Tom Paulin 1949-
(Full name Thomas Neilson Paulin) English-born Northern Irish poet, playwright, essayist, journalist, critic, and editor.
The following entry presents an overview of Paulin's career through 2002. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 37.
One of the most respected poets to emerge from the Ulster province of Northern Ireland, Paulin has earned distinction for his challenging, politically-inflected verse that probes issues of cultural identity and champions the virtues of enlightened republicanism. In such volumes as A State of Justice (1977), The Strange Museum (1980), Fivemiletown (1987), and Walking a Line (1994), Paulin moves from trenchant critiques of state tyranny and sectarian prejudice to increasingly imaginative and ambitious forays into issues of history, language, and the intersection of art and politics. Reminiscent of his poetry, Paulin's critical writings espouse an affinity for English literary tradition and an independent-minded spirit borne of eighteenth-century Unitarian dissent.
Born in Leeds, England, on January 25, 1949, Paulin moved with his family to Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1953. Paulin's father was a liberal schoolmaster, and his mother was a doctor who had worked in London hospitals during World War II. His maternal grandparents were Ulster Scots, and Paulin strongly objected to their authoritarian Protestantism. As an adolescent he rebelled against Northern Ireland's Loyalist culture by reading the works of George Orwell, Russian novels, and other revolutionary texts. Paulin left Ireland to attend Hull University in England, earning a B.A. with first-class honors in English. He later studied at Lincoln College, Oxford University, completing a B.Litt in 1973. After leaving Oxford, Paulin taught English at the University of Nottingham from 1972 to 1989 and served as the university's Reader in Poetry from 1989 to 1994. In 1972, along with playwright Brian Friel, poet Seamus Heaney, and actor Stephen Rea, Paulin co-founded the Field Day Theatre Company in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, an organization devoted to producing touring plays in Ireland which dealt with the nation's social and political issues. The company would later stage productions of Paulin's plays The Riot Act (1984) and Seize the Fire (1990). In 1973 Paulin married Munjiet Kaur Khosa, with whom he has two sons, Michael and Niall. Paulin was awarded the Eric Gregory Award for poetry in 1976 and received the Somerset Maugham Award in 1978 for his first published volume of poetry A State of Justice. He received the Geoffrey Faber Memorial prize—which he shared with poet Paul Muldoon—in 1982 and was short-listed for the T. S. Eliot prize in 2000. Paulin has taught at a number of universities, including the University of Virginia and the University of Reading, while additionally serving as the G. M. Young lecturer in English at Hertford College, Oxford University. Paulin is also a well-known television and radio personality in the United Kingdom, frequently appearing as a member of the panel for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) television arts program Newsnight Review. In 2000 Paulin received a three-year fellowship from the National Endowment for Science, Technology, and the Arts to experiment with free verse.
The title of Paulin's first volume of poetry, A State of Justice, alludes to violent Old Testament retribution as well as religious and political divisions in Northern Ireland. Utilizing descriptive, laconic, and understated verse, Paulin renders the bleakness and suffering of the Ulster region while contrasting the demands of personal and social responsibility. In The Strange Museum, the grimness of historical contingency that dominated A State of Justice gives way to a new formal and aesthetic liveliness that sets hope against pragmatism and finds a measure of compassion and redemption beneath Ulster's civic strife. In such poems as “The Idea in History” and “Man with Hookah,” Paulin celebrates the diversity of world cultures and praises the grace of imaginative expression. The Liberty Tree (1983)—which contains selections from a previous volume The Book of Juniper (1981)—addresses aspects of Irish cultural identity and laments the contradictions of Ulster Protestantism. The metaphorical and imaginative quality of the collection is enhanced by Paulin's use of Ulster dialect and Irish arcana, suggesting both regional and mythic dimensions as well as a corresponding richness and depth. Paulin's satirical voice, alternately vehement and warm, also reveals the poet's progressive sense of imaginative freedom and his deepening attention to contemplation and vision. Fivemiletown, which some have argued marks the maturation of Paulin's poetic voice, explores the tensions between artistic vision and the force of history, specifically the political realities imposed by Ulster Protestantism. Fivemiletown expresses the isolation and frustration of such conditions in alliterative and loosely punctuated lines, incorporating both literary and vernacular references. The collection also draws broadly upon historical events, Masonic symbolism, European philosophy, and intimate personal experiences. Walking a Line, whose title alludes to artist Paul Klee, uses atypical typography and lyrical, open-ended verse to further examine the conflicting worlds of art and politics. Unlike Paulin's earlier work, which tended to be polemical, the poems in Walking a Line indulge in ambiguity and linguistic playfulness that acknowledges both the delight of artistic creation and the inescapable burden of history and social specificity. Paulin's next poetry collection, The Wind Dog (1999), similarly evinces an interest in the vibrancy and sensuousness of language, this time aligned with the highly imaginative art of Marc Chagall. The Invasion Handbook (2002), the first installment in a projected sequence of poems devoted to World War II, deals with European history from the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I, to the Battle of Britain during World War II. In this volume, Paulin presents a mosaic of verse and prose-like fragments that draw upon a large cast of historical figures and anecdotes—famous, obscure, and imaginary—in language that is steeped in the vernacular and literary allusion.
