Degree of Famousness etc

Peter Howarth

  • Selected Poems by Don Paterson
    Faber, 169 pp, £14.99, May 2012, ISBN 978 0 571 28178 7

A few years back, Don Paterson was warning everyone that contemporary British poetry was under threat. Not from the usual enemies, philistines in government or chain bookshops, but from two groups of poets: populists and elitists. According to his 2004 anthology, New British Poetry, populists are well-intentioned souls who bring poetry to factories, schools or prisons, ‘via some patronising mediation, some strategy intended to make it “easier”: a visit from a performance poet, or a themed workshop, or a poster campaign with the dumbest, shortest poem the committee can find, set in 50-point bold’. His T.S. Eliot Lecture that year widened the definition to include chicken-soup anthologisers, Harold Pinter’s righteously angry protest verse, and any poetic therapist who mistakes ‘the jargon of self-help’ for the tough process of writing. By trying to make poetry ‘accessible’, the popularisers flatter the poet into thinking deep feelings are poetry, and flatter the audience into applauding only what they already know, reducing the art to ‘straight-faced recognition comedy’.

The elitist menace, meanwhile, comes from experimental poetry, which offers us ‘homophonic translations of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in Lithuanian; poems freakishly juxtaposing archaic and contemporary registers, or mutually exclusive jargons; poems consisting of nothing but five-letter words, or non sequiturs, or typographical errors; poems whose main subject we ultimately identify as the self-consciousness of their own artifice’. Relentlessly innovative, the ‘Postmoderns’ make their poems so incomprehensible that any interpretation is pointless, or all are equally good, which comes to the same thing. This, too, is recognition comedy, only without the jokes. Paterson was dismayed by the ‘joyless wordplay’ and ‘monotone angst’ of the avant-garde’s ‘self-absorbed, closed-system expressionism’: ‘The Norwich phone book or a set of log tables would serve them as well as their Prynne, in whom they seem able to detect as many shades of mindblowing confusion as Buddhists do the absolute.’ Only Paterson’s squeezed middle, the ‘mainstream’, could take the necessary risk: to risk sentimentality in order to write with ‘real feeling’, or risk being found writing rubbish by being too careful to make one’s work understandable.

At the time, I couldn’t fathom why he’d said all this. It seemed a bit contrary to criticise populists for the ‘inadvertent democratisation’ of poetry and then to criticise elitists, or to complain that experimentalists never risked any real self-exposure to an audience while scorning performance poets and workshop therapists. It seemed even weirder as a PR strategy. Contemporary poetry is such a congested space that even minor digs in the ribs rapidly turn into the proverbial knife fight in a phone box, in which everyone comes away bleeding. And it’s hard to feel enthusiastic about rallying to the defence of the threatened mainstream, which sounds a bit like a call to defend Elton John or MTV. Either Paterson’s mainstream poets were not as middle of the road as his name for them suggested, or the threat levels were being artificially hiked up. The Iraq invasion was taking place at the time and angry avant-gardists quickly drew the parallel with neocon politics.

Looking over Paterson’s Selected Poems now, I suspect that these enemies were actually parts of Paterson’s own poetic line-up being ticked off for imagining they could go solo. While he was writing his earlier poems, he was also writing and touring as a guitarist with the lightning-fingered folk-jazz outfit Lammas, and the competitive tension of live performance crackles through the whole collection. Paterson’s narrator is a verbal duellist, adept with jabs, feints and defensive thrusts, and he (it is always he) makes every would-be casual reader into a sparring partner. At the end of ‘Nil Nil’, a shaggy dog story about the preposterous but horribly inevitable chain of coincidences necessary for a small boy to kick a stone down a drain – the kick is the last act of a once great Scottish football club sliding down the league tables, the stone a gallstone from a crashed fighter pilot – the poet suddenly turns on ‘you’:

In short, this is where you get off, reader;
I’ll continue alone, on foot, in the failing light,
following the trail as it steadily fades
into road-repairs, birdsong, the weather, nirvana,
the plot thinning down to a point so refined
not even the angels could dance on it. Goodbye.

