When the United States became a superpower after World War II, Americans became less deferential toward English writers, with the consequence that, on the whole, postwar American readers knew little of the poetry being written in the British Isles and Ireland. Auden maintained a hold on the American audience because he lived here, and Dylan Thomas flashed briefly through the country, but apart from those two imports, modern British poets made almost no impression on the United States. We were content to let them (and the poets of the Commonwealth countries and Ireland) work in their separate sphere. This depressing situation was compounded by the gradual but widening divergence between British and American culture, and by the utter failure, in the service of a mistaken nativism, of American public (and even private) schools to keep British poetry, in a systematic way, in the elementary and secondary curriculum. The American presses that still publish poetry have tended predictably to favor American poets over others writing in English.
Several things have happened recently to change this situation. On the English side, there was a rather surprised recognition that modern American poets other than Eliot deserve to be read. On the Irish side, there was the phenomenon of Seamus Heaney, a poet whose work effortlessly made its way everywhere. Sylvia Plath’s poetry attracted the attention of English critics; Robert Lowell lived for seven years between England and America, publishing in both countries; English poets such as Donald Davie and Thom Gunn moved to the United States, teaching students both in classes and by example; Heaney taught for many years at Harvard.
Commonwealth authors, too, appealed to audiences on both sides of the Atlantic: Derek Walcott, educated in a British-derived system and writing under the sign of Yeats and Auden, moved to the United States and was powerfully influenced by the poetry of Robert Lowell. International conferences, too, ensured that poets broadened their literary acquaintance. These transatlantic transfusions have affected publishing: Carcanet, Bloodaxe, and Faber have scouted out contemporary American poets and brought them to the English audience, and some enterprising American trade publishers (among them Farrar, Straus and Giroux, the Ecco Press, and Norton) have taken on British and Irish poets.
Understandably, British or Irish poets published in the United States tend to be ones who have already acquired American connections or an American address. Of those under review here, James Lasdun has taught at Bennington and Princeton, and Glyn Maxwell has had a fellowship in creative writing at Boston University: the Northern Irish poet Paul Muldoon teaches at Princeton and lives in New York. Like Davie, Heaney, Gunn, Walcott, and other transplanted poets brought up on metrical forms, Lasdun, Maxwell, and Muldoon carry out their experiments in stanza or meter with gaiety and panache. Their spirited ventures in form offer a rebuke not only to the unarduous free verse practiced by many American poets but also to the unmusical willed employment of “form” by poets who have not absorbed it unconsciously. It is not that the three poets at hand are always successful, but that they are at home with form. They resemble someone who grew up in a good cook’s kitchen; people who cook from cookbooks are creatures of a different order.
British English, Irish English, American English, and Commonwealth English sometimes seem like four separate dialects (with subdivisions such as Scottish English, Caribbean English, and so on). Whether we can all learn to enjoy one another’s idiom is still an open question (Trainspotting, after all, had a sequence with subtitles). And it is not merely idiom that is the problem. To understand a topical writer like Paul Muldoon we should have some sense of his family and childhood in County Tyrone and the Irish political and ethnic conflicts that figure in his work. To what extent can a poet who, unlike a novelist, has no space for the leisurely introduction of a reader into an unfamiliar setting, bring readers of another country to care about social issues or about ethnic oppression those readers haven’t themselves encountered? What was possible for Yeats is not always possible for his successors.
James Lasdun is the least culture-bound of the three poets under review, and the most accessible to the American audience. Woman Police Officer in Elevator suffers from the posthumous iron clasp of Lowell (who also laid a chill hand on Walcott and Michael Hofmann, among others). It appears that getting away from Lowell’s styles (whether that of Life Studies or his later Procrustean line sonnets) has become a major task for the generation following him. The Life Studies style is enormously tempting for the telegraphic sketching of a personal reminiscence: here, Lasdun is recalling, for his girlfriend, their being treated to lunch by her father, who appears as one of Lowell’s grotesques using a passé vocabulary mimicked by Lowellian/Jamesian quotation:
Your father, not yet divorced,
Rosy-cheeked from the Garrick,
In his Savile Row pin-striped suit
Presided over the feast.
