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muldoon and me, me and poetry

with 22 comments

(What follows is exactly the sort of confessional post that makes some of my readers, in particular those that I see in person with relative frequency, cringe a bit. So be it. I work things out on here – makes me cringe too, trust me! Especially this one!)

It’s been ten years, just about this month, since I graduated from college. So that’s what all those emails with “reunion” in the subject line were about – I summarily and instantly delete anything from that place. Which I shouldn’t do. I have daughters now, who might one day be what they call legacy applicants. Look at that – all that I believe in, and believe in deeply, disappearing across the haze of parental anxiety!

I know it is a bit embarassing vis a vis the poet types that read this blog, and poet-types do seem to be a major sub-demographic, but I was just thinking about the way my relationship with this guy (watch it, it’s funny – sorry can’t be embedded in wordpress) has sort of indexed or paralleled at least my life since the start of my academic work, since I left home.

The first time I had a sense that I might be good at all of this came during my first year of college. I wrote a paper on The Annals of Chile for a course called Reading Poetry. I really loved the book, and went all out in writing the paper. Spent time with an Irish dictionary in the library and everything, but I am sure – despite the fact I can’t now find the paper, but also knowing what I know about the predilictions of the department I was in – that the paper was hung on good close reading.

I got the paper back in the mail that summer. The professor (who would soon become my advisor) wrote across the bottom, “Ads, this is fucking great! Amazing!” The “fucking” echoed, made me a bit dizzy, and a tiny turn that would in the course of years become highly significant, encompassingly so, shaped itself into the road that I was on.

It bears saying that at the same time I was also taking a course called Writing Poetry I. Now, it was nearly impossible for first-year students to get into this course. It was capped at 15, and generally speaking you had to be in the second or third year to get in. I submitted a sample of my work, and along with one other first-year, was allowed into the class.

The other first-year student was an interesting case. Her work was very good and was often chosen as the material for group discussion in the weekly workshop. She was a slight and attractive girl from Georgia. Unassuming but had a real way with words. After the first year, though, she disappeared. When I finally got around to asking someone what had happened to her, I learned that she had in fact gotten pregnant and had decided to keep the baby. She had moved back to where she grew up – the suburbs of Atlanta. I don’t know the rest of the story, but really wish right now that I did – or that I even remembered her name.

My work, on the other hand, was rarely chosen for class-discussion. Something went a bit wrong. I waited until the last minute to write my stuff; I didn’t follow the rules of the assignments. After this class was over, I never took another creative writing course again. I had come to college thinking that I was a poet, first and foremost. I ended the first year, given the differential between the comments on my critical and creative work, thinking I was a critic. That doesn’t quite tell the whole story, but it’s a start, an approximation. Other things happened – thing I haven’t thought of for years – in that writing class, but nothing for me to share with you now.

Time passed. I kept reading Muldoon. I decided to write my senior thesis on Pound – a senior thesis that somehow got me into a good grad school, though my secondary advisor’s letter to Helen Vendler at Harvard didn’t seem to do the trick. Their bad – I have been a model post-grad student. I have filled the “Our students have taken jobs at….” with good proper nouns, attractive places – places that even Harvard would be proud of.

The guy who picked the poems for the workshops, and who wrote “fucking great” on my paper on Annals, was in his late sixties. He’d never published a monograph, or a serious piece of criticism. After I left, he placed a single poem in the New Yorker, the publishing coup of his entire life. A pseudo-vanity press published a slim volume after that. He was a good teacher, I suppose. Once his wife had caught him cheating, and had tried to run him over with the family car on the little street in front of the English Department. Later, he married someone else and bought a Lexus.

In my final year of college, I would hop in my own car (not a Lexus) and drive down to the city to see Muldoon read at the 92nd Street Y, elsewhere. I never stopped writing poetry.

It’s about to get a bit complicated in light of my pseudonymity. But I ended up, next, living rather proximately to Muldoon. One of his best poems was written about a canal that ran right past my first post-undergrad apartment – a canal that flooded rather badly during my first months of grad school. I assigned the poem to some of my students this year for a writing exercise; I had to provide ample footnotes.

One of things chronically misunderstood about the place where I went to grad school is the fact that the creative writers aren’t a part of the English department – they exist in their own part of the school, with a separate building and everything. This had some hilarious effects. Year after year, we were ranked by US News and World Report as the top department in African American studies in the country, despite the fact that we had neither a single African American working in the department for most of the time I was there, nor a specialist in African American Studies. I won’t explain – you can do the arithmetic if you like.

