“IF THEY HAVE SINNED NOBODY KNOWS” –W.B. YEATS

Until now.

Paul Muldoon, Seamus Heaney-Lite, sins against good taste, and we, being in a frightfully bad mood, and deciding we don’t need the New Yorker, anyway, have decided to kick over a toadstool, or two.

It really isn’t poor little Dan Chiasson’s fault for putting Muldoon’s new book of poems on his Eleven Best Poetry Books of 2010 , published by Chiasson in the New Yorker.   Young Mr. Chiasson merely seeks to advance his career by pleasing his elders.   It’s just embarrassing that it had to be done so publically, and at the risk of  Chiasson never being trusted as a critic, again.  Muldoon, Chiasson’s senior poetry editor colleague at the revered New Yorker, should have had the good taste to nix himself from the list, whether Muldoon’s book is actually good, or not.  Perhaps as a result of this article, Chiasson (no, it would be more proper if it were Muldoon) will send us a copy so we can read it.

The bad taste shown in letting himself be included in Chiasson’s list, however, can easily be found in any old poem by Muldoon, for, like Heaney’s  poetry, which errs by being overly metaphorical,  Muldoon’s poetry is fraught by a related, but greater error: simple bad taste, where the poet cannot resist being continuously clever, despite spoiling all sense of keeping and decorum and beauty which enjoyable poetry demands.

When I say enjoyable, I mean enjoyable to others.  Unfortunately, Muldoon, in his rhapsodic solipsism, can’t tell the difference.

The garbling, the encoding, the slipping and slopping, the gestures to Joyce and Heaney, the making hay by using a dozen terms for hay, the errata that’s wrong, then right, then accidentally wrong, then accidentally right, then wrong again, is a mighty effort, the kind applauded by the type of critic who runs the show now, besotted with difficulty for difficulty’s sake: this critic would consider it heresy to ask: is it worth the reader’s effort to dig for this?

The reader?  What reader?  Po-biz, as everyone knows today, is a kleptocracy.

“You have not understood Muldoon, though, unless he perplexes you,” writes Richard Eder in a positive review in the Times of Poems 1968-1998; but since all writing that is bad—but which is taken as good— perplexes, we wonder if this is a good recommendation.  “His Mona Lisas frequently wear mustaches,” Eder tells us; but no, they always wear mustaches.

Sadly, many believe, when it comes to poetry, that the perplexing leads to a host of virtues; but this is not the case, except in the minds of poets like Paul Muldoon, who, as Poetry Professor both at Oxford and Princeton, has been in the unique position to exemplify this falsehood.   The New Critics were schooled at Oxford, and Allen Tate, Fugitive and New Critic, got one of the first Writing Programs in the country going at Princeton.   20th century Oxford is where language was shorn of ideal qualities and treated as a mundane act.  Language Poetry was born from this, as was the New Criticism, taking its lead from T.S. Eliot that poetry should be “difficult,” and from John Crowe Ransom, that poetry should not please, or spiritualize readers, but should rather be an academic study overseen by “professionals, not amateurs” and those “professionals” should be “professors.”  Gone, the Romantic poet with emotionally inspired readers.  Enter, professionalized perplexity.

Heaney pants after Eliot’s New Critical empire, and the Mossbawner makes perfectly complex New Critical poems out of country labors; Muldoon, too, funny in the tongue, is always properly bucolic in that third-world Irish way.

“Monarch and Milkweed” is one of Muldoon’s best-known poems, and often praised.   Richard Eder:

“This comes as close as Muldoon ever does to making the neck hair rise. (His tonsorial kinetics tend more to stimulative tugging and twisting.) And even here he expresses sorrow by distraction, by an inability to remember or grasp. His parents’ graves blur; he thinks of something else. Grief is its own inability; Muldoon gets us to feel both.”  —Richard Eder

And here’s the poem:

Monarch and Milkweed

As he knelt by the grave of his mother and father
the taste of dill, or tarragon-
he could barely tell one from the other-
filled his mouth. It seemed as if he might smother.
Why should he be stricken
with grief, not for his mother and father,
but a woman slinking from the fur of a sea-otter
In Portland, Maine, or, yes, Portland, Oregon-
he could barely tell one from the other-

and why should he now savour
the tang of her, her little pickled gherkin,
as he knelt by the grave of his mother and father?
He looked about. He remembered her palaver
on how both earth and sky would darken-
‘You could barely tell one from the other’-

while the Monarch butterflies passed over
in their milkweed-hunger: ‘A wing-beat, some reckon,
may trigger off the mother and father
of all storms, striking your Irish Cliffs of Moher
with the force of a hurricane.’
Then: ‘Milkweed and Monarch ‘invented’ each other.’

He looked about. Cow’s-parsley
in a samovar.
He’d mistaken his mother’s name, ‘Regan, ‘ for Anger’;
as he knelt by the grave of his mother and father
he could barely tell one from the other.

Paul Muldoon

But we feel the poem is spoiled when Muldoon inserts the idiomatic ‘mother of all storms’ into his ‘mother and father’ refrain.  He couldn’t resist this bit of cleverness, even in the face of a poignant elegy, and the poem, its bells and whistles of New Critical symbol and metaphor unable to save it, pays for his sin.

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4 Comments

  1. December 10, 2010 at 2:20 pm

    Tom–I really think that the poetry world is so obscurely insular that within it this sort of naked toadying isn’t even viewed as being bad taste. It’s just SOP. And the SOP defense for it is along the lines of “But I really did love that book! It really was one of the best 11 I read! And it wouldn’t be fair to Muldoon if I left him off just because he’s my boss and the Poetry editor of this very magazine!”

    And after all–how many pseduo-intellectual New Yorker readers are going to make their one or two poetry book purchases based upon that kind of review? (And don’t forget how much American pseduo-intellectuals tend to love anything that smells of smoked peat moss). Prestige (not to mention sales) is in such short supply within the Pobiz that it is considered perfectly fair game to claw after any shred of it you can find.

    • thomasbrady said,

      December 10, 2010 at 5:03 pm

      Briggs,

      Point taken.

      But how do we reverse this trend? By pursuing bad taste and excusing it on the ground that po-biz is…dead?

      Isn’t screwing a corpse still rape?

      And as you saw, my pedagogical purpose expanded to the criticism of the poetry, which I do think is relevant…it does matter…it all does connect, in my opinion…

      Tom

  2. Bad at Lurking said,

    April 28, 2015 at 5:03 pm

    “But we feel the poem is spoiled when Muldoon inserts the idiomatic ‘mother of all storms’ into his ‘mother and father’ refrain. He couldn’t resist this bit of cleverness, even in the face of a poignant elegy, and the poem, its bells and whistles of New Critical symbol and metaphor unable to save it, pays for his sin.”

    I feel that interpreting the “mother and father of all storms” idiom as an example of Muldoon’s inability to “resist a bit of cleverness” is unfair. His use of the “mother of all –” idiom could just be a weak way to insert the refrain, and not any intentional sabotaging of his poem’s “poignancy.” Or, it could be a deliberate attempt to make the speaker of the “a wing-beat…hurricane” bit ambiguous – not as a way to “garble, encode, slipp and slop” for its own sake but to elucidate on the nature of grief, relationships, emotions etc.

  3. thomasbrady said,

    April 28, 2015 at 9:49 pm

    Bad at Lurking,

    Thanks for your feedback. Interesting how you defend Muldoon by saying his gesture could mean this or this or this or that. This is precisely why the poem is sloppy and Muldoon is sloppy. Precisely our point.


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