Paulin's critical works, Ireland and English Crisis (1984) and Minotaur: Poetry and the Nation State (1992), offer elaborations of his interest in the political dimension of artistic expression. Ireland and the English Crisis addresses the provincialism and contradictory allegiances that divide Ireland against itself and against England. In such essays as “English Now” and “A New Look at the Language Question,” Paulin discusses the creation of a nonsectarian Northern Irish republic, the history of the English literary canon, and the ways in which writers respond to political issues. Minotaur contains studies of various poets, from Christina Rossetti to W. B. Yeats, in which Paulin evinces his distrust of state authority and nationalism. He draws connections between each poet's unique worldview and the culture of their era, displaying the universality in poetic themes throughout the ages. Paulin turned his attention to the nineteenth-century English writer and journalist William Hazlitt in The Day-Star of Liberty: William Hazlitt's Radical Style (1998), a revisionary critique that champions Hazlitt as an underrated genius with Unitarian roots and a singular prose style. Paulin has also composed modern adaptations of two Greek tragedies for the Field Day Theatre Company: The Riot Act, a reinterpretation of Sophocles's Antigone, and Seize the Fire, a reinterpretation of Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound. In these plays, Paulin establishes parallels between the classic Greek myths and modern social issues—for example, in The Riot Act, King Creon's misuse of state power is compared to Great Britain's colonial rule of Ireland. Additionally, Paulin has edited two notable anthologies, The Faber Book of Political Verse (1986), which contains diverse examples of English, Irish, Scottish, American, and East European political verse, and The Faber Book of Vernacular Verse (1990), a collection of English poetry from William Shakespeare to D. H. Lawrence which displays how vernacular dialect and informal syntax has been used throughout the ages to subvert hegemonic Standard English.
Recognized as one of Northern Ireland's foremost poets, Paulin has been consistently praised for the intelligence, political engagement, and ambition of his verse. Although Paulin has frequently been connected with the “Ulster Poet” tradition, critics have argued that, unlike the works of Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon, his forthright political convictions serve as the dominant characteristic of his work and artistic persona. While his collections A State of Justice and The Strange Museum have attracted a positive overall critical response, Fivemiletown has been generally regarded as Paulin's most significant and successful poetic work. Though some have faulted Paulin's early verse as mere political diatribe, others have cited his later works—particularly Walking a Line and The Invasion Handbook—as examples of Paulin's increasingly imaginative and historically expansive poetic vision. However, the complexity of Paulin's work, most notably his incorporation of unfamiliar Irish dialect and obscure historical references, has caused several reviewers to label his verse as obtuse and hermetic. In addition, Paulin's politically-opinionated authorial voice, though frequently praised in his poetry, has often polarized the readers of his critical writings. While his supporters have approved of his radical dissent and rejection of state-sponsored aesthetics, his detractors have asserted that Paulin's analytical skills are marred by anger and accusatory rhetoric. Despite such misgivings, most critics have noted Paulin's ability to provide unique and incisive analysis of canonic literary works. His study of William Hazlitt in The Day-Star of Liberty has been well received by scholars and academics as a significant work of cultural recovery.
