the development of Shakespearean drama and the growth of computer science. And here, in ‘Whiteness’ on the Faber tape, it’s her pallor that ‘Walks the river’, and the ‘thorn-tree’ sacred to her (according to Robert Graves) that fills our nostrils with a sinister, carnal odour. Hughes’s ‘common story’ of a trout-stream at dawn is startled by her legend into ‘shining’.
No doubt Graves’s telling of that ‘story’ – with its Celtic catalogue of tree-lore, and its bizarre claim that the Goddess’s divinity can be inferred from Indo-European alphabets (so the A to Z literally includes her narrative) – can be dismissed as erudite mumbo-jumbo; certainly, Ms Roberts and Marge Piercy would think it sexist and stereotyping; but Hughes’s application of it cannot be easily disposed of. Who can question the value of a myth which enables Hughes to speak with such authority? A myth which allows him to shift in ‘Whiteness’, from percussive directness to calligraphic self-concern, from the quasi-Martian wit of a heron like a parasol to the surreal but homely image of a heron like a bedstead. ‘Heron’, the Bard continues,
Coiling its snake in heavy hurry
Hoists away, yanked away
Ceases to ponder the cuneiform
Huge owl-lump of dawn
With wrong fittings, a parasol broken
Tumbles up into strong sky
Banks precariously, risks a look
A writhing unmade bedstead
Sets the blade between its shoulders
Down a long aim ...
Granted, it all works better on tape, but that is hardly surprising. Hughes’s recent work is not sustained by a complex, subordinating syntax; it does not develop organically through skeins of interconnected imagery, or engage in tacit argument with its form. It depends on an attitude, a tone of voice, a certain neglect of the way things are said for the sake of what’s being told. Most poets lose when read just with the eye, but the coherence of his latest verse relies so much on our sense that the poet is telling us things that a text like ‘Whiteness’, when laid out on the page, inevitably looks like notes toward, or the tracing of, some more immediate and authentic statement – such as we find, or think we find, on the Faber tape.
Can illustration help such poetry? Baskin’s pictures contribute to Cave Birds by enshrining the myth from which the text proceeds; and Fay Godwin’s black and white photography usefully counterpoints Hughes’s verse in Remains of Elmet. But Peter Keen’s colour photographs, delightful though they are, neither supplement nor in a real sense illustrate (illustrare, to ‘startle’ into ‘shining’) the written text of River. As one gazes at Keen’s rippling streams and shady trees, his feathery grasses and nettle-beds – all recorded with exquisite precision – Hughes’s own objection to the medium comes to mind. ‘Photography,’ he has said, ‘is a method of making a dead accurate image of the world without any act of imagination’ (The Achievement of Ted Hughes, page 239). When Baskin illustrates Cave Birds, the expressive consistency of his work makes it a plot in the book, intertwined with and imaginatively open to Hughes’s text; while, in Remains of Elmet, Ms Godwin’s use of a monochrome palette insistently reminds the reader that her photography is interpretative, and thus compatible with the verse which it accompanies. River, by contrast, offers its photographs as glimpses of life, reflections of the world, ‘dead accurate’ images with the emphasis on ‘dead’. Hughes and Keen work incompatibly, and at several points concede this, indeed, by going their separate ways. ‘Whiteness’ is paired, reasonably enough, with the picture of a foaming river: but why ‘A Cormorant’ should stand opposite a field of dandelion heads is impossible to determine.
Interestingly, Muldoon’s Quoof begins and ends on Hughes’s home ground, with an epigraph from Rasmussen’s The Netsilik Eskimos – telling how a female shaman made herself a penis of willow, a sledge out of her genitals and a dog from shit-stained snow – and a long last poem ‘loosely based’, according to the blurb, ‘on the Trickster cycle of the Winnebago Indians’. Where Hughes seeks archetypal significance in Amerindian myths, however, Muldoon relishes their inventive unpredictability. His dazzling long poem, ‘The more a man has the more a man wants’, jumps like a firecracker, hectically mixing the Everyday with What Might Be, and crosscutting so extravagantly from the epic to the banal that the fiction finally seems governed by its own law, or lore, and questions about the ‘intrinsic interest’ of its ‘subject-matter’ sound solemn and irrelevant. Muldoon’s trickster is not like Crow: a Republican gunman on the run, Gallogly alias Golightly starts his poem in a Belfast bedroom amid ‘a froth of bra and panties’, makes off in a milk van and stolen Cortina, is peppered with shot somewhere near the border, stops to masturbate, murders a UDR man, eats a Beauty of Bath, and gets taken into Armagh jail by a snatch-squad of paras – while shadowing, through the story, an Apache named Jones (who may or may not be engaged in genealogical research), and, in a particularly perplexing branch of the fable, Alice B. Toklas, loosely conflated with Alice in Wonderland, munching a magic mushroom. It’s a bewildering display of narrative invention, less meretricious on each rereading, and written with that combination of visual clarity and verbal panache which has become the hallmark of Paul Muldoon. ‘A shamrock after the school/of Pollock’, ‘the floppy knot of a Durex’: this book needs no photographs – it illustrates itself.
