Paul Muldoon does Covid-19

The WordPress control gizmo tells me that I wrote about my Paul Muldoon Problem on here nearly 10 years ago when I was a blog newbie. The problem is what I read as an almost permanent tendency in the work to veer from the very good to the quite bad. This was quite infuriating at the time and remains so today.

I was reminded of this last week when the Times Literary Supplement published Plaguey Hill which is a fifteen part consideration of all things coronavirus. I’ve written recently about my attempts to make poems in these tricky times and confess to still being daunted by the challenge to produce appropriate and useful work. It is, to my mind least, crucial to produce work whilst the virus is still ravaging large parts of the world because viewing this thing from the inside at least captures what things might be like in the now. I’m trying to write something now as well as completing side two of the multi vocal audio piece and I’m having to try really hard to keep my many and various outrages at bay- every day there seems to be another thing to be appalled by and the political beast in me is tempted simply to list these so that we don’t forget just how criminally negligent our leaders have been. Then there is the ‘following the science’ problem which, given its various provisional and contradictory findings’ makes life more bewildering for all of us. I could go on.

As a hapless flounderer, it is of special interest to see what a very skilled practitioner makes of this and the aspects he chooses to mention.

Each of the 15 parts is a 14 line poem (4, 4, 3, 3) and seems, in part, more conversational than poetic. There are a few rhymes and a couple of gestures towards the sonnet form but not many flashes of dazzle that occur in some of his longer poems.

Before we get to content, Mudoon’s poetic voice appeals to this reader most when it adopts a kind of keenly felt wryness This is the beginning of The Humors of Hakone, a nine part poem from the Maggot collection which was published in 2010;

A corduroy road over a quag had kept me on the straight and narrow.

Now something was raising a stink.

A poem decomposing around what looked like an arrow

Her stomach contents ink.

Too late to cast about for clues

either at the purikura or ‘sticker photo-booth’ or back at the Pagoda.

Too late to establish by autolysis, not to speak of heat loss,

the precise time of death on the road to Edo.

I hope this demonstrates what I mean by the above adjectives, I read in this example formal skill and intelligence that is way above what passes for the mainstream. It was therefore to be hoped that Muldoon’s current offering maintained that kind of standard. I don’t think it does although I share much of his perspective. This is the second poem in the sequence;

It’s not so long ago the future
held out the promise of travel to another antique land
unknown as yet to Frommer or Fodor.
I spent yesterday ignorant of the fact the valiant

Adam Schlesinger has gone the way of all dust.
Together with Chris Collingwood, Adam made Fountains of Wayne
a band whose songs combined the height of literary taste
with low-blow hooks. Ai Fen, a doctor from Wuhan

who blew the whistle on the Chinese Politburo
seems to have been “disappeared” by those sons of bitches.
No motion hath she now? As for our homegrown kingpin,

he’s warning us against narcos on burros.
The Pentagon has ordered 100,000 “Human Remains Pouches.”
Once we subscribed to the idea of boxes made of pine.

In this we have a mix of the documentary, the personal, polemic and elegy which in fourteen lines is ambitious to say the least All of these are ‘about’ the impact of the virus. My initial reaction was that there are too many and none of them are given enough space. On a third and more attentive reading it appears to evoke the bewildering distraction that we’re experiencing at the hands of the infodemic that accompanies this calamity. I also felt that the whole sequence wasn’t sufficiently poetic until I realised the pandemic demands a degree of artlessness. In fact, thinking this through, Covid-19 may well prove to be yet another nail in the lid for the lyric poem Which is a good thing.

I had heard of the Fountains of Wayne but have never knowingly listened to their music but Wikipedia informs me that, in addition to this band, Adam Schlesinger was a prolific and successful writer and producer. Muldoon’s liking for elements of the music scene is well know and it would seem to be fitting that he should mention Scheslinger who died from Covid-19 complications at the age of 53. Another poem in the sequence bemoans the cancellation of an Elton John gig that our poet and his partner were planning to attend.

