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 never any shortage of chivalrous self-appointed rescuers to rush forward and protect it from “solecisms”, “Americanisms” and other forms of the non-Standard-English Comus-rout: though one might think it rather depressing for them to discover, every time they turn their collective back, that the language has gone and got itself glued to another chair, under threat from some other vile enchanter. Does she like that sort of thing? If she does, maybe she should be allowed to follow her inclinations—change, indeed, even revert—rather than being continuously pestered by officious saviours.
What is Standard English anyway? One answer would be to say it is a system of (I make it) twenty vowel-phonemes. These, in speech, often cause offence. I personally hate it when official people appear on the television and talk about things like “faa-paa”, which I would call “fiye(r)-powe(r)”. Still, though I don't like the pronunciation, there's nothing wrong with the sound: I say it myself in other words. Those who defend Standard English are much more likely to say that this or that sound is “ugly”. H. C. Wyld, who should have known better, insisted that the long “a” of Standard in words like “bath”, “grass”, has an innate “solidity and dignity” absent from the common Northern “æ”. Does that mean that the language would be better-off if the opposite of “thin” were “fart”? It can't be said too often: language is a system of conventions, and these are valuable functionally, not aesthetically (which doesn't mean they can't function aesthetically).
The trouble is that language-conventions very soon draw round themselves a whole tangle of cultural and social attachments, which turn rapidly into stereotypes. As long as this stays on the level of sitcom (Bread,Auf Wiedersehen Pet,Henry V), it may do no great harm. Beyond that, it gets nasty, self-fuelling; and it can work either way. Speakers of Standard call speakers of non-Standard “lazy” and “careless” because of the way they speak (which need be neither). Sympathizers with non-Standard retaliate by writing off speakers of Standard as pompous blatherskites (Old Norse blathra ＋ skjota, before anyone calls it an “Americanism”): and many of them are. But it's not because they speak Standard English. In either case, if there is a fault, it's not in the language but in the culture with which that language is associated.
Tom Paulin understands this theory (I think) but is loath to accept it. His introduction to The Faber Book of Vernacular Verse reads like a string of epiphanies; he comes upon one form of non-Standard or another and sees in it something mystic, something exuded by the language. A bit of Huckleberry Finn remembered from primary schools has “a visionary actuality I still can't fathom”. A grammatical error in the last verse of St John's Gospel, and the King James version at that, betrays “spontaneous innocence … fresh and almost child-like”. A Belfast street-song moves from “lovely packed stresses” to “ecstatic tribal innocence”. In the vernacular, I'd be inclined...
(This entire section contains 1810 words.)
to say “Wheesht, Paulin, yer mare shits minnows”. More formally and more charitably, one might ask why critics of language should deny anyone his memories. But the answer would be: confusing language with the culture that produces it makes it as easy to misdirect hatred as love.
Paulin hates something he identifies with Standard English. It's vital to put in the dots over “hours” in Hopkins's line “What hours, O what black hoürs we have spent”, he says, to get the true “Ulster-Elizabethan” accent as opposed to the “standard, monosyllabic, very lightweight pronunciation owrs which has largely replaced it”. Well, see point about “faa-paa” above, but what's “lightweight” about it (or indeed Ulster-Elizabethan about “hoürs”)? It is very easy to set up a demotic voice against an “aristocratic or public school” one, and then to impute nature, passion, wildness, sensuousness, honesty, directness, and the rest to all features of the one, and a mere “uptight efficien[cy]” to even the neutral phonemic features of the other. But it's hitting the wrong target. It's no fairer, really, than its converse, which is telling Yorkshire school-children “We went home for us tea” is “vulgar” or “lazy”.
It also soon sounds overwrought. Paulin dislikes the “full patrician vowel”, and thinks that in the public world a “polished speech” is trying to obliterate all its competitors and make everyone talk the same way. “It may be the ruin of us yet”, he closes, threateningly. Well, it won't. Traditional accents in the British Isles are in retreat, and some forms of Black English are “decreolizing”, but at the same time upper-class Standard is less and less admired by all, is facing more and more serious competition world-wide, and is itself changing quite rapidly, like other forms of British English. One can't help thinking that the millennium would come if ever British speakers of English would stop hating each other as soon as they open their mouths, and would observe differences of language without instantly drawing moral conclusions from them.
That said, what image of the “vernacular” is Paulin presenting in this collection? He uses “vernacular” because he doesn't like the term “dialect”, remarkingly accurately that it sounds quaint and archaic, and less accurately that it is a means to “privilege Standard English” (though almost all writers of Standard have conceded that it too is just a dialect since at least the time of George Eliot and Middlemarch, Chapter Eleven). Quite a lot of his selections are, however, in dialect, Scottish, Irish, black or Northern. It is the others one turns to for the mystic, non-dialect but non-Standard quality which defines “vernacular”, and this seems to have several strands. One is ideological. Section Two here is called “Birds, Beasties, Bugs”, and includes a poem by Lawrence called “Mountain Lion”. It's about meeting two Mexicans in the mountains who have shot a puma, and it ends with the thought “how easily we might spare a million or two of humans / And never miss them / Yet what a gap in the world, the missing white frost-face of that slim yellow mountain lion!” The thought is much the same as Hopkins's “Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet” (which appears later in the collection), but the only non-Standard words in Lawrence's poem are bits of Spanish. It sounds as if Lawrence is writing off a couple of million Chicanos: open to misinterpretation, at least.
Another and worthier strand is the appreciation of spoken English, with its different rules and rhythms from written. Here Paulin has cast his net very wide, hauling in for example a good deal of Christina Rossetti, and making the point, by judicious juxtaposition, that even the standardest of authors, like Shakespeare or Donne, are capable of drawing on the sort of speech-rhythms—I would say specialized speech-syntax—which you find in children's rhymes or anonymous ballads or the works of unsophisticated amateur authors. Particularly provocative are some of the strings in the section on “The Realm of You”, where Tennyson (writing in careful Lincolnshire) imagines a spinster talking to her cats and explaining how much better off she is unmarried, and is set against Elizabeth Bishop's “Songs for a Colored Singer”, in similar but less sophisticated mode: or when Burns and Hardy on female betrayal are complemented by Bessie Jackson, “And now I'm tired / tired as I can be / and I'm going back south / to my used to be”. These do make a point about hegemony. Some of these authors are in, and some of them are out, and the collection asks what's the difference (other than, obviously, that some of them, Burns included, are bidialectals, with access to the language of power). There may be an answer to the question, but it's not one that readers of “hegemonic” collections are usually asked to find: point taken.
And yet even here streaks of “quaintness” appear, not always recognized. Hopkins gets a good innings all the way through, though where the “grammar of speech” is in a phrase such as “Strike you the sight of it?” beats me. We're also told that his poem “Inversnaid”—the “wet wilderness” one—has a “wild primitivist energy which ‘treads’ like a Highland clan loping down a brae into battle”. What about “degged with dew”? “Deg” comes from Old Norse dögg, which means of course “dew”. So it's “dewed with dew”. Hopkins was a collector for the OED (and you can't get much more Establishment than that) and no doubt knew the etymology perfectly well. As for “flitches of fern”, the OED entry revealingly cites Archbishop Parker (the man who founded the Parker Collection, and you can't get much more Establishment or more philological than that), “I would me flitche. … From hence to wilderness” (my italics). Hopkins's phrases may be good, but they've hardly got “vernacular authenticity”. They're practically professorial. I don't think that Paulin can tell the difference.
Maybe it doesn't matter. There's good stuff in this collection—Paulin's sympathies are readily engaged by comic defeats of the Establishment, like the West Indian poem on pasting the MCC, and also by pathos, which he picks out well: as in the ending of a Tony Harrison poem, where some lines are found while stripping wallpaper, “our heads will be happen cold when this is found”. He lets in samplers and graffiti and the genuine words of the voiceless. The real trouble is not his fault. Language in Britain is so mixed up with class that almost any statement about it is bound to be poisoned. The true answer (I think, but this is parti pris) lies not in promoting dialect or dehegemonizing Standard, but in realizing what a construct Standard is in itself. The critic who wrote that Black English be forms are “the product not of a language with roots in tradition but of ignorance of how language works” would not have had the face to say it if he'd known that be used to be the regular Southern form for are, to be replaced (by a Northernism) for very much the same reasons that are now leading/be now leading to further change. In a way—only one way—language isn't worth getting worked up about. It's not moral in itself. It's a pity to see it get tribalized.
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 complexities to a simple war between Us (the blamelessly victimised children) and Them (the wickedly empowered fathers). One might call this ‘Puritan Paranoia’, and it is an old complaint: its current version (aka PC = Political Correctness) is already disrupting academic life in America and looking to gain a foothold here. To find it stewing away inside the prose of one of Britain's better literary academics probably means that we should sit up and pay attention.
Consider, for example, the strangeness of Paulin's essay on Yeats' ‘Easter 1916’, originally given as a lecture at Sligo. Here one would expect to find the young Ulster buck going a few rounds with the venerable Anglo-Irish fox, and yet the match never takes place. Instead of taking on the poem (‘an extremely tired text’) Paulin tells the dreadful story of Terence MacSwiney's fatal hunger-strike, in an entirely unconvincing attempt to awaken the tired text by moving it out of Lit Crit's poetry museum and into the livelier world of ‘pamphlets and journalism’. En passant, he takes pot shots at George Steiner's ‘aristocratic’ leanings (tiens!), Cox's Black Papers, the Church of England, and a perfectly innocuous paragraph from Roger Scruton on the symbolic functions of monarchy.
More or less absolutely bughouse. Could it be that what has partly prompted this nonsense is simply a reluctance to address one of the master's great poems, one moreover in which the stoniness of the fanatic heart is movingly owned and disowned? And might one suggest that it is the untiring vigour of this poem that tires Paulin, jiggling him towards the bogus gods of ‘relevance’? One might: or at least I might, being one of those benighted souls who has exacerbated the tiredness of this text by writing about it at some length. Paulin's imagination may be honourably exiled in a dream of Irish nationalism; but for such exile not to implode upon its own paranoid vacuity, it must address the difficult ground of its beseeching. His refusal to show up and be numbered amongst and against the company gathered in ‘Easter 1916’ looks more than a little opportunistic, and certainly evasive.
The problem with the Puritan (as M. Arnold said to Milton) is his lack of amiability. With a genius like Milton we nonetheless dine sumptuously; but with an irascible Ulsterman like Paulin, our amiabilities are not only searchingly questioned but at times unjustly abused, usually in the name of some altogether unspecified politics of the disempowered.
If politics in the novel is like gunshot at a concert, as Stendhal wisely observed, the matter is even more parlous with poetry. Paulin is too good a critic not to know this. Why then does he, again and again, interrupt a lively discussion to wag the abusive finger? ‘Ha! This line is closet monarchist-sexist-capitalist-imperialist-anglo-catholic’ he shouts; and frequently he gets it wrong. It is very strange—almost as if he is being compelled against his better instincts to prove his right-on credentials (‘radical’ and ‘egalitarian’ his buzz words) by occasionally messing up the poem under consideration.
Here, for example, is a whopper: ‘T. S. Eliot's idea of tradition … still weighs like a nightmare on English literary studies’. Cheers from the oppressed students. This is simply Punk Rock scored for Ph.Ds, inexcusable in a man of Paulin's intelligence. Clap-trap is the word. Though Eliot is sometimes a bad critic (the envious attack on Milton, for example), his early essay on ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ remains importantly resistant to the trivialising currents of modern amnesia and self-absorption; as indeed does the major poetry, which still shores certain fragments of our past against the ruins of time. If one doesn't believe this one shouldn't be teaching the young.
The quietness of Robert Frost, his deceptive air of simple-minded countryman, has tempted many an urban gabbler into learned condescension. Fools do indeed rush in, beginning with Ezra Pound, and yet the crassness in Paulin's essay is quite astonishing. Where does all this resentment come from? It is not simply that Frost is no kind of lefty. Could it be the quiet sure-footedness of this poet as he finds himself at home in dark New England, even with its wild animals, its Indian ghosts, and the constancy of original sin? Could it be that the virtuously dispossessed and exiled-in-Nottingham Paulin rather envies Frost's richly-situated yet abstemious wit?
The worst of it comes out in ‘The Most of It’, a perfect little poem about a beautiful buck emerging from a lake and crashing into the brush. By the time Paulin has put it through his scholarly mangle, the buck and his ‘horny tread’ have come to symbolise something ‘deliberately sinister’, original American brutality, no less, ready to embark upon the ‘revenge killings’ provoked by Pearl Harbor. Because Frost's buck ‘forced the underbrush—and that was all’, as the poem puts it, he is clearly some kind of macho-rapist-blah-blah-blah, off to ‘lick’ the Nip. What can one say?
Always wrong to let the sun set on thy wrath, mama done told me. As the world she goes and as the PC fogbank comes a-rollin' in, poetry needs its defenders undrunk. Despite his truancies, Paulin frequently shows a human face: may his friends rally round.
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 space”; a home to unique “moments of voiced immortality”, where the “spirit speaks clearly and completely”.
These quotations come, in fact, not from some fundamental adversary of the “social readings” of poetry in Paulin's remarkable new book, [Minotaur: Poetry and the Nation State,] but from his treatment of Christina Rossetti and Emily Dickinson in it. By closely defining Rosetti's “intimate vernacular” over against Tennyson's “institutional Parnassian”; and Dickinson's “self-defining solitude” in relation to “the heraldic language that belongs with the state's hardware”, both poets emerge, convincingly and surprisingly, Ariadne-like in relation to the Minotaur of the state.
In a related essay on Elizabeth Bishop, Paulin provides a major insight into an ostensibly apolitical poet. He does so by showing that quality in her work which has to do with temporary, receptive dwelling in places and cultures other than the one into which she was born, and by setting it against the historical implications of Heidegger's concept of “dwelling” (which Paulin calls the notion of a “deeply untravelled German nationalist”).
Subsequent essays on the Polish poets Tadeusz Rózewicz and Zbiginiew Herbert, and the Czech Miroslav Holub, explore Paulin's radical distrust of all forms of romantic authority, including the vatic authority of the poet. Each of these figures developed a writing of lucid witness and exacting irony amid the carnage of mid-century Europe and under the pressure of the totalitarian state. The essays connect back to those on Rossetti, Dickinson and Bishop, and forward to astringent considerations of Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, Geoffrey Hill and Peter Reading.
But if the book ends with the teasing out of dubious or ersatz English nationalism from a variety of “apparently innocent texts”, it begins with an essay on the prose of a poet who would barely comprehend the need to polemicise the relation between writing and the nation state. Paulin's Milton is the “radical republican revolutionary and Protestant internationalist” whose prose constantly strives “to break down inert routines in order to free the imagination from linen decency”.
Central to the book is a deliberate undoing of the legacy of the “canon” of English poetry, left by influential critics in the wake of Arnold's distaste for the crude provincial energies of dissenting culture. Paulin is fascinated by and filiated to this culture. His own writing not only works towards a study of the “Protestant imagination”, but acts inevitably as an example of that dissenting imagination.
Paulin's different ways of relating that imagination to the state elicit varying degrees of assent. His essay on Yeats' decision to hold over the publication of “Easter 1916” until the autumn of 1920 (in the New Statesman) shows how a poem that has “achieved something of the status of a cultural and verbal icon” was part of the web of discourse and events that led to the establishment of the Irish Free State. It was published at the time of the hunger strike by Terence McSwiney, the Lord Mayor of Cork, and appeared alongside articles addressing the urgent question of Home Rule. Paulin's precise location of the poem has the effect of restoring it to its fullest living presence rather than freezing it in history.
At other points, he requires a leap of faith into a less empirical relation between word, form and the state. He writes of John Clare “unlocking the frozen language and redeeming an unjust society”; of Arthur Hugh Clough's poetry seeking to free itself “from Christian guilt and the iambic pentameter”, and of Zbigniew Herbert's tearing out “the state apparatus of punctuation”.
The unjust state may not topple under a barrage of free verse. But Paulin's driven and astute belief in the vital connection between responsibility to the living word and responsibility for the kind of society in which we live has produced a book that no one interested in the poets it discusses or the questions it raises should fail to read.
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 it is proper for poetry to be. In this essay I want to argue that the crypticism is precisely a product of the reluctance to be political in a campaigning way, though Paulin's language and terms of reference are unflinchingly drawn from the public domain. There is no doubt that, in the Western European literary tradition, it is decidedly against a poet's interests to descend to the political, in our era at least; I want to suggest that Paulin is particularly disinterested in this respect in that his concern with politics runs counter to all his aesthetic and literary instincts. But that a writer of his generation and geographical origins should be concerned with political realities is inevitable, as the following outline of his background establishes.
Paulin was born in Leeds in 1949.1 His mother is a doctor from Northern Ireland and his father a teacher from Tyneside in the North East of England. When he was four, the family moved to Belfast where his father became a headmaster. Paulin lived and went to school there until 1967 when he went to Hull to do an English degree. In 1970 he went on to Lincoln College, Oxford where he did a B.Litt. on the poetry of Hardy (the basis of his Thomas Hardy: The Poetry of Perception, published by Macmillan in 1975). Since 1972 he has lectured in English at the University of Nottingham, where he was appointed Reader in poetry in 1989. To date he has published four main volumes of poetry, all with Faber: A State of Justice (1977), The Strange Museum (1980), Liberty Tree (1983), and Fivemiletown (1987). In addition, an important section of Liberty Tree was published by Bloodaxe in 1981 under the title The Book of Juniper, with drawings by Noel Connor. He has also published a volume of essays and journalism, Ireland and the English Crisis (Bloodaxe 1984), and he is the editor of the controversial Faber Book of Political Verse (1986). His Faber Book of Vernacular Verse was published in 1990.
He is a director of the Field Day Theatre Company in Derry; his fellow-directors are the poets Seamus Deane and Seamus Heaney, singer and broadcaster David Hammond, novelist and playwright Tom Kilroy, and the two founders of the company, playwright Brian Friel and actor Stephen Rea. He has had three plays published by Faber: in 1985 a version of Sophocles's Antigone called The Riot Act (first staged by Field Day in 1984); in 1987 The Hillsborough Script; and Seize the Fire, a dramatic version of Prometheus Bound, in spring 1990. Field Day also publishes a continuing pamphlet-series on literary and historical matters, principally concerned with Northern Irish politics, and attempting to represent all Ulster viewpoints (though traditional Unionist opinion, perhaps with some justice, feels itself under-represented, here as in other forums). The first series in 1983 included Paulin's ‘A New Look at the Language Question’, arguing the desirability of A Dictionary of Irish English, corresponding to Webster's American Dictionary or the acclaimed Concise Scots Dictionary.2 The objective of such a dictionary would be to recognize the separateness of English usage in Ireland from Standard English whose locus Paulin defines as centring on the House of Commons with a patriotic tendency, when pressed, to “speak for England”. This essay3 is still a good introduction to the complex of Paulin's Ulster and Irish loyalties, as sympathetic to Ian Adamson's ‘The Language of Ulster’4 as to traditional discussions of English in Ireland generally.5 If anything, since 1983 his Ulster affiliations have become more marked and his declared distaste for the politics of the southern Irish Republic more pronounced.
Paulin first came prominently to notice in the second half of the 1970s, as one of the principal figures (a recognition shared with his contemporaries Paul Muldoon and Medbh McGuckian) in the second wave of the post-1969 Ulster poets (though of course clear differentiation of such waves is always problematical). 1969 was the year of the first prominent Civil Rights marches from which the current series of ‘Troubles’ is traditionally dated. Paulin supported the Civil Rights movement strongly, in common with most poets on all sides of the Ulster poetry-politics community, including some who now diverge from his views with vehemence, such as James Simmons and Michael Longley. Even before 1969, divided politics and the feeling that “that kind of thing could start again”6 had remained a grumbling undercurrent in Ulster poetry, not only in Heaney and Montague on the Catholic side but also in a less focused way in Protestant poets like MacNeice and ‘mannerly’ John Hewitt, a socialist poet of a much earlier generation whose standing has risen dramatically in the past twenty years, earning him in 1988 the ultimate Irish literary recognition, a summer school.7
It is worth noting in passing that, with the major exception of Richard Murphy, southern Irish poetry of that pre-1969 era was strikingly different, in ways that English criticism still largely ignores. Concern there was predominantly with country life and/or constitutional politics (usually satirically represented): the tradition from Austin Clarke to Thomas McCarthy.8 A recent exponent of this tradition, Paul Durcan, has been taken up, partly perhaps because of the modishly revisionist interpretation that has been taken of his poetry. Patrick Kavanagh belongs here, championed by the Honest Ulsterman in the early 1970s as a martyr to the perfidy of Flann O'Brien and the southern capital Dublin, “the meanest little city since Carthage” according to a 1972 issue of the Ulsterman (reflecting a rather partial reading of ancient history, it might seem).
But, if the explicitly political was not entirely avoided in Ulster or any Irish poetry between 1940 and 1969, it became impossible to ignore political realities in Ulster after that date. Heaney's experience provides the classic case, a minatory headline for later poets such as Paulin and Muldoon. Heaney moved to the south of Ireland in 1972, pursued by the catcalls of the Paisleyite Protestant Telegraph as it bade farewell to “the well-known Papist propagandist”. Literary relations too reflected, in more moderate terms, the strains imposed by the ‘Troubles’: Michael Longley's fine Selected Poems in 1984 was a melancholy reminder of days of common purpose, containing exchange poems between himself, Heaney, James Simmons and Derek Mahon—a grouping now broken up in a series of complicated fissures.
This is the context, then, in which the emergence of Paulin's poetry has to be seen, and it should be borne in mind when evaluating the charges against him of an excessively overt ‘politicism’. Within that context A State of Justice (1977) was a very resonant title, adapted from ‘A Just State’, one of a series of bleak, violently-expressed political poems in the middle of the volume which ends
The shadows of watchtowers on public squares, A hemp noose over a grease trap.
Reviewers interpreted such poems—neither surprisingly nor inaccurately—as having express reference to Northern Ireland. But their reference is also much wider, bearing more generally on the politics of this momentous last quarter of the twentieth century. The more political poems in this volume (and in fact there are not many in which the politics is overt—which is not, of course, to say that politics are irrelevant to the others) had been published separately in an Ulsterman pamphlet under a title which uses a line from one of these poems, ‘Theoretical Locations’ (from ‘The Hyperboreans’: a title which evokes Heaney's North). ‘A Just State’ suggests comparison with Eastern European writers like Mandelstam, and clearly applies to any state. The first poem of A State of Justice bears the significantly plural title ‘States’:
That stretch of water, it's always There for you to cross over To the other shore, observing The lights of cities on blackness.
Certainly this applies well to England-Ireland, but it is an Audenesque paysage moralisé, concerned with general problems of affiliation and political restlessness: the universal dilemma of creating a perfect state to identify with, which is a major set theme in Irish poetry after Yeats. Paulin is already a political idealist, in the tradition of eighteenth-century European republicanism (which he would insist has nothing to do with twentieth-century Irish republicanism).
A State of Justice was an acclaimed first volume, nominated as the Choice of the Poetry Book Society in London: a coveted accolade. It is a diverse volume, ranging in theme and subject more widely than its single-minded title and first poem suggest. The poems were written in part while Paulin was working on Hardy, and we might remember in reading poems like ‘Under a Roof’ that Paulin was a student at Hull during Larkin's librarianship:
It'll piss all evening now. From next door The usual man and woman stuff rants on, then fades.
The second line here sounds like Larkin rounded off by Yeats; indeed some of the most assured poems in the book are in the romantic traditions of which Paulin has always declared a very jaundiced view. But we soon learn, going through Paulin's work, not to expect his affiliations and oppositions to be single-minded or univocal; infamous cases in point are his views of Conor Cruise O'Brien, Ian Paisley and Marxist criticism. It is as if, like Yeats, the poet has a radical distrust of middle-of-the-road, liberal views; this unpredictability is an important element in the effectiveness and vitality of his later poetry. Throughout his work, concern for social responsibility and answerability occurs side by side with assertions of the artistic freedom of the individual against the constraints of consensus. The competing polarities are memorably expressed at the admired, romantic conclusion of ‘Inishkeel Parish Church’:
O Absalom, Absalom, my son, An hour is too long, there are too many people, Too many heads and eyes and thoughts that clutter …
Then, before the recognitions and the talk, There was an enormous sight of the sea, A silent water beyond society.
There are other accomplished romantic moments, such as ‘From’ with its lyrical ending, “A soft grass covers them and light falls,” or the aphoristic “Hard wood is worn by the stone, / So is stone by the softness of feet.” Side by side with such romanticism we already find the harshness of diction that has come to be seen as Paulin's most characteristic quality: “the crossroads loony smashed to bits”; “wooden huts on the permafrost”; “something made a fuck of things”; “my loathsome uncle chews his rasher”; “a rain of turds”.
The impression given is of an inventive poet under various influences, experimenting for a stable voice; as a parallel his friend Douglas Dunn's uneasy mixture of Scottish, declaredly socialist politics with a romantic declaration of the hegemony of the imagination, comes to mind. But, even if there was unevenness of diction and subject, Paulin was unmistakably a writer of considerable originality and confident forcefulness. What is distinctive in him is a readiness to bring avowedly political reference into his poetry, free of the cosmetic reworking that traditionally precedes its introduction into Western European poetry. To take one example of this quotidian politics, ‘Thinking of Iceland’ uses the Auden-MacNeice Letters from Iceland as a frame for a sociological description of urban Northern Ireland, using Auden's anthropologist's eye. In the course of it though, there is a passing stab at Richard Crossman to whom Auden and MacNeice wrote one of the letters ‘unfortunately’: the fact is unfortunate simply because Paulin was outraged that Crossman as editor of the New Statesman in 1971 argued for Irish unification.
It is a slight instance, but it offers a good discussion point for Paulin: both to see how he proceeds and how he has been partly misunderstood, even by his most distinguished critics such as Edna Longley. Longley has tended to assume two things about him which I think are false: first, that he is a radical critical theorist like his friend and Field Day colleague Seamus Deane.9 She accordingly opposes him to the writers, from Edward Thomas to Mandelstam to Derek Mahon, who argue for the authority of the poetic imagination over political reality and opinion. Yet this is just the kind of ground on which Paulin swipes Crossman's opinion aside here, and he has argued consistently on this side throughout his career. The second wrong assumption of Longley (and others) about Paulin is that he is well-disposed to the Irish Republic or to the possibility of its subsuming Ulster as a political unity centred on the Dáil; this assumption is implicit when Paulin is described in the misleading phrase “zealous convert”.10 Paulin certainly writes and speaks with zeal, but he is not a convert to anything; as Longley argues elsewhere in that same chapter, his critical spirit is at its most forceful when it is most negative.
If there was no single major influence on A State of Justice, there is an important poetic relationship with John Hewitt. Like Paulin, Hewitt had a teacher-father and was an outsider sympathetic to the Northern Irish working class, similarly so across any sectarian divide (though here Hewitt, unlike Paulin, has the occasional lapse). Like Paulin's, part of Hewitt's working life was spent in England (fifteen years in Coventry); they are similarly drawn to the pastoral ‘civility’ of the English countryside, as a comparison of Paulin's uncollected poem ‘The Argument at Great Tew’11 with Hewitt's Cotswold poems bears out. So it is relevant to note Hewitt's manifesto from the Irish Times (4 July 1974), quoted by Alan Warner in his introduction to the Selected John Hewitt:
I'm an Ulsterman, of planter stock. I was born in the island of Ireland, so secondarily I'm an Irishman. I was born in the British archipelago and English is my native tongue, so I am British. The British archipelago consists of offshore islands to the continent of Europe, so I'm European. This is my hierarchy of values and as far as I am concerned anyone who omits one step of that sequence is falsifying the situation.12
These are not Paulin's terms; he would not use the apriorist phrase ‘British archipelago’, and he would be less keen to press for the appellation British. But there is the same dilemma of loyalties, combined with a generosity of spirit expressed in the socialist embrace of all orders, racial or religious. John Montague described Hewitt as “the first (and probably the last) deliberately Ulster, Protestant poet”; again, if this doesn't exactly evoke Paulin's self-definition, it surely describes his subject, inspiration and tradition. What is more, it has become increasingly true throughout his career.
If Edna Longley is right to see Paulin's critical gift as negative, the same is not true of his poetic imagination with its tendency towards the burgeoningly romantic. What Alan Robinson (in one of the best discussions of Paulin to date) calls his “recent recourse to stylistic hermeticism”13 is already incipient in Paulin's next book The Strange Museum (1980) which is more difficult from its first page. It was published in 1980, and it is instructive to bear in mind something Paulin wrote in 1983, in the Introduction to Ireland and the English Crisis:
Until about 1980 I took a different view and believed what most Ulster Protestants still believe—that Northern Ireland was, and ought to remain, permanently wedded to Great Britain. Although I had always hated Ulster Unionism very bitterly and supported the Civil Rights movement from the beginning, I believed that Civil Rights and greater social justice in Northern Ireland could be achieved within the context of the United Kingdom. I rejoiced, therefore, at the fall of Stormont and the same week attacked a Provo supporter who was selling nationalist newspapers … But there was something different in the air as the decade ended. I started reading Irish history again and found myself drawn to John Hume's eloquence, his humane and constitutional politics.
While the most recurrent image in A State of Justice was a state or states, here the focal notion, which has remained central in Paulin's work since, is history and its complex relations with contemporary reality.14 The first poem in The Strange Museum is called ‘Before History’; it eloquently summarises, in a more assured form, the abstract state, the theoretical location, of the political poems in the earlier volume (as well, incidentally, as anticipating impressively the cold political austerities of 1980s Britain):
This is the long lulled pause Before history happens, When the spirit hungers for form, Knowing that love is as distant As the guarded capital, knowing That the tyranny of memories And factual establishments Has stretched to its breaking.
The volume contains a good deal of lonely hunger for the provincial familiarity of Belfast. But in general the same diversity of theme and form as in A State of Justice is in evidence: there is still some uncertainty of tone in a tendency towards pastiche (“hell is very like those Sunday streets” from ‘In the Egyptian Gardens’) and a rather dry banality (“And academic fellows / File limericks by the score” from ‘Song for February’).
There is also a very different personal, lyrical element in some of the poems which should be seen in a biographical context: Paulin and his wife had a car crash in which his wife was badly injured, and she was kept in hospital in Belfast while he lived alone in Nottingham for six months. So some poems here represent an interruption of his thematic development, in the same way that Douglas Dunn's Elegies (written on the premature death of his wife) do. The last poem in the book, ‘A Lyric Afterwards’, represents Paulin's generosity of vision at its most eloquent:
In your absence I climbed to a square room where there were dried flowers, folders of sonnets and crossword puzzles …
Their bitter constraints and formal pleasures were a style of being perfect in despair …
But that is changed now, and when I see you walking by the river, a step from me, there is this great kindness everywhere: now in the grace of the world and always.
As for the central political strand of the poetry, The Strange Museum is a gloomy, even despairing volume, perhaps because of the hardening of hostilities in Northern Ireland into a grim normality. The positive figure of John Hewitt has receded, and the prevailing spirit in many of the poems is a listlessness, unrelieved by much excitement, positive or negative. The term ‘mitteleuropa’ (Paulin's concentration on which reads prophetically in 1990 as the Russian Empire crumbles) echoes as an evocation of a kind of Sartrian anomie from the first poem through several of the others—‘Second-Rate Republics’, for instance. Similarly, the words ‘neap’ and ‘neapish’ appear first here, to recur as expressions of this anomic state of mind in Paulin's poetry and criticism. But an important development is that the theoretical locations are becoming less theoretical and more inescapably real; the grey state, with its suggestions of menace, is more explicitly identified with circumstances in Northern Ireland. ‘Surveillances’ moves from the gulag of its first stanza, the overlooked state (which is ‘theoretical’ as an image for us), to the Northern Irish image of the surveying helicopter in the second stanza with its brilliant real / unreal closing image: “All this might be happening / Underwater.” The most successful, and most anthologized, poem in the book, ‘Anastasia McLaughlin’, explicitly marries the Russian and Irish experiences, making one historical event the matrix of another (like a medieval typologist), in the same way that ‘Thinking of Iceland’ did:
Her father is sick. He dozes most afternoons. The nurse makes tea then and scans The Newsletter …
He sees his son below the bruised Atlantic, And on a summer's morning in Great Victoria Street He talks with Thomas Ferguson outside the Iceworks. He sees the north stretched out upon the mountains, Its dream of fair weather rubbing a bloom on rinsed slates; He watches the mills prosper and grow derelict, As he starts his journey to the Finland Station.
At this stage of his career Paulin was prominent as polemicist as well as poet, particularly in the heated debates on critical theory. His twin concerns are reflected in the title of his book of essays Ireland and the English Crisis; indeed it is commonly felt that the two concerns do not gel very naturally. As late as June 1983, Paulin was still mounting a vigorous attack in an interview with Oxford Poetry15 on what he saw as the negative, destructive element in post-structuralism, accusing Marxist criticism of putting Joyce on “the same level as an advertisement for haemorrhoid cures or the novels of David Lodge”. Raymond Williams gets a tick for “some good work done years ago” but is accused now of writing awful prose and having “no love of poetry”, by contrast with the “passion and courage” of Christopher Ricks and the “noble and inspiring polemic” at the end of Helen Gardner's In Defence of the Imagination.
The fact that Paulin has now modified these views (in some cases, indeed, reversed them as he brings his radical politics to bear on literature) should not be allowed to detract from the fundamental consistency here. He has always emphasized the hegemony of the creative imagination, as preached by the European Romantics and their successors in twentieth-century Russia: Mandelstam is the principal copytext for modern writers. In that same trenchant interview, he declared his admiration for Derek Mahon and Paul Muldoon as “pure artists, exemplary figures”, defending them against the charge of turning their backs on political realities in Northern Ireland. Though Paulin himself has always employed public matter in his poems, he would stand absolutely by what he says about Mahon and Muldoon.
The same apparent shift in attitude towards critical theory was clearly documented in 1982-3. Paulin made a fierce attack in the London Review of Books on Peter Widdowson's Re-Reading English (Methuen New Accents 1982) as destructive of this notion of free artistic expression. But he was even more dismayed by two rejoinders to the New Accents series: Reconstructing Literature by Lawrence Lerner and Counter-Modernism in Current Critical Theory by Geoffrey Thurley (both 1983). In a footnote in Ireland and the English Crisis (p. 14) he writes “Both works are remarkable for their espousal of an aggressive, bullish nationalism, and for their dedication to an unexamined concept called the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ mind.”
A split between Paulin's literary commitment to Gardner-Ricks and his socialist political convictions was bound to come: it is as if something had to give, and it is tempting to say that it was his critical posture that yielded, in conflict with the passionately held subjects of his poetry. But it is not as simple as that; the poetry has always (and increasingly) been a complex amalgam of the two sets of convictions, combining a rather puritan notion of perfectibility with a sense of the urgent need for greater justice in the body politic. This is a tradition long pre-dating Romanticism in the English tradition, founded in Paulin's view of Milton, as his controversial introduction to the Faber Book of Political Verse spells out. It might be seen as the conflict between two radical traditions: Mandelstam's hunger for freedom for the literary imagination, as against the English radical tradition which, paradoxically, perhaps finds its most powerful expression in the French Revolution as seen by the younger Wordsworth and Tom Paine, and its most potent counter-image in Burke (who accordingly features prominently in Paulin's poetical ethics).16 Put crudely, the direction of Paulin's development is partially explained by the fact that in present-day Britain freedom of expression is less under threat than the living standards of the unemployed working classes, or the lack of peace for the people of Northern Ireland.
