The poet and broadcaster is sometimes polemical but always with purpose, says Martin Mooney
The Road to Inver, Tom Paulin’s collection of ‘translations, versions and imitations’ was shortlisted for the prestigious TS Eliot Prize in 2004. It was not the first time - Paulin was also shortlisted for his 1999 book The Wind Dog.
Paulin was born in Leeds in 1949, raised in Belfast, and educated at Hull and Oxford universities. It is unsurprising that his worldview, as a poet and as a cultural commentator, is as indebted to English as Irish traditions.
Self-consciously heir to a Protestant radical tradition that encompasses Milton and William Hazlitt (and even has ironic room for the Reverend Ian Paisley) Paulin’s allegiance to the Presbyterian republicans of the 1798 rebellion found expression in his 1985 collection Liberty Tree.
From the outset Paulin’s poetry has concerned itself with politics - not in a narrow, documentary sense, but as a symbolic world where immediacies of the NI Troubles co-exist with their 17th and 18th century European prototypes.
In his 1987 volume Fivemiletown, Paulin’s brooding on protestant identity takes in the defenestration of Prague as well as Paisley’s ‘Third Force’:
…one tight thread
links Lüneberg Heide
to the Clogher Valley
- provincial world history
A founder member of Field Day theatre company, Paulin is also a playwright, cultural commentator (most visibly on BBC2’s Late Review) and an anthologist and critic. His studies of Thomas Hardy and Hazlitt are usually overshadowed by his more polemical essays, such as those collected in Ireland and the English Crisis (1984), Minotaur: Poetry and the Nation State (1998), and by occasional violent journalistic (or propagandistic) outbursts such as his attacks on Israeli settlers and security forces in the Occupied Territories.
Criticisms of the ‘shrillness’ of such remarks, and of the poetry’s deployment of cultural stereotypes and caricatured dialect, while sometimes valid, also seem to miss important points about the energy and disruptive pleasures of Paulin’s work.
Though poems in early collections such as A State of Justice (1977) and The Strange Museum (1980) seem to reach for a kind of sober narrative equilibrium:
In a scorched space, a broken nowhere,
A homeless grief beyond all grievance
Must suffer nature and be free -
The poems of the late 1980s and 90s work with fragments and fluid movement between references and registers. The poems of 1994’s Walking a Line (named after the artist Paul Klee’s description of his work as ‘taking a line for a walk’, but acknowledging also the ‘fine line’ these risky works try to negotiate) and the 1999 collection The Wind Dog are immersed in a diction we might call ’synthetic Ulster English’.
Less successful (though strictly speaking only one third of a trilogy of volumes) was The Invasion Handbook (2002), the writing of which was paid for by a £75,000 grant from the National Foundation for Science, Technology and the Arts. A book-length exploration of the second world war, the poetry is allusive, improvisatory, and heavy (sometimes overweight) with reading and reference.
Bearing its literary cargoes less reverently, The Road to Inver gathers many of the loose translations and ‘imitations’ Paulin has undertaken since 1975. The book has all the hallmarks of one of Northern Ireland’s most intellectually curious, committed and carnaptious voices.