Tom Paulin

Thomas Neilson Paulin

(b. 1949)



Contemporary Writers

Independent Media Center




In a Northern Landscape


Ingela is thin and she never smiles

The man is tall and wears the same subdued colours.

Their accents might be anywhere, both seem perfect

And spend only the winter months here.

They own a stone cottage at the end of a field

That slopes to rocks and a gunmetal sea.


Their silence is part of the silence at this season,

Is so wide that these solitaries seem hemmed in

By a distance of empty sea, a bleak mewing

Of gulls perched on their chimney, expecting storm.

They sit in basket chairs on their verandah,

Reading and hearing music from a tiny transistor.


Their isolation is almost visible:

Blue light on snow or sour milk in a cheese-cloth

Resembles their mysterious element.

They pickle herrings he catches, eat sauerkraut

And make love on cold concrete in the afternoons;

Eaters of yoghurt, they enjoy austere pleasures.


And night oil lamps burn in their small windows

And blocks of pressed peat glow in a simple fireplace.

Arc lamps on the new refinery at the point

Answer their lights; there is blackness and the sound of surf.

They are so alike that they have no need to speak,

Like oppressed orphans who have won a fierce privacy.


Numa paisagem nórdica


Ingela é magra e não sorri nunca.

O homem é alto e usa as mesmas cores brandas.

Falam num sotaque indistinto, parecem perfeitos

E só passam aqui os meses de Inverno.

São donos de uma casa de pedra ao fundo de um campo

Em ladeira que dá para as rochas e um mar de metal.


O silêncio destes solitários faz parte do silêncio

Da estação, tão vasto que parecem cercados

Por uma imensidão de mar vazio, um triste miar

De gaivotas pousadas na chaminé è espera da borrasca.

Sentam-se em cadeiras de verga na varanda,

A ter e ouvir música num minúsculo transístor.


É quase palpável o seu isolamento:

Luz azul sobre a neve ou leite coalhado num pano de queijo

Assemelham-se ao misterioso elemento que é o deles.

Conservam em curtume os arenques que ele apanha, comem chucrute

E fazem amor de tarde no cimento frio;

Comedores de iogurte, gozam prazeres austeros.


À noite candeias de óleo luzem nas janelas pequenas

E blocos de turfa prensada ardem na lareira simples.

No promontório, as lâmpadas de arco da nova refinaria

Respondem-lhes às luzes; há escuridão e som de ressaca.

São tão parecidos que nem sequer precisam de falar,

Tais órfãos oprimidos que conquistaram feroz interioridade.


    Tradução de João Ferreira Duarte, em "LEITURAS, poemas do inglês", Relógio de Água, 1993. ISBN 972-708-204-1  


THE TLS n.º 5385   JUNE 16, 2006






They’re building a bungalow on the skyline

- here we go again –

they’re building a bungalow like a barracks above

the bogland – the scutty bogland that smells

always of mushrooms damp mushrooms

(here I am stepping into the same poem twice)

 - it’s over the bogland this bungalow – over it

and the one arable acre – I say arable

but I mean grazing mean

there should be store cattle sheep

or even a donkey

on that empty – empity – acre

 - the roof? Well whether it’s cut or trussed’s

really no matter – the pitch of those rafters

it’s too steep and the rectangle

‘v breezeblocks is just too much

of a deuced a damnable rectangle

- yes a damnable rectangle





The Catch


The bedroom window was halfopen

but it was the window catch that caught my eye

 - a small object – utile

with only the tight beauty of its function

and nothing else except

it spoke to me in its own dumbness

like certain stubborn spirit

that pays no heed to those goods that try

 - social selfconscious –

To live only in the daylight



Published: 15 October 2013



by Tom Paulin, introduced by Andrew McCulloch


In Thomas Hardy: The poetry of perception (1986), Tom Paulin argues that there are two strains in English poetry; a high, melodic, vowel-based one that looks south to Romance languages and includes Wordsworth, Keats and Tennyson, and a northern, consonantal one, fricative, spiky and rough, that we hear first in John Skelton and Thomas Wyatt and later in Thomas Hardy and Gerard Manley Hopkins. For Paulin, Tennyson’s cadences are “a species of Virgilian kitsch, all silvery angst and trim melody”, while Hardy “belongs outside institutional, official reality . . . in a rural society where most people spoke dialect and illiteracy was normal”. This contact with dialect, Paulin says, allowed Hardy to explore the fundamental conflict between ‘language as Being and language as Instrument’, a conflict to which Paulin returned in the introduction to his Faber Book of Vernacular Verse (1990) in which he quotes Walt Whitman’s view that “neglect, unfinished, careless nudity . . . secretly pleases the soul more than the wrought and re-wrought polish of the most perfect verse”.


