These essays are based on the lectures Muldoon gave as Oxford Professor of Poetry. In each essay, he analyzed a single poem, mainly in terms of its diction and imagery, in order to show the poem's associations with other poems and writing by and about the same author, and with the poem's poetic forebears.
I find many of the associations made, in this approach which Muldoon named stunt-reading, persuasive and insightful, though other links seem more tenuous. These less convincing links are usually based on the repetition of very common words. The links may be tenuous but they cannot be disproved, for we know that the poetic imagination works in mysterious associative ways. If Muldoon ends up by making every poet sound like him, perhaps that is partly due to the same imagination at work in writing poetry. Muldoon believes that the poem wants to write itself through the poet.
A believer also in Bloom's theory of the anxiety of influence, Muldoon is attuned to the various ways a poem misreads its strong forebear, a misreading at its most hostile in Ted Hughes's attack on Marianne Moore in his poem "The Literary Life." This poetic misreading is often mirrored in a conflicted relationship between the poet and his or her real-life parent, or, in the case of H.D., between the poet and Freud, her analyst. One of the Muldoon's achievements in these essays is to show how many forms that conflict can take.
The first essay looks at "All Souls' Night" by W. B. Yeats, and the last essay looks at three poems, all by Irish poets, Robert Graves, C. Day Lewis and Seamus Heaney. I would not immediately think of the first two as Irish. By opening and closing his lectures series, in Oxford, with Irish bards, Muldoon makes the point that "The English language belongs to us." The quotation comes from Heaney's "The Station Island," a message Heaney puts in the mouth of a tutelary James Joyce.
Between the Irish cover, Muldoon looks at poems by 4 English poets, 6 Americans, and 3 Europeans. No Scot, or Welsh bards, except, in passing, Robert Burns. If Frost looks to Wordsworth, Muldoon emphasizes Ted Hughes's debt to Marianne Moore, and Heaney's debt to Robert Lowell. The twentieth century, from the perspective of these lectures, belonged to the Americans, not only in the political sphere, but also in that of poetry.