Thursday, June 01, 2006


This afternoon, my sinuses are clogged like the plumbing of a convenience store on the wrong side of town. A mere 18 hours after proclaiming that even illness wouldn’t keep me from writing a few words that will one day be read by someone other than my wife and a handful of trusted friends, I find that the fates in their churlishness have chosen to mock me. Granted, I’m not clutching at the knotting muscles of my stomach or sweating so much that fever-induced visions of Kubla Khan are bound to glitter up my typically banal dreams like a secret stash of costume jewelry in the underwear drawer of an elderly Southern woman who has lived out her life in the exclusive company of cats. But I do feel off-kilter enough to wander what the probability is that this mounting pressure in nose, throat, and forehead could lead to an actual explosion.

Alas, if I worked at Wal-Mart, I’m certain I’d have stood in a thirty-minute shower to loosen the congestion, dressed myself slowly, and driven to work to risk the contagion of my peers. Of course, by my own standard, such a comparison means I have to write.

At the moment, I’m sitting outside brushing tiny insects away from my laptop while vaguely policing the dogs. Dixie, our Jack Russell Terrier, has her mouth agape, as Archie, in a playful mood, growls and lunges in her direction beneath my legs. Earlier, I stepped inside to prepare some coffee and when I returned outside, I found that Dixie had burrowed a sizable hole into the soil beside the back door that has been moistened by the incessant drip of the air conditioner upstairs.

Oddly enough, both dogs are sneezing occasionally, and Archie is still struggling with his allergy-induced cough. Yet, if I could channel their energy today with minimal loss to the laws of thermodynamics, I suspect I could heat and cool my house for the remainder of the year. Apparently, if they worked at Wal-Mart, they’d have gotten ready by now as well.

Even still, I had difficulty getting started this morning. I had trouble waking and the ideas that were forming in my head are best left there. So, as an antidote to the general malaise of a pleasant still-spring morning, I wandered into my office and pulled The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry from my desk and thumbed through the back pages where you can find selections from contemporary poets who are just now reaching the age of 50. Of course, the version I have was published in 1988, so at that point, those few poets were in their 30s—very young and very accomplished.

Imagine, for a moment, being talented and successful enough as a poet to be certain that—through the Darwinian miasma of literary politics, poetasters, and other assorted academics—your reputation had grown enough that you were already on the precipice of canonization before the inevitable midlife crisis fantasies of fast cars or torrid affairs had taken hold. Such poets must have been infinitely peculiar children.

Perhaps, if you’re young enough, you believe that such success is inevitable for you and that your poems, unlike those of your peers, are bound to be widely anthologized and taught within the span of a few years—perhaps months. Perhaps you even imagine yourself to be a singular literary talent, like Arthur Rimbaud, whose approach to poetry could very well revolutionize the composition of verse. Personally, I hope you’re right, and if you are, I look forward to reading your work.

However, if you are wrong, as I was, I hope that the cascade of rejections doesn’t frustrate you. I hope the setbacks of experimenting with your voice and your technique don’t leave you grasping for other ways to fill you idle time. I hope the experiences of life itself do not impede upon your dreams as they will for so many who say, at some point in their youth, I’d like to be a poet.

In fact, I think that perseverance and patience, though easy to overlook, are as important to any kind of success as love of literature and any innate talent you have. Indeed, I know countless people who wrote lovely poems in college and demonstrated enough talent to forge a career in poetry (assuming they wouldn’t mind teaching of course). And although I’ve googled what names I can remember, I have yet to find a single mention of those names in concert with poetry. Perhaps, I just missed one or two names or perhaps I will one day see those names. For the most part, however, I know that many people I studied with in college with have gone on to focus on careers in other fields and the unique contours of their own family lives.

As for me, I’m still nurturing my poetic goals. I’m still reading what poetry I can, always keeping my eyes open for a delicate line by a poet whose work I should explore more. This morning, as I flipped through the stained and dog-eared pages of that well-used Norton, I came across the selection of Paul Muldoon’s poems. Although I’d heard his name, often in the same breath of other Irish poets like Seamus Heaney and Eavan Boland, I’d never paid much attention to Muldoon. To me, rather than highlighting the apparent shortcomings in my reading, my ignorance of Muldoon indicates the sheer volume of good literature that is available to us. Indeed, if you were to start now, focusing solely on the so-called classics, I seriously doubt you’d read them all. And if, through endless nights of reading by candlelight, eschewing all other print materials like newspapers and magazines as well as the time vortex of television, you probably wouldn’t like yourself much. Your relationships with actual human beings would suffer, and you probably wouldn’t have time to do the dishes or even the occasional vacuuming. Yet, even if it is a Promethean task, if you care about literature, you’ll read as much as you can.

Of course, the great thing about that reading is that sometimes you’ll stumble across a poet you’ve neglected and discover a distinctive voice that beckons you to read more and more of the work. The small smattering of poems, of course, is just a beginning, and I’ll be looking for a more recent book or two the next time I make it to an appropriate store. At the moment, though, I’m intrigued by the poem “Brock.”

It’s a lovely little poem with a ballad-like style that reminds me, in some ways, of Ted Hughes, Rudyard Kipling, Randall Jarrell, and perhaps, Phil Larkin. The poem delicately walks a line between the historical and a confessional mode that seamlessly links the personal (through relatives in this case) to the tragedy of World War I. More, in some ways, I think the poem is a more powerful anti-war piece than Randall Jarrell’s famous “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.” Indeed, through a hyperbole linking the lives of infantrymen to badgers (also known as “brocks” in Muldoon’s lexicon), Muldoon offers a possible explanation to the “how” implied by Jarrell’s starkly grotesque imagery. Furthermore, the hyperbole suggests a fairy-tale-like tone, slightly reinforced by the seemingly simplistic rhyme scheme (aabb). Here, in the first stanza, you can see how Muldoon establishes that fairy-tale-like tone and the virtuosity of his rhymes:

Small wonder
he’s not been sighted all winter;
this old brock’s
been to
Normandy and back

I’m thoroughly impressed by the slant rhymes at work here. Throughout the poem, the rhymes are delicate and almost imperceptible. In fact, if you read through the poem quickly, I think it might be easy to mistake these lines for free verse.

As the poem continues, we witness all manner of badger-like behavior throughout the trenches and foxholes of early 20th-century France. Yet after we encounter “…badgers keeping badger-slaves” Muldoon allows us, via a first-person speaker, to see the humanity underlying these tales in the briefest vision of a grandfather “carr[ying] bovine TB” and the speaker seeing “[his] father in his Sunday suit….patrolling his now-diminished estate,” so that the war, after diminishing its participants to a badger-like state, lingers on in the consciousness of the living for generations.

What a remarkable poem.

At the moment, a robin is perched on the neighbor’s fence with its beak gaping open, looking askance at our Italian Greyhound. Archie, in response, growls and barks at the beaked menace while wagging his tail. My throat feels constricted by pressure changes and pollen, and I am tired. But, by the same token, today I am thankful for my dogs, for the peculiar children throughout the world who will one day do great works, and for the poetry of Paul Muldoon. Perhaps, someday, somehow, someone will say the same thing of your poems on a cool cloudy day when she’d much rather sleep.


Blogger Les said...

Muldoon has a web site:

Also, check out this sonnet sequence published on Botteghe Oscuer:

4:03 PM  

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