He spread the menu like a general’s map,
Plotting his debauch
On the virginal palates
Of his teenage daughter and her first “chap.”
In a different vein, Lasdun seems even closer to Lowell: Who else could have written the sonnet called “General McClellan?”
Potomac army loved me as I’d planned.
I was Napoleon…
Glistened like the river in its banks;
Beautiful, swollen to bursting…I held them back,
Fattening like a calf for Lee’s attack.
This is Lowell-as-swaggerer, megalomaniacal, biblical, historical, his ellipses heavy with implication. It’s hard for me to understand why Lasdun writes this sort of pastiche.
Much more original is Lasdun’s title poem, “Woman Police Officer in Elevator,” which catches perfectly the new uneasiness in men as women take on authoritative social roles. Into the “john-sized tenement elevator” already occupied by Lasdun, there enters “a female housing cop,” who evokes chaotic responses in the speaker’s soul:
I felt her presence
Spooling through me like a Möbius strip,
Splicing her spilling curls, nightstick, the gun at her hip,
Chrome shield, the breast it emblazoned,
Seamlessly into the same
I caught—was it possible?—
The scent of some sweet-tinctured oil;
As the elevator descends, the speaker wonders whether his brief glance “triggered the blue-lashed, tiny/Metal detector of her eye,” and immediately begins to feel menaced: he thinks of “betrayals, infidelities,/Coercions, seductions, lies,/Ready to confess them all”:
As if in her firm indifference she’d regressed me
Inward down some atavistic line
To the original essence, the masculine
The poem rhymes its six stanzas regularly but unobtrusively; the point, always, of rhyme is not only to add musicality but also, and more crucially, to introduce a slight obstruction to a poet’s first thought, pressing him to zigzag into a wider vocabulary. Lasdun’s handling of diction and rhyme is more than competent, but it is the feelings evoked by his unnerved encounter with the policewoman, and his responses in a moment of gender-shift, that make the poem strike home. The final pun, alas, doesn’t work:
Opened and we parted, the clamped rift
Between us widening like a continental drift
Of the sexes; she to the butcher, the breaker,
The ripper, the rapist,
I to my therapist.
Lasdun writes fiction as well as poetry, and can tell a story in verse with great economy. The grimmest of his narratives is “The Accomplices,” a post-Frostian tale in which the speaker and his companion, driving through Vermont, unthinkingly, if generously, pick up a hitchhiker who, after announcing his destination (“Cromar’s Hatch”) adds his provenance:
“I just got out
From the St. Johnsbury Penitentiary.
I was in for some shit I did.”
Deposited at his house, the hitchhiker leans back down to the car and whispers “with a confidential grin,”
“Reckon my woman’s in for a shock, kid too,
I ain’t supposed to visit since what I did.”
Still not understanding, the couple see a child at the doorway,
Gashed and swollen like an old pumpkin,
A jack-o’-lantern without the candle-flicker,
Welted legs rickety as bamboo,
Tottering towards us as if to ascertain
What manner of creature held sway
Over its father’s comings and goings.
This is a poem about being an unwitting accomplice to evil, but its other claim on us is felt as Lasdun’s English eyes render backwoods Vermont. The criminal father’s house finely escapes stereotype:
…a low-slung house with a line of smoke
Wobbling on its chimney, and a yard
Matted with flattened stalks
Fleshy and yellow from the winter.
It is almost a body, this house, so matted with fleshy stalks.
Lasdun has a gift for rendering a scene or an anecdote credible, and for directing it discreetly into form. His AIDS-test sonnet, “Plague Years,” opens, “Sore throat, persistent cough… The campus doctor/Tells me ‘just to be safe’ to take the test,” and it continues,
He draws a vial of blood for the City Lab
I have to take it there, but first I teach
A class on Nabokov. Midway I reach
Into my bag for Speak Memory, and grab
The hot bright vial instead. I seem at once
Wrenched from the quizzical faces of my class
Into some silent anteroom of hell.