Theoretical Locations (poetry) 1975
Thomas Hardy: The Poetry of Perception (criticism) 1975
A State of Justice (poetry) 1977
Personal Column (poetry) 1978
The Strange Museum (poetry) 1980
The Book of Juniper [illustrations by Noel Connor] (poetry) 1981
Liberty Tree (poetry) 1983
A New Look at the Language Question (criticism) 1983
Ireland and the English Crisis (essays and journalism) 1984
The Riot Act: A Version of Sophocles's “Antigone” (play) 1984
The Faber Book of Political Verse [editor and author of introduction] (poetry and criticism) 1986
Fivemiletown (poetry) 1987
The Hillsborough Script: A Dramatic Satire (play) 1987
The Faber Book of Vernacular Verse [editor and author of introduction] (poetry and criticism) 1990
Seize the Fire: A Version of Aeschylus's “Prometheus Bound” (play) 1990
Minotaur: Poetry and the Nation State (essays and criticism) 1992
Selected Poems, 1972-1990 (poetry) 1993
Walking a Line (poetry) 1994
Writing to the Moment: Selected Critical Essays, 1980-1996 (essays) 1996
The Day-Star of Liberty: William Hazlitt's Radical Style (criticism) 1998
The Wind Dog (poetry) 1999
The Invasion Handbook (poetry) 2002
SOURCE: Shippey, Tom. “Tribalizing the Dialect of the Pure.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4571 (9-15 November 1990): 1198.
[In the following review, Shippey praises Paulin's editorial selections in The Faber Book of Vernacular Verse, though objects to his refusal to acknowledge class and ideology, rather than aesthetics, as the basis for drawing distinctions between linguistic conventions.]
Standard English, for some reason, arouses horrid passions. Some have pointed out that that is because it is seen as female: it is “pure”, but its “purity” is always under threat, if not “assault”, by those who wish to “corrupt” it. Fortunately there is...
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SOURCE: Young, Dudley. “The Sins of the Father.” Spectator 268, no. 8533 (1 February 1992): 29.
[In the following review, Young argues that Paulin's critical writings in Minotaur: Poetry and the Nation State are marred by academic political correctness.]
What is remarkable about these essays [in Minotaur: Poetry and the Nation State] on various poets (mostly English and American) of the past two centuries is the way they suddenly cave in here and there. Admirably and unfussily alert to what quickens and what deadens imagination, Paulin's lively prose is nevertheless frequently hijacked by the widespread modern malaise that would reduce life's...
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SOURCE: Carnell, Simon. “A Protestant Imagination.” New Statesman and Society 5, no. 189 (14 February 1992): 38.
[In the following review, Carnell commends Paulin's insightful critical readings in Minotaur: Poetry and the Nation State.]
Raymond Williams once remarked of the poetry criticism of fellow-Marxist Christopher Caudwell, that it was not specific enough to be wrong. It has long been the fate of even good critics committed, like Tom Paulin, to a social reading of poetic texts to be suspected of something like the investigation of intricate machinery with a mallet. Surely, the argument runs, in poetry, if nowhere else, there survives a “private lyric...
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SOURCE: O'Donoghue, Bernhard. “Involved Imaginings.” In The Chosen Ground: Essays on the Contemporary Poetry of Northern Ireland, edited by Neil Corcoran, pp. 171-87. Chester Springs, Penn: Ogmore-by-the-Sea Books, 1992.
[In the following essay, O'Donoghue provides an overview of Paulin's career and defends the political realism of his poetry as a integral aspect of his artistic imagination, noting Paulin's admiration of James Joyce and placing Paulin within the tradition of European Romanticism.]
The criticisms most commonly made of the poetry of Tom Paulin are, firstly, that it is over-cryptic, and, secondly, that it is more directly concerned with politics than...
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SOURCE: Diggory, Terence. Review of Minotaur: Poetry and the Nation State, by Tom Paulin. College English 55, no. 3 (March 1993): 328-33.