You’ve been taken for a ride, in other words, and the mixture of gangster menace (‘this is where you get off’) and brisk self-dismissal is characteristic. Both keep the poet firmly in charge, but so insistently that they actually reveal his need for you to keep listening, a weakness he knows that you know, and so on. You are never allowed just to overhear a Paterson lyric; nods must be exchanged and glances returned.

The rapid descent of both football club and pilot is more than just a joke about fallen heroes. Paterson returns frequently to the toxic self-importance of the modern Western psyche. Our entire grammar is one of dominance, as his T.S. Eliot lecture stressed:

The human dream is one of all things first recognised, and then named, in accordance with their human utility, translated and metaphorised into the human realm. This dream is almost wholly pervasive, so much so we do not call it a dream at all; we even fall asleep and keep on dreaming inside it … I’ve always felt that every morning the poet should stand at the window and remember that nothing that they see, not a bird or stone, has in its possession the name they give it.

This isn’t all that far from the cultural diagnoses offered by the experimentalists Paterson was complaining about; it’s the reason many of them use impersonal composition devices or unreconciled registers of language. Paterson’s ‘Poetry’ makes the argument in a sonnet adapted from Machado’s ‘Otras Canciones a Guiomar’:

                so if the bright coal of his love
begins to smoulder, the poet hears his voice
suddenly forced, like a bar-room singer’s – boastful
with his own huge feeling, or drowned by violins;
but if it yields a steadier light, he knows
the pure verse, when it finally comes, will sound
like a mountain spring, anonymous and serene.
Beneath the blue oblivious sky, the water
sings of nothing, not your name, not mine.

The contradiction between a voice warning you to expect no affirmation from the anonymous calm of pure poetry and the actual appearance of the anonymous calm of pure poetry is the point. Poetry will happen despite the poet’s attempts to write it.

This rift between the pushy, boastful narrative voice and an anti-humanist sentiment runs right through the Selected Poems. It’s an unstable combination: sometimes the irony slips, and Paterson’s narrator seems just to be talking overconfidently about a world indifferent to human meanings. In ‘The Error’, he complains that, like whales evolving in the water, humans have evolved to live in their human-centred dream:

Each self-reflecting mind
is in this manner destined
to forget its element,

and this is why we find
however deep we listen
that the skies are silent.

Despite the dextrous sound-weave which pulls ‘self-reflecting’, ‘its element’, ‘listen’ and ‘silent’ together – the silence is inseparable from the self and the listening – that line in words of one syllable (‘and this is why we find’) still sounds too simple, talking down to the reader. But plenty of creative sparks jump the gap between the performative and experimental sides of Paterson’s writing in a series of poems in which the reader finds certain emotions being dissected, emotions she may feel while reading. ‘An Elliptical Stylus’ starts as a painful memory of his dad’s attempt to buy an expensive needle ‘for our ancient, beat-up Philips turntable’, which made the salesman splutter at their pretension: ‘still smirking, he sent us from the shop/with a box of needles, thick as carpet tacks.’ But then the poem abruptly rounds on any listener who has been encouraged by this to reflect on how the consumer society of the 1960s reinvented class humiliation. Don’t, it says, try to

                    cauterise this fable
with something axiomatic on the nature
of articulacy and inheritance,
since he can well afford to make his own
excuses, you your own interpretation.
But if you still insist on resonance –
I’d swing for him, and every other cunt
happy to let my father know his station,
which probably includes yourself. To be blunt.

The elliptical stylus had made music come so alive that it felt ‘as if we could have walked between the players’. But the poem’s bluntness is the most sensitive pick-up of all, because it makes the sociologist or sympathiser realise they are players in the performance of class and consumerism that is still present in the act of judging or enjoying the poem. In ‘The Reading’, the Greek poet Simonides recounts the story of his famous photographic memory system and how it came in handy when a patron refused to pay up for a performance. The gods were angered, the roof fell in, and only Simonides could help the grieving relatives because he had memorised where the audience had been sitting with ‘that trick of mine; your coupons, O my rapt listeners,/I’ll have nailed by the end of this poem’. As Natalie Pollard observes in Speaking to You: Contemporary Poetry and Public Address, the switch to the Scots slang ‘coupons’ for ‘faces’ (both get punched) suddenly makes the Scottish poet reading this a reincarnation of Simonides, laying bare the real economy beneath any pleasure in his ‘lyric economies’.[*] Yes, you in the third row back. Buy your signed copies in the interval, or check the fire exits.

