These are two very contrastive books both making a clear announcement through their titles. The first is brash, claiming something unbelievable, just as the German author Karl May, author of Winnetou, claimed to speak more than 1000 languages. Perhaps something about Paul Muldoon’s meeting with America has also made him feel entitled to be just as bold and brash as the New World is. By contrast Clive James’s book is a valedictory epistle aimed at the guts but also demonstrates that James still has a good deal to say and the means to do so.
James aims his six shooter at plenty of high and low targets which include Laura Riding, who is depicted as endearingly barmy, intoning her high-brow stuff to the initiated only (yet somehow we realise that James’ depiction of her really means Laura Riding – who she? – O yes Robert Graves’ wife -), Napoleon Bonaparte, Bugsy Siegel, Gabriele d’Annunzio among others, but is able to assemble high art and pop art seamlessly as if conducting a Strauss gala sung by Eminem, Chuck Berry and Leonard Cohen. James can be spotlessly intellectual or raucously populist by turns, without pausing for breath or being demonstrative. He works confidently in his mock heroic idiom then shifts to the speaking voice of his media incarnation, not pretending to write good poems but mocking mockers and beyond.
Poems like ‘Asma Unpacks Her Pretty Clothes’ deal with recent history in the Middle East, and James is at his best when he is led away from his own problems to contemplate the world is leaving. The contrast is obvious; the opulence of the regime’s rulers summed up in Asma Al Assad and her pretty clothes, and the suffering of the people who yearn for a life beyond the Bashar regime. However, the poem is still slightly clunky in its rhetoric and is more like a propagandistic exposition than a political poem:
Dear God, it fooled me too,
So now my blood is curdled by the shrieks
Of people mad with grief. My own wrists hurt
The error, of course, is bringing in God, or even the intimation of a kind of rhetorical self-harm that somehow transcends time and space. But we get a sense that James is somehow peering into the regime just as he somehow neglected Laura Riding and other boffin-type poets who were endearingly ineffectual and forgotten.
Paul Muldoon is a good deal more monotonous in his insistence on a single tone of voice that is persistently intelligent yet also brash. Sometimes the ‘thousand things worth knowing’ become one thousand repetitions; the poetry descends into logo mania rather than altered and heightened communication. The first poem in the collection, Cuthbert and the Otters, is an extended elegy for Seamus Heaney connecting him to Saint Cuthbert, a kind of English version of Saint Columba. Cuthbert lived in the north of England towards the end of the Saxon era and the poem alludes to the Venerable Bede’s account of Cuthbert secretive feeding of otters at night. Cuthbert continued to be important beyond the Saxon age and into the Twelfth-Century as a kind of icon or touchstone. Yet it is hard to know why Muldoon connects Heaney to Cuthbert, not Columba, the logical choice, except to once again demonstrate his lucidity and eclectic interests. These are undeniable, as is the word hoard he is intent upon. The poet repeats “I cannot thole the thought of Seamus Heaney dead”, whereas most people would write “bear”. The noun version of ‘thole’ means wooden pins serving as a fulcrum for rowing but the verb means “to put up with” or “to bear”, just as pins bear rowing oars. It appears to come from Old English and is apparently used primarily in Scotland and the north of England. The poet skips about through history connecting the disconnected in his bravura exposition which makes more sense in the internet era perhaps. Many more people will now follow the poet down the rabbit holes he insists on descending into.
Although Paul Muldoon is now living in the US and lectures in creative writing at Princeton University, there is still a great deal of news about Ireland in the poems – a good sign – but equally there are intimations of America also, such as the poet’s A Civil War Suite which dwells on Irish American involvement in the war but also looks sideways to war literature, from Walt Whitman to Emily Dickinson.
A LINE in long array, where they wind betwixt green islands;
They take a serpentine course—their arms flash in the sun—Hark to the musical clank;
Behold the silvery river—in it the splashing horses, loitering, stop to drink;
Behold the brown-faced men—each group, each person, a picture—the negligent rest on the saddles;
Some emerge on the opposite bank—others are just entering the ford—of
Scarlet, and blue, and snowy white,
The guidon flags flutter gaily in the wind.
Muldoon traces the word ‘guidon’ back to its Medieval origins because a guidon very specifically is a cavalry flag bearing heraldic devices and much smaller than the banners and flags of the infantry, which would have had much more general national or regional declarations. The poet focuses on the language which leads back to families, fiefdoms and inherited entitlements rather than broader entities like the nation or city or political parties or democracy – the ones that sum up modernity. Thus he is obligated to refer to Seamus Heaney, presumably a writer to whom he owes a feudal due or tithe, in the language of defunct feudalism which historically lingered in the north and west longer than in the metropolitan south east of Britain. But the very obscurity of Muldoon’s approach to subject matter and language implies his rather obsessive elitism which is balanced with his evident need to be read. Furthermore, Muldoon’s best poems are pushed to the back of the collection. Works like Dirty Data, which seems ineptly titled, go on and on, yet gain the reader’s interest repeating the names of the various Ministers for of State for Northern Ireland that came and went while Muldoon’s poetry was being made:
Whitelaw, Pym, Rees, Mason,
Atkins, Prior, Hurd, King, Brooke, Mayhew
It is as if these names comprise an anagram meaning sectarianism, sterility, torpor, bigotry, but they all seem to indicate occupation in the Roman sense for Muldoon references many things Roman. These include the sole elephant that entered Britain with the Emperor Claudius’s invasion force and lorica segmentata, the overlapping plates of metal comprising a legionary’s armour. It’s a wonder Muldoon does not mention the shards of metal, pottery or bone, archaeological evidence of their occupation, but he somehow avoids this poeticism.
James’s best poems are also pushed to the back of his collection; works like Japanese Maple which manage to incorporate adequate correlatives for what is happening yet avoid excessive though understandable self-pity:
My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new.
Come Autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.
What I must do
Is live to see that. That will end the game
For me, though life continues all the same:
Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,
A final flood of colours will live on
As my mind dies,
Burned by my vision of a world that shone
So brightly at the last, and then was gone.
James is a person in his collection whilst Muldoon is inscrutably absent, like T.S.Eliot in his final poem, The Four Quartets, which is scarcely a valediction at all. For that reason, James’s collection seems a more genuine, intimate artefact that only Laura Riding, James’s great bugbear, might pour scorn upon. One wonders, if her ghost were summoned, what she might see in any of it, but she might surely come to love the final poem, which may also be James’s final testament. It is called Sunset Hails a Rising. He quotes from Ovid via Christopher Marlowe and Paul Valery:
O lente ,lente currite noctis equi!
La mer, la mer, toujours recommencee.
James is simultaneously wishing that time would run out or just run slowly and then acknowledges the instant recyclability of all matter, as if life itself was always ebbing and flowing and instantaneous grief were thereby refuted.
Both of these collections seem to be enduring poetic statements that reflect back upon their own making and then to a future that has been reconciled with what has gone before in the case of James. For Muldoon the future seems uneasy, where any emerging truth about the past is always open for negotiation.
Paul Muldoon: One Thousand Things Worth Knowing: Faber & Faber: 2015
Clive James: Sentenced to Life: Picador: 2015
By Paul Murphy