The mistake is convincingly plausible, but what also makes these lines ring true is the naturalness of the utterance. Many sonnets by the American poets sometimes called “New Formalists” consist merely of sentences hacked apart into decasyllabic groups (regardless of speech-rhythm or interesting line-breaks) and distorted by strained rhymes. Lasdun’s phrases—“The City Lab,” “I teach a class,” “I reach into my bag for x and grab y instead”—are statements anyone would find unforced, and his rhymes are natural too. The imaginative leap from the puzzled students into a “silent anteroom of hell” puts into relief the terrified speaker’s earlier attempts to speak casually, to maintain “an ironic calm,” and to go ahead with his daily duties before the trip to the lab. And the “hell” has been prepared for by the quasi-radioactive “hot bright vial” burning its way into the speaker’s consciousness. American readers who want to see rejuvenated form in untroubled action, giving brisk shape to contemporary and classical events, will find it in Lasdun.
If Lasdun finds it hard to shake off Lowell, he has shown he can do so. In Rest for the Wicked, Glyn Maxwell finds it hard to shake off Auden, and doesn’t quite succeed—or at least doesn’t find his own way often enough. Many of the external characteristics of Auden are here—the personified abstractions arranged in either childlike or faintly sinister ways, the schoolboy air of naive declaration, the allegorical anecdote, the fancy footwork with pronouns, the folkishness, the nursery-diction, the compulsive rhythms, the feminine endings. But Maxwell lacks Auden’s intense intellectuality, which infused everything Auden wrote. I can very well imagine someone who had never read Auden coming on Maxwell’s book and being elated by the swing and verve of it. Among the Audenesque effects we find, in “Birth Day,” the slightly surreal perception of the child-mind hinting at some great event to come:
Through light so nursery-bright on a playing field,
Soup-tin red, sea blue when the sea was really,
Greens of the good for you or a game played fair,
She walked with a smile between the deliberate rings
Of the cross good children shyly ignoring her.
There is even the title “As You Walk Out One Morning,” Maxwell’s conscious hommage to Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening.” Of course such imitations arise from affection, but when there are too many of them one wants the real Glyn Maxwell to stand up.
When it’s not Auden haunting Maxwell’s pages, it’s Larkin. Larkin’s gloomy close—“Age, and then the only end of age”—is the template for the end-couplet of Maxwell’s title-poem, “Rest for the Wicked,” where old schoolfellows meet again,
with compound eyes in which all the darkly envisioned
watch with us, and a loop and whorl of a language
which always gives us away or shows what we came to,
or shows we know it was only the end we came to.
A poet shouldn’t borrow so famous a stroke of language to solve the problem of his own ending.
Too many of Maxwell’s pieces in this collection depend on lists. As a structure, the list can be charming in isolation, but repeated too often it seems merely an ever-handy all-purpose skeleton on which to flesh out a poem. In “The Passing Picture,” the four stanza-openings read as follows:
When lovers twist apart on benches
Through remainders of Septembers…
When lovers stretch in two at stations
All the passing picture journeys….
When up the aisle that all expected
Lovers inch and cities time them….
When in remainders of Septembers
Lovers twist on benches, sprawl,….
In “Five Old Games,” the five stanza-opening lines are “The game is that…,” and the games replace each other in increasing order of menace. In “Six for the Wicked” (another poem with a Larkinesque end), “Some” and “All” alternate as list-headings:
Some came entitled to regret,
All left as proud as men can get.
Some slunk in dark along a wall,
All left in shades, forgiven all.
Some came resolved and some reviled,
All left remodelled and restyled.
Some brought a stash to make amends,
All left with more and many friends.
Some bowed their heads remembering,
All left reliving everything.
Some came for keeps, to grow, to grieve.
All left, or are about to leave.
The alliteration here grows obtrusive, and the list-structure comes to seem pat, as does the rather mechanical chain of “re-” words: regret, resolved, reviled, remodelled, restyled, remembering, reliving. In Maxwell’s poem the clever tail is wagging the dog, and its wagging is distracting.
