What I learnt About Poetry by rereading Ulysses


(A talk given at the Joyce Seminar, ‘Joycean Worlds’, at the Centre for Irish Studies, University of Otago, October 2012).

My title was originally Ulysses as the Successful Modernist Long Poem

Thomas Dilworth is a passionate advocate for the work of David Jones. Arguing that David Jones’ In Parenthesis is an epic poem, not a prose work as most readers think, Dilworth (2008) states: 'Most of In Parenthesis is not in verse, yet it is nearly all poetry, which is language used to its maximum potential. It is an epic poem. (p.20)

I realised about five seconds after my original proposal was accepted that if I were to attempt my topic directly, I’d have to define my terms. In this company I suspect I’d have to do a better job than Dilworth. Defining Modernist in a way that’s useful for poetry is notoriously difficult[i]. My chances of defining Poem are even smaller. Much greater minds than mine have disappeared down that particular rabbit hole[ii]

 What I’m going to do is approach this through my subtitle: ’What I’ve learnt about writing poems from rereading Ulysses’ and I feel I should warn you that I’m reading, not as critic or scholar, or academic but as a writer of poems. Reading as a writer is not often endorsed or even welcomed in academic literary discourse.

There are reasons for this historically and practically. For example, if over many years, you reread, carefully, the complete poems of W.B.Yeats and his letters, especially to Margot Rudock and Dorothy Wellesley, you will arrive, inevitably, at the secret of writing great poetry. That secret takes less than three seconds to say, and though you might spend three decades coming to terms with it, it is of no interest to anyone who doesn’t want to write poems. Compared to the sophisticated intricacies of modern critical readings of Joyce, it sounds horribly dull. The career of Robert Graves as a critic, insisting on his right to read and speak from the perspective of a writer of poems, also provides a salutary lesson in the dangers of doing so.

As a maker of poems there are poets I respect, poets I enjoy, and my own household gods and Joyce as a lyric poet, does not fit into any of those categories. I’d like to confess at the start that Pomes Penny Each and Chamber Music are not interesting to me at all except as negative examples.[iii]

On the other hand, there are four books I return to, which in some ways have taught me more about poetry than my poets have. The OED is not in this list because it’s not a book but a cross between a renewable religious experience and the wildest party you’ve ever been to. The four books are The Exeter Book, Malory’s Works, Household Tales, and finally Ulysses.

My personal belief, for what it’s worth, is that if you are to take writing poetry seriously in the 21st century there are choices that need to be considered and then navigated. 

The first is what I’ll call for convenience, Pound or Not Pound. Think of the Ezra Pound of the later Cantos as representative of not only a type of poetry but also an attitude towards it. We could call it Modernist, High-Modernist, Post-Modernist, Experimental, or Avant Garde, but each of these terms require defining and are ultimately as vague as ‘Pound’.  On the other side, Not Pound, and since this is the Centre for Irish Studies, I can admit I think of Not Pound as Paddy Kavanagh: the Kavanagh of ‘Kerr’s Ass’, the later canal bank poems[iv] and The Great Hunger. Pound or Paddy Kavanagh; they are equally valid choices.

Without trying to be exhaustive, or exhausting, there’s also rural and urban, lyric and narrative, poetry and prose, language or literature, and, I’ll explain this one later, I think you have to choose between Alice and Humpty Dumpty or find a way to reconcile them.

What I propose to talk about is not how those orientations map Joyce’s world, but how Ulysses has helped me to think about them. 

I’m not suggesting these are binary oppositions: you can’t draw a neat line down your page and package deal them in two columns. They are simplified points of entry into a city but once inside, the street plan looks like a mud map of a slum warren. 

Take Poetry and Prose. Most people outside rooms like this one think of Poetry as NOT Prose.  But Verse and Doggerel, are not Poetry but not Prose either. Poetry and Prose are simply labels which mark shifting positions on a circle, held in place and given meaning not by their relation to each other but by literary convention and reader assumptions, which themselves are the products of earlier conventions and reader assumptions. The Exeter Book is written in what we’d call continual prose: the ‘Elegies’ from The Exeter Book are presented as ‘poetry’ by modern editorial conventions.

