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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this review to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This review is taken from PN Review 117, Volume 24 Number 1, September - October 1997.

CELEBRATIONS Seamus Heaney - A Celebration, (Harvard Review Monograph) $14.95
TIM KENDALL, Paul Muldoon (Seren) £19.99
The Armstrong Nose - Selected Letters of Hamish Henderson (Polygon)

After Seamus Heaney won the Nobel Prize, the BBC televised a celebration. With readings, performances and dramatic presentations by many actors and few poets, the event was like a memorial service which the poet was unlucky enough to have to attend. As Fiona Shaw cranked up into another tortured soliloquy, a delicious thought occurred to me. If ever there was a moment when a young poet of limited achievement might be allowed to pity Seamus Heaney, then surely this was it.

When I encountered this book - another self-styled 'celebration' - I wondered if I might be in for a similar experience. Though undoubtedly inspired by a similar fizz of excitement, this book is in no way so opportunistic. If it is a vehicle for rather lavish tribute, that vehicle is certainly not a bandwagon. The sincerity of each of the '50 lively contributions' is the hallmark of the book. No reader could fail to be impressed by the human attributes of Heaney, the Man, though many a reader, I suspect, might wish for a little more acknowledgement of the poet and his poems.

A fetschrift issue of The Harvard Review, this is an eclectic collection of personal anecdote, formal tribute, and a precious few scholarly appreciations of the poet's work. The book seems resolutely American, with many unfamiliar names. There is a pervasive in-house Harvard jokiness that Heaney would understand, but that simply perplexes the uninitiated. Anyone gatecrashing this party is likely to find himself hovering at the entrance, desperately wishing for an introduction so that he too might join in the fun.

The illustrations set the tone: there are companionable photographs, including one - miraculously - of the poet in absentia; a number of line drawings, one of which looks remarkably like Brian Friel; and a couple of professional drawings which somehow strike a rather ominous note. They each have an air of having been fished out of remote albums and scrapbooks to fill the space in hand. Though generally not quite elegantly composed, they do have a kind of off-cut charm which allows the viewer the illusion that he is somehow encountering the 'real' Heaney - the man behind the poems - caught unawares and off his guard. That is what books of this kind do: they push the man, or versions of him, to the forefront. The poet, who must be met solely through the poems, is forced into the background.

The essays themselves are mostly personal records of the poet's friendship or kindness. Some are moving, others are so intimate as to be embarrassing to the casual reader. The book has an American inclusiveness about it: at times it seems that anyone who has passed Heaney on the street must be allowed his personal memoir. His bookseller is there, and a couple of student acolytes whom, one suspects, are no closer to Heaney than several anonymous Healys in the Irish telephone directory. It's hardly astonishing that so many want to be associated with a man so abundantly gifted as a poet, mentor and friend. What is surprising is that their statements of friendship have been published as essays in a book.

Indeed, the term 'essays' implies a literary quality which these pieces do not, on the whole, exhibit. Notwithstanding that these are mostly informal tributes, it jars that a book to honour a great poet should be so devoid of really good writing. The exceptions, fittingly, are the poems, and Ted Hughes's piece, which is a model of considerate brevity. The prose poem by the late Odysseus Elytis, himself a Nobel Prize winner, does more honour to Heaney by dint of its beautifully managed language than other of the pieces more intimately concerned with him, but far less carefully written.

It's difficult to imagine to whom the book will appeal, and at times, hard to avoid the conclusion that this is a book written for an audience of 51. The scholarly essays are not quite scholarly enough to be of literary value, though Helen Vendler's comes closest. The personal tributes are just that: there is a feeling of eavesdropping on a private avowal. Perhaps it is the kind of book you might read if you wanted to pass yourself off as a close friend of the Heaney's, but lacked the specifics to do so with conviction. As it is, the book seems ill at ease, poised awkwardly on the fence between the public and the private. The opening address refers to another handbound volume of congratulations: perhaps this would be a more appropriate format for this book.

Seamus Heaney may feel justifiably proud of having inspired such a book, and forever grateful to his friends and honoured by their contributions. A more cynical reader might suspect that the only others who will relish it so wholeheartedly are his future biographers, already sharpening their red pencils, and meticulously entering the contributors' names into card index files.