[In the following review, Diggory compliments Paulin's reading of poetry in Minotaur: Poetry and the Nation State, despite objecting to the volume's “heavy-handed” political commentary.]
In keeping with current trends in literary studies more broadly, recent studies of poetry focus on the various conditions that determine or at least constrain the acts of writing or reading. Practitioners of this approach agree in rejecting the assumption, grounded in the identification of poetry and lyric, that the poetic voice is...
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SOURCE: Potts, Robert. “Stand-offs with History.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4701 (7 May 1993): 26.
[In the following review, Potts praises Paulin's verse in Selected Poems, 1972-1990, commenting that “Paulin has developed an endearing and effective vehicle for his political commitments.”]
Tom Paulin's poetry, like his criticism, has been as much a questioning of national identity as a quest for it, a troubled Protestant voice finding its roots in a dissenting republican tradition, loathing and loving the kitsch Britishness of Unionist culture, admiring English literature even when exposing the less appealing politics which underwrite it. Paulin's...
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SOURCE: Maguire, Sarah. “Dwelling with the Tongue.” Poetry Review 84, no. 2 (summer 1994): 70-1.
[In the following review, Maguire praises Paulin's blend of lyricism and “self-questioning” in Walking a Line.]
Nissen huts, bungalows, carports, studios, bars: hardly a poem goes by in Tom Paulin's glorious new collection, Walking a Line, without some building or other being brought to notice. And not only the building but its living space, its social and historical nexus, its place. This architectural sensitivity is nothing new in Paulin's poetry. From the very beginning his poems featured the ‘gantries, mills and steeples’, the ‘miles of...
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SOURCE: Lucas, John. “Free to Roam.” New Statesman and Society 7, no. 312 (22 July 1994): 44.
[In the following review, Lucas lauds Paulin's playful use of typography, language, and aural effects in Walking a Line.]
“To be one self is not to be.” The melancholy wit of Pessoa's remark anticipates by half-a-century one of the cherished commonplaces of postmodernism. But Pessoa knew what he was about when he farmed out his poems between four different personae. Each of them takes a line. By contrast, postmodernist writing inevitably toes the line of collapsed narrative, of author(ity). It's writing made for, and by, the computer: cut-and-paste, touch-of-a-button...
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SOURCE: Mackinnon, Lachlan. “Uneasy Swagger.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4762 (7 August 1994): 7.
[In the following review, Mackinnon admires Paulin's ambitiousness as a poet but finds shortcomings in the underdeveloped and suggestive verse of Walking a Line.]
In his early poem, “A New Society”, Tom Paulin longed for a world that would be “unaggressively civilian”, where “an unremarkable privacy” would be possible; although at first sight eirenic, the poem's subtext, a partial reversal of Larkin's judgments of his own world, showed a concern with poetry as a contribution to political discourse that has remained a constant in his work. In Liberty...
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SOURCE: Hofmann, Michael. “Sevenyearson.” London Review of Books 16, no. 18 (22 September 1994): 24.
[In the following review, Hofmann offers a positive assessment of Walking a Line, despite asserting that the collection is a “transitional” work that does not match the brilliance of Fivemiletown.]
Everybody knows—Paul Muldoon said it on the radio recently—that writing poetry can only get harder the more you keep at it. Against that is the belief, or perhaps the determination, that it shouldn't. That instead of the diminishing returns, spending twice the time saying half as much twice as cumbrously/flashily/winsomely, one should use craft and...
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SOURCE: Schwartz, Sanford. Review of Minotaur: Poetry and the Nation State, by Tom Paulin. Comparative Literature Studies 32, no. 4 (1995): 539-42.
[In the following review, Schwartz commends Paulin's historicized literary criticism in Minotaur: Poetry and the Nation State but finds his extreme rage against state and aesthetic ideologies potentially counterproductive.]
The mythical minotaur, half man/half bull, was caged in a labyrinth designed by Dædalus, the artificer whose dramatic flight out of the labyrinth provided a later artificer, James Joyce, with a symbol for the transcendent power of art. In the introduction to his new book, [Minotaur:...