It is increasingly felt though that these issues too are interrelated. Certainly, the relation between them does recall the two concerns of the title of his essays, Ireland (politics) and the English crisis (literary/artistic freedom). This tension was partly released by finding expression in what I think was Paulin's finest large achievement before Fivemiletown's ‘The Caravans on Lüneburg Heath’, The Book of Juniper, published separately by Bloodaxe in 1981 and incorporated in his third full volume, Liberty Tree, in 1983. The conclusion of the long and difficult title poem of The Book of Juniper has often been quoted, with admiration for the inspirational bringing together of images of the ill-fated, limited extension of the French Revolution to the west of Ireland in 1798 (Killala), and of the trees emblematic of Ireland, North and South, and—unforgettably—of England at the end:
and I imagine that a swelling army is marching from Memory Harbour and Killala carrying branches of green juniper …
now dream of that sweet equal republic where the juniper talks to the oak, the thistle, the bandaged elm, and the jolly jolly chestnut.
This poem was the flagship and the finest achievement in a book whose coherence and compulsion marked a major advance in Paulin's poetry. All the earlier effects are put to effective common purpose here; the asperities of tone draw on a Northern Irish dialect as a linguistic correlative to Ulster's social and political mix. Like Muldoon, Paulin uses terms coined by John Hewitt from local usage, and extends the practice. A wry poem of Hewitt's, ‘The Lass of Richmond Hill; or the Royal Garden Party’, (1969) is evoked by Paulin's mythology. Listening to a Belfast band in Jubilee Year playing ‘The Lass of Richmond Hill’ sets Hewitt's narrator on a Paulinesque train of historical association:
when the United Irishmen marched in to Antrim town that other June day, the young men in green jackets, the leaders, tried to sing ‘The Marseillaise’, the proper anthem for revolutions, and none of the pikemen-peasants knew it … But Jemmy Hope, that reliable man who never postured, rallied all by striking-up ‘The Lass of Richmond Hill’, which most knew anyway. So, in step together, they swung down the long street to meet the enemy.
As well as the allusion to Jemmy Hope the weaver, well-attested in Paulin, there is the same admiration for the complex motivation of the Protestant revolutionaries of 1798 as in Liberty Tree. The ‘liberty tree’ was the icon of French Revolutionary radicalism as it was represented in Ireland (and Britain) in the 1790s, so it provides an inspired symbol for the complex division of loyalties in Paulin. Historically it allies him with Paine and Wolfe Tone against Burke and Grattan: that is, with the radicals against the constitutionalist-royalists. They too, like the Anglo-Irish political leaders of Yeats's ‘The Tower’, gave though free to refuse, and at greater personal cost.
This division corresponds to and expresses perfectly Paulin's literary-critical position as expounded in the introduction to his Faber Book of Political Verse. There Paulin argued the existence of “a strain of religious pessimism which links Arnold to Burke and Eliot and the later Wordsworth”, a tradition that Paulin would associate with an imaginative constriction corresponding to its conformist politics. In a poem of seventy-four short lines ‘And Where Do You Stand on the National Question?’, Paulin gives a remarkably full statement of his priorities, as Hewitt was wont to do. Paulin's heroes are there: Joyce in the epigraph (Stephen Dedalus saying “Told him the shortest way to Tara was via Holyhead”); Paisley with his cult of Bunyan (Paisley is technically an anti-hero, but one better understood by Paulin than by anyone else who has written a serious evaluation, rather than caricature, of him, as in Paulin's astute essay ‘Paisley's Progress’17); Hewitt; Heaney. His villains are there too: the new British Minister of State, ‘Sir Peregrine Falkland’, who is “not a high-flyer” (this characterization again might be thought to suggest more fellow-feeling with the people of Ulster as a distinct group than is usually attributed to Paulin); the Unionists in the imaginary fiction called Molyneaux's Last Hope; and, in striking alliance, ‘Burke and the Cruiser’—Conor Cruise O'Brien whom Paulin sees as the last remnant of traditional Unionism in the south of Ireland.
Liberty Tree has a new assurance, confidence and integrity as well as one of Paulin's most brilliant single poems, and it manages to embrace the political-topical (the Falklands, the IRA hunger-strikers) and the international (Polish Solidarity and the OAS in Algeria) within a framework that is largely constructed from 1790s Ulster Protestant Republicanism. It now seems curious that most reactions to the volume at the time saw it as composed of the icons of Irish republicanism. Apart from Tone (who, despite his Dublin origins, is primarily associated with Ulster Protestant leaders such as Monroe and McCracken), there is none of the southern Irish legendary here (except ‘Dev’ and the hunger-striker Michael Devine in a sardonic fiction). But the pages are full of northern ‘high-flyers’: Paisley, Brookeborough, Molyneaux, Craig, Biggar, McCracken. Equally important is Mandelstam, “the leavening priest of the Word … exiled in Voronezh”, representing the “Word” as the artistic imagination.
Paulin's most recent complete book, Fivemiletown (1987), was said by some commentators to be concerned with the unionist experience as distinct from the Protestant republicanism of Liberty Tree: a movement implicit, it was suggested, in the title of one of the poems, ‘Now for the Orange Card’. In fact though, this distinction hardly even makes sense in Paulin's corpus. On closer scrutiny the book can be seen to be concerned with the same twin subjects—artistic imagination and political/historical reality—if it does lack the graphic colour and zestful wit of Liberty Tree. The continuity is easily illustrated: Bowden Beggs as the parodic northern name takes over from memorable ‘Professor “Deeko” Kerr’ of ‘Local Histories’ in Liberty Tree. The provincialism of which ultimately the poet is accusing himself is a major theme, as it was in the comedy of the earlier poem, with ‘Samuel Twaddell: a Co. Down man at the Cape’.
The ways in which Fivemiletown is less positive than Liberty Tree, and the reasons for it, are clear enough. The book is dominated by the imagery of Protestant experience: defenestration (of Thirty-Years-War Prague, as well as Masaryk), masonic symbolism (Catholics are not allowed to become masons: and the drift here is to connect masonic symbolism itself with the French), Calvin, Luther, Hus. Paulin is here dramatizing what he sees as a rather desperate attempt to supply the lack of a local historical mythology (of which Irish republicanism is full—perhaps to a fault) by drawing on the whole history of Protestantism in Europe. The reason why this mythology is depressed in the current Northern Irish context is patent: the suspension of Stormont, Northern Ireland's parliament (in ‘Sure I'm a Cheat, Aren't We All?’, and ‘An Ulster Unionist Walks the Streets of London’), and the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. The choice for the Northern Unionists is put starkly at the end of ‘The Defenestration of Hillsborough’ (the leaders of the Democratic Unionist Party have more than once complained that they have been pushed out on to the window-ledge):
This means we have a choice:
either to jump or get pushed.
This disenfranchisement is associated with various images of frustration: loveless sex, skinheads, permafrost, inexpressive words. Its most depressing (and maybe wittiest) statement is ‘Waftage: An Irregular Ode’, where the propositioning lover who is rejected because his “breath stinks” and his “taste is simply foul” makes a ludicrous, Bogartian bid for dignity at the end:
So, real cool, I growled ‘Lady, no way you'll walk right over me.’ Dead on. I chucked her then.
There is no doubt that part of the reference of the post-factum “chucked” lover here is to Margaret Thatcher. But the weight of sympathy in these poems is decidedly with the frustrated protagonists who feel themselves betrayed. That is not to say that they are propagandist clarion-calls for the Protestant cause; but they are powerful dramatisations of the emotion and dilemma of its interests, by evoking with creative imagination what that desolate, unloved situation is like.
Where the book is more declaratory than its predecessors is in the second area I have been tracing, the social function of literature. Tsvetayeva, Mayakovsky and Akhmatova are all here to represent the literary imagination under duress, and there is a joke on deconstruction: “some grand universal / called Paul de Man or Poor Tom” while “the weight of the social moment / is just breaking me up”. But the major text on the matter, in Paulin's oeuvre to date, is the long closing poem on Heidegger, ‘The Caravans on Lüneburg Heath’. The significance of this poem is that it weds the two major themes better than any previous work of Paulin's. The addressee is Simon Dach, a German poet of the time of the Thirty Years War which Paulin sees as the most crucial period in Protestantism as it fought for survival in Europe during the heyday of the Counter-Reformation: a condition comparable with that of Ulster Protestant Unionists of the present era. Into the address to Dach is woven the poetic commentary of ‘Simplex’, a character taken from another Thirty-Years-War text, the Simplicius Simplicissimus (1669) of Grimmelshausen.18 This is a picaresque novel describing the horrific experiences of the narrator, a virtuous naif, and his fellow peasants during the Thirty Years War, as the shifting fortunes of the conflicting armies and religions affect them as the real victims. (Simplicius changes from Protestant to Catholic in the course of events, but not with any great significance.)
The politics of Paulin's poem, and by extension of the volume, clearly relate to this. Seamus Heaney quoted as expressive of the desperation of Ulster writers in the whole post-1969 period these desolate lines from early in Paulin's poem:19
what I have to say's dead obvious we've had x years of blood and shit and some of us have written poems or issued too many credos through the press.
The whole poem is a challenge to the straightforward views of ‘Simplex’ on either side, and it is Paulin's most intricate use of the device noted above, the running together of two (or more) historical periods and places.
The story that brings together politics and literary matters here (‘Ireland and the English crisis’ again) is the relationship of the philosophers Husserl and Heidegger. Paulin's Heidegger pleads the arts-politics divide to justify himself against the charge of capitalizing on the persecution of Husserl, his Jewish predecessor in the chair of Philosophy at Freiburg:
but some felt guilt guilt is not my subject.
It is clear that Paulin is not persuaded by this defence, both from his footnote in Fivemiletown (“certain evasive, and probably mendacious public statements which Heidegger issued in order to justify his conduct under the Nazi regime”: p. 67), and from the comment of a kleine Judenbube in the poem:
‘Go chew acorns Mr Heidegger You went with the Nazis’
(The phrase ein kleine Judenbube comes from Arno Mayer, a member of the Princeton History Department, who describes having been at the age of nineteen the ‘morale officer’ whose task it was to make life pleasant at the end of the war for captured Nazi scientists including Wernher von Braun whom the Americans wished to make use of. They could use the contemptuous phrase, ‘little Jew-boy’, of him, their captor, with impunity because they were useful.)20
Paulin could hardly have found a better set of parables for the dilemma of reconciling politics and the academic. It is this involved complexity of judgement that leads to Paulin's crypticism—a point made with sophistication by Alan Robinson: “obliquity is interpreted not as escapist or pragmatic, but instead as a subversive form of engagement”.21 Also relevant to this dilemma in Paulin is Tzvetan Todorov's brilliant essay ‘Jakobson's Poetics’ where he discusses realism and art-for-art's-sake by distinguishing between “the ‘reality’ that literature designates” and “the means whereby the text gives us the impression of doing this—the plausibility of literature rather than its truth”.22 This seems to describe precisely the case of writers like Paulin and Muldoon who use the material of contemporary events without imposing a judgmental shape on them. It is obvious that the classic case in Paulin's principal literary hero Joyce who draws all his material from the Dublin that has survived with supreme circumstantiality in his head. It is an art that strives for realism-for-realism's sake.
Finally, this places Paulin in a late Romantic tradition (Todorov discusses Jakobson in terms of the motivated symbolism he traces in Mallarmé; Paulin is also concerned to ‘purify the language of the tribe’ by adding to its stretch). He belongs there with Joyce and Mahon and Muldoon—his “exemplary artists”. Throughout his career the mutual reinforcement of the artistic imagination and political reality has stayed consistent, remaining through changes of subject and them true to the central European traditions of Romantic realism.
For much of the earlier section of this essay I am drawing on my article ‘Tom Paulin: Theoretical Locations and Public Positions’, in Verse 3, no. 3 (1987), pp. 29-39. I am grateful to the editors of Verse for permission to do so.
The Scots Language in One Volume from the First Records to the Present Day, editor-in-chief Mairi Robinson (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1985).
Field Day Pamphlets 1 (Derry 1983). Reprinted in Ireland and the English Crisis (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1984), pp. 178-93.
‘The Language of Ulster’ in The Identity of Ulster (Belfast: 1982).
For example P. W. Joyce, English as We Speak It in Ireland (Dublin: M. H. Gill, 1910); A. J. Bliss, Spoken English in Ireland: 1600-1740 (Dublin: Dolmen, 1979).
Seamus Heaney, ‘Docker’ in Death of a Naturalist (London: Faber & Faber, 1966), p. 41.
The last of Hewitt's ten volumes of poems was Freehold and Other Poems (Belfast: Blackstaff, 1986). The Selected John Hewitt was edited by Alan Warner (also Belfast: Blackstaff, 1981).
McCarthy's book about the deaths of his parents The Sorrow Garden won the London Poetry Society's Bartlett Award in 1981. It is significant that his much more ambitious and imaginative The Non-Aligned Storyteller (London: Anvil 1984), with its witty mock-international view of Irish politics, was less noticed because its terms of reference were less familiar.
Poetry in the Wars (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1986), p. 197. It is very foreign to Paulin's whole view of art to ally him with “structuralist … ‘discourse’”, against the imagination.
ibid., p. 206.
Published in London Review of Books, vol. 4, no. 20 (4-17 Nov. 1982), p. 19; and in Irish University Review (with a brief introduction by Paulin) Vol. 13, No. 1 (Spring 1983), pp. 83-5.
The Selected John Hewitt, ed. Alan Warner (Belfast: Blackstaff, 1981), p. 6.
Alan Robinson, Instabilities in Contemporary British Poetry (London: Macmillan, 1988), p. 115. Robinson too takes Mandelstam in Paulin as the prototype of faith in the transubstantiating power of art.
There is a vigorous attack on this notion of ‘history’ as manifest in Field Day ideology in Longley's Poetry in the Wars, p. 190 ff., with particular reference to Brian Friel's play Translations.
Oxford Poetry 1, no. 1 (June 1983), pp. 20-3.
In the introduction to Ireland and the English Crisis Paulin attacks T. S. Eliot's penchant for English monarchism. His discussion of Eliot's “problem of disaffiliation” (p. 19) is interesting for my argument generally.
London Review of Books, Vol. 4, No. 6, (1-14 April 1982), pp. 18-21. Reprinted in Ireland and the English Crisis, pp. 155-73.
English translation by S. Goodrich (Sawtry, Cambs.: Dedalus, 1989), of Die Abentheuer des Simplicissimus, Ein Roman aus der Zeit des dreissigjahrigen Krieges (ed. E. von Bulow, Leipzig 1836).
Seamus Heaney, ‘Anglo-Irish Occasions’, London Review of Books, vol. 10, no. 9 (5 May 1988), p. 9.
The story is told in Studs Terkel, ‘The Good War’ (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1985), p. 467.
Instabilities, p. 118.
T. Todorov, Theories of the Symbol (1977), translated by Catherine Porter (Oxford: Blackwell, 1982), p. 275.
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 timeless, universal, transcendent—in other words, free of constraint. However, there remains considerable room for disagreement about the source of the constraints on poetic voice and about their consequences. Of the four books under review here, those of Tom Paulin and Peter Makin focus on the external constraints of society, whereas those of Marjorie Perloff and John Lennard highlight the internal constraints of the medium. In the latter view, attention to the medium appears to offer a source of resistance to those larger social forces that, in Paulin's and Makin's analyses, threaten to overwhelm the poet.
The Minotaur of Tom Paulin's title is first introduced as an image of “state repression” (3), and resistance to that repression is Paulin's principal concern, both as a poet and as a critic. His first collection of poetry was entitled A State of Justice, and he has recently edited The Faber Book of Political Verse.Minotaur is not a systematic study but a collection of reviews and occasional pieces unified by theme and the writer's temperament, rather like a collection of poems. As a poet, Paulin has learned to turn his images so more than one side can be viewed. Thus, in his criticism, the Minotaur comes to represent not only “state repression” but also the oppressor's view of the resister, and ultimately the entire relationship between poetry and the state, rather than any one side of that relationship. This mobility in point of view lends a suppleness to Paulin's criticism that admirably fits it to specific cases and usually succeeds in recovering the complexity of the case in all its richness. Thus, in a study of the reactions of Southey and Coleridge to the execution of Robert Emmet, Paulin draws this surprising but persuasive conclusion: “while Emmet becomes an influential figure in the martyrology of romantic nationalism in Ireland, he also, quite inadvertently, helped to inspire a conservative English nationalism” (42); that is, oppressed and oppressor drew inspiration from the same example. Again, although Paulin generally assumes it to be part of the poet's task to promote an ideal republicanism, he admires Emily Dickinson's monarchical imagery because the state under which she lived itself claimed allegiance to a republican ideal.
While, as a reader of poetry, Paulin is capable of drawing fine distinctions, as a student of politics he is remarkably heavy-handed. The subversive potential of Dickinson's verse, for instance, is enough to earn her a comparison with the modern poets of Eastern Europe, who “write always out of a consciousness of the pervasive power of the state” (106). (Elsewhere in Minotaur Paulin devotes essays to Zbigniew Herbert, Miroslav Holub, and Tadeusz Rózewicz.) There is no indication that Paulin recognizes the difference between the modern totalitarian state and the nineteenth-century federation that nearly dissolved during Dickinson's lifetime. Indeed, the social circumstances amid which Paulin situates his writers are just as often religious as political, and the theme of the “state” frequently disappears underground. Of course in England, where there is an established Church, and even more in Northern Ireland, where Paulin was raised, the state is never far below the surface when religion is in question. But the sensibility fostered in such circumstances does not transfer intact, as Paulin seems to assume, to the New England Puritanism that forms a background to the work of Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost, and it seems especially out of place as the “theological intensity” that Paulin attributes to the work of Zbigniew Herbert (208).
At the heart of the political confusion in Paulin's analysis is an essential complicity between the writer and the state that prevents the writer from maintaining the oppositional stance that Paulin would assign. If, as Paulin (with the aid of Hegel) acknowledges in his introduction, the state is in some way a work of art, then the work of art runs the risk of imposing a form of repression analogous to that imposed by the state. It does so by virtue of being artificial, because, in Paulin's view, what is repressed is the natural part of humanity. Theological terms prove helpful in analyzing this problem as Paulin finds it in the work of Emily Dickinson, but the “bondage” to which Paulin refers is political as well as theological: “The spoken word is infinite and eternal because in not being a series of signs it does not submit to the deadly bondage of the letter” (104). Throughout Minotaur, Paulin celebrates poetry that imitates the spoken word with an effect that he describes as “oral” or “vernacular”: the prose rhythms of the choruses in Milton's Samson Agonistes, the dialect terms of John Clare, or the sprung rhythm of Hopkins (for which, Paulin argues, the irregular verse of Christina Rossetti prepared the way). But in his most probing analyses, such as those of Dickinson, Paulin acknowledges that “the idea of a writing beyond writing is impossible, a contradiction” (103). As an embodiment of that contradiction, a monstrous hybrid, the writer is the ultimate Minotaur.
Perhaps this explains why Ezra Pound, “that ugly monster” (199), lurks only in the shadows of Paulin's book, where he is mentioned only twice in passing. To bring him out of the shadows would require confronting not only the particular ugliness of Pound's fascism and anti-Semitism, but also the full force of the contradiction inherent in the poet's relationship to the state, a contradiction that no poet in this century has embodied more fully than Pound. In his survey of Pound's Cantos, Peter Makin has performed a valuable service by confronting this contradiction head on and passing judgment on the damage it effected in Pound's major work. The recent reissue of Makin's book by Johns Hopkins suggests that it may have outgrown its original purpose as one of the introductory guides in the British series, the Unwin Critical Library, where it first appeared in 1985. It is hard to imagine an uninitiated reader absorbing much of the detail that characterizes Makin's presentation, whether of Pound's prosody or of his source documents. Those already acquainted with the Cantos, however, will find that the commentary format does not prevent Makin from advancing a challenging thesis, encapsulated in the two chapters entitled “Values, 1: Religion” and “Values, 2: History.”
According to Makin, the religious impulse in which the Cantos originate points Pound toward a paradisal state celebrated in the Eleusinian mysteries, Ovid's Metamorphoses, and troubadour poetry, the last being the focus of Makin's previous study, Provence and Pound. Under the influence of Dante and Ford Madox Ford, Pound decided that he could not send his reader directly to paradise, but must first lead the way through hell—that is, through history. That decision initiated the fatal engagement that eventually resulted in a loss of coherence for the Cantos and temporarily, Makin concedes, a loss of sanity for Pound. Unlike the proponents of a purely “lyric” Pound, Makin does not argue that Pound was mistaken to admit history into his poem to begin with. Rather, the damage was done by an unfortunate conjunction of historical and temperamental forces, for the more hellish the twentieth century became, the more rigid (the less “Ovidian,” Makin would say) Pound became in his effort to impose order on the materials that history presented.
Three points of Makin's analysis in particular resonate with the poet's dilemma vis-à-vis the state as presented by Tom Paulin. The first point is the dominant influence each critic assigns to a religious tradition, that of Protestant Christianity, in the poet's political involvement. One way in which Makin formulates the unhealthy turn taken by Pound's political thinking is to see it as a perversion from an essentially Protestant distrust of institutions to a theocratic puritanism: private mysteries become public ritual in support of the state. Second, although, unlike Paulin, Makin does not make the connection explicit, he too appears to regard the state as artificial, thus necessarily a contamination of the religious sensibility in Pound, “to whom the natural is God,” according to Makin (113). Finally, the conflict between the natural and the artificial comes to haunt the poet's work in the form of a conflict between “natural” speech and writing. In Makin's view, the “documentary method” that Pound evolved as a way of incorporating history into his poem succeeded only as long as it was “an oral way” (103), a juxtaposition of voices. Pound's “move towards a hysteric sense of order goes together with a move towards documentation felt as documentation (assemblage of hard written matter), rather than, for example, as voices” (117).
For some time now, Marjorie Perloff has been pursuing the implications of Pound's documentary method, starting from premises very different from Makin's and arriving at very different conclusions. Whereas Makin regrets the increasing fragmentation of the later Cantos because it shatters the illusion of voice, Perloff sees in that development a step toward contemporary poetic practice that repudiates illusion as it affirms the material condition of the written text. In her latest analysis of this practice, Radical Artifice, Perloff concludes that “the more radical poetries,” as she repeatedly calls them, have left even Pound behind because in his theoretical statements he remained committed to “natural speech,” whereas the most “radical” element of the new poetry is its open embrace of “artifice.”
The directly political consequences that Paulin or Makin would see in this position are viewed only indirectly by Perloff. The relationship that concerns her primarily is not between the poet and the state but between the poet and the mass media. According to certain theorists of postmodernism, with whom Perloff, on this point, is largely in agreement, the mass media have effectively insulated contemporary humanity from the natural world, creating instead a world of “simulacra.” The task of poetry—and Perloff acknowledges it to be a political as well as artistic task—is to prevent this world of simulacra from becoming a second “nature” by disrupting its apparent seamlessness, exposing its artificial devices as devices. Although this entails taking over those devices, and thus imitating the mass media in some respects, nevertheless, against such theorists of the avantgarde as Peter Bürger, Hal Foster, and Andreas Huyssen, Perloff insists that the end result is resistance to rather than appropriation by the media.
Perloff elaborates her argument through detailed analyses of works by John Cage (who, in Perloff's revised reckoning, replaces Pound as a grandfather figure for the movement), George Oppen and Louis Zukofsky (father figures), and several of the new poets themselves: Clark Coolidge, Steve McCaffery, Johanna Drucker, Lyn Hejinian, and Charles Bernstein. No critic could be more patient with the details of the difficult texts produced by these writers, and at the same time equally sensitive to the impatience of “the skeptical reader,” continually asking the question “so what?” (109). Perloff's response to that question emphasizes the texts' oppositional stance in relation to the mass media. Unfortunately, her undiscriminating reading of the products of the mass media leaves her argument incomplete. Just as Paulin fails to distinguish among different types of state, Perloff fails to distinguish between the truly “mass” medium of the TV talk show and the sometimes intensely private medium of the personal computer, or between the public space of the highway billboard and the exclusive intimacy affected by an advertisement in the New York Times Magazine. In the region that both Paulin and Perloff are exploring from their different perspectives, the range of “texts” has expanded in theory much faster than the practice of reading, which still produces its richest fruit in the field of the old-fashioned word. Within that field, Perloff reaps an abundant harvest.
Because John Lennard is concerned with how the printed book itself has presented constraints and creative possibilities to poets, he has the advantage of having behind him a long tradition of bibliographic scholarship, one of the centers of which is Oxford University, where Lennard's study began as his doctoral dissertation. This is not to say that But I Digress is limited to the rather conservative, positivistic orientation usually associated with bibliography. On the contrary, of all the writers under review here, Lennard comes closest to practicing Jacques Derrida's “linguistic subversion,” a phrase Lennard applies to Swift (107), by focusing on the way in which graphic marks on the page assert the independence of writing from its supposed foundation in speech. This emphasis on writing over speech aligns Lennard with Perloff, who, unlike Lennard, acknowledges the affinity between her position and that of Derrida. However, both Perloff and Lennard draw back from the extremes of deconstruction by confining their interpretations of graphic play to an essentially mimetic function. The apparently non-mimetic poetry that Perloff studies is, in her view, ultimately an attempt “to mime the coming to awareness of the mind in the face of the endless information glut that surrounds us” (205). The marks of parentheses that Lennard studies can, as he reads them—that is, visually—mimic a smile, a ring, or lunar crescents, this last usage in keeping with Lennard's name for the marks, lunulae.
Like Paulin and Makin, Lennard also looks beyond the confines of the book to a religious tradition that unites those writers whose use of lunulae appears most creative. Of Marvell, Coleridge, and Eliot, his three principal examples, Lennard observes, “All three poets were, at some point in their lives, adherents to a Nonconformist Church—Marvell a Puritan, Coleridge a Unitarian, and Eliot a Unitarian and subsequently Anglo-Catholic—and all three published analyses of the relations between church and state” (245-46). Perhaps, Lennard speculates, the Protestant emphasis on the authority of sacred text and the private devotions attached to that text gave a special impetus to the exploitation of the printed mark, as it unquestionably lent an impetus to the growth of printing itself.
This might be called the romantic thesis of Lennard's book, since it depends to some extent on the association between Protestantism and romanticism, and it upholds the late-romantic canon promoted by Eliot, leaping from Marvell to Coleridge, as Tom Paulin, for instance, leaps from Milton to Coleridge. In each schema, the eighteenth century appears merely as a digression. But in a book focused on the function of digression, Lennard also traces an alternative canon, growing out of the satirical poems of Marvell, achieving its full flowering in the eighteenth century, in Swift and Sterne, and bearing its later fruit in Byron rather than Coleridge. This canon once again aligns Lennard's position with that of Perloff, for whom eighteenth-century satire provides a better context than the romantic lyric for understanding “the more radical poetries” of our own time (110). Cultural criticism, too, descends from the eighteenth century. In the light of that inheritance, Ezra Pound's turn to John Adams and Thomas Jefferson seems a logical step, not the unfortunate distraction that it must appear to be from the largely romantic perspective adopted by Peter Makin. Moreover, a revival of the eighteenth-century delight in the artifice of writing, such as Perloff promises, might make the writer appear, contra Tom Paulin, a bit less of a Minotaur, something more of a Daedalus.
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 own position as a virtual expatriate from a region of ambiguous political status and his belief in a secular Irish republic leave him grasping for “an identity which has as yet no formal or institutional existence”. In “Before History”, writing from the bare, sun-scrubbed room of the isolated self, he describes the way “the spirit hungers for form”, and that hunger expresses itself as much in emetic rejections of the current political menu as in residual allegiances to “a gritty sort of prod baroque / I must return to like my own boke”.
The Selected Poems is a welcome opportunity to review this ideal home-hunting, particularly in the light of a Pauline shift from a critical unionism to a non-sectarian republicanism, dividing his first two volumes, A State of Justice (1977) and The Strange Museum (1980), from the later work. Before 1980, and the change of heart marked by a fierce polemic against Conor Cruise O'Brien, Paulin's terse, economical work operated as a civil libertarian critique of Ulster as a police state. A Benthamite panopticon of surveillances was observed with a similarly cold eye; history was seen as “the tyranny of memories”, fuelling a popular justice which hideously transformed Portia's ironic metaphor for juridical mercy: “A rain of turds; a pair of eyes; the sky and tears”.
“The polities of love”, a neutral civility, are threatened by “a metal convenience”, built upon, and separate from, their nature, and civilians and soldiers alike are reduced to mechanisms of the State; a maker of gravestones is “less a person than a function”. Paulin's poetic voice often parodied this “public uniform”; otherwise he adopted a bleak persona of embittered provincialism, shy of the neighbours, inured to funerals, perfecting itself in the sterile isolation of Bleaneyesque rented rooms.
Admittedly, in “A New Society” Paulin expressed a vision of a communal ideal, in an epiphany so banal and materialistic that its beauty is all the more surprising; it is a vision, rising from a slum clearance, which shocks because its utopia seems so attainable. Other poems yearned for their own slum clearances; to shuck off that “autocracy, the past”, and emerge unencumbered by the fait accompli of existing situations, productively “plunging into history”, as he writes of Trotsky. The grid-locked immediacy of the early volumes was highly effective, albeit embattled; but the reined-in frustration still required a larger arena in which to express itself.
Liberty Tree (1983) began a more engaged and engaging process which was spectacularly developed in Fivemiletown (1987). The volumes display a greater preoccupation with Protestant identity, whether in European analogies or allusions to specific histories, even as they search for “a form that's classical and secular” rather than “baggy, loose and British”. Unionism is often lampooned—“Manichean Geography” is perhaps a self-critical title as well as a satirical one—out it is also given a sympathetic hearing, speckled with Paisley theologies, forgiven for its reliance on an imported British culture. “The Defenestration of Hillsborough” is one of several poems responding to the “betrayal” of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, when Paulin writes elsewhere of “our state a jacked corpse”, the adjective oxymoronically invokes the British flag even as it implies abandonment.
With the dialectic freedom of the later work, came an increased employment of dialect words—roguish, vagrant, unhoused in legitimizing dictionaries—reflecting allegiances of a more local nature. Paulin had written various articles on the vernacular, as well as editing the Faber Book of Vernacular Verse, and the sudden granting of asylum to dialect words looks very much like a conscious political strategy; Paulin's own sensitivity to the slightest political nuance in the writing of others demands a reciprocal sensitivity to his own impeccably careful deployment of language. In fact, these “homeless words” bolster a style which, in a traditionally Irish fashion, was already accentually controlled without obvious formal allegiances, and highly alliterative. Often onomatopoeic, Paulin's slangy blend of registers had a singing warmth.
The poems were actually more exclusive and impenetrable in their cultural references, displaying perhaps the cosmopolitan sympathies of the Academy. “Mythologies”, for instance, is best read alongside Paulin's critical essay on Great Expectations, which fulfils much the same function as the poem without expecting so much of the reader. “Under Creon” arguably derives much strength from Paulin's reading of Antigone against Cruise O'Brien's. Knowing that the lines “the subterfuge text / within the text itself” are actually a modified quotation from a text Paulin despises, does affect its reading. The long fugue of “The Caravans on Lüneburg Heath” is furnished with helpful notes; but like the apologias poets irritatingly trot out at readings, these can end up doing a lot of work which should have been shouldered by the poem itself.
Which said, Fivemiletown is an outstanding volume, generously represented here, and still chock-full of deserving pieces. Paulin often ditches the imperial dictates of punctuation (if you take that sort of thing seriously) to produce a jazzy monologue which flickers with articulate confusions, as in the delightful, crapulous “Calque”, or a swinging homage to Jackson Pollock. The love lyrics, with their doomed, cross-border trysts always carrying a tacit allegory, are affecting and hilarious: “Fivemiletown” itself, juggling its conditionals and tenses to leave its conclusion poised ambiguously between rapprochement and rift; “Breez Marine”, tenderly saying “we've rubbed each other up / a brave long while / that's never love”; or “Waftage: An Irregular Ode”, fizzing with mockeries right down to the girlfriend's unequivocal “Va-t'en” answered with self-serving pride: “Dead on. I chucked her then.”
For all the poignant, blocked stand-offs of his poems, Paulin has developed an endearing and effective vehicle for his political commitments, conducting an argument with himself and others with a wit, vigour and sincerity which sugar its occasional and necessary bitterness. Paulin recently described compiling his Selected Poems as “like drawing up a will”; but there's no sign that he has exhausted his subject yet, nor, thankfully, that it has exhausted him.
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 terrace-houses’ and the ‘strange museums’ of Adam houses and Georgian rectories in which ‘History could happen’ (in the title poem of The Strange Museum). This is not a history of external events or rote-learned dates, but a rich, complex history in which both subjectivity, and objects themselves, find their meanings in relation to one another: ‘Caught in the nets of class, / History became carpets, chairs’, he writes in his anti-Hegelian poem, ‘The Idea in History’. Paulin is not so much a poet of cities, of the seething interrelationships and juxtapositions of buildings, detritus and humans, but of the building out on a limb, of ‘The Bungalow on the Unapproved Road’ in Fivemiletown. Even the bed-sits that populate the first two books have ‘The dull ripe smell of gas’ (‘Second-Rate Republics’) of the deracinated suburbs, are lonely in their proximity. And what is notable about the buildings and dwellings (Paulin is still grappling with Heidegger) in Walking a Line is their hesitancy, their provisionality, what, in ‘A History of the Tin Tent’, Paulin calls their ‘throwaway permanence’: ‘sheets of corrugated iron / beaverjoints purlins joists / wire nails and matchboard lining / were packed into kits / so complete societies / could be knocked and bent / into sudden being’. ‘Europe became a desert’, he reminds us, ‘so these tents could happen’. But now ‘they're almost like texts / no one wants to read / —texts prefabs caves / a whole aesthetic in reverse’. It is from his exemplary readings of such homeless constructions that Paulin gathers the materials with which to build his own texts.
The blurb of the book tells us that its title ‘is taken from a statement by Paul Klee … [who] presides over its contents as a sort of guardian angel’. We meet Klee in the book's first poem, ‘Klee/Clover’, improvising, cutting ‘squares of canvas / from the wings and fuselage’ of biplanes that crashed onto the airfield where he was drafted during the First World War. Like Paulin, Klee makes art from the provisional, so that the pilots ‘never knew they were flying / primed blank canvases / into his beautiful airfield’. Klee's delicacy, his wonderful combination of wit and seriousness, infuse this book with a grace and deftness of touch which make this Paulin's most successful and important collection to date.
Paulin's pure lyricism, combined with his acute historical and political sense in his first two books, meant far more to me than anything else written during the late seventies and early eighties, and I've continued to admire his work ever since, particularly ‘The Book of Juniper’ in Liberty Tree, which remains one of the strongest poems he's written. But there were times in that book, and in Fivemiletown, when I just wished he'd stop banging on, when I'd come to the end of a poem and feel somehow got at (which, I admit, is a great improvement on the feeling of complacent cleverness induced by some of his contemporaries). It was as though the sour accents of patriarchal Presbyterianism he so strenuously criticized had infected his own tongue a little too pungently. Sometimes I felt excluded from those books, in the way that I felt excluded from Paulin's pathetically narrow version of politics which informed The Faber Book of Political Verse. But in Walking a Line the righteous anger of his earlier work has mutated into something far more self-questioning. And linguistically, there's been a corresponding shift of registers. Paulin's language is still as inventive as ever, but he's abandoned the sometimes hermetic and rebarbative clumped glottals of the last two books for a more open lyricism that can be as precise as it is tender:
sparrowgrass is its own concept
light and wavy like the smoky bush that grows and grows into a soft flumy a feathery delicacy
Walking a Line is a delight. And one of its great delights is its critique of masculinity, as brave as anything I've seen attempted by a male poet before. There's always been a lot of jism in Paulin's books and, whilst I'm prepared to accept that this cocksure display may have been intended as a radical deconstruction through explicit exposure of the root of phallocentrism (sorry), it did all get rather tiresome after a while. Here though, the representations of gender are troubled by a ‘phallic guilt’. In ‘Circumstantial’ Paulin's attempt to make ‘poetry [from] little things / —say bits of scrim / that plosive lid’ of ‘The hymen on the coffee jar / its gilt or silver foil’ leads to a feeling of unease: ‘maybe also there's a small / phallic guilt / something niggly and annoying / that he'll never fathom?’ Time after time the poet is stymied by the problem of making metaphors appropriate to femininity, particularly to the ‘fleshy oxymoron’ (‘Cadmus and the Dragon’) of the female genitalia. How is the male poet, sensitive to feminism, to write of his desire? How can heterosexual penetration be anything other than a violation? Or worse, what if it's simply a redundant activity?