Heaney's shadow looms large across the pages of Tim Kendall's book on Paul Muldoon: the index lists no fewer than 43 references. Heaney was perhaps Muldoon's first champion and remains, with Frost, a defining influence on his poetry. There are many apocryphal stories surrounding a relationship which has, by now, assumed almost mythological proportions in the canon of Irish poetry yarns: that the seventeen-year-old Muldoon sent a clutch of poems to Heaney, asking 'What is wrong with these?', to which Heaney replied a simple 'Nothing'; that Heaney carried Muldoon's poetry around the literary circles of Belfast, enthusing 'This is It'; that it was Heaney who first recommended to Charles Monteith that Faber should publish Muldoon's New Weather.

Fact, fiction, or simply the fruit of overexercised poetic imaginations, such stories serve one purpose: they link the two men irrevocably. On the face of it, the two have much in common. But Heaney is a widelyread, popularly-celebrated and critically-acclaimed poet. Muldoon, on the other hand, has never quite managed to shake off the burr of the 'Poets' Poet' title. Revered among younger poets, Muldoon's poetry is hugely influential. In time, no doubt, the field of Muldoon criticism will become as crowded as Heaney's neighbouring one, which seems to yield a fresh and abundant crop of watchful critics every season. Kendall's is the first critical study of Muldoon's work. It's a good place to start: useful, insightful and very well-written, it sets a high standard for all those coming in his wake.

Muldoon's work is rich pickings for aspiring academics with a flair for conundrums. Poets as gifted as Michael Hoffman and Ciaran Carson have expressed their utter exasperation with some of Muldoon's recent work. The sheer allusive complexity, tricky wit and game-playing of his poetry is like a red rag to anyone with a roving eye for a Ph.D thesis topic. From the capers of 'Capercallies', (where the first letter of each line read in sequence forms the sentence: Is this a New Yorker poem or what?) to the altogether weightier games of 'Madoc', Muldoon's wit can intrigue or infuriate. The reader who is put off by the smartness, nubility and sheer neck of the poetry, will find Kendall's book an eye-opener. Not alone does he tell you how and why Muldoon does it, he also explains what it is that Muldoon actually does so very well.

Muldoon's New Weather was published in 1973. Twenty three years and seven books later, he now stands as one of the most imaginative, sophisticated and intellectual poets writing anywhere. At 45, however, it could be suggested that such a close textual analysis of his entire oeuvre is somewhat premature. The absence of any final summation to the book suggest that Kendall acknowledges that this is a story 'to be continued'. But Muldoon's work deserves this book. As one of the best poets around, an in-depth study of this kind helps to illuminate and to augment what must be described as a complex, and at times, perplexingly elusive body of work. Indeed, so elusive is the poetry that even the Publisher's Press Release for the book can't quite pin it down: it ascribes to Muldoon an additional volume, Fivemiletown, with a generosity which Tom Paulin might have reason to resent.

Kendall's book begins with an opening chapter of biographical information. The subsequent chapters deal individually and chronologically with each of Muldoon's volumes. There is also critical attention to the 'Muldoodles' - the libretto, and a play and diary, both in verse. Kendall's working method is thorough. He glosses the critical attention already paid to each book, and frequently takes it from there. He moves from general comments about the overall book to specific textual analysis of defining poems. He reads closely, he writes brilliantly. It is no understatement to say that Kendall understands Muldoon's poems, and no overstatement to say that he translates this understanding into fluent, entertaining and richly informative prose.

In places, he is brilliant. For example, too many critics have assumed that 'Yarrow' is an exercise in game-playing and intellectual/poetic bravura. Kendall perceptively reads it as an obscure elegy to Muldoon's mother which is charged with 'emotional courage'. The treatment of Muldoon's poetic technique is detailed and intelligent, with much attention devoted to form: the sonnet and its many Muldoon variations are amply considered. Muldoon's difficult and often playful structures are analysed like scientific propositions for cause, catalyst, method and effect. Rhyme and half-rhyme, of course, are recurrent themes: Kendall watches for the rises and falls, the twists and turns, the ins and outs of it with an almost oversolicitous eye.