I did not work on poetry during graduate school. I worked – and I continue to work – on the novel. There are reasons both simple and complex why this happened – a sense that I’d done my work on Pound, and that was enough for awhile, the persistence of theory at that point and the tendency of theoretical work to focus on narrative texts, brutal self-repression and a sense (wrongheaded and not) that prose is actually more difficult to work on than poetry.

Later, toward the end, I went out for dinner with Paul Muldoon and a few other people. It’s not like he was inaccessable – some of my fellow students were working with him in one capacity or another. But as you might imagine, this was a bit momentous for me, given all I’ve said above. Since then, there’s been a men’s room run-in, at a conference somewhere for something where he gave a keynote reading, and during which my look of surprise and recognition (I am guessing, I am safely assuming) provoked him into a polite look of slightly baffled recognition. “Ah hi again!” I am sure he didn’t remember, why would he, but there you go.

I have continued ordering all that he writes, and I have continued writing poetry, on nearly a daily basis, and I have continued not sending any of it out. Perhaps I’ll do something about that in the next week or so, if I get a minute. Recently, Waterstones sent me by mistake two copies of some new and trendy poetry that I’d ordered. I gave one of them to a colleague, my “mentor” or “buddy” or whatever he is semi-officially called. He is a fairly prominent poet. He said to me, when I gave it to him, But Ads, I did not think that you were a reader of slim volumes. Oh, but a secret one, a sureptitious one, I am.

A little while ago, Muldoon made an appearance on the Colbert Report. (Sorry – video only available in the US or if you have a slicko proxy like me….) I watched the segment with great pleasure, you can be sure, as it’s been awhile. And then I showed it to my wife, who said something like, Oh dear. He is looking so much older, isn’t he? I snapped back Of course we all are, aren’t we? We’re all looking a bit older since the 92nd Street Y! And then, that night, I started to write this post…

Written by adswithoutproducts

July 8, 2009 at 12:10 am

Posted in poetry

22 Responses

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  1. Those of us who have stuck with poetry through thick and thin find posts like this mildly annoying. “Everybody wants to be a poet” … but so many defect because there’s not enough status in it.

    And then someone like Muldoon shows you that there *can* be status in it … and suddenly: big waves of regret.



    July 8, 2009 at 3:16 am

  2. Violette, I’m not sure so many defect because of a status shortfall (though that isn’t irrelevant; neither is the economics).

    I think to do it well is actually just, um, harder than doing most things well (including, yes, fiction and scholarship). So one must be either quite good at something quite difficult, or quite self-deluding, to pursue poetry post school. The realists quit.


    July 8, 2009 at 3:43 am

  3. Violette,

    Maybe it’s my fault, but the central issue at play in my “defection” wasn’t the lack of status in it. It was a stupid writing class that I didn’t do spectacularly well in. (And to be honest, this is an indicator of a character flaw that is even more shameful to possess than the one you’re describing… At least to my mind…)

    And then someone like Muldoon shows you that there *can* be status in it … and suddenly: big waves of regret.


    The realists quit.

    Yeah you know if I had made this a more rigorous thing, it occurs to me now that I should have included bits from The Rules of Art, which I was reading yesterday, and which addresses the issue of realists quitting but at the same time maintaining in so far as they can a grasp on the unrealistic…. Maybe more to come…


    July 8, 2009 at 6:15 am

  4. Paul Muldoon remembers faces. A couple of months ago here in Pittsburgh, I took my thirteen year-old son with me to a reading that Muldoon was doing on campus. We sat near the front. After the reading, our poet immediately walked over, took a seat right next to me and asked, “Where do I remember you from?” He remembered me from a bookstore in Princeton NJ, where I had worked seventeen years earlier. We had a nice little chat.

    D. Bruce

    July 8, 2009 at 11:58 am

    • Ha! Which bookstore did you work at, Bruce?


      July 8, 2009 at 2:51 pm

  5. The fact that so many bad poets persist might be an argument against you, jane. Poetry is difficult, but you might never know that from the evidence of those who succeed.

    I’ll give Ads the benefit of the doubt because we both like Muldoon and I like his blog. But he does in fact perpetuate this notion that prose is harder than poetry … not least because he hardly ever discusses poetry on this blog.