‘A Taste of Blood’ deals with that despair. It begins, ‘At long last he believes / that he's found a metaphor / to explain the way it always pans out / between the pair of them / … it begins with the hinged shell / of an oyster’. But that means ‘he can only be a claspknife / … no wonder then / that even in the act of love / the oyster won't open / and allow him to enter / all the deliciousness inside’.
A way out of this metaphorical appropriation is suggested by Klee's methodology of improvisation, of humility in the face of one's materials. Language, Paulin realises, is radically uncertain and unstable. In ‘On the Windfarm’ the wind is ‘the rock on which / the true church of language / is forever building itself / then falling back down’. (Interestingly enough, in ‘Cadmus and the Dragon’ ‘the bottomless vagina’ is seen as ‘easy effortless as a windsock / infinite as language’.) In ‘The New Year’ Paulin confronts the historical and political deceptions of language. What troubles him here is ‘my one language’ in which ‘every sentence / builds itself / on risk / and an ignorance / of what's been hacked down / or packed up’.
It is this ignorance which the protagonist of ‘A Taste of Blood’ fails to appreciate. In his masculine desire to name and control his lover, he fails to acknowledge both the history of such an appropriation (the whole edifice of ‘love’ poetry is built on this naming) or to comprehend the possibility of female agency. This is yet another heterosexual encounter devoid of mutuality. But in the delightful celebration of cunnilingus, ‘L’, pleasure moves from the guilty phallus to the hesitant explorations of the tongue.
Here, instead of attempting to find the appropriate metaphor for female genitalia, language is allowed to open out the poem into a shifting set of metaphors which invoke the erotic pleasures of the tongue, abandoning attempts to fix or control these sensual associations: ‘like a heifer drawn to the rocks / it loves to lick salt / and dwell on the sea's minerals’. In naming and questioning his own pleasures, in pausing to reflect (as Klee did) on the significance of the small detail, taking it for a walk into its own context, its own history, Paulin has found a flexible and generous poetic method which is both tender and daring. ‘[T]his tongue thing's a supple instrument’, ‘L’ concludes,
kinda decent and hardworking and often more welcome than the penis —too many poems speak of that member maybe it's time I unbuttoned my tongue?
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 rearrangement.
I don't suppose Tom Paulin has ever been accused of toeing the line. He can, though, take it, as several poems in Walking a Line show (the viciously witty “The Other England”, for example, about the ghastliness of the royals).
He also candidly acknowledges the world of the “sign”. His volume takes advantage of opportunities brought about by sophisticated machine typography. But concessions to the eye are outweighed by his use of the line as a construct followed by the ear. It's significant that he does away with all punctuation other than the parenthetic dash.
You have to read his poems, as you have to read John Clare's, listening for meaning to emerge through and as stress, intonation, cadence. Paulin won't allow the shapeliness of regular stanzas and metre to be other than “Foursquare / a dead duck”.
But Paul Klee is the more apparent inspiration for Walking a Line. A painting of his is reproduced on the cover; he's the subject of its first poem and of several others; and he's implicit in “What's Natural”, a wonderfully teasing 21-line single-sentence rumination that begins “Taking a line out for a walk / ought to seem—well / second nature / like the way you laugh or talk / —though both speech and laughter / have to be learned / inside a culture”.
Rhyme and half-rhyme brush the ear in a manner that owes something to Paul Muldoon, but the complex wit of “second nature” as indicative of a “learned” response and yet offering freedom from cultural determination—that's Paulin's own, as is the refusal to accept “style” as proof of the fashionable weightlessness of being, of the impossibility of responsible choice. Delight in making, which Klee's work has in abundance, goes with a readiness to accept the dreck of living in a material world (MacNeice is also in there somewhere).
Hence the mordant “Hegel and the War Criminals”, which has in its sights the defenders of Paul de Man and their deconstructionist mantra about world-as-text. Hence the marvellous “Firhouse”, a moralised landscape about the signs of Thatcher-England (except that's to simplify). And hence the fact that Paulin's best poems are a kind of multiply weave; at once “about” something and a relishing of what the tongue and ear can combine to make.
Among the volume's most remarkable poems are “L”, “Priming the Pump” and a poem whose title my typewriter isn't sophisticated enough to be able to reproduce but whose opening is “Cush / with an aspirate n at the end”. Any one of these would make Walking a Line an essential to buy; and that's to saying nothing of others, including the elegy “Soldier and Packman” and “The Sting”, a love poem that is an almost perfect example of how to walk the line.
The Red-Headed Pupil is also worth buying. Like Paulin, Jeffrey Wainwright is exercised by questions of identity, of selfhood, of freedom. The title poem, which accounts for all but four pages of the volume, is in two parts, each of more than 20 short poems divided into three-, four- and five-line stanzas.
In the first, “The Anatomy Lesson”, Wainwright uses Rembrandt's famous painting to brood over what used to be called the ontology of being: “Is this where what the man is is to be found?”
But such a question prompts another: “Since everything true of a mouse and me, / as everything true of Thomas Nagel, / is already in the world—the world that is / just the world—how can we then be we / and not any of those who got off the bus / at the top of Duke Street one afternoon.”
Wainwright's stanzas are efficient carriers of his meditations, but while they're in no sense dead ducks, they inevitably lack the line of enquiry that distinguishes Paulin's work. And though I recognise the skill that's gone into their making, it's difficult not to feel that much in the first half is dutiful rather than imaginatively engaged or engaging.
The second part, “Free Rein”, seems to me far better, because there's more grist to the poems' speculation about whether and in what sense we are free agents in social and political terms. There are, for example, two gripping back-to-back accounts of a hanging, and a more-than-clever one which, Paulin-like, moves from eclairs to éclaircisse- / ment as a means of asking “Vous avez choisi?”
Wainwright gives sympathetic voice to his trapped sunburn dweller dreaming of freedom (“We've changed it from number 4 to ‘Woodford House’. / The wife's done the lettering—she's qualified in that / and always wanted to get back to it”.) This bruised, tolerant sadness contrasts with the harder, more bracing note of Paulin's “Painting the Carport” (“It was a stretched bungalow / not the kind of building you'd assent to / —at least not easily.”)
Easy assent is probably the curse of the English. Wainwright's sequence ends with a dream that says “our mind … invented freedom / as it came, make of it what you can or will.” But the assent implicit in this level monotone is far less inventive and liberating than Paulin's wandering line, with its echo of that dissenting freedom to wander, the right to song, for which John Clare spoke so passionately.
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 Tree (1983), Paulin was still hoping for a “sweet / equal republic”, but in Fivemiletown (1987) he engaged more thoroughly with the agonies of Ulster Unionism, imagining how it would be to feel “like a dog / in my own province”. Political hope was thwarted.
We have had seven years to become accustomed to the diction Paulin created for himself in Fivemiletown, based essentially on Ulster Protestant dialect, but its effect is no less abrasive in Walking a Line. The title is revealingly ambiguous, suggesting that the poet is either preserving an imperilled balance or accepting Paul Klee's observation about drawing. In the first poem, “Klee/Clover”, the latter meaning seems to predominate. “Each time a plane crashed”, the reluctant soldier Klee “cut squares of canvas / … he never said why”.
—maybe the pilots annoyed him? those unlovely aristos who never knew they were flying primed blank canvases into his beautiful airfield.
Class-hatred marks and perhaps motivates the artist's solipsistic conversion of war to material. It is instructive to compare this poem with Donald Barthelme's story “Engineer-Private Paul Klee Misplaces an Aircraft between Milbertshofen and Cambrai, March 1916”, which ends with Klee reflecting that “the war is temporary. But drawings and chocolate go on forever.” Barthelme's Klee is a comic hero, where Paulin's remains rooted in the contingent mess. Art is uneasily and incompletely abstracted from the world.
This commitment to the actual means that Paulin's poems rarely aim at aesthetic closure. “Kinship Ties”, for instance, ends “no ubi sumus / let's leave it there”. Refusing a traditional poetic tone. Paulin conveys a resignation to experience which is touching in its weariness but also wearying. It is a long time since Duchamp moustachioed the Mona Lisa, and gestures of poetic je-m'en-foutisme like this no longer have much power.
However, Paulin's imagination has always been essentially dualistic, and in this book a major concern is the prepolitical duality of sex. In “Circumstantial”, “The hymen on the coffee jar” quickly becomes, for a young man now living with a woman, the particular “foil she bursts / with her thumb”, recognized “by the tatters round the rim”, yet “if there's poetry in little things” “maybe there's also a small / phallic guilt / something niggly and annoying / that he'll never fathom?” The circumstantial evidence of domesticity recalls an essential sexual violence. The trouble with the poem is that it springs from one detail: it doesn't have the novelistic fullness which might more delicately embody the idea, but it claims the authority of a made world. That it ends in a question, in a “niggly and annoying” way, is a feint. We are not invited to give a negative answer.
Equally, the idea is commonplace. The sexual guilt Paulin understands is taken as given for the male, even if, in “A Hard Sell”, Paulin hopes “just now and then”
to find out how in the act of love —a ramstam fuck the split bamboo has its own guilt its own pleasure.
The “split bamboo” here seems to be the vagina, although Paulin's metaphorical procedure in this poem is not altogether clear. The poem is “A Hard Sell” because Paulin recognizes that male guilt is assumed, but other poems proceed on precisely that assumption. It is irritating that the question's full complexity is not always acknowledged.
Paulin is a highly ambitious poet, but often the ambition represses the poetry, coercing it into more decisive postures than it earns. The gritty, consonantal, colloquial diction has a macho swagger which sits uneasily with the exploration of dilemmas. In “The New Year”, Paulin finds that “the latest drugrelated / offence by a member / of the Marlborough family / leaves me cold”. Not cold enough to omit it, but cool enough to write journalistically. Later in the same poem, he decides that what does trouble him is his “own language”, “my one language / where each word / strains to utter itself / like a mallety wooden turd”. He will return from walking near Blenheim Palace
like a malefactor a lost soul who's stared into a false battlefield or that tight terrible hollow in Gibbon's prose style.
His proper concern, he knows, is poetry, which must avoid the seductive nostalgia the eighteenth century provokes and explore what it lacked in humanity. He feels outcast yet equipped to judge, but denies that time pardons anyone for writing well.
Certainly, he denies that it pardons Heidegger, of whom he writes that “—half-pope half-fortuneteller / he rambled on about oaktrees / —you can still watch his acquittal / behind this text and that text”. Simply (far too simply) “a cunning brownshirt”, Heidegger for Paulin endured as a corruption that the bland literary-critical academic word “text” glosses over. In Fivemiletown, “The Caravans on Lüneburg Heath” worried at the same subject. Its importance to Paulin is perhaps this: the question whether Heidegger's ontology can, as many argue, really be detached from its forest and clearing metaphors, with their blood-and-soil implications, raises a possibility of transcendence that his own poetic method insists on denying. When—as in “Painting the Carport”, with its brilliantly noticed “rotary clothesline flymowed lawn” and “hedge of instant fillingstation conifers”, or in “Almost There”, with its wish to have “written it out a couple more times” and awareness that “the speechjolt / its wet spark / is travelling still / travelling through darkness and moisture”—Paulin escapes his burden of responsibility, he reminds us what a marvellous poet he has it in him to be; but that a fifth collection should still seem only promising reminds us what a difficult route he has taken.
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 expertise to overthrow the stiflement and self-importance of craft and expertise—to be as uninhibited and fresh and airy as a beginner. Not continue to paint yourself into a corner with aching brush and paint gone hard, but take a line for a walk, as Tom Paulin says [in Walking a Line], taking a leaf from Paul Klee, whose daily wit, invention and application (not to mention his use of bastard materials) stand behind this, his fifth book of poems.
It is seven years since the appearance of Paulin's fourth, Fivemiletown. To say that was one of the best books of the Eighties isn't enough: it is one of the best books I know, or for that matter, am capable of imagining: a corrosive and uproarious litany of bad sex, bad politics and bad religion:
All I could try was turn a sly hurt look to soften her and that night in bed I stuck my winedark tongue inside her bum her blackhaired Irish bum repeating in my head his father's prayer to shite and onions. But my summum pulchrum said I've had enough we rubbed each other up a brave long while that's never love.
because you'd fallen for this young priest he was a loiner Tim Ryan that's a lie and driven with him July a heatwave all through the West the East Riding some harbour Hornsea Spurn Head it's pathetic you were in cheesecloth he'd green shades I could scream still the Society of Jesus White Fathers it's invisible as that day the same day she and me we made a heavy pretence of love I mean we'd a drunken fuck in the afternoon after a dockland lunch the Land of Green Ginger its smell of sex herrings desire
‘Sure I'm a Cheat, Aren't We All?’
for a geg one day I bought this tin of panties coloured like the Union Jack, but she slung it in the bin and never breathed the least bit sigh. ‘Va-t'en!’ she spat, ‘I just can't stand you. No one can. Your breath stinks and your taste it's simply foul— like that accent. Please don't come slouching near my bed again.’ So, real cool, I growled ‘Lady, no way you'll walk right over me.’ Dead on. I chucked her then.
‘Waftage: An Irregular Ode’
The language flows as simply as blood from a wound, but how multifarious it is, borrowed and pieced together, now like a feather cloak, now like a lead painting, molten and jagged and impressively crippled. Every poem varies its resources, while keeping its outrageous ‘spoken’ feel: tags of Classical and modern learning, literary debris (‘winedark’ and ‘slouching’ from Yeats, or Homer and Yeats if you'd rather), the Shakespearean puns on place-names, the opposition of French chic and US cool; the anxious, dreary and deluded male protagonists; the way the whole literal scene seems forever on the point of dissolving into wicked metaphor. Some readers were alienated by its phallicism, perhaps bizarrely failing to grasp its misery: these are not phallocrats but losers, phallopaths if you like. What can one feel for the hero of a poem actually called ‘Really Naff’ but pity and contempt, the way his girl or boy does: ‘but he's as bare as need, poor guy / or the sole of that trainer’?
Linguistic richness on its own, or the tight thematic focus, would have made Fivemiletown a distinguished book: but with both, in harness, it was irresistible. It read like nothing else, even looked like nothing else: the columns of short irregular lines, broken by syntax, less and less truck with punctuation, occasional full rhymes and italicised scraps of learning, dashes or indentation to introduce dissent or chorus (‘hear me sister! / brother believe me!’)—what other British or Irish poet was doing anything like this? Reading it, one couldn't even tell what Paulin had been reading. Only Zbigniew Herbert, with his construction and layout, his unpunctuated chorales, narratives and meditations seemed undeniably an influence: but where did Paulin's bizarre marriage of Ireland and America, of Paisley and Presley, come from? Was he reading William Carlos Williams, or were the influences all vernacular, as he, the vernacular anthologist, might have us believe? Whichever, it was an unforgettable performance.
Epochal books like that, invigorating and new, are a hard act to follow. A quick successor might only have betrayed Paulin's exhaustion. Instead, he has held off for a long time, and written most of his new poems towards the end of a seven-year lean spell. The new book is inevitably less focused, less fierce, it burns with a lower wattage. It demands to be read in a different way too, with latitude, amusement, appreciation for the features of Paulin's idiosyncratic style, tolerance if not approval of its new, almost unstrung mode. Both books deserve their jackets: Fivemiletown its thunderous black and grey, Walking a Line its little-boy blue and girl pink. It is somewhere between jaunty and kittenish. For someone who first made his name and his mark (in A State of Justice, 1977, and The Strange Museum, 1980) with austere and crunching formulations, it is an extraordinary pass to have come to. The style was one of the period styles, the Dunn-and-Motion style of the Seventies (out of Auden and Larkin), the mighty encapsulation, a double-headed hammering abstraction, offering Truth and Compression and not much Pleasure, and Paulin was a natural at it: ‘a buggered sun’, ‘a fierce privacy’, ‘a vegetable silence’, ‘a grey tenderness’, ‘an ignorant purity’. There are still, in Walking a Line, occasional echoes of this freeze-dried descriptiveness—‘the alum verities of dissent’—but this dominant feature of early Paulin has now almost disappeared. And on the other hand, the man of the senses (‘the rickety fizz of starlings’, ‘the snarl of hair burning, its bony pong’) and quirky word-spinner (‘sweet, sweating explosive’—a play on glycerine; ‘the bistre bistro’; and that patent-deserving Paulinism where he takes a man's occupation and cripples him with it, ‘the boreal teacher’, ‘the hunched detective’) who was such a grateful, relieving element in the earlier books, has now taken over the whole show. The things that make Walking a Line worth reading are either tiny or inconsequential: alphabetical sleights, puns, words run together as one, fantastically noisy descriptions of noise, a dash and a heckle, the gentle, almost pointless flips and flings with words. One of my favourite half-dozen poems in the book is ‘Portnoo Pier’, about a
concrete quay built about 1905 by yes the Congested Districts Board.
‘This disappointed bridge’, Paulin writes, ‘is home—home of a kind’, because ‘my name-sake Tommy Pallin’ goes swimming there:
each morning in summer he goes running along the concrete then takes a header into the ocean —a contented man Tommy as he bashes the frameless mirror come on on in and join us!
I don't know that Paulin has ever sounded so happy in a poem; but, movingly, his happiness is either second-hand or empathic, depending on things being twinned or doubled: ‘Portnoo’ and ‘Portnua’, Pallin/Paulin, the ‘frameless mirror’, even the two ‘on's and the ‘us’ in the last line. All this adds up to the carefully-sloppily qualified ‘home of a kind’. The ease and grace of the poem are of a kind that seem not worked for but almost inevitable—the reward for that craft and experience that I began by invoking.
‘Portnoo Pier’ strikes me as an absolute departure for Paulin: American and parlando, plein air and bonheur. A few more of the most programmatic poems of Walking a Line take their place with it: ‘Kinship Ties’, ‘Almost There’, ‘Naïf’, ‘What's Natural’, ‘Airplane’ and ‘Basta’, which picks up the book's wonderful epigraph from Moby Dick, describing whales swimming through ‘brit’: ‘As morning mowers, who side by side slowly and seethingly advance their scythes through the long wet grass of marshy meads; even so these monsters swam, making a strange, grassy, cutting sound; and leaving behind them endless swaths of blue upon the yellow sea.’ ‘Basta’ is a tabula rasa, a subject peculiarly congenial to Paulin's new mode and style:
a reverse epic in our chosen mode —performance art so krangg! brumpfff! shlump! we took out the punishment block … the romper room —below the snapped electrodes what we found was simply a green field site its grass almost liquid like duckweed or cress —so we waded right into that watery plain that blue blue ocean and started diving and lepping like true whales in clover
‘Reverse epic’: where to stick craft and experience; the comic-book violence of demolition; the touchingly, magically literal adaptation of the terrible expression ‘green field site’; the exultation of jumping and swimming; the nod at Melville and, punningly, (‘clover’) at Klee; all this in a rousingly surrealistic, more-than-realistic, finale—this is what Paulin is up to now. Think of a knotted string or tube: the knot, the dead end, the windsock (a favourite Paulin image) is the terminal volume Fivemiletown; coming out of the knot again, there is a new opening out, new positive feeling, new hope.
Walking a Line looks like a transitional book to me. While there are a number of examples of the new type of more ‘open’ Paulin poem, with almost unready, questioning endings—‘though maybe the opposite / just happens to be the case?’, ‘no ubi sumus / let's leave it there’, ‘—a tree that isn't a tree quite / like the doubt in “literature”’—he is still a poet of quite a Manichean cast of mind, a poet of good and bad trees (‘where the juniper / talks to the oak, / the thistle, / the bandaged elm, / and the jolly jolly chestnut’ from Liberty Tree of 1983), more at home in black and white than colour, given to thinking in categories, forever working up alliances, parallels and lists of enemies. He actually criticises this propensity here, when he speaks of ‘so many fatuous binaries / and all / to too much purpose’—but he goes on doing it all the same. It remains difficult to imagine him surprised by motivelessness in himself! One could, for example, draw up a list of things endorsed in Walking a Line—Paul Klee, whales, the wind, the tongue—and find them all, perversely and paradoxically systematic: all amiable, dishevelling, square-fronted and blunt (or keen). Still, he seems to have entered more deeply into his metaphoric systems than ever before: they remain his cubist staging-posts, but what perhaps matters to him more is the deliberately sketchy, scribbled quality of the thinking-aloud and thinking-in-images with which he connects them. The poem ‘A Taste of Blood’ labours through a page and a half of imagery on a relationship, self-mocking and costive and excitable and trapped:
—if she's a clamped oyster that may or may not have a liking for him then he can only be a claspknife that turns into Kinch the fearful Calvinist a hard penis a hand writing with someone else's pen
before shifting to the perspective of the woman:
he lies on a lapsed futon always losing and chasing answers to his own question there's dirty spatter of rain on the skylight window its skittery sprinkle falls on their amours and she knows this morning there'll be blood —blood and fuckyous between them
In the desperately reifying poem, the ‘blood and fuckyous’ have wickedly and ironically turned into words, giving the whole thing a wonderfully defeated shape. The notable thing about the poem is not any brilliance of analysis but its open-handedness and decompression Its drama is much less lurid and electric than that of comparable poems in Fivemiletown, its despair more ordinary and endurable. Paulin seems to me to be embarked on a kind of démontage of his own writing—Yeats's ‘more enterprise in going naked’ comes to mind—which in the end may take him to some exhaustive pastoral or protocol, maybe a very long poem or perhaps a book of translations along the lines of Lowell's Imitations, for which his style, both distinctive and serviceable, would qualify him better than anyone now writing. In contemporary poetry, where voice is almost everything, he is using noise instead. One day he will compose a hymn to trash that will put everything in the shade.
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: Poetry and the Nation State,] the prominent poet-editor-critic Tom Paulin recalls the scene in Joyce's Portrait of the Artist where Stephen Dedalus resolves to fashion Dædalian wings and escape the labyrinth of his own troubled heritage: “When the soul of a man is born in this country,” Dedalus tells his Irish nationalist friend Davin, “there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.” But unlike Dublin's Joyce, Belfast's Paulin seems attracted less to the figure of Dædalus than that of Theseus, who ventures into the labyrinth to slay the monster who feeds on Athenian youth. Paulin's politics are driven by a passionate hatred of the minotaur he identifies (via an interesting misprision of Shelley) with the power of state oppression. His literary criticism is similarly driven by a distaste for traditional aesthetics, which in his view is sanctioned by the nation-state and lends legitimacy to it. He calls upon the critic to shed transcendent wings and return to the labyrinth of history—the tumultuous political, social, and cultural conflicts that are the origin and ground of even our most rarified verbal icons. Standard fare these days, but Paulin's angry eloquence, fueled by the satanic brew of Ulster politics, imbues his exploits in the labyrinth with a singularly bitter tinge.
Minotaur is a collection of miscellaneous lectures, reviews, and occasional pieces bound together by a consistency of theme and voice. It is not served well by its introduction, and the reader entangled in its tortuous argument should consider leaping to the following chapter on Milton, whose shadow looms over the entire book. In Milton “the polemicist, the radical republican visionary and Protestant internationalist” (19) we find the archangel of Paulin's dissenting imagination, unshakeable in its “absolute confidence in the liberating possibilities of the free individual conscience” (31), descending upon the minotaur of royalist oppression. Here we also find the prototype of Paulin's crusade for a new literary criticism. Originally a review of some insufficient efforts to historicize Milton, this essay sets out to torch what remains of the aestheticized image of Milton and restore his œuvre to its life-giving “topicality—the dramatic intensity of the polemical Now” (23). With the Miltonic paradigm in place, Paulin then catapults to the nineteenth century and performs similar critical-historical surgery on Southey, Coleridge, Clare, Clough, Christina Rossetti, Hopkins, Dickinson, and Dickens. Clare and Dickens easily pass the republican litmus test, but the real interest lies in Paulin's ability to detect the politically progressive in the seemingly apolitical (Rossetti, Hopkins, Dickinson) or to catch a would-be progressive betraying the power of official culture over his conscious efforts to transcend it (young Southey and Coleridge, Clough). The rest of the book dwells on twentieth-century authors: a set of essays on Anglo-Irish-American modernists—Yeats, Lawrence, Frost, and a moving homage to Elizabeth Bishop, “unique among Anglo-American poets in possessing a type of third-world imagination which bases itself in squatters' camps and shantytowns” (194); another set devoted to contemporary Eastern European poets—Zbigniew Herbert, Miroslav Holub, and Tadeusz Rózewicz; and a rousing finale on contemporary British poets—Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, Geoffrey Hill, and Peter Reading—in which Paulin's polemical rhetoric soars to the peak of its intensity. That “gnarled and angry puritanism” (250) he acknowledges in the dissenting imagination reaches one sort of climax in the fiery foul temper of his piece on Geoffrey Hill—“a parasite upon Eliot's imagination” (281)—and another sort of climax in the almost demonic zest with which he treats Peter Reading's depiction of “the insane ugliness of British life” (291)—a fit conclusion to a book impelled from cover to cover by the implacable fury of political resentment.
Paulin's criticism exemplifies certain aspects of the historical turn that has overtaken literary study in the last few years. His procedure is to desanctify the verbal icon by resituating it within the specific socio-political context of its composition or publication. The wager in this operation is that the text will begin to look “less like an urn in a national museum and more like a pamphlet or a piece of journalism” (137). The method may be predictable, but the results are often fresh and surprising, in part because Paulin retains a poet's appreciation for the well-wrought urn once it is retrieved from the claustral atmosphere of the national museum. His aim (elaborated elsewhere) is not to sacrifice poetics to politics but to restore their mutual implication and thus reintegrate that which has been artificially severed by a pernicious ideology of the aesthetic. A tall order, but Paulin's sensitivity to poetic nuance—his Ariadne's thread out of the labyrinth—usually forestalls the wholesale collapse of the aesthetic into the ideological, and at certain moments we catch glimpses of a new and grittier political aesthetic in the making.
A major article of this new aesthetic creed is the recovery of marginal voices long suppressed by the official culture of the nation-state. Summoning up vast reserves of rage on behalf of his Irish, provincial, and dissenting ancestors, Paulin rails against the centralization of literary culture underwritten by the minotaur of state authority. In opposition to the imposed standardization of the written word, he presses into service the myth of “the natural anarchism of the oral tradition” (207) to dissolve the official voice of the nation—old boy, establishment, Oxbridge—into a magnificent babble of local dialects, brimming with “the eddies, the surprise, the spontaneous lunges of common speech” (113). Less happily, but in line with the martyrology of the academic left in Thatcherite England, he invokes the shade of proletarian-poet John Clare, whose “oral writing speaks for and to all who dream of unlocking a frozen language and redeeming an unjust society” (55) Displaced from its original (and sometimes oral) context, such purple prose can get quite irritating, and on occasion Paulin's antiunionist diatribe becomes so heated that it boils over into a kind of literary terrorism. In its better moments, however, the rough, energetic rhythms and wickedly nonstandard turns of Paulin's impassioned polemics seem to offer a taste of the world we have lost—those “local and vernacular energies” (47) smoothed over by the seductive elegance of the national standard.
If Joyce aspired to become “the priest of eternal imagination,” Tom Paulin might be described as the prophet of the “polemical now.” While the former, in Joyce's words, transmutes “the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everlasting life,” the latter inveighs against the idolatry of art, refusing to let us forget the daily bread that sustains the rites of consubstantiality. At certain moments, Paulin's prophetic rage is somewhat tempered by the prospect of a revitalized aesthetics beyond the nightmarish labyrinth of history. Yet in the final analysis the tenuous lure of the aesthetic does little to restrain or sublimate the rancor that propels this book. Paulin claims to be “dismayed” by the “single-minded, driven violence and ferocity” (12) of the dissenting imagination, but at another level he seems willing to accept this condition as the price of upholding his “sovereign sense of self against those institutions which would deny it” (111). The risk is that unrelieved toil in the labyrinth—a contrivance far more subtle and devious than the minotaur contained within it—may turn the sovereign self into something as brutal as the monster it seeks to slay.
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 contemporary adaptations of Sophoclean tragedy. Both of these are truly original works, not merely literal translations; both are explicitly anachronistic in places. Despite the political nature of the Field Day enterprise, however, neither Paulin nor Heaney overtly addresses political subject matter through their content. In both plays, however, language serves both to delineate and to demarcate characters by class, power, and at least explicit connection with nationality. Paulin's Creon undergoes a personal transformation expressed in his language, and the play is as much about Creon's finding an appropriate voice as it is about Antigone's tragedy. Heaney, too, uses language as subject as well as means of discourse: switches from verse to prose, and especially relative degrees of dialect, serve to map the psychic and philosophical landscape of his characters.
Playwright Brian Friel, co-founder of the Field Day Theatre Company,1 “in a moment of uncharacteristic directness,” once told an interviewer that the company was founded “to create an opportunity for ‘talking amongst ourselves,’ adding that ‘others can listen if they wish’” (Hadfield 47C). Indeed, from its founding in 1980 by Friel and actor-director Stephen Rea, Field Day has turned its attention to the ways language becomes localized within a community, simultaneously revealing and concealing meaning. Not surprisingly, the nature and implications of translation have been objects of considerable inquiry from the very beginning. The first Field Day production, Friel's Translations, in September, 1980, argues implicitly that language is inherently political, and Hugh, the hedge-school master (and self-conscious classicist) in the play, states explicitly that “it is not the literal past, the ‘facts’ of history, that shape us, but images of the past embodied in language” (Friel III.66). The link between language and historiography continues to fascinate the Field Day company, which has included in its relatively short playlist two adaptations of Sophocles, one of Molière,2 and two of Chekhov.3 In 1989, Stephen Rea defined “a Field Day play” as “a play of ideas, involved with language, involved with looking at imperialism, and looking at men who have one foot in Ireland and one in England” (qtd. Richtarik 268).4
This article will concentrate on the two Sophoclean adaptations, Tom Paulin's The Riot Act (1984, published 1985), based on Antigone, and Seamus Heaney's The Cure at Troy (1990), based on Philoctetes. Both are first plays by established poets; both are retitled from the Sophoclean originals but maintain the original title as a subtitle: “A version of … ;” both deal with political issues obliquely, using language itself rather than necessarily the events portrayed as the primary means of giving a specifically Northern Irish locale for the plays' action.
I. TOM PAULIN'S THE RIOT ACT: ANTIGONE IN BELFAST
The earlier and more satisfying of the two in theatrical (as opposed to purely literary) terms, The Riot Act, was not Paulin's first encounter with either the Antigone story or the concept of translation as a nexus of language and politics. Most significantly, he published a poem entitled “Under Creon” in 1983, and his essays “The Making of a Loyalist” and “A New Look at the Language Question” first appeared in 1980 and 1983, respectively:5 “Under Creon” gives little indication of a clear socio-political message, but it does begin to suggest themes of individual vs. society, of grief mixing with determination, even of nationalistic ardor: “… a free voice sang / dissenting green. … / Maybe one day I'll get the hang of it / and find joy, not justice, in a snapped connection, / that Jacobin oath on the black mountain” (Liberty Tree 13).
Still, this poetic invocation can hardly be said to confront head-on the major political issues of the day. “The Making of a Loyalist,” an essay on Conor Cruise O'Brien, however, explicitly links art and politics, and indeed prefigures Paulin's choice of the Antigone myth as a source for translation. In 1968, O'Brien was the first to use the Antigone story as an analogy for contemporary events in Northern Ireland, even linking the play's title character and Bernadette Devlin as examples of “non-violent civil disobedience, [involving] the breaking of a law which she consider[s] to be contrary to a higher law” (The Listener 24 October 1968; qtd. in States of Ireland 156). But when O'Brien revised his lecture for publication in his States of Ireland four years later, he shrank from “all those funerals” he feared he may have inadvertently helped to propagate.6 He suggested instead that “Ismene's common sense and feeling for the living may be the more needful, if less spectacular element in ‘human dignity’” (159). O'Brien also reiterated his earlier observation that “Creon's authority, after all, was legitimate, even if he abused it, and the life of the city would become intolerable if citizens should disobey any law that irked their conscience” (157). Paulin rejects this “severe distortion of the tragic conflict” through which “the Unionist State is virtually absolved of all responsibility and Creon's hands appear to be clean.” Even more bluntly, he writes that O'Brien, “in recommending Ismene's common-sense … is really supporting Creon's rule of law. It is as though a future member of Creon's think-tank can be discerned hiding behind the unfortunate Ismene” (Ireland and the English Crisis 28). Such ideas doubtless form part of the intellectual backdrop against which Paulin wrote The Riot Act. In part, then, the play represents a further rebuttal to what Paulin perceived as O'Brien's equivocating Unionism. Still, The Riot Act differs in kind, not merely degree, from the debate with O'Brien: here, for the first time, is Paulin's recognition of the material of Antigone not as icon or metaphor, but rather as fictive trope, i.e., he uses the myth as a theme upon which to play variations rather than suggesting point-to-point equivalences between the inherited story and contemporary events. The result allows not only more interpretative flexibility but also more potential potency.
Further background for a reading of The Riot Act can be found in Paulin's A New Look at the Language Question, in which he argues that “the history of a language is often a story of possession and dispossession, territorial struggle and the establishment or imposition of a culture. … Fundamentally, the language question is a question about nationhood and government …” (Field Day 3, 7).7 Similarly, Paulin argues that the misapprehension that the Irish language is to be associated “exclusively with Irish [C]atholic culture. … helps to confirm the essentially racist ethic which influences some sections of Unionist opinion and which is also present in the old-fashioned nationalist concept of the ‘pure Gael’” (10). Like Yeats before him, he argues that England's major period of cultural creation was the Elizabethan-Jacobean (i.e., Shakespearean) age (4) and he praises Noah Webster for challenging specifically English conceptions of language in establishing a uniquely American idiom. Paulin even quotes Webster in a passage readily transferable from Webster's America to Paulin's Ireland:
As an independent nation, our honor requires us to have a system of our own, in language as well as government. Great Britain, whose children we are, and whose language we speak, should no longer be our standard; for the taste of her writers is already corrupted, and her language on the decline.