Kendall's admiration for Muldoon's technical dexterity is in evidence on almost every page. Whether dealing with the freefalling triumphs of Quoof; the 'failures' of Meeting the British; the 'ambitious or innovatory achievements' of Shining Brow, or his 'masterpiece' poems - 'The More a Man Has' and 'Yarrow', Kendall is never less than very admiring of Muldoon's 'poetic genius'. The subject-matter of certain poems draws a more qualified response: Kendall notes 'the yoking of sex and violence' as a recurrent theme in Muldoon's poems with an almost prurient repetitiveness. It seems shortsighted to isolate such a topic as a 'hallmark' of the Muldoon poem, when the more obvious signatures are all concerned with the poems' form and linguistic being.

One quibble: it is somewhat curious that one gets little sense of Muldoon as an Irish poet from reading this study. Kendall lists Armitage, Duhig and Don Paterson as the poets influenced by Muldoon, but makes no mention of the younger Irish poets whose works also wear a 'House of Muldoon' badge. Ciaran Carson and John Hughes are barely mentioned. For a poet who translates from the Irish; who has expressed his intention of writing in Irish; who lived here up until 1987; who still publishes here, occasionally, with Ireland's chief poetry press, this book pays scant attention to Muldoon's current Irish links. This aside, Kendall's study is highly recommended. To the converted, it will confirm Muldoon's strengths; to the uninitiated, it will offer an accessible and enjoyable reading of the work of a poet whom Kendall considers 'one of the very few originals of our age'.

The Armstrong Nose is a collection of letters of the Scottish poet and folklorist Hamish Henderson. The title of the book is taken from a folk poem about a nasally advantaged Scottish family. To judge from this book, Henderson has no mean nose himself for a just cause: many of the letters are taken up with the myriad issues and controversies of the day. The letters stretch from 1942 to 1993, so the reader expecting an ample assortment of issues will not be disappointed.

Henderson published his only collection of poetry, Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica, in 1948. Concerning the desert wars of World War II, Hugh MacDiarmid found it 'one of the few books which expresses an adult attitude to the whole appalling business'. The Somerset Maugham Award which Henderson earned for the book took him to Italy to translate Gramsci into English. His fascination with this writer spawned an interest in the relationship between politics, folk culture and art which underpinned the rest of his life's work. His subsequent campaign of collecting folksongs and poems spearheaded the Scottish Folk Revival of the 1950s, and led to the establishment of the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University.

Although the promotion of folk culture consumed much of his passion and energy (causing him to fall out with MacDiarmid in a battle bitterly-waged between them on the pages of The Scotsman). Henderson also found energy to fight the good fight for numerous other causes, including Socialism (For), Gay Rights (For), the Anti-Apartheid Movement, Nuclear Disarmament (For), and July 12 Celebration (Against). In later years, he refused to accept an OBE on the grounds of his opposition to 'Margaret Thatcher's highly dangerous defence policies'.

Apart from MacDiarmid, whose presence is weighty, other literary figures to make guest appearances include Montale, Cavafy, Joyce ('that literate Irish tenor'), Neruda and Pound. But this apparent literariness is neutralised by a curious system of footnotes which appears to assume the reader's complete ignorance of the writers in question. Pound is listed as: 'Ezra Pound, American Poet', which hardly rates beside the rather more exotic entry for the obscure John McDonald - 'mole and ratcatcher, and singer'.

The letters are often more interesting for their subject-matter than for their prose style. This is a curious volume that includes letters of the most mundane kind - cover notes, tiffs over footnotes, and thank-yous - alongside weighty considerations of topical issues. Even the more casual letters are characterised by a resoundingly public tone - there are few intimacies here, and even fewer moments of humour or relief. Named 'Scot of the Year' in 1984, Henderson's work is avowedly regionalist: it might be said that he cut deep into a narrow furrow. This collection of his letters does not succeed in translating any of this regionalism into a body of work of more universal appeal. To the outsider, they appear restricted by accent, place and focus, but then again, it was Henderson himself who wrote that: 'performances of high excellence are not seldom found boring by people not in sympathy with them'.

VONA GROARKE


This review is taken from PN Review 117, Volume 24 Number 1, September - October 1997.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this review to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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