The sonnet ‘Candlebird’ (a seabird ‘so saturated in oil the whole bird can be threaded with a wick and burned entire’) forestalls its audience even faster:

If, tonight, she scorns me for my song,
You may be sure of this: within the year
Another man will say this verse to her
And she will yield to him for its sad sweetness.

‘“Then I am like the candlebird,”’ he’ll continue,
After explaining what a candlebird is,
‘“Whose lifeless eyes see nothing and see all,
Lighting their small room with my burning tongue;

His shadow rears above hers on the wall
As hour by hour, I pass into the air
.”
Take my hand. Now tell me: flesh or tallow?
Which I am tonight, I leave to you.’

So take my hand and tell me, flesh or tallow.
Which man I am tonight I leave to you.

The uncertainty about which ‘this’ verse is in line three means that the lover attempting seduction by quoting the poet merges into the present poem about being quoted, which is itself another attempted seduction through pathos. Someone is being propositioned by a poem about hurt poets which informs her of every move in advance. Spontaneity and quotation are thoroughly tangled, as they are in the title (an old Lammas tune in which uilleann pipes merge with the mews of seabirds) and in the source, a translation of the second verse of a poem by Abbas Ibn Al-Ahnaf included in a 1970s Penguin collection called Birds through a Ceiling of Alabaster: Three Abbasid Poets.

You scorn me when I speak to you,
Yet lovers who quote my verse succeed.
I’ve become a candle thread destined
To light a room for other men
While burning away into thin air.

Turning this into a sonnet about quoting is an inspired idea; after all, what has the love sonnet been doing for the last four hundred years if not appealing to direct feeling while being perfectly aware that to do so is to repeat a gesture, with voice and echo indistinguishable? The irregularly spaced half-rhymes of Paterson’s version allow some novelty, but binding the italics to the frame narrative, the mixture between ‘continue’, ‘tallow’ and ‘you’ makes one suspect that – in the long tradition of the sonnet – the thought of being on somebody else’s lips may have fired the poet’s imagination more than the beloved.

Second-guessing the reader like this may just sound defensive. Paterson knew you’d think that:

For a short anthology of pre-emptive strikes, notes on the multiple vanities of the form, etc – can I please refer you to the afterword of the previous book, where you will find that your cynicism and distaste has not only been fully anticipated but outstripped by the author’s own. Even in this accomplishment you will nonetheless find him taking no pride.

The self-deceiving self-righteousness of this aphorism from The Blind Eye (2007) is of course deliberate. But Paterson is genuinely interested in the theatricality of poetic ‘voice’, that operatic construction of personality, poetic form, class background, internal audience, degree of famousness, external audience, media ecology, page layout, news events, readerly predilection and timing. Many of his poems return to the feedback loops between sincere emotion and its preconditions. In ‘A Private Bottling’, a boozer spends the night drinking his way through different whiskies, lovingly pursuing his memories in their aromas, from Islay’s ‘whin-fires, heather,/the sklent of its wind and its salty rain’ to ‘burning brake-fluid, then nicotine,/pastis, Diorissimo and wet grass’ or ‘the trace of zinc/tap-water picks up at the moon’s eclipse’, lines whose exquisite sibilances and assonances are picking up trace elements too. But this bravura connoisseurship is the performance of a man in love with memories and residues because his marriage has gone stale. With maudlin vindictiveness, he proposes a toast ‘to your sweet memory, but not to you’, before declaring, solemnly rocking on his feet:

The sun will close its circle in the sky
before I close my own, and drain the purely
offertory glass that tastes of nothing
but silence, burnt dust on the valves, and whisky.

This is a neat synaesthesia – the valves which stay hot for hours inside an old Fender Twin amplifier do indeed have the tang of Tesco Value Scotch – and a nifty piece of characterisation. The comparison comes to our man’s mind because the whole night has been nothing but one long imaginary solo, and he knows it. The significance of the title emerges: drinking whisky is his way of bottling up, and bottling out.