The argot of Quoof is foppish and odd. Even more than Mules (1977) and the poet’s last volume Why Brownlee left (1980), it cultivates the strange. ‘Blewits’, ‘jissom’, ‘quim’, ‘glanders’, ‘I make / do with her umlaut’, ‘a radar-blip/of peyote’. Muldoon once called an effect of his ‘whimful’, and that seems right for Quoof at large, with its mischievous scribbling in the margins of English. As a nonce-word,indeed, ‘whimful’squares with ‘quoof’, the private family coinage which covers here an entire collection, a strategy of writing, almost a way of life:
How often have I carried our family word
for the hot water bottle
to a strange bed,
as my father would juggle a red-hot half-brick
in an old sock
to his childhood settle.
I have taken it into so many lovely heads
or laid it between us like a sword.
An hotel room in New York City
with a girl who spoke hardly any English,
my hand on her breast
like the smouldering one-off spoor of the yeti
or some other shy beast
that has yet to enter the language.
This unscanned but impeccable short-lined sonnet is exemplary Muldoon. Shy, sly, showy –and a little breathless, like his voice on the Faber tape–it doesn’t really resemble much else in contemporary verse.
Heaney overlaps a little. But his poems about childhood in Ulster seem rough-hewn and plain beside Muldoon’s retrospective pyrotechnics. If Heaney catches in his poetry the smell of buttermilk and the honest bite of a digging spade, his young fellow-countryman seduces us with wonder: the waywardness of tea-leaves cast on snow, a glimpse of Santa Claus climbing up the chimney. In their reaction to the Troubles, moreover, the two diverge completely. Whether or not Honest Ulstermen are right to think Heaney naive for comparing girls tarred and feathered by the IRA with human sacrifice in iron-age Jutland (‘Punishment’), the poet can honourably claim to be in search of a healing myth for Ireland when he invokes this ancient rite. Muldoon, by contrast, seems drawn to violence for its immediate grotesqueness and what he can make of it verbally. ‘Her lovely head has been chopped /and changed,’ he writes, of a girl’s ‘perruque /of tar and feathers’ – and the line-break after ‘chopped’ is no less callously placed for the skill with which it recuperates a cliché. In his emphasis on craft and wit Muldoon might seem akin to Derek Mahon: but, again, the two poets are finally quite different. Clearly Muldoon has learned from the older writer, and the long text which begins his book and ends his tape, ‘Gathering Mushrooms’, might never have been composed without the example of ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’. Yet Muldoon’s wit is extreme and scattering, while the sensibility which informs Mahon’s last collection, The Hunt by Night,[†] is Marvellian in its poise, formality and lyric writing of great things small. When pondering Art and artists, or his most obsessive subject, Disaster, Mahon can achieve a grace and decorum unmatched in Irish poetry since middle Yeats. At the same time, he is capable of a cautious, stodgy formality which leaves the reader numb. When he makes Knut Hamsun say,
Besides, did I not once, as a young man,
Cure myself of incipient tuberculosis
Inhaling four sub-zero nights and days
Perched on the screaming roof of a freight train?
one longs for the racy immediacy of ‘The more a man has’, with its narrative zest and metaphoric daring:
When he began to cough
blood, Hamsun rode the Minneapolis/
New York night train
on top of the dining car.
One long, inward howl.
A porter-drinker without a thrapple.
And this, in the end, is where Muldoon belongs: at the point of contact between ‘narrative poetry today’ and metaphoric bizarrerie. Of his Martian sharpness there can be no doubt: the last shrimp on his plate is a curled and wincing embryo, the elephants at his circus climb the alps of each other, and Gallogly’s UDR man
in the spume of his own arterial blood
like an overturned paraffin lamp.
His ‘renewed interest in narrative’ is even more, and more Post-Modernistically, apparent.In that interview for Viewpoints, where he so praised ‘The Road Not Taken’ and Frost’s ‘mischievous, sly’ manner, Muldoon declared: ‘I think a poem should be intact in itself, but ... I’ve become very interested in structures that can be fixed like mirrors at angles to each other – it relates to narrative form – so that new images can emerge from the setting-up of the poems in relation to each other: further ironies are possible, further mischief is possible ... ’ It sounds like something from Italo Calvino: a narrative fantasy in a hall of mirrors. But, in Quoof, Muldoon has achieved his object. Though every poem is distinct and ‘intact’, each text in the book relates to its successor through a word, a theme or metaphor, while the concluding trickster poem gathers the motifs together and returns to the inaugurative ‘Gathering Mushrooms’. So the poems stand obliquely to each other, implicitly telling a story which does not flow from A to Z but forms instead a magic circle or arena for mischief or kaleidoscope of shifting images. It’s an exciting, experimental effect. At a time when theoretical claims about ‘narrative poetry today’ are being made with such abandon, Muldoon sets a crucial practical example. His talent may not be orthodox, easily assimilable, or even, on occasion, palatable: but it is unignorable.
[*] Women’s Press, 177 pp., £3.50, April 1983, 0 7043 3903 X.
[†] Oxford, 63 pp., £4, 18 November 1982, 0 19 211953 2.