One Thousand Things Worth Knowing
Faber & Faber, hardback, 128 pages
Speaking to the Paris Review ten years ago, Paul Muldoon remarked ‘we’re all, as we age, getting duller and duller in most instances … you need to have all your wits about you, and you’re losing them all the time. The more you’ve done in a particular vein, the less there is to do.’ Muldoon is now sixty-three years old but dullness is less in evidence than ever. Indeed, One Thousand Things Worth Knowing is characterised by a determinedly youthful smartness. Like a child home after the first day of school, the collection has a hyperactive enthusiasm for facts: historical anecdotes, pop culture arcana, scientific curiosities, weird etymologies. For Muldoon, everything is worth knowing. The result is a collection of poetry that is often baffling but always invigorating.
The clearest influence behind Muldoon’s data-rich late style is Auden. John Bayley observed that Auden’s tone ‘could be paraphrased from a guidebook, or a work of psychology’ and much the same might be said of Muldoon: where Auden impresses with the inscrutable justness of each unusual word, every one of Muldoon’s weird facts presents the reader with a poker-faced challenge. Take these characteristic lines from the first poem in the collection ‘Cuthbert and the Otters’:
The wax moth lives in a beehive proper. It can detect sound
frequencies up to 300 kHz. The horse in the stable
may be trained to follow a scent.
What looks like a growth of stubble
has to do with the chin drying out.
If Auden was a guidebook, Muldoon is a scientific journal. The lines impress first in their formidable tonal control: Muldoon manages a disciplined relaxation of register from the scientist’s precision (‘300 kHz’) to a layman’s guess (‘has to do with’). The qualifying modal verb ‘may’ and the proverbial flavour of the line about the horse expertly mediate between the pseudo-scientific and folk registers, reminding us that however prose-like and factual his verse might seem, Muldoon is master of his craft. What on earth is he on about though? Google suggests he’s telling the truth about the bees, but what about the horses? Can horses not in the stable be trained to follow a scent? My instinct is that these are the wrong questions to ask. Muldoon, in scientist mode, juxtaposes these data almost experimentally to see how they react. For some readers they remain inert; sometimes bonds of meaning are forged. It is perhaps unfair to pick out such unforgiving lines for close attention but they do contribute to the occasional sense that One Thousand Things Worth Knowing is the sort of thing an internet search engine would write were it capable of poetry. Fortunately, Muldoon’s verse is often more approachable than this. At its best it has the air of an intellectual game or a crossword puzzle- and if you manage to actually get a reference you are rewarded tenfold. In ‘Los Dissidentes’, the sound of a waterfall ‘brings back Slim Pickens’ Holler/ as he Bronco busts the H-bomb’. The appropriation of the comic plummet from the finale of Dr Strangelove is an excellent example of Muldoon’s ability to co-opt pop culture in order to provide arresting ways of re-imagining even the hoariest old subjects of poetry.
In spite of these clever youthful spirits, thoughts of mortality flicker beneath the surface of the collection. The death of Seamus Heaney is understandably fresh in Muldoon’s imagination and the deaths of artists, Irish heroes, and statesmen scattered through his poetry all reflect aspects of Heaney’s personality and what his loss might mean. In ‘St Cuthbert and the Otters’ the corpse of the poet blurs eerily with the corpse of the Northumbrian saint. In the striking short poem ‘Honey’, Muldoon meditates movingly on the material circumstances of the death of Buddy Holly (quite a different sort of artist to Heaney): the ripped leather jacket, and the cash and pen top found in his pocket. In ‘Dirty Data’, the longest and perhaps the most successful poem in the collection, Heaney’s death is matched by Churchill’s, another national icon. In this poem Muldoon’s associative capacity really sparkles. Ben Hur’s life, Churchill’s funeral and Bloody Sunday flash together in strobe-like succession. This might all be rather strained were it not for Muldoon’s unanswerable eye for small correlations of movement and feeling. This capacity is witnessed most strikingly in the way that the golden dolphins which dip their heads marking Hur’s laps of the Circus Maximus stand for the cranes lowered at Churchill’s funeral:
The dolphins continue to
the obeisance of the dock cranes.
Muldoon’s customary prosy mode is infected by a jumpy metre and the short lines fly about the page in a manner that wittily mimics the poet’s frenetic mind. His willingness to scrabble vigorously through the past in search of the odd apt moment or striking image is a refreshing alternative to the more solemn scholarly approach taken by a poet like Geoffrey Hill. Indeed, One Thousand Things Worth Knowing often feels like Mercian Hymns on acid.
Rather like Hill, Muldoon has developed a late style rich in opaque allusion and incomprehensible reference. Even an educated reader cannot hope fully to understand either poet without Google at her right hand. However, while Hill has managed to maintain the mystical urgency of his early work, I couldn’t help but feel that Muldoon’s verse has lost something. His occasionally forced conversational style (‘I’m hanging…in downtown Havana’ he announces in ‘Cuba (2)’) and pursuit of scientific and historical fact have squeezed out the openness to resonant imprecision in his early work. His great early poem ‘The Year of Sloes for Ishi’ has a greater openness to ‘poetic’ language and a capacity for the emotionally arresting but vague statement (‘the silence/ Deeper/ Than that of birds not singing) that is lost in One Thousand Things Worth Knowing. Nevertheless, as Muldoon is well aware, ‘the more you’ve done in a particular vein, the less there is to do’. To be writing verse as fresh and as different as the poetry in One Thousand Things Worth Knowing demands respect, if not a measure of awe.