Module 3:

[Sloan Schang: The Troubles (2008)]

The Anxiety of Genre-Bending

Fiona Farrell / Paul Muldoon

[Fiona Farrell: The Pop-Up Book of Invasions (2007)]

Fiona Farrell
& Her Fictions

Anthology Readings [pp. 131-48]:
  • ‘Anne Brown’s Song,’ ‘Mary Lawry’s Song,’ ‘Lucy Rainbow’s Song,’ & ‘Charlotte O’Neil’s Song.’ In Cutting Out. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1987. pp. 26-31.
  • from ‘Words, War, Water:’ Preface,’ ‘Hamed Ameri’s Skull Won’t Stop Growing,’ ‘A, B, C & Z.’ In The Inhabited Initial. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1999. pp. 7, 13-15, 66-73.
  • ‘Instructions for the Consumption of Your Humanitarian Food Package.’ In Contemporary New Zealand Poets in Performance, ed. Jack Ross & Jan Kemp. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2007. pp. 54-56.
  • ‘The Lament of the Nun of Beare.’ In The Pop-up Book of Invasions. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2007. pp. 65-68 & 92.
  • NZ Book Month Blog' (July 2007).

Fiona Farrell is a writer who's extremely difficult to pin down to one mode or genre or even tone of voice. As you'll see from her author page, she's published three books of poems, a number of plays, and seven books of fiction (including five novels).

This session is intended principally as an examination of her poetry, but I don't doubt that we'll be straying into the whole question of "genre-bending" -- what it means to straddle different creative forms in this way.

There are, of course, a number of precedents one could cite. Herman Melville and Thomas Hardy, two giants of the nineteenth century - and, in New Zealand literature, both Robin Hyde and Janet Frame wrote poetry as well as fiction.

Fiona Farrell and Ian Wedde are the only poets among the eight we're studying in this course to have published substantial amounts of fiction. While we are concentrating here on Farrell as a poet, I would like to discuss the tendency for novelists writing poetry to be quite conservative in their conception of poetic form. Whether the same holds for poets writing fiction is another question.

The categories tend to merge into each other after a while.

Historical novels are never really about the past. They are really about the preoccupations of the time in which they are written.
– Fiona Farrell, Notes on Mr Allbones’ Ferrets (2007)

I wanted to engage the reader in a game – because that is what reading fiction is, after all: it is play, an adult extension of “let’s pretend…”
– Fiona Farrell, Notes on The Hopeful Traveller (2002)

I enjoy rough or unfinished things: preparatory notes, the rough cartoon for a painting, the back of a piece of embroidery, the backsides of buildings …
– Fiona Farrell, Book council blog (2007)

[Fiona Farrell: Mr Allbones' Ferrets (2007)]

[Paul Muldooon in action]

Paul Muldoon
& the Troubles

Anthology Readings [pp. 149-84]:
  • ‘The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants.’ In Poems 1968-1998. Faber and Faber, 2001. pp. 127-47.
  • Incantata.’ In The Annals of Chile. London: Faber, 1994. pp. 13-28.
  • Seamus Heaney. ‘Paul Muldoon’s The Annals of Chile’. In Finders Keepers: Selected Prose 1971-2001. 2002. London: Faber, 2003. pp. 395-98.
  • ‘Keeping Going,’ by Seamus Heaney. In The End of the Poem: Oxford Lectures. 2006. New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2007. pp. 371-73, 389-95.

[Edward Hopper: Gas Station (1940)]

There's an interesting interview with Paul Muldoon in the Listener for February 23-38, 2008 (pp.36-38). There are various points there about the influence (or, rather, the long shadow) of his older, Nobel-prize-winning Ulster compatriot Seamus Heaney over his work which might help us to understand him better, I think.

One critical expression to ponder might be the anxiety of influence, a theory outlined in Harold Bloom's classic 1973 book of the same title. I quote from his own summary:

Every poem is a misinterpretation of a parent poem. A poem is not an overcoming of anxiety, but is that anxiety. Poets' misinterpretations of poems are more drastic than critics' misinterpretations or criticism, but this is only a difference in degree and not at all in kind. There are no interpretations but only misinterpretations, and so all criticism is prose poetry.

This very influential idea is found throughout Muldoon's recent book of essays, The End of the Poem (2006), where he appears to argue that every other poem that ever existed can be cited as a clue for understanding the one under discussion. (For more on Heaney's own poetic genealogy, see my post here).

It's instructive to notice that not even in New Zealand can Muldoon (born 1951) get away without discussing Heaney (born 1939). There's literally a photograph of Heaney included on the second page of the article, paralleling the one of Muldoon!

Heaney's own review of Muldoon's The Annals of Chile (1994), containing the poem "Incantata," can be found in his book of selected essays, Finders Keepers: Selected Prose 1971-2001 (London: Faber, 2002).

[Paul Muldoon: The Annals of Chile (1995)]

The relevant passage runs as follows:

In Paul Muldoon's new book .... personal grief and creative glee keep playing into one another's hands. One of several extraordinary poems here is called 'Incantata', a lamentation for the premature death by cancer of a young and gifted artist. This is both a cry of heartbreak and a virtuoso performance. The higher the lift-off the poem achieves, the deeper the registers it engages ...

'Incantata' commemorates the life and work of Mary Farl Powers, an artist who was much cherished because of the intensity of her striving for spiritual and technical perfection. 'Incantata' is an example of what we might call 'the Lycidas syndrome,' whereby one artist's sense of vocation and purpose is sent into crisis by the untimely death of another. Here Paul Muldoon is possessed by a subject that puts all his brilliance to the test, with the result that he blossoms into truth and humanizes his song to an extraordinary degree. [395-96]

Elsewhere he refers to Muldoon as "one of the era's true originals."

The 'Lycidas' reference is of course to Milton (Shelley's 'Adonais,' on the death of Keats, might be another example - or, for that matter, Tennyson's In Memoriam).

I don't know how Paul Muldoon reacted to that "blossoms into truth" phrase - or the one about "humanizing his song" ... Did it have anything to do with the tone of Muldoon's own remarks about Heaney in his recent book of essays The End of the Poem: Oxford Lectures (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2006)?

One of the poignancies of "Keeping Going" is the speaker's assertion - one we don't expect from a Heaney speaker - ... [of] the insurmountable fact of the limitations of art:

But you cannot make the dead walk or right wrong

This is not to say that a poem ... doesn't have some efficacy in the world, doesn't effect some change. It must change something, as these ... examples so elegantly display. One of the ways in which they do this is to clear their own space, bringin us 'all together in a foretime,' if I may borrow that phrase from section 3 of "Keeping Going" ... This condition of a "foretime" of the poem is, yet again, a version of what I described earlier as the "problem" to which the poem is a "solution" ... We appeal to the "foretime" of "Keeping Going" and recognise ... that to carry itself forward in the world - testing itself, and us, against a sense of how it itself "was / In the beginning, is now and shall be' - is indeed the end of the poem.

This almost sounds as if he regards poems as self-justifying, posing a "problem" to which they themselves are the "solution." It's certainly a far less ringing pronouncement than Heaney's.

Mary Farl Powers: TORSO II

Is Muldoon purely a game-player, or is there more to his poetry? "Incantata" seems heartfelt enough, but what of the other poem I've included in your anthology, "The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants" - what's that about? The troubles? Or postmodernity in general? It certainly lacks the atmosphere of public poetry which is characteristic of some of Heaney's pronouncements on history.

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