Align with dissent

Alex Preston pays tribute to his mentor, the poet and critic Tom Paulin.

Whenever I'm a panellist on the BBC's Review Show, I get a slightly eerie feeling as the lights come up and Kirsty Wark or Martha Kearney introduces the programme. It's as if I'm still somehow at home, a pimply teenager sprawled on the rug in front of an archaic Grundig, watching Late Review. As the discussion begins and I mount the perilous critical tightrope between pretentious twerp and philistine berk, I half expect Tom Paulin to stride on to the set to perform a detailed Marxist analysis of Toy Story 2.

Throughout its various incarnations, The Review Show has been one of the few slots on television where culture is treated with the sort of respect it gets on the other side of the Channel. For many - though he hasn't featured on the programme now for almost four years - Paulin remains the tutelary spirit of our most intelligent television show.

I applied to study at Hertford College because of Paulin's appearances on Late Review. He was a celebrity intellectual at Oxford, one of the few living poets I'd heard of at 17. What's more, a volume of his critical essays - Writing to the Moment - had shown me life beyond the dry box-ticking of A-level English. At Hertford, his tutorials were legendary. We learned to read again at the age of 18, learned how to pick literature apart to expose what Paulin calls "the subterfuge text" that lies within. We would leave his slightly dusty, book-lined study fizzing, inspired. Some say that Paulin's criticism fails to distinguish "between the truly perceptive and the wildly fanciful". Yet this was what made him such a great teacher: the courage of his readings gave us courage to follow our own critical instincts, to dive deep beneath the obvious surface of literature.

With the paperback publication this summer of The Secret Life of Poems, Paulin has flung open those cloistered tutorials to a wider audience - a typically democratic act. The book is part anthology of poetry in English, with poets from the 15th century to the present day, and part critical guide, as each poem comes with an essay in which he uses his characteristic blend of close reading and historical context to bring the verse to life. It is a book that manages to stay true to its subtitle (A Poetry Primer) while never failing to remain intellectually rigorous. Paulin's great gift is his ability to write from inside each poem, convincingly demonstrating how rhythm, metre and what he describes as "the acoustic adhesiveness of words and patterns of sound" combine to deliver a richness of meaning that we only sense at first reading.

The poets collected in the book are largely of the canon - Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Larkin, Heaney. Paulin is asserting the canonical way of studying English rather than the modular approach now prevalent at English universities, which he sees as "an academically indefensible reform" because it allows students "to avoid studying Milton". Here we have all the greats, and the more "difficult" they are, the more the accompanying essay reveals to the reader layers of significance. Yet there is something here more than a "mere" collection of important English-speaking poets.

Paulin's most recent collection of poetry, The Road to Inver (2004), presents verse "translations" of the great European poets - Goethe, Verlaine, Francis Ponge, Rilke, Mallarmé, Eugenio Montale - which, while retaining the essence of the original, modernise and relocate them to address Paulin's specific concerns: Ireland, the Middle East, the uglier histories of the 20th century (he updates the 17th-century Prussian poet Simon Dach to criticise Heidegger's Nazism, for instance). Here, he fashions for himself a European literary tradition that conforms to his personal aesthetic and political sensibilities - dissenting, republican, vernacular - even when (as with Goethe) these elements did not exist in the original text.

The work collected in The Secret Life of Poems also largely fits Paulin's bold style. Some of the essays read like condensed versions of Crusoe's Secret: the Aesthetics of Dissent (2005), his previous work of criticism, in which he examines how writers (often subliminally) have coded messages of dissent into their work. In The Secret Life of Poems, Paulin shows that the great poets, from Milton to Wordsworth to Hopkins to Hughes, are linked by a persistent radicalism. Even those who - like Coleridge and Yeats in their later years - withered into conservatism, are presented in the dissenting glory of their youth.

It is a tradition into which Paulin the poet naturally falls. Television celebrity and political controversy have combined to overshadow somewhat the extraordinary quality of his recent output in verse. Although he may be better known as a critic, his critical technique relies on the kinds of layers of meaning that he builds into his poetry, and it is in his poetry that both the wide-ranging brilliance of his mind and his unique engagement with the English language (in all its vernacular variety) are most successfully represented. Both The Road to Inver and his hugely ambitious treatment of the Second World War, The Invasion Handbook (2002), are modern classics, placing Paulin alongside Heaney and Derek Mahon as one of our greatest living poets.

After a long period of ill-health, Paulin retired from Hertford at the end of last year. In mid-September, we met for a drink at the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford. He still has a house in the city, though since retiring he has been dividing his time between Oxford and a place that he and his wife, Giti, have built in Donegal. He has recently become a grandfather, to a little boy, also Thomas. Wearing a short-sleeved turquoise shirt, he looks sprightly and energetic as we discuss his next book of poetry, Love's Bonfire, which is due to be published by Faber & Faber in the spring. Paulin describes it as a collection of "personal poems, more personal than I've done before. With some translations of the Palestinian poet Walid Khazendar and some poems about Ireland. About trying to write now the war is over."

He also intends to continue his treatment of the Second World War (The Invasion Handbook concludes with the Battle of Britain). A critical book doing for prose what The Secret Life of Poems does for poetry is also in the pipeline.

The only poet subjected to unadorned scorn in The Secret Life of Poems is Auden, whom Paulin describes as writing poems in a "glossy, metropolitan, intellectually inflected language that read rather like chirpy opinion pieces in the New Yorker". He calls Auden "quite an important failure", a phrase we find first in "Somewhere To Get To", from The Invasion Handbook. Paulin has never been "eloquently dumb" like Auden. His opinions - whether in his poetry, his criticism or in an infamous interview with an Egyptian newspaper - have made him enemies; but we should not allow this to let us lose sight of the importance of Paulin the critic and, particularly, Paulin the poet. I will be teaching a group of undergraduates at University College London this term as part of my PhD. If I have a fraction of the influence and impact on them that Tom Paulin had on me, I will feel that I have achieved something remarkable.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, This is plan B

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide