noisy dollops

Tom Paulin – The Secret Life of Poems

The critical labours of Tom Paulin have always invested themselves in the orality of poetry, the poem as speech-act and as a matter of soundings. As his 'Sentence Sound', from The Wind Dog, confirms:

here poems are often put together
out of fricatives labials and peachy vowels
here prose is stretched or polished
so it doesn't try imitate
the clearness of that blank windowpane

In the centre-piece of that collection, Paulin, in his patented sidelong wry-mouthed manner, edges towards an enunciation of the aesthetic:

walking the plank
we turn the bridge into a thunderbox
blocks of dead sound
drop bock bock bock
into the air
as though something formal and dreadful
is both happening and about to happen
on this wooden platform
sound is always ahead of itself
at least sound that has an echo
and a living skin of air
ambient air
around it
so sound is both Being and Becoming...

Paulin's reading is alive to the acoustic nuances of poetic language. It adapts, with an almost miraculous elasticity, to the essence of experience. It shucks off the sclerotic stiffening of print, of Standard English; not to mention that of the iambic pentameter. And, by implication, it raises the banner for certain forms of political dissidence, existing beyond the pale of State surveillance. Paulin's fascination with the unassuming subversions of, say, Emily Dickinson or Christina Rossetti is of a piece with such a coded radical politics. He scrutinises poetry for the aural vestiges of dissent, hinted at in a line break or smuggled in the priest's hole of a caesura. 'Being and Becoming' precisely figures as a process resistant to political subornation – one too slippery and intangible, like a blob of mercury, for the State to lay its hands on. If poetry 'rides on its own melting' (in Robert Frost's phrase, one greatly suggestive to Paulin), it cannot petrify into propaganda or langue de bois.

Paulin distrusts elegance and polish, favours gaucherie - “..the sentences gawky or a tad misshapen – spelt wrong or babu even...” - and the veering self-corrections of improvised speech. It streaks into our consciousness as a jazz free-form, airily untouched by the taint of public discourse, yet instinct with socio-historical forces nonetheless. Paulin's criticism takes the historicity of a poem as a given. He can unpack a modest lyric until it yields up a bounty of meaning local to its composition. "It is the acoustic adhesiveness of words and patterns of sound that fascinates me..."

From his essay collection Minotaur onwards, Paulin has assembled his own counter-canon, poets to whose work he has continually returned: Milton, Marvell, Clare, Dickinson, Rossetti, Hopkins, Bishop, inter alia. Each of these poets represents an attempt to work outside the mainstream of literary convention. Each, in their way, hymns a Non serviam through their poetry, rejecting the fixed, the lapidary, the orthodox. Paulin sees a kind of redemptive hope in their nonconformist Protestantism And detects the promise of the foundation of what Les Murray calls a 'vernacular republic' in their poetic example.

The 'critical donnée', Paulin explains in the introduction to his collection Crusoe's Secret, “..is less a piece of obscure knowledge than finding something hidden in the daylight, but that process is picky, sometimes obsessive, a matter of trusting hunches and intuitions, and weighing particular words that for reasons that aren't immediately apparent seem to stick.” A critical reading by Paulin of a poem can be an exhilarating business, as when he somehow manages to divine from a seemingly innocuous concordance of sounds a whole system of allusion. Poetry is a whispering gallery, even the briefest lyric utterance opening out to the full amplitude of history at the touch of Paulin's insistent interpretative sensibility.

'Trusting hunches and intuitions' makes for a criticism whose governing principle seems often to be the wild surmise. Yet Paulin, for all that he can exasperate, follows through, generally with more than qualified success. His sensitivity to the fine meshings of sound and meaning tends to have him pursuing a hunch almost to the point of the argument's collapse, as in his dense searching engagement with Keats's 'To Autumn': “The hedge-cricket I take to be a figure for members of the radical underground..” The sceptically-inclined will go no further. But Paulin gnaws away at these glimpsed suggestions with such brio, that you do get used to his antic swerving from one reference-point to another. The restlessness of his critical imagination dares us not to settle too easily into complacency, into an unreasoning faith that we know a poem.

The Secret Life of Poems is arranged as a series of short readings: guerilla raids on the articulate. None of the usual book-making apparatus – preface, introduction or notes – yet what Paulin might have written there is embedded in the readings themselves. “Poetry begins in speech,” he begins, “in the skipping rhymes and chants children make up in the playground and the street. It moves from there into the imagination and life of the common people – into rhymes, riddles, traditional songs – and is then sometimes collected – so that it moves from oral tradition, communal memory, into print.” Implied by this, is a narrative of cultural annexation. (Paulin may be dimly recalling Mandelstam's lines “But in books/Much loved, and in children's games I shall rise/From the dead to say the sun is shining.”) The free, metamorphic idyll of oral culture comes, in due process, to be severed from its vital roots and institutionalised: a figure for which would be the Enclosures so lamented by John Clare. The 'printed voice' (in the phrase lifted by Eric Griffiths from Browning's The Ring and the Book) is the medium through which that pristine lightsome energy of spoken poetry can be restored. (Paulin, in The Secret Life of Poems, goes even so far as to write of the 'redemptive nature of metre'.)

Edna Longley, in her Bloodaxe essays Poetry & Posterity, voiced her scepticism of Paulin's habits of mind – tournures d'esprit, if you will – and argued, with a grim persuasiveness, that their idiosyncrasies tended more often than not to show up the confusions in the 'psychological strata of Paulin's imagination'. She dismantles the 'false dichotomy' between oral and written poetry, pointing out, correctly to my mind, that “..the oral-written or vernacular-standard opposition simplifies the intricacies of rhythm, syntax and cadence.” (This latter opposition impoverishes, disastrously, a certain school of Scottish poetry that itself has an unbecoming habit of playing the class card – and now the patriotic card - to deflect any challenging critical debate.) “There are dangers in perpetual dissidence,” Longley argues; and, later, “..his criticism depends on poetic licence being infinitely renewable.”

Paulin's politics are apt to skew his readings – as Edna Longley dryly observed, “It is for Hazlitt scholars to decide whether The Day-Star of Liberty makes Hazlitt sound too much like a contemporary Northern Irish writer who founds his creative and cultural project on those Ulster Presbyterians whom the French Revolution turned into United Irishmen.” His 'ideological pigeon-holing of writers', strident as it is, strikes one as reductionist, and Paulin would do well to soft-pedal his obsessions, to complicate the fraught relationship between private inwardness and the public sphere, lest he make even the delicate wallflower of a poet like Emily Dickinson sound rather absurdly like Rosa Luxemburg.

Paulin the instinctively adversarial bruiser will always have his detractors. The flung-together messiness of his work does seem at times a little too contrived; and his curious, ad hoc, unsystematic apposition between formal and historical modes of interpretation - close reading muddled up with 'noisy dollops' of fact - succeeds only periodically. Yet we wouldn't do without him: Paulin affords a bracing corrective to the inbred phatic chunterings of the university English department. Literary criticism retains its urgency and relevance in his hands.

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