Wednesday, January 03, 2007
First in an occasional series of readings of poetry by Paul Muldoon. Today ‘The Beatles’.
THE BEATLES: The Beatles
Though that was the winter when late each night
I’d put away Cicero or Caesar
and pour new milk into an old saucer
for the hedgehog which, when it showed up right
on cue, would set its nose down like that flight
back from the U.S. … back from the, yes sir, …
back from the … back from the U.S.S.R. …
I’d never noticed the play on “album” and “white.”
This is one of ‘Sleeve Notes’, a fairly lengthy strung-together series of poems in Muldoon’s 1998 collection Hay; brief lyrics that, it seems, flesh out the ‘soundtrack of our lives’ aspect of music by connecting, often obliquely, events in Muldoon’s own biography to the albums to which he was listening at the time. Those albums are, in order: Hendrix’s Are You Experienced?, Cream’s Disraeli Gears, the Beatles White album, the Stones’ Beggar’s Banquet, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, Clapton’s 461 Ocean Boulevard, Elvis Costello’s first album My Aim is True, Warren Zevon’s Excitable Boy, Dire Straits Dire Straits, Blondie’s Parallel Lines, Bruce Springsteen’s The River, Lloyd Cole and the Commotions’ Easy Pieces, Talking Heads’ True Stories, U2’s Joshua Tree, Pink Floyd’s Momentary Lapse of Reason, Paul Simon’s Negotiations and Love Songs, Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man, Nirvana’s Bleach, Dylan’s Oh Mercy, REM’s Automatic for the People (which Muldoon really doesn’t like), and finally the Stones again (Voodoo Lounge).
This selection is already expressing something, before we even knuckle down to the poems themselves. It delineates a set of particular, perfectly recognisable parameters to Muldoon’s musical taste, as well as a time frame (70s and 80s, inching into the 90s). To read the whole sequence is to get glimpses of what Muldoon was doing during this time: the books he was reading—Cicero and Caesar as a schoolboy; Spenser and Milton as an undergraduate—the girls he knew and desired, his move from Ireland to the US (the Springsteen piece is a couplet that takes the hint from ‘river’: ‘So it was that I gave up the Oona for the Susquehanna/the Shannon for the Shenandoah’). There are some hints in the poem, in typically ludic Muldoon style, that the narrator, or narrators, of the piece is and are not identical with Muldoon himself; but I’m minded to treat the text by ignoring that, for the sheer hell of doing so. The poem ends at a rainy stadium ‘Voodoo Lounge’ concert by the Stones at Meadowlands. It begins with this epigraph:
MICK JAGGER: Rock music was a completely new musical form. It hadn’t been around for ten years when we started doing it. Now its forty years old.
JANN S. WENNER: What about your own staying power?
MICK JAGGER: I have a lot of energy, so I don’t see it as an immediate problem
JANN S. WENNER: How’s your hearing?
MICK JAGGER: My hearing’s alright. Sometimes I use earplugs because it gets too loud on my left ear.
JANN S. WENNER: Why your left ear?
MICK JAGGER: Because Keith’s standing on my left.
“Jagger Remembers,” Rolling Stone MARCH 1996
This nicely points up the sense in which ‘Rock music’ has performed ‘youth’ and ‘energy’ consistently as it had grown old over the last forty years, as Muldoon has himself. It’s why, I think, the Rolling Stones bookend the whole poem; because they’re the perfect yin-yang of naffness and cool. We don’t need to be told whom ‘Keith’ is, in that last line of the epigraph. More, we understand the nature of the smile provoked by the essential cosiness of this reference to him (That Keith! He plays the loud guitar, bless him!) It’s not satanic, it’s rather sweet. ‘Sleeve Notes’ ends with Muldoon driving home from the Voodoo Lounge concert to his wife and child, and the absence of edge that growing into middle age can entail is wholly the point of the piece.
But this Beatles section is early on, with a young Muldoon still living in Ireland. As many Muldoon poems are, it’s in large part an exercise in rhyming; but rhyming in a fuller, more aesthetically complete sense than is usually implied by that term. The hedgehog reminds the young Paul of Concord dipping its long tapering nose after landing (but having flown from the US: concord never flew from the USSR). It’s a partial resemblance, for although the snout of a hedgehog might remind us of concord’s celebrated conk, the plump bristly brown-black body of the animal has nothing in common with, and indeed might be instanced as the formal opposite of, the supersonic airplane. But the same could be said of the saucer of white milk and the White Album itself … indeed, of all rhyme, where what connects the words (night/right, flight/white) is much less significant than what differentiates them: a fact that Muldoon’s witty half rhymes (‘Caesar/saucer’ ‘yes sir’/’S.R.’) emphasises. This is a feature of poetry with which the title of this poem-section plays games. What could be a more perfect, if stagnant rhyme than ‘THE BEATLES: The Beatles’? On the other hand this is the album that, whilst never officially named such, is known universally as ‘the white album’, and ‘the white album’ does not rhyme with ‘the Beatles’ at all. Except (once again) there is a rhyme in the title there, as the poem’s last line points out: not a sonic rhyme, but a conceptual rhyme, and one that has probably no more occurred to most Beatles fans than it had to the young Muldoon himself.
