20.5.16

"Squaring the Circle": Don Paterson's 40 Sonnets


Don Paterson, illustration by Joe Ciardiello
 
In 101 Sonnets: From Shakespeare to Heaney (1999), Don Paterson set about showcasing the sonnet’s rich history. But his anthology’s enduring popularity has had as much to do with its clever, entertaining and controversial introduction. Even at this early stage in his career as poet and commentator, Paterson is found arguing for the sonnet as “one of the greatest achievements of human ingenuity”, a “box for . . . dreams” which “represents one of the most characteristic shapes human thought can take”. By turns convincing and indulgent, his thesis is grounded in the unifying and sense-making powers of rhyme and metre; the sonnet’s loose adherence to the proportions of the golden section; and his deep admiration for what the best ­sonneteers can do with this little “squared ­circle”, a resistant medium which allows poets to “trick a logic from the shadows” of unconscious thought. Much like his recent layman’s guide Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets (reviewed in the TLS, January 14, 2011), it makes for compelling reading, not least since Paterson’s fascination is also that of the practitioner. From Nil Nil (1993) with its studies in desolation and aftermath, to the serious play with personae in God’s Gift to Women (1997) and the existential hymns for the poet’s twin sons in Landing Light (2003), the sonnet abounds throughout Paterson’s oeuvre.

So a new collection comprised entirely of fourteen-liners comes as little surprise. Moreover, after the austere undertaking of Paterson’s last volume, Rain (2009), a bleak book that ingeniously examined the project of elegy, but also that of language and humanity, the poet must have been on the lookout for a more various way back into writing verse. And in 40 Sonnets, Paterson certainly illustrates the form’s versatility. Delivering exactly what it promises, it is an especially slight collection, even from an author known for championing brevity. But where many of his contemporaries exhibit a worrying trend towards publishing books that far surpass 40 Sonnets in length, Paterson’s icy intelligence, imagination and painstaking craft make for disproportionately substantial reading:

I must quit sleeping in the afternoon.
I do it for my heart, but all too soon
my heart has called it off. It does not love me.
If it downed tools, there’d soon be nothing of me.
Its hammer-beat says you are, not I am.
It prints me off here like a telegram.
What do I say? How can the lonely word
know who has sent it out, or who has heard?

From the everyday setting of an afternoon nap to intimations of mortality, “Here” offers a meditation on identity as linguistic gesture. Paterson delivers all this in crisp and exact language, finding heart-thumping end rhymes that feel anything but forced. It is this command of syntax combined with lucid philosophical thinking that has come to define Paterson’s poetry. A similar spirit of questing and questioning makes for some of the best sonnets in this book. “Souls” takes the numinous aspects of our selves and expresses them as an aberration from the physical, a world where “space is stone, and time a breackneck terror”; in “The Air”, the element we take for granted becomes a mysterious abstraction, “an empty datastream” that is “nowhere” and “never”, a powerful reminder that we are but a brief chapter in the universe’s narrative. Poems such as these have raised Paterson’s stature to that of one of the best English-language poets currently writing. If they sometimes exhibit a slight over-earnestness, and wear their author’s European influences too heavily for certain tastes (both Antonio Machado and Rainer Maria Rilke are lingering presences), they also demonstrate the rare value of a poetry of assertion and argument – poetry as a mode of knowledge, no less.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/40-Sonnets-Don-Paterson/dp/0571310893

In the end, though, it is the variety and impressive consistency of 40 Sonnets that make it such a bravura performance. “The Roundabout” is perhaps the most beautiful of Paterson’s poems to his twin sons; “Funeral Prayer” is a warm, frank yet simple elegy that one can imagine being read at many an actual service. I defy anyone to read “Mercies”, the tale of having a pet put down, without a catch in the throat. There is also the welcome return of Paterson’s cutting sense of humour, which has been in rather short supply in recent times. “Requests” and “To Dundee City Council” are particular gems: both damning indictments of the artless and inept, the former addressed to a blathering poet on stage, the ­latter to a council presiding over a local library where “poor folks go to die / or download porno on the free wifi”. There are misfires too: “A Powercut” is the kind of workshopped list-poem that Paterson has, in the past, quite rightly dismissed; and exactly how “The Version” – a long-winded prose piece that meanders through its Borgesian conceit of artistic paranoia and forgery – constitutes a sonnet, is beyond this correspondent’s ken. Nevertheless, 40 Sonnets remains an appealingly slender book of remarkable emotional, intellectual and tonal range, from a writer who shows that poetic form is precisely what you make of it.




