by Adam Crothers
The final question put to Paul Muldoon at this event – a reading, discussion and Q&A in the Faber & Faber event space in Bloomsbury, to celebrate the publication of Selected Poems 1968-2014 – comes from a ten-year-old: ‘Who, or what, inspires you?’ It would be somewhat ageist to suggest that the age of the questioner gives the inquiry rather more charm than it would have if coming from an adult; still, it does. It’s probing rather than lazy, and carries a genuine desire for knowledge. And Muldoon, prone to evasive monologues, does not evade it, and gives his least rehearsed-sounding answer of the night, an answer to the effect that he takes inspiration from phrases, phrases that might be common in the culture but of which he has not, quite, got the measure. His setlist for the evening includes ‘Symposium’, a suturing of clichés (‘People in glass houses can’t see the wood | for the new broom’) and an indication of how such phenomena animate his writing.
As it happens, the questioner is also an aspiring poet, and Muldoon tells him that he is at precisely the right age (‘eight, nine, ten’) to be involved in poetry: the rest of us, he says, are trying very hard to do what the child does ‘naturally’. And if Muldoon isn’t quite reading juvenilia at this event, it’s notable that he’s favouring the early work. The night’s first four poems – ‘Anseo’, ‘Why Brownlee Left’, ‘Cuba’ and ‘Truce’ – can be traced to 1980’s Why Brownlee Left; then it’s ‘At Least They Weren’t Speaking French’ from 2006’s Horse Latitudes, the aforementioned ‘Symposium’ (from 1998’s Hay), and then… time for a chat with Faber poetry editor Matthew Hollis, followed by questions. That’s a strange weighting, prioritising work from nearly four decades ago, going back ten years for the most recent poem. Of course a Selected can be a way of taking stock, but with this volume featuring five poems from each of Muldoon’s main collections (it was, he says, originally going to be six, but that version of the selection seemed to be out of control), the reading is skewed in a manner unlike the book.
Maybe these earlier poems are the crowd-pleasers and Muldoon suspects that the later work fares less well in a live setting. I attended an event around the publication of Maggot (2012) at which Muldoon read and discussed the queasy forensic autopsy sequence ‘The Humors of Hakone’ (included in the Selected), and nobody (else) liked it very much. (‘Too late to divine from her stomach contents | the components of a metaphor that must now forever remain quite separate.’) Far better, at this sort of event in this sort of corporate environment, the Troubles-inflected fables of the Brownlee poems, or ‘Symposium”s punchline-on-punchline pseudo-nonsense. Metal Machine Music is all well and good, but anyone who ever had a heart probably wants ‘Sweet Jane’. And Muldoon, despite a transatlantic flight earlier in the day, is in the right form to play to the crowd. Eschewing the lectern from which Hollis introduces him, he paces the boundary line of the front row, his feet, like his voice, stopping and starting at odd moments, creating little counter-rhythms; sometimes during the pauses he leans in close to check if individual audience members are doing all right. His vocal delivery, like his face and body language, give the impression that he’s constantly surprised by his (or, really, by a younger man called Paul Muldoon’s) word choices; it’s not unappealing.
This is a time-honed style, of course. The affability of noticing old friends in the audience and drawing attention to them is also a deflective maneouvre, a rearrangement of the room’s attention; the bantering responses (on, for instance, why Charles Monteith changed the title of The Electric Orchard to New Weather – ‘He was an editor, Matthew’) are enjoyable but not without a sense, or scent, of scorched-earth retreat. Muldoon has much recourse in conversation to ‘You know’ and ‘You know what?’ as decorative asides; one doesn’t necessarily ‘know’, of course, and it seems a way for the poet to absolve himself of authority and responsibility while still holding forth: having his cake and eating it, and not being drawn out of the parlour.
It is, then, fitting that the evening finishes, after that instructive final question, with ‘Hedgehog’, which the poet describes as indebted to Donne (who was earlier cited, unsurprisingly, alongside Dickinson and Bishop as an example of true brilliance). That poem is from Muldoon’s first collection, New Weather (1973).
The hedgehog gives nothing
Away, keeping itself to itself.
We wonder what a hedgehog
Has to hide, why it so distrusts.
The poem builds to a Christ image, and while Paul Muldoon does not cut a particularly Christlike figure unless you’re a fan of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, he is not wholly unhedgehoglike.
We forget the god
Under this crown of thorns.
We forget that never again
Will a god trust in this world.
If the primary image is of the world betraying gods personally, there’s a secondary interpretation, one in which the specific betrayal is translated to broader disappointment. The world is hard to trust in, whether you’re a god or not; and while the poem, first collected in the year Muldoon turned twenty-two, was never naïve, to hear it read by the poet at sixty-five is to hear its weight doubled, tripled… The poem might have wanted to be naïve, to dabble in conceits, only to find itself forced to reconcile that desire with inconvenient realities; the poet might still be engaged in this difficult reconciliation. ‘We want’, says the speaker to the hedgehog, ‘Your answers to our questions.’ When Hollis confirms after ‘Hedgehog’ that Muldoon will sign books (and, presumably, be further quizzed as he does so), it’s easy to feel somewhat guilty.
Image credit: ShinyPhotoScotland