Magazine article The Spectator

Poetry, Politics, Polemics

Magazine article The Spectator

Poetry, Politics, Polemics

Article excerpt

THE INVASION HANDBOOK by Tom Paulin Faber, L12 99, pp. 201, ISBN 0571209157

Poets are often the most recalcitrant ideologues, the most severe dislikers of the status quo. What the Muses forget to tell them is that their art is not in itself well equipped to advance their beliefs. Or, perhaps this applies only to the present day when opportunities for influencing public opinion are drowned out by the sheer volume of print and broadcast media and by the spread of literacy, ensuring that anything difficult or extreme won't get into the papers. Put bluntly, the best propaganda for revolutionary causes is not an analysis of civil corruption (Tom Paine at one time and Tom Paulin today) but straightforward partisanship coupled with a catchy tune (Rouget de Lisle's `La Marsellaise' and the Beatles' `Give Peace a Chance'.

Tom Paulin knows this and his spirited appearances in the press and on the box are intended to carry the fight into the market place. He is heir to the Puritan instinct that righteous indignation is a guarantee of rhetorical fireworks. There is a degree of contrariness in his prosecuting of his polemic. His extreme view of Northern Ireland is anti-Unionist but not plainly Republican. He is against the slipshod in university education and his heroes are the articulately angry democrats, such as Hazlitt. Lazier popularisers get no support from him. The appearance of The Invasion Handbook, his largest book of verse to date, obliges the reader to ask how far his poetry is of a piece with his polemic, and whether it also rejoices in simplifications and show-downs.

It is certainly political, though in unusually complex ways. The title is a misnomer. The argument reaches the second world war only towards the end. Chiefly it is a biopsy of the period Eliot called `l'entre deux guerres' and Auden in 1939 glossed partially as 'a low dishonest decade'. It contains much effective poetry but cannot properly be called a poem overall. It is as though the zeitgeist were lured into showing us the commonplace book it had kept between the triumph of Clemenceau at Versailles and the survival of Victor Klemperer from the Holocaust. Though a very politicised person, this zeitgeist is given to writing prose sketches of various sorts. There are walk-on parts for Lepidus the dispensable Triumvir, Brendan Bracken, Kurt Schwitters and Merz, James Joyce, the Bauhaus principals, Henry Williamson and Tarka, T. S. Eliot lunching with Montgomery Belgion, Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway, and Richard Hillary and The Last Enemy. Paulin's technique is easy to imitate. …

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