Ben Wilkinson is currently writing a reader's guide to the poetry of Don Paterson, due to appear in 2017. 


first published in The Times Literary Supplement

11.2.16

      The Catch





For you, the catch wasn't something caught:
not word or contender, attention or fire.
Not the almost-missed train, or the sort
of wave surfers might wait an entire
lifetime for. Not the promise that leaves
the old man adrift for days, his boat
creaking, miles offshore. Nor what cleaves
the heart in two, that left your throat
parched and mute for taking pill
after yellow-green pill, the black-blue
taste the price you paid to kill
the two-parts sadness to one-part anger.
No. The catch was what you could never
let go. It's what you carried, and still do.












poem by Ben Wilkinson


from For Real (Smith|Doorstop Books, 2014)

10.2.16

"Elegantly graceful, or decorative and over-designed": Sarah Howe's Loop of Jade



Poetry, as RS Thomas once claimed, is that which arrives at the intellect by way of the heart. The poet’s task is to find the effective middle ground; to perform that lyric trick whereby thought and emotion seem to effortlessly combine. Seek to provoke only feeling, and crude sentimentality ensues; indulge in the cerebral, and the poem might be interesting enough, but it will remain lifeless – a kind of versified intelligence. In Loop of Jade, Sarah Howe’s debut collection, winner this week of this year’s TS Eliot prize, the poet attempts to merge personal accounts of her dual Anglo-Chinese heritage with her scholar’s penchant for the intellectually abstruse. The result is a book of poems that are as playfully and frustratingly recondite as they are memorable and unusually affecting.

“The twin lids / of the black lacquer box / open away”, writes Howe in “Mother’s Jewellery Box”: “a moonlit lake / ghostly lotus leaves / unfurl in tiers // silver chains / careful o’s and a’s / in copperplate”. This might seem an unassuming vignette with which to open a collection, but it sets the tone. An evocative box of trinkets is a good metaphor for Howe’s poetry, possessing as it does a well-wrought yet elaborate quality. Depending on a reader’s taste, these poems will seem either elegantly graceful, or decorative and over-designed. “Night in Arizona” is a prime example of the best and worst of this style. On the one hand, Howe’s musical gift for conjuring insistent rhythms evokes the claustrophobic heat of a motel room in the desert: kicking the bed sheet to the floor, the sound is “like the spilling of sand / from shovel and the night air blurs / for a second with its footfall”. But on the other, the preference for elevated diction in what is ultimately an account of mildly irritating sleeplessness comes to mismatch language and event: “the razory arms of a juniper rattling crazily / at the edge of that endless reddening haze”. In these more conventional lyric sections, Howe is at her best when she reins in linguistic excess. “Earthward” is a subtle meditation on watching “the shadowplay / of trees / against the blinds”, disturbing replicas that shake “with a gusting stutter / more restless still / for being not / the thing itself”. The effect is haunting and immediate, precisely because of the sparse diction employed.

Thankfully, Loop of Jade is itself restless. This is true of the poet’s journeys through the China of her youth and the clash of differing cultures apparent in her adult life, but also of its formal repertoire. The jewellery box opens on to various worlds – some real; some mythical; some deftly blurring the two – and Howe switches between shorter lyrics and longer narrative forms, keeping readers on their toes. In “(c) Tame”, one of a scattered sequence that takes its titles from a fictional taxonomy of animals, the historical Chinese custom of smothering an unwanted newborn girl in ashes is assimilated into a mythical tale of a daughter transformed into a soaring bird. This kind of symbolic metamorphosis strongly recalls another recent Chatto debutant, Liz Berry, the eerie exactitude of the poem’s narration, combined with its magic realist wavering between the brutal and the fantastical, makes for an imaginative dissection of masculine violence.



