I suspect that Tom Paulin's latest collection will appeal to one (admittedly large) generation, and pass all others by. By which I mean the generation whose parents experienced total war or occupation, and for whom the years 1939-45 stand out as the glowering landmark that dominates and defines our moral and political landscapes. Those old enough to have experienced the war may find this book too ambivalent, or rather multivalent, to speak to that experience; those removed from it by a further generation will shrug and ask what all the fuss is about. To them, the names Arnhem, Monte Cassino or El Alamein have no more special resonance than, say, Alma, Sebastopol or Inkerman. They can look to the future with the luxury of amnesia.
But to those of us with intimate proxy knowledge of the Second World War - raised on remembrances of bombing and privation, on comic-book Tommies and Where Eagles Dare - this speaks most directly, because it gives proper form to the centrality of the war. It makes what Paulin calls "a looseleaf epic" of it. Yet this is no modern Iliad. It doesn't set out to mythologise its subject; quite the opposite. By starting with the 1919 Treaty of Versailles - the festering casus belli of a humiliated German nation - it takes the long, disinterested view, rooting the war in its historical antecedents. Indeed, this is only the first in a projected multi-volume work, and comes to a close with the Blitz. Most of the military action remains to be covered.
Paulin's approach, broadly, is to take historical events and imagine them from the inside; he peels those familiar newsreel images of, say, Neville Chamberlain proclaiming peace in our time, off the celluloid and reanimates them with his characteristically sharp wit. Or he wanders behind the scenes of a major-power summit and offers delicate character sketches of the participants. The tone is generally in an informal key: Paulin writes short, snappy lines with repeated use of wordplay (and, more rarely, rhyme), not for rhetorical effect, but to show something that is more self- evident to the inhabitants of the Continent than it is to us islanders - namely, how the interplay of meanings between the languages of Europe echoes the historical to and fro of armies, borders and peoples. To show how we are colonised by words.
Some of these tangential meanderings are slyly hilarious. This from a poem about George VI wishing to meet Chamberlain on his return from Berlin: "The King wants to drive/- that is be chauffeured slowly/(Why do I glimpse the ghost rhyme buggered/in that verb chauffeured?/it must be Bognor, surely?/but that's another monarch/who might have gone there to die)". At other times, the effect is properly chilling. In "Hitler Enters the Rhineland", we hear: "Those sabots clocking the cobbles/in some Rhineland town/ they set an echo up/with sabotage/with the French language/its toltering bustle/on a dodgy field telephone/that keeps trying Locarno/then a phone somewhere in Britain/that won't answer . . ."
The small actions, with their apparent inexorability, add up to the bigger picture. Austen Chamberlain at the Locarno conference speaks Tony Blair's line about feeling "the hand of history on my shoulder". In a prose poem on Spain, Paulin writes that "all the Spanish civil wars must be seen as part of - engagements in - that long-running European civil war which has lasted since the Renaissance". It is, perhaps, only with hindsight that events appear inexorable, but that is what happens when the motor of narrative kicks into life. The need to make stories is as crucial as breathing and there are plenty of overarching stories for a writer to choose from: the pluck of the British with their backs to the wall; the left's crusade against fascism; the defence of tradition against the alienating forces of modernity (wonderfully dramatised here in the poem "Schwarzwald oder Bauhaus"). Adding together all these events would build an equation to boggle the mind of a Turing, yet Paulin handles his vast body of material with complete confidence.
Throughout, he deftly echoes "The Waste Land", which on its publication in 1922 transformed the poetic arena as completely as the conflagration of 1914-18 had changed the nature of war. In some respects, T S Eliot's masterpiece is a presiding spirit here: the measured cacophony of voices, the pan-European scope, not to mention a degree of thematic concurrence. But the breadth of Paulin's vision and ambition is, if anything, more astonishing, tracking the lines across our fissured continent that link the Treaty of Versailles with that of Rome, the collapse of the Hapsburg empire with the Balkan wars of the 1990s. This is, truly, a poem for Europe, and a glorious reminder of what poetry can do.
Adam Newey is poetry editor of the New Statesman