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