The lovelorn ‘Song’ for the Georgian electronica artist Natalie Beridze wonders similarly about the passions which wrap themselves around the music’s bleeps and squeaks, as we watch geek fandom turn into mild stalking:

O Natalie – I forgive you everything, even your catastrophic adaptation of those lines from ‘Dylan’s’ already shite

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

in the otherwise magnificent ‘Sleepwalkers’,

and when you open up those low-

pass filters in what sounds like a Minimoog emulation they seem to open in my heart also.

Ogden Nash rhymes aside, this ‘song’ is serious about the emotional value of programmed textures, because that’s what poets do when they tinker with a lyric form to make their own ‘voice’ more expressive. Voice itself is another sound effect, the result of what the poem calls the feel of ‘machine and animal suddenly blent’. ‘Blent’, though, is an archaism used by George Eliot which Larkin revives at a crucial moment in ‘Church Going’:

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.

And both sources underline the spiritual dimension behind Paterson’s feeling for technology. Larkin veers between trying to find a secular reason for churches to exist (they encourage seriousness about life) and suspecting that even this dresses them up (compulsions ‘robed as destinies’). Paterson’s interest in the programmable voice is also a fraud-detection mechanism – and ‘blent’ gives away its high moral purpose. He’s vigilant about not making poetry into a surrogate justification for fantasies of individual importance, as he writes in a recent essay on ‘The Lyric Principle’: ‘An algorithm for poetry would be incredibly complex, but not infinitely so; and its detachment from such overvalued and sentimental constructs as “the individual voice” could be just the thing to propel us into a new era of classicism, should we desire or require such a thing.’

But the trouble with all self-conscious returns to classicism, from Eliot onwards, is that you have to be an expressive Romantic to want to get away from all this sentimental individualism. The tone of self-correction that proclaims ‘none of this, none of this matters’ can be, as here, too insistent, and too personal. It’s audible in Paterson’s versions of Machado and Rilke. Translations have long been an escape from the sound of the poet’s own voice, and there are many beautiful moments when Paterson allows himself to be inhabited by calmer tones. But his innate desire for vividness means he can’t help upping the ante even when Machado and Rilke are doing the opposite. Machado’s ‘Profession of Faith’ sonnet from ‘Parables’ speaks serenely of the spiritual dependence between creator and creature, poet and poem, and ends (in Alan Trueblood’s fairly faithful 1982 translation):

                May the pure stream
Of loving-kindness that flows forever,
flow in my heart. Oh, Lord, seal up
the clouded springs of unloving faith.

Paterson’s ends:

                Let that pure source
that pours its empty heart out to us pour
through my heart too; and let the turbid river
of every heartless faith dry up for ever.

Loving-kindness becomes empty-heartedness, and neither those sliding ‘r’ sounds nor the Buddhist overtones of ‘empty’ can make this phrase any less spiky. Rilke’s ninth sonnet to Orpheus says that only the poet who has sung for the dead can be a prophet:

Only where those two worlds join
are there pure voices,
calm, without age.

In Paterson’s ‘Tone’, this is:

Only in the double realm
is the voice both infinite
and assuaged.

Where Rilke uses ‘ewig und mild’, Paterson’s ‘assuaged’ raises the hackles which are supposed not to be there.

‘The Box’ is a guitar-shaped concrete poem about poetry with a hole at the centre. Around the white space, Paterson writes:

                                            Bert
            Kwakkel,     my Dutch
                luthier,     emptied
      so much wood out of the wood
  it takes no more than a dropped shoe
  or a cleared throat on the hall landing
    to set its little blue moan off again.

A real-life version of Wallace Stevens’s blue guitar of art, the reverberation within this fabulously taut instrument also ‘becomes the place of things as they are’. Like the poet, the guitar sings better the emptier it is: ‘I contemplate it/like a skull.’ But having your own luthier is a long way from buying carpet-tack record-player needles. A Kwakkel guitar is a conspicuously expensive route to enlightenment, and the detail can’t help but mark the difference between father and son – a shiver of self-magnification amplified by the suggestion of playing Hamlet in facing the skull. In some uncharacteristically earnest lines from ‘The Phantom’, Paterson says ‘we are ourselves the void in contemplation’, a void ‘radiant/with neither love nor hate nor apathy’. But the remorseless self-criticism needed to realise this makes these poems a good deal more personal than the Norwich phone book.

[*] Oxford, 280 pp., £60, August 2012, 978 0 19 965700 1.