    July 8, 2009 at 12:57 pm

  6. Why so touchy Violette? From my reading of this post, the writer makes clear he never gave up writing poetry. He may have rethought his ambition to be and call himself a poet first and foremost, but is that surrender, defeat or honest self-recognition? And doesn’t that change of direction twds criticism itself imply that contra your insistence that he’s saying prose is harder, it was poetry that he found harder? People often choose not to discuss difficult topics because they are difficult. Besides which it’s meaningless to even discuss ‘Prose’ or ‘Poetry’ en masse as being harder/easier to write or write about. The Cantos are harder than Animal Farm which is easier than Finnegans Wake which is harder than High Windows.


    July 8, 2009 at 2:01 pm

  7. @Violette, “The fact that so many bad poets persist might be an argument against you.” Perhaps you would revisit my comment? “…or self-deluding” seems to explain this persistence of bad poets rather well. Not enough realists.


    July 8, 2009 at 2:24 pm

  8. Ha! For the record, I find everything pretty much equally difficult at this point: prose, poetry, reading, writing, breathing, eating.

    More seriously, the way it breaks for me in terms of reading the stuff: poetry is easier because I’m a formalist at heart (of a somewhat anachronistic sort) and it fronts the form. Prose it’s easier (in general) to think of as a social text, which I need everything to be. Both hard, both harder.

    In terms of writing, harder to describe, but christ does it take a long time to write a piece of prose. But there’s more margin for error in prose, more tolerance of cliche unsubtely delivered.

    I guess that’s the start of it anyway…


    July 8, 2009 at 2:50 pm

  9. @anon: I am touchy for rather obvious reasons, viz., I “stuck with poetry.” “Realism” came late to me!

    @Ads: Touche. It’s all pretty difficult, at this age, at this stage. But don’t mind if I needle you a little. More poetry, more formalism (anachronistic? all the better), with all the social-text-stuff you already do. We need it!


    July 8, 2009 at 4:10 pm

  10. True story: I used to feel wretched about my poetry but take solace in my academic acuity. Nowadays I want to throw up whenever I write a paper, but take solace in the fact that I like my poetry.

    peli grietzer

    July 8, 2009 at 7:56 pm

  11. Hmmm… this is a good post in that it’s generating very very interesting comments.


    I feel exactly the same way, almost all of the time, especially right about now.


    July 8, 2009 at 7:58 pm

  12. Violette,

    More poetry, more formalism (anachronistic? all the better), with all the social-text-stuff you already do. We need it!

    OK. How about this. What if I propose to myself a thing in which I read / write up a relatively contemporary book o’ poetry every other week. Good for me and maybe some of you would like it. We’ll see what happens.


    July 8, 2009 at 8:05 pm

    • re: po-write ups. Hurry up already!


      July 8, 2009 at 9:41 pm

      • Wow OK! No, actually I will do this. It’ll keep me from writing about myself for a bit. I have a few things that I’ve been meaning to read (many of which were suggested in my comment boxes…) but if anyone has suggestions for things that I would like / find interesting, feel free at any time.


        July 8, 2009 at 9:45 pm

  13. poetry write-ups: yes! je vous en prie!


    July 9, 2009 at 1:58 am

  14. re: poetry reviews

    ads, you must, really. as far as suggestions in line with your comment about “social texts”: i’d love to see comments on jane’s work (which, in full disclosure, i treat much in the same way as wilde did pater, as the legend goes, back-pocket-at-all-times and all that good stuff); perhaps something that came out of oulipo?


    July 13, 2009 at 4:53 am

  15. Oh no, no Iowa stuff!


    July 13, 2009 at 2:22 pm

  16. w,

    Jane’s work! A lovely idea that. I’m going to start with some things that I haven’t yet read first, but that’s a good idea, sure…


    Hmmmm…. So what do you think I should do?


    July 13, 2009 at 10:52 pm

  17. Perhaps another recommendation: this author has always mystified me

    A link to my favorite piece of his:

    I’ve yet to figure out who this mystery poet is, clearly a pseudonym, but nonetheless writes some terrific stuff. Apologies if I’ve been making excessive suggestions lately, but this one strikes me as particularly interesting.


    July 17, 2009 at 7:59 am

  18. Something from Britain. They seem to build more pleasure, even fun, into the poem. Nick Laird, Lavinia Greenlaw … (though I don’t suppose you’d call her fun). If you like the formal, A.E. Stallings’s book Hapax.


    July 17, 2009 at 12:34 pm

  19. Saw some good stuff in the LRB this week, but I think the poet’s American.

    tee hee.


    July 19, 2009 at 12:11 am

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