The Power of the Ordinary

By Seamus Perry

Howdie-Skelp

Paul Muldoon, Faber, 2021


The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present

Paul McCartney, Penguin, 2021


In his infancy, at his most formative age, a Good Fairy or perhaps a Pooka crept into Paul Muldoon’s cradle and whispered in his ear: ‘My dear, you shall always be charming.’ As such things are, this was to prove an ambiguous gift — and, as it turned out, to be principally a gift for ambiguity, or at least for a kind of studied equivocality that, when it works, keeps you hooked.


Muldoon’s early poems, which were brilliantly successful, created an Irish landscape of elusive identities and unfinished narratives in which things were neither this nor that; and it was not difficult for his critics to find a connection between his evasive manner and the troubled times in which he lived — indeed, Muldoon spelt it out himself in an often-quoted essay in which he explained how he sought ‘to come to terms with the political instability of Northern Ireland through poetry, often in an oblique, encoded way’.


The charm is all in its obliquity, a magical transformation of history into a private and self-delighting play of unexplained references and slant rhymes, where fragments of local anecdotage and surreal phantasmagoria join forces, and nothing ever proceeds in a straight line. A straight line is, as Muldoon recalls in an early poem, what the civil engineer Sir Alfred McAlpine identified as the shortest route between two points; but Muldoon goes on to offer as an emblem of his own imagination the errancy of a startled hare, ‘That goes by leaps and bounds / Across the grazing, / Here and there, / This way and that, by singleminded swervings’ (‘I Remember Sir Alfred’). Seamus Heaney called it ‘the poetic equivalent of walking on air’, but its power, admirers seem generally to agree, comes principally from the way it didn’t ever quite leave the ground, staying mindful of the violence that it otherwise existed to forget. So that a poem self-deprecatingly entitled ‘A Trifle’ is about the panic of a bomb scare as well as, literally, a trifle; or a shaggy-dog story, ‘The More a Man Has, the More a Man Wants’, is a dazzling comic yarn and a mad fantasy but also a portrait of a bloody terrorist on the run.


Muldoon’s later manner is no less elusive but more literary, even bookish, and it is fair to say that not everyone loves it: John Carey said of a later volume that it was ‘packed to the gunwhales with higher education’ and did not mean to praise its erudition. Muldoon himself once described a quality of his poetry as ‘whimful’, and whim is a kind of charm. But you need to be in on the joke to find more than simply quirky, say, the line that Muldoon imagines for Louis MacNeice in ‘7, Middagh Street’: ‘Both beautiful, one a gazebo’. (If you do recognise the allusion to Yeats’s poem ‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz’, it is very funny.) The inventiveness of the verbalism is never in question, but even an admirer such as Stephen Romer finds there to be some poems, including ‘7, Middagh Street’, in which ‘Muldoon becomes drunk, or high, on words, disappearing … behind the smokescreen of his own ingenuity’.


The full range of his ambiguous gift in this late mode is handsomely on display in Howdie-Skelp, a striking volume in which the self-delighting pleasure that Romer describes is finely balanced against the pervading darkness of the subjects that the poems tackle. (The title is a phrase for the slap that the midwife gives the newborn baby to welcome it to the world.) The sequence ‘American Standard’, for instance, is a protracted riff on T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, not only an improvisation around its words (‘Co co rico Puerto co co rico’, ‘Shandy. Shandy. Shandy’) but also its history (‘Ezra said that he was a great believer in less / being more. His blue pencil was always at the ready’) as well as other bits of Eliot (‘I have seen the eternal footman hold my coat and knickers’), all this mixed up with a scattergun depiction of something rotten in the state: ‘The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the Republican-led / Legislature in Texas improperly used race / to draw a predominantly Hispanic House district in Fort Worth.’ Regardless of the substance of those lines, their tenor itself is pretty striking: their close resemblance to what you might otherwise have thought not very good poetry is another element in the fantastic arsenal of Muldoon’s gamesmanship.


