For you, the catch wasn't something caught:
not word or contender, attention or fire.
Not the almost-missed train, or the sort
of wave surfers might wait an entire
lifetime for. Not the promise that leaves
the old man adrift for days, his boat
creaking, miles offshore. Nor what cleaves
the heart in two, that left your throat
parched and mute for taking pill
after yellow-green pill, the black-blue
taste the price you paid to kill
the two-parts sadness to one-part anger.
No. The catch was what you could never
let go. It's what you carried, and still do.
poem by Ben Wilkinson
from For Real (Smith|Doorstop Books, 2014)
Back when The Poetry Review used to include caricatures, Paul Muldoon emerged from its pages as a rattlesnake. Sporting his trademark Dylan-esque barnet and NHS specs, his trickster’s tie wriggled from a hieroglyph-inscribed basket. The image sticks because it fits. For the past forty years Muldoon has danced to his own tune, snake charmer to slippery, sly, fun but also menacing poems, borne of precocious technical mastery and increasingly reckless imaginative abandon. Boyish wonder meets a cynical intelligence. Playfulness and seriousness blur to one and the same. In his best poems – and by now, the longevity of his 70s and 80s lyric masterpieces ‘Wind and Tree’, ‘Mules’, ‘Why Brownlee Left’, ‘Cuba’, ‘The Sightseers’ and ‘Quoof’ seem beyond sensible question – the rhyming panache and lexical grace lure you in. But so too do the brevity, the deceptive clarity, the eye-widening exactitude. Form and flawless execution jostle with a beady-eyed mischievousness and darkness, unpicking favoured discomfiting themes: death, disappearance, sex, divisions both personal and public, and the sense that our pursuit of meaning is, finally, a flawed and laughable quest, though not without reward.
One Thousand Things Worth Knowing is Muldoon’s twelfth collection. It arrives midway through the poet’s sixty-fourth year, a year following one that began with the passing of Seamus Heaney, champion to the wunderkind Muldoon, and from whom the once protégé now inherits the title of Ireland’s greatest living poet. In truth, though, followers of Muldoon the pied piper have been pushing for his promotion for a while. When Stephen Knight called him “the most significant English-language poet born since the Second World War”, echoing Tim Kendall’s similar pronouncements, he sounded a degree of cautious deference to the old master, but the claim was clear. Even the most astute, punctilious critics have reached for superlatives in praising this rara avis: “among discriminating readers of new poetry, no one’s stock is any higher” announced Michael Hofmann. The acclaim rings true. Muldoon really is as good as he seems.
Or rather, he was. Like one of his own hypnotic narrative poems, there are a couple of twists in the strange tale of Muldoon’s fecund career. Since the early Noughties and the publication of his hefty Poems 1968–1998, Muldoon’s work has usually been divided into two – what David Wheatley, with pious irreverence, labelled the ‘Muldoon Old Testament’ of New Weather (1973) to Quoof (1983), and the ‘New Testament’ of Meeting the British (1987) to Hay (1998). Quoof was arguably the high point of the early style, a book of pellucid yet complex lyric poems that conveyed both the tragic farce and violent horror of sectarian conflict during the Northern Irish Troubles, in a style as comically parodic as it was coolly matter-of-fact. It marked out the postmodernist Muldoon from his more genteelly Modern predecessors, and gifted him passage to the US, specifically the ivory towers of Princeton. From there, the magic mushrooms first gathered in Quoof met the acid trip of ‘Something Else Again’, a mid-life mantra that exalted a poetics of wild connection-making, paving the way for the cultural stockpiling and myth-kitty raiding that finds its apogee in Madoc: A Mystery (1990) and Hay’s ‘The Bangle (Slight Return)’. The former, a reimagining of Coleridge and Southey’s thwarted ideal of an egalitarian utopia, is relayed from the perspective of a prisoner’s failing vision (geddit?) in the futuristic city of Unitel, with sections often randomly captioned after philosophers. Are we to take such bustling extempore as an opportunity for rewarding exegesis, or is Muldoon just taking the mick, leaving us high and dry, as he has confessed before, “in some corner at a terrible party, where I’ve nipped out through the bathroom window”? Whatever your verdict, there’s no denying such poems have earned an almost entirely academic audience. Schooled readers might think they’re in on the joke, that the red herrings of allusions and etymological conjecture are worth the price of entry, but to me, Madoc still looks like an overlong, winking yet all-too-literal illustration of the misguided search for “a moral for our times”, one that a younger Muldoon roundly mocked in ‘The Frog’. “What if I put him to my head / and squeezed it out of him?”