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SOURCE: Jones, Richard C. “Talking amongst Ourselves: Language, Politics, and Sophocles on the Field Day Stage.” International Journal of the Classical Tradition 4, no. 2 (fall 1997): 232-46.
[In the following essay, Jones offers a comparative analysis of Paulin's The Riot Act and Seamus Heaney's The Cure at Troy, both of which are adaptations of Greek tragedies by Sophocles.]
The Field Day Theatre Company in Derry, Northern Ireland, has made the politics of translation central to its theatrical mission since its inception in 1980. In The Riot Act by Tom Paulin, and The Cure at Troy by Seamus Heaney, the company has staged two...
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SOURCE: Taylor, D. J. “Dry Salvage.” New Statesman 127, no. 4388 (5 June 1998): 48-9.
[In the following review, Taylor commends Paulin's revisionary critical study of “Victorian journalist” William Hazlitt in The Day-Star of Liberty: William Hazlitt's Radical Style.]
Halfway through New Grub Street, George Gissing's bleak expose of the late-Victorian literary marketplace, there is a deeply symbolic episode in which Yule, the broken-down man of letters, publishes a book entitled English Prose of the 19th Century. The theme of this savagely written and, needless to say, poorly received opus is the injurious effect wreaked on contemporary literature...
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SOURCE: Cook, Jon. “A Hack who Happens to Be a Genius.” Financial Times (13 June 1998): 5.
[In the following review, Cook compliments Paulin for rescuing William Hazlitt from “cultural obscurity” in The Day-Star of Liberty: William Hazlitt's Radical Style.]
Both hated and admired in his own life-time, Hazlitt was a vehement presence in the highly politicised culture of Regency England. Since then his image has faded. Most of his work is out of print, although some survives in anthologies and selections. His memory has been honoured among an older generation of English radicals, and academic lit. crit. has turned its attention to him in its relentless pursuit of...
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SOURCE: Foot, Paul. “Excusing the Messenger.” Spectator 281, no. 8866 (11 July 1998): 31.
[In the following review, Foot commends Paulin's analysis of Hazlitt's prose in The Day-Star of Liberty: William Hazlitt's Radical Style but finds fault in Paulin's failure to address unflattering and contradictory aspects of Hazlitt's life.]
Throughout the reading of this thrilling book [The Day-Star of Liberty: William Hazlitt's Radical Style] I was haunted by a memory. In 1991, when I was working on a radio programme about poetry and revolution, Fiona Maclean of the BBC instructed me to interview a reader in poetry at Nottingham University I had never heard of...
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SOURCE: Garnett, Mark. Review of The Day-Star of Liberty: William Hazlitt's Radical Style, by Tom Paulin. Political Quarterly 69, no. 4 (October-December 1998): 472-73.
[In the following review, Garnett finds Paulin's analysis of William Hazlitt in The Day-Star of Liberty: William Hazlitt's Radical Style to be overly occupied with hidden meanings and lacking in political understanding.]
Hazlitt is a major figure in the English radical tradition. He bestrides both literature and politics as has only Orwell in our times. It needed courage for Tom Paulin to take up this project [The Day-Star of Liberty: William Hazlitt's Radical Style]. Any well-known...
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SOURCE: Matthews, Steven. “Protestant Vocables.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5056 (25 February 2000): 23.
[In the following review, Matthews praises Paulin's meditative tone and use of aural effects in The Wind Dog, calling the collection “a vitally important book.”]
Poets from Ireland have consistently placed much personal and political emphasis on the need to deploy form in ways that make their poetry consonant with the speaking voice. From Yeats to Eavan Boland, from Heaney to Paul Muldoon, this ambition has set a marker of their particular perspective on tradition. However, even as his attention here remains intensely focused on Ireland's divided...
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SOURCE: Paulin, Tom, Colin MacCabe, and Bethan Marshall. “Interview: Tom Paulin Talks to Bethan Marshall and Colin MacCabe.” Critical Quarterly 42, no. 1 (spring 2000): 86-99.
[In the following interview, Paulin discusses his views on religious tradition and radical dissent, anti-Semitism in the work of T. S. Eliot, ignorance of canonical literature, and contemporary Irish and British politics.]
