What does Fritillarian even mean anyway?

Michael Grieve
Thursday 25 June 2015


A few months ago I was sitting in front of my computer with a research proposal, a supporting letter from my supervisor, and a statement `about my leadership goals all pretty much complete. It was ready to convert to pdf, attach to an email, and send…apart from the title. Y’know, the bit that gets published on websites and stuff. Great.

Let’s backtrack a bit. My research is on the work of the Irish poet Paul Muldoon. He published his first collection when he was still in university, he’s won too many prizes to mention, he teaches at Princeton, and his poems are weird. I’m focusing on his 2010 collection. It’s called Maggot,  a word that has about five different definitions, all of which Muldoon plays with in the book’s 120 pages. This book has a lot in it: three famous elephants, a selection of helpful dolphins, ancient British history, less ancient American history, Irish myth, Classical myth, American foreign policy, forensic science, cannibalistic children, lots of car crashes, a Japanese murder scene, Samuel Beckett, etymological puns, and a whole poem about balls. And that’s just off the top of my head.

(Oh, I forgot to mention earlier, Muldoon was the Oxford Professor of Poetry between 1999 and 2004. The post required him to give a total of fifteen lectures, which he later published in his book The End of the Poem. These aren’t like regular literary criticism. He barely talks about what any of the poems ‘mean’. Instead, he looks at how they link up with other poems through sly intertextual reference, etymology, shared words, and he goes beyond other poems, looking at newspapers, translations, and biographies. About two thirds through the book he writes

I know this kind of reading may sometimes seem a little fritillarian (in the dicey sense which underlies both the butterfly and the flower)

invoking lilies, the butterflies fluttering between them, and the latin fritillus, or dice-box, which comes with its own sense of chancing it.)

Maggot is full of stuff, but is remarkably structured. There isn’t a poem in the book that doesn’t point to another one, and half the poems loop back on themselves too. I’m trying to read Maggot the way Muldoon reads everyone else, and that means making the Flitiralium Firltiralian Fritillarian Reading I eventually decided to mention in my project title.

For the past five weeks I’ve been grappling with the collection’s complex internal structure, and trawling Heaney, Yeats, Frost, Wilbur, Homer, Joyce and W. I. Kipedia to find the little phrases, images, and ideas that Muldoon invokes. I’m not going to come out of this internship being able to say quite what Maggot means. It doesn’t work in the ‘X is like Y so Z’ way, so I’m reading it according to its own rules: playful, surprising, and a little bit dicey. It’s proving difficult, but I’m learning a lot about my subject, the world, and just what it’s like to work on something of this scale. I’ve a lot still to do, and I wish all the other interns good luck for their projects – we’ll definitely need it because how we’re meant to concentrate when Greggs has stopped making macaroni pies, I don’t know.

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