The Modernist poets, particularly Pound and William Carlos Williams, at important early stages of their careers were minimalists (Dickie 1986). Think of The Red Wheel Barrow or Faces in the Metro. As participants and agents in an historical process recently labeled the lyricization of poetry, having refined ‘poetry’ to ‘lyric poem’, and ‘lyric poem’ to ‘image’, their ambitions required the excess of the long poem, without a poetics that made the long poem coherent and so they spun round the circle back towards Prose. There are chunks of imported prose in the Cantos and Paterson and places where the conventional distinction between the two gets lost.  You might argue, as Marjorie Perloff or Hugh Kenner and others have done, that Pound redefined what a poem is: or you might think that the Cantos and Paterson contain large chunks of very dull writing[v] and passages of prose that few prose writers would want to claim as their own.

Joyce went the other way round the circle. He begins as a prose minimalist with The Epiphanies then moved to a poetics of excess in Ulysses[vi]. If you treated Ulysses the way modern editors treat The Exeter Book, you could print many parts of it as poems and they’d be poems many lyric poets would be proud to have written.

I can’t prove this, but if I may be allowed my first Robert Graves moment, while Eliot and Pound were obsessed by a thing called ‘Literature’ and its sub-set ‘Poetry’, Joyce, by the time he was writing Ulysses, had surrendered to his obsession with ‘Language’ and ‘Writing’. Joyce the lyric poet fails because he is trying too hard to create ‘Literature’.

Joyce showed his Epiphanies to W.B.Yeats when they met in 1902. A young Joyce was astonishingly rude and an elder Yeats was surprisingly not offended. Yeats later claimed he had argued for two kinds of invention: the inventions of artists and the inventions of the folk. ‘The folk life, the country life, is nature with her abundance, but the art life, the town life, is the spirit which is sterile when it is not married to nature. The whole ugliness of the modern world has come from the spread of the town and their ways of thought…”(qtd. by Ellmann (1969) p.107.) [vii]

 Yeats’ perception that urban and dysfunctional are synonymous carries through the 20th century in British and Irish poetry.

Think of The Waste Land as a tourist brochure: ”Come to dreary London where everyone acts like a zombie and even sex is depressing”. On the other side of the fence, beyond the high rises and barbed wire lies the idyllic world of Seamus Heaney’s rural childhood.  There is an obvious appetite in the readership of poetry for rural nostalgia that is at odds with the fact that the majority of Heaney’s readers did not grow up on farms, drinking buttermilk while chasing butterflies amongst the cowpats.[viii]

But while Yeats’ perception is no doubt widely popular, the two great refutations are Irish. Thirty years after that meeting between Yeats and Joyce, Paddy Kavanagh, then the author of ‘The Ploughman’, farmer and sometime shoemaker, dragged his Monaghan clodhoppers across AE’s regency carpet. Kavanagh was the folk. He knew all about country life from the ground up, and he was powerfully ambiguous about Yeats. But the great refutation of the holiness and the abundance of rural life is surely The Great Hunger.[ix]

The other great challenge is of course Ulysses. In it Joyce described the lives of ordinary people in a city in a way which I’ve always thought of as quietly optimistic about the extra ordinariness of what we misname ordinary lives.

When I wanted to write about my own place, I found myself with few models[x]. I was born into a migrant community in Coventry. My father’s family came from just north of Dublin and had moved to Coventry after the Second World War. If you grow up in a migrant community, or you are a migrant, home is a very strange word. From the city centre we went ‘home’ to a house with a number in a street by a small park. If my father was in a good mood, while we were going home he’d tell stories about ‘home’ that was not the house by the park but Laytown and Bettystown and Dublin.

The people in the street all did the same thing. Like the characters in Hewitt’s ‘An Irish Man in Coventry’: ‘Like Lyr’s children banished to the waters/ [their]…hearts still listen for the landward bells”.

This ‘back home’ was a construct, of memories, stories, songs, place names, and odd snatches of non-English idioms. Somewhere between the place they left and the place they were, which they populated with characters they had known or let’s be honest, simply invented. 

Coventry was an industrial city, its medieval portions removed by what my neighbour called German areal redevelopment. And I had arrived at the point where I wanted to write about my place, my city. I was writing a sequence of poems called Lady Godiva and Me. Godiva being both a legendary figure and an historical person.

