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OBLIQUITY IN THE POETRY OF PAUL MULDOON AND MEDBH McGUCKIAN SHANE MURPHY the fragmented, multivoiced complexity of much mainstream Irish poetry is often dismissed as fatally hermetic; what is allusive is elitist and insincere , a latter-day art for art’s sake. Iain Sinclair’s polemical introduction to Conductors of Chaos, for example, makes the remarkable claim that in anthologies of Irish poetry, “[e]vent is adulterated by self-regarding tropes, false language” (Sinclair xiii). His subsequent acerbic diatribe—that “[t]oo much contemporary verse arrives smirking on the page dressed up for the anthology audition. Pre-programmed and dead in the mouth” (Sinclair xiii–xiv)—betrays an unawareness of the many political and poetic functions of obliquity and self-reflexivity. Confusing postmodern skepsis with what Bernard O’Donoghue has termed “self-admiring or introverted crypticism” (14), Sinclair’s attitude is symptomatic of a wider unease among reviewers toward the complexity of much mainstream British and Irish poetry. In this article I intend to redress this prejudice against obliquity by examining its functions and effects in the work of two Northern Irish poets, Paul Muldoon and Medbh McGuckian. In particular, I wish to focus almost exclusively on one aspect of this obliquity: intertextuality. Postmodern intertextuality is, in Linda Hutcheon’s words, “a formal manifestation of both a desire to close the gap between past and present of the reader and a desire to rewrite the past in a new context” (Poetics 118). When the literary or historical quotations and allusions self-reflexively manifest their status as intertexts in a poem, the reader, by actively searching out the poem’s links with its sources, can produce a new reading of both the present and past texts. Hutcheon’s personal conception of postmodernism —a “postmodernism of complicity and critique, of reflexivity and historicity” (Politics 11)—counters a common understanding of the movement as an “unprincipled neo-pragmatist relativism” (Docherty 196). OBLIQUITY IN THE POETRY OF PAUL MULDOON AND MEDBH McGUCKIAN 76 Her reading of the postmodern illuminates any analysis of Muldoon’s work, as it recognizes the multivoiced potential inherent in his use of source material.1 Although the popular conception of postmodernism suggests an unending play between inter-reflecting mirrors, implying infinite simulation (Kearney 5), Paul Muldoon offers a related, but significantly different, image to describe his poetic practice, one in accordance with Hutcheon’s emphasis on ironic perspective. “I’ve become very interested in structures that can be fixed like mirrors at angles to each other—it relates to narrative form—so that new images can emerge from the setting up of the poems in relation to each other: further ironies are possible, further mischief is possible” (Haffenden 136). Muldoon’s narratives are neither self-focused nor infinite as such; rather they distort the real, alienating the viewers’ perceptions , making them see things in a different light. When asked, “Is there a risk of the poems becoming rather hermetic? And of turning a book of poems into a hall of mirrors?” Muldoon’s reply is instructive: “Well, ‘hermetic .’ That depends whether you feel lost or enlarged in a hall of mirrors” (“Interview” 14). Reviewers, however, have often found themselves hopelessly lost. Concentrating on the difficulty of his verse, they have pejoratively referred to Muldoon as “a sophisticated high-gloss technician” (Mole 49), “. . . likely to be accused of formalism, an unfeeling playing around with the tragedies of Ulster” (Scammell 119). The most notorious example of hostile criticism is John Carey’s appraisal of “Meeting the British” as . . . another poem one would gladly trade in for some explanation of what it is about is Muldoon’s title-piece, which tells of some British generals who apparently give blankets infected with smallpox to some North American Indians. “The first recorded case of germ warfare,” says the blurb. But where is it recorded, and what really happened, are the questions you come away from Muldoon’s brief, uninformative lines, wanting to ask. His refusal to communicate is itself a political decision—a cliquish nonchalance. The poems stand around smugly, knowing that academic annotators will come running. (56) The charge leveled at Muldoon is grave: that the poem smugly refuses to communicate to all but...


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