Which brings us to what I’d like to suggest as the third age of Muldoon: the apocrypha to the two Testaments, which seems to bear the stylistic signature but far too little of the earlier understated brilliance, enough to make it suspect. In this often manic hall of mirrors where language and trivia run about, cartoon-like, to a soundtrack of canned laughter and the odd sentimental tune, things seem mainly to go from bad to worse, albeit by the perilously high standards of the Muldoon glory days. Starting with Horse Latitudes (2006) – though sparing at least the magnificent, witty, heartfelt ‘Sillyhow Stride’, a paean to Muldoon’s mother and sister, and his musician friend Warren Zevon, all of who battled with cancer – we arrive via 2010’s Maggot at this new collection.
I’ve taken this review as opportunity for a detailed appraisal of the Muldoon back catalogue for three reasons. First, because I’d wager that anyone not wholly conversant with his poetry’s trajectory would struggle to make head or tail of One Thousand Things Worth Knowing; second, because I honestly can’t find anything like those earlier poems to amaze or admire in this new stuff; and third, because Paul Muldoon so rarely gets to any kind of point in this book I thought I’d briefly grant myself similar license. The collection opens with ‘Cuthbert and the Otters’, a 10-page piece in memory of Seamus Heaney, originally commissioned by Durham Book Festival. Adopting the legend of the eponymous Northumbrian saint, whose famous piety and diligence afforded him a Doctor Doolittle-like rapport with God’s creatures, Muldoon invokes some loose metaphorical comparisons with the late great poet. So far, so good. Until, that is, Muldoon’s hyperactive mind, limitless love of arcana, and growing distaste for anything so memorable as argument or cohesion drown the whole thing out with, it seems, whatever popped into his head while writing:
The way to preserve a hide is not by working into it Irish moss or casein
but the very brains
of the very beast that was erstwhile so comfortable in its skin.
Irish monasticism may well derive from Egypt.
We don’t discount the doings of the Desert Fox
any more than Lil Langtry’s shenanigans with Prince
Louise of Battenberg. The 1920s vogue for sequins
began with Tutenkhamen. Five wise virgins
– and so on (and on and on). If there is substance here – and surely there must be in an elegy for a departed mentor – the poem bombards you with so much disparate intellectual litter, you can’t hope to sift through it all to find it. Some will say this lack of any point is the point, that confusion is king, but when it sets the scene for an entire book, and when Muldoon has been up to this sort of zaniness for at least a decade, it all becomes rather mundane and forgettable. “When I glance / from my hotel window”, our poet observes, “even I discern / a possibility / I might too readily have spurned”. Surely not. Still, there’s always the trivia. Did you know that Roman women “let // their hair grow right down to their waists / for twisting into skeins” for catapults? What connects ‘Barrage Balloons, Buck Alec, Bird Flu, and You’? “Arthritis is to psoriasis as Portugal is to …”? “Wait. Isn’t arthritis to psoriasis as Brazil is to Portugal?”
As Muldoon merrily loses his way in One Thousand Things Worth Knowing, in overblown tour de force after tour de force, letting his brilliant mind and unrivalled ability with rhyme, form and syntax too often overwhelm the hope of poetry occurring, there is the sense that the genuine alchemist of our times has become content to produce fool’s gold. But then you can hardly blame him. Only one or two poets in any generation will ever know what it’s like to be so gifted that technique, capacity and sheer panache come to implode on themselves. The epigraph to ‘The Firing Squad’ is an excerpt from a letter by Robert Frost, dated 1916, in which he confesses that “the poet in me died nearly ten years ago”. Telling, you might think. There are many timeless Muldoon poems worth knowing, inside out and off by heart. But, for me, none of the like are in this volume.