So I naturally returned to Joyce. I’m assuming we’ve all heard that famous claim that if Dublin were destroyed it could be rebuilt from his book and that we know the work he put into getting his facts right in Ulysses. If you open Gifford there are maps and diagrams of who is where and when and the movements of the characters in Wandering Rocks have been intricately plotted by Clive Hart walking the Dublin streets with a stopwatch[xi].

I won’t bore you with the lengths I went to in amassing facts about the city and its history except to say that I did as much reading for that sequence as I did for a Master's thesis on Medieval Literature.

And then I had an epiphany. I was rereading ‘Oxen of the Sun’[xii], and struggling. A lot of people struggle with ‘Oxen of the Sun’.

The Modernists, Pound, especially, rewrote the story of the Emperor’s new clothes. They were waiting, eagerly waiting, for some dumb fool in the mob to call them out, so they could demonstrate their superior understanding of nakedity.

Part of my epiphany was that I shouldn’t be intimated. I knew Anglo-Saxon. Malory’s Mort had been my favourite book for a decade and I’d never read it in a modernised version. I had reread Mandeville’s Travels on the Trans-Siberian railway: a perfectly ordinary English sentence you’re not going to hear very often and which I don’t get to say very often either. The first effect was an immediate liberation: I was free to exercise my judgement. The second was more relevant, I hope.

The parodies in ‘Oxen of the Sun’ are not ‘the thing itself’, just close enough to be recognisable, especially if you don’t know the originals very well. In reconstructing Dublin, Joyce had anticipated what a friend calls the rivet counters. You’re being dared to find fault. But the challenge is a distraction.

Side stepping the intimidation, I realised that what I loved about Joyce’s Dublin is it is recognisable as a migrant’s dream of home: that strange nowhere between the place you left and the place you are. I recognise those characters as the people I grew up with. Ulysses could just as easily have been played out in Coventry, or Warsaw, or Moscow, or Dunedin. It could be any city, in a way Ciaran Carson’s Belfast cannot be.

And this I think is my insight, the way in which Joyce gets out of Pound/ Not Pound and one of the reasons why Ulysses succeeds where so many of the modernist long poems fail.

The modernist poets, probably following Pound, fetishized technique. For them, it characterised the Professional Poet, it distinguished him [sic] from the amateur.

If you reject technique, whether you’re choosing Pound or Not Pound, the best you can hope for is Kavanagh’s collected, which is uneven to say the least. And that despite Antoinette Quinn’s decision to leave some poems out: at the extreme you end up with Bloom on the toilet seat, fantasising about literary fame.

If you are choosing the Pound option and you travel hard towards literary artifice, you will end up like that artificer, Steven Daedalus: he’s erudite, book learned, he can’t open his mouth or think without an allusion or a quotation from an obscure authority, and he is isolated, and unable to communicate. You end up playing for a small group in the library. If you are lucky someone might run a seminar on your work, where they will endorse your peculiar version of nakedity but only to prove how clever they are. 

If you favour Not Pound, and push artifice you end up with chamber music[xiii]. Pound praised Joyce’s poems for the delicacy of their music and rhythm ‘which only one reader in twenty would appreciate’ (in Read (1967) p.137). But the other 19 rightly ask, after the expert has told us how clever the poet is, what’s in it for us?

The answer in Ulysses is Molly and Bloom, not forgetting the cat and the rest of the memorable cast. Artifice creates the frame for that migrant’s dream of home and in doing so creates the stage on which those characters can perform. 

And if I may be allowed one more Robert Graves moment, I think this is where Ulysses has been consistently misread as an example of writing throughout the twentieth century. What Joyce achieved in Ulysses, is a book that in terms of literary pyrotechnics outperforms almost any other book ever written. For some writers and critics this has suggested that to write well one has to go higher and harder and faster and further, privileging terms like Innovative and Creative and Experimental, until the only critical value seems to be a negative answer to “has this been done before” (usually underwritten by historical amnesia).

