Align with Dissent: Alex Preston Pays Tribute to His Mentor, the Poet and Critic Tom Paulin
Preston, Alex, New Statesman (1996)
whenever I'm a panellist on the BBC's Review Show, I get a slightly.eerie feeling as the lights come up and Kirsty Wark or Martha Kearney introduces the programme. It's as if I'm still somehow at home, a pimply teenager sprawled on the rug in front of an archaic Grundig, watching Late Review. As the discussion begins and I mount the perilous critical tightrope between pretentious twerp and philistine berk, I half expect Tom Paulin to stride on to the set to perform a detailed Marxist analysis of Toy Story 2.
Throughout its various incarnations. The Review Show has been one of the few slots on television where culture is treated with the sort of respect it gets on the other side of the Channel. For many - though he hasn't featured on the programme now for almost four years - Paulin remains the tutelary spirit of our most intelgent television show.
I applied to study at Hertford College because of Paulin's appearances on Late Review. He was a celebrity intellectual at Oxford, one of the few living poets I'd heard of at 17. What's more, a volume of his critical essays - Writing to the Moment - had shown me life beyond the dry box-ticking of A-level English. At Hertford, his tutorials were legendary. We learned to read again at the age of 18, learned how to pick literature apart to expose what Paulin calls "the subterfuge text" that lies within. We would leave his slightly dusty, book-lined study fizzing, inspired. Some say that Paulin's criticism fails to distinguish "between the truly perceptive and the wildly fanciful". Yet this was what made him such a great teacher: the courage of his readings gave us courage to follow our own critical instincts, to dive deep beneath the obvious surface of literature.
With the paperback publication this summer of The Secret Life of Poems, Paulin has flung open those cloistered tutorials to a wider audience - a typically democratic act. The book is part anthology of poetry in English, with poets from the 15th century to the present day, and part critical guide, as each poem comes with an essay in which he uses his characteristic blend of close reading and historical context to bring the verse to life. It is a book that manages to stay true to its subtitle (A Poetry Primer) while never failing to remain intellectually rigorous. Paulin's great gift is his ability to write from inside each poem, convincingly demonstrating how rhythm, metre and what he describes as "the acoustic adhesiveness of words and patterns of sound" combine to deliver a richness of meaning that we only sense at first reading.
The poets collected in the book are largely of the canon - Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Larkin, Heaney. Paulin is asserting the canonical way of studying English rather than the modular approach now prevalent at English universities, which he sees as "an academically indefensible reform" because it allows students "to avoid studying Milton". Here we have all the greats, and the more "difficult" they are, the more the accompanying essay reveals to the reader layers of significance. Yet there is something here more than a "mere" collection of important English-speaking poets.
Paulin's most recent collection of poetry. The Road to Inver (2004), presents verse "translations" of the great European poets--Goethe, Verlaine, Francis Ponge, Rilke, Mallarme, Eugenio Montale - which, while retaining the essence of the original, modernise and relocate them to address Paulin's specific concerns: Ireland, the Middle East, the uglier histories of the 20th century (he updates the 17th-century Prussian poet Simon Dach to criticise Heidegger's Nazism, for instance). Here, he fashions for himself a European literary tradition that conforms to his personal aesthetic and political sensibilities - dissenting, republican, vernacular-even when (as with Goethe) these elements did not exist in the original text. …