The song, of course, is back in the, not back from the, USSR, and it is both a song about a plane flight (‘Flew in from Miami Beach BOAC’) and one that opens with Paul McCartney imitating (we might say, sonically rhyming) a jet plane coming into land by whistling into the microphone. I’d like to think that this minute shift (from ‘in’ to ‘from’) enacts, in a small way, a significant vector for Muldoon’s text: as if the state of apprehending ideal rock and pop is always something we are trying to feel out way back to, like childhood innocence, rather than something we are still in. Miami Beach is in the USA; but the song lurches from the US to the USSR
Back in the US
Back in the US
Back in the USSR …
It’s another sort of game with rhyming, or with the expectations that rhyming sets up. ‘US’ us almost over-literally ‘a half rhyme’ of ‘USSR’; not in the usual sense of the term (the usual sense of a half-rhyme for USSR would be ‘yes sir’) but in the sense that US rhymes perfectly with the first half of USSR and doesn’t rhyme at all with the second half. A sort of poet’s joke, I suppose.
McCartney’s song moves from US to USSR, of course in more than one sense. Famously it inhabits an quintessentially American 60s Beach Boys idiom (‘California Girls’ in particular) in order to undermine its Americanocentric assumptions with a bundle of Russian specifics. And there’s an implied balance of opposites in the rhyming as well as a balance of similarities. Both ‘California Girls’ and ‘Back in the USSR’ are Summer songs; Muldoon’s poem is set in the winter. The album is white, but the poem opens at ‘night’. What could be further removed from the dusty Latin of Cicero and Caesar than (Harold Wilson’s famous phrase) the white-heat-of-technology that produced such marvels of the 60s as Concord and, indeed, the Beatles? What could be more removed from international rock and roll than a hedgehog sipping milk in a Northern Irish garden at nighttime?
Re-reading the poem I noticed that not only does it rhyme at the end of its lines (Abba Abba, a group perhaps too poppy to register with Muldoon’s heavier taste) it also plays with rhyme at the beginning of its lines: not just the ‘The Beatles’/‘The Beatles’ homophony of ‘I’d’/‘I’d’ and ‘back’/‘back’, but also the half-rhyme ‘I’d’/‘And’ and the assonantial vowel-rhyming of ‘though’/‘for’/‘on’. Who’s to say whether this is ‘intentional’ or not? How can we be certain that the poem’s little misreadings, misquotations (misrememberings?) are deliberate or not? But because this is a poem in part about the ‘I’d never noticed the play on…’ sentiment of its last line, it struck me as appropriate that there were things about it I could come back to and notice for the first time.
Concord never flew to Russia; but then neither did ‘B.O.A.C’ ever fly from Miami to Russia in the 1960s (the very idea!). Miami to Russia would have involved the linking together of two nations that, in this era, put enormous effort into mutual separation. This was when we lived in a two superpower world; another sort of rhyme, that pair of balanced supposedly diametrical ideologies and cultures on either side of the Beatles’ home continent. One point of McCartney’s song might be formally to try and draw out the similarities between the two superpowers, supposedly defined by difference. We might as well ask: what do Cicero and Caesar have in common? The orator and the man-of-action? The letter-writer and the soldier? The private citizen and the emperor? The epitome of fine style and the rough-and-reader proser? But from another perspective they’re both dead white Romans, they’re both the sorts of things that public schoolboys are set to study; their names even sound alike, or as much of a half-rhyme as ‘Caesar’ and ‘yes sir’, as ‘saucer’ and ‘USSR’; or as much as ‘White’ and ‘Album’.
There is a ‘play’ on ‘album’ and ‘white’, we’re told; which, since ‘play’ is what one does with an album, seems nicely appropriate. ‘Album’ (Latin albus, ‘white’) originally denoted white or blank tablets, for writing upon, and then was used to refer to lists of things (‘a tablet on which the praetor’s edicts and other public notices were recorded for public information, afterwards extended to other lists’ OED). The word was used for blank books, into which people could write things, enter their names, or store their photographs; and thence it came to mean ‘long playing gramophone record’, although the leap to this last is a little obscure. Is it because such records contain, as it were, a list of tracks? Or is there the sense in which gramophone (‘Oi! Granddad! Go home and listen to your gram-o-phone!’) records take the impression of their music much as a tablet takes the impression of its words?
But whichever, Muldoon is doing more than highlighting a pun by drawing our attention to the albus/album. He’s inviting us to excavate the words’ meaning, and to realise the extent to which we use pop songs as blank slates, upon which we write our own emotional meanings, our memories and our senses of self. Oh, it’s neatly done. It’s well-done, it’s Muldoon.