On the other hand, writers have derided the book as either a work for the professional academic or the intellectual wannabe.[xiv]

What I think Joyce proved is that you can play all the literary games under the sun, and a few that probably belong in a different solar system, and still produce a work that can be read, and enjoyed, without footnotes or critical commentary or scholarly exegesis. The critic Peter Makin said of Briggflatts that it is a poem which benefits from footnotes but doesn’t need them. I think this is also true of Ulysses. It’s not true of the Cantos or The Anathemata; they need footnotes and I don’t think they benefit from them.

There’s a famous conversation between Alice and Humpty Dumpty and if you write poetry, you need to think about who to side with, or how to reconcile an irreconcilable argument.

‘When I use a word,‘ Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean-neither more nor less.’

The question is, said Alice, ’whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is’, said Humpty Dumpty, ’which is to be master –that’s all.’(p.269)

When Humpty defines Impenetrability as meaning: ‘We’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life,’ Alice, the voice of baffled reason, replies: ‘That’s a great deal to make one word mean’.

‘When I make a word do a lot of work like that’, said Humpty, ‘I always pays it extra.’(269-270)[xv]

The writer of poems has to deal with this argument. The easy way to do this is to take sides: Pope, Swift, Graves and Yeats, Kavanagh and Seamus Heaney are Team Alice. The Stein of Tender Buttons, the Dylan Thomas of ‘Altarwise by Owl Light’, the Joyce of Finnegans Wake are team Humpty D. In Ulysses however, Joyce, I think, pulled off the apparently impossible task of having it both ways. And I think again this is partly because unlike Eliot and Pound, Joyce was obsessed, not with literature, but with language.

I don’t think any writer has ever paid so much attention to the meanings of words and at the same time made them do so much overtime, on such a scale. 

Back at the OED: words are amoral, promiscuous drunks at a party. They do not want to be alone. They want to be in groups, and they don’t care what the group is doing: riot, orgy, philosophical debate, or a riotously philosophical orgy. They don’t care. Try taking ‘love’ home and putting it in your poem and its friends, neighbors, relatives, old school mates, and the ghosts of all its ancestors will try and gatecrash your poem[xvi].

You meet autumn, the most beautiful word at the party. You take autumn home and no matter what you do to or with autumn, the ghost of John Keats will be sitting at the foot of the bed, no doubt paring his fingernails, and muttering in between bouts of coughing: ‘I did it better two hundred years ago’. What’s worse, as far as your ego is concerned, autumn will be enthusiastically nodding in agreement.

Some words look innocuous and you wake up to find they are wanted for their role in crimes against humanity.

The London Review of Books (4th July 2013) published a poem by Ciaran Carson called Orange. It is a poem about an orange. Carson has lived in Belfast all his life, through what is euphemistically called ‘The Troubles’. For an Irishman, especially a Belfast man, Orange is not an arbitrary acoustic sign representing ideas not things, it is a history of sectarian violence. Orange hangs out with division, hatred, anger, pride, fear, resentment, and persecution. To keep all those things out of the poem, so that the poem about an orange is a poem about an orange, is a brilliant performance.

What I’m leading to here is simply how good Joyce is at controlling words. Any decent writer does this but the scale of Joyce’s achievement is worth considering. To do that from a writer’s perspective I’d invite you to imagine setting the following creative writing exercise, though I do stress, Imagining.

The scenario is this; a man in his forties is sitting on a beach late in the evening, he is watching a much younger girl, she may be in her late teens. He is masturbating. She knows he is, and she may be enjoying the thought.

Your task is to write this so that it doesn’t sound like a scene from a pornographic movie, and doesn’t automatically invite or encourage us to criticize or condemn, dismiss or disparage the participants. You are going to have to make sure that a host of words and their associations don’t leak into the description. I can almost guarantee that your imaginary students will fail. Rather than do the exercise, you could watch the Gertie scene in the film Bloom, which I find embarrassing and compare it to the written version.

Joyce, like Chaucer, reminds us that there is nothing, that is not a fit subject for poetry if, big if, you are in control of the words. Pound disagreed. He didn’t like Bloom farting at the end of ‘Sirens’ (Episode 11)[xvii]. But if Joyce is controlling the words, using them carefully, as Alice would admire, no writer has ever made them sweat more for their Friday pay packet.

