Don Paterson: I Hit the Beach and Swept Away the Town
Edinburgh International Book Festival,
Thursday 20th August, 2015
Don Paterson came to Edinburgh to read from and discuss his latest collection 40 Sonnets – and though we didn’t get tsunami-like obliteration as flagged up in the title, there was plenty clearing away: so what came through, and what we heard, was tonic and enjoyable. Following on from a very good reception for Rain, and some rattling but productive exchanges over his commentaries on Shakepeare’s Sonnets – Don Paterson’s projected persona was a pleasant mix of genial and bemused, pugnacious and droll. I wouldn’t sound out any one of these epithets with particular emphasis – this is a writer sharper than a tack, and a swift counter-puncher – but the tone was comfortably set for the audience from the start.
To some extent the substance was established not by Paterson, but by his interlocutor, the mahogany tinted and dapper Stuart Kelly – with a technicolour fogle fizzing out of his breast pocket – who was clearly a fan and had done his groundwork with more than care. In prompting responses from the poet he rarely risked over-workng a point, so generally the probing and badinage worked to good effect; and though Paterson may have tracked through the issues before, his answers were fresh and useful, rather than ready-cooked. As when he talked about there not really being a problem for him about the difficulties in the sonnet form, since practice made him ‘used to it’ – in the same sense that an organist would approach a fugue familiarly, though without presumption.
At the same time there was the importance of testing or stretching the form – Rilke was one of his exemplars here – and the graft of shaping possibilities out of ‘the germ of an idea .. the things you get for nothing’. I recalled how in a similar vein (writing about his book Reading Shakepeare’s Sonnets) he had described Shakespeare’s use of the poem ‘as a way of working out what he’s thinking. not as a means of reporting that thought’. Perhaps ‘most poets’ did that, he conceded; but not many followed the Bard to the point where ‘with a minimum of experiment’ he was capable of ‘writing the form into transparency, until it became as effortless as breathing’.
Paterson wasn’t claiming that for himself either, of course, and there are plenty signs of experimentation in 40 Sonnets; but he does want to see the form ‘freed from its own expectations’ – permitting a broad range of contexts, reactions, tone. That we got a taste of in the readings, with tender elegy and satire and stark affront (as when we have GPS direction to that ‘fine country, the fuck away’ and a darkling vision of the Blairs in their boudoire. There were also some affecting pieces close to family ties (with one conclusion “Mother, why so far afield?’ and a poignant meditation on a daughter of ghostly presence, not yet come to be.
Back in conversation he was in good form. Asked if he was keen to shift ground after this sonnet phase – and the anti-lyrical tendency of pentameters ‘you canny sing’ – he responded readily that though we might think he’d be ‘champing’ to try something different, his inclination actually was ‘never to write again’. Pressed a bit on metaphysics he said, ‘I believe everything does come from matter; but matter is miraculous’. Being sensitive to ‘the perils of facility’ he held it was ‘a good thing to make it harder again.’ One aim was to work where, as for the musician, ‘the whole piece is encoded in a fragment of melody’.
For Paterson a key desire (going back to Shakespeare) was transparency, while at the same time acknowledging ‘the thing in question is outwith the usual channels of intelligibility’, and in some respects the focus in poetry ‘is where language fails’. In spite of these caveats his connection to his audience in the final selection from 40 Sonnets was clear and memorable – personal, close, political, disarming.
Reviewer: Mr Scales