More importantly, Paulin describes a form of Irish English which “lives a type of romantic, unfettered existence—no dictionary accommodates it, no academy regulates it, no common legislative body speaks it, and no national newspaper guards it” (15). Such a language ultimately becomes regional or even clan-based, with words which “act as a kind of secret sign and serve to exclude the outside world” (16). In his own writing, Paulin plainly seeks to explore the nature of language, and ultimately of “translation” in the broad sense of that term. The extent to which matters of language and politics coincide, either in the world or in Paulin's perception of it, is a matter for some debate: whereas Paulin acknowledges at least implicit connections throughout his “Language Question” essay, one American critic chides him for not being more explicit, claiming Paulin's discussion lacks “a sense of [Irish English's] relation to agency,” thus “reify[ing] language and politics as distinct spheres,” creating a “rather wan ‘revolutionary effect’” (Worthen 26). Indeed, the entire Field Day enterprise finds itself walking a very thin line between overt politicization on the one hand and an ineffectual hesitancy on the other. Thus, Christopher Murray describes The Riot Act as “necessarily … political, but surprisingly tentative in its application to Northern Ireland, if it could be said to have any real application at all …” (“History Play,” 285-86).8
It is difficult to imagine, given that Antigone had already been specifically invoked by Paulin himself as a metaphor for “the Troubles,” that his adaptation of that play, staged at the Guildhall, Derry (site of the infamous Bloody Sunday episode), under the portentous title of The Riot Act, could be read anything but politically. Murray's reservations may be reasonable if we look at the play only in terms of plot, independent of language and theatrical production. In terms of setting, the “masonic symbols” called for in Paulin's stage directions (9) “identify the power structure with Presbyterianism,” according to Murray himself; “Antigone's insistence on burial rites for her brother smacks of Catholic preoccupations” (Twentieth-Century Irish Drama, 214). Moreover, the act of staging the play demands that a producer confront directly questions of language, especially of dialect and accent, centering attention on precisely those dramatic elements in which Paulin most demonstrably strays from the Sophoclean version of Antigone.9
Language in The Riot Act becomes a locus of power, delineating race, class, and even attitude. All of the characters are given language which places them in Northern Ireland as well as Thebes. Ismene, for example, argues against defying Creon's authority, asking her sister, “Can you imagine, but, / what way we'll die?— / some scraggy, smelly crowd, / us dragged before them— / oh they'll spit, / they'll sleg us then, / shout all the dirt / till the first stones go whap!” (12). Haemon asks Creon the rhetorical question, “Would I be your son / If I never heeded / what's yacking in the streets?,” and quotes the crowd as saying, “Thon girl did right” (37). Antigone prepares for her final confrontation with Creon by singing to herself: the refrain is “my friends are cold / though my bairns are dead” (46, 47). Generally speaking, however, these three characters use localized language relatively sparingly.10
Contrastingly, as W. B. Worthen points out, “the ‘state’ characters—Creon, the Guard, and the Messenger—are given more specific, modern characterization, made to articulate their positionality in the play's performance in more evocatively modern terms” (28). An ideal example of language as a means of definition occurs in the two early scenes between Creon and the Guard (18-26). Here we identify both characters in terms of their presumed contemporary Irish-ness. The Guard, not surprisingly, is the more colorfully conveyed: he calls himself “a complete eejit” (18), quotes a colleague as saying “we just better had report the incident, and not a chance for a coverup” (20), describes Antigone as a “wee girl” and Polynices' body as “soft and pobby” (24), and claims that in the dust-storm “the entire place was obliterated” (26). Clearly, all of these expressions are intended to identify the Guard in national as well as social or socio-economic terms. The addition of the diacritical mark in “obliterated” is especially interesting, in that it demands something specific in performance. In Worthen's terms, it
points suggestively toward the political work translation might accomplish. … it opposes the Guard's social (and possibly national) identification to Creon's affiliations, in ways that also intersect with the various pronunciations—and identifications—of individual members of the audience. … Irish English in this fleeting moment, becomes more than a vehicle for reproducing the cultural authority of the classic. It qualifies the classic and suggests the terms and limits of application to modern constraints of action and behavior, meaning and agency.
The Guard also speaks almost exclusively in prose, further distancing him from the poetry-speaking seat of power.
Creon, by contrast, speaks largely in verse, with relatively few localisms. But those few deviations carry particular significance. Creon's lengthy opening speech (15-17), with its aura of a press conference, for example, is spoken completely in prose, but in a special kind of prose: evasive, pompous, official: the language of power. The speech concludes: “Thank you all for coming, and any questions just now? We have one minute. [Flashes stonewall smile]” (17). We hear echoes of O'Brien in Creon's conflation of personal motives with pragmatic politics (Roche, “Ireland's Antigones” 224, Contemporary Irish Drama 259).11 Not unrelatedly, Fintan O'Toole of the Sunday Tribune sees in the speech “a parody of a Northern Ireland Office political functionary appealing for public support,” and Mitchell Harris hears in Creon's claim that “I shall be doing a very great deal of listening” (10) an echo of the opening remarks in 1984 of the United Kingdom's incoming Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Douglas Hurd (qtd. in Roche, “Ireland's Antigones” 224, Contemporary Irish Drama 259).12 But, as Anthony Roche points out,
if Paulin's Creon starts out by sounding like a Westminster functionary, other identifications soon emerge. He is introduced by the chorus as “The big man” , an unmistakeable reference to the Reverend Ian Paisley, the demagogue of the Democratic Unionist Party.13 Creon's speech, therefore, is not only that of the practiced public official from ‘the mainland’ but also of someone from Ulster, a Unionist anxious to reassure those he represents by sounding the code words of the tribe, ‘law’, ‘order’ and ‘loyalty.’
(“Ireland's Antigones” 224-25, Contemporary Irish Drama 259)
So whereas Sophocles' Creon is very much a Theban, Paulin's Creon serves in linguistic terms as an intermediary between the “Thebes” we see before us on the stage and, apparently, an externally located locus of power, one which most dominates his discourse in his most public moments. Drawing analogies between this scenario and contemporary Northern Ireland does not require an over-active imagination.
At least as important as this identification of the public Creon, however, is the nature of Creon's private language. We see hints of the private Creon early on only in periods of exasperation, in the brutal arrogance of addressing the Guard “My good man, / pray tell me simply / what's on your tiny mind” (19), or in “half-imitating” the Guard's accent (s.d. 22), or in dismissing the Guard as “a spieler only” (22). The true nastiness and vulgarity of Creon are similarly revealed in his references to Antigone as “a hard bitch” (34) and “the dirty bitch” (42), and by his response to Ismene's incredulity that he would kill his son's fiancée, “There's plenty more / that he can poke” (34). It may be worth noting here that the Sophoclean original of this line (l. 558) with its reference to fields Haemon can plow, is nearly as crude, but rendered more acceptable both by its relatively common usage in Greek literature and by the Chorus's use of similar language in the famous “wonders of man” ode (ll. 332-36).
Significantly, The Riot Act, to a much greater extent than Sophocles' play, is about Creon at least as much as it is about Antigone. This may account in part for the play's title, no longer a human combatant in the dispute, but rather an action taken by the king in order to restore and uphold order in Thebes. Above all, whereas Sophocles' Creon is more or less crushed by the tragedy he initiates, Paulin's actually changes. Creon's intense grief centers on his inability to find access to the underworld which now houses his wife, son, and niece / daughter-in-law-to-be. In other words, as Roche suggests, his tragedy is to repeat that of Antigone (“Ireland's Antigones” 228-29, Contemporary Irish Drama 265). Moreover, in his transformation, Creon finds a means of uniting his public, poetic voice with the colloquial Irish of his roots. Gone are both the literally and figuratively prosaic tones of Unionist palaver we see in his first speech and the almost bestial quality created when, in dealing with first the Guard and then Antigone, the nastier side of his nature burbles through cracks in the public facade. Now, when all seems lost, we see a Creon transformed, and the transformation is expressed above all through the language:14 recalling not only Antigone's agony but also her voice, Creon is now able to address his late son tenderly as “my own wee man” (60) and “the bairn” (61), and to accept the consequences of his own actions: “Show me the door just” (62). The same Creon whom the Chorus have just described as having “no joy nor give in him ever” (56) now appears before us, as much a victim as Antigone, or as Oedipus before her.15 Finally in this regard, Creon forsakes the light he had always sought, seeking both literal and figurative darkness, eliciting images both of Oedipus's blindness and of the chthonic gods from whom alone he can seek solace.
Paulin had written in A New Look at the Language Question that
Standard speech frequently gives way to dialect when people soothe or talk to small children, and sexual love, too, is often expressed through dialect words. Such words are local and ‘warm’, while their standard alternatives can be regarded as coldly public and extra-familial. Often a clash is felt between the intimacy of dialect—from which a non-standard accent is inseparable—and the demands of a wider professional world where standard speech and accent are the norm.
(Field Day Theatre Company 12)
The character of Creon in this play, described by one critic as “exercis[ing] … arbitrary control over people with whom [he] has intimate relations” (Hughes 74), thus becomes the central figure in the playing out of this linguistic model. This Creon is palpably more tragic than the Sophoclean character, despite the fact that Paulin takes sides with Antigone more than Sophocles did. Roche suggests that Paulin is attempting to “[deny] the Creon he once was, … to exorcise and castigate the earlier affiliations” (“Ireland's Antigones” 223, Contemporary Irish Drama 258),16 but this seems too reductive. Creon is the character in the myth who comes to a greater understanding of the world around him; it is only natural that in emphasizing this transformation, Paulin was tempted to highlight Creon's crudeness early on and his humanity at the end, and indeed that language should be the means of underscoring the changes in his character.
Finally let us consider the nature of the choral speeches in The Riot Act. One is tempted to agree with Marilynn J. Richtarik in her criticism of Paulin's claim that Sophocles' choruses are “undramatic” (225); still, Richtarik seems to miss the drama that does (also) occur in Paulin's play. In part by transforming the choruses from largely visual events to primarily verbal structures, Paulin emphasizes the nature of language and its peculiar power to delineate, to describe, even to heal. Of the choral “odes,” only the first, paralleling Sophocles' famous “wonders of man” speech, is in verse. Here, where Sophocles presented mankind as the central wonder in the universe, Paulin changes the formula to have man “[make] the most of” the wonders of the world (23), concluding the ode, “By pushing harder every way, / by risking everything he loves, / he makes us better, day by day: / we call this progress and it shows / we're damned near perfect!” (24). Interestingly, and perhaps ironically, Sophocles refers explicitly to speech (Φθέγμα, Antigone l.354) in this ode; Paulin does not, stressing instead a theme of personal sacrifice which Sophocles had not introduced. Paulin's Chorus Leader addresses his colleagues for the first half of the second major choral speech,17 underscoring both the links between past and present and the attempts of language to describe that experience: “Ever since the first day I made this speech—it was in another time and place, and in a different language, too—the grief I was speaking of then has grown and multiplied” (35). Finally, the last “ode” of the Chorus stresses speech (“the quick of tongues plunging”) as a site of Zeus, along with fire, “the greasy goat dance” (tragos ode, i.e., “tragedy”),18 and drink: “you [Zeus] belong and you sing in them all” (55). Thus, language in general and tragedy in particular are conduits for Zeus's healing powers: the transformation of Creon, then, can take place more readily in the world of the play not merely because of its fictiveness, but also because that world is more accessible to the pharmaceutical value of language.19
II. SEAMUS HEANEY'S THE CURE AT TROY: PHILOCTETES AND PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY
To an even greater extent than Paulin, Seamus Heaney was entering new ground with the presentation of his Field Day production, The Cure at Troy. John Kelly describes the opening as having “almost … the feel of a World Title Defense. … [Heaney] hadn't simply moved up or down a weight—he had chosen another sport” (Kelly et al. 12A). Paulin was certainly an established poet in 1984, but Heaney by 1990, albeit several years before he received the Nobel Prize for Literature, was already among the elite: his entrance into the field of drama was riskier and, arguably, less successful.
To a greater extent than Paulin, Heaney had concentrated specifically on poetry prior to the writing of The Cure at Troy: his most notable departure, and even that in verse, was in his “Open Letter” (Field Day Theatre Company 19-30), in which he spends 33 stanzas politely but emphatically rejecting the idea that his work should be included in the Penguin anthology of Contemporary British Verse, objecting in principle to the notion that he should be called “British.” The argument is lucid and witty, and his deeply felt desire “To be at home / In my own place and dwell within / Its proper name— // Traumatic Ireland!” (26) represents another variant on the Field Day's desire to address political concerns through linguistic discourse.
Even when writing in a dramatic form, Heaney is still primarily a poet, and his means of confronting issues, as in the “Open Letter,” is decidedly poetic. The chorus's prologue in The Cure at Troy, absent in Sophocles, describes the function of poetry: “And that's the borderline that poetry / Operates on too, always in between / What you would like to happen and what will— / Whether you like it or not. // Poetry / Allowed the god to speak” (2).20 Indeed, the whole enterprise of the play is founded on the word: the play is profoundly static in mimetic terms, and must rely on the sheer vigor of language to maintain dramatic interest. Derek West's assertion that this stasis “is crucial to the verbal power of the play” (Kelly et al. 16C) may be rather dubious, but certainly The Cure at Troy relies more than is customary on poetry rather than plot. In this sense, it should come as no surprise that the name of W. B. Yeats has been invoked by critics, as for example by Colin Meir, who seeks to validate Heaney by reference to Yeats,21 but in order to do so must peremptorily dismiss those critics who argue that plays like Deirdre and On Baile's Strand work better on the page than on the stage (68). More convincing is the approach of Brian Baird, who contrasts the dramatic work of the two great poets by noting that Yeats sought “distance from life” in an attempt to make “strange events credible,” whereas Heaney
appears to have tried to bring the celebration of Dionysus closer to the real lives of his audience by making the language of the play more accessible to its everyday understanding—[quoting Heaney here:] ‘at the same time [as attempting “to preserve something of the formal, ritual quality of the Greek theatrical experience”] I have tried to give each character a clear, natural way of speaking.’
(Kelly et al. 15A-B)
What Heaney fails to do in the process, however, is to differentiate between the voices. Whereas Paulin uses language to delineate between classes and perhaps nationalities of characters, and even to demarcate the character transformation of Creon, Heaney provides “insufficient distinction, apart from what is actually being said, between the way in which each character speaks” (Meir 74)22 All the characters speak in verse (all but Philoctetes exclusively so); all have distinctively Northern Irish vocabulary and syntax.23 Not surprisingly, some of the increased accessibility pays off, and some does not. One critic of the Field Day production described the dialogue as “inopportune and inappropriate” (Baird in Kelly et al. 15B), another as “searingly appropriate” (Meir 69-70). “Appropriate,” of course, means different things to different people. Here the distinction may well be between what is “appropriate” to an Aristotelian conception of tragic diction, as opposed to what is “appropriate” to a classical adaptation with elements of both the postmodern and the political. It is not equivocation, therefore, to suggest that both critics are “right.”
There are but two speeches of prose in the entire play: Philoctetes' final speech, beginning “But I can't believe I'm going,” (80) discussed further below, and his verbal excoriation of Odysseus (56-57).24 Here, as in Creon's opening speech in The Riot Act, the prose form is remarkably void of any distinguishing national characteristics. A few speeches earlier than his assault on Odysseus, Philoctetes can say, in a voice equally at home in Athens or Derry, “Never. Not while earth / Is under me and the rocks above” (56); a few lines later, he says “Son of Achilles, are you going to go / Without one word still?” (58)—so Heaney is clearly willing to allow Philoctetes to speak in the syntax of his audience, but not, for some reason, in his moment of greatest perturbation. This choice is curious, and suggestive perhaps of Heaney's inexperience in dramatic form.
Like The Riot Act,The Cure at Troy plays a change on the ending of its source, again concentrating attention on the thought processes of a central character. Indeed, the very title of the play stresses imminent redemption. Unlike his Sophoclean equivalent, this Philoctetes has essentially already worked out a decision to accompany Odysseus and Neoptolemus to Troy even before the appearance, deus ex machina, of Hercules.25 Philoctetes says of Hercules' speech, “Something told me this was going to happen. / Something told me the channels were going to open. / It's as if a thing I knew and had forgotten / Came back completely clear. I can see / The cure at Troy. All that you say / Is like a dream to me and I obey” (80) This response is both longer and stronger than that of Sophocles' Philoctetes (ll. 1445-47), which does not mention a sense of premonition, only of something rather like nostalgia (χρóνιóστεΦανείσ). Furthermore, the theatrical device of giving Hercules' lines to the Chorus Leader provides a visual reinforcement of the idea that Philoctetes had come to his own conclusions: the physical representation of Hercules' character, and by extension his words, were always already present in Philoctetes' world.26 Still, we see Philoctetes' decision as something of a fait accompli: that is, we see the results of his apparent deliberations, but neither in his monologues nor in his conversations with Neoptolemus do we hear much of his internal debate itself. Thus, any specific political intent behind the change in plot is muted,27 and the emphasis appears to be rather more on form than on meaning. What the change does do is to underscore the need to accept personal responsibility: Philoctetes' decision to emphasize the future over the past is important not (merely) for its own sake, but (also) because it emphasizes the fact that Philoctetes had made his own decision rather than simply acquiesce to divine prerogative.
Philoctetes' final speech reinforces this interpretation. The Sophoclean character uses his last speech to talk of, and bid farewell to, Lemnos. The speech is, of course, in verse, and closes with a reference to “the all-subduing daimon who brought this to pass” (χὠ πανδαμάτωρ / δαίμων ὃσ ταυ̑τ ἐπέкρανεν, ll.1467-68). In contrast, Heaney's Philoctetes speaks not of Lemnos per se, but rather of himself as a sort of anthropomorphic embodiment of Lemnos: “this island's going to be the keel under me and the ballast inside me.” Moreover, while the speech is somewhat elevated in tone, it is in prose, and, like the late speeches of Paulin's Creon, at least somewhat more linguistically colloquial than those of the same character earlier in the play. Philoctetes calls himself, for example, “an old mush of dead leaves,” and utters consecutive verbless sentences. He equates his own mental transformation with achieving a level of belonging, of fulfilling a destiny: “I feel like the sixth sense of the world. I feel I'm a part of what was always meant to happen, and is happening now at last.” Philoctetes' choice, to be cured, to disassociate himself from what one critic calls “those who howl and lick their wounds in public, rather than trying to mend them and do good” (Hanks 12), is an act of heroism in the modern rather than Greek sense of the term. Or, rather, it is suggestive of the complex blend of spirituality, honor, and courage we find in another late Sophoclean protagonist, the title character of Oedipus at Colonus. Finally, and probably most tellingly, Heaney's Philoctetes does not mention the gods at all. Whereas the Sophoclean character's last words refer to Herakles, this Philoctetes closes by implicitly reaffirming his own reconsidered and reconstituted place in the universe: “Come on, my friends” (80).
The play, then, is clearly more philosophical than narrowly political. It would not be accurate, however, to suggest that there are no contemporary, specifically Northern Irish, political references in the play. Matthew M. DeForrest shows (133) that Heaney's Philoctetes, like Paulin's Creon, shows more than a little of Ian Paisley, and Heaney himself is quoted as having been thinking of Paisley, whose Unionist slogan is “Ulster Says No!,” when he has Neoptolemus accuse Philoctetes of “saying no for ever” (69).28 But DeForrest's attempt to expand the identifications to include Odysseus as a member of the Provisional IRA and to parallel Lemnos with “Northern Ireland, Beirut, or Nazi Germany” (134),29 overreaches the bounds of credibility. Finally, the suggestion that “It is impossible for any reader [or] viewer of the play to encounter … [Odysseus' having marooned Philoctetes on Lemnos because ‘I had been ordered to.’] without recalling the Nuremberg Trials” (134n) is considerably undercut by the simple observation that Sophocles uses almost precisely the same language (ταχθείσ τόδ ἔρδειντῶν ἀνασσόντων ὕπо), and establishes that fact very early in the play (l. 6).
To some readers, spectators, and critics, Heaney “failed” in what is perceived as an attempt to draw direct parallels between contemporary Northern Ireland and the periods of the Trojan and/or Peloponnesian Wars. Claire Armitstead, for example, complains of “Heaney's failure, until a final choric interpolation, to spell out the parallels between Philoctetes and Ulster as embittered victims of historic injustice” (17). The problem with this reading is twofold. First, it implies that the intention of the playwright (even to the extent that it matters in the consideration of an artwork) was to make explicit this kind of parallel. Surely a writer of Heaney's calibre could have done so had he so desired. Secondly, Heaney himself claims that his original impetus for the project came from Edmund Wilson's linking, in “The Wound and the Bow,” of Philoctetes with “the romantic vision of the poet as cursed outsider with a special boon.” Indeed, to the extent that he was influenced by socio-historical events, Heaney says, the greatest sources of inspiration came not from his homeland, but from Eastern Europe: “I started writing the play at the end of 1989 when all the great events were happening in eastern Europe. For once, I felt, the historical record was giving a glimmer of justification to some sort of optimism” (qtd. in Eyres 16). If nothing else, this origin suggests that the play need not be read only as a critique of the Troubles, but rather that it may resonate in different ways for different production companies or audience members.30
One stanza in a choral ode (the “choric interpolation” cited by Armitstead), however, has attracted the legitimate attention of critics looking for contemporary reference: “The innocent in gaols / Beat on their bars together. / A hunger-striker's father / Stands in the graveyard dumb. / The police widow in veils / Faints at the funeral home” (77). Obviously, there is no precedent for this stanza in Sophocles; but indeed the entire ode has no Sophoclean equivalent. These added references are problematic not because Heaney indulges in political commentary, but rather because such discourse never penetrates the surface of an apparently otherwise apolitical work. It is worth noting that the “hunger-striker's father” and the “police widow” represent and to some extent personalize opposing socio-political factions in the Troubles, and Marianne McDonald is probably correct in declaring that “Heaney is in favor of a cure, or healing, and he uses Greek tragedy to distance and yet make familiar the major issues of conflict” (“Seamus Heaney's …,” 133).31 But to the extent that such a construction necessarily foregrounds Philoctetes primarily as the site of the wound, thus suggesting him as an emblem for Northern Ireland, his capitulation to his (personal) enemies is difficult to integrate with Heaney's self-conscious nationalism. Still, Heaney may be suggesting that, just as Philoctetes and Odysseus must settle their own dispute before defeating Troy together, so must Northern Ireland's various factions put aside their internecine conflicts for the common good. This interpretation would seem to be confirmed by Heaney's own appreciation of Sophocles' “unthematic” politics and of the “golden mean talk of Heracles” (qtd. in McDonald, “Seamus Heaney's …,” 137) at the end of his own adaptation. This speech, slightly shorter than the Sophoclean original, shifts away from Sophocles' prophesying the sack of Troy and concentrates attention instead on two ideas of particular relevance to a Derry audience. It closes with a more succinct version of the Sophoclean enjoinder to respect the gods of Troy (which, of course, we know the Greeks failed to do); a plea for religious tolerance in general lies hardly below the surface. Even more strikingly, in a stanza with no Sophoclean equivalent, Hercules cautions Philoctetes to “know to shun / Reprisal killings” (79) when his military mission has been accomplished. These are not only the events, but the phrases, associated with life in Northern Ireland in the time of the Troubles.
Of course, just as the trappings surrounding The Riot Act suggested a political undertone to that play, so does a Field Day production of a Seamus Heaney work in which domination, deception, and isolation figure as prominent themes imply a potential for allegory. Moreover, as Des McAleer, who played Philoctetes in the Field Day production, notes, merely translating pertinent original source material necessarily makes for a political statement. Describing his own role, he says,
If you are going really to do that part then you must get deep, deep into that whole feeling of spite and rage, people whom you must loath[e] in all the world and to find some equivalent of forgiveness. That was the process for me. That was the fact of the play, the whole challenge of what it means to come from Northern Ireland.
(qtd. in Woolgar 15B)
Parallels to Northern Ireland's present-day situation are no doubt inevitable in any such undertaking,32 and Heaney, despite his assertion that “I am not a political writer and I don't see literature as a way of solving political problems” (qtd. Murray, Twentieth-Century Irish Drama, 215) is certainly not so naive as to believe that the Derry audience for whom he claims to have oriented his presentation33 would fail to draw such inferences. But it is clear that Heaney, to an even greater extent than Paulin, was unwilling to infuse his play with overt political content, but merely with the form of a political work.
Language, for both Paulin and Heaney, is inextricably tied to politics, thus rendering “translation” an unquestionably political act. In neither of these plays, however, does a particular political creed dominate either the action or our perception of it. This is not to suggest that an individual audience member would not find in these plays ample affirmation of a variety of pre-conceived agendas, but if Field Day wished to articulate a clear and coherent dogma, it was not entirely successful. Still, the “talking amongst themselves” has a clear political component, and audiences are free to eavesdrop on, and to interpret, those conversations as they see fit.
Field Day is located in Derry (a.k.a. Londonderry), Northern Ireland. It has produced approximately one play per year since 1980, concentrating on new works, and new translations/adaptations by Irish playwrights. The original Directors included Friel, actor Stephen Rea, poet Seamus Heaney, critic Seamus Deane, poet/critic Tom Paulin and filmmaker/musician David Hammond. In addition to producing plays, the company has published a number of pamphlets on issues of contemporary political interest and, perhaps most notably, also produced the multi-volume Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing. For a comprehensive account of the company's first few years, see Marilynn J. Richtarik, Acting between the Lines.
Derek Mahon's High Time, a translation/adaptation of L'École des Maris.
Friel's version of The Three Sisters and Frank McGuinness's recent adaptation of Uncle Vanya.
See Richtarik 135 ff. for an excellent account of Field Day's politics, and of the public's perception of that political stance.
“The Making of a Loyalist” first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, 14 November 1980, “A New Look at the Language Question” in pamphlet form. The works are more readily accessible in Ireland and the English Crisis 23-38 and Ireland's Field Day 1-17, respectively.
One is reminded of W. B. Yeats's poem “Man and the Echo,” in which he contemplates the potential effects of his nationalistic play Cathleen ni Houlihan: “Did that play of mine send out / Certain men the English shot?” (345, ll. 11-12).
See also Friel's comments on his translation/adaptation of Chekhov's Three Sisters (qtd. Andrews 182). This idea is developed also by Crawford (see esp. 271-306). Crawford's emphasis is on the devolution of language in Scots literature, but the ramifications of his analysis on Irish literature are clear; indeed Crawford cites both Heaney and Paulin, as well as their fellow Field Day director Seamus Deane, in his discussion of (in particular) Scotsman Douglas Dunn and Australian Les A. Murray.
For an alternative view, according to which Field Day is too much concerned with the political at the expense of the aesthetic, see Longley 185-210. It is certainly clear, however, that the Field Day is not the most political theatrical organization in Derry. See, for example, Lionel Pilkington's interview of Dan Baron Cohen of Derry Frontline.
This despite the objections of Adrian Maddox in North, who argued that the “linguistic Ulsterization policy doesn't really seem to strike a blow for anything or anyone in particular” (qtd. Richtarik 222).
Not surprisingly, all of these examples occur in moments of particularly high anxiety for the character speaking.
Most of Anthony Roche's discussion of The Riot Act in Contemporary Irish Drama is in fact a re-publication of his earlier article.
Hurd subsequently became Foreign Secretary of the UK.
Interestingly, Paulin himself suggested that some in the audience might identify Paisley, for whom Paulin seems to have a kind of grudging respect, with Antigone. See Richtarik 219. Marianne McDonald has also noted that the “epithet echoes that for Michael Collins” (“When Despair …,” 61, note 20), thus making the potential for allusiveness even greater but also less precise.
See Roche, “Ireland's Antigones” 228-29 and Contemporary Irish Drama 264, for further discussion of this point.
It is only fair to note that a number of critics of the Field Day production did not find Creon at all tragic. Michael Billington of the Guardian, for example, wrote that “When Creon at the end cried ‘Pity me if you can, blind and thick’ I simply felt an Ulster demagogue had received his come-uppance” (qtd. Richtarik 218). And Richtarik writes that the language Paulin gives Creon in the closing scene “is simply not capable of embodying his moment of tragic realization” (223).
Paulin, born in England, had grown up in Belfast as a conventional Protestant Unionist.
I say “his,” although the role was first played by a woman, because the character is addressed by Creon as “brother” (18) and “[o]ld man” (21).
I do not wish to enter the etymological debate over the term “tragedy.” I suggest only that beginning with the English “goat dance,” by no means a common phrase, leads us to τραγωδία, not that the process is necessarily reversible.
See Roche, Contemporary Irish Drama 264, for a variation on this idea.
Cf. Heaney's 1972 statement that poetry “can eventually make new feelings, or feelings about feelings, happen, and anybody can see that in this country for a long time to come a refinement of feelings will be more urgent than a re-framing of policies or of constitutions” (qtd. Richtarik 6).
Heaney is also compared to Yeats in Matthew M. DeForrest's Freudian analysis of The Cure at Troy. DeForrest (132-33) draws parallels between the play and Yeats's A Vision, suggesting that Odysseus, Philoctetes, Hercules, and Neoptolemus correspond to Yeats's categories of the Will, the Mask, the Body of Fate, and the Creative Mind, respectively.
DeForrest (126 et passim.) argues that Heaney is simply attempting to privilege the universal over the individual. While this defense is unconvincing, Heaney is in good company in that these same criticisms have often been levelled against a variety of major playwrights, especially those who work outside the strictures of naturalism. John Millington Synge, for one, has often been criticized for failing to provide clearly defined individual voices for his characters.
The exception that proves the rule may be the role of the ship's captain, whose “demotic Dublinese” Baird found “totally unacceptable in its context” (Kelly et al. 15B).
Needless to say, the Sophoclean originals, ll. 1004-44 and 1451-69, remained in verse.
Cf. Taylor 13: “the intervention of the god comes across not as an externally applied get-out but as a result of a painful spiritual victory within Philoctetes, a regaining of his old unwarped self.” Not all critics agree that Hercules' proclamation serves only to reaffirm what Philoctetes had already decided. Nightingale, for example, citing fellow critic Jeremy Kingston as authority, claims that “a deus ex machina substitute[s] for free will and rational decision,” and warns that “If Ulster has to wait for Hercules to speak from the mountain before its factions are reconciled, it will wait a long time” (“Medicine” 18).
In the Field Day production the Chorus Leader was portrayed by Veronica Duffy, and indeed the entire (three-person) chorus was female. Heaney consistently uses feminine pronouns in stage directions when referring to the chorus leader. Philoctetes, by contrast, is the only extant Sophoclean play in which there are no female characters. If there is a particular point to be made in the switch, it is certainly not highlighted in the text. The Field Day Company, as the controversy over the authors included in its literature anthology underscores, is hardly known for a feminist agenda. Heaney may have envisioned the chorus as gender-neutral, and Stephen Rea simply cast the best available actors.
In this context, and throughout the discussion of The Cure at Troy, I use the term “political” in a restrictive sense, namely as representative of a sort of pragmatic micro-politics. I therefore differentiate these actions from more theoretical issues of political philosophy. Thus, to advocate peace is philosophical; to advocate specific terms for peace is political.
There is even a report of a “waggish proposal” that the play be called “Ulcer Says No!” (Taylor 13).
London-based theatre critic Benedict Nightingale (“Medicine” 18) also seems to identify Odysseus with the IRA.
Indeed, Barry Kyle, who directed a 1995 production in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA, suggests AIDS and the Oklahoma City bombing as further parallels which might resonate with particular audiences. His own production was divided into two acts, with the second act set in the American South during and shortly after the American Civil War (see Anderson, Dodds). Whether the play can sustain these interpretations for an entire production is not necessarily relevant; what matters is the perception that readings of the play need not be limited to a Northern Irish context.
See also McDonald's claim that “Heaney has written a play of hope” (“Seamus Heaney's …,” 139). I am grateful to Professor McDonald for providing me with copies of two conference papers, “Colonialism and Greek Tragedy: The Irish Experience” and “National Differences in Modern Adaptations of Greek Tragedy: The Irish, Japanese and French Experience,” in which she first articulated some of the ideas expressed in her article.
Hence the play is “a fresh yet resonant way of dramatising tribal cruelty in Ulster” (Nightingale, “Myths”), “a spin toward the protracted agony of Ulster” (Coates 3), “typifies the political confusion of the Six Counties” (Armitstead 17), “speaks to the sectarian strife in Northern Ireland” (Walker 18), etc.
Heaney is quoted as saying, “What I had in mind was the first-night audience in a community hall in Derry” (qtd. in Eyres 16).
This article is based on a paper presented at the Third Meeting of the International Society for the Classical Tradition held at Boston University in March of 1995. I am grateful to a number of scholars of theatre, classics, and Irish studies for their comments on earlier drafts of this paper. Foremost among these are the editors and referees of this journal. Others who were especially helpful include Lance Gharavi, John Gronbeck-Tedesco, Harold Orel, Patrick Rourke, Stephen Scully, and Douglas Weaver.
Anderson, Laurie Smith. “The Cure at Troy: Powerful, Yet Poignant.” The Advocate [Baton Rouge, LA] (3 October 1995) 8A.
Andrews, Elmer. The Art of Brian Friel: Neither Reality nor Dreams. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.
Armitstead, Claire. “A Man at War with Himself and the World.” Financial Times (6 April 1991) I:17.
Coates, Joseph. “Seamus Heaney Invigorates Sophocles' Philoctetes.” Chicago Tribune (31 December 1992) 3.
Cohen, Dan Baron. Interview. “Resistance to Liberation with Derry Frontline Culture and Education.” By Lionel Pilkington. TDR 38:4 (1994) 17-47.
Crawford, Robert. Devolving English Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.
DeForrest, Matthew M. “Seamus Heaney's The Cure at Troy: Individuality and the Psychological.” Éire-Ireland 39:3 (Fall 1994) 126-36.
Dodds, Richard. “A Busy Fall for Swine Palace, with a ‘Special’ Spring in N.O.” The Times-Picayune [New Orleans] (25 August 1995) L18.
Eyres, Harry. “Deny Yourself and Speak Plain for Sophocles: Irish Author and Oxford Poetry Professor Seamus Heaney Gives Harry Eyres Tips on the Classics.” The Times [London] (2 April 1991) 16.
Field Day Theatre Company. Ireland's Field Day. London: Hutchison, 1985.
Friel, Brian. Translations. London and Boston: Faber & Faber, 1981.
Hadfield, Paul. “Field Day: Over But Not Out.” Theatre Ireland 31 (Summer 1993) 47-50.
Hanks, Robert. “Radio / He's a Real Nowhere Man; Outer Space and Inner Torment—Robert Hanks on This Week's Programmes.” The Independent (3 September 1991) 12.
Heaney, Seamus. The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles' “Philoctetes.” New York: Noonday Press, 1991.
———. “An Open Letter.” Field Day Theatre Company 19-32.
Hughes, Eamonn. “‘To Define Your Dissent’: The Plays and Polemics of the Field Day Theatre Company.” Theatre Research International 15 (1990) 67-77.
Kelly, John, Brian Baird, and Derek West. “The Cure at Troy.” Theatre Ireland 24 (Winter 1990-91) 12-16.
Kenneally, Michael, ed. Cultural Contexts and Literary Idioms in Contemporary Irish Literature. Studies in Contemporary Irish Literature 1. Irish Literary Studies 31. Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1988.
Longley, Edna. Poetry in the Wars. 1986. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1987.
McDonald, Marianne. “Colonialism and Greek Tragedy: The Irish Experience.” (rev. ed.) Conference on “L'Excès,” Universities of Orléans and Tours, Centre d'Etudes et de Recherche sur la Culture Anglo-saxonne d'Orléans, Groupe de Recherche Anglo-Américaine de Tours, 23-24 September 1994.
———. “National Differences in Modern Adaptations of Greek Tragedy: The Irish, Japanese and French Experience,” Conference on Modern Adaptations of Ancient Greek Theatre, Universities of Athens and Dublin, Athens, Greece, April 1995.
———. “Seamus Heaney's Cure at Troy: Politics and Poetry.” Classics Ireland 3 (1996) 129-40.
———. “When Despair and History Rhyme: Colonialism and Greek Tragedy.” New Hibernia Review 1:2 (Summer 1997) 57-70.
Meir, Colin. “Irish Poetic Drama: Seamus Heaney's The Cure at Troy.” Studies on the Contemporary Irish Theatre. Ed. Jacqueline Genet and Elizabeth Hellegouarc'h. Actes du Colloque de Caen, 11-12 janvier 1991. Cean: Presses Universitaires de Caen, 1991. 67-78.
Murray, Christopher. “The History Play Today.” Kenneally 269-89.