Back at our party, the polymorphous perverts of the dictionary are the pronouns. They don’t care who what where when why or how, they just want to attach themselves to as many other words as they can. Controlling them is difficult. Exploiting them is brilliance. A small example of this would be Sir Thomas Wyatt’s well-known poem that begins ‘They flee from me that sometime did me seek’. A pronoun with no antecedent starts the poem and is the subject of verbs which can either refer to people or wild animals. The effect of this ambiguity is the dream like quality for which the first stanza is famous.

Joyce doesn’t do this over seven lines, he exploits the pronouns over a whole book. All day, at the back of Bloom’s mind is Boylan. How do we know this? Beaufoy of the Titbits would have written:

As he perambulated the familiar streets of Dublin, Leopold Bloom often found himself unavoidably thinking, as he did even now, of Boylan and the unimaginably terrible events that would inevitably eventuate in his own dear domicile in Eccles street when the clock finally tolled 16 hundred hours blah blah.

Joyce early on, unhinges the third person masculine pronoun: so that every time Bloom uses it, Boylan is not far away. Even before we know Bloom is thinking about him, we read on p68 ‘Wander along all day. Might meet a robber or two. Well, meet him. Getting on to sundown.’ Who is this him? Grammatically Turko the Terrible is the only antecedent but we know Bloom won’t meet Turko the Terrible and there are five short sentences between his name and this pronoun.  Five pages later (p73) Bloom is at it again: ‘There’s whatdoyou callhim out of. How do you do? Doesn’t see. Captain you know just to salute bit of a bore. His back is like that Norwegian sea captains. Wonder if I’ll meet him today’. In both cases, what could be a stray pronoun is signalled as significant by its repeated pairing with ‘meet’. Bloom’s mind slides on that pronoun. However, Boylan, as explicit antecedent, is missing from both these examples. He’s not named til several pages later. It’s only when you reread the book, that they make sense. Joyce has already prepared us for this by the way he introduces Molly on the first page of ‘Calypso’ (Episode 4) (p53). In turn this sets us up for the way he plays with pronouns in Molly’s chapter at the end of the book.

So to wrap this up. I think it’s obvious that writing like Ulysses or In Parenthesis challenge the conventional critical categories at our disposal[xviii]. However, without defining my terms, I’ve discussed Modernist, Successful and Poem.

I haven’t touched on Long.

For two reasons: modernist poets developed a poetics which made the long poem desirable but gave them no way of structuring one. That’s a huge topic: a discussion of historical poetics that can’t be simplified without distortion. 

But the thought I’d like to leave you with is this:

I suspect we’d all agree that The Waste Land is a successful poem written by a ‘Modernist’. If it isn’t, then nothing is. My other candidate for that description is Bunting’s Briggflatts. I would argue they are the only two successful ‘poems’ of that type in English. But at roughly 400 and 700 lines each, are they Long poems? If The Waste Land and Briggflatts are long poems, then what is The Fairy Queen?  And if they aren’t long poems, then Ulysses may be the only successful long work written by a modernist. 


Select Bibliography.

Page references to Ulysses are to The Oxford World Classics Edition (1993) edited by Jeri Johnson.

Quotations from Alice Through the Looking Glass are from The Annotated Alice edited by Martin Gardner (1960), New York, Clarkson N.Potter, Inc.

Dickie, M. (1986). On The Modernist Long Poem. Iowa City, University of Iowa Press.           

Dilworth, T. (2008). Reading David Jones. Cardiff, Universty of Wales Press           

Eagleton, T. (2007). How to Read a Poem. Oxford, Blackwell.

Elmann, R. (1959).  James Joyce New York, Oxford, University Press.           

Forster, R. F (1997 and 2003)  W.B.Yeats: a life (2 vols) Oxford University press. 

Harwood, J. (1995). Eliot to Derrida: The Poverty of Interpretation. New York, St. Martin's Press.           

Kenner, H. (1951). The Poetry of Ezra Pound. London, Faber and Faber.           

Perloff, M. (1985). The dance of the intellect: Studies in the poetry of the Pound tradition. London, Cambridge University Press.           

Read, F. (ed.) (1967) Pound/Joyce. New York, New Directions.



[i] For an entertaining and iconoclastic discussion see Harwood, J. (1995). Eliot to Derrida: The Poverty of Interpretation. New York, St. Martin's Press.