The poem “Stile”, from his collection The Wind-Dog (1999) – a Northern Irish term for “rainbow” – is full of Paulin’s loyalty to “the wild dash and wit and loving playfulness” of the speech with which he grew up, a “gestural tactile language . . . which printed texts with their editorial apparatus of punctuation and authoritative capitals can often deaden”. Indeed, the “exact legal decorum” of Hardy’s word “appertaining” is as much of a threat to Tess’s community as the steam-thresher it is used to describe. But this “dogged doltish . . . plodsome term” may also remind us of the dim-witted constable Dogberry who, in Much Ado About Nothing, overhears Borachio admit his involvement in Don John’s plot to make Claudio believe Hero has been unfaithful. As so often in Shakespearean comedy, the apparently foolish turn out to be peculiarly wise. Dogberry may mangle language – “Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two aspicious persons” – but, unlike his social betters, he has “comprehended” what is going on: “clumsy in one light”, perhaps, but “graceful . . . in another”.



Close under the eaves of the stack, and as yet barely visible, 
was the red tyrant that the women had come to serve – a timber
framed construction, with wheels and straps appertaining –
the threshing-machine which, whilst it was going, kept up a
despotic demand upon the endurance of their muscles and nerves.

(Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles)

 was Gauguin’s term
for the style he was after
he gazed on it like Narcissus
till it owned his own features
– try find it though in a printed text
and the sentences gawky or a tad misshapen
– spelt wrong or babu even
tend to provoke laughter
because most critics they’re vexed
by what’s clumsy or naïf
it must never happen
that something other than platonic form
or hammered gold or pure gold leaf
– that gold to airy thinness bate
should touch us or should warm
the playful serious wondering great
mischeevious child in most of us
– I mean take that word appertaining
so dogged doltish so pedantic
a plodsome term – completely daft –
that makes a fuss
and yet in its exact legal decorum
is like a constable who tries to sing
and gets away with it
not murder
for to be clumsy in one light is to be deft
even graceful – graceful not slick –
in another.

Tom Paulin (1999)



Saturday 15 March 2008

A puritan at play

Literature Terry Eagleton spots a familiar political agenda in a passionate account of poetry


Terry Eagleton


The Secret Life of Poems: A Poetry Primer 
by Tom Paulin 
320pp, Faber, £17.99


Poetry is the most subtle of the literary arts, and students grow more ingenious by the year at avoiding it. If they can nip around Milton, duck under Blake and collapse gratefully into the arms of Jane Austen, a lot of them will. Besides, unlike Sense and Sensibility, Paradise Lost hasn't been on television. With fiction, you can talk about plot, character and narrative, whereas a poem brings home the fact that everything that happens in a work of literature happens in terms of language. And this is daunting stuff to deal with. Most students of literature can pick apart a metaphor or spot an ethnic stereotype, but not many of them can say things like: "The poem's sardonic tone is curiously at odds with its plodding syntax." They would greet this with the kind of sheepish silence one reserves for those who ask whether you have been washed in the blood of the Lamb.

Tom Paulin's new book is the latest in a series of bluffer's guides to poetry which have recently fallen from the press, one of them, I must confess, by myself. Paulin has a passion for language and a marvellously sensitive ear for its textures and cadences. In fact, he reads so closely, slowing a poem down to a sort of surreal slow-motion, that it becomes in his hands a strange cacophony of plosive, guttural and sibilant noises. He is wondrously nimble at tracking a pattern of sound through a text, though the process rapidly become repetitive and over-technical: "There are three ih sounds in the next stanza, two in the next stanza, along with two i sounds. Then in the last stanza there are a total of nine ih sounds and three i sounds ..."

You can, in short, read too closely, just as you can squash your nose up against a canvas until the painting fades to a blur. In a legendary analysis of a Baudelaire poem, the French structuralist Claude Lévi-Strauss found all sorts of ingenious combinations of phonemes in the text. It took another critic to point that most of these sound-patterns were far too intricate to be perceptible to a reader. Which raises the question: how far back from or close up to a work of art should we be standing? Would a reader pick up, even unconsciously, some of the acoustical effects Paulin identifies, and would they contribute to the poem's meaning?

In any case, there is more to poetic form than sound. Paulin has a masterly way with dentals and fricatives, but he pays too little attention to tone, pitch, pace, volume, timbre, grammar and syntax. Behind his acoustics lies a politics. Paulin favours harsh, gritty language, which as a Northern Irish Protestant he associates with lower-middle-class Dissent, and has it in for smoothness and elegance, which to his Puritan mind suggests a bunch of effete upper-class Cavaliers camping it up. The later Auden is just such a camp Cavalier, whereas the knotty, muscular Ted Hughes (right), who was reared as a religious Dissenter, is a fully paid-up Roundhead. There have been subtler distinctions in literary history.