review by Ben Wilkinson
first published in The Poetry Review
|Don Paterson, illustration by Joe Ciardiello|
In 101 Sonnets: From Shakespeare to Heaney (1999), Don Paterson set about showcasing the sonnet’s rich history. But his anthology’s enduring popularity has had as much to do with its clever, entertaining and controversial introduction. Even at this early stage in his career as poet and commentator, Paterson is found arguing for the sonnet as “one of the greatest achievements of human ingenuity”, a “box for . . . dreams” which “represents one of the most characteristic shapes human thought can take”. By turns convincing and indulgent, his thesis is grounded in the unifying and sense-making powers of rhyme and metre; the sonnet’s loose adherence to the proportions of the golden section; and his deep admiration for what the best sonneteers can do with this little “squared circle”, a resistant medium which allows poets to “trick a logic from the shadows” of unconscious thought. Much like his recent layman’s guide Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets (reviewed in the TLS, January 14, 2011), it makes for compelling reading, not least since Paterson’s fascination is also that of the practitioner. From Nil Nil (1993) with its studies in desolation and aftermath, to the serious play with personae in God’s Gift to Women (1997) and the existential hymns for the poet’s twin sons in Landing Light (2003), the sonnet abounds throughout Paterson’s oeuvre.
So a new collection comprised entirely of fourteen-liners comes as little surprise. Moreover, after the austere undertaking of Paterson’s last volume, Rain (2009), a bleak book that ingeniously examined the project of elegy, but also that of language and humanity, the poet must have been on the lookout for a more various way back into writing verse. And in 40 Sonnets, Paterson certainly illustrates the form’s versatility. Delivering exactly what it promises, it is an especially slight collection, even from an author known for championing brevity. But where many of his contemporaries exhibit a worrying trend towards publishing books that far surpass 40 Sonnets in length, Paterson’s icy intelligence, imagination and painstaking craft make for disproportionately substantial reading:
I must quit sleeping in the afternoon.
I do it for my heart, but all too soon
my heart has called it off. It does not love me.
If it downed tools, there’d soon be nothing of me.
Its hammer-beat says you are, not I am.
It prints me off here like a telegram.
What do I say? How can the lonely word
know who has sent it out, or who has heard?
From the everyday setting of an afternoon nap to intimations of mortality, “Here” offers a meditation on identity as linguistic gesture. Paterson delivers all this in crisp and exact language, finding heart-thumping end rhymes that feel anything but forced. It is this command of syntax combined with lucid philosophical thinking that has come to define Paterson’s poetry. A similar spirit of questing and questioning makes for some of the best sonnets in this book. “Souls” takes the numinous aspects of our selves and expresses them as an aberration from the physical, a world where “space is stone, and time a breackneck terror”; in “The Air”, the element we take for granted becomes a mysterious abstraction, “an empty datastream” that is “nowhere” and “never”, a powerful reminder that we are but a brief chapter in the universe’s narrative. Poems such as these have raised Paterson’s stature to that of one of the best English-language poets currently writing. If they sometimes exhibit a slight over-earnestness, and wear their author’s European influences too heavily for certain tastes (both Antonio Machado and Rainer Maria Rilke are lingering presences), they also demonstrate the rare value of a poetry of assertion and argument – poetry as a mode of knowledge, no less.
In the end, though, it is the variety and impressive consistency of 40 Sonnets that make it such a bravura performance. “The Roundabout” is perhaps the most beautiful of Paterson’s poems to his twin sons; “Funeral Prayer” is a warm, frank yet simple elegy that one can imagine being read at many an actual service. I defy anyone to read “Mercies”, the tale of having a pet put down, without a catch in the throat. There is also the welcome return of Paterson’s cutting sense of humour, which has been in rather short supply in recent times. “Requests” and “To Dundee City Council” are particular gems: both damning indictments of the artless and inept, the former addressed to a blathering poet on stage, the latter to a council presiding over a local library where “poor folks go to die / or download porno on the free wifi”. There are misfires too: “A Powercut” is the kind of workshopped list-poem that Paterson has, in the past, quite rightly dismissed; and exactly how “The Version” – a long-winded prose piece that meanders through its Borgesian conceit of artistic paranoia and forgery – constitutes a sonnet, is beyond this correspondent’s ken. Nevertheless, 40 Sonnets remains an appealingly slender book of remarkable emotional, intellectual and tonal range, from a writer who shows that poetic form is precisely what you make of it.
Ben Wilkinson is currently writing a reader's guide to the poetry of Don Paterson, due to appear in 2017.
first published in The Times Literary Supplement
Poetry, as RS Thomas once claimed, is that which arrives at the intellect by way of the heart. The poet’s task is to find the effective middle ground; to perform that lyric trick whereby thought and emotion seem to effortlessly combine. Seek to provoke only feeling, and crude sentimentality ensues; indulge in the cerebral, and the poem might be interesting enough, but it will remain lifeless – a kind of versified intelligence. In Loop of Jade, Sarah Howe’s debut collection, winner this week of this year’s TS Eliot prize, the poet attempts to merge personal accounts of her dual Anglo-Chinese heritage with her scholar’s penchant for the intellectually abstruse. The result is a book of poems that are as playfully and frustratingly recondite as they are memorable and unusually affecting.
