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Situated in the Peter Scott Gallery, Don Paterson OBE FRSL delivered readings of his new poetry from an upcoming, yet-to-be-titled anthology of sonnets along with an elegy-like reading of ‘The Present’ by late poet, Michael Donaghy. The Gallery’s current exhibition, Hunker Down by Paul McDevitt, was the perfect back-drop to Paterson’s thought-provoking poetry. The centre piece of the exhibition, reminiscent of radio waves, transmitted fantastically to Patterson’s melancholic lines. Though, naturally, the night held many laughs from the audience.
Professor Paul Farley FRSL, stood up to introduce the poet, making the customary ice-breaker, ‘I’m sure I used to be taller,’ as he strains to see over the lectern, receiving much laughter from the packed audience. The Lancaster University professor then reeled off a huge list of the poet’s merits, to which Paterson bowed his head with bashful pride.
Paterson was born in Dundee in 1963, he later moved to London to work as a jazz musician – which was around the same time he started writing poetry. He now is a lecturer at the University of St Andrews. He won an Eric Gregory Award in 1990 and has so far published eight collections of poetry with his first Nil Nil (1993) winning the Forward Poetry Prize for Best First Collection and subsequently, God’s Gift to Women (1997) winning the T. S. Eliot Prize and Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. Landing Light (2003) won both the T. S. Eliot Prize and Whitbread Poetry Award of that year. His last collection, Rain, was published in 2009 and won the Forward Poetry Prize for Best Poetry Collection of the same year. He has also edited a number of works including, most recently, Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A New Commentary (2010) which he claims influenced his current work with sonnets. He was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in the 2010 New Year Honours.
When Paterson finally got up to speak, it was with a nervous joke he introduced the work he was to read, ‘these are all sonnets… and the good thing about sonnets is, you know they’re going to be short’ which amused the crowd and seemed to relax the poet. He went on to explain the inspiration for the first poem he was to read. Upon his move back to Dundee which he described as ‘a mistake’ as the ‘post-apocalyptic landscape’ was nothing like the Dundee he grew up in. Nevertheless, it was still his ‘shithole’ and, when Dundee City Council asked him to write a poem to commemorate the city in their bid for City of Culture, he came up with ‘To Dundee City Council’. A humorous, anecdotal poem fitting with the ironic nature of the subject. He continued this tone in the next poem exploring Googling yourself. The repeated ‘What Paterson fails to realise is…’ led to raucous laughter from the audience with his interruptions of ‘these are all real,’ the poem was very well received – obviously more so than the poems these comments were about!
The tone then took a more serious turn with a powerful dedication to John Abercrombie, who he nicknamed ‘the greatest guitar player,’ reminding us of Don’s roots in music. Then he performed his version of ‘Little Aster’ by Gottfried Benn, which took us on a journey dissecting corpses with his incredible imagery. One of the things which I loved about Paterson’s performance was his ability to switch between the often morbid tones