[ii] For a particularly bad example see Eagleton, T. (2007). How to read a Poem. Oxford, Blackwell.        

[iii] An opinion I share with both W.B.Yeats and Ezra Pound although what Pound thought of Joyce’s poetry is an interesting and tangled subject.  

[iv] ‘Canal Bank Walk’, ‘Come Dance with Kitty Stoblin’, ‘Lines Written on a Seat…’

[v] For the Modernist Poets see Dickie, M. (1986). On The Modernist Long Poem. Iowa City, University of Iowa Press. For Perloff and Kenner see especially Kenner, H. (1951). The poetry of Ezra Pound. London, Faber and Faber And Perloff, M. (1985). The dance of the intellect: Studies in the poetry of the Pound tradition. London, Cambridge University Press.

[vi] Wolfgang Iser is very good on Joyce and excess. See the chapter on Joyce in The Implied Reader.

[vii] Both Ellmann (p.104ff) and Forster (Vol. 1 p.276) relate the meeting and the various versions of it in their footnotes. Yeats believed this, it appears in various forms, sometimes elaborated more thoroughly, throughout his writings.

[viii] I wrote this before Heaney died. I mean no disrespect to the man. I have very little time for the “Let’s bash Seamus brigade”.

[ix] I would happily argue the Great Hunger is one of the Great Poems of the 20th century, if one accepts the possibility of a documentary tradition. It sits with MacNeice’s Autumn Journal, outside the mainstream of twentieth century poetics. It’s almost as unreadable as the Cantos, but for a very different reason: the grim unrelenting focus on M’s misery. 

[x] As far as I knew there were only two poems about Coventry. Hewitt’s beautiful ‘An Irishman in Coventry’ and Phillip Larkin’s ‘I Remember I Remember’ which I wish he’d forgotten.

[xi] I am grateful to Dr. Thwaites for reminding me of this latter fact.  Clive Hart’s Mapping of the ‘Wandering Rocks’ section is in Hart, C and Hayaamn, D. (eds.) (1974) James Joyce’s Ulysses Berkley, University of California Press.  ‘Gifford’ for non Ulysses addicts is Gifford, D. (1988) Ulysses Annotated 2nd edn, Berkley, University of California Press.

[xii] Episode 14 in Ulysses, notorious for Joyce’s bravura performance in mimicking language at different stages of historical development.

[xiii]  Not only the title of Joyce’s first collection but the (possibly apocryphal) source of the title. Hence not in italics.

[xiv] Bob Perelman, in The Trouble with Genius for example, writes of Ulysses; ‘The demands it makes on readers are so great it remains separate, a work that requires endless devotion to be read accurately’ and discussing the notorious difficulty of Stein and Pound and Joyce, ‘Their principal readers are writers, critics, and captive audiences of graduate students’. I would challenge the meaning of ‘read accurately’ or more simply say that as far as Ulysses is concerned, he’s wrong.

[xv] Originally, what follows was going to be a discussion of what Jean Jacque Lecercle calls the remainder in The Violence of Language London and New York, Routledge. I’m not sure I’m using his term accurately enough to be able to use it, nor am I convinced that what I am talking about is adequately summarized by the term. However I would like to acknowledge the debt, and to Derek Attridge’s Joyce’s Affects which lead me to Lecercle in the first place.

[xvi] Evan Boland’s Against Love Poetry plays out the problems of trying to write a love poem that reflects lived experience. It contains the memorable ‘Quarantine’ which I’m tempted to describe with words like Harrowing and Unforgettable.

[xvii] See Pound’s Letter to Joyce dated 10 June 1919 in Read, F (ed.) (1967) Pound/Joyce. New York, New Directions. (p.157-58).

[xviii] This activity is horribly circular:  If I say Ulysses is a poem, then I imply it can be read as a poem, not as prose, but to prove Ulysses is a poem I’d have to redefine ‘poem’.  If I redefine the conventional category ‘poem’ then the conventional ways of reading a poem, which are based on that conventional category, would no longer be valid. To say Ulysses can be read as a poem is not the same thing as claiming it is a poem, because you can read anything as though it’s a poem. Stanley Fish in ‘How to Recognise a Poem When You See One’ proved you can read a list of names as a poem, but made the mistake of confusing what you can do with something with what it is.