———. Twentieth-Century Irish Drama: Mirror up to Nation. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1997.
Nightingale, Benedict. “Cruel and Timeless Medicine: The Cure at Troy, Triangle.” The Times [London] (5 April 1991) 18.
———. “Theatre: Contemporary Interpretations of Classical Tales; and the Latest from Lift: Thoroughly Modern Myths: Derek Walcott Is the Latest Playwright to Use the Past to Shed Light on the Present, Writes Benedict Nightingale.” The Times [London] (24 June 1993) 39.
O'Brien, Conor Cruise. States of Ireland. New York: Random House, 1972.
Paulin, Tom. Ireland and the English Crisis. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1984.
———. Liberty Tree. London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1983.
———. “A New Look at the Language Question.” Field Day Theatre Company 1-18.
———. The Riot Act: A Version of Sophocles's “Antigone.” London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1985.
Richtarik, Marilynn J. Acting between the Lines: The Field Day Theatre Company and Irish Cultural Politics 1980-84. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.
Roche, Anthony. Contemporary Irish Drama: From Beckett to McGuinness. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.
———. “Ireland's Antigones: Tragedy North and South.” Kenneally 221-50.
Taylor, Paul. “A Hit and a Myth; Paul Taylor Considers Two Dips into the Myth-Kitty, Mourning becomes Electra and The Cure at Troy.” The Independent (8 April 1991) 13.
Walker, Ruth. “Northern Ireland and the Trojan War.” The Christian Science Monitor (19 December 1990) 18.
Woolgar, Claudia. “Philoctetes Unbound.” Theatre Ireland 25 (Spring 1991) 12-15.
Worthen, W. B. “Homeless Words: Field Day and the Politics of Translation.” Modern Drama 38:1 (Spring 1995) 22-41.
Yeats, W. B. The Poems, revised. The Collected Works, vol. I. Ed. by Richard J. Finneran. New York: Macmillan, 1989.
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 by journalists. One suspects that the author sympathises profoundly with his character; Gissing's collected letters are full of attacks on the yellow press. At the same time, it is difficult not to feel that his—and Yule's—pessimism is hugely misplaced.
“Victorian journalist” is a dangerously catch-all phrase. A profession that could simultaneously accommodate a theologian manqué such as R. H. Hutton and an out-and-out scandalmonger such as Edmund Yates must have a certain elasticity. All the same, it takes only the most basic forensic analysis to establish the debt that many a major Victorian novelist owes to his or her roots in the magazine trade: Dickens, on whose journalistic grounding Hutton himself wrote a prescient essay; Thackeray, whose greatest novel grew out of more than a decade of hack-work. Even George Eliot spent her apprentice years on the—admittedly highly sober—Westminster Review. And behind at least two of these three grand eminences lurks the figure of William Hazlitt, who has some claims to be regarded as the godfather of 19th-century journalism.
Nearly 170 years after Hazlitt's death, in a shabby Soho lodging house with the bailiffs hammering on the door, the extent of his influence on romanticism (Keats once walked seven miles to hear him lecture) can easily be overlooked. There are good reasons for this neglect.
His output during the decade and a half he practised as a journalist (there were also unsuccessful try-outs at art and metaphysics) weighs in at over three million words, much of it tediously repetitive. At his best, though, as Tom Paulin shows [in The Day-Star of Liberty: William Hazlitt's Radical Style], Hazlitt is a wonderfully vivid reporter, and a moralist whose moralising gains everything from its impersonality.
Unlike many a public student of human foibles, he usually resists the temptation to bring himself in. Even in “The Sick Chamber”, the last essay he ever wrote, which was composed on his death-bed, he manages to find an objectivity that steers the piece away from the room in Frith Street and towards the universal.
Tom Paulin's achievement in this long and intense study of Hazlitt's prose is to show where the fluid, zestful immediacy of his subject's style came from. The roots are widely located: in 18th-century Unitarian dissent and its philosophers, in “Irishness”, the Regency republican world of radical autodidacts such as William Hone. But the result, to borrow a phrase from the critic Roy Park, whom Paulin quotes, is a kind of “kinetic vocabulary” of movement and activity, a constant fending off of stasis which infects even the extra-mural role as a reporter of boxing matches.
Paulin is good, too, on what he calls the “willed chaos” of Hazlitt's personal life: the obsessive love affair with Sarah Walker that produced Liber Amoris, and the interest in the destructive side of human behaviour that resulted in some shrewd reflections on the psychology of capital punishment.
This being Tom Paulin, there are other hares being chased alongside the author of The Spirit of the Age; in particular, an attempt to reclaim the pre-Arnoldian definition of “disinterested”. This would involve recognising that all criticism is essentially polemical, while removing some of the negative connotations of the “polemic”. There is also a good-sounding phrase or two about the “exposed existential commitment” of reviewing, which may raise a smile among Hazlitt's late 20th-century descendants.
In general, though, this is an exemplary piece of cultural salvage, which both reestablishes Hazlitt as a figure in his own right and offers intriguing fast-forwards to the work of Dickens and Thackeray. Among a range of other Hazlitt material due later in the year, Paulin's edition of his selected writings should be well worth the wait.
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 subjects. Hazlitt comes to momentary life through acts of critical devotion and reclamation, but he is not present to us in the way that, say, Jane Austen or Keats can be.
Tom Paulin's book [The Day-Star of Liberty: William Hazlitt's Radical Style] sets out to change all this. His argument on Hazlitt's behalf is passionate, learned and attentive. Like Hazlitt, Paulin knows that good criticism can be thrilling and sensuous as well as judgmental. He immerses himself in the texture of Hazlitt's prose and restores its intense verbal life.
In Paulin's reading of them, Hazlitt's essays become energetic networks of allusion and quotation. They hum and buzz with the excitements of writing for the moment while displaying the sheer range of Hazlitt's learning and the sharpness of his critical judgment. Paulin's claim, convincingly made, is that Hazlitt made a literary art out of journalism. His book is about a hack who also happened to be a genius.
Paulin reads Hazlitt close up. He wants to evoke Hazlitt's essays as events or performances in language. But his argument about Hazlitt's significance is not confined to close reading. Paulin invites us to think about the powerful cultural resonances of different prose styles.
Hazlitt inherited a complex intellectual tradition which linked the work of Milton to thinkers of the Unitarian enlightenment such as Hutcheson and Priestley. This neglected tradition combined a confidence in reason and the authority of science with a celebration of the human capacity for sensuous pleasure. Its politics were democratic and republican and linked thinkers in Ireland, Scotland, England and America. For a period in the 18th century, Unitarians were close to the centres of British political power. Hazlitt's prose style emerges out of this culture.
Unitarianism contributed to a communicative ethic that is everywhere at work in Hazlitt's essays, one which affirmed freedom of speech as a political right and as a public act. It also gave him one of his central values “disinterestedness”. This hedged and controversial term did not imply for Hazlitt what it came to mean for Matthew Arnold: the cultural critic's ambition to rise above political faction and discover the serenity of a god's eye view.
Hazlitt, by contrast, delighted in controversy and, hence, in the discovery of a polemical force in his critical prose. He was, in his own description, a “good hater”. For Hazlitt, “disinterestedness” was the capacity to anticipate and acknowledge an opponent's strengths. His anger at the political apostasy of Wordsworth and Coleridge was fuelled by his sense that they lacked this capacity. Their radicalism proved shallow because they were unable to anticipate the force of political reaction that entered British politics after the French Revolution.
Hazlitt knew that force intimately through his engagement with the spell-binding rhetoric of Edmund Burke, whose Reflections on the Revolution in France reinvigorated the idiom of political conservatism in Britain. Some of the best chapters in Paulin's book are given over to Hazlitt's relation to Burke's prose. Hazlitt quoted Burke obsessively, and regarded him as a master of prose style although he loathed his politics. Burke put Hazlitt's “disinterestedness” to its fullest test. His example energises Hazlitt's style as much as the tradition of the Unitarian enlightenment.
Paulin is the first writer on Hazlitt to fully identify the antagonistic intimacy between the two writers. Both were cultural outsiders in England. Both had imaginations strongly charged by their connections to Ireland. Hazlitt wanted to emulate Burke's rhetorical command, his capacity to take on the history of his own time. But at the same time, and this was part of the risk of his career as a writer, Hazlitt wanted to show through his own example that Burke's capacity to fascinate the imagination could be aligned with a radical politics.
Tom Paulin's book is not for the tidy-minded, or for those who like their literary criticism gift-wrapped in theory. His critical method is like Hazlitt's, full of quotation and digression, of brilliant associative connections and sudden insights. Like Hazlitt, Paulin knows that criticism can be erotic, delighting in art's sensuousness and palpability. But criticism is not just a sharing of pleasures. It is designing and interventionist; Paulin wants us to change our mind about Hazlitt.
He shows Hazlitt to be a remarkable historical witness who saw more clearly than any of his contemporaries the creation of a modern English ideology, born out of the gothic imagination of Edmund Burke and its apparent opposite, the utilitarian pursuit of efficiency and social discipline. Hazlitt knew what was sacrificed for the sake of this creation, an indigenous and optimistic republicanism which had profoundly shaped his own thinking.
In bringing out Hazlitt's historical significance, Paulin also renews his identity as a major prose writer. Hazlitt emerges as a deliberate and reflective artist as well as a significant historical witness. The Day-Star of Liberty brings Hazlitt out of his cultural obscurity and makes the most compelling case that I know for reading him with renewed attention.
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 called Tom Paulin. In the recording studio he listened impatiently to our intentions. He had only one question: ‘Who is reading the poetry?’ An actor, we assured him. He was visibly irritated. No, he replied, he was going to read it. Seizing his copy of Paradise Lost, eyes sparkling, he was off, his thick Ulster accent a shocking defiance to standard BBC plumminess:
Still govern thou my Song, Urania, and fit audience find, though few. But drive far off the barbarous dissonance Of Bacchus and his revellers, the Race Of that wilde rout that tore the Thracian bard In Rhodope …
He broke off to hail the old poet's indomitability in the moment of his persecution. ‘What he means there’, he exclaimed, ‘is all these royalist louts rampaging drunk through London, beating up surviving republicans, persecuting them and at times executing them.’ Tom Paulin's enthusiasm was irresistible and carried all before it. William Hazlitt features even higher in Paulin's pantheon than does John Milton, and that infectious zeal not just for Hazlitt but for all literature and art is the essence of this book. Tom Paulin does not parade his vast knowledge on a shelf, as so many academic writers do. He seeks to fire his readers with his intellectual and political passions, and there is no telling where he will take you next. Now he is sharing Hazlitt's horror of capital punishment, now analysing his absorption with Poussin, his influence on Dickens, his admiration for Keats (and Milton again—that appeal to Urania is set out here in full). The only consistent theme is the fierce determination of author and subject to hold fast against all comers to the dissent which inspired them in their youth.
The structure of the book is governed by Paulin's fascination with style. He connects the sound of words and their meaning, the rhythm and cadences of prose with the message it conveys. William Pitt's ‘devious greyness’ is endemic in his writing and speaking style. And poor old Jeremy Bentham, who might expect to get a word of praise for his efforts on behalf of reform, is denounced by both Hazlitt and Paulin for his dreary prose. ‘How to redeem the language of reform from this type of racked contortion’ is the problem for both. And rightly so.
Yet an obsession with style carries with it obvious dangers. My own awakening to them came early. At Oxford my friend Richard Ingrams and I used to read purple passages into a tape-recorder, mull over them and learn them by heart. Richard found an extract in Hilaire Belloc's life of Danton which seemed to me (and still does) as perfect a piece of English prose as it is possible to imagine. In the vacation, I recited it proudly to my grandfather, Isaac Foot, and named Belloc as the greatest. The old man grunted, shuffled out of the room and came back with an off-print from the Contemporary Review in November 1934, entitled ‘Mr Hilaire Belloc and Oliver Cromwell’ by Isaac Foot MP: as fine a Protestant polemic as has ever been admired by Tom Paulin. The message for me was the inscription: ‘To Paul Mackintosh Foot, Christmas 1958. In the hope that he will not mistake noble prose for ignoble history.’
Words, however grossly or gloriously put together, have meanings, as Tom Paulin is forced to admit as he returns again and again, like a dog to his vomit, to Edmund Burke. He wastes a whole page quoting the celebrated passage in which Burke throws himself at the feet of Marie Antoinette. Paulin, who hates the message, makes excuses for the messenger, and unconvincingly complains that Burke's style has deteriorated. Whatever the style, however, the words amount to nothing more or less than sycophantic royalist tosh of the kind which drove those louts to persecute Milton, and in which these days the mass media are constantly grovelling. Again, because he wants to put the case for radical prose, Paulin defends Hazlitt's view that ‘the language of poetry naturally falls in with the language of power’. How does this square with Paulin's own passion for Milton, or with the electrifying effect on reformers for nearly two centuries of the poems of Byron or Shelley? And how for that matter can Paulin, a champion of liberty, claim that ‘the cause of liberty triumphed with the election of the Whigs in 1830’? Less than four per cent of British men voted in that ‘triumph’, and the full brunt of Whiggish liberty was felt at once by the victims of the Poor Law Amendment Act and the Tolpuddle Martyrs.
William Hazlitt was a writer of genius, whose intuition and wit provide us with the clearest pictures of the great men and literature of his time. But he suffered also, in Paulin's words, from an ‘exclusive or patrician idea of leadership … which makes him sometimes write like a Whig general or Napoleonic marshal’. Perhaps that helps to explain why Hazlitt was ‘chained to Burke as he is to Napoleon’, or why he was so helpless a victim of a ridiculous sexual infatuation which he could not resist writing about. Because this book is so loosely constructed round Hazlitt's radical style, Tom Paulin can skate over these contradictions without resolving them. The pity is that he did not write the authoritative life of Hazlitt which is so desperately needed. Perhaps he is too closely chained to his hero to expose him to the full blast of dissenting biography.
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 author who writes about Hazlitt runs the risk of inviting comparisons; when, as in this case, readers know that the study has evolved over several years, judgements on the respective styles of author and subject are unavoidable. To his credit, Paulin has not been distracted from his task; he aimed to praise Hazlitt, not to compete with him, and his familiar, quirky voice is consistent throughout. The effect is something like an extended lecture which brings a kind of coherence to Hazlitt's diffuse writings.
Unfortunately Paulin sets off from a false premise. He states that Hazlitt is ‘almost never read or cited or studied’. But Hazlitt's work is probably read, enjoyed and remembered today much more than that of his contemporaries, Carlyle, Lamb and De Quincey. In recent years several academic studies have been published, together with a major new biography and numerous learned articles. Judging from the bibliography, Paulin has spent at least part of the last five years reading these contributions for himself.
What Paulin probably means when he refers to Hazlitt as a forgotten author is that he is not taught in universities; specifically, that he is not taught in departments of English Literature. His book might rectify this fault—if it is a fault. Paulin makes great claims on Hazlitt's behalf: that later critics like Eliot borrowed freely from him (whether they read him or not), and that his clear grasp of ‘modernity’ allowed him to anticipate the invention of photography and television. All of this is presented in the approved style of such productions, where the guesswork of one paragraph becomes proven fact in the next. Thus, because Dickens went on a pilgrimage to the Wiltshire village where Hazlitt lived he must have been thinking about him when he wrote Bleak House,David Copperfield and Our Mutual Friend. Hazlitt's writing is vivid, therefore he must have envisaged the television age.
This game of ‘hunt the influence’ clearly gave Paulin a lot of fun during his five years of research; it holds the attention, even when he is obviously beating around in the wrong bushes. Certainly he read a great deal of obscure material, and some of the sources he has unearthed add a little to existing knowledge of Hazlitt's background. There are some new insights; previous students have paid insufficient attention to Hazlitt's Irish connections, and Paulin is right to lay emphasis on the numerous physical allusions in Hazlitt's prose. But most of his ground has been covered before, equally well. The main difference between Paulin and his predecessors is that this book leaves the impression that while writing his essay Hazlitt was mainly concerned to leave juicy hints and double meanings to be teased out by the literary critics of the future. But this disease has only taken hold in the twentieth century, when too many published authors are former students of English Literature; in Hazlitt's day it was unknown—except, perhaps, to William Wordsworth. Hazlitt wanted to be appreciated in the way that he felt about his own favourite writers; his dusty volumes should be taken down with a feeling of pleasure, not in anticipation of hours of wrangling with obscure passages. If his meaning was unclear he felt that he had failed.
In short, Paulin has not written a book to match his eye-catching title. The Day-Star of Liberty might acquaint new readers with the name of Hazlitt, but the style of presentation here threatens to fill undergraduates with the mixture of fear and repulsion currently reserved for the established literary canon. Most likely, ‘Hazlitt’ will just become a more fashionable name to drop; he has been neglected in universities not because there is some irrational prejudice against him, but because his criticism is too scattered (and sometimes contradictory). After all, it took Paulin five years to boil him down into this book, with the usual effect on his flavour.
The mystery is that Paulin is a good political writer, and Hazlitt was nothing if not political—even when discussing Titian or anticipating photography. Paulin provides some interesting material on Hazlitt's roots in dissent and republicanism, but the politics in his book get little further than a series of nudges and winks. People whom Hazlitt disliked are stigmatised as ‘reactionaries’ (a meaningless word); his favourites are applauded, even when (as in the case of Napoleon) these feelings are crying out for exploration. This thin and predictable treatment leaves the rest of Paulin's ingenious thoughts on style and influence floating in mid-air.
Perhaps, after all, the political Hazlitt was too awkward a customer for Paulin to handle in a book which presses his claims on today's intelligent readers. Understanding his passionate beliefs leads to a serious problem of context. Hazlitt had very tangible reasons for the radical anger which informs his best writing—the gibbet, the slave trade, and the undeserved power of kings and their sycophants. Today we can get worked up over interest-rate policy, or underfunding of the health service; but criticism seems softened by the fact that our governors are elected, not chosen by an accident of birth. We lack what Paul Johnson (in a previous incarnation) called ‘a sense of outrage’.
This was a problem which Hazlitt really did anticipate, in a remarkable phrase which Paulin overlooks: ‘It is necessary to the triumph of reform that it should never succeed.’ The satisfaction of political grievances leaves polemical authors without nourishment, and complacent writing encourages a ‘culture of contentment’ from which new abuses can creep out. In our information-rich age some space needs to be found for the spirit of vigilance which gives Hazlitt's prose its imperishable value. A book-length study gave Paulin an opportunity to advance this argument, and perhaps suggest some solutions; the most interesting reflection provoked by The Day-Star of Liberty is why he, of all people, chose not to take it.
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 inheritance, Tom Paulin's The Wind Dog offers a more radical solution to the issue of local voice than that taken by his immediate peers or forebears.
To this extent, the book builds on the advances made in the previous collection, Walking a Line (1994), which deployed its dialect through (often short) lines punctuated solely by dashes, indicating pauses and changes of pace or direction. But the present collection is much more assured with its method, not least for being overt about vocal origins, impulses and challenges. “Stile” draws our attention to Hardy's use of “appertaining” in a passage from Tess of the D'Urbervilles, a use Paulin calls “dogged doltish pedantic / a plodsome term—completely daft”—but which also displays an “exact legal decorum”, and gets away with it:
for to be clumsy in one light is to be deft, even graceful—graceful not slick—in another.
The challenge for such a defence of seeming gaucherie is for the poetry to enact what it talks about, to shock us into recognition, otherwise the work lapses into mere dogmatism. To this extent, “Stile”, like almost all the poems here, is full of grace, its alliterative ds and gs interwoven through an intricate vowel music, the assonantal variants in “murder” and “clumsy”, the picking-up of a half-rhyme in “daft / deft”. While this is a poetry which retains the polemical and political force of writing to the moment, a protestant vocalization (in the strict sense) of suppressed energies, it delivers a sense of rightness through its courteous attention to the ear's potential. “Sentence Sound”, another of the poems to reflect on—and re-enact—its own origins, recalls the young Paulin reading “how the ear / is the only true reader / the only true writer”.
Yet, typically and powerfully, the Frostian adherence to the sounds of sense here is more extreme and various than it often is in Heaney and Muldoon, not least because it has to operate alongside earlier and more surprising sounds derived from, for example, The Jungle Book. More tellingly, that attentive and intelligent alertness to artistic possibility seems allowed for, and motivated by, the replacement of Paul Klee (the artist who is the presiding spirit of Walking a Line) by Marc Chagall. In the earlier book, Klee stood for the artist in adversity, improvising his materials from smashed planes. Chagall, however, represents, as the poem “Over the Town” has it, both “a real and shining good” in his two lovers flying, having “shucked off the iron husk / of place”, and, “if you look closely”, “a lout … laying a turd”. Once again, the writing demonstrates how a true attentiveness reveals complexity of experience and creates its own claims on our attention. The confidence in this book is displayed to the extent of self-mockery in the witty meditation on George Bernard Shaw, “The Unholy One?”, where “the most opinionated writer / who ever lived” finds his match—“I should stop gabbing on / and your play should begin”.
What seems most risky and convincing about this writing is the way it shows the pacy yet meditative voice to be always haunted by a sudden awareness of the contradictory, and especially political, symbols of places seemingly left behind. In “Drumcree Three”, a step-ladder left out in Paulin's “garden by the Thames” translates itself both into a masonic triangle and “a type of cubist / hard metal liberty tree”. Or, in the wrenching elegy for the young Quinn brothers murdered after the Omagh bombing—an elegy which never comes to its subject, as how could it?—“those little white boxes” are both grim ironic containers of wedding-cake and “the watering trough in Chagall's L'Auge … oh not a cradle / a tiny coffin”. Both for its compelling execution and its vocal and historical imperatives, this is a vitally important book.
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 I was four. My grandmother on my mother's side was Scottish Presbyterian. She and my grandfather moved to the north of Ireland in 1912. I remember occasionally going to my grandmother's church, Fisherwick Presbyterian. The Church of Ireland is very low church—no candles or images or that sort of thing.
And then, I suppose, over the years I got interested in Puritanism as a cultural formation, partly through studying American literature, because if you study American literature you have to talk about puritanism and you have to know something about it. Why is it when English literature has so many important Puritan writers that there are almost no literary studies of puritanism? Think of Donald Davie's A Gathered Church; think of Valentine Cunningham—Everywhere Spoken Against—where are the great, major literary histories which locate various British and English writers within that formation? There are great studies of the Civil War period and Christopher Hill is the central figure there. I can remember when Milton and the English Revolution was published and that is a great seminal work. It's very interesting and important. But the idea that there is a line of writers of which possibly the last was Ted Hughes, nourished in English Puritanism, in that dissenting culture, that idea isn't terribly apparent.
And so when some years ago I was asked to contribute a section to The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, I thought it would be interesting to look at northern Protestant sermons, oratory, speeches, and just try to construct what was a very, very basic beginning—a not exactly literary canon that represented some of the attitudes within that culture. And then I got drawn to Hazlitt and I spent six years working on Hazlitt. Originally the idea was to look at writers associated with Unitarianism but I always thought I'd end up writing really about Hazlitt, but I did a lot of work on Unitarianism which is a profoundly important British cultural formation. The Guardian newspaper comes out of it. T. S. Eliot was a Unitarian, Hazlitt's father founded the Unitarian church in the Boston area—a whole series of significant British figures were Unitarian or associated with it like George Eliot. Joseph Chamberlain was a Unitarian, Florence Nightingale, a Unitarian, Gaskell, a Unitarian, Clough married into the big Unitarian family the Smiths. It was a profound influence on education in England, as you can see when you go to Hackney where there's a Belsham Street—Belsham was a famous Unitarian minister and educator who taught Hazlitt at Hackney College. I think there's a Priestley Street—it was the seat of advanced educational ideas in the England of the eighteenth century. A few years ago I discovered that my father's family whom I'd always thought Anglican were Unitarians in North Shields in Northumberland.
I worry in perhaps my pious Irish way about history and historical figures being lost. And I also think that we are profoundly formed by our cultures. What interests me about Puritan culture—you take Samuel Beckett, way back his family would have been French Huguenot—there is an anti-aesthetic deeply embedded in the culture. Why does Ted Hughes write poems that don't look like poems but seem like something torn off a memo pad, scribbled hastily and then got rid of?—because the idea of graven images, the idea of formality, is anathema to that imagination. The puritan imagination in some ways takes the free way as opposed to the formal way in its whole attitude to language and aesthetic form. But it means the puritan writer starts with a certain disability and it's the overcoming of an imaginative disability; as with Richardson, he's not going to write in a sort of impersonal way, he's going to write his fiction as letters—so it is immediate, authentic, not apparently art at all.
[Marshall]: In your book on Hazlitt, you describe the way in which we have lost his notion of engaged disinterestedness to the Arnoldian view of impartial criticism. How much do you think this shift has contributed to the lack of interest in the radical dissenting tradition you describe?
Disinterestedness, as Hazlitt expressed it, was for example admiring Burke while disagreeing with him. Then Arnold replaced this with the idea that disinterestedness meant that the critic would decamp completely from the battlefield and that there were various polemic positions, but the critic didn't have an axe to grind. But what Arnold was aiming to do was in a way to build an idea of a consensual culture, admittedly one based on an Oxbridge/London network which was anti-provincial and in many ways obviously of course elitist. And that consensualism, as it was expressed in the twentieth century in Britain, represented I suppose the ethical part of democracy and consensual politics which fell apart after Thatcher's victory in seventy-nine.
At the same time I'd say one might talk about radical dissent but it's very important to realise that lots of Puritans and lots of Unitarians were very strong free marketeers. Many of them were politically radical but not all of them were, so it's not a united, as it were, band of eighteenth-century left-wingers. It's much more complex than that. I can remember many years ago through the post there suddenly arrived an article from Donald Davie explaining that there were many Methodists who were for king and country. And I thought how typical of that extraordinary critic and fine poet to send that article out of the blue—when he'd never met me. Luckily I met him at an event you [Colin MacCabe] organised at the Tate shortly before he died. So I think it is important not to sentimentalise the idea of this sort of gloriously monolithic culture—it's not at all like that.
[MacCabe]: Can I ask a different but connected question? What is dissent without a church? How can that cultural formation continue, when it's not anchored in a belief, in a practice, in an institution? And then a second more narrow and literary critical question. What is your take on Leavis's understanding of that question?
Of course Leavis does represent that and, like so many people who grew up on Leavis, I've tended rather to forget him and suffered an impatience with him over the years. Perhaps there does exist somewhere a short book which does outline his significance as a critic, because he existed in relation to certain orthodoxies and certain institutions which he challenged and which he got his students to challenge. And so he was a very, very significant figure in that he energised an entire generation and gave them certain values and certain attitudes. I remember reading him when I was at school and he seemed then very important, but of course later literary criticism has been much more sophisticated and at times better written. Leavis's prose style was notoriously bad. He was definitely as it were a puritan anti-Arnoldian.
[Marshall]: Well, is he anti-Arnoldian?—because a lot of people would place him directly in that tradition.
[MacCabe]: Well, he tries in a sense to produce a centralised, i.e. a non-radical, view of dissent that he tries to read all the way through Lawrence backwards.
[Marshall]: But Arnold was a curious character, because, if you read his school reports, he was quite radical himself.
I think so. I mean Arnold is in a way a much maligned figure. There's that wonderful essay ‘Equality’. He's a continuously lively critic, Arnold, even though you disagree with him often or you think he's posturing.
[MacCabe]: What about the church? What is dissent without the church?
Well, dissent without the church is simply the reliance on the Protestant ethic of the free individual conscience I think. The church perhaps for many people is literary periodicals like, say, the London Review of Books and the TLS which represent a kind of cultural communality and argument within that structure I think.
[Marshall]: But when you say you think dissent has got nothing to do with the church, what about its strong moralistic base? You look at postmodernity, which has a relativism at the core which the notion of dissent lacks.
Yes, but I think also that dissent is crucially part of the education structure in this country. I mean, so much of what we say and so much of what we study exists in the educational context. I was just talking to a young Indian academic earlier on today and he was talking about the poetry industry and I was saying that in this country most people read poetry at school because they have to, and then they leave school and poetry behind; and so a study of poetry anthologies might be interesting. In terms of churches, the unjust craziness of the British educational system in a sense replicates—doesn't it?—almost exactly the nineteenth-century division between the established church and dissent.
[Marshall]: But that's really quite interesting isn't it, because in a way that connects to your views on Eliot who also has much to say about education in this country. In particular the arguments over the English curriculum, which could be seen as a clash between dissent and an establishment view of culture which is in a way the legacy of Eliot.
Yes. If you take Eliot, if you take ‘Notes Towards a Definition of Culture’, that work, I think it came out in 1944, was pitched exactly against movement of ideas, the consensual government ideas which set up Rab Butler's 1944 Education Act. Eliot's saying you can't appreciate culture unless you have the leisure and time to think about it, and these new grammar school kids, they won't be able to appreciate culture. So it's a deeply deeply reactionary world and yet Eliot has been enshrined within the educational system which he despised, as some kind of pope. I see Craig Raine is about to defend him against the charge of anti-semitism, so we may expect some more High and Low Church pamphlets and sermons—part of the life of a culture I think.
[MacCabe]: But the point about Eliot is that he is a great poet. Anthony Julius's book was a magnificent marshalling of the evidence about Eliot's anti-semitism. But the core argument of the book is that anti-Semitic imagery and thought is crucial to Eliot's poetry. That is the question. Your article in the London Review of Books did not seem to engage with that.
Well, I think what Julius's book did for me was first of all to provoke a great sense of shame. I remember I ordered it for the college library and when I started reading it one Tuesday afternoon I just couldn't put it down. I felt like screaming at certain times; it was desperate, particularly the review of The Yellow Spot in 1936, which Eliot in the end hadn't written but nevertheless published—a review which sneers at a book detailing Nazi persecution of the Jews. I wonder how Craig Raine will defend publishing that review. That was deeply shocking. And then I began to think that Eliot presented himself as a classicist and therefore so many people took him at his word and saw him as a classical epic poet, which in a way he is. But actually if you look at a figure like Yeats, who was completely without anti-Semitic prejudices, or a writer like Dostoevsky, what those writers do is they plunge into the deep nastiness of the zeitgeist in their particular societies and out of that comes their writing.
And so one might want to see Eliot as some kind of later-romantic brilliant kind of fuckhead like Dostoevsky or Yeats. But that would mean that you would need to approach him, as you need to approach Yeats, with a certain sceptical trepidation, I mean a disinterestedness, whereby you can both admire the work but also point out where it's coming from. But the trouble with—parts of—the literary culture of Britain is that there are people who want to hug writers like Larkin and like Eliot to their breasts. It always reminds me of John Betjeman going to bed with his teddy bear Archie. Larkin and Eliot are somehow important to some people's cultural self-esteem. Their self-esteem needs to be ratified by someone or something out there.
[MacCabe]: The canon of English literature is now almost completely unavailable to the average sixteen- or seventeen-year-old. They don't know anything about Christianity; the language they speak is very different from pre-1945 English. What is your view on how to teach this tradition, whether this tradition is important?
I would have thought it was very important to teach it. I suppose I look at it from a kind of provincial experience, where you grew up in a marginal area of the United Kingdom, where your way out of the limitations of that culture and that society was through the study not just of English literature, but of reading Sartre and Dostoevsky, reading as much as you can get hold of in that hunger for a world culture. Reading Joyce and Synge and so on. I experienced the study of canonical texts as a kind of liberation and I know that it's perfectly possible to land in this country without knowing English and learn the language and study the literature. Many people who belong to different ethnic minorities in this country have that experience. Not so long ago I was faxing a piece for the Independent on Sunday on Charles Lamb, and it was in a rather run-down grocery store on the edge of a council estate in Oxford near where I live. The shop's run by a couple from Sri Lanka and the man said ‘Oh look, Charles Lamb—I studied him in Sri Lanka.’ It was a slightly strange meeting. You suddenly thought of the experience writers like Narayan talk about, what it must be like to be in India reading John O'London's Weekly—sitting at a typewriter and posting stories off and getting a letter back from Graham Greene. I'm fascinated by that as a sort of great democratic culture.
At the same time one knows that experiences are different. I was teaching Elizabeth Bishop's ‘The Bight’ and I said something about Baudelaire and this eighteen/nineteen-year-old said, ‘Who's Baudelaire?’ And I said, ‘You've never heard of Baudelaire? I was reading him when I was seventeen; I thought everyone read Baudelaire when they were seventeen.’ It is difficult to come to terms with a fundamental cultural change which took place in the very early 1980s. It was the dead end of lit crit, before critical theory took over.
[MacCabe]: But Tom, the situation is exactly as you describe it. Those who come up now have absolutely none of the training or knowledge presupposed by the average literature course.
Crucially the moment for me was when I was sitting with a group of students and I said read George Herbert for next week, and I started off with the bland piece of information that George Herbert was a member of the Anglican church. And this young man said, ‘What on earth is the Anglican church?’, and so I said ‘Well, it is meant to be your national church’. And so I thought, well I cannot teach in this situation so what do I do about it? So I said to this kid next week, we were on Henry Vaughan, so I said to him that perhaps he should find out about Henry Vaughan's Anglicanism, and he came back with an excellent paper on Vaughan and Mariolatry. Ever since that class I've had one student in each class giving a research paper.
I've learned masses from this. Huge amounts. I thought this would be a way of restoring an historicism to the way of thinking, which had gone really through practical criticism. I remember I used to teach practical criticism back in the 1970s and I was teaching a Lowell poem which mentioned the ancien régime. I said ‘What's the ancien régime?’ and nobody knew. And I thought, this form of close reading is dead. It is a very important way of reading but it depends on contextual knowledge. What Richards and Leavis were against was irrelevant displays of knowledge, hence the word ‘extrinsic’, which was thought to be a bad idea.
But I'll tell you an idea as an example of this. I had to talk to a group of sixth-formers the other day—sixty-three sixth-formers—and I was talking about Crusoe, and I said Crusoe was absent from England between 1659 and 1687, what's significant about those dates? Nobody knew. ‘OK,’ I said, ‘it's the Restoration. I was taught this in Belfast,’ I told them, ‘when I was your age in order to make me into a loyal British citizen. You should know your own history.’ And I say this frequently to English students to provoke them really—but not nastily.
I've been teaching Clarissa, and I say, here you are living in this country and I've come over to teach you your own history, this isn't good enough. And there was this young man and he was miffed by this and he went off and joined the history faculty library and he wrote a brilliant essay on Clarissa in which he'd noticed that the date of Lovelace's last letter was the same as a famous letter which Prince Charlie wrote as he cleared off to France. And so he constructed an argument that in fact Lovelace was partly based on Bonnie Prince Charlie. Bonnie Prince Charlie got as far as Derby where Richardson came from and of course Clarissa is haunted by the fact that the Glorious Revolution might be eventually dismantled by people like Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke, whom I think also is one of the models for Lovelace. And so I find as a result of this—it's a provocative kind of teaching only occasionally you would be using—I actually learned a lot about Clarissa. I said to this young student, you should go away and publish, it's an original contribution to knowledge. I checked it with a Richardson scholar whom I greatly respect and he said he thought so too.
[Marshall]: Isn't that whole period of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, as well as the Civil War, part of the forgotten history, and forgotten for very good reason in that it was a time of radical dissent. And while there are now books, including your own on Hazlitt, Motion's on Keats and O'Toole's on Sheridan, it has been largely forgotten. And it's left us without a notion of Englishness other than a more small-minded little-Englander nationalism, precisely because we have forgotten, albeit a fragmented one, that more radical tradition.
Yes, I think that's true, but this is because for so long Britain was immensely confident. To land in this country in the sixties was, you know, to find a country so confident, so creative and so go-ahead and such fun. And then things got rather diminished and the whole notion of Great Britain has rather fragmented now; one doesn't know where it will go. But there are times when I feel curiously displaced, an archaic figure from something way back. It's very hard to describe.