For those, like me, the quote is from Wordsworth and might refer to the power of nature as in;

No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees

One of the many lessons that we may learn from this is the destructive power of the natural world and that our post-Enlightenment confidence in man’s ability to control this is a sham. Being a reluctant cynic I think we may learn the lesson but fail to apply it en route to planetary death. My only argument with theuse of this kind of quote is that it is unlikely to be familiar to those readers who aren’t fans of Wordsworth and is thus a Bit Obscure.

With regard to Ai Fen, Radio Free Asia tells me that, as of April 14th, she is ‘safe and well’ but has been muzzled by those sons of bitches. The description is unarguably typical of the Chinese state and its readiness to crush any kind of objective expression with ruthless violence,

I’m guessing that many of us, me included, have been let down by “the promise of travel to another antique land” which in my case was Iquitos in the Peruvian rainforest. I freely confess to being a little flummoxed by the Trump reference and need to ask the reason for it being placed here unless it’s to demonstrate that the kingpin’s mind is Truly Elsewhere.

The pine boxes riff continues on to the next poem with reference to their first use after the American Civil War. There are also references elsewhere to burial mounds and to the mass burial of Covid-19 victims on New York’s Hart Island.

I was going to reproduce another complete poem from the sequence but I’ve decided instead to focus on a few excerpts from different poems in an attempt to give a more comprehensive view of the whole.

One of the political observations seems a little off-point;

With the power of the European
Union seriously under threat, Hungarian “voters”

have given free rein
to President Viktor Orbán,
who knows only too well the people make perfect cannon fodder.

Orban is one of those ‘strongman’ populists that are beginning to dominate the world stage and he and his cronies throughout Europe have weakened the EU and will probably destroy it. It would appear that this refers to the ‘Enabling’ powers that Orban gave himself as a response to the Covid-19 crisis which are seen as setting him on the path to a Putin-style dictatorship. It would therefore seem sensible to read “voters” as Orban’s political supporters in Hungary’s National Assembly.

A few more political points are much closer to the calamity;

Continue to hold your hands for as long
as twenty seconds under the hot water faucet.

“The virus has but one ambition,”
says a sickle-bearing Doctor Fauci, “and that’s getting into our lungs.
To that end it’s working hand over fist.”

I’m not completely sure that Fauci deserves the sickle bearer quip. At the time of writing this, he’s been briefed against by what appears to be every member of the White House staff. This appears to be an attempt to distant the kingpin from his own disastrous decisions and insane posturings along the way. Consequently the good doctor is enjoying a very positive press in the UK media at the moment. Given that the USA has now had over 3.5 million cases and 139,000 deaths it would appear that Fauci’s sickle wasn’t prominent enough.

The kingpin himself comes in for some criticism;

Our kingpin is himself recognized as being not only tawdry but negligently tatrdy
in making preparations to treat the victims of coronavirus.

As I write, about three months later than this, Fauci is seen as the realist ‘expert’ is distancing himself from the kingpin’s pronouncements and being fervently briefed against by the White House staff.

Trump’s culpability is now further compounded by his encouragement of states to lift their lockdowns, his refusal to wear a mask and his bonkers pronouncements on possible cures, to name but a few. I use these as examples of how much things have changed in the past few months and how much they are likely to change in the immediate future.

Then there’s this;

A genuine topic of interest to the serious mind
is the firing of Captain Crozier of the USS Theodore Roosevelt
for expressing concern for those under his command.

and;

The firing of Captain Crozier will be a defining moment of this episode
when the names of the bigwigs
in the West Wing are forgotten. Murrain, or rinderpest,

H’mm, in July of 2020, from this side of the pond, the outrageous treatment of this honourable man seems to have faded almost from view. I’m not in any way trying to either denigrate or minimise his actions but history is fickle and the ever lengthening list of bigwig outrages may overshadow Crozier’s noble deed, even by the serious minded.

The reference to murrain/to murrai/rinderpest is further developed because it’s a virus with similar symptoms that affects cattle. There also mentions of the effect of this on Muldoon’s adult children and this;

I’ve not made much of it, since I don’t want to be seen to garner
attention, but after two weeks of a dry cough
and general aches and pains, I now seem to have turned a corner.

