Paul Muldoon: “Tea”

old tea in pot (detail)

TEA
I was rooting through tea-chest after tea-chest
as they drifted in along Key West

when I chanced on ‘Pythagoras in America’:
the book had fallen open at a book-mark

of tea; a tassel
of black watered silk from a Missal;

of a tea-bird’s black tail-feather.
All I have in the house is some left-over

squid cooked in its own ink
and this unfortunate cup of tea. Take it. Drink.

Paul Muldoon  (b. 20 June 1951)

Paul Muldoon read this poem (a favorite of mine) on Stephen Colbert’s show last night.  Watch it.  Delight.

Image: detail from old tea in a pot by harry harris

~ by matt on 20 June 2009.

12 Responses to “Paul Muldoon: “Tea””

  1. […] how Stephen Colbert tried to popularize poetry by reading one of Prof. Muldoon’s works, “Tea”. Poetry is not cool in today’s America. In a country with a strong democratic spirit, perhaps […]

  2. […] TEA I was rooting through tea-chest after tea-chest as they drifted in along Key West […]

  3. Thanks for this.

    What does he mean by “fallen open at a book-mark
    of tea,” I wonder.

    I enjoyed the reading of it on Colbert, especially after hearing Colbert read Ulysses online. Nice voices both.

  4. Thanks for your comment, Showalt.

    I read Muldoon’s “Tea” as a poem about poems, a kind of ars poetica. If I were forced (as in a college blue book) to give some meaning to “book-mark / of tea” I’d argue for “poem.” Of course, I’d then argue against attaching too much weight to “what” the poem means, as opposed to “how.” (I think that’s Muldoon’s point too, but he can speak for himself and does)

    “Sound meaning” overlaps with what we normally think of as meaning too. The line enjambs on “book-mark” which breaks the strict end rhyme of the first stanza and seems to lead naturally into “tassel” (which does not lose “tea” vessel, as cup is suggested via tasse or demi-tasse). Once you’ve got “tassel”, then “Missal” surprises though the rhyme is back. Now you’ve got some tension going between apparent extremes of logic (Claude Levi-Strauss) and faith (liturgical how to’s). And so it goes, and it goes, in my ears at least.

    By the time we are urged to “Take it. Drink” we already have. As you suggest, a wonderful poem.

    Thanks again.

  5. […] Stephen & Paul Muldoon’s reading of Tea?  Muldoon has posted numerous recordings of his poems – they’re wonderful poems, and […]

  6. I too enjoyed hearing them read it, and thanks for post it. The beginning and end are cool, but this part seems very labored, thorny: “the book had fallen open at a book-mark / of tea; a tassel / of black watered silk from a Missal; / of a tea-bird’s black tail-feather.” Maybe the poem would be better this way:

    TEA [Edited]
    I was rooting through tea-chest after tea-chest
    when I chanced on ‘Pythagoras in America’:
    the book had fallen open at a book-mark

    of tea; a tassel [like] some left-over
    squid cooked in its own ink
    and this unfortunate cup of tea. Take it. Drink.

  7. I was just heard of Muldoon from watching him on Colbert. I am fascinated by the few poems by Muldoon that I have read. I am new to this, but to me, “tea” represents the curiosity we feel when we are sifting through books at a library. I would not have gotten the ‘tassel/demitasse’ reference if it weren’t mentioned to me. After reading it through a few times, what struck me was all the blackness- the tea bag is black, the missal would be black, the tassel is black watered, the feather is black, and then I suppose the ink of the squid is black also. What this does is explore the richness of the color black by allowing the reader to meet a variety of things that are colored in black. The few poems that I have read have struck me as similar to Emily Dickinson in visual appeal and descriptiveness. I also see similarity to the childrens books of Dr. Seuss in the playful, whimsical way he lets his ‘story’ twirl around his fingers, so to speak, and then dabs it down onto his canvas. Obviously, he has chosen black as his medium here.

  8. My belated gratitude to “G the Art Spy” (!) and Julie for your thoughtful comments on Muldoon’s poem. Rewriting is the ultimate test of any poem, so G you’re definitely on the right track. Though I would definitely contest / not rooting the poemy in Key West! (Which suggests scavenging / if you catch my meaning…)

    I like your reading too, Julie. I tend to think of the voice in this poem as coming from a deep solitude and drift–blackness seems consistent with that setting…thank you both for sharing your comments! m

  9. My belated gratitude to “G the Art Spy” (!) and Julie for your thoughtful comments on Muldoon’s poem. Rewriting is the ultimate test of any poem, so G you’re definitely on the right track. Though I would definitely contest / not rooting the poem in Key West! (Which suggests scavenging / if you catch my meaning…)

    I like your reading too, Julie. I tend to think of the voice in this poem as coming from a deep solitude and drift–blackness seems consistent with that setting…thank you both for sharing your comments! m

  10. The unfortunate cup of tea refers to an album by the Irish 70s folk rock group Horslips. Seamus Heaney is married to a sister of one of the band.

  11. Tony–i”m sorry to have missed your comment for a while, as I’ve only just returned from a period of time during which I’ve been way way off the grid. Great comment, thank you! Readers: how does Tony’s insight on the deep allusions in Muldoon’s “Tea” affect your reading of the poem?? Matt

  12. You guys missed the entire point. The book fell open to literally a bookmark of tea. He used a tea bag as a bookmark. The following lines are all similes and metaphors to characterize the tea bag (but not squid cooked in its own ink, that’s just another metaphor for a cup of tea).

    Was trying to find inspiration so I googled this poem after remembering seeing it on Colbert. I’m so glad I found it.

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