[Marshall]: But there is a lot of writing that is trying to reclaim that. And there are journalists trying to reclaim that like Jonathan Freedland and the recent biography of Paine.
Yes, I remember Christopher Hitchens in Charter 88 talking about the American Revolution being constructed by a whole generation of freedom-loving English squires, which I thought was a very good way of putting it. You see it's the links, the cultural links, you think of—Britain, Ireland, North America—not simply these fixed national entities or fixed national identities. What fascinates me about the Scotch-Irish formation—emigrants from Scotland to Northern Ireland, then to North America—they were the backbone of Washington's army. And in fact Jackson Pollock comes out of that particular culture, and Pollock's extreme Calvinism, in terms of the way he paints, fascinates me.
[Marshall]: So what do you think is unique about that form of dissenting imagination that you think Pollock shares with say Defoe? Do they share an imagination?
Well, they share a certain kind of ferocious energy. You can see that particularly in Defoe who I think isn't celebrated enough. I want to write a book on Defoe because I realise that actually Robinson Crusoe is another version of Paradise Lost. All the dates in it are coded for Sedgemoor, William of Orange, and it's all worked out in a very interesting way I think.
[Marshall]: Defoe was also a journalist and you talk of journalism in Writing to the Moment. Hazlitt was also a journalist. How tied in with journalism is what you are describing?
Well, the English novel begins from journalism and journalism is actually saying, I'm not writing this for it to last, it'll be an extra if it does last, I'm writing it because it's very important and I am contributing this to what is happening now. It's a crucial affirmation of a particular conscience, that mind-set. It's what Hughes means by this sharp hot stink of fox. There's something feral about it I think. I'm fascinated by journalists.
[MacCabe]: I still want to get at exactly what it is you've got against Eliot. You talk of anti-semitism being at the heart of his poetry. I don't think it is.
Well then let's talk about ‘Gerontion’. ‘Gerontion’ is a fascinating poem. I can't quite get it to add up—but that's presupposing that poems necessarily need to add up—but what I thought about ‘Gerontion’ is something like this: the major source of The Waste Land is Keynes's great work The Economic Consequences of the Peace, which again I came to in an oral report an undergraduate gave in one of my tutorials at Nottingham many years ago. I'd said, go to the library and find out what it was like at the end of the First World War and relate it to The Waste Land, and she mentioned Keynes's work in a quotation from the historian Raymond Sontag, and I thought, right, must read it. I went home that night and thought, this is where The Waste Land comes from. It contains some extraordinary passages—you know, dryness and desolation, crazy parties in Paris and so on. I mentioned it to Christopher Ricks and he said ‘Oh yes, there's an article about that in English Literary History in about 1977. This very interesting American academic had spotted the connection but said, I can't prove that Eliot had read Keynes; but I could because Ricks told me to read Eliot's obituary of him. And Eliot also mentions Keynes in a letter to his mother.
Anyway, I began thinking about this and the figure of Clemenceau. Clemenceau's nickname was The Tiger; ‘In the juvenescence of the year comes Christ the tiger’. Clemenceau was a modern Jacobin. The house he grew up in—his father's house—had portraits of St Just and Robespierre. He had that punitive Jacobin temperament that in fact Hazlitt is very critical of, and I wonder whether the old man in ‘Gerontion’ isn't a version of Clemenceau? I'm sure there's something to be written here, but not by me. Blake's tiger is in the poem too.
[MacCabe]: You talk about there being something absolutely destructive at the heart of Eliot's poetry, and you talk of his anti-semitism as an example or a symptom of some deeper problem with his poetry. In the article about Julius's book, I never quite get to grips with what the deeper problem is.
Well, I admire most of Eliot's poetry. I'm not sure whether Four Quartets, which I used to admire a lot, is going to last. I was very interested, Donald Davie has a very critical essay on ‘The Dry Salvages’ for which he was terribly rebuked by Helen Gardner and other people. He really rocked the boat there. And I think I more or less agree with his view of ‘The Dry Salvages’, although I do like passages within it. I think at the centre of Eliot there is a misogyny, a fascination with the murder of women, the obsession he had with that poor woman who was hanged for the murder of her husband which her lover committed, I've forgotten her name—Simon Gray had a television play about her—and ages ago Eliot wrote a letter to the Daily Mail, I think it was, saying he agreed with the hanging of this woman.
That obsession is there in Eliot, and what he's really saying is that Art proceeds from something snub-nosed, incapable of mercy, the undying worm itself. Art and evil are intimately connected. Art is not necessarily irenic, or from an irenic source. And that, to anyone of a liberal or progressive temperament, is very very difficult to take on board. I'm not absolutely sure whether the argument does hold, because it then leads on as you can see to Roger Scruton's The Meaning of Conservatism—any great artist is terribly reactionary, Scruton says. I do not think that Milton was reactionary—rather the reverse—nor James Joyce.
That is the central thing in Eliot. Eliot knows something that he's saying a lot of people don't, that at the root of culture, at the root of art, is evil. But then, as Milton writes, from evil comes good.
[Marshall]: But, as you write in that Julius article, isn't it also not only his poetry but the whole legacy that Eliot has left. That stifling Eliot oeuvre which is avowedly reactionary.
It's the educational legacy. I can remember reading in school about ‘apeneck Sweeney’ and asking my teacher ‘What's that about?’ and it was a very intimidating experience. But I can remember the very first instance I read ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ in a science lab in school, that was a great enabling experience. The dead hand of Eliot is inescapable in British education.
[Marshall]: That's an interesting choice of word though isn't it, ‘enabling’, and isn't that the difference between Eliot's version of culture and canonical texts and those other writers you've referred to, like Arnold and Leavis, who sought to enable, whereas the reaction of Eliot means that it is precisely about being a dead hand?
In the hands of his disciples. There are moments in his early work which you can get hold of if you dig it out in libraries—it has never been republished—where he sounds like Roland Barthes. He dismisses Shelley and other canonical writers as modest, mediocre. The other point to return to is, why do we have to divide the world into enlightened progressives and reactionaries? Reactionaries possess that great Unionist ability—the sceptical desire to say no. But in Hazlitt, there is a deep vein of scepticism in his writing—it's in his fascination with Burke. There's this sense that the imagination is aristocratic, is monarchical and writes poems—reason is republican, and writes prose. If you're a prose writer, you're endlessly strapped by the limitations of that outlook. And that there is some lingering kind of notion of original sin in Hazlitt.
[Marshall]: The Hazlitt book is particularly interesting because you demonstrate the complexity and don't allow us to see the world in a binary way. But right at the core of what you are saying, even though you don't want this simple binary division, is that what separates him out from the conservatives, what prevents him from being conservative is that republican, rational dissenting imagination?
Well yes, because you don't arrive at certainties, everything is a sort of intellectual process and everything is arrived at through argument and everything is to be argued for and against, but it should be that attitude rather than having as it were idols or fixed gods to worship. But it's a very uncomfortable position to have, I think, because it's built on quicksands—on bogs.
[Marshall]: But it prevents conservatism, doesn't it? It's why people call it progressive, because it constantly looks forward. That's why the Puritans were quite interesting, because despite their conservative image they were constantly questioning, which is why they fragmented so much.
Yes, but you see when you talk about conservatism, Hazlitt is a conservative writer in certain ways in his central idea of what he called the old English imagination, which united imagination with feeling and abstract ideas, so the ideas have a kind of a tactile and concrete form. That's where Eliot stole the dissociation of sensibility from—a very early work of Hazlitt's: in an essay in an anthology of British parliamentary speeches, he talks about the Puritan, seventeenth-century politician Bulstrode Whitelocke and there is this sort of English nativism in Hazlitt's writing which isn't progressive I think, and I'm interested in that I myself am not wild for the idea of progress, which I associate with anxiety.
[Marshall]: Well, there's progress and there's progress. There's New Labour, which is shiny and new, which in the end isn't very progressive.
[MacCabe]: There is progress which is linked with democracy and education; they are both now in severe peril from the development of our modern media on the one hand and the appeal to a facile anti-elitism on the other. So there's no sense of improving people's control over their lives or their knowledge about their lives; there's simply a notion of aggregating people into audiences or focus groups. How do you react to that politically?
Well, I think that this is surely a strong democracy, isn't it? It is surely an educated and literate democracy? The main thing that worries me is, there's just too much television and film basically. People don't read that much. But that's a very old-fashioned and elitist view. I wish I didn't have a television and then I could come home and read and relax.
[MacCabe]: Something we haven't touched on at all is Ireland. A lot of your work deals with the issues you've covered in this conversation; that is, finding a set of Puritan traditions which actually suddenly make much more sense not just of English history but of Irish history and American history. Can you tell us a little more of your own personal history in terms of how you've understood Northern Ireland?
Well, my experience was—I can remember arriving there at the age of four, from England in the 1950s. My parents were Guardian-reading, New Statesman-reading Labour party people—that was their outlook. They joined a society which aimed to abolish capital punishment. I grew up in a household which was full of books, didn't have a television set until That Was the Week That Was started. It was that old Northern Ireland Labour party culture. Eventually the Labour party in Northern Ireland disappeared. It was very much against Unionism, but you didn't realise until later that it was in fact a form of Unionism—you listened to the BBC, everything was directed towards London. I think I only went to Dublin once as a child and then again when I was eighteen. Then the civil rights movement started, which, although I was in England at the time, I very much supported.
But it was really only after 1979 or 1980 that I realised the fundamental flaws in the structure of the Northern Irish state could only be redressed if the link with Britain was broken or at least attenuated. I do think that the kind of identity crisis that quite a lot of Ulster Protestants have passed through has led to the idea, as it were, of British culture being a permanent feature of Irish culture as a whole. It's not simply a green nation, it's orange and blue and whatever other colours you want. But it's very important to recognise that.
Years ago I thought I'd try to explore that and I wrote a long essay—what was originally a lecture for a conference of Irish historians—trying to explain that Paisley basically comes out of seventeenth-century England. That he is a latter-day, well not Muggletonian, but Bunyan, in Ulster. And I'm interested in the structures of that culture, its energies and its awfulness. Because I've felt that middle-class Unionism tended to put it on a long finger really, and yet that was what was keeping their position in place. That's the way I feel.
What I've found is that the concept of British culture is complex. In the early eighties I thought I'd had enough of many of its attitudes, but the older I get I start to worry about the loss of a British identity and its replacement by an independent Scottish one, an independent English one. But the Northern Irish link to Great Britain should get weaker.
What I'm thinking about at the moment, trying to write about, is the Second World War. I grew up on memories of it and I'm very worried that that will slip back into history with the Boer War and the First World War, which I'm not interested in really. And I think that that memory has to be preserved and cherished and reaffirmed generation upon generation, and that what that represents in terms of British history is something absolutely extraordinary and unique. The other thing about British culture is that there is this obsession with the First World War which is somehow to do with a sense of failure, I think, and the reticence that there is in British culture, which means that there's no tub-thumping about the Second World War. Imagine if the Americans had won the Vietnam war. We'd never be done hearing about it.
[MacCabe]: Surely the thing about the Second World War, and Churchill is at the centre of it, is that it's the first great anti-fascist war. It's the last great imperial war, the last war as one of the great nation states of Europe, and it's both of these things all the way down. I was thinking of Raymond Williams in a guards tank up the line from Carrington. I'm not sure you can simply split it out in the way that you're wanting to.
[Marshall]: But wasn't Tony Blair appealing to the same anti-fascist sentiments on a much smaller scale in Kosovo?
I was worried at the time about the idea of analogies—that you don't fight war by analogy. I supported the war in Kosovo. I had some reservations, thinking ground troops had to be sent in, at the same time remembering the old adage ‘not worth the bones of a single British grenadier’—the outlook which was Alan Clark's.
[Marshall]: But wasn't there a sense that this is what Britain did best?
Yes, but then you start to think, the Spanish Civil War—Britain didn't intervene then. The slowness of the intervention in the Second World War, which was probably absolutely right—it bought time—but there are all sorts of might-have-beens. The military leadership in France was so abysmal and the French bear all sorts of responsibility for that. The Duke of Windsor too, because he leaked the fact that the Allies knew of the plans for the German invasion of Belgium, Holland and France—he leaked the Allied knowledge of those plans to the Nazi high command. That ought to be a matter of public knowledge—and the fact that Churchill ordered the British Secret Service to shoot the Duke if he refused to leave Lisbon for the Bahamas. Enough of this anti-monarchism—see Churchill on the Weimar Republic.
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 feeling does not involve, an analysis of the power situation.” Deane used the Field Day Theatre Company's production of Stewart Parker's Pentecost (1987) as an example of his overall point that while such works may make audiences feel pity for the onstage victims of the political system, they do not inform them as to the extent to which “[t]he political system isn't something that is separate or apart from them. They are the inhabitors of it and they are the creators of it in many ways.”1 But when riot and sectarian violence erupt in the province, the term adopted by commentators is “tragedy”—a term that functions equally as a description of political situation and theatrical genre. In both instances, powerlessness in the face of suffering is dominant. As George Steiner defined the theatrical form,
Tragedy would have us know that there is in the very fact of human existence a provocation or paradox; it tells us that the purposes of men sometimes run against the grain of inexplicable and destructive forces that lie “outside” yet very close. To ask of the gods why Oedipus should have been chosen for his agony … is to ask for reason and justification from the voiceless night. There is no answer.2
The inadequacy of the term, when applied to the political situation and the theatre through which it is imaged, is that the world evoked is one in which analysis is replaced by “expla[nation]” based on a “myth of atavism” and “a special historical curse.” In this context, we are given only the idea of “a luckless and predetermined fate.”3
However, and despite Deane's implicit call for a theatre of “Brechtian” intention, if not technique, what has characterised many of the Northern Irish plays that have attempted to confront the political system is a turn to tragedy. There has been a preference for the form that “the Philosopher” in Brecht's The Messingkamf Dialogue critiqued as lacking social efficacy: “The ancients thought that the object of tragedy was to arouse pity and terror. That could still be a desirable object, if pity were taken to mean pity for people and terror terror of people, and if the serious theatre accordingly tried to help eliminate those circumstances which make people fear and pity one another.”4 Deane's analysis of the inadequacy of contemporary theatre's engagement with Northern Ireland's political situation was made at the end of a decade that opened with a marked tendency towards Irish tragedies. Two of them, interestingly enough, were written by Deane's fellow directors on the board of the Field Day Theatre Company, which saw itself as “contribut[ing] to the solution of the present crisis by producing analyses of the established opinions, myths, and stereotypes which had become both a symptom and a cause of the current situation.”5 The analysis that follows focuses on these two plays: Seamus Heaney's The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles's “Philoctetes” (1990) and Tom Paulin's Seize the Fire: A Version of Aeschylus's “Prometheus Bound” (1990). They show that after Deane the critical concern has been with the political implications of the choice of the tragic form and source; these too often convey an image of Northern Ireland as a contemporary House of Atreus in which, as in Aeschylus's Agamemnon, “The race is welded to its ruin.”6
Heaney's intention in The Cure at Troy is clearly to suggest an answer to the question asked by Aeschylus's chorus, “Who can tear from the veins / the bad seed, the curse?”7 by entering what John Keyes defines as “the realms of classical comedy where things are restored and the world is engulfed in golden possibility.”8 It is the source of that “possibility,” however, that is at issue. Heaney has deliberately departed from Sophocles in his refusal to admit Hercules into the resolution of the drama, so excluding the original deus ex machina. As he stated in the program notes for the premiere, “I have attempted to present the conclusion as the inevitable culmination of an honestly-endured spiritual and psychological crisis rather than as the result of a supernatural intervention.”9 The harmonious conclusion in which Philoctetes agrees, rather than being tricked, into voyaging to Troy is then presented as a triumph of honesty and of the human ability to throw off what the Chorus describes as the “wound” that he has “[fed] on.”10 In one clear sense human agency is dramatically paramount, but, despite Heaney's exclusion of the Greek source's deus ex machina and his desire to foreground human, as opposed to divine, intention, he remains sufficiently close to the Sophoclean original to retain lines that clearly evoke a supernatural dimension—namely, the clear statement that in choosing to journey to Troy Philoctetes is fulfilling the destiny outlined by Neoptolemus:
The snake bite at the shrine was from a god. But the gods send remedies, and they expect Obedience then as well. You are to come Of your own free will to the town of Troy.
Free will, then, is operating within a context of the fated, for, as Heaney noted in the program, “the fates had decreed that Philoctetes and his invincible bow would be instrumental in the Greek victory over the Trojans, and a prophecy finally compelled them to return and sue for his support.”11 Philoctetes's “choice” is an acceptance of his destiny; the whole play is replete with references to “the gods,” to whom Neoptolemus prays “[t]hat the gods' intentions and our destination / Won't be at odds” (42). The preferred theme of the play is contained in the lines of Neoptolemus:
There's a whole economy of kindness Possible in the world; befriend a friend And the chance of it's increased and multiplied.
But what is clearly established as the context for human action and decision-making is that of the already determined. As Philoctetes declaims at the conclusion,
Something told me this was going to happen. Something told me the channels were going to open.
Understandably, given Heaney's position as a director of the Field Day Theatre Company, considerable interest was aroused as to the possible political “message” the work might contain. As John Kelly observed of the first night audience in Derry's Guildhall, “the gang [were] all … there—sharpening their quills and watching for the first clear evidence that Lemnos was Ireland, that Philoctetes was … in the DUP and that Field Day was nothing more than etc etc.” According to Kelly, such expectations were frustrated, as “it was all too subtle for that … any attempt to plant Heaney's adaptation square onto one or other version of the Irish situation simply would not work.”12 Heaney himself worked to deny political intention in several interviews given around the time of the play's first production. When asked by Eileen Battersby of the Irish Times, “Is there an intended political subtext?” Heaney replied, “No, I'm not a political writer and I don't see literature as a way of solving political problems.” Moreover, reported Battersby, he was “impatient with the idea that there is a coded message about Northern Ireland contained in the play or any inference that the play is an analogy for how the troubles could be resolved.”13 This “impatience” with any implied political intentions behind The Cure at Troy became “a hint of irritation,” according to John Walsh of the Sunday Times, to whom Heaney observed, “People misunderstand the idea of a play—any play—if they think it's a cure for life. There's a sealed border between the house and the stage.”14 The play, as Heaney stressed to Jane Coyle, “has no obvious operable allegory and I certainly wasn't going to create one. I have tampered only marginally with its form and content and I hope that it's still very much a Greek tragedy.”15 Expectations of allegory were clearly frustrated. As John Kelly correctly observes, there are no precise equivalences between the play and contemporary events or personalities. However, Kelly's overall observation that “the plea for Philoctetes to bend before he breaks and the questions of personal conscience, duty and loyalty to the tribe are surely of general application”16 seems to accept Heaney's own disavowal of a political intention. Moreover, it ignores the fact that works of general application gain specific resonance through the particular dramatic setting, the costumes, and, as in the case of Field Day's production of Heaney's play, the accents of the players.
With the exception of the Chorus's concluding references to “A hungerstriker's father” and “The police widow in veils” (77), the play avoids overt references to contemporary Northern Ireland and, in this respect, confirms Heaney's claims. But the production, as opposed to the published text, did appear to have a clear and specific political resonance contained within the set.17 While the set direction of the play text indicates merely “[a ] sea shore […] cliff-face, […] stunted bushes” and “[a] cave mouth/archway” down from which leads a pathway (CT [The Cure at Troy] I), the set of the premiere's production in Derry's Guildhall in October 1990 was dominated by the fallen head of a giant statue. The head functioned as Philoctetes's cave, and it was from there that he first emerged, his accent, as played by Des McAleer in the original production, that of strident Unionist Ulster. Echoes of Shelley's “Ozymandias” are also present, as noted by Derek West,18 but in the context of a production in Derry and, perhaps, even London, the fallen Empire is inevitably read as that of England, with Philoctetes the embattled and embittered Unionist who remains behind when all substantial meaning to his existence has collapsed. This allusion is heightened by the echo of “Ulster Says No” in Neoptolemus's question to Philoctetes: “Are you going to stay here saying no for ever[?]” (69).19 More generally (and it is this that would allow an audience to read their “others” as the ones nursing the “wound”), the fallen head can be read as a fragmentation of any absolute power that still retains the loyalty of those whom it once sustained. In this context, the play's lessons to the audience, as spoken by the Chorus, is
So hope for a great sea-change On the far side of revenge. Believe that a further shore Is reachable from here. Believe in miracles And cures and healing wells.
In the closing moments, Philoctetes effectively becomes the audience's onstage representative, responding within the drama as they have been explicitly invited to do in a society that includes hunger-strikers and police widows. Heaney told John Walsh that these specific references were “[not] politics” but “sentiment,”20 but the play ends with lines of reconciliation:
That a crippled trust might walk And the half-true rhyme is love.
The passage clearly suggests that while this is “sentiment,” in the general sense of hopes and aspirations, rather than “politics” in any precise sense of a program of action, it is possible to read the play as political reconciliation rather than simply the nursing of a “wound.”
It could be argued that the play can articulate its element of reconciliation only by escaping from present-day actualities, and that it assumes that by avoiding contemporary complexities, Unionists and Nationalists will cease to live in the disembodied head of, respectively, a dismembered British Empire or a bankrupt Republican exclusivism. The play also seems to suggest that a pluralist All-Ireland union is the “fate” in which they will fully realize and release themselves, although this resolution is inevitably more congenial to Nationalists than to Unionists. Indeed, Heaney has suggested, in his essay “The Pre-Natal Mountain: Vision and Irony in Recent Irish Poetry,” that it is precisely the artist's distance from contemporary problems that permits them to be most effectively addressed and remedied. He remarks, “what is intractable when wrestled with at close quarters becomes tractable when addressed from a distance. The longer the lever, in fact, the less force is necessary to move the mass and get the work going.”21 But The Cure at Troy foregrounds fate, be it benign or malevolent, as the determining agent in human affairs. Heaney has avoided the use of the Sophoclean deus ex machina in a desire to focus on the inner struggle of his character, but he has succeeded only in part, as in his version the Chorus speaks as Hercules—“ritually clamant” (78), in the words of the play—with Philoctetes being informed that Hercules has “opened the closed road […] To make the right road clear to you” (78). He is then directed, “Go, Philoctetes, with this boy, / Go and be cured and capture Troy” (79). While Hercules is excluded from Heaney's work, the response of his Philoctetes mirrors that of the Sophoclean original, who responds to the god's words with the line, “I shall not disobey.”22 The denouements of both the original Greek and the contemporary Irish versions are marked by the acceptance of a directive whose origin is both exterior and superior to the human, despite the authorial intention to foreground “an honestly-endured spiritual and psychological crisis.”
Heaney worked on his version, as he told Eileen Battersby, from “the equivalent of a schoolboy's crib”23 in order to retain the primacy of the narrative and, by implication, to avoid the direct influence on his work of earlier translations. By holding to the narrative, and despite excluding Hercules from the drama, he could still correctly claim to have “tampered only marginally with its form and content.”24 Heaney's hope “that it's still very much a Greek tragedy”25 is realized within the finished work, but this success is equally the play's problem, dramatizing as it does the suggestion that political crises are resolved in an essentially supra-human manner. The problem facing adapters of Greek dramas that contain the force of fate and divine intervention in human affairs is how far they should (to adapt Heaney's comments) tamper with form and content. This is a question that is raised again by Seize the Fire, Tom Paulin's version of Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound.
Paulin had already addressed the issues both of Greek tragedy and the translation of the classics before his engagement with Aeschylus's work. His highly critical reading, in Ireland and the English Crisis, of Conor Cruise O'Brien's use of Antigone to effect a negative critique of student civil rights activists was expanded by his own 1985 version of the play (The Riot Act), in which he was concerned to show “how badly [O'Brien] misinterprets the play.”26 However, it is in his article “In the Beginning Was the Aeneid: On Translation” that Paulin makes the most explicit statement of his belief in the potentially creative use of classic texts, central to which is “art's relation to society.”27 Above all, Paulin argues, translation “offer[s] glimpses of a new landscape, a fresh cultural initiative which may in time be embodied formally and institutionally.” “Translation,” he concludes in a crucial comment, “is therefore an ambitious type of neoclassicism which helps to form conscience.”28
Paulin's choice of Prometheus, then, is a revealing one, as, in the words of Herbert Marcuse, he is one of the “‘culture heroes’ who have persisted in the imagination as symbols of the attitude and the deeds that have determined the fate of mankind.” While identifying the archetypal power of Prometheus as “culture hero,” Marcuse reads the figure rather negatively, seeing him as one “who creates culture at the price of perpetual pain,”29 and it is in fact Marx who sees Prometheus in a fully radical, liberating light. As Marx's son-in-law, Paul Lafargue, recollected, Aeschylus stood, with Shakespeare, among those whom Marx “considered … the greatest dramatic geniuses humanity ever gave birth to.” Indeed, “[e]very year he read Aeschylus in the Greek original.”30 The centrality of Aeschylus and Prometheus to Marx's thought was signalled in his doctoral dissertation, in which he announced that “Prometheus is the most eminent saint and martyr in the philosophic calendar.”31 Marcuse reads Prometheus as the culture hero of progress through repression, but in Aeschylus we find a narrative of resistance to “the Establishment,” with audience sympathy directed to the rebel Prometheus rather than to the absent ruler, Zeus. This situation profiles what Maynard Solomon suggested was the probable attraction of Prometheus to the young Marx: “[Prometheus] is the primal statement of the Great Refusal, the ‘no’ from which the revolutionary ‘yes’ emerges.”32 This is a reading with which Paulin would undoubtedly concur; he not only prefaced his version with the young Marx's statement as to the pre-eminence of Prometheus,33 but concluded it with a clear demonstration of his radical departure from the original.
In Prometheus Bound, the protagonist's closing lines stress the injustice of his situation: “You see how I am wronged!” he says as Zeus unleashes his force against him in a fury of “fiery lightnings,” “whirling fountain[s]” of dust and, the “[b]lasts of the four winds.”34 Paulin's version, rather than foregrounding a cry of outrage, stresses the felt legitimacy and potential victory of, if not Prometheus, then at least the force he has unleashed. His rebellion has been undertaken as an act of defence for the “[m]en, women, tiny kids” whom “Zeus wanted [to] crush”:
That's why I stole that restless, bursting, tight germ of fire, and chucked its flames like a splatter of raw paint against his state.
Far from the cry of the original's outrage, Paulin's Prometheus proclaims a triumphant future:
Let Prometheus go out and become one with the democratic light.
Paulin's work goes substantially beyond The Cure at Troy in closing on a note of future victory that is born of individual action rather than divine intervention. Prometheus' Titanic origins are not stressed, and there is no (albeit ventriloquised) divine directive. Despite the location in “An empty place, wet rock, shale” (1), the intended contemporary connotations are made immediately apparent through the set's “line of metal posts cemented into bare rock” (1) and the characters' references to “firing squad” (1), “martial music on the radio” (15), “coded locks” (19), and “arms salesmen” (41). Paradoxically, however, the radical impulse of Paulin's work is still compromised, despite, indeed almost because of, its progressive intentions and textual additions. This is a point that can be clarified by reference to Roland Barthes's early essay “Putting on the Greeks,” in which he claims that the question is, “are the Greek plays to be performed as of their own time or as of ours?”35
Although Barthes is concerned with the broad, rather than nationally specific, relevance of Greek drama, the essay is a telling one. It is of particular relevance to the current practice of adopting and adapting the Greek classics to relate to the contemporary Irish moment. Above all, he argues, the plays should be located within their original historical context. Only by such means can we create from them a theatre of liberation: “the ancient tragedy concerns us in that it allows us to understand … that history is plastic, fluid, at the service of men, if only they try to make themselves its master in all its lucidity. To grasp the historical specificity of the Oresteia, its exact originality, is for us the only way of making a dynamic use of it.”36 Barthes is at pains to stress that adaptation is essentially a regressive action and that the plays should be set within their moment, rather than ours. This is not because there is any question of “the ‘eternal’ quality of this theater,” but rather because only if the play's historical specificity is retained will an audience be equipped with the sense of “a movement of history.” Only then will it gain the certainty that there has been progress, together with the consequent “assurance that man possesses, in himself alone, the remedy for his ills—an assurance we must ceaselessly rediscover, for it is by realizing the distance already covered that we gain courage and hope for the distance which remains to be traveled.”37 Barthes's argument at this point is profoundly Brechtian, and, by implication, although he does not develop his argument in this direction, audiences would need to be “alienated” (Brecht's Verfremdungseffekt) so as to appreciate that which Barthes argues in “The Brechtian Revolution.” There, he says that “the evils men suffer are in their own hands—in other words, that the world can be changed; that art can and must intervene in history; … that we must have an art of explanation and no longer merely an art of expression; that the theater must participate in history by revealing its movement.”38
It was precisely because of his analysis of history as a material process that Brecht set himself against a “tragic” theatre, since, for him, there was “[n]othing human [that] can possibly lie outside the powers of humanity.” For Brecht, the determining circumstances were human above all, no matter how geographically (or historically) distant they might be. If an invention in Chicago could destroy twelve people in Ireland, then, says Brecht's Philosopher in The Messingkauf Dialogues, “that machinery must stretch as far as Ireland.”39 But, as this article has suggested, theatre does not have to go as far as Chicago to begin to dramatize the Brechtian “causal network” within contemporary Northern Ireland.40 Above all, it does not have to return to the dramatic models of Ancient Greece, on which Brecht's Philosopher makes the following apposite comment: “The causes of a lot of tragedies lie outside the power of those who suffer them, so it seems. […] Of course it only seems. Nothing human can possibly lie outside the powers of humanity, and such tragedies have human causes.”41
This is clearly a more progressive model than The Cure at Troy's use of supernatural intervention to resolve conflicts that are dramatically rendered and read as contemporary, thereby rendering the human being effectively powerless. Even though Paulin's work transcends Heaney's well-intentioned but (supernaturally) compromised optimism for humanity, the specificity of a contemporary Ireland familiar with the idea of “get[ting] kneecapped” (SF [Seize the Fire] 27) and with phrases such as “You're a real header” (15) is weakened by South American allusions to “the disappeared” (3) and “sleek young colonels” (13) and by the setting—an archetypal landscape peopled by the embodiments of forces such as “Power” and “Violence.” While Paulin stresses the democratic impulse that informs Prometheus's actions, the success of his play, in analytic rather than dramatic terms, is ultimately as limited as that of The Cure at Troy: neither of them, to return to Barthes's comments on Brecht, “participate[s] in history by revealing its movement.” Indeed, the concern of Paulin's play to speak for all rebels in all contexts of oppression results in the loss of the social and historical specificity that would allow the simultaneous participation in, and revelation of, an identifiable concrete reality. The failure to effect any tracing of the “causal network,” coupled with the frequent “primitivism” of set and subject, serves only to bolster the image of Ireland as an inexplicable region existing within some other, less developed, historical moment. “Let the grey retainer, murder, breed no more”42 is the sentiment both of the Chorus in The Oresteia and of those contemporary writers who have turned to the Greeks for the powerful dramatic realization of a violence that matches the contemporary experience. The present reality, however, is that in having taken the Attic turn they are in danger of confirming within the theatre a condition of powerlessness that they would wish to deny on the political stage.
In his 1974 essay “Feeling into Words,” Heaney acknowledged that, since 1969 and the resurgence of what he termed “the original heraldic murderous encounter between Protestant yeoman and Catholic rebel,” “the [problem] of poetry” had become the achievement of “images and symbols adequate to our predicament.”43 This is equally the problem facing contemporary Irish theatre, which should be the place, to adapt Marx's May 1843 letter to Arnold Ruge, where “one makes the world aware of its consciousness … awakens the world out of its own dream … explains to the world its own acts.”44 Seamus Deane's rejection of a theatre that moves “away from that rinsing glare [of the political light]” continues this belief in the socially redemptive function of art, above all in his call for a theatre that “can actually change the political structures inside which we live.”45
Seamus Deane, “Irish Theatre: A Secular Space?” Irish University Review, 28:1 (1998), 173.
George Steiner, The Death of Tragedy (London: Faber, 1961), 128-29.
Tom Nairn, The Break-Up of Britain: Crisis and Neo-Nationalism, 2nd ed. (London: Verso, 1981), 222-24.
Bertolt Brecht, The Messingkauf Dialogues, trans. John Willett (London: Methuen, 1965), 31.
Field Day Theatre Company, preface to Ireland's Field Day (London: Hutchinson, 1985), vii.
Aeschylus, Agamemnon, in The Oresteia, trans. Robert Fagles (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1977), 167.
John Keyes, “A Dramatic Conversion,” interview with Seamus Heaney, Fortnight, 288 (1990), 25.
Seamus Heaney, program notes for The Cure at Troy, by Seamus Heaney, presented by the Field Day Theatre Company at the Guildhall, Derry, from 1 October 1990.
Seamus Heaney, The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles' “Philoctetes” (London: Faber, in association with Field Day, 1990), 61. Subsequent references appear parenthetically in the text. For the deus ex machina conclusion of the original, see Sophocles, Philoctetes, in Electra and Other Plays, trans. E. F. Watling (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1953), 210-11.
Heaney, program notes. See note 9.
John Kelly, review of Cure at Troy by Field Day, Theatre Ireland, 24 (1990), 12.
Eileen Battersby, “Sometimes a Great Notion,” Irish Times [Weekend] (29 September 1990), 5, quoting Seamus Heaney.
John Walsh, “Bard of Hope and Harp,” Sunday Times Review [London] (7 October 1990), 3, quoting Seamus Heaney.
Seamus Heaney, “The Trojan Warrior,” interview by Jane Coyle, Stet, 3 (1990), 17.
Kelly, 12. See note 12.
Stephen Rea and Bob Crowley, direction, and Crowley, design, Cure at Troy, by Field Day.
Derek West, review of Cure at Troy, by Field Day, Theatre Ireland, 24 (1990), 16.
“Ulster says no”: the phrase expresses the opposition of Ulster Unionists to any weakening of the Province's constitutional ties with the rest of the United Kingdom. It is particularly associated with the Reverend Ian Paisley's rejection of the 1985 Hillsborough Agreement when the British government negotiated directly with that of the Irish Republic with a view to establishing a bilateral accord in matters of security and civil administration.
Seamus Heaney, quoted in Walsh, 3 (emphasis in original). See note 14.
Seamus Heaney, “The Pre-Natal Mountain: Vision and Irony in Recent Irish Poetry,” Georgia Review, 42:3 (1988), 474.
Sophocles, Philoctetes, 211 (see note 10). Cf. Philoctetes's “I obey” in Heaney, Cure at Troy, 79.
Battersby, 5. See note 13.
Heaney, quoted in Coyle, 17. See note 15.
Tom Paulin, “The Making of a Loyalist: Conor Cruise O'Brien,” in Ireland and the English Crisis (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1984), 27.
Tom Paulin, “In the Beginning Was the Aeneid: On Translation: Charles Tomlinson, Tadeusz Różewicz, Leopold Staff,” in Ireland and the English Crisis, 205 (see note 26).
Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (New York: 1962), 146.
Paul Lafargue, excerpt from “Reminiscences of Marx,” in Karl Marx, Frederick Engels on Literature and Art: A Selection of Writings, ed. Lee and Stefan Baxandall Morawski (New York: International General, 1973), 152.
Karl Marx, quoted in Maynard Solomon, editor's introduction to essays by Herbert Marcuse, in Marxism and Art: Essays Classic and Contemporary (Brighton: Harvester, 1979), 520.
Solomon, 520. See note 31.
Karl Marx, quoted in epigraph to Tom Paulin, Seize the Fire: A Version of Aeschylus's “Prometheus Bound” (London: Faber, 1990). Subsequent references to Seize the Fire appear parenthetically in the text.
Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, in Prometheus Bound; The Suppliants; Seven against Thebes; The Persians, trans. Philip Vellacott (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1961), 52.
Roland Barthes, “Putting on the Greeks,” in Critical Essays, trans. Richard Howard (Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1972), 59.
Ibid., 59, 66.
Roland Barthes, “The Brechtian Revolution,” in Critical Essays, 38 (see note 35).
Brecht, The Messingkauf Dialogues, 32. See note 4.
Bertolt Brecht, “The Popular and the Realistic,” in Brecht on Theatre, trans. John Willett (London: Eyre Methuen, 1968), 109.
Brecht, The Messingkauf Dialogues, 32.
Aeschylus, The Libation Bearers, in Oresteia, 212 (see note 6).
Seamus Heaney, “Feeling into Words,” in Preoccupations: Selected Prose, 1968-1978 (London: Faber, 1980), 56.
Karl Marx, “The Utopian Reflex,” excerpt from Marx to Arnold Ruge, May 1843, in Marxism and Art, 58 (original emphasis; see note 31).
Deane, 173-74. See note 1.
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. And he has made his task all the more ambitious by seeking to do so through discussing the style of Hazlitt's writings. For, even as writers of all kinds are concerned in various ways with style, there is always the nagging feeling that a certain style might, in any given writer, be used to conceal a vacuity of content. One has only to think of what is said about a great deal of postmodern deconstructive writing to see the point. In Hazlitt's case, however, there is little possibility of separating his style from the content of his thinking. In his work, style and content live and breathe as one. And this is clearly one of the central insights which has prompted Paulin to write this book.
Paulin presents Hazlitt as a critic writing in prose who was deeply disturbed about the status of prose itself. Unlike poetry, whose various styles help it live on past the moment of its composition and lodge it in the mind of its readers, prose—especially the journalistic prose which Hazlitt practised a great deal—is likely to be ephemeral and, where it is not, to live on by virtue of a kind of bludgeoning and heavy static quality (Paulin, with Hazlitt's backing, charges Samuel Johnson with this kind of tactic, a point which is rather lost as there are no quotations from Johnson in the book). Paulin brings out well the way in which Hazlitt sought to solve this problem of the status of prose. One tactic he employed was to create his writings from a web of quotations, references, and allusions to other writers, something which functions (among other things) as an invitation to make his own work live on in the same way in the work of others. Another was to make the human body a central figure in his style. For the body in its fleshly vulnerability and its transient glory, destined to decay and decompose, shares much in common with prose writing as Hazlitt understands it. Yet it is also, especially in the case of the boxers whom Hazlitt describes in “The Fight,” muscular and strong, tingling and glistening with living, exuberant energy. Further, the boxers' bodies are in a state of constant movement and change. By placing the image of the body at the center of his critical writing, Hazlitt is thus able to write a prose that aims to outlive the moment through an energetic muscularity which recruits the robustness of vernacular English to itself and which delivers its message in blows that, like those of the boxer, help it to achieve a lasting impression.
In reading Hazlitt thus, Paulin helpfully traces Hazlitt's connections with, and place in, the culture of Unitarianism, for which spirit and matter are not opposed to one another but rather form a unity which gives to creation a dynamic, energetic presence. But such a culture is also one of the central inheritors of radical Enlightenment, and Paulin presents Hazlitt as a thinker whose relation to such was fractured: on the one hand, Hazlitt is a fierce defender of liberty; on the other, he was haunted by the figure of Burke, whose writings never freed him from the suspicion that the proponents of Reform had no serious understanding of, and, a fortiori, no place in their thinking for, the imagination and for what Hazlitt called the “irregularities of the human will—the irrational, mysterious side (or basis) of human life.”
It is, however, in this area that Paulin's reading of Hazlitt begins to come unstuck. For there is almost no discussion in the book of the relation between Hazlitt's life and his writings. Yet, like Nietzsche, with whom he has, despite profound differences in political outlook, many similarities, Hazlitt sought—now explicitly, now implicitly—to write himself and the events of his life into his essays. And it is in these events, thus present in various ways in his writings, that the irrational and mysterious side of things comes to the fore in Hazlitt's work. Yet Paulin pays little attention to them. And this is a crucial lack for, in revealing himself as he did in his work, Hazlitt undermined (though no doubt malgré lui) his attempts to make his prose outlive the moment by giving an excuse to the priggish and the moralizers to ignore him. Preeminent among the self-revelations in question is Hazlitt's absurd, aggressive, self-lacerating, and obsessional pursuit of Sarah Walker, his landlady's daughter, whom he met in 1820 and who waited on him in his lodgings. And early on in the book Paulin dismisses the style of Liber Amoris, Hazlitt's quasi-fictional account of the affair, as beneath contempt. He thus relieves himself of the obligation to take it into account in his reading. And this enables him to present a picture of Hazlitt as being more balanced and settled than he in fact was, for in many ways Liber Amoris expresses in all its confusions certain central and enduring traits of Hazlitt the man and the writer.
In fact, throughout his book Paulin reads Hazlitt in a “regularizing” manner: he gives us practically no insight at all into the aggressive, spiteful, mean, stubborn, inflexible, and opinionated side of Hazlitt's nature which existed alongside his generous impulses and which makes reading him so wonderfully bracing. Paulin writes as if Hazlitt were a much pleasanter and milder figure than he was. There is, for example, no mention at all of Hazlitt's wonderful essay “On the Pleasure of Hating,” which is deliciously splenetic, expressing in the most uplifting manner his contempt for the world. Similarly, Hazlitt's doubts about Reform and radical Enlightenment went well beyond anything that could be captured by discussing his uneasy relationship to Burke. For the truth is, as much as Hazlitt stood for liberty, he also (at least in some moods) heartily despised his fellow human beings and wanted to wash his hands of them—a point that comes out in his “Man Is a Toad-Eating Animal,” which is not mentioned by Paulin, where Hazlitt offers some profound reflections of a proto-Nietzschean nature on man's love of servitude and slavery. And it is the failure to address such features of Hazlitt's thinking and experience which means that Paulin seems to feel no pressure to attend to one of the most interesting aspects of Hazlitt's work: his veneration of Napoleon. For as soon as we remember that Napoleon was not simply a champion of liberty—as Hazlitt often likes to present him—but was also happy to squander countless human lives for his own greater glory, then we cannot but be interested in exploring what it was in Hazlitt that led him to such veneration. The place to begin would be just those aggressive aspects of Hazlitt's thinking which Paulin ignores or sidesteps.
Virginia Woolf once remarked that no one could read Hazlitt and “maintain a simple and uncompounded idea of him.” On the evidence of this book, however, Paulin has done more or less just that.
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 essayist, academic, and poet has been described by critics such as Patricia Craig in terms of the ‘social criticism’ of his work. In his review of Fivemiletown (1987), George Watson refers to Paulin as ‘an uncomfortable, spikey poet’, while Kathleen Jamie calls him a ‘liberating critic’ and portrays Paulin as a poetic rebel and critical iconoclast.2 What these and most of Paulin's reviewers share is the idea that, as a Northern Irish poet, he is more politically grounded than his counterpart Paul Muldoon; a characterisation that is held on to by Paulin himself in his critical essays and television appearances. Paulin comments: ‘If you grow up in a society that goes to the edge—the edge of civil war—you are constantly thinking about it. That is, how ideological divisions exist between people.’3
It is therefore not surprising when Elmer Andrews views Paulin as an ‘underground resistance fighter’, a label that has connotations of the Second World War, claiming that
Poetry, for Tom Paulin, is a subversive act, a defiance of a linguistic and literary order designed for the ideological suppression or pacification of potentially rebellious impulses. It is a paradigmatic gesture of spontaneity in an increasingly manipulated world.4
In spite of his posturing as a hardened political poet, in Writing to the Moment (1996) Paulin makes an important distinction about what constitutes political poetry and aligns his poetry closer to the lyric tradition of John Clare than would be expected from the ‘resistance fighter’:
Although the imagination can be strengthened rather than distorted by ideology, my definition of a political poem does not assume that such poems make an ideological statement. Instead they can embody a general historical awareness—an observation of the rain—rather than offering a specific attitude to state affairs.5
Here Paulin redefines what we take to be political by arguing beyond crude Marxist models which suggest that ‘a specific attitude to state affairs’ constitutes a committed political and historical poem.6 Instead, he talks of the poem embodying a ‘general historical awareness’. How then is such a ‘historical awareness’ achieved? What does it mean for the poet to be politically engaged, and what is the relationship between aesthetics and politics in Paulin's poetry?
It is necessary to acknowledge from the start that the position of Paulin as a poet is not always the same as his role as a critical essayist. An example of this is found in Writing to the Moment, where Paulin clearly states his position in the theory wars of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Melodramatically, he expresses contempt for a new generation of critics who, in his opinion, possess a ‘bizarre critical vocabulary’ and take everyone ‘for a ride’. He attacks the theorist who takes ‘literary texts apart’, explaining ‘their contradictions, those abysses of meaning’ into which the theorists ‘are forever receding’.7 However, in spite of his professed allergy to theory, Paulin's recent poetry confronts these ‘abysses of meaning’ as he tests the medium within which he works. Although he rigorously denies the value of contemporary critical theory, Walking a Line comes closer to avant-garde art theory than the Enlightenment ideology of a secular republic that drives Writing to the Moment.Walking a Line does not provide readers with an expression of the politics of Enlightened Dissent that are celebrated in Paulin's essays. Instead the poetry offers a more doubtful vision to question authenticity, and this results in a critical historical consciousness that is far from self-affirming.
It is important to notice how there is a tension within the poetry between a rational epistemology and irrational and sensual representations of the world. Rather than continue the characterisation of Paulin as straight-talking political activist and rebel, a more fruitful aspect of Elmer Andrews's argument is found when he observes how Paulin's poetry ‘operates in the danger zones of margins and boundaries … where it may be he can release new energies from the dead hand of history and state power … searching the gaps in discourse, the blanks and holes and silence’.8 Elsewhere, Andrews comments that ‘the best contemporary Irish poetry is a poetry on the edge’, and he applauds Paulin's poetry, from before Walking a Line, for constantly throwing us off balance.9 For Andrews, Paulin's position is as the poet pacing the precipice. As Andrews notices: ‘To jump is to liberate the self from the rigid structures by which consciousness is determined, to escape from a constricting environment. Paulin enacts this “jump” in the structures of his poetry.’10 Paulin's notion of the ‘dangerous edge of things’ also recalls Robert Browning's ‘Bishop Blougram's Apology’:
Our interest's on the dangerous edge of things. The honest thief, the tender murderer, The superstitious atheist, demirep That loves and saves her soul in new French books— We watch while these in equilibrium keep The giddy line midway: one step aside, They're classed and done with. I, then, keep the line Before your sages,—(11)
How far, then, does Walking a Line risk falling off the line, blurring the boundaries between opposites, in an attempt to escape from all that is constricting? How may this be connected with Romantic and avant-garde explorations of the sublime, and what kind of politics does this provide?
Walking a Line remembers the avant-garde artist Paul Klee, whose painting and writing confronts the sublime or the ‘dangerous edge of things’, in a paradoxical effort to make visible the invisible or that which evades representation. Attracted to the whimsical figure of Klee, who wrote and lectured on art theory, Paulin cannot remain in a refuge away from contemporary critical and aesthetic theory in his poetry. While exploring aesthetics alongside the work of an avant-garde artist, it is less possible for Paulin's poetry to establish a firm foundation of belief, with the effect that Walking a Line offers little stable knowledge of the world.
The voice of Klee in ‘A Last Gesture’ says: ‘yes in war you improvise’ (p. 78). Later in the poem he comments: ‘I'm out on a drift / I'm losing the thread’ (p. 79). The speaker in ‘UNK’ asks: ‘aren't I a brisk confident kind of male person?’ He adds more doubtfully, in the face of the ‘sign system they call Gurmukhi’:
but this is my big chance to observe a state of total ignorance —all that I'll never never know and the little that I will
The poetic voice speaks from ‘this tiny world / a world that doesn't add up’. The poem acknowledges an Eastern alterity, alluded to in the hieroglyphic title, that threatens the subject's sense of self; his ability to auffassen, to grasp or know the world:
walking down towards the bridge
not the dream of becoming nor the dream of belonging but the dream of Being
The poem calls less for a sense of the future or a sense of place by which to attain a particular identity. Instead the poetic voice desires ‘Being’ or the experience of subjectivity in the present tense. The speaker lies ‘on a string bed’ and listens ‘to the nothing that is not there / and the nothing that is’. Toying with questions of Being, presence, and absence, the poem offers no foundational philosophy. This leads to an art form that is experimental.
The title of Walking a Line connects with the notion of the artist or writer ‘taking a line out for a walk’.12 The linguistic line, like the line of the artist's brush, may be taken out for a walk which the audience follow doggedly—the lead is held by the artist and viewers trail behind. The lines of language and the artist's line are evocative of the limits of language and the containment of colour. For Klee, the ‘line is the most limited dimension of art being solely a matter of measurement’.13 Klee imagines being trapped or ‘limited’ by the lines. While evocative of territorial, linguistic, and ideological lines, Walking a Line suggests a playful art which is whimsical, fantastic, capricious, or irrational. The poems hint at the experimental nature of art rather than at a specifically political agenda to be followed by the artist; they look to an art that is Romantic rather than enlightened, irrational rather than rational, and sensual rather than sensible.
The artwork of Klee, on which Paulin draws, attempts to tap into a nonsensical beyond. As the art critic Robert Fisher argues:
Paul Klee consumed himself with a passion for communicating the incomprehensible. He sought to take the viewer beyond the concepts of language, beyond the idea that the real world is what we see, and to remind those who looked at his works that life is full of mysteries … His mission, he preached constantly, was to make visible that which is invisible.14
Klee's defamiliarising art pays attention to something other that cannot be easily articulated. His allusions to that which is not amenable to representation, the activity of making visible (das Sichtbarmachen) an artistic in-between world (eine Zwischenwelt), indicate a frontier of delirium or frenzy, where the primal or pre-signifying haunts the edges of representation, and nonsense underlies sense.
Klee noted in his diary on New Year's Eve 1909: ‘Mit morgensterns Galgenliedern sei das Jahr  beschlossen.’15 The German poet Christian Morgenstern wrote Galgenlieder (Whistles in the Dark) in 1905, and his nonsensical verse was prefaced with the following:
Laβ die Moleküte rasen was sie auch zusammen knobeln! Laβ das Tüfleln, laβ das Holbeln, heilig halte die Ekstasen.(16)
Morgenstern created doodles and used them as vignettes between his poems to validate personal visions and dreams; he looked to an unconscious or delirious side of art. Morgenstern's text is covered in hieroglyphs and squiggles of the kind that appear in Klee's art and Paulin's poem ‘UNK’ from Walking a Line. As E. H. Gombrich notices in a discussion of the work of Paul Klee in relation to Morgenstern, ‘They are the dreams which arise when the controls are relaxed and ecstasy wins over fussing and correcting. But they are more than dreams, they are intimations of a possible reality.’17 That is, a reality that is at the beyond of discursive strategies or at a nonsensical limit which is alluded to by Morgenstern's ecstatic doodling.
Klee celebrates the simplicity of the artistic line: ‘let us content ourselves with the most primitive of elements, the line. At the dawn of civilization, when writing and drawing were the same thing, it was the basic element.’18 Taking a line for a walk is evocative of drawing letters or tracing the squiggle of a hieroglyph. Klee looks to an ancient hieroglyphic writing where the visual image of writing conveyed as much meaning as the sound of a word. Hieroglyphics are unusual since due to their mimetic qualities they present an example where word and meaning are one to provide a more spontaneous way of seeing and saying. It is impossible to wholly decipher their meaning at a linguistic level since their function is pictorial rather than linguistic. They may be seen but not heard. Hieroglyphic representation relies on the visual rather than the audible, and there remains an excess that cannot be translated. Like Klee's art, Paulin's collection contains within it hieroglyphic lines. According to Maurice Blanchot, ‘such a script is “writing outside of language”’.19
Ernest Fenollosa's unfinished essay on the Chinese written character and poetry celebrates Chinese for offering a more visual sign system or language, and this can be compared with the hieroglyph. The Imagism of Pound and the fascist politics of the Second World War have a ghostly presence in Walking a Line. In ‘The Ivy Restaurant’ where Ford Madox Ford once had a ‘literary lunch’, the speaker dines on the sickening influence of ‘les Imagistes’ which may be enough ‘to make you squirm’. The early modernist context of Imagism was concerned with making language more vivid. Fenollosa argues:
One superiority of verbal poetry as an art rests in its getting back to the fundamental reality of time. Chinese poetry has the unique advantage of combining both elements. It speaks at once with the vividness of painting, and with the mobility of sounds.20
Fenollosa comments on the ability of the Chinese character to offer a more immediate representation that is both visual and linguistic, whereby word and image appeal to the senses of both sight and sound. This ‘brings language close to things’ and provides impetus for the notion of a more ‘concrete poetry’.21 A ‘vivid shorthand’ of ‘pictures of actions and processes in nature’, the Chinese character provides us with a ‘process of metaphor’ that alludes to both the ‘seen’ and the ‘unseen’, by using ‘material images to suggest immaterial relations’. Without metaphor, there would be no bridge to cross ‘from the minor truth of the seen to the major truth of the unseen’. Metaphor, as the ‘chief device’ of the Chinese character and the hieroglyph, ‘is at once the substance of nature and of language. Poetry only does consciously what the primitive races did unconsciously’:22
Our ancestors built the accumulations of metaphor into structures of language and into systems of thought. Languages today are thin and cold because we think less and less into them. We are forced, for the sake of quickness and sharpness, to file down each word to its narrowest edge of meaning. Nature would seem to have become less like a paradise and more like a factory. We are content to accept the vulgar misuse of the moment.23
Fenollosa views the Western script as removed from nature and the present moment, as it neglects metaphor and the visual aspect of representation. For him, poetry brings the visual and metaphorical back into representation so that ‘the moment’ is no longer misused.
After his visit to Tunisia, Klee drew on the Eastern hieroglyph in his painting Arab Song, which is illustrated on the cover of Walking a Line.24 Here, the vocal fabric of song, the letters in the painting, and the title of the poem are incorporated into the visual representation of the picture. Poems and books are often written or drawn into Klee's paintings, and the inverse of this is at work when Paulin's poems refer to Klee's paintings and draw on the visual representation of the hieroglyph. Paulin's use of the hieroglyph takes us back to Fenollosa's argument regarding the Chinese character, as he describes how these letters spoke with the vividness of painting.25 The art critic Rainer Crone notes: ‘By letting the book be materialised as painting, and by submitting the painting to the textuality of the book, Klee blurs the boundaries between categories of cultural representation: image and word, nature and culture, thing and representation.’26 The blurring of boundaries creates a space between text and image that cannot be translated. This gap between the visual and the audible represents a slippage in our powers of perception.
In Paul Klee: Legends of the Sign Rainer Crone and Joseph Leo Koerner slip out of their field of art theory into the linguistic theories of Ferdinand de Saussure, arguing that there is a tension in Klee's work between the impossible desire of the iconic for the linguistic sign.27 In a comparable way, drawing on Klee's art, Paulin's poetry creates a tension from the impossible desire of the linguistic for the iconic. He also uses hieroglyphics in his poetry to create a tension between the vocal and the iconic, signifier and signified. Crone says of Klee's hieroglyphic paintings: ‘words and images do not cohere: they cancel one another out in a way that we may never truly fathom’.28 In Walking a Line, Paulin's use of the hieroglyph as a title for one his poems presents a comparable lack of coherence between the vocal and visual.
Arab Song is a picture in which a Middle Eastern face and mouth are composed from thin lines enclosed by borderlines; woven into these borders are hieroglyphic symbols: it is a ‘song’ without words. Paulin teases us with Klee's portrait of the human figure enclosed by lines where the boundaries and edges existing in the picture combine with the meaningful yet meaningless hieroglyphic text that is woven into the picture. The title, Arab Song, exposes the gap between East and West, and the vocal and visual. Confronted with Paulin's title page, the reader perceives the artistic lines of Klee's picture. S/he turns the page and reads the poetic lines of the collection, where the lines of each letter and the combinations of words are strung together like Paulin's hieroglyphics hung on a line which is imagined in his poem ‘UNK’ (p. 25). In Klee's art and Paulin's poetry images and words are put together to play on our perception of things in order to change the way we see. Klee writes: ‘In its present shape it is not the only possible world.’29 Drawing on the hieroglyph, Klee and Paulin explore the ‘existentially not quite placeable’, a subliminal or sublime borderland at the limits of perception, to problematise representation and translation.30
The poem ‘What's Natural’ from Walking a Line moves from a territorial concern with the Partition that is expressed in ‘Line on the Grass’ (Strange Museum, 1980), to play with the different meanings of walking a line at the edge of communication, abstraction, and desire:
Taking a line out for a walk ought to seem—well second nature like the way you laugh or talk —though both speech and laughter have to be learned inside a culture
The opening of the poem appears to be frank and straightforward, yet the line break between ‘walk’ and ‘ought’, and the disruption of the dash suggest discontinuity and artificiality—the lines do not flow. Just as ‘you laugh or talk’ the line is ‘learned / inside a culture’. Klee's artworks might seem spontaneous but, as indicated in his notebooks, they are painstaking, part of the modernist culture in which he paints, and related to the theories and lectures that were presented to his students at the Bauhaus. Artistic and poetic lines are learned; they are a craft or skill. The speaker turns to the example of the artist or draftsman whose pencil line takes a lead or direction of its own yet is held on a lead of culture like an animal that must be tamed.
The speaker imagines ‘somewhere between a pun / and a tautology’. The pun and tautology are opposed: a pun works by playing on a word's different meanings, whereas a tautology works by using different words for the same meaning or idea. To be ‘between’ them is to fall into a slippage of meaning, or between the lines, creating an aporia, that which cannot be conceived, the incoherent or nonsense. Existing between the lines connects with psychoanalytic theories of the subliminal, and the notion of reading in the gaps and the silences. Klee's artistic exploration of the sublime imagined representing the unrepresentable, that which is on the edge or at the borders of conception. The sublime takes place in the unconscious or at the subliminal limits of the self. The poetry, like Klee's artwork, seeks to go to the ‘dangerous edge of things’. But what lies at this edge of delirium?
In Paulin's poem, the sun setting over the horizon (as in Klee's Tunisian paintings) goes down and interrupts the black line of the horizon with its dazzling colour. The word ‘yolky’ imagines the sun as an egg with associations of fertility, life-giving warmth, and creation. In ‘A Last Gesture’ (p. 77), ‘yolky’ is associated with vaginal fluids and sexual intercourse. The words ‘splittery splattery’ signal a disruption in the discourse of the poem since they are not ‘real’ or standardised words, and they suggest an alternative language. This is a language associated with yolky feminine fluids, with the female body and the sensual. The yolky feminine sun disrupts the line that is held on the lead of a certain culture with the promise of ‘dawn’ (coming from the East) or a fresher perception centred around images of bodily functions.31
The ‘wheeze and piss / of dawn’ suggests a fleshy or even asthmatic dawn that puffs and blows as it gets up in the morning. These words are comparable with ‘splittery’ and ‘splattery’ as they smudge the clarity of the visual picture of the poem suggesting a ‘vagueness’ which deviates from the accuracy of the line. There is a sense of boundaries breaking down and seeping over in the poem. The sun ‘chuck[s] itself’ unceremoniously over the horizon, intruding on the carefully measured line. The form of the poem is not end-stopped or full-stopped, and there is a sense of the line not halting but continuing, running away with itself lead-less, or of meaning running beyond the poem. The poem reads as a sentence that does not stop, leading into a dawn which is signalled at the ‘end’ of the poem with the effect of attempting to acknowledge a beyond of discourse.
Paulin's poem ‘Almost There’ (p. 21) also imagines a blurred edge where he attempts to chart a frontier between sense and nonsense, rational and irrational realms, vocalising the beyond in poetry or getting to something which is difficult to articulate. Writing it out a ‘couple more times’ might have meant the speaker had ‘cracked the thing’ instead: ‘there's a kind of glitch in what you're saying’. The poem presents us with images of the crack as a thin line splitting a surface, fracturing something or creating a gap in between, a moment of délire (as in ‘delirium’ and ‘unreading’), along which the poet treads in Walking a Line.32 The crack in poetic language is accompanied by the word ‘glitch’—‘a sudden irregularity or malfunction (of equipment)’.33 At this point in the poem, the line breaks off giving a sense of speech being fractured by ‘the speechjolt’ which is associated with movement or ‘travelling through darkness and moisture’, as a fluid excess. Once more, this kind of image creates a sense of the inarticulable, while ‘darkness and moisture’ evoke a ‘feminine’, dark and moist realm; both a lack and an excess that evades definition.
The effects of ‘What's Natural’ and ‘Almost There’ are informed by Romantic discussion of the sublime in Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason and Critique of Judgement.34 The sublime is described by Jean-François Lyotard:
the faculty of presentation, the imagination, fails to provide a representation corresponding to the Idea. This failure of expression gives rise to a pain, a kind of cleavage within the Subject between what can be conceived and what can be imagined or presented … This dislocation of faculties among themselves gives rise to an extreme tension … At the edge of the break, infinity, or the absoluteness of the Idea can be revealed in what Kant calls a negative presentation, or even a non-presentation.35
Such a ‘cleavage’ corresponds with Paulin's ‘glitch’, where there is a ‘dislocation of faculties among themselves’ giving ‘rise to an extreme tension’ ‘between what can be conceived and what can be imagined or presented’.
The art critic Herbert Read comments that Klee's ‘conceptual imagination is capable of creating new worlds, or organic variations of the existing world. But these concepts can only be expressed in the concrete terms of line … he was inspired by conceptual rather than perceptual processes.’36 Like Klee's paintings, Paulin's poem ‘That's It’ plays with both conceptual and perceptual processes. The poem begins with a scene composed of light, line, and clarity, yet the indefinable and ambivalent quickly seep into the poem as it repeats the word ‘maybe’:
Maybe because the light's so marine clear in this new room —this unexpected studio maybe that's why the chest of drawers placed in the dormer window has to be stated like a proposition
The ‘studio’ or home of the artist is presented alongside a concern with the pictorial, and the poem is like a painting or photograph in which the poetic speaker finds himself.37 The scene is set with a ‘man lying on a mattress’ regarding a ‘chest of drawers’ like ‘a big bold drawing / that overpowers and oppresses him’. The chest of drawers placed in front of light from a window would exist as a silhouette, heavily outlined in black. The subject is objectified, sitting in the space between reality and dream or in a situation where the objects challenge the subject's sense of self so that ‘the chest is neither one thing nor the other / for it belongs no more than he does’. The stripped pine chest of drawers ‘dipped in an acid bath’ constitutes the furnishings of a middle-class home and compares with the ‘middleclass’ ‘novel’ that ‘tries to make a bit of a splash’ (p. 105). The man dips into it like the novel yet feels unhomely within the proximity of this ‘prose garment’ or ‘social skin’.
In the second stanza the chest is transformed, losing any sense of reality. In the mode of a philosophy lecturer, the speaker asks: ‘—supposing I treat that chest as a novel / as a complete fiction?’ Comparably, Klee writes:
the artist must be forgiven if he regards the present state of outward appearances in his own particular world as accidentally fixed in time and space. And as altogether inadequate compared with his penetrating vision and intense depth of feeling.38
Klee sees the world as accidentally fixed in time and space. ‘Outward appearances’ are imagined as inadequate when set against his vision. In his diaries Klee comments: ‘My human faces are truer than the real ones.’39 The world of ‘outward appearances’ is, in Paulin's words, a ‘complete fiction’, a place of myth rather than a ‘real’ time or ‘jetzt-Zeit’.40 In ‘That's It’, the book or fictional world come into the picture when the chest of drawers is compared with a novel. As in Klee's art, the speaker takes an imaginative leap when he treats the chest before him as a fiction. As with the novel, this fiction is still contained within ‘its social space’ and prose retains a ‘social skin’. In the poem there is no outside space that is free from a fictional history, yet there is a Zwischenwelt at the borders of perception and representation that questions the speaker's reality, and his grip on the temporal and the spatial.
According to the logic of the speaker's questions:
all of which says only that though I may be lying on a mattress really I'm afloat on a pool of light and illusion yes light and yes illusion.
The word ‘pool’ suggests liquidity, fluidity, a state of being indeterminate rather than solid. The word ‘pool’ can also mean to establish a common fund where there are no categories or boundaries, as borders are transgressed. Illusion is associated with delusion, a deceptive impression on the senses, or with nonsense. The word ‘afloat’ suggests moving above, becoming adrift, to bear upon a surface or glide effortlessly above the brim.41 In Paulin's poem, light is a cause of visibility or dawn; it is associated with moral, spiritual, and intellectual knowledge or revelation on the dangerous edge of things.
In his notebooks Klee writes:
Within the will to abstraction something appears that has nothing to do with objective reality. Free association supplies a key to the fantasy and formal significance of the picture. Yet, this world of illusion is credible. It is situated in the realm of the human. Memory, digested experience, yields pictorial associations. What is new here is the way the real and the abstract coincide or appear together.42
In ‘That's It’ a similar effect is at work when the day-dreaming speaker floats off into an imaginative realm of ‘memory’ that ‘yields pictorial associations’ or a ‘world of illusion’, forcing ‘the real and the abstract’ to ‘coincide or appear together’. Playing with the visionary, the poem takes an imaginative leap beyond the social space, and beyond the functional and ‘middleclass’ prose evoked by the choice of furniture in the room and presented in the novel. Due to this, the poetic speaker experiences lightness or weightlessness; he is not heavy or entirely grounded by an ideological reality. Instead, he takes flight into a world of illusion, a delirious space where the ‘light's so marine clear’ and he becomes somehow more in touch with the reality of the moment. The inscription on Klee's grave in the Schosshalden cemetery would be a pertinent epigraph for the man lying on the bed in ‘That's It’:
I CANNOT BE GRASPED IN THE HERE AND NOW FOR I LIVE JUST AS WELL WITH THE DEAD AS WITH THE UNBORN SOMEWHAT CLOSER TO THE HEART OF CREATION THAN USUAL BUT FAR FROM CLOSE ENOUGH
Concerned with seeing things afresh and attaining a critical awareness of the historical moment, Klee claims that ‘Art does not reproduce the visible—it makes visible.’43 In Paulin's poem ‘The Sting,’ the male figure is stung in the eye by a wasp only to see:
too crystal clear— that something has broken through the riotshield that jigs between self and reality
The washed vision of ‘That's It’ fulfils its revelatory title and reports a preoccupation with seeing things through the eyes of ‘—a man in the process of deciding / that he's begun to make old bones’. This is comparable with Seamus Heaney's Seeing Things (1991), written three years earlier, where he waited until he was nearly 50 to ‘credit marvels’ and to see that: ‘The stone's alive with what's invisible’.44 As Heaney and Paulin move from the ground of Irish politics towards a concern with the visionary, the existential, and the ‘zig-zag hieroglyph for life itself’, their drifting away from the Troubles does not mean that their poetry becomes apolitical.45 Paulin's journey into less obviously political realms still has a politics that changes the way in which his positioning as an ‘underground resistance fighter’ can be understood.
Lyotard's work on avant-garde artists celebrates the characteristic of questioning ideological reality in Cézanne, Picasso, Delaunay, Kandinsky, and Klee, who put the Enlightenment assumptions implicit in modernity under some pressure.46 It is significant that Paulin and Klee are artists who lived in a context of war. Paulin co-founded the Field Day Theatre Company with other artists who hoped to establish a more positive identity and culture, for themselves and the society in which they worked. Klee was part of the Bauhaus in Weimar, which was broken up by the Nazis. He wrote: ‘The more fearful this world becomes, the more abstract its art’.47 Klee painted imaginative and colourful pieces at a time of war and within a context where he felt that these were ‘unsettled times’ which had ‘brought chaos and confusion’.48 For Klee, the more the world was dictated by fearful politics, the more he sought to remove his art from this reality into something unrecognisable. Comparably, in the final poem of Walking a Line, Paulin's speaker sees things differently, moving beyond preoccupations with the Irish landscape, the ‘Line on the Grass’, or the ideological realities in the North of Ireland.
Deflecting from a context of war is not particular only to Paulin. Contemporary poets from various communities in the North of Ireland, including Paul Muldoon and Medbh McGuckian, have in their different ways produced poetry which still deals with the devastation of war, but less overtly. The epigraph to McGuckian's Captain Lavender (1994) is from Picasso's statement in 1944: ‘I have not painted the war … But I have no doubt that the war is in … These paintings I have done.’ The critical speaker in Muldoon's poem ‘Lunch with Pancho Villa’ (1977) satirically questions the relevance of writing about ‘stars and horses, pigs and trees’ when ‘around you. / People are getting themselves killed / Left, right and centre / While you do what? Write rondeaux?’49
Without forgetting Edna Longley's urge to see poets from the north of Ireland as individuals with differing politics and poetic practices, what these poets hold in common is their creation of an artistic world that is less preoccupied with the carnage of sectarian violence, and attempts to view an alternative reality, or a different way of seeing things, to provide the impetus for a better present.50 Paulin's later poetry holds within it the seeds of a subtle aesthetic practice which can be connected with the work of Klee as is discussed by Lyotard: ‘Art does not imitate nature, it creates a world apart, eine Zwischenwelt, as Paul Klee will say, eine Nebenwelt’.51 Lyotard compares Romantic notions of the sublime with the avant-garde and Paul Klee's notion of eine Zwischenwelt (a universe between) and eine Nebenwelt (a universe apart), both of which are abstractions that appear more ‘real’ than the phoney politics of the day.
Fighting against the odds and in acts of self-preservation, Klee and Paulin choose to turn away from the images of destruction around them. Both artists become exiles from what in ‘UNK’ Paulin calls ‘a world that doesn't add up’ (p. 29) where
all we can do is try to avoid the heavy the hard and the poisonous winds those who try to confront them are doomed to disappointment
(‘On the Windfarm’, pp. 50-1)
Avoiding the ‘poisonous winds’ or the destructive storms of political violence, the artists attempt to nurture their art in a more sheltered realm, or Nebenwelt, a utopian space where their work will not wither.
Although Walking a Line signals a move away from the overtly political issues of Liberty Tree (1983) and Fivemiletown (1987), this does not mean that the poetry necessarily becomes apolitical or inhabits a transcendent and vacuous utopianism with little bearing on reality. Paulin's man in ‘That's It’ has the capacity to metamorphose reality and his place in the world. The poem charts the revelation that language can transform, breaking across conceptual frontiers. ‘That's It’ is positioned at the limits of foundational philosophy as the speaker floats as though seated upon a magic carpet in a pool of light and illusion. The poem offers us an act of imaginative transgression that questions the very foundations of representation, and this has political repercussions.
Walking a Line denies the neat divisions drawn up between poetry and politics, the lyrical poet and the politically engaged poet. Of course, the relationship between aesthetics and politics may be uneasy or uncomfortable. Yet, it is important to remember how both politics and history have also been aestheticised. This is nowhere more prevalent than within the political history of Nazi Germany, which troubles Walking a Line and is found particularly in the poem ‘Hegel and the War Criminals’ (p. 42). Paulin's move into the aesthetic world of Paul Klee is haunted by a history of imperial Germany and the Bauhaus group who were murdered by the Nazis. This is a reminder of how fascism acknowledged that artistic representation is a powerful political tool, and sought to censor certain artists whose work challenged fascist politics. Paulin's use of Klee bears testimony to the view that politics and art are entwined, and that the artist is a social being. Although both Klee and Paulin take a critical stance away from received ideologies to provide different visions of reality, neither is cut off from the world.
