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  • "Responsibility" and "Difficulty" in the Poetry of Paul Muldoon
  • Rajeev S. Patke

Understanding is itself a problematic category in the face of art's enigmaticalness.

—Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory

We want what the poets in Cocteau's Orphée want—"Etonnez-moi! Astonish me!" We want pleasure. And sometimes the oneiric, the obscure, is the only way to feel transported.

—Ange Mlinko, "Panel 3: Clarity & Obscurity: The Uses and Misuses"

To what does a poet owe responsibility in the practice of poetry, especially in cases where most readers find the poet "difficult," opaque, enigmatic? In what sense can a poet be regarded as either "responsible" or "irresponsible," keeping in mind the OED definition of "irresponsible" as "not answerable for conduct or actions; not liable to be called to account," and the definition of its converse, "responsibility," as including among its senses the idea of being "accountable (to another for something)," or being "capable of fulfilling an obligation or trust"? This essay attempts a specific answer to these general questions by looking at the work of the Irish-born, U.S.-based Paul Muldoon as an instance of a poet who puts the idea of poetic responsibility to an extreme test in a provocative and consistent way, from the early 1970s to his most recent volume of poetry, Horse Latitudes (2006).

This essay argues that a poet like Muldoon is drawn in contrary directions, at once affirming and denying the autonomy of the artwork in relation to the social character of language in a manner that derives from what Theodor Adorno attributes to modernism as one of its defining paradoxes: "Insofar as a social function can be predicated for artworks, it is their [End Page 279] functionlessness."1 In Aesthetic Theory Adorno assimilates the enigmatic quality of specific hermetic works into the more comprehensive claim that all art is fundamentally enigmatic in the sense that art aims at "the determination of the indeterminate."2 Adorno's claims can be tested with reference to a poet such as Muldoon, who responds, on the one hand, to the impulse to treat poetry as a language game, played under circumstances in which language is accepted as less than adequate to the tasks of expression, communication, and representation, and on the other hand, also subsidizes the idea of serving as a medium through which language transforms our sense of human experience by helping us articulate, share, and preserve the articulations that it is the genius of language to bring into being.

While Adorno provides an example of a discourse that interprets the notion of "difficulty" under the constellation of modernism, Fredric Jameson provides a slightly more up-to-date discourse within the same, broadly materialist tradition, which assimilates "difficulty" and the semblance of contemporary "irresponsibility" under the related but separate constellation of postmodernism, under whose aegis, "schizophrenic disjunction or écriture, when it becomes generalized as a cultural style, ceases to entertain a necessary relationship to the morbid content we associate with terms like schizophrenia and becomes available for more joyous intensities, for precisely that euphoria which we saw displacing the older affects of anxiety and alienation."3 Thus, while Adorno translates "difficulty" into a form of modernist "enigmaticalness," Jameson renders it as a mix between "joyous intensities" and "euphoria."

Both Adorno and Jameson are concerned to isolate the affect surrounding the appearance of opacity in art. Regardless of which such impulse a poet responds to, the poetic function can also be said to bear the burden of several, not always compatible, responsibilities: toward what the audience expects (ease of access, pleasure, and insight); what experience demands (to "capture" and "hold" in place whatever is found significant in life, but also, paradoxically, to "tell" or "show" that which cannot ever be fully shown or be told of life); and toward language (as a mode of being that comes alive as play, sport, or game). Responsibility toward communicative action bends language to human needs; responsibility toward experience bends language into stretching, or breaking through, or simply breaking down at, its limits; and responsibility toward language forces the needs of audience and experience into secondariness before the need for language to disport its own being. In this complex...


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