"Hedgehog”—can’t help but think of Isiah Berlin’s Hedgehog and the Fox, though can’t see how to link that resonance into this poem. And then there’s the Beatles line “Georgia on my my my mind”—which Georgia?
The poem has an overall inside-out chiasmus feel (trivially hung on the abba abba rhyme).
Another echo: Ceasar, USSR (Tsar—derived from Caesar, natch).
And another: We’ve got this image of a darkish animal with its snout in a disk of white. Turn that white to black and we’ve got a tone-arm on a record (though only folks of a certain age can actually remember having played the white album on a record player).
Did anyone ever try to market a Concord record player, where the tone arm was Concord shaped?
The taste is very orthodox Rolling Stone Top 100 taste. Lloyd Cole and, to an extent, Paul Simon (not cool enough) were the only unexpected artists. In more than half the cases the album chosen is the expected album by that artist.
Not that there is anything wrong with that. Perhaps it’s the point of the story he’s telling.
I wonder what the connections might be between the “rockism” of Muldoon’s important LPs and the rather traditional—what Ron Silliman calls “School of Quietude”—aesthetics of the poem itself.
Perhaps the authenticity of rawk lends authenticity to the poems of “Sleeve Notes,” which seem quaint in the face of the post-Pound tradition?
(This, of course, also connects back to Joseph’s post on taste. Maybe it’s time to confront “rockism” in literature as well as music. See:
for related pieces.)
The word was used for blank books, into which people could write things, enter their names, or store their photographs; and thence it came to mean ‘long playing gramophone record’, although the leap to this last is a little obscure. Is it because such records contain, as it were, a list of tracks?
Come to think of it, perhaps the usage goes back to the days before LPs. In those days those looonnnng classical pieces had to be recorded on several 78s, and they would all be gathered together in an album. And those old albums of 78s looked a bit like photograph albums or scrap books. Once recording shifted to LPs, the “album” usage just tagged along.
The centrality of the pun to the problem of what about a piece of pop culture is meaningful reminds me of the great pun in Joyce, when Stephen (in Ulysses) quizzes a student on Pyrrhus and is answered with, “Pyrrhus, a pier. A disappointed bridge.” The student is merely free-associating, yet the answer comes to have significance for Stephen.
One thought on Cicero and Caesar; canonical works tend to come with the guarantee that no reading exceeds their scope, because of the presumed genius of the author. Thus we are much less likely to worry over the legitimacy of a reading of Cicero, than over the way we interpret an album’s nickname.
Bill: “And then there’s the Beatles line “Georgia on my my my mind”—which Georgia?” Indeed; there’s Georgia the former SSR; although Hoagy Carmichael’s original ‘Georgia on my Mind’ was about a woman, not the State.
Indeed, there’s a treasure trove of stuff on ‘Back in the USSR’ in the Wikipedia entry on the song. I should probably have checked that before writing my piece.
Luther: “the poems of “Sleeve Notes” ... seem quaint in the face of the post-Pound tradition”
You think so? I’d be tempted to argue that Muldoon, in his quirky, simulatneously super-erudite, super-populist manner, soaked in both fancy and demotic vocabulary and always almost obsessively attentive to poetic form is one of those poets who has found a path out of the post-Pound wilderness. In way that his fellow-countryman Seamus Heaney, say, hasn’t really.
Jow: yes ... and the ‘Pyrrhus’/’Pier’ thing also brings into play the question of accent. I might pronounce Pyrrhus in my middle-class English way as ‘Pir-us’, where Joyce might well have voiced it ‘Pier-ous’; and Northern Irish Muldoon’s voice is certainly important to the way his poetry comes over.
On regional pronunciation variations: I attended one of Muldoon’s poetry readings last year. Before reading a poem “The Coyote,” he asked the audience how Americans pronounce the word: “coy-o’-tee” or “coy’-oat.”
The audience replied in unison: “kahy-oh’-tee.”
Muldoon: “Ah, you say ‘coy-oat.’”
Muldoon: “Okay. ‘The Coy-oat.’”
Then he read the poem. I wondered whether it was an obscure joke.
The interior of the poem does have all the wittiness you’d want. The exterior, though, has an overly insistent (in my opinion) framing device, that “Though” as the first word and “I’d never” in the last line. Though that was the winter when the narrator played the white album over and over, he’d never noticed the play on album and white. It firmly sets the poem as a memory. I would rather have read it as “That was the winter” at the start and “I never noticed” at the end—which, together with the three dots at the end of the second-to-last line, would have preserved the possibility that the narrator, just now on having thought back to that winter when he played the album over and over, realized the play on album and white. Which would mean that at least part of the poem could take place in the present, and give an immediacy to “I never noticed”. Perhaps it would be uncool, though, to write the poem as if the narrator just now might be noticing.
It’s a good poem, though; I should read Muldoon.
BTW, some well-known versions of the white album were actually on white vinyl, so the hedgehog dipping its snout into milk wouldn’t even have to be white-to-black inverted.