I have to tactfully point out that having these particular published in a prestigious and widely read literary weekly is a fairly clear way of garnering attention and comment. I’ll leave my reaction there, for the moment.

In conclusion, I hope I’ve given at least a flavour of Plaguey Hill and a reasonably coherent, if provisional and tenuous response to it. I’ll now be interested to see if Muldoon provides an update in the near future.

12 responses to “Paul Muldoon does Covid-19

  1. Carlo Parcelli

    Jesus! and I mean this in all sincerity, where has all the music (and the phanopoeia, and logopoeia) gone? Answer: Fountains of Wayne post-adolescence and in this urgency to appear relevant like the poet should want in on all the fame accorded pop music, yellow journalism and bad films.. Ain’t gonna happen. If you think it is then clear the theater and leave the field to the Homerians, Jonesians, Shakespeareans and all others who as natural as Gaia subscribe to the Hegelian ethos of the enduring in literature and leave the tinny reportage, lies and agitprop to Murdoch and Bezos. AND Radio Free Asia is a CIA front.

    • Spot on, Carlo Parcelli.

    • Carlo, as you know, I try not to do polemic here although I admire those who do so thank you for adding your particular brand of fire. I would however,as a Jonesian, have a bit of a quibble with the ‘Hegelian ethos’ because I think Hegel was deeply wrong about poetry, as in many other subjects. J

  2. “… the political beast in me is tempted simply to list these so that we don’t forget just how criminally negligent our leaders have been. Then there is the ‘following the science’ problem which, given its various provisional and contradictory findings’ makes life more bewildering for all of us. I could go on.”

    Please don’t. At least it is good that you problematize the fetishization of science. As for our criminal leaders, you are right, although not necessarily the leaders you might have in mind. But I digress.

    Among Celan’s many virtues as a poet is that he resisted the political beast that ruins poetry … and he had MUCH more reason to be tempted.

    Celan distrusted the fetishization of poetry for nationalist ends. I wonder what he would make of the fetishization of poetry for “woke” liberal ends.

  3. The frustrating thing is, I would expect a blog devoted to “the Difficult Poem” to be a haven from cheap and all-too-easy political potshots against the Bad Orange Man and weak apologetics for the sickle-wielding Good Doctor Fauci (recently gracing the cover of In Style, all poolside smugness, casually chilling, sans face-diaper). I’ll grant a thinking poetics must have its enemies (in the sense of Heideggerian polemos), but must our Kampf be so derivative of the latest blathering of the media corps? See, you even have me doing it. We are all subject to temptation. Lead us not into it.

  4. ‘What still keeps the poem alive is certainly not first off the thought of what has preceded it; but the question what, as poem, thus as something standing into time, as presence, it can still accomplish. The poem thinks about the encounter.‘ ~ Paul Celan

    Side note: the indigent and unclaimed dead have been buried en masse on Hart Island for 150 years. COVID-19 cases are “likely” among recent burials, according to “officials”. Who knows? Same “officials” govern the herd through panic produced by misinformation. “Difficult” poetry should deconstruct the discourse of officialdom — most especially the discourse “official” news media — not parrot and reinforce it. Sad.

    • Thank your for these insights. I would tentatively agree with you re the discourse of officialdom but may take issue with ‘difficult’ which I’ve learned is one of our trickier describing words re The Poem. As to the encounter, he also writes that the poem is ‘underway’ and remaining open to the encounter. I’m of the view that this notion and that of the other are at the heart of Celan’s later work and I’m about to try and write a piece that demonstrates this tenuous view.

  5. I just posted a comment, but it’s not appearing in the moderation queue. Have I been banned by Bebrowed? That would be a shame, as the comment was conciliatory.

  6. The comment (hopefully it will post this time) was simply to say I look forward to your next post on Paul Celan. I recently tried my hand at translating one of Celan’s poems (“Blume”) and hope to do more. Translation meets the poem “underway” in its openness to encounter.

    • I’m intrigued, the act of translating this material has always intrigued me. Perhaps you’d like to write a piece here on your approach to and experience of the process?

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