“The twin lids / of the black lacquer box / open away”, writes Howe in “Mother’s Jewellery Box”: “a moonlit lake / ghostly lotus leaves / unfurl in tiers // silver chains / careful o’s and a’s / in copperplate”. This might seem an unassuming vignette with which to open a collection, but it sets the tone. An evocative box of trinkets is a good metaphor for Howe’s poetry, possessing as it does a well-wrought yet elaborate quality. Depending on a reader’s taste, these poems will seem either elegantly graceful, or decorative and over-designed. “Night in Arizona” is a prime example of the best and worst of this style. On the one hand, Howe’s musical gift for conjuring insistent rhythms evokes the claustrophobic heat of a motel room in the desert: kicking the bed sheet to the floor, the sound is “like the spilling of sand / from shovel and the night air blurs / for a second with its footfall”. But on the other, the preference for elevated diction in what is ultimately an account of mildly irritating sleeplessness comes to mismatch language and event: “the razory arms of a juniper rattling crazily / at the edge of that endless reddening haze”. In these more conventional lyric sections, Howe is at her best when she reins in linguistic excess. “Earthward” is a subtle meditation on watching “the shadowplay / of trees / against the blinds”, disturbing replicas that shake “with a gusting stutter / more restless still / for being not / the thing itself”. The effect is haunting and immediate, precisely because of the sparse diction employed.
Thankfully, Loop of Jade is itself restless. This is true of the poet’s journeys through the China of her youth and the clash of differing cultures apparent in her adult life, but also of its formal repertoire. The jewellery box opens on to various worlds – some real; some mythical; some deftly blurring the two – and Howe switches between shorter lyrics and longer narrative forms, keeping readers on their toes. In “(c) Tame”, one of a scattered sequence that takes its titles from a fictional taxonomy of animals, the historical Chinese custom of smothering an unwanted newborn girl in ashes is assimilated into a mythical tale of a daughter transformed into a soaring bird. This kind of symbolic metamorphosis strongly recalls another recent Chatto debutant, Liz Berry, the eerie exactitude of the poem’s narration, combined with its magic realist wavering between the brutal and the fantastical, makes for an imaginative dissection of masculine violence.
It is a shame, then, that too often Howe opts for an unconvincingly heightened and florid register – in “Pythagoras’s Curtain”, “cicadas … cadenza the acousmatic dusk”; “A Painting” lays it on thick with “the oyster-crust … of an unscraped palette – chewy rainbows, blistered jewels” – instead of working harder to write with the difficult clarity and complex simplicity of which she is capable. The most memorable writing in Loop of Jade tends to stem from this latter approach, and nowhere more so than in the book’s title poem. The Hong Kong of Howe’s early years is a fecund territory for a poet seeking to reconcile a quintessentially English life with a starkly contrasting eastern heritage; even more so for one fascinated by the linguistic and cultural collisions and confusions that define our increasingly global community. Though far from the most polished writing on offer here, “Loop of Jade” traces the poet’s background and China’s recent history through an unflinching, moving and minutely observed portrait of her mother, who tells vivid stories of her childhood with “a pause-pocked, melodic, strangely dated hesitancy”. In between revivifying these memories – of a latrine that sprouted “the glistening bodies of cockroaches, like obscene sucked sweets”, or being made to wash her hair with “a green detergent meant for scouring floors” – the poem relays the tragic Chinese legend of star-crossed lovers turned into butterflies in their premature deaths.
Weaving between the frank prose of memoir and a ballad-like lyric mode, Howe creates a nuanced metaphor for release – from tensions between the opposing worlds that the poet herself yearns for, turning to the transformative promise of poetry in reconciling the irreconcilable. Her fondness for lexicographical conjecture can feel trivial and slight. But whatever the subject, it is the poet’s gift for simile and metaphor-making that lends Loop of Jade its transformative scope, able to make a school memory of chanting the names of Hong Kong’s islands “strange again, like savouring / those New Year candies – small translucent moons / waning on the tongue”.
first published in The Guardian, Saturday 16 January 2016