Paul Muldoon

Poetry | One Thousand Things Worth Knowing by Paul Muldoon

Faber & Faber, £14.99

Paul Muldoon’s latest work bombards the senses with information. This is true of all of his collections but the difference on this occasion is that the by-n0w-familiar-blitzkrieg invokes an opposing kind of knowledge saturation: that which is proffered by the Internet. That title One Thousand Things Worth Knowing may well refer – I say ‘may well’ because second guessing Muldoon is a fairly pointless task – to Pearson Weekly’s 1000 Curious Things Worth Knowing (1904), and in doing so suggest a more naïve, less knowing era. But it is also to pointedly make a case for his own poetry, which may create in the reader the same dizzy, even slightly sick feeling of knowledge overload as does prolonged exposure to the Internet, but which contains, crucially, knowledge that is genuinely worth knowing. We are presented with information that links to other information almost endlessly, drawing parallels with one set of circumstances and then another. But for all that, this is Muldoon, the cleverest, most restless poet of his generation and so do not imagine that all this information is necessarily correct. Like the virtual web that this collection is a kind of inverse representation of, some of the information on show here is actually not worth knowing i.e. it is deliberately false. The title of the final poem, ‘Dirty Data’, (a tour de force concerning Lew Wallace, the author of Ben Hur), should alert us to that.

But besides the omnipresence of the Internet there is also another recent event weighing heavily on Muldoon’s mind – the death of his great friend, mentor and peer, Seamus Heaney. And for all the metaphysical game playing, there seems to be a new directness at the heart of much of the poetry collected here. Almost as though Muldoon has finally accepted the mantle that Heaney had often tried to pass onto him through the years, most notably in the poem ‘Widgeon’, where he had warned Muldoon that not addressing public matters could lead to a loss of power in a poet’s voice. With Heaney having sadly died in 2013, Muldoon is now unquestionably the most important living Irish poet and, perhaps, this is why we find him taking the, what is for him, unusual step of directly writing a poem about Heaney. ‘Cuthbert and the Otters’ may well barrage the reader with information about a variety of subjects, all of which parallel and resonate with one another, but the subject which they are there to parallel and resonate with is the death of Seamus Heaney. And then there are the lines in the poem, only repeated twice, but acting, nevertheless, like a traditional refrain in an old Irish ballad, or indeed like a refrain in one of Heaney’s own elegies:


                                                   I’m at once full of dread

and in complete denial.

I cannot thole the thought of Seamus Heaney dead.


Let’s just look at that word ‘thole’, an unfamiliar word at first, but one that Heaney scholars will remember from his translation of Beowulf. Here Heaney is talking to PBS Newshour in 2000:

My aunt used a word. In fact, all the people around the district, in the countryside, use words that I gradually began to realise the more I read were Anglo-Saxon words. They would say, for example, of people who had suffered some bereavement, “well, they just have to thole.” And they would say it to you when they’re putting the poultice on your hand that was burning, “you’ll have to thole this, child.”

Now thole… “Thole” means “to suffer,” but it’s there in the glossaries of Anglo-Saxon, “tholian.” So between the secret dialect speech of my home ground and the upper level discourse of the Anglo-Saxon textbook in university, there was this commerce. And I felt my own ear, my own language lived between… lived between that country-speak and learned-speak…

And so by using that single word ‘thole’ Muldoon immediately calls to mind Heaney’s deeply intuitive approach to both language and the creative process. That Muldoon was one of Heaney’s pallbearers only adds to the resonance. That another meaning of the word is the pivot through which an oar on a rowboat is held in place (thus conjuring the idea of Muldoon not being quite able to fit the reality of Heaney’s death alongside his conception of what constitutes reality) adds another. That we then also find that the word ‘thole’ derives from the old Norwegian word ‘toll’, calling to mind Heaney’s most famous poem, ‘The Tollund Man’, adds yet further resonance.

This is Muldoon’s primary gift: to take an idea and make it blossom. To do as Joyce suggested and take an idea and look at it from every angle, until ‘its soul, its whatness, leaps to us from the vestment of its appearance.’

The presence of St. Cuthbert in the elegy is borne out of the fact that the poem was initally commissioned by the Durham book festival in 2013 and so is as inspired by that area of Northern England almost as much as it is by Heaney himself. Cuthbert, a saint and worker of miracles, must have struck Muldoon as a man whose gifts to the community had a great deal of resonance with the poetic gifts that Heaney – who saw his role as that of ‘the diviner’, searching for the current – gave to his own. It is said that Cuthbert used to pray all night, standing out, up to his waist in the sea, and that sea otters gathered about his feet to keep him warm.

Meanwhile, the opening lines,


Not withstanding the fact that one of them had knawed a strip

     of flesh

from the shoulder of the salmon,

relieving it of a little darne,

the fish these otters would fain

carry over the sandstone limen

and into Cuthbert’s cell….

may yet be thought of as whole


perhaps seeming curious at first, are explained by the habit otters have of only eating a little flesh from the shoulder of a salmon or a pike that they have caught, before leaving it on the shore – the locals often rescuing the fish for themselves. This would have been a common sight in the area where Cuthbert prayed, and so it is not then, after all, too fanciful for Muldoon to imagine six otters carrying the abbot a large fish for his supper. However it becomes clear that Muldoon is imagining all of this while he himself, is actually in the act of carrying Seamus Heaney’s coffin. And once the reader realises this it becomes clear that the poet is suffering from grief-borne hallucinations, his trains of thought becoming all jumbled together. So the otters carrying a whole salmon into Cuthbert’s cell become his fellow pallbearers. When Heaney’s funeral cortege reaches his former hometown of Bellaghy:


           …this otter steps out from under the bier

and offers me his spot. It seems even an otter can subordinate

himself whilst being first inline to revolt.

He may be himself complete insider and odd man out.


This seems to directly address Heaney’s admiration for Muldoon and his desire that his friend should take on the Yeatsian mantle of public poet – i.e. to become a poet who addresses public questions directly through verse. ‘He may be himself complete insider and odd man out’ perhaps addressing the way that Heaney was friends with presidents, establishment figures and pop stars but somehow always managed to maintain his integrity and his poet’s distance. He managed to write work – such as those poems collected in North – which addressed the Northern Ireland conflict, without tainting either the quality or the perspective of his poetry.

Whatever Heaney may have thought about Muldoon’s altogether more post-modern approach to poetry, there is little doubt that the two poets always harboured significantly differing aesthetics. Muldoon’s favourite poet, tellingly, is John Donne, while it almost goes without saying that Eliot is another important benchmark for him. For Heaney – again tellingly – the two names that most readily spring to mind are Ted Hughes and Osip Mandelstam.

For all that though there is a sense in ‘Cuthbert and the Otters’, and in this collection as a whole, of Muldoon acknowledging that the mantle has now been passed onto him whether he wants it or not. But as this endlessly rewarding volume amply shows, if he has decided to accept that mantle, Muldoon will most assuredly be doing so on his own terms.