Paulin, Tom (Neilson)
PAULIN, Tom (Neilson)
Nationality: British. Born: Leeds, Yorkshire, 25 January 1949. Education: Rosetta Primary School and Annadale Grammar School, Belfast; University of Hull, B.A. (honors) in English; Lincoln College, Oxford, B.Litt. 1973. Career: Since 1972 lecturer in English, University of Nottingham. Awards: Eric Gregory award, 1976; Somerset Maugham award, 1978; Faber memorial prize, 1982; Fulbright scholarship, 1983–84. Address: Department of English, University of Nottingham, University Park, Nottingham NG7 2RD, England.
Theoretical Locations. Belfast, Ulsterman, 1975.
A State of Justice. London, Faber, 1977.
Personal Column. Belfast, Ulsterman, 1978.
The Strange Museum. London, Faber, 1980.
The Book of Juniper. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1981.
Liberty Tree. London, Faber, 1983.
The Argument at Great Tew. Dublin, Willbrook Press, 1985.
Fivemiletown. London, Faber, 1987.
Selected Poems 1972–1990. London, Faber, 1993.
Walking a Line. London, Faber, 1994.
The Wind Dog. London, Faber, 1999.
The Riot Act: A Version of Sophocles' Antigone (produced Belfast, 1984; London, 1986). London, Faber, 1985.
The Hillsborough Script: A Dramatic Satire. London, Faber, 1987.
Seize the Fire: A Version of Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound. London, Faber, 1990.
A New Look at the Language Question. Derry, Field Day Theatre, 1983.
Ireland and the English Crisis. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1984.
Ted Hughes: Laureate of the Free Market? Liverpool, Liverpool Classical Monthly, 1990.
Minotaur: Poetry and the Nation State. London, Faber, 1992.
Writing to the Moment: Selected Critical Essays: 1980–1996. London, Faber, 1996.
The Day-Star of Liberty: William Hazlitt's Radical Style. London, Faber, 1998.
Editor, with Peter Messent, Henry James: Selected Tales. London, Dent, 1982.
Editor, The Faber Book of Political Verse. London, Faber, 1986.
Editor, with Fanny Dubes and Ian Dury, Hard Lines 3. London, Faber, 1987.
Editor, The Faber Book of Vernacular Verse. London, Faber, 1990.
Editor, with David Chandler, The Fight and Other Writings, by William Hazlitt. London, Penguin, 2000.*
Critical Studies: "Juniper, Otherwise Known: Poems by Paulin and Muldoon" by Adrian Frazier, in Eire-Ireland (St. Paul, Minnesota), 19(1), spring 1984; "The Permanent City: The Younger Irish Poets" by Gerald Dawe, in The Irish Writer and the City, edited by Maurice Harmon, Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, Smythe, and Totowa, New Jersey, Barnes and Noble, 1984; "Ireland's Antigones: Tragedy North and South" by Anthony Roche, in Cultural Contexts and Literary Idioms in Contemporary Irish Literature, edited by Michael Kenneally, Totowa, New Jersey, Barnes and Noble, 1988; "Songs of Battle: Some Contemporary Irish Poems and the Troubles" by Tjebbe A. Westendorp, in The Clash of Ireland: Literary Contrasts and Connections, edited by C.C. Barfoot and Theo D'haen, Amsterdam, Rodopi, 1989; "History and Poetry: Derek Mahon and Tom Paulin" by Peter McDonald, in The Poet's Place: Ulster Literature and Society, edited by Gerald Dawe and John Wilson Foster, Belfast, Institute of Irish Studies, 1991; "Involved Imaginings: Tom Paulin" by Bernard O'Donoghue, in The Chosen Ground: Essays on the Contemporary Poetry of Northern Ireland, edited by Neil Corcoran, Bridgend, Seren, 1992; Coming to Consciousness: Lyric Poetry As Social Discourse in the Work of Charles Simic, Seamus Heaney, Tom Paulin, Tony Harrison, and Rita Dove (dissertation) by Jonathan Hufstader, Harvard University, 1993; "A Poet's Task" by Michael Olmert, in Archaeology, 48(1), January-February 1995; "'Some Sweet Disorder'—The Poetry of Subversion: Paul Muldoon, Tom Paulin and Medbh McGuckian" by Elmer Andrews, in British Poetry from the 1950s to the 1990s: Politics and Art, edited by Gary Day and Brian Docherty, London, Macmillan, and New York, St. Martin's Press, 1997.* * *
Tom Paulin belongs to that group of poets from Northern Ireland, including John Montague, Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, and Derek Mahon, who have had such a great impact on contemporary British writing. Paulin is an intellectual and academic as well as a poet, and in his case the poetry seems part of a large endeavor of situating and describing the crisis in the North—as much in critical and political essays as in poetry—in a way calculated to confront blasé or unconcernedly prejudiced English attitudes. As a result the characteristic tone of his poetry is the opposite of ingratiating. It is dour, tight-lipped, and fricative in his first two books and more relaxed, oblique, and dialectically slippery in his third, Liberty Tree. Throughout, however, his poetry is determined to clear a space for itself, to muscle in, to intrude.
