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February 26, 2007

If we are serious about teaching "citizenship" in our schools, a central component in that part of the curriculum might be instruction in how to read a poem, argues David Womersley: The End of the Poem - Paul Muldoon

Posted by David Womersley

The End of the Poem
by Paul Muldoon
Pp. 406. London: Faber, 2006
Hardback, 25

In reviewing Paul Muldoon's The End of the Poem, David Womersley - Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford - argues that, if we are serious about teaching "citizenship" in our schools, a central component in that part of the curriculum might be instruction in how to read a poem.

Even in a walk of life as well-provided with eccentricities and oddities as that of the academy, the Oxford Professorship of Poetry is an anomaly hard to beat. Every five years, the entire graduate population of Oxford University (the body known as Convocation: not to be confused with Congregation, a very different entity) gets the chance to vote for the holder of this chair. (The only other function of Convocation is to vote for the Chancellor.) Oxford is mildly carnivalised on polling day, because votes have to be cast in person, and so the campaign managers of the various candidates hold parties either to reward their supporters or in the hope of enticing away the supporters of a rival. Is the holder of this chair well-paid? Not at all. Are the duties onerous? If anything, slighter even than the stipend. The Professor of Poetry at Oxford delivers three lectures in each of the five years of his or her (but so far I believe it always has, in fact, been his) tenure.

It would be fair to say that the holders of this chair have approached their duties with varying degrees of seriousness. Few can have been quite as hopeless as Adam Fox, who held the Chair of Poetry from 1938 to 1943, who virtually on the eve of the election qualified himself (if that is not too strong a phrase) as a candidate by writing a slim volume of doggerel, and who thereafter did nothing of relevance to the terms and conditions of his post.

Of quite a different kidney was Paul Muldoon, a serious poet and a gifted reader of poetry, whose tenure ran from 1999 to 2004, and whose fifteen professorial lectures, each one consisting of an intensive reading of a single lyric poem, are now gathered under the riddling heading (the edges of the poem? the purpose of the poem?) of The End of the Poem.

Why might this be of interest outside the world of the university? What broader value or importance might the reading of poetry hold, especially for those of a conservative cast of mind (not usually thought of, pace Kenneth Baker, as the leading consumers of poetry)?

These are questions we can begin to answer by considering Muldoon's method of reading. Muldoon is an exponent of Robert Frost's dictum, that (p. 60):

the way to read a poem in prose or verse is in the light of all the other poems ever written.
So his chosen way into a poem is by sensing out its connections with other works, works perhaps by the poet under consideration, perhaps not. He might follow the clue of a metaphor, or of a single word - sometimes he even finds a spectral link with another work being forged by the absence of a particular word or image. This practice of reading involves him in a hunt for what he calls (p. 52):
information well beyond the bailiwick of the poem.
The way in which the resulting readings hang between convincing insight and unconvincing - I think, at times, deliberately unconvincing - far-fetchedness, can be conveyed only by quotation. So here is Muldoon discussing Elizabeth Bishop's poem "12 O'Clock News". This poem consists of a description of a writer's desk in terms of a news broadcast (or vice versa, as Muldoon acutely observes); and it lists a "gooseneck lamp" amongst the impedimenta of this desk. It opens, however, with a reference to a "moon" which is "motionless" and "dead". This prompts Muldoon to draw Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" into the orbit of Bishop's poem on the basis of the close conjunction in Coleridge's poem too of the word "moon" and the absence of motion. But then Muldoon is tempted onwards and upwards, into the more hyperbolic regions of his way of reading (p. 93):
This is not to speak of the nod and wink of the term "gooseneck" in the direction of another large seagoing bird yoked to another "neck":

Ah! well a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.

At this point, I imagine many readers would have flung the book across the room with a snort of disbelief: after all, there is no doubt that a goose is no more an albatross than it is a swan. But it is a repeated feature of Muldoon's readings that he will push a connection, as it seems, too far. It is a way of testing the edges of the poem, and the edges also of this way of reading.

Is this just a parlour-game for jaded, pampered, over-read academics? I think not, because there is a broader political significance in the way we read. The more active we are as readers - the more we probe, test, challenge - the better, because our encounters with texts are versions in petto of our encounters with authority in its largest sense. Muldoon's way of reading is original, idiosyncratic, at times exaggerated, and yet never without its own kind of rigour.

Political health demands active, intensive, independent readers, because we need more of those qualities in our civic life. Would Blair have got away with the speech in the House of Commons which launched us on the path to war in Iraq if our elected representatives had included even a modest sprinkling of subtle, powerful, independent readers? Readers, that is, who do not just passively accept meanings from the hands of those who would foist meanings on them, but who understand that they themselves must be active in the creation of meaning, and furthermore that the best authors - those, that is, who do not have underhand or manipulative designs on those who read their works - want that kind of reader, and write for them. Poetry is the most intense and clear example of that kind of writing. So if we are serious about teaching "citizenship" in our schools, perhaps a central component in that part of the curriculum might be instruction in how to read a poem.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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