While living and working in Edinburgh in 2008 I set out to write one million words in 366 days... but only managed 800,737.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Falling Flat: Forced Reference in Paul Muldoon’s ‘Sillyhow Stride’

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I came across Paul Muldoon’s elegy for Warren Zevon, ‘Sillyhow Stride’, as a Warren Zevon fan first, a reader of poetry second. This is kind of like a pottery expert seeking out ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’ or a scuba enthusiast reading ‘Diving the Wreck’. Niche interests are seldom catered to by poetry because poems and poets tend to have other things on their minds.

And so it was with ‘Sillyhow Stride’.

What drew me to the poem – the references to Zevon, especially his songs – were, in fact, the parts I enjoyed least.

When I read Paul Muldoon poems in the past, I often felt like I knew too little to appreciate fully what was going on.

Reading ‘Sillyhow Stride’, there were still moments where I felt ignorant, but, when the song references started to pile on top of one another, I actually felt like I knew too much.

The poem abounds with references, but here are just a few:

that excitable hula-hula boy

(reference to the songs ‘Excitable Boy’ and ‘The Hula Hula Boys’)

all those years of running amuck in Kent

(lifts lyrics from ‘Werewolves of London’)

you tipped the scales
for the Everly Brothers,

Frank and Jesse, while learning to inhale
through a French inhaler

(reference to ‘Frank and Jesse James’ and ‘The French Inhaler’)

And my reaction to these references: cringe.

For me, renaming Don and Phil Everly as Frank and Jesse to echo Zevon’s ballad of the wild west outlaws is a contrivance. Perhaps Muldoon’s whole poem is a contrivance, I simply am not clued in enough to get all the references to 42nd Street and diacetylmorphine.

It is this tension between knowing too much and not knowing nearly enough which tainted my first few excursions into ‘Sillyhow Stride’.

But is my cringe reaction a valid reading of the poem? And why am I cringing?

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The following was an ad featured under ‘Sillyhow Stride’ as it appeared on the website of the Times Literary Supplement:

Choosing a religion.


Which religion should I choose to believe in?

www.peace-of-mind.net

The ad is funny taken in isolation: the way believing a religion is made to sound like having car insurance. (Then again, not all of us have cars...)

But it is also comic in the context it appears. I suspect readers of the TLS, readers of Muldoon’s poetry, and/or admirers of Warren Zevon are not the easiest people to usher into religion with a handy pick-one-and-be-done-with-it website.

But you can forgive ‘Ads by Google’ for throwing up www.peace-of-mind.net when faced with a page featuring the phrases:

dragging a full-length cross… on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Such a pilgrimage … the blood-bath / at my Twin Towers… our mother’s death from this same cancer… as Christ broke with Iscariot… in the afternoon, televangelists, / push up and bench press with Buddhist and Parsi… the Everlasting Life we bargain… your Russian Jewish father…your Scottish Mormon mother…

Indeed, the other two ads at the bottom of the page (as it appeared for me) seem much more tangential:

* an ad for “Horse and Rider Performance Analysis” (presumably because ‘Sillyhow Stride’ comes from Muldoon’s 2006 collection: Horse Latitudes); and

* an ad for Bad Drawn Boy’s new single, ‘The Time of the Times’.

It has always been easier to get laughs with the unintended. The funniest home videos, the Freudian slips of newsreaders, watching your mother learn to ski. Some movies – I’m looking at you, post-1990 Jackie Chan – I have endured purely for the promise of the outtakes at the end.

And it was the same intentions that I signed up for Google’s AdSense on this blog. Before I even had content, I had ads. This was not, and will never be, a pecuniary measure (no one has ever clicked an ad – why would they when it would mean tearing themselves away from my riveting discussion of word counts?). I was simply curious what sort of ads my ramblings would call forth.

Sometimes the ads on the top right have been mildly amusing, but it has mostly been the sort of ‘Get Your Novel Published’ ads which always make me feel like I'm discussing writing with my mother.

Aside: I fear I may be contravening the terms of my AdSense contract by discussing this, like talking about the future after a one-night stand will doom a relationship. But I guess that’s my policy: if something is going to do me in, it might as well be my own words.

There are deep thinkers out there who describe laughter as a response to the perception of incongruity. While this doesn’t cover contagious laughter or the fact babies laugh before they can speak, it does explain the little chuckle I get from incongruous ads thrown up by well meaning machines.

The thing is though, the incongruity must appear incidental, otherwise, the response is not to laugh but to cringe. This is why great comic writing is harder, and infinitely rarer, than great serious writing.

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As someone reading ‘Sillyhow Stride’ for references to Warren Zevon songs, it is no wonder they fall flat. I’m expecting them. And when they come, often they feel random. Like I am reading Google’s first foray into poetry.