It is a shame, then, that too often Howe opts for an unconvincingly heightened and florid register – in “Pythagoras’s Curtain”, “cicadas … cadenza the acousmatic dusk”; “A Painting” lays it on thick with “the oyster-crust … of an unscraped palette – chewy rainbows, blistered jewels” – instead of working harder to write with the difficult clarity and complex simplicity of which she is capable. The most memorable writing in Loop of Jade tends to stem from this latter approach, and nowhere more so than in the book’s title poem. The Hong Kong of Howe’s early years is a fecund territory for a poet seeking to reconcile a quintessentially English life with a starkly contrasting eastern heritage; even more so for one fascinated by the linguistic and cultural collisions and confusions that define our increasingly global community. Though far from the most polished writing on offer here, “Loop of Jade” traces the poet’s background and China’s recent history through an unflinching, moving and minutely observed portrait of her mother, who tells vivid stories of her childhood with “a pause-pocked, melodic, strangely dated hesitancy”. In between revivifying these memories – of a latrine that sprouted “the glistening bodies of cockroaches, like obscene sucked sweets”, or being made to wash her hair with “a green detergent meant for scouring floors” – the poem relays the tragic Chinese legend of star-crossed lovers turned into butterflies in their premature deaths.

Weaving between the frank prose of memoir and a ballad-like lyric mode, Howe creates a nuanced metaphor for release – from tensions between the opposing worlds that the poet herself yearns for, turning to the transformative promise of poetry in reconciling the irreconcilable. Her fondness for lexicographical conjecture can feel trivial and slight. But whatever the subject, it is the poet’s gift for simile and metaphor-making that lends Loop of Jade its transformative scope, able to make a school memory of chanting the names of Hong Kong’s islands “strange again, like savouring / those New Year candies – small translucent moons / waning on the tongue”.



first published in The Guardian, Saturday 16 January 2016

17.11.15

The Perils of being a Poetry Critic


“Burdensome artistically, exhausting over time, damaging to one’s reputation, the source of rebuffs both private and professional … poetry reviewing is an enterprise only a few people do credibly or well”. So Mary Kinzie declared in a letter to Poetry magazine, around the time I stumbled onto this strange path of poetry reviewing, nearly a decade ago. It’s a nifty quotation, and one I’ve gone back to over the years. The hours are long, the rewards are poor, and your typical response is the indistinguishable silence of the indifferent, agreed and aggrieved. That, and the occasional feeling – after a ‘mixed’ or ‘negative’ review appears in print – that somewhere out there, your name is being scribbled in a black book. If you’re really lucky, the poet in question – or their partner, or colleagues, or friends – may even take to social media with brimming ire. (Poets are ‘the irritable race’, as Alice Fulton once quipped.) Why bother? Why on earth did I start penning these things?

Because I’d just begun to take my own poetry seriously, and thought of reviewing as an overlapping endeavour. A way of stretching and questioning my reading habits, honing a sense of what I thought poetry was capable of, how and why poets succeeded or failed in their poems, and what I wanted for my own. Because, during my final year as an undergrad, immersing myself in new poetry instead of studying the things I should have been, I came across some of the most witty, smart, engaged and engaging prose I’d read, in the form of electric, genuinely discerning pieces by the likes of Ian Hamilton, Michael Hofmann, Ian Sansom – reviews as memorable as a good poem. Because I studied literature and philosophy at university, mixing a propensity to debate and argue with a desire to do so in crafted, perceptive, entertaining, even downright infuriating writing. No doubt, too, because in a fit of youthful hubris, I fancied myself as one of Kinzie’s ‘few people’. With a love of language, an analytical mind, and an (ahem) argumentative bent, I might be halfway decent at the job. (How little I knew. Truth is, reviewing is an art form in and of itself. As with writing poems, getting any good is a lifetime’s work.) And because, increasingly and ever more importantly, I believe in the necessity, as Douglas Dunn puts it, of “an honest, descriptive, detailed, clarifying criticism”. It keeps poetry healthy, and it’s poetry’s weedkiller. “No good growth without good gardeners”.

In the end, though, the real peril of being a dedicated poetry reviewer isn’t occasionally upsetting folk – that happens to anyone who lives an honest life – or unwittingly shutting doors on yourself. It isn’t publically broadcasting your opinions in a way that might make you wince, years down the line. It isn’t even, as Michael Hofmann once said, the knowledge that “a lot of the articulacy and connections and the nerves that might have gone on poems, have gone on these pieces”, though that can be a sorry thought. The real peril is more of a threat: that you might graft to become as astute a critic as possible, and the worst warnings still turn out to be true: that the critical culture is forever losing ground to a fast-food one, and that cash prizes, administered by a process marred with conflicts of interest, are the endgame of literary reception. But then, even as I entertain these thoughts, I console myself: through whatever affliction or vocational derangement, it was me who fell into poetry reviewing, not the other way round. The poet in me has no choice but to write poems; so too, the critic and his criticism. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Or so I tell myself.




first published in New Walk magazine, issue #10, Spring/Summer 2015