An example of this is found at the very beginning of Walking a Line in the first poem, entitled ‘Klee/Clover’. ‘Nightwatch after nightwatch / Paul Klee endured “horribly boring guard duty”’ as an infantry reservist at the Recruits’ Depot in 1916.52 Here, he ‘varnished wings / and stencilled numbers / next to gothic insignia’ on the airplanes of German pilots during the First World War. The artist was used to produce works of art in accordance with the laws of the state:
and every morning outside the Zeppelin hanger there was a drill then a speech tacked with junk formulas
In the midst of the ‘Flying School 5 (Bavaria)’, Klee ‘wrote home to Lily’, his wife, and protectively disregards the information presented to readers in the first stanza. Instead, he writes mostly of the ‘spring weather’ and the garden that he tends on the airfield.
Klee takes a subversive role in relation to the received ideologies of war, and remains distanced from his prescribed place in a grey uniform at Landshut. The poem remembers how, in the midst of war, Klee created artwork from the canvas of crashed airplanes and made the airfield at Landshut ‘beautiful’ by planting a ‘garden / between the second and third runways’. The painter is imagined taking a step away from the violent politics of the state as he chooses to go about his own business:
each time a plane crashed —and that happened quite often he cut squares of canvas from the wings and fuselage he never said why but every smashed biplane looked daft or ridiculous halfjoky and untrue —maybe the pilots annoyed him? Those unlovely aristos who never knew they were flying primed blank canvases into his beautiful airfield
The poem plays with ways of seeing and with notions of authenticity. The world of the pilots is ‘ridiculous’ and ‘untrue’, and as jingoistic as the ‘drill speech’ each day. The aristocratic pilots are unaware of the ‘lippy dislike’ of Klee, the ‘first-class’ ‘private’ who, in his marginalised place as reluctant soldier, continues his role as artist and refuses to swallow the dogmas of war.53 During his time at Landshut, Klee did not avoid the overtly political and disappear into an aesthetic realm all his own. Rather, in his refusal to allow the war to overcome his way of seeing the world, he took a sceptical and critical stance apart from the politics of the war around him.
While outlining the art theory of Paul Klee as he is drawn upon by a writer from the North of Ireland, who has lived through a history of civil war and partition, it is difficult to ignore how Paulin's obsession with different kinds of lines and edges has a political dimension as he explores ways of seeing and how we choose to represent. Questioning the way things are represented at an aesthetic level implicitly challenges how we see and represent at a political level. The poet who paces the borders of aesthetic and political representation has the effect of defamiliarising the ‘real’, what we take to be true and how we represent ourselves to ourselves. Reading the outspoken essays in Writing to the Moment or sitting through his disaffection on BBC2's Newsnight Review, it would be impossible to declare that Paulin the critic has no firm position. However, unlike his critical essays, Paulin's poetry refuses stable ground. Inspired by the attractive figure of Klee, Paulin the poet seeks to open up conceptual and perceptual spaces, experimenting with the way we see and choose to represent, to question the politics of representation and the representation of politics. The destabilising and edgy aspects of his poetry have the effect of changing what we take to be political, and challenging the shaky line that has been drawn between an aesthetics of privacy and a public politics.54 Deliriously pacing the border between aesthetics and politics, Walking a Line is as near as Paulin has ever got to challenging the nets of language and nationality.
Tom Paulin, lecture entitled ‘Twentieth-Century Poetry’, Tuesday, 26 Nov. 1996 at Rutherford College, University of Kent at Canterbury; recorded and held at the Templeman Library. See Sarah Fulford, an interview with Tom Paulin, Tuesday, 26 Nov. 1996 at Eliot College, UKC, pub. as ‘The Strangeness of the Script’, Irish Studies Review, 19 (1996) pp. 2-5.
Patricia Craig, ‘History and its Retrieval in Contemporary Northern Irish Poetry: Paulin, Montague and Others’, in Elmer Andrews (ed.), Contemporary Irish Poetry: A Collection of Critical Essays (London 1992) pp. 1-25; George Watson, ‘An Uncomfortable, Spikey Poet’, Irish Literary Supplement, 7/2 (Autumn 1988); Kathleen Jamie, ‘Reggae and the Crack: Writing to the Moment’, Independent, 24 Nov. 1996, ‘Sunday Review’.
Paulin, ‘Twentieth-Century Poetry’.
Elmer Andrews, ‘Tom Paulin: Underground Resistance Fighter’, in Michael Kenneally (ed.), Poetry in Contemporary Irish Literature (Gerrards Cross 1995) p. 334.
Paulin, Writing to the Moment (London 1996) pp. 104-5.
See Theodor Adorno, ‘Commitment’, in Aesthetics and Politics, trans. Francis MacDonagh, ed. R. Livingstone, P. Anderson, and F. Mulhern (London 1977) pp. 177-95; 1st pub. in Noten zur Literatur, 3 (Frankfurt 1965). Adorno's essay can be read as a critique of Jean-Paul Sartre's position in ‘Writing, Reading, and the Public’, in What is Literature?, trans. B. Frechtman (London 1967) pp. 12-15, 49-60; 1st pub. in Les Temps modernes (1948). These essays provide a useful way into understanding how the relation between aesthetics and politics has been explored in a critical context.
Paulin, Writing to the Moment, pp. 279, 277.
Andrews, ‘Tom Paulin’, p. 338.
Elmer Andrews, introduction to id. (ed.), Contemporary Irish Poetry: A Collection of Critical Essays (London 1992) p. 21.
Andrews, ‘Tom Paulin’, p. 339.
‘Bishop Blougram's Apology’, in Poets of the English Language, v: Tennyson to Yeats, ed. W. H. Auden and Norman Holmes Pearson (London n.d) p. 173.
Paulin, ‘Twentieth-Century Poetry’.
Klee, On Modern Art, introd. Herbert Read (London n.d.) p. 21.
Fisher, Introduction to Theodore Reff ed., Klee, trans. Robert Fisher (New York 1967) p. 3.
Paul Klee, Tagebüche, ed. Felix Klee (Cologne 1957). My translation: ‘With Morgenstern's Galgenlieder let the year be ended.’
Christian Morgenstern, Galgenlieder, Palmstrom (Berlin 1905). My translation: ‘Let the molecules career / leave them to their own confections / Never fuss about corrections / Ecstasies thou shalt revere.’
E. H. Gombrich, ‘Image and Word in Twentieth-Century Art’, Word and Image, 1/3 (July-Sept. 1985) p. 230.
Rainer Crone and Joseph Leo Koerner, Paul Klee: Legends of the Sign (New York 1991) p. 65.
Maurice Blanchot, ‘The Absence of the Book’, in L'Entretien infini (1969), in The Gaze of Orpheus and Other Essays, trans. Lydia David (Barrytown NY 1981) pp. 146, 103. Cf. Crone ad Koerner, Paul Klee, p. 65.
Ernest Fenollosa, The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, ed. Ezra Pound (California 1936) p. 9.
Ibid., p. 13.
Ibid., pp. 22-3.
Ibid., p. 24.
Arab Song (1932), from the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC; on the cover of Walking a Line (London 1994). All further references are to this edition and are cited in parentheses in the text.
The Chinese Written Character, p. 9.
Crone and Koerner, Paul Klee, p. x.
See Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, trans. Wade Baskin (New York 1966).
Crone and Koerner, Paul Klee, p. 38.
On Modern Art, p. 45.
Paulin, ‘Twentieth-Century Poetry’.
Examples of representations of the East as sensual and replete with bodily metaphors are found in European representations such as E. M. Forster's A Passage to India and in literature in English by Indian writers such as Amit Chaudhuri in his novel A Strange and Sublime Address (London 1991). Chaudhuri wrote his Ph.D. on D. H. Lawrence and the body while at Balliol College, Oxford, where he was under Paulin's supervision.
See Jean-Jacques Lecercle, Philosophy through the Looking Glass: Language, Nonsense, Desire, Problems of Modern European Thought (Essex 1985).
The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, 9th edn., ed. Della Thompson (Oxford 1995) p. 576.
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith (London 1929), and Critique of Judgement, trans. J. C. Meredith (Oxford 1952).
Jean-François Lyotard, ‘The Sublime and the Avant-Garde’, in Postmodernism: A Reader, ed. Thomas Docherty (London 1993) p. 250.
In Klee, On Modern Art, p. 5.
The scene of the poem is comparable with photographs of Klee's studio, bathed in light. In particular, the ponderous mood of the poem is evocative of photographs of Klee sitting alone in his studio just before his death. See ‘Paul Klee in his Studio in Bern, 1940’, in The Diaries of Paul Klee 1898-1918, ed. and introd. Felix Klee (Berkeley, Calif. 1964) pp. 42-3.
On Modern Art, p. 47.
Diaries, p. 48.
See Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (London 1970).
See Seamus Heaney, ‘Above the Brim: On Robert Frost’, Salmagundi, 88-9 (Autumn 1990-Autumn 1991) p. 283: this essay was left out of Heaney's The Redress of Poetry (London 1995).
Paul Klee, Notebooks, vol. i (London 1973) pp. 261-2.
Heaney, Seeing Things (London 1991): see ‘Fosterling’ (p. 50) and ‘Seeing Things, II’ (p. 17).
‘Seeing Things, II’.
Lyotard, ‘Note on the Meaning of “Post-”’, in Postmodernism, ed. Docherty, pp. 48, 50.
Klee, in Reff (ed.), Klee, p. 9.
Klee, On Modern Art, p. 53.
Medbh McGuckian, Captain Lavender (Loughcrew 1994); Paul Muldoon, ‘Lunch with Pancho Villa’, Mules (1977), repr. in New Selected Poems, 1968-1994 (London 1996) pp. 25-7.
See Edna Longley, ‘Stars and Horses, Pigs and Trees’, Crane Bag, 3/2 (1979) pp. 54-60.
Lyotard, ‘The Sublime and the Avant-Garde’, Discours, figure (Paris 1971) p. 249.
See Klee, ‘Landshut 1916’, in Diaries, p. 327. See also the photograph ‘Paul Klee, Landshut, 1916’, ibid., pp. 42-3.
Ibid., pp. 42-3. See p. 411 for a description of Klee that corresponds closely with the phrasing of the poem.
See Clair Wills, ‘Enlightening the Tribe’, in Improprieties: Politics and Sexuality in Northern Irish Poetry (Oxford 1993) p. 122. Wills's essay covers poetry from before the publication of Walking a Line.
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 book too ambivalent, or rather multivalent, to speak to that experience; those removed from it by a further generation will shrug and ask what all the fuss is about. To them, the names Arnhem, Monte Cassino or El Alamein have no more special resonance than, say, Alma, Sebastopol or Inkerman. They can look to the future with the luxury of amnesia.
But to those of us with intimate proxy knowledge of the Second World War—raised on remembrances of bombing and privation, on comic-book Tommies and Where Eagles Dare—this speaks most directly, because it gives proper form to the centrality of the war. It makes what Paulin calls “a looseleaf epic” of it. Yet this is no modern Iliad. It doesn't set out to mythologise its subject; quite the opposite. By starting with the 1919 Treaty of Versailles—the festering casus belli of a humiliated German nation—it takes the long, disinterested view, rooting the war in its historical antecedents. Indeed, this is only the first in a projected multi-volume work, and comes to a close with the Blitz. Most of the military action remains to be covered.
Paulin's approach, broadly, is to take historical events and imagine them from the inside; he peels those familiar newsreel images of, say, Neville Chamberlain proclaiming peace in our time, off the celluloid and reanimates them with his characteristically sharp wit. Or he wanders behind the scenes of a major-power summit and offers delicate character sketches of the participants. The tone is generally in an informal key: Paulin writes short, snappy lines with repeated use of wordplay (and, more rarely, rhyme), not for rhetorical effect, but to show something that is more self-evident to the inhabitants of the Continent than it is to us islanders—namely, how the interplay of meanings between the languages of Europe echoes the historical to and fro of armies, borders and peoples. To show how we are colonised by words.
Some of these tangential meanderings are slyly hilarious. This from a poem about George VI wishing to meet Chamberlain on his return from Berlin: “The King wants to drive / —that is be chauffeured slowly / (Why do I glimpse the ghost rhyme buggered / in that verb chauffeured? / it must be Bognor, surely? / but that's another monarch / who might have gone there to die)”. At other times, the effect is properly chilling. In “Hitler Enters the Rhineland”, we hear: “Those sabots clocking the cobbles / in some Rhineland town / they set an echo up / with sabotage / with the French language / its toltering bustle / on a dodgy field telephone / that keeps trying Locarno / then a phone somewhere in Britain / that won't answer …”
The small actions, with their apparent inexorability, add up to the bigger picture. Austen Chamberlain at the Locarno conference speaks Tony Blair's line about feeling “the hand of history on my shoulder”. In a prose poem on Spain, Paulin writes that “all the Spanish civil wars must be seen as part of—engagements in—that long-running European civil war which has lasted since the Renaissance”. It is, perhaps, only with hindsight that events appear inexorable, but that is what happens when the motor of narrative kicks into life. The need to make stories is as crucial as breathing and there are plenty of overarching stories for a writer to choose from: the pluck of the British with their backs to the wall: the left's crusade against fascism: the defence of tradition against the alienating forces of modernity (wonderfully dramatised here in the poem “Schwarzwald oder Bauhaus”). Adding together all these events would build an equation to boggle the mind of a Turing, yet Paulin handles his vast body of material with complete confidence.
Throughout, he deftly echoes “The Waste Land”, which on its publication in 1922 transformed the poetic arena as completely as the conflagration of 1914-18 had changed the nature of war. In some respects. T. S. Eliot's masterpiece is a presiding spirit here: the measured cacophony of voices, the pan-European scope, not to mention a degree of thematic concurrence. But the breadth of Paulin's vision and ambition is, if anything, more astonishing, tracking the lines across our fissured continent that link the Treaty of Versailles with that of Rome, the collapse of the Hapsburg empire with the Balkan wars of the 1990s. This is, truly, a poem for Europe, and a glorious reminder of what poetry can do.
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 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. His shortest entry disposes of Ethiopia in a line from a letter of Evelyn Waugh's—‘i hope the organmen gas them to buggery, love evelyn’. An opposite viewpoint immediately suggested itself to me—the ribald song of the Western Pressmen in Quentin Reynolds' diary:
Il Duce gives the orders to march against the foe And off to Ethiopia the organ-grinders go.
And then another incorrect view from Wallace Stevens that just as the Abyssinians were entitled to rule the animals, the Italians were justified in ruling the Abyssinians. All snappers up of unconsidered trifles are bound to find themselves rivalled by their readers' own taste in significant trivia.
Where Paulin scores is in his well-orchestrated ensembles of politicians from the doomed years of the League of Nations. The most sustained section is titled ‘Locarno Three’, in which Austen Chamberlain, Stresemann and Aristide Briand soliloquise. Paulin's belligerence evaporates as he analyses the League. And here poetry, not just argument, plays its part. The conference table at Locarno becomes a metaphor for the various nations personified by their delegates—British, American, French and German. Stresemann tells Briand, ‘We thought we were Romans … we turned out to be Carthaginians.’ Chamberlain describes his ‘limo’ as ‘this despatch box on wheels’. Brian apologises:
It's only an olive seed we planted.
and sums up:
How much poetry is about weapons. how little about peace.
This last is a memo to Homer and European Classicism.
Paulin has a good eye for the dangerous and ludicrous. The Führer considers the German language:
This means we Germans can think and see more than what's square or round but our language is damaged by poverty of vowel sounds— we must do something about this.
‘Doing something about this’ and other absurdities, not just by the Nazis, has wrecked Europe for 1,000 years.
There is more of this poem to come. It could be a sort of Cantos without quite Pound's wilfulness. Why shouldn't poetry aspire to being a Grand Historical Scrap-book? Practical politics are another matter, as Paulin at least hints. In ‘Shirking the Camps’ he establishes, via eating habits, a callous if inevitable indifference to the world's victims.
Your life is Swiss … and so still and cool, such a waste of a good or at least pious intention—how can you sing a song of Belsen? … that chunk of Apenzeller it tastes smoky on your tongue …
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 much more obscure than these, are not. Consequently the reader's share, as Henry James called it, is quite half; or, to put it another way, unless you are a polymathic historian with some knowledge of literature you will need to do quite a lot of research to figure out what Paulin is doing.
This is not a complaint; we are dealing with a modern poet and would hardly expect a linked and lacquered historical account of the between-war years, with one thing giving rise inevitably, tragically, to another, although there is some of that in the pages on Versailles, which inescapably had more than economic consequences. Certain aspects have attracted the poet's attention; he confers it, sensing no obligation to say why he wrote about one thing rather than another. There are passages of prose: some by the author, some transcriptions from his sources, some a mixture of both; some in the body of the text and some in the margins. It isn't always easy to say who is doing the talking. The reader must decide whether he or she is up to sorting everything out and making some kind of whole of it.
The prevailing or default mode of the book is verse in short rather rackety and sometimes rickety lines. Frequently it is merely chopped prose. In a vignette of Walter Benjamin we find this: ‘after he fled Berlin / the Bibliothèque Nationale / was the only place / he allowed himself to feel at home in. / It couldn't be a sanctuary / for it gave him only / a brief passing illusion / of safety that ended / with the German occupation.’ This passage appears as nine lines of verse, divided as above, but without punctuation. I see the point of getting ‘safety’ and ‘ended’ into the same short line, but any other advantages over setting it out as prose are hard to descry, except that in general terms it is an advantage to have a routine baseline verse movement to work from. Presumably the line divisions in the following passage have a point, but it escapes me:
the free world'll punish and blame —no, not Trudj- man and the others
As his admirers would expect, Paulin's language within these mostly rough-hewn lines is also, as ever, rough, demotic (Northern Ireland slang or dialect) and exotic (lots of German words, passages in French). At a guess, I would say that in developing this style he has been affected by Miroslav Holub, whom he greatly admires, and who can sound like this in English:
Inside there may be growing An abandoned room, Bare walls, pale squares where pictures hung, a disconnected phone, feathers settling on the floor the encyclopedists have moved out and Dostoevsky never found the place Lost in a landscape Where only surgeons Write poems
—a passage Paulin has singled out in his praise of Holub, ‘the anti-poet’ who ‘has lived in the truth and spoken it wryly and firmly’. One gets a fair idea of Paulin's method in this book from some of the Holub lines he quoted in Minotaur:
Pasteur died of ictus, Ten years later. The janitor Meister Fifty-five years later Committed suicide When the Germans occupied His Pasteur Institute With all those poor dogs
Paulin has also praised Peter Reading for being ‘user-hostile’, and for contriving, by avoiding iambs, to demonstrate ‘his dissidence from the state’.
The preface to Paulin's excellent Faber Book of Vernacular Verse explains his preference for demotic diction and the natural cadences of Hopkins and Christina Rossetti over upper-class dialects and iambic regularities. Like Donne, he is proud to be harsh. He won't tell the reader what is meant by a ‘boortree’ or a ‘cuas’, equally unknown to me and the OED. You could probably guess from the context that ‘stocious’ is Irish for ‘drunk’ but even an Irishman I consulted could not explain ‘pochles’, which occurs in the same line. However, ‘pobby’ means ‘swollen’ and a ‘loy’ is an Irish spade. And so on. The ‘jeddo’ turns out to be the jet d'eau in the lake at Geneva. Meanwhile the verses bearing these novelties rattle like unsprung carts over ruts. Wheat dust ‘skinks and twindles’, sledges ‘skitter and slip’. ‘There was heard the plock-plock of horsehooves / a toltering bustle clipped scatter / like sabots clocking the cobbles.’ But they can rise to their occasion, as with this moment in a Czech workers' canteen, come upon in a side street:
oh it was wretched an unsmiling woman served us bowls of soup —dull brown and greasy— it was intimate and unclean like eating in a hospital with a dying man all we tasted was unhope
So the vernacular style can support such flights. But this vernacular poet is also a very literary poet, and often, when he is at his most elaborate and ambitious, reports can be heard from the not too distant canon. Eliot, whose idea of tradition Paulin particularly reprehends, is contemptuously shown here lunching with Montgomery Belgion, his Criterion acolyte, in the Savoy Grill or the Ritz and saying the sort of thing Paulin would expect him to say. But Eliot's verse is another matter, one of the ghosts that haunt the poem. It crops up in the midst of the vernacular, as here, when Clemenceau speaks:
the Latin orator in the Sheldonian made me Christ the tiger in the juvescence—wrong springy word— of the year
—a quotation not less donnish in that while borrowing his words it manages to point out Eliot's mistake. Talk of Hitler brings in the Starnbergersee. A section called ‘Chancellor Hitler's Speech’ echoes the catalogue of armaments in Eliot's ‘Coriolan’ and ends with a confession of the theft. (This kind of catalogue, after all an epic convention, recurs in the tallying of the arms abandoned by the British at Dunkirk.) Sometimes the allusion is fugitive: a Dutchman squats on a windowsill, ‘above an earth that for some politely / churlish reason / is jampacked with merds not turds’; ‘patched and peeled’ is borrowed in a passage on the dreadfully burned faces of fighter pilots. Lord Halifax is described as a familiar ghost.
Joyce and his Ulysses get a long passage to themselves, along with passing references to agenbite of inwit and commodious recirculation. Hopkins, a favourite because of his liberal views on rhythm, creeps into a meditation of Trotsky's, and is also remembered for celebrating the roll, the rise, the carol of creation. Unsurprisingly, but in the end aptly, there is a fine extended fantasy on the themes of Conrad's Under Western Eyes, though neither the title nor the author is mentioned, which is typical of the cloud of reticence that hangs over the whole book. The Auden of The Orators has a hand in a surreal catalogue of ailments in the section on ‘Weimar’, and also in the prose of the ‘The Invasion Handbook’, a document meant to instruct a German invasion force on the geography and social peculiarities of the British (Freemasons mostly); there is a special wanted list consisting of two names, Lascelles Abercrombie and Stefan Zweig. From the list of two thousand people to be eliminated Lloyd George and Shaw are expressly exempted. When the invasion has succeeded the Duke of Windsor will resume his throne and Henry Williamson replace the Poet Laureate, John Masefield.
If these instructions and predictions derive from a genuine document, then that document is Audenesque. But Auden's voice can be heard in less fantastic moments: the lights of a car sweeping across a bedroom, as in that fine early poem later named ‘The Watershed’; and the ‘pluck’ of the tide, which remembers ‘On This Island’. Yeats is also a presence, felt in reminiscences of ‘Long-Legged Fly’. The phrase ‘orts, scraps and fragments’, which also turns up as ‘des bribes et des morceaux’, must come from Virginia Woolf's Between the Acts. And I think Pound has made a less obvious contribution; his Cantos may have contributed to the form and structure of these poems.
Milton provides a ‘petrific mace’ in a context which actually refers, as Milton didn't, to the act of turning things into stone; and he makes a more spectacular appearance in a marginal note in the ‘Weimar’ section, which reads thus: ‘Du matin jusqu'au midi il roula du midi jusqu'au soir d'un jour d'été et avec le soleil couchant il s'abattit du zénith comme une étoile tombante.’ I can't guess why it is in French, or even why it is there at all, but it does sound rather good. Shakespeare is, naturally enough, an important source, providing sometimes a phrase: ‘waiting for waftage’ from Troilus and Cressida, ‘millions of strange shadows’ from Sonnet 53, bits of Antony and Cleopatra and Hamlet. Speer at Berchtesgaden remarks that the Germans were already so steeped in blood that they could not go back, and Trotsky, too, remembers Macbeth when he describes his ‘adobe ranch’ in Mexico as his ‘procreant cradle’, the expression with which Duncan commends the Macbeth castle on his arrival there; perhaps we are meant to think that the compliment preceded death by dagger or icepick.
The whole book is what Paulin calls a ‘loose-leaf epic’ and it is easy to see that it is only the first of a series. He has a grand plan and there is no limit to what he can do within it; he need never stop since there are a million incidents and characters to work on. Among the topics treated are the Sarajevo assassination (in flashback), the Bauhaus, the Jarrow March, Munich, the German invasions of Poland, Norway, the Low Countries and France, the Battle of Britain, Dunkirk, the Blitz. Among the persons who are spoken for or speak for themselves are Keynes, whose Economic Consequences of the Peace has radical importance, Austen Chamberlain (upper-class softy, hopelessly outclassed by hard European diplomats), Neville Chamberlain (worse), Lord Halifax (holy fox and privileged schemer), George V, Trotsky, Stresemann, Hitler, Speer, Churchill, Heidegger, Benjamin, Dowding, Richard Hillary and the Duke of Windsor, who was very thick with Hitler and had an expensive wedding present from him. There are quite a number of others whom I have to admit I know nothing about except what is here more or less obliquely conveyed.
Some of the stories are simple gossip—Richard Hillary and Merle Oberon, for instance, a particularly warm encounter, warmly recorded; but it seems that the blasted and blistered public-school Hillary is not the kind of young man Paulin likes. Yet he is good on heroism and can produce virile narratives of combat, as in ‘The Attack in the West’, which has strong scenes of action but also the following revealing anecdote: it seems that the German General Student, against orders, took the most secret invasion plans in a plane. It crashed, and the occupants were prevented from burning the documents, but the wicked Duke of Windsor let the Nazi High Command know the Allies had captured them, so this great advantage was lost. And were you aware that Montagu Norman of the Bank of England had ‘a secret line to Ribbentrop / who coos to the Queen of England / down cunning corridors’, or that Halifax had his own key to the Palace garden?
All this is by the way, and does not prevent Paulin from getting on with the war. The Maginot Line was quite useless, but the inactivity of its defenders allows some nice perceptions:
we kept still and watched their motorcycle patrols the flash of field glasses like stammering lighthouses at high noon as dogs tied to the doors of deserted farms howled old testament howls swollenuddered cows bellowed a French cavalryman shot a line of horses one by one I knew we were finished then
A survivor manages to get to the beach at Dunkirk:
went down like Aeneas among the living shades among twentypackets of Players floating on the tide the greybrown bloated faces of drowned soldiers in overcoats
—where the demotic arrives just in time to deflate the donnish allusion. Churchill is also credited with thinking of himself as Aeneas glimpsing the Latian shore, but after all he went to Harrow.
The French envy the British their escape, and are permitted to do so in French:
c'est bien beau que les Britanniques pouvaient ficher le camp nous n'avons pas le luxe ils sont retournés chez eux en héros nous sommes revenus à l'ignominie à une débâcle belle et bien énorme La France aimerait juste nous oublier nous étions comme des mots étrangers
Having got some way, by no means all the way, towards digesting this packed and rather monstrous book, I can certify that it is a work of scope and ambition, with many demonstrations of the poet's power and some irritating features of a kind he can usually be counted on to provide. I daresay many readers would agree that some sort of companion volume, some guide on the lines of all those ancillary efforts devoted to Pound, Eliot and Joyce, would be a help. Paulin often steps out of the mainstream, as in his admiring accounts of Air Marshal Dowding, who, having been more responsible than anybody for our winning the Battle of Britain, was instantly fired and cast into permanent obscurity; Mitchell, designer of the Spitfire; and Churchill, observed at the moment, a most desperate moment, when he and not Halifax got the nod to succeed Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister. Some of the persons and their adventures are naturally less grandly historical, and it is not always easy to understand what they are doing in the poem. But the poet might well say it's up to us to find out, and it is not improbable that there will be enthusiasts ready to take him at his word. Wanting myself to know more about this extraordinary work, I promise to buy their books.
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 schoolboys to kill innocent people. They were racist bastards.” There is little vatic about Paulin. Fivemiletown, his 1987 volume, was a remarkable book that married his obsession with the vernacular (both Northern Irish and American) and the political in a shocking, brilliant manner: full of hard, gaudy fragments like smashed stained glass. After it anything might seem an anti-climax, and it has. The positions have hardened (“Zionist SS”) and any political subtlety or compassion has been subsumed by causes. The grey of the cover of Fivemiletown has been refracted through Paulin's mind and come out black and white.
This intolerant thought fits with a fascination with dialectal language: all exclusive fricatives and child-like onomatopoeia. Paulin's desire to include it in the poems means they may seem to have some yokel-ish Ulster interlocutor, a “header”, as Paulin might say, standing by them, ready with his fat mouth. There is a dialogue between townland and city, which means that the parts utilizing local dialect seem overlaid on the real poetic voice, rather than inlaid into the poetry. It is too oral a dialect not to be showy:
he shivers delicate and brittle poor wee thing as tinfoil.
Here the syntax reinforces the sense of an interjectory voice and appropriated speech. Paulin's poetry often has ghostly italics seeping through it, and reads as edgeless unreported reported speech.
Dialects diversify and come into their own in different areas. There may indeed be fifty words for snow in Inuit, but in Ulster concerns are more social: the idiom is good at weary exclamations, insults, general denigrations, synonyms for drunk, biblical dicta and agricultural references. But this can dictate the limitations of a poetry in thrall to local dialogue, and Paulin's poems can seem all harsh abrasion and spike, from what W. R. Rodgers, another Ulster-man, referred to as the “sea-scalded edges of the brain-land”. Paulin's poems can seem trapped in their trip-wired, short-tempered personality. He is always “banging on / like a be in a tin”. Pace Wittgenstein, the limitations of Paulin's imagination can seem like the limitations of his language.
Paulin misses what he claims for Huckleberry Finn, “vernacular authenticity that bonds the reader in an immediate personal manner”. He can seem more like the man Edna Longley has accused of appropriating dialect words in order better to despise the people for whom such dialect is first language. Look at the uncompromising bitter rhetoric of poems such as “Desertmartin”:
I see a plain Presbyterian grace sour, then harden, As a free strenuous spirit changes To a servile defiance that whines and shrieks For the bondage of the letter: it shouts For the Big Man to lead his wee people To a clean white prison, their scorched tomorrow.
That “wee” contains as much condescension as it would in the mouth of any bigot. Derek Mahon's poem “Ecclesiastes” goes for the same target, but still reluctantly humanizes and explains, if only circumspectly, through description: “the heaped / graves of your fathers”. There is no space for compassion in Paulin. If his poetry is judged by Seamus Heaney's prescriptive phrase, the “need to find symbols adequate to our predicament”, then it fails; it is propagation, propaganda, an extension of his political personality and that lugubrious mocking drawl.
With The Invasion Handbook, an epic poetic history of the Second World War, of which this is only the first volume, he has found a subject adequate to his ambition. His poems involve knowledge, and this is a subject that needs it. This is history digested by a man with a stomach ulcer. Paulin takes the opportunity to sideswipe at the Royal Family as Nazi-sympathizers:
with due deference his secretary —voice silky— says your majesty I must advize you that your majesty must not be seen ever to take sides (though you and I take them of course and we must take the right one which must be peace with Herr Hitler)
To describe the serpent-like courtier unctuously swaying the King as silky-voiced is stale, but writing advise as “advize”, with its echo of Aladdin's evil Vizier and a snaky hissing stress, is delicate. But this is still history as Disney cartoon, and the poem itself purposely gives way to nursery rhyme ingenuousness and artlessness:
we are so bold 'cos we must keep hold of our lovely state machine when we're old bones you'll still not groan for on us you're keen —your King and Queen you're terribly terribly keen!
Paulin concentrates on blame and guilt and their transference, but a less head-on collision with his subject-matter might have been more rewarding. His only doubt about his enterprise, or his approach to it, surfaces in the constant references to time: “later”, “much much later”, “six seven years later”, “What? Twenty years on”, “fifty-three years from now” “later—a tad more than a year”, etc. This is a tacit acknowledgement of his own privileged position of hindsight. His view is in some way summed up by the title of one of the pieces here, “Nostalgia for the Future”. But this doesn't temper the pieces with understanding. There is rhetoric: “how can you sing / a song of Belsen? // Oh God I share his anger / but how could I ever share it?” but none of the guilt and complicity Geoffrey Hill acknowledges in a poem such as “September Song”. Paulin is sure he is always on the side of the gods, and this lends him abrasion and flash but small truth. Occasionally he lights on a felicity:
he likes the way peace flaps its wings above appease
—in which his zealous belief stretches to the lexicon, convinced that if a chancy rhyme can be made, something true must be discovered. He has a faith in etymology or vernacular connections, in the wisdom of the language itself, and that its internal connections are not arbitrary but ordained:
as if it was a man full of drink—but as the sea is also known as the drink there may be more to this than we think
There is the expected criticism of the wartime leadership, but also of the detached bystanding intellectual or poet. When he writes, in “Poland Invaded”, that “we were the very last Romantics / —deeply foolish and heroic”, he is echoing Yeats's self-description, from “Coole and Ballylee, 1931”, “we were the last romantics”. The next poem features clippings from The Times of September 4, 1939, one of which reads like a description of Lady Gregory and Coole Park itself: “West Ireland—Lady with large house, own demesne, invites correspondence anyone requiring accommodation away from the war zone. …”
Before Yeats died in 1939 he was neither Patrick Pearse nor Erskine Childers, but had participated in public life more than any poet bar Neruda. The following piece, entitled “Male Poet Enlists”, talks of the poem as a punchbag that has to be banged and jerked by the poet. It takes in the “sarnt-major his mouth / full of muscle and cliché” who shouts “no way / you'll make a fighting man … and your lines they don't even scan!” The poems are jerked into life by Paulin's anger, but that ruthless doing-over can leave the poems voicing the sentiments of the punch-drunk. The following is partly addressed to a seven-year-old, but it may underestimate that level of sophistication:
as if in 56 you could know that injunction write! must now and then rhyme with fight!
Against all this, Paulin has style; his poems are five parts fascinating to two parts frustrating. It is an irresistible confidence that can make the First Lord of the Norwegian Admiralty discuss the losses sustained at Scapa Flow and say, “—we were unlucky / no we were stupid / we were scuppered”. When he writes without hostages, his lines sing, and though tenderness is a rare tone, he does it acutely, brilliantly and brutally. Descriptive passages also benefit from the absence of an agenda, such as this depiction of the surreal chaos of actual battle:
one soldier came ashore playing a piano accordion another carried a collie dog another a dartboard those oily bearded faces helmets open like metal cabbages. …
This runs on to “we became ourselves again / ourselves alone”, the last line being the common English translation of “Sinn Fein”. The next four lines seem an ambiguous invocation to continue fighting for freedom, and it is hard not to read these in the light of the line before: “into the mosaic of victory / I lay a pattern piece / my only son / into thy hands”. These are very different fights being invoked, fought in very different ways, and Paulin's problem is his violent yoking of them. He makes unsuitable appropriations, and when these are appropriations of history, presenting fiction as fact, it can be a little more difficult to take.
In “The Yellow Spot”, Paulin invents a scene where Montgomery Belgion and T. S. Eliot are dining at the Ritz. Belgion was the author of an anti-Semitic review (of a book, The Yellow Spot) in Eliot's Criterion, which Antony Julius (in T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form, reviewed in the TLS, June 7, 1996) assumed was Eliot's own work. Valerie Eliot pointed out that had Julius wanted to check the authorship he could have seen from the Criterion's invoices that it was Belgion who had written the piece. Paulin's poem is an awkward, offensive mess. Eliot's anti-Semitism is a complex subject, and for Paulin to have Belgion and Eliot run through a conversation in which they seem to come up with the idea of the Holocaust is trite and insulting. Eliot says of Joyce, “I admire his well yes / his Jesuitical intelligence / but we must find some substitute / for that type of sense / it tends rather much to travel / though it could / of course be transported / to somewhere cold …”. Then they
… play a favourite game and try to come up—yes come up— with a rhyme for Ritz no not Biarritz murmurs Tom if we test our wits there must be some place some name far away to the east —maybe you can tell me what fits?
This is a welter of misplaced aggression and blame. Tom Paulin has written some very fine poetry, but this is not it.