When Maxwell relaxes his relentless reiteration (the alliterative habit, I find, is catching) he can write stirring poems: spare, unfussy, and gripping. These pieces tend to be ones drawing on the consequences of political conflict in Europe: my favorite is “Yellow Plates,” about a family of twelve on the conqueror’s side being resettled in a house from which a family on the losing side has been (at best) evicted. Maxwell unobtrusively rhymes the second lines of the stanzas, two by two:
The family moving into the house were told
To make themselves at home.
But dropping their things in a heap in the bare centre
Of the largest, warmest room,
They had wondered how in hell they could cook a meal
For twelve in a strange kitchen
(What with the brothers so drunk on the national drink
And the grandchildren
Wailing [their] infant anthems….
But they found the cooking terribly easy, for here
Was a fridge, a working oven
With even a clock, and here was a pile of matching
Yellow plates: five, six, seven.
As the yellow plates are counted, the seven ghosts of the evicted family silently materialize. Reticence can be an exuberant poet’s best friend.
As for Maxwell’s Britishness, it may become off-putting to Americans when, in his poems, it becomes almost a parody of village pageant talk: “Sloes and ciders, pigs and bloodlet,/ Over and ember,/Over and ember.” Otherwise the poems tend to be abstract or allegorical, with comments here and there on how the human condition does not much change. As Maxwell puts it in his funny and sympathetic poem recounting a young man’s nervous preparation for his proposal of marriage:
Brring. It is the day of your Proposal.
Get up. You’re on your own. You are a suitor.
Leave your attic, basement, croft or castle
In AD, BC, either. Doesn’t matter.
Paul Muldoon’s Selected Poems, taken together with his recent book The Annals of Chile, will give an American reader moments of both admiration and exasperation—admiration for the originality Muldoon has aimed at from the beginning, exasperation at the many private references (especially for a non-Irish audience) in his work. His work has been the subject of debate between critics who praise his brio and those who find him sterile. When I first read Muldoon, I thought—to put it bluntly—that his lyrics were impressively constructed but too often had a hole in the middle where the feeling should be. My former student Steven Burt (who now often reviews poetry himself) argued the point persistently with me, insisting that one could deduce the unstated feeling in a Muldoon poem from the contours of his language, much as one can deduce the shape of a bronze from the mould used to cast it.
Just when I was trying to use Burt’s lost-wax theory, Muldoon published The Annals of Chile. In it there appeared, surprisingly, the emotionally explicit “Incantata,” a long elegy for Muldoon’s former lover, the artist Mary Farl Powers (daughter of the American novelist J.F. Powers), who, like Muldoon’s mother, died young of cancer. In this poem, by contrast to earlier ones in which Muldoon’s means of expression seemed to obscure feeling, the feeling appears to exceed the means. This is certainly a better kind of imbalance for an elegy than the other way round, but still an imbalance. The poem can sometimes skirt sentimentality:
I saw you again tonight, in your jump-suit, thin as a rake,
your hand moving in such a deliberate arc
as you ground a lithographic stone
that your hand and the stone blurred to one
and your face blurred into the face of your mother, Betty Wahl,
who took your failing, ink-stained hand
in her failing, ink-stained hand
and together you ground down that stone by sheer force of will.
Muldoon’s small subsequent volume, The Prince of the Quotidian,* revealed a different imbalance—an adolescent resentment unexpected in an adult poet—generating some rather unlovely bite-the-hand-that-fed-you poems aimed at two of Muldoon’s earlier poet-sponsors. And finally (to come to the end of this list), there is imbalance in Muldoon’s tendency to go on too long in his long poems (whereas the short ones are often miracles of elliptical concision).
A new book on Muldoon by Tim Kendall (editor of the Oxford-based magazine Thumbscrew and a Research Fellow at the University of Newcastle) will at last permit American readers to understand the poet’s basic references: these include stories from Irish history and legend; contemporary Irish literature and politics; the adventure books Muldoon devoured as a boy; the philosophers he read at Queen’s University; the writers (Swift, Byron, Auden, and MacNeice) whom he most admires; fantasies of the Southern hemisphere (Brazil, Peru) and of drug-running; parallels between the English colonization of Native Americans and the Irish; noir detective novels; talking horses borrowed from Gulliver’s Travels; stray clichés about mothers in Irish; and so on. Kendall’s is just the book that’s needed for people sensing something in Muldoon that they want to get at, but feeling at a loss before his Joycean game of baffle-the-reader.