[MacCabe]: Tom, would you like to start by describing your own intellectual formation?
[Paulin]: I was born in England, baptised Church of England, attended the Church of Ireland when I was a kid—we went to the north of Ireland in 1953 when...
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SOURCE: Richards, Shaun. “Into That Rinsing Glare?: Field Day's Irish Tragedies.” Modern Drama 43, no. 1 (spring 2000): 109-19.
[In the following essay, Richards compares and contrasts Paulin's Seize the Fire with Seamus Heaney's The Cure at Troy, drawing attention to Paulin's portrayal of Prometheus as a revolutionary hero.]
At a symposium named “Writers on Stage” (Peacock Theatre, Dublin, July 1997), Seamus Deane commented that while many contemporary Irish playwrights may refer to the political situation in works that “can have great emotional appeal,” they are still limited in that “they do not involve, or the manifestation of such...
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SOURCE: Hamilton, Christopher. Review of The Day-Star of Liberty: William Hazlitt's Radical Style, by Tom Paulin. Southern Humanities Review 34, no. 3 (summer 2000): 266-68.
[In the following review, Hamilton criticizes Paulin's failure to address the contradictory personality and political convictions of William Hazlitt in The Day-Star of Liberty: William Hazlitt's Radical Style.]
Tom Paulin has set himself an ambitious task in the present book [The Day-Star of Liberty: William Hazlitt's Radical Style]: to bring the work of William Hazlitt to the attention of a literary public which seems to have forgotten him—or never to have paid him much attention....
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SOURCE: “Tom Paulin, Walking a Line, and Paul Klee.” Cambridge Quarterly 31, no. 1 (2002): 57-75.
[In the following essay, the critic contends that Paulin's poetry in Walking a Line reveals an avant-garde aesthetic that, like the experimental artwork of Paul Klee, pushes beyond rational experience and political engagement to explore the limits of language and representation.]
In Walking a Line my interest is in the dangerous edge of things.
Tom Paulin (1996)1
Since his initial publication of A State of Justice (1977), Tom Paulin as...
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SOURCE: Newey, Adam. “Colonised by Words.” New Statesman 131, no. 4579 (18 March 2002): 52-3.
[In the following review, Newey offers praise for the poems in The Invasion Handbook, which he favorably compares to T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land.]
I suspect that Tom Paulin's latest collection [The Invasion Handbook] will appeal to one (admittedly large) generation, and pass all others by. By which I mean the generation whose parents experienced total war or occupation, and for whom the years 1939-45 stand out as the glowering landmark that dominates and defines our moral and political landscapes. Those old enough to have experienced the war may find this...
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SOURCE: Porter, Peter. “Poetry, Politics, Polemics.” Spectator 288, no. 9065 (4 May 2002): 41.
[In the following review, Porter lauds Paulin's complex historical and political perspective in The Invasion Handbook, though suggests that the volume resembles prose more than poetry.]
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...
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SOURCE: Kermode, Frank. “Reports from the Not Too Distant Canon.” London Review of Books 24, no. 10 (23 May 2002): 9.
[In the following review, Kermode commends the ambition and sophistication of The Invasion Handbook, though notes that the volume's many obscure references may require supplementary reading.]
This book [The Invasion Handbook] is a sequence or collection of poems and other things concerning events in Europe in the period between the Treaty of Versailles and, broadly speaking, the Battle of Britain. Some of the events and personalities, like the Treaties of Versailles and Locarno, are considerately annotated, but others, some of them...
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SOURCE: Laird, Nicholas. “The Poet's Ulcer.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5179 (5 July 2002): 5-7.
[In the following review, Laird offers a negative assessment of The Invasion Handbook, which he judges to be “a welter of misplaced aggression and blame.”]
Tom Paulin is an angry man. Like most converts, he has a zealous disposition. His opinions have frequently caused offence, most recently when he is alleged to have told an Egyptian newspaper that “Brooklyn-born” Jewish settlers in Israel “should be shot dead”, and on the BBC's Late Review when he said that British Paratroopers present at Bloody Sunday were “thugs sent in by public...
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