‘Plaguey Hill’, a meditation — if that’s the right word — on the pandemic contains lines such as ‘There’s a very fine line between the enforcement of a lockdown / and good old-fashioned house arrest’: there is an indecipherable joke at work in such conscious prosaisms, not just a matter of sending up libertarian platitudes by voicing them so flatly, which would be merely satirical, but a much deeper and more privately amused literary pleasure in putting on such a plonking voice in the first place. And how about this, from a poem about a seventeenth-century painting of Susannah and the Elders, part of a long sequence of skittishly obscene, disarmingly anti-ekphrastic poems about paintings: ‘In addition to already having a certain hauteur / Blaise Pascal was very much to the forefront in hydraulics’ — a line which, you feel, happily acknowledges that its existence stems principally from the need of a rhyme for ‘bollocks’. Talking of which: ‘In a move that would dent Boris Johnson’s chances of becoming leader, / Theresa May urged Tory M.P.s to delay a leadership election yesterday’ – the normal inanity of journalism (‘a move that would dent’?) is less jeered at than enjoyed, especially given the comically rude juxtaposition of the lines with what comes next: ‘Doris Day requested no funeral, memorial service, or grave marker.’ Like other poems in the book, this one, ‘Binge’, is a kind of disorganised catalogue, a gathering of inconsequences, ‘a hodgepodge, a hocus-pocus / that never quite comes into focus’, as Muldoon says at one point; and elsewhere, as though describing work in progress, ‘a running commentary, a little midrash, / on living off the cuff’. The effect is sort of funny and sort of not: the overwhelming sense of things not adding up feels a bit more like a predicament than the salutary ducking out of tribal certainties that it used to be. ‘When we stared into the abyss’, Muldoon wrote in his last book, Frolic and Detour, ‘things were supposed to be slightly hit-or-miss / yet allowing us to maintain the hope / we’d not quite strayed from the straight and narrow’. Well, that faintish hope seems to have quite gone in this world of proliferating, privately associative discourse in which ‘a ruin seems the only thing intact’.


Not all is gloom, however, as Muldoon’s readiness to exploit the apparently unpromising resource of inept verse overlaps with a long-standing but growingly visible enthusiasm for the looser-limbed genre of the rock lyric. You can catch traces of this predilection in Howdie-Skelp: ‘When a man is sizing up a snatch / he’s a bear sizing up a berry patch’, Muldoon observes at one point, which sounds like something to be accompanied by thrashing guitars; and elsewhere, ‘It’s been a downward spiral / ever since humankind went viral / with chickens and pigs’, a remark you wouldn’t be surprised to hear on Ziggy Stardust. In this mode, however scabrous the contents, his spirits are clearly much more buoyant.


The rock lyric has become for Muldoon what “light verse” was for Auden, work of the left hand but something from which his right hand evidently learns a good deal, in Muldoon’s case principally the virtues of being a bit ragged. His 2017 collection of lyrics, Sadie and the Sadists included such cheerful sentiments as ‘Till I met you / I was a flag without a pole / A scrawl without a scroll / A soloist without a cue / A gadfly-sting without a herd / A thing without a word / Till I met you.’ That is clearly indebted to Dylan’s ‘If Not for You’; but other lyrics are more like Cole Porter: ‘The author of “The Raven” / Was completely cuckoo / I may seem unhinged and unshaven / But I’m only mad for you.’ Anything too daft to be said can always be sung, as Voltaire said, which may prove a liberating thought rather than a slap on the wrist.


Muldoon’s enthusiasm for the rock lyric has latterly borne fruit in The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present, a very handsome and glossy two-volume set which prints texts of 150 or so songs by Paul McCartney, accompanied by lots of period photographs and facsimiles of scribbled manuscripts, and reminiscences about the songs in question taken from edited transcriptions of numerous conversations that Muldoon and McCartney had over the course of five years. These are mostly of autobiographical interest and all fans will like them for the stories, but they also display someone who has thought reflectively, though not big-headedly, about his own extraordinary achievements. ‘Beep beep, beep beep, yeah’: ‘There you go’, says McCartney, of a repeated line in ‘Drive My Car’, ‘It was always good to get nonsense lyrics in, and this song lent itself to “Beep beep, beep beep, yeah”’.


Rock lyrics have a kind of estranging exposure or incompleteness on the page which Muldoon enjoys as an aesthetic effect in its own right: because these songs are (mostly) so famous the mind automatically supplies a saving soundtrack, but otherwise even the most deft of close readers would be rather wrong-footed coming across something like ‘Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight / Carry that weight a long time / Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight / Carry that weight a long time’ or ‘I want to hold your hand / I want to hold your hand.’ The songs that come over best on the page are naturally the more intently literary ones, such as ‘Penny Lane’, which McCartney himself discusses in the sophisticated terms of ‘free indirect speech’ and the influence of Under Milk Wood and the way the song is ‘a commentary on its own method’; but he is perhaps even more interesting and persuasive on the way that he and Lennon liked phrases for not being ‘too flowery’, as in ‘Desmond takes a trolley to the jeweller’s store’ or ‘When you find yourself in the thick of it’.


‘I’m very switched on to the power of the ordinary’, he says, a sentiment that must have chimed with Muldoon, who once nominated himself ‘the prince of the quotidian’. The remark made me remember a class held years ago in St Catherine’s College by John Bayley about ‘the language of poetry” in which he started by giving us the text of ‘She’s Leaving Home’ and asking, in a slightly frivolous spirit, which we thought the most poetic line in it. ‘“She’s leaving home after living alone / For so many years”?’, someone gamely ventured. ‘Well, I rather think someone might say that in a letter,’ said Bayley, unimpressed. ‘Surely the best line is “Meeting a man in the motor trade”’. Just the sort of line you might find in a Paul Muldoon poem, it seemed to me.


SEAMUS PERRY teaches English at Balliol. He keeps on keeping on.


Art by Isabella Lill