There is a myth of Englishness lurking behind this prejudice. When Paulin writes of the 17th-century poet John Oldham as revealing "all that is robust, bold and liberty-loving in the English language", he could be quoting some early Oxbridge professor defending the newfangled study of English literature. "English" was allowed to take its place beside Classics because pure, strong Anglo-Saxon blood beat vigorously through the arteries of the language. It is both a racial and sexual myth, which crops up in a different guise in FR Leavis. All that gnarled, virile, rugged language was a sign of the cross-grained idiosyncrasy of the freeborn Englishman, as opposed to the insidious smoothness of the effeminate French. It is disturbing to find the myth rearing its head once again.

Paulin's own idiosyncrasies are both endearing and alarming. He can be brilliant at unpacking a single word or phrase into a prodigal treasure trove of meaning; but he can also free-associate to a point where even Freud might call a panic-stricken halt. A single mention of "pace" in a Larkin poem evokes "a faraway cricket match", though there is no cricket match in the poem at all. "Mucker fog", a phrase from Patrick Kavanagh, contains a trace of "mother fucker", in case you hadn't noticed. There is "the ghost of a fart" in Seamus Heaney's phrase "windy boortrees", while another Heaney piece evokes a truly bizarre flight of fancy about rhubarb. The word "stiff" in a Ted Hughes poem is said to echo both "fistful" and "splintered". The dominant o and l sounds of a Yeats piece "are attractive, they enhance [the house's] aristocratic owners and they enhance the neoclassical mansion". One might note here Paulin's own flatfooted literary style, which would rather be convicted of clunkiness than gracefulness.

Paulin can be hobbyhorsical as well as wildly subjectivist. Just as Mr. Dick in David Copperfield cannot rid his head of the execution of Charles I, so Paulin keeps finding politics (including the civil war) in the most improbable places. A drifting cloud in Philip Larkin suggests the poet's grief at the loss of empire, though in fact it is just a drifting cloud. Some splitting ice in Wordsworth's Prelude "is another image of the [French] revolutionary crowd". There are times when this remarkably humourless book reads like a hilarious parody of vulgar Marxist criticism. Or, indeed, vulgar Freudianism: a Robert Frost allusion to a "notch" in some mountains sends Paulin spinning off into psychobabble: "the effect is vaginal, though dry and negative (the word contains 'not', which we can also read as 'knot', representing marriage ...)"

Paulin is a hedgehog not a fox. He knows about a few big things, like poetic form and the history of Protestantism. But his scorn of grace and wit is also a lack of tact and proportion: he doesn't know when to stop, or where to draw the line, or how to distinguish between the truly perceptive and the ludicrously fanciful. The true Protestant has only his own soul to trust in here, and the inner light is never the most judicious of tribunals. The Secret Life of Poems is a tender, eccentric, passionate, absurd, illuminating primer. It will show students some things they never thought possible, and a number of impossible ones as well.

· Terry Eagleton's The Meaning of Life is published by OUP



The Telegraph


26 Jan 2008

How poetry works


Nick Laird


According to its blurb, The Secret Life of Poems came from Paulin's experience of reading a poem by Yeats and imagining "a critical account of his or any poet's work which jettisoned all earnest explication of the text and concentrated on sound, cadence, metre, rhyme, form".

The book is "intended for students and readers of poetry, and seeks to explain how poetry works by bringing into view the hidden order of specific poems".

This seems slightly odd to me. A book that attempts to explain how a poem works by only referencing technique is bound to be both myopic and a bit dull.

Although you can list a poem's sonic effects, to understand how a poem's music works on anything other than a pre-verbal level, it's necessary to link it to both the text and the context, which requires "earnest explication". The only way in which sound can be talked of meaningfully is as a component of sense, as part of the poem's climate.

Thankfully Paulin, for the most part, ignores his own stricture and provides us with insightful, frustrating and idiosyncratic readings of some of the most famous poems in the English language. He even goes so far as to write about a poem by the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, which, it being translated, precludes concentrating on "sound, cadence, metre, rhyme, form".

The secret life of the poems explored here is not really the patternings of sound at all, but instead the political landscape in which these poems were written.

This is when the book is at its assertive, provocative best, as with this on Paradise Lost: "the entire epic is coded as an account of the English revolution from the creation of the world/Commonwealth to the fall into monarchy. It is a systematic code that passed many inattentive, a historical or narrowly religious readers by, and probably still does."

Paulin is neither inattentive nor a historical, and he's especially good on the Romantics, bringing to the surface the politics underpinning Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight", Keats's "To Autumn" and the card-playing episode from Wordsworth's Prelude.

