Essential readings

<strong>The Secret Life of Poems</strong>

Tom Paulin <em>Faber & Faber, 256pp, £17.99</em>

What exactly are poems? And what are they good for? In the 20th century the pre-eminent poetic mode was the lyric, and so poems, gen erally speaking, were short, explosive devices. Many famous longer poems were written then, too - William Carlos Williams's Paterson and Ezra Pound's Cantos, for example. Yet neither of these was entirely successful because, in part, they seemed to be occupying some uneasy middle ground between a kind of writing that was embedded in myth, and something more akin to fiction.

Tom Paulin's new book calls itself a poetry primer. Its aim is to show us how individual poems work, how they achieve their effects upon their readers. He has chosen short poems, almost all British or American. Only one is a translation - of a Polish poem by Zbigniew Herbert, translated by another Polish-speaking poet, Czeslaw Milosz. (Translations carry with them an entirely different set of difficulties, and it is not within the remit of this relatively brief book to engage with those.) The longest is less than two pages long, and some of them are less than a single page in length.

This is not the first time that a poet - and Paulin has been a very fine poet in his time - has tried to extract the essence of poetry from poems. So what is interesting and new about his approach? Paulin is in love with the spoken language, the language of the streets, and especially the language of his native Ulster. As soon as speech becomes authorised and regularised by correct usage, he begins to lose interest, because language, when it is written down, begins to lose its tangy, off-the cuff authenticity. A few years ago he argued as much in a fine anthology of the vernacular poetry of these islands.

Given this, what he is most interestingly alive to in poems is the sounds that poets make with their words, and how those sounds connect up, weave a pattern, if you like, through the length and breadth of a poem. These patternings of sounds, argues Paulin, often very persuasively, represent a kind of parallel meaning beneath the apparent meaning of the words. This is subtle, interesting and invigorating stuff.

But at times it can be tedious, too. Paulin, from time to time, seems to be reading things into a poem which simply are not there. He finds words embedded in other words - "rumbles" within "crumbles", for example - and seems to suggest that this signifies, for the poet himself, that the meaning of that embedded word was also somehow present to the poet within the word he finally chose to use. It is a somewhat far-fetched argument.

At other times, he does something that many earlier close readers of poems would have thought inadmissible. He introduces snatches of biographical detail to illuminate some matter or other, often quite brilliantly, and usually very interestingly (read, for example, what he has to tell us about the lover of Keith Douglas, a great poet who died tragically young - at just 24 - during the Second World War). You could say that the information he offers us is irrelevant, but without question it spices up the book, and makes it all the more memorable. So this particoloured beast of a book is in part a genuine triumph, and in part not so wonderful.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Merchant adventurer