4 MAY 2002, Page 45

Poetry, politics, polemics

Peter Porter


Faber, £12.99, pp. 201, ISBN 0571209157

Poets are often the most recalcitrant ideologues, the most severe dislikers of the status quo. What the Muses forget to tell them is that their art is not in itself well equipped to advance their beliefs. Or, perhaps this applies only to the present day when opportunities for influencing public opinion are drowned out by the sheer volume of print and broadcast media and by the spread of literacy, ensuring that anything difficult or extreme won't get into the papers. Put bluntly, the best propaganda for revolutionary causes is not an analysis of civil corruption (Tom Paine at one time and Tom Paulin today) but straightforward partisanship coupled with a catchy tune (Rouget de Lisle's `La Marsellaise' and the Beatles—Give Peace a Chance'.

Tom Paulin knows this and his spirited appearances in the press and on the box are intended to carry the fight into the market place. He is heir to the Puritan instinct that righteous indignation is a guarantee of rhetorical fireworks. There is a degree of contrariness in his prosecuting of his polemic. His extreme view of Northern Ireland is anti-Unionist but not plainly Republican. He is against the slipshod in university education and his heroes are the articulately angry democrats, such as Hazlitt. Lazier popularisers get no support from him. The appearance of The Invasion Handbook, his largest book of verse to date, obliges the reader to ask how far his poetry is of a piece with his polemic, and whether it also rejoices in simplifications and show-downs.

It is certainly political, though in unusually complex ways. The title is a misnomer. The argument reaches the second world war only towards the end. Chiefly it is a biopsy of the period Eliot called Tentre demguerres' and Auden in 1939 glossed partially as 'a low dishonest decade'. It contains much effective poetry but cannot properly be called a poem overall. It is as though the zeitgeist were lured into showing us the commonplace book it had kept between the triumph of Clemenceau at Versailles and the survival of Victor Klemperer from the Holocaust. Though a very politicised person, this zeitgeist is given to

writing prose sketches of various sorts. There are walk-on parts for L,epidus the dispensable Triumvir. Brendan Bracken, Kurt Schwitters and Merz, James Joyce, the Bauhaus principals, Henry Williamson and Tarka, T. S. Eliot lunching with Montgomery Belgion, Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway, and Richard Hillary and The Last Enemy. Paulin's technique is easy to imitate. His shortest entry disposes of Ethiopia in a line from a letter of Evelyn Waugh's — `i hope the organmen gas them to buggery, love evelyn'. An opposite viewpoint immediately suggested itself to me — the ribald song of the Western Pressmen in Quentin Reynolds' diary:

11 Ducc gives the orders to march against the foe

And off to Ethiopia the organ-grinders go.

And then another incorrect view from Wallace Stevens that just as the Abyssinians were entitled to rule the animals, the Italians were justified in ruling the Abyssinians. All snappers up of unconsidered trifles are bound to find themselves rivalled by their readers' own taste in significant trivia.

Where Paulin scores is in his well-orchestrated ensembles of politicians from the doomed years of the League of Nations. The most sustained section is titled 'Locarno Three', in which Austen Chamberlain. Stresemann and Aristide Briand soliloquise. Paulin's belligerence evaporates as he analyses the League. And here poetry, not just argument, plays its part. The conference table at Locarno becomes a metaphor for the various nations personified by their delegates — British, American, French and German. Stresemann tells Briand, We thought we were Romans ... we turned out to be Carthaginians.' Chamberlain describes his 'limo' as 'this despatch box on wheels'. Brian apologises: It's only an olive seed we planted. and sums up:

How much poetry is about weapons, how little about peace.

This last is a memo to Homer and European Classicism.

Paulin has a good eye for the dangerous and ludicrous. The Fiihrer considers the German language:

This means we Germans can think and see more than what's square or round but our language is damaged by poverty of vowel sounds — we must do something about this.

'Doing something about this' and other absurdities, not just by the Nazis, has wrecked Europe for 1,000 years.

There is more of this poem to come. It could be a sort of Cantos without quite Pound's wilfulness. Why shouldn't poetry aspire to being a Grand Historical Scrap

book? Practical politics are another matter, as Paulin at least hints. In 'Shirking the Camps' he establishes, via eating habits, a callous if inevitable indifference to the world's victims.

Your life is Swiss ...

and so still and cool, such a waste of a good or at least pious intention — how can you sing a song of Belscn?

that chunk of Apenzeller it tastes smoky on your tongue ...