His ear is open to all the connotations of a word, although his political obsession can sometimes find shading where none exists.

When Wordsworth writes of the "naked table, snow-white deal" where they are to play cards, Paulin finds the term naked "surprising…for this is a republican adjective which harks back to Adam and Eve's naked innocence in Paradise Lost".

The more obvious reading is that Wordsworth uses the word naked because of its assonance with table, because the surface was bare of cloth or ornament, because its paleness recalled skin perhaps, or because it was about to be dressed, ie covered with dealt cards.

He does give one purely technical reading of a poem, John Donne's "A Nocturnall upon St Lucies Day", and gives no exegesis or paraphrase of any kind. You'll need to work the poem out for yourself before reading his notes on the sounds in it, and nor does he explicate words such as "hydroptique", though he writes:

Donne elides the repeated definite article to place the harsh, dry, technical "th'hydroptique" in the middle of the line - a broken-backed, compound word with the caesura concealed inside it. The word sounds nasty and contains "drop" ie fall.

It may sound nasty, but what does it mean? Paulin doesn't say. As it is, the three pages on Donne conclude with the uninspiring sentence: "The poem ends with five strong stresses, with a particular stress on 'is' as he picks up 'Tis' and 'is' from the first line." I'm not sure how helpful this kind of tunnelled reading is.

But there are wonderful things here. The tone is passionate, the passion contagious, and the judgments provoke both admiration and irritation (Auden is dismissed as "an important failure", and Paulin's reading of Paul Muldoon's poem "Quoof", where he sees "guilt, anxiety and transgression" strikes me as particularly wrong).

However, a great critic, and Tom Paulin is a great critic, is not one whose judgments inspire agreement, but rather one who sends you back, renewed and engaged, to the texts.

It is no insult to say that reading Paulin on a poet makes you want to read the poet.




The Secret Life of Poems, By Tom Paulin

Yetis, quoofs and canoes

Reviewed by Olivia Cole
Sunday, 3 February 2008


He's obsessed not with close reading but with close listening to the rhymes and rhythms of a poem. To this he adds an addiction to seeking out a poet's sources. For him, it's a given that any poet carries around a near encyclopaedia of every line or poem that's ever affected them.

Understanding a poem, Paulin argues, means tuning into those reverberating echoes and allusions; but is this really the way poetry works? Some of the propositions seem far-fetched: take the reading of Muldoon's famous poem "Quoof". A perfect, teasing tightrope of poem, it wonders where sexual and linguistic adventuring meet, telling us how his family's invented word for hot water bottle has been carried around,

shared with his lovers, "carried into so many lovely heads/Or laid between us like a sword",

A hotel room in New York City

with a girl who spoke hardly any English,

my hand on her breast

like the smouldering one-off spoor

.........of the yeti

or some other shy beast

that has yet to enter the language.

As Paulin rightly says, the choice of "yeti" is unbeatable because it is almost as daft a word as "quoof". To this he adds that "spoor" is a word from Afrikaans, so chosen to match the imperialist, conquering hand touching the girl "who spoke hardly any English". I'm not so sure; does "spoor" also not just sound just right with spoke and shy?

On the other hand, other details once seen (or rather heard) are hard to dismiss, such as the additional meanings Paulin finds in the already heartbreakingly beautiful "Canoe". "Well, I am thinking that this may be my last/ Summer, but cannot lose even a part of /Pleasure in the old-fashioned art of /Idleness." On the river, Douglas imagines Antoinette there another summer, on her own before promising that his "shade" (or ghost) will come back. "Whistle and I will hear", he says, "and come another evening, when this boat:

travels with you alone towards Iffley:

as you lie looking up for thunder again,

this cool touch does not betoken rain;

it is my spirit that kisses your mouth lightly.

Their "canoe" (or punt) becomes blurred with a boat on the river Styx, and it's a struggle not to be persuaded by the idea that loaded in that "if" in Iffley, and in "I", and "lie", are two of the most famous "ifs" in poetry of the last war: Kipling's and of course Rupert Brooke's "If I should die think only this of me". Douglas was killed in 1944, aged 24. If there, it's an almost unbearably sad echo.

"Frost said that we can't count every possible meaning of a word, just as we always comb our hair in the one direction. On the other hand again – and he didn't say this – we sometimes tousle our hair slightly so it doesn't look too neat," Paulin writes, well aware that he shows himself ready to count (and account for) as many words as possible. To return once more to that yeti, only Muldoon could know why he chose the word "spoor" and even then, he might not... If you hope to protect the idea that poetry, too, can be a shy kind of a beast whose tracks aren't always traceable, that's not to detract from the fact that Paulin sets a dazzling and completely inspiring standard for criticism.