The Secret Life of Poems, By Tom Paulin

Yetis, quoofs and canoes

The only people of whom Tom Paulin expects more than the writers of poems are their readers. In a loving analysis of the Second World War poet Keith Douglas (much admired by Ted Hughes), he points out that "Canoe", which was written about Douglas messing around on the Thames, wondering if the summer of 1939 would be his last, was addressed to his lover, another Oxford student, Antoinette Beckett. During the war, in which he was killed, she was one of the few people privy to the ULTRA secret which was used to break the German enigma. In The Secret Life of Poems, which looks closely at 47 poems, from Shakespeare, Donne and Keats to Hughes and Heaney, Paulin takes a similarly code-cracking approach.

He's obsessed not with close reading but with close listening to the rhymes and rhythms of a poem. To this he adds an addiction to seeking out a poet's sources. For him, it's a given that any poet carries around a near encyclopaedia of every line or poem that's ever affected them.

Understanding a poem, Paulin argues, means tuning into those reverberating echoes and allusions; but is this really the way poetry works? Some of the propositions seem far-fetched: take the reading of Muldoon's famous poem "Quoof". A perfect, teasing tightrope of poem, it wonders where sexual and linguistic adventuring meet, telling us how his family's invented word for hot water bottle has been carried around,

shared with his lovers, "carried into so many lovely heads/Or laid between us like a sword",

A hotel room in New York City

with a girl who spoke hardly any English,

my hand on her breast

like the smouldering one-off spoor

.........of the yeti

or some other shy beast

that has yet to enter the language.

As Paulin rightly says, the choice of "yeti" is unbeatable because it is almost as daft a word as "quoof". To this he adds that "spoor" is a word from Afrikaans, so chosen to match the imperialist, conquering hand touching the girl "who spoke hardly any English". I'm not so sure; does "spoor" also not just sound just right with spoke and shy?

On the other hand, other details once seen (or rather heard) are hard to dismiss, such as the additional meanings Paulin finds in the already heartbreakingly beautiful "Canoe". "Well, I am thinking that this may be my last/ Summer, but cannot lose even a part of /Pleasure in the old-fashioned art of /Idleness." On the river, Douglas imagines Antoinette there another summer, on her own before promising that his "shade" (or ghost) will come back. "Whistle and I will hear", he says, "and come another evening, when this boat:

travels with you alone towards Iffley:

as you lie looking up for thunder again,

this cool touch does not betoken rain;

it is my spirit that kisses your mouth lightly.

Their "canoe" (or punt) becomes blurred with a boat on the river Styx, and it's a struggle not to be persuaded by the idea that loaded in that "if" in Iffley, and in "I", and "lie", are two of the most famous "ifs" in poetry of the last war: Kipling's and of course Rupert Brooke's "If I should die think only this of me". Douglas was killed in 1944, aged 24. If there, it's an almost unbearably sad echo.

"Frost said that we can't count every possible meaning of a word, just as we always comb our hair in the one direction. On the other hand again – and he didn't say this – we sometimes tousle our hair slightly so it doesn't look too neat," Paulin writes, well aware that he shows himself ready to count (and account for) as many words as possible. To return once more to that yeti, only Muldoon could know why he chose the word "spoor" and even then, he might not... If you hope to protect the idea that poetry, too, can be a shy kind of a beast whose tracks aren't always traceable, that's not to detract from the fact that Paulin sets a dazzling and completely inspiring standard for criticism.