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.

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