The essential procedure of much of the earlier work—on which the major influence is perhaps Auden—is to discover in nature and in earlier historical epochs, particularly revolutionary and post revolutionary Russia, metaphors or analogous anecdotes for Paulin's own sense of history. The poetry works through probing various oppositions and confrontations with a fine analytical passion: "stillness" and "history," poetry and political fact, "formal elegance" and the vindictive god who "scatters / bodies everywhere and has broken the city." It is plain that these confrontations are essentially those of Paulin's own nature. The poetry longs, sometimes in a virtually dandified way, for a release from the necessity of public conscience, but it feels guilt about the longing and must labor to recover a sense of responsibility and urgency. In the earlier work Paulin is at his best with a kind of Marvellian compaction of an insistent personal lyric cadence with a clear-eyed, unsentimental public concern that weighs the difficulties a poem has in assuming a position and then goes ahead:
Special constables train their
machine guns on council flats;
water cannon, fire, darkness.
The clocks are bleeding now on
public buildings. Their mottoes,
emblems of failure, tell us:
What the wrong gods established
no one can ever save.
In the third book Paulin's language—perhaps now under the sway of Yeats and Pound—undergoes an astonishing and unpredictable transformation. He writes in much looser, much freer, and sometimes very thin forms and employs Ulster dialect as a major element in his lexicon of English possibilities. Such words as "neapish," "fremd," "glubbed," "biffy," and "sleakit" pepper many of the poems. This is clearly the result of Paulin's desire to invigorate what he regards as the moribund in Standard English, but it presents difficulties—in poems that already have difficulties enough—for a reader unfamiliar with the dialect. Annotation would be a great help. The dialect words, however, are only one aspect of a new, delighted sensuousness of apprehension. In some of the poems Paulin has created a kind of writing sui generis, in which he anatomizes the futility of the situation in Northern Ireland with a grim disgust (in the excellent "Desert-martin," for instance) and imaginatively measures the possibilities of an eventual resolution of the conflict.
Several critics have called the politics of these poems utopian, and certainly it is difficult to see that the more prophetic of them could be in any way a valuable contribution to realistic debate. But their surely justified poetic strategy is to withhold definition or resolution and to open instead into the allusive, the suggestive, the metaphoric, and the emblematic. The best of them—and in my opinion one of the best poems written in English in recent times—is the lengthy sequence "The Book of Juniper." The poem allegorizes the juniper plant, which "wills its own survival" in desolate places, in a series of religious, natural, historical, and culinary evocations. This richly inventive poem culminates in a vision of armies of juniper carriers from the two Irelands meeting to form
where the juniper
talks to the oak,
the bandaged elm,
and the jolly jolly chestnut.
This is utopian politics perhaps, but the urgent sweetness of its imagined release also is a measure of its desperation.
Paulin is one of those poets in whom the most important matter of contemporary British politics is finding its most appropriate poetic voice.