Book Review: The Secret Life of Poems

Published in 2008, The Secret Life of Poems by Tom Paulin is a collection of Paulin’s thoughts and analysis of some well-known poetry.  The book is a decade old at my time of reading it, but then some of the poetry that Paulin evaluates is  decades or centuries old.  Indeed some of the world’s most appreciated poetry has aged millennia. Should our criticism and appreciation be as durable as the poetry itself or should fads of thought permeate the analysis?

On this question, it might be useful to consider consider reviews of The Secret Life of Poems – opinions issued closer to the time that Paulin published his book:

I begin to balk at the very meta notion of critical opinions of critical opinions.  This however, appears to be a very large component of scholarship.  Analysis of original texts followed by analysis of the analysis. Inevitably it is a splitting of hairs. Aesthetic hairs. Logic hairs.

Paulin’s type of analysis and evaluation are the type that I often find tedious.  Throughout the book are phoneme-level assertions of meaning.  While I agree (how could I not) that poetry if often a struggle for every word and syllable…I begin to balk at the insistence that every phoneme strings together meaningful content.  For the poet or the reader.  I think this level of assertion alienates many people from poetry.  Paulin starts to sound like a self-serious babbler and poetry itself starts to seem irritating rather than pleasant.

kind of poetry study that alienates lots of peopleImage result for secret life of poems

I find Paulin’s interest in the sounds of the words interesting.  There is something compelling about the idea that certain vocalizations contribute to the meanings.  I’m just not all that convinced that the theory has a great deal of play today.  I may be entirely incorrect, but I think most poetry is primarily read from the page silently.  I think vocalization of poetry is relatively rare and I suspect that the meanings of the words are already firmly in place of the reader before the reading occurs.

Even in the process of the writing, I suspect that most poetry is written silently…and perhaps edited with the aid of vocalization.  I think vocalization – performance – is probably only a refinement of the message and not the primary design.

Paulin’s book sends me down a rabbit hole of considering the contrasts between individual subjective experience and a more universally shared objective experience.  Paulin’s analysis asserts a greater degree of universal experience to phonemes than I’m willing to grant.  I need only consider various renditions of songs to know that a line can be effectively delivered in different ways and with different stresses….notwithstanding the natural rhythms established in the metre.  Aesthetics are often, if not always, driven by subjective preferences rather than objective imperatives.

I think Paulin knows this or he might not, when describing a poem of Alexander Pope, say:

Poems depend on rhythms, but they also need pauses, sometimes deep pauses, that say more than words or rhythms can, and remind us that silence can state its own meaning…pg. 50

I agree with this statement. Silences underlines shared knowledge and the need for poetry to operate without vocalization.  Silences in poetry can establish the separations of intention and possible meanings.

I might even suggest that where shared knowledge between the poet and the writer – confusion and alienation sets in.  An educated performer can overcome these gaps.  That is the work of a performer as interpreter.  But the interpretations should not be presumed to be the work itself.  They are an opinion.

Paulin’s book is an interpretation and a subjective view.

A third grappling that comes to me in reading Paulin’s book is the extent to which poets may only speak to their own times.  The secret lives of the poems, as suggested by Paulin are often only revealed through arcane and long-dead details of history – both particular and general.   It seems to be a justification of the scholarship rather than a helpful contribution to appreciation of the poetry for a modern reader.  Bluntly….Paulin’s evaluation of S.T. Coleridge’s politics does nothing for my appreciation of Frost At Midnight.  In fact, he makes it tedious.

What Paulin does throughout his book is insert historical details in an attempt to assert theories of connotation.  Poetry is built from connotations and denotations – as is language itself.  Every word’s meaning is filled not only with its objective denotation but also its subjective connotations.  Some connotations have a kind of social currency – they are shared.  And some do not.

Consider here Paulin’s assertion that Jonathan Swift loved coarse language…that a poem may be an extended exercise in bad taste.  This assertion builds on concepts of poetry that assert high language and low language, that some subjects themselves are low and un-poetic whilst others are elevated. This view of poetry will place poets like Pope and Coleridge in opposition to poets like Swift and Wordsworth…with the former espousing high ideals and the latter espousing low ideals.  This theory assumes a great deal of shared connotation – if not a great deal of shared idealism.

I was particularly pleased with Paulin’s inclusion of a quote from Thomas Hardy. I’ve always rather enjoyed Hardy and I find this insight into his poetics incredibly valuable in what it says about my enjoyment of poets like Al Purdy and Karen Solie.

Years earlier he had decided that too regular a beat was bad art.  He had fortified himself in his opinion by thinking of the analogy of architecture, between which art and that of poetry he had discovered, to use his own words, that there existed a close and curious parallel, both arts, unlike some others, having to carry a rational content inside their articistic form.  He knew that in architecture cunning irregularity is of enormous worth, and it is obvious taht he carried on into his verse, perhaps in part unconsciously, the Gothic art-principle in which he had been trained – the principle of spontaneity, fouind in mouldings, tracery, and such like – resulting in the “unforseen” (as it has been called) character of his metres and stanzas, that of stress rather than  of syllable, poetic texture rather than poetic veneer; ….metrical pauses, and reverse beats…..

I might even,  in the now beaten way of contrasting values and ideals, hold Purdy and Solie up as contrasting poetic champions  when compared to the likes of Frederic Seidel, Ezra Pound and Charles Bukowski.

While I enjoyed reading Mathew Zapruder’s Why Poetry much more than I enjoyed reading this book (Allen and Dunwin), I’m not sure which helped me to frame my attitudes toward poetry in more detail.  Perhaps the value in finding much to agree and disagree with is the shaping of thought.  It may be tedious but swapping opinions…..and the opinions of opinions can help reveal subjective values.  Nothing wrong with that.


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