Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Tom Paulin, The Secret Life of Poems.


Tom Paulin has a reputation as the scourge of the cultural establishment. Often the tv critic who kicks against the pricks and does not feel (rightly so) the need to court popular opinion and just be a likeable media personality. Perhaps, therefore, The Secret Life of Poems, carries something of an interrogatory tone: the secret life will be dragged alive and kicking into the bright gaze of Paulin’s stare. A few critics have read his latest book in this way, finding it rough and rude and unfinished. This is to do a fascinating book a real injustice! (Is that ! too much? A reading of Paulin’s book leaves a reader questioning practices). Paulin has a forensic intelligence...in this volume he also comes across as a great reader of human life.

The Secret Life of Poems is called “A Poetry Primer”. This it certainly isn’t. It is a “primer” in the painting sense. A layer of interpretation is applied to the poem: as a canvas is primed, then parts of the canvas are worked on. Paulin works on the areas that interest him and this is what gives the book its vigour and life. Instead of the usual polished lit crit approach, a reader is introduced to lines of enquiry…and different lines of enquiry in different poems. Some of the strongest insights come when Paulin begins in one direction and ends in another. So, he starts off looking for the weakness in Lowell’s “Sailing home from Rapallo” and finishes by finding that it has a “finer structure”. Paulin’s method includes an elasticity— how far might a poem be stretched before it starts to resist the approach. Such a method could become a kind of torture…not so in Paulin’s hands…he is aware (as a poet) of the poetic medium and how far the body of the poem can be shaped.

There are three principal strengths to this book. Firstly, it ranges from the English Renaissance to contemporary poetry. Secondly, it selects from American and English traditions. None of the Silliman “School of Quietude” nonsense for Paulin. Thirdly, it follows what is often neglected in poetry criticism: the meaning in the music of the poem, how sound and stress work within the sensitive reader to draw connections and secret/implied links.

Paulin’s reading of Milton is interesting because he finds fault with Milton and from those faults comes to an appreciation of deeper virtues. His analysis of Lowell is engaging. He approaches the dark elements of (Ted) Hughes. His reading of Muldoon's "Quoof" hears all of the poems subtleties. Herbert's "The Flower" blossoms. Keats’ “To Autumn” is wonderfully re-imagined as a piece of sociological and political criticism, rather than a piece of Romantic pastoral. And that points to the strong element of Paulin’s readings and also his occasional weaknesses. When Paulin senses that a poem is earthed in politics, he is a gardener gardening. When poems becomes rarified, he produces a battle of wills. Strangely, his reading of “Sailing to Byzantium” is one of the least satisfactory. Paulin’s Irish bias gives Yeats a place. But “Sailing to Byzantium”, though it talks of youth and age, is grounded in a virtual, occult world, not Ireland. The poem was in early form a draft for Yeats’ initiation into the grade of Adeptus Exemptus in The Golden Dawn. This was the Jupiter grade looking towards the Saturn grade. Written some years later than this, “Sailing to Byzantium” gazes from the land of Jupiter (and youth) towards the city of Saturn (old age and eternal wisdom). Byzantium is more than Wisdom. It is the eternal land across the abyss of the Tree of Life— and entrance into eternity and “unageing intellect”. This is a context of no interest to the non-hermetic Paulin. If there is another flaw in the book it is the fact that Paulin sometimes over reads. The critic Edna Longley has stated that Paulin’s criticism sometimes becomes a criticism of what Paulin has recently read in his head. That comment would seem to be true of his approach to Craine Raine. One common word is enough to send Paulin into detailed comparisons with Larkin. It is as if Raine has suddenly acquired Pound’s logopoetic precision in Mauberley and one word implies a treatise. But this ought to be overlooked. Paulin is someone who reads poetry, for the words, for the texture, not just for the general feeling. He reads to find the new--not what a hundred other critics have trotted out in tribute to each other (rather than the poem).

There is much to enjoy in Paulin’s The Secret Lives of Poems. And the book is provocative, speculative, experimental, brilliant, simply a book that takes the reader into a labyrinth of sounds and contexts. Dull this book isn’t. The final poem investigated is McKendrick’s “Apotheosis”. It makes a fitting ending to a study that metamorphoses literary criticism.

4 comments:

Id it is said...

"a canvas is primed, then parts of the canvas are worked on" that sounds most intriguing! Though I wonder what happens to those parts he ignores; are they left for the reader to chew upon and wonder why Paulin chose to ignore them.

Further on in your post you point out that at times Paulin 'over reads' and tends to color a piece with biases from his recent readings. Would that not translate into extending the 'body' of a poem beyond it's elasticity; perhaps snapping the reader out of his poetic trance?

Literary criticism can be tricky and is often nuanced by the socio political trends of the time so I'm a trifle wary of this genre, but your post makes me want to read this one!

Eshuneutics said...

To some extent, all criticism leaves canvas, wouldn't you say? Paulin approaches the poem with a poet's eye, so with Milton he does not take theological lines. Of course, this is a distortion of Milton, but no different from the many criticisms that read Milton as he never wrote a poem. The over-reading is a good poit. Strangely,, the over-reading does not break the poem, it sort of deforms it into something more interesting than it is. It is like glass being melted into the bottle.

Id it is said...

You're right, all criticism does leave canvas,...but then is it a canvas that has initially been 'primed' by the one critiquing it?

I loved that image deforming; of glass being melted into a bottle! How very apt!

Eshuneutics said...

Yes, you are right here, now that I have thought about it. In his Ted Hughes, Paulin shows exactly this. He primes the canvas, then begins to read image by image through "Thistles". Suddenly, he gets to a point that is well known: Hughes worshipped (in religious sense) brute power (in nature). Paulin's thought gets to a point where he touches upon this, but side-steps it. Hughes is touching upon race memory and brutality grown in the soil like Viking raiders who pludered the Anglo Saxon heritage (in Yorkshire). Paulin does not want to go into this territory. His priming of canvas and leaving it can become an annoyance/weakness at times. And leave a few readings incomplete as a half-done portrait.