Horse and Moose

Elizabeth Bishop

Once again, I find myself reading two books of poetry simultaneously, and the collections couldn’t be more different.

  • Horse Lattitudes by Paul Muldoon
  • Geography III by Elizabeth Bishop

Both poets are highly esteemed. Both have won the Pulitzer Prize. Bishop has also won a National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Muldoon was Professor of Poetry for five years at Oxford University. I’m halfway through each collection and have discovered that I adore Bishop and pretty much want to throw Muldoon across the room.

I’m in love with Bishop’s narrative lines – often short, but syntactically spilling across stanzas and pages. Muldoon’s lines, on the other hand, seem to exist only to torment me with silly rhymes and bewildering jargon.

In “Bazentine,” for example, he says:

As I was bringing up her rear
a young dragoon would cock a snook
at the gunners raking the knob
of High Wood. Tongue like a scaldy
in a nest…

I parse this as follows: A soldier of some sort is at the end of a column or squad and another young soldier raises his gun and aims at the enemy gunners who are strafing a hill named High Wood. And the gunner has a sharp tongue? And… so what? Imagine paragraph after paragraph of this kind of language. Maybe I’m not smart enough to get it. Maybe I just don’t have the patience to look up every other word and then re-read the whole thing to admire its cleverness.

Perhaps my real problem with Horse Latitudes is that Muldoon doesn’t really say anything. He skirts around issues of war and politics, but only as the most distant observer. His word choices seem to serve cleverness and rhyme at the expense of meaning and emotion. Over and over, I arrived at the end of a poem and didn’t feel any sense of conclusion. I wasn’t even certain what Muldoon thought about the particular issue he raised.

Which brings me to a larger question raised by this collection… Can the contemporary reader of poetry even appreciate rhymed verse? We accept it from Shakespeare and Yeats and such, because it feels appropriate for their time. But what about poets such as Muldoon who use rhyme today?

Again, perhaps this is a purely personal failure, but I find rhyme distracting. As I read, I wonder, what words would the poet have written if he didn’t need to complete the rhyme? With all the amazing language available to him, why place such limits on his lines? But then, I’ve noticed that many poets as they grow older seek out the structure of the classic forms: sonnets and roundeau, sestinas and villanelles. And I’m certainly not advocating that poets not use forms. But I am not their audience.

I do, however, seem to be the audience for Elizabeth Bishop:

“Crusoe in England”
…I had fifty-two
miserable, small volcanoes I could climb
with a few slithery strides –
volcanoes dead as ash heaps.
I used to sit on the edge of the highest one
and count the others standing up,
naked and leaden, with their heads blown off.
I’d think that if they were the size
I thought volcanoes should be, then I had
become a giant;
and if I had become a giant,
I couldn’t bear to think what size
the goats and turtles were…
Her 15-stanza poem imagines Robinson Crusoe after his rescue and return to England. He sits in his little apartment, bored by life, dreaming of his adventures on the island.
The knife there on the shelf –
it reeked of meaning, like a crucifix.
It lived. How many years did I
beg it, implore it, not to break?
I knew each nick and scratch by heart,
the bluish blade, the broken tip,
the lines of wood-grain on the handle…
Now it won’t look at me at all.
I love stories, and Bishop tells stories in her poems. A child has an epiphany while her aunt visits the dentist in “In the Waiting Room.” Crusoe ruminates on his life. And in one her most famous poems, a bus wends its way through forests and hills on its way to Boston, stopping to let a moose cross the road in “The Moose.”
What else do I like about Bishop? Her concreteness. Every word leaps off the page – entirely real to me – and her branching syntax propels me forward through the poem. This is not to say that she doesn’t use complex language:
Diaphanous lymph,
bright turgid blood,
spatter outward
in clots of gold.
(Night City)
Glass chimneys, flexible, attenuated,
sacerdotal beings of glass
(Crusoe in England)
But… it may be premature to draw conclusions from two small collections of poetry. I need to read deeper into each poet’s body of work, before I give up on Muldoon or set Bishop high up on that poetry pedestal.
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