The references do not appear seamless because they are surrounded by flashing lights. Some of this is my own fault, but some if it is Paul Muldoon’s.

I feel okay pointing the finger at Muldoon for the ‘excitable hula-hula boy’ type references because he illustrates elsewhere in ‘Sillyhow Stride’ that he can weave Zevon references into his poem in an unobtrusive and enriching way.

As a rule, the Zevon references work best when they are set lower in the mix.

The young John Donne who sets a Glock
on his dish in the cafeteria

(A reference to the image of the inside cover of Excitable Boy, though it was actually Zevon's .44-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver resting on a dinner plate filled with his wife's cooking…)

Or

realized it ain’t

that pretty, ain’t that pretty at all
to be completely wasted when you’re testing your chops, hint hint,

on a Gibson Les Paul
overdriven through a Fender Vibratone,
ain’t that pretty to crawl


to Ensenada for methadone.

Here, a Zevon song title and refrain (‘Ain’t That Pretty At All’), is worked into a powerful passage which, in its spirit and content, echoes Zevon’s own oeuvre: the humour and pathos of an addict-drunk.

The reader is not being asked to compare Phil and Don Everly (the brothers responsible for ‘Wake Up Little Suzy’) with Frank and Jesse James; nor are they bombarded with two song references in one line (“excitable hula-hula boy”).

The conversational nature of ‘ain’t that pretty at all’ probably makes it easier for this reference to appear seamless in contrast to others. Indeed, it’s hard enough to work Hula-Hula or French Inhaler into conversation, let alone a piece of serious poetry, but let us not forget: Warren Zevon is the (immortal) king of the implausible lyric.

In ‘Play It All Night Long’ he manages to cram incest, cancer and another name for undulant fever into the second verse.

Daddy's doing Sister Sally
Grandma's dying of cancer now
The cattle all have brucellosis
We'll get through somehow

Then, to close the third and final stanza, Zevon manages to transform the scatological into a timeless epigram:

There ain't much to country living
Sweat, piss, jizz and blood

Of course, Zevon has the benefit of music and his own delivery behind these words as they are presented in their intended form (1980’s Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School), whereas Muldoon’s elegy must live and die on the page.

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In researching this piece, I came across a discussion of Muldoon’s poem on the bulletin board at Warren Zevon’s website. The fact the bulletin board is still alive and kicking today is, in itself, a testament to the enduring appeal to Zevon’s songs, while the educated dissection of the non-Zevonian references in the ‘Sillyhow Stride’ thread is testament to the intelligence of his fanbase.

The discussion is notable for a total lack of criticism of ‘Sillyhow Stride’. Either no one else felt let down by the 'excitable hula-hula boy' insertions, or they didn't feel it was important enough to put into words.

While I have taken the time to try and pin-point the 'what' and the 'why' of my cringe response, I agree that it is wrong to dismiss this poem as a failed joke. It is clearly more than that.

There is the fact it is an elegy addressed to Zevon – someone Muldoon knew personally and professionally, co-writing many songs with him, including the title track on My Ride’s Here – and here I am, someone who only discovered Zevon’s music after his death.

But this is the nature of elegiac form: the turning out of the private for the unknown reader to remember that which they never experienced.

In terms of elegy, ‘Sillyhow Stride’ succeeds on many counts. It is at times powerful, hypnotic, poetic, heart-rending and appropriately inappropriate.

Without the pressure of squeezing in a song title, Muldoon turns several brilliant phrases to evoke the tragic side of the musician:

…that dank
spot on the outskirts
of Jerusalem where the kids still squeeze between the tanks


to suck the life out of a cigarette

Reading ‘Sillyhow Stride’ aloud - giving Muldoon the same odds as Zevon with his musical backing - there are moments of brilliance, like the blend of pathos and aural pleasure in:

I knelt beside my sister’s bed, Warren, the valleys and the peaks
of the EKGs, the crepusculine X-rays,
the out-of-date blister-packs

When, at the poem’s mid-point, Muldoon writes, “The flesh, Warren, is but a bruise on the soul,” the poem reaches its zenith, but this phrase could equally excuse, in epigrammatical form, the poem’s failures. The flesh of this elegy may not always work – the odd reference may be clumsy or Google-esque – but ultimately, the spirit is there.

I just have to swallow my inner pedant and believe.

2 comments:

Jean said...

It's worth pointing out that "Frank & Jesse James" is actually to some degree a reference to the Everly Brothers, who Zevon had worked with early in his career. I believe he even referred to them by those names when he wished to talk about them without making it obvious. Not sure how that impacts your reading of Muldoon's poem, but there you have it.

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