The End of the Poem, by Paul Muldoon <br/>Horse Latitudes, by Paul Muldoon

In praise of the poetic problem
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The Independent Culture

Paul Muldoon's collection of lectures written during his stint as Oxford Professor of Poetry, The End of the Poem, sees him preoccupied with textual haunting as he unravels a poem's "invisible threads". Muldoon often takes a single word and works a kind of free association that takes in the references that might have arisen from the poet's own reading history. Such excavation sees him tracking the poem's genesis, "marking and measuring itself", "against a combination of what it might now be and what it might yet become".

As he explains in a reading of Robert Frost's "The Mountain", he is interested in "the influence of one poem on another within the body of work of a single poet", whereby the "gaps or blanks in one poem are completed or perfected by another".

Seeing Muldoon read the poems of Emily Dickinson, Stevie Smith and Marina Tsvetaeva as well as Yeats, Auden, Moore, Lowell and Bishop gives an insight into the way he is first reader of his own poems. As such, the lectures open us up to the textual games, jokes and associative licence that we must also take on if we are to read Muldoon himself. In seeking out "gaps", they take us into a world which is a way of being and thinking, demanding that we hold on to a belief in method, and ponder the still-warm hoof-print of meaning. Which takes us back to his poems.

Horse Latitudes, his 10th collection, takes its name from areas north and south of the equator, so-called because the Spanish ships transporting horses to the West Indies would be becalmed there. Shortage of water meant the horses had to be thrown overboard. But "Horse Latitudes" is also a track from The Doors' Strange Days album, the lyrics of which consist of a spatchcocking of Jim Morrison's poem to a few lines from Nos- tradamus's prophetic Centuries.

Thus Horse Latitudes encompasses history, rock, intertextuality and the prophetic. Muldoon explores his own "doldrums", the impetus a confrontation with public and private battles: the death of a sister, which re- calls the death of his mother; the death of friends, which occur against the backdrop of war; and his own mortality. Reading Horse Latitudes isn't an easy business. But we can enjoy the pursuit of the puzzle as much as any answer. This is a book that demands we take pleasure from its repetition of images and rhymes, the gaps set up between words and sounds in the "imperspicious game" that is both life and poetry's attempt to hold on to life through elegy.

As he argues in his final lecture, "one of a poem's main aims is to continue to present itself as a problem only it has raised". Muldoon has reinvented the possibilities of the relationship between poetic meaning and poetic form, and has reinvented the poetic problem. There is little else to do but wonder and praise.

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