Muldoon is a comic writer with considerable savagery of mind, making always for the brutal detail. He mocks solemnity, idealism, and the centered self—not least as he has encountered them in Seamus Heaney (his tutor at Queen’s University) and other predecessors. He sets himself extremely ingenious formal tasks. Kendall points out, for example, the fantastic principles of rhyming and structure in “Yarrow,” Muldoon’s 150-page autobiographical elegy for his mother: “The second half of the poem,” Kendall says in conclusion, “is a mirror image of the first half. Effectively, ‘Yarrow’ consists of a series of concentric circles.” These formal strategies are almost private cryptograms: nobody reading “Yarrow” (except perhaps another Muldoon) would perceive, without a lot of counting and back-looping, its obsessive schemes. What identifies Muldoon as himself, however, is his peculiar way with line-length and rhymes.
These devices give Muldoon’s best autobiographical lyrics an odd, memorable, off-kilter air, as with his sonnet “Glanders.” Muldoon was already, as a child, hoarding new words, and he recalls in the poem how he first heard the word “glanders” (a bacterial disease of horses) from the local “bone-setter,” or healer, a veteran of the First World War named Larry Toal. Muldoon’s unlikely sonnet is, one could say, a Heaney poem told aslant: Heaney would have found pathos in Larry Toal’s war reminiscences or a balm in his homemade healing, perhaps. But Muldoon, a cooler poet altogether, skews his reminiscence to emphasize the observant child’s ear for language. The child notes not only the new word “glanders” but also Larry Toal’s slang (“came within that” for “almost learned”; “went west” for “died”). In spite of the intimacy of the event he records, Muldoon distances himself from his own childhood by looking at Larry Toal with an anthropologist’s eye, describing him as the tribe’s “local shaman”:
When you happened to sprain your wrist or ankle
you made your way to the local shaman,
if “shaman” is the word for Larry Toal,
who was so at ease with himself, so tranquil,
a cloud of smoke would graze on his thatch
like the cow in the cautionary tale,
while a tether of smoke curled down his chimney
and the end of the tether was attached
to Larry’s ankle or to Larry’s wrist.
He would conjure up a poultice of soot and spit
and flannel-talk, how he had a soft spot
for the mud of Flanders,
how he came within that of the cure for glanders
from a Suffolkman who suddenly went west.
Offbeat rhythms (lines from dimeter to pentameter), off-rhymes (“ankle” and “tranquil,” “spit” and “spot”), satiric rhyme (“Flanders”/”glanders”), bizarre mixtures of diction, deliberate repetition (“wrist or ankle”/”ankle or…wrist”) and fairy-tale motifs (the smoke-tether) are all characteristic of Muldoon’s earlier style.
The later style, as it appears in “Yarrow,” would need footnotes on every other page. Like Pound, Eliot, and Joyce, Muldoon would like us to have read the books important to him, especially the ones he knew well as a boy. Here is a sample of “Yarrow,” with its “mélange adultère de tout” (to cite an Eliot title fitting Muldoon’s style):
The magical toad entrusted to me by Francisco Pizarro
might still be good against this bird that continued to prink
even as we left Sitanda’s
kraal and struck out, God between us and all harm,
for the deep north: that was the year Jack McCall would deal
the dead man’s hand to Earp,
the year Captain Good was obliged to shave in inco-oil
and S——got hooked on “curare”;
the year Scragga and Infadoos
joined Quatermain in reciting “The Jackdaw of Rheims”
as we plunged deeper into Kukuanaland.
I haven’t the faintest idea what most of these literary allusions allude to, chiefly because I wasn’t born a boy in the British Isles, and didn’t borrow adventure stories from the public library. Of course it is fun to throw such stuff at The Waste Land as if to say, “Not all of us spent our youth reading Augustine, Dante, and Nerval.” And perhaps Muldoon only wants us to sense the general atmosphere of fantasy derring-do that a young male adolescent lives in. Everywhere in “Yarrow” Muldoon tangles earlier periods of his life with later ones, earlier sections of the poem with subsequent ones. The bird in the quotation above is the one that in Muldoon’s childhood perched for weeks on the west spire of Armagh Cathedral; S—is a heroin-addicted girlfriend from a later period. The whole “crazy quilt” of “Yarrow” (Muldoon’s own epithet) might be understood as a form of postmodern autobiography that aims to replace with a random mosaic of memory the teleological Christian model of Pilgrim’s Progress (which still supplies the plot-line, even if unconsciously so, for most first-person life stories).
The best parts of “Yarrow,” for me, are Muldoon’s recollections (with ambivalent feelings) of his mother, who died of uterine cancer when he was in his early twenties. She was a schoolteacher, better educated than his market-gardener father, but doomed by her profession to class inhibitions compounding those of her Catholicism. Against the portrait of his mother Muldoon places the portrait of S—as she gradually degenerates from drugs; and in addition to these two women there recurs the figure of Sylvia Plath, emblem of a nihilism never far from Muldoon’s thoughts. One respects Muldoon’s daring in making up an autobiography so finicky in its finesse, so coarse in its obscenities, so caught between the circumscribing mother and the violent and jeering S—, all ringed round by adventure-fantasies ranging from the Fenians through Charlemagne down to Wyatt Earp.
Many readers of The Annals of Chile will prefer the lament for Mary Powers to the more difficult and oblique “Yarrow,” but I would rather have Muldoon at his most bitter, provoking, and exciting. He has written the story of his own life several times by now in long poems—“Immram,” “The More a Man Has,” “Yarrow,” and “Incantata”—and will no doubt restage it in coming decades. The only sure thing is that the telling will be done stylishly each time—perhaps not with the rather alienating monomania of form that characterizes “Yarrow,” but with something more emotionally yielding that is still difficult enough to amuse its author.
I will myself go on hoping for more lyrics like Muldoon’s best—taut, formally brilliant, and wryly bleak. These qualities are illustrated in “Cows,” in which Muldoon wonders whether the truck that almost ran him down a moment ago but is now peculiarly halted on a back road might be a terrorist plant. Even in anxiety, Muldoon, it seems, can be seduced by language:
This must be the same truck whose tail-lights burn
so dimly, as if caked with dirt,
three or four hundred yards along the boreen
(a diminutive form of the Gaelic bóthar, “a road”,
from bó, “a cow”, and thar
meaning, in this case, something like “athwart”,
“boreen” has entered English “through the air”
despite the protestations of the O.E.D.):
why, though, should one tail-light flash and flare,
to an after-image of tourmaline
set in a dark part-jet, part-jasper or -jade?
The etymological excursion turns out to be a veiled political allegory: in words such as “boreen” the language of the conquered people slips through the garrison-lines of the conqueror and, with Celtic wiliness, contaminates Anglo-Saxon. Yet nobody writing a political poem would end it, as Muldoon does, with a series of Paterian lines discriminating the signaling of the suspect tail-light from the colors of the Irish dark. The poem gives one to think: it requires the reader to link the lurking truck via etymological pedantry to the closing aestheticizing lines sliding “from finikin to fine finikin” (Stevens). Its sweep of reference (the Irish “troubles,” Gaelic etymology, the O.E.D., Apocalyptic gems) is not easy for Americans, but not impossible either. At least some of Muldoon’s expertly (if perversely) handled lines are bound to make their way in America.
It is encouraging to see some young writers from abroad being published and reviewed in the United States, but this cheerful fact should not blind us to the fact that other gifted English poets (Mark Ford, for instance) have not yet found a publisher here. Nor should we forget that powerful older poets of the British Isles are still almost wholly unknown to Americans—Hugh MacDiarmid (Christopher Murray Grieve) of Scotland and R.S. Thomas of Wales, to name only two. When, if ever, will they be as much a part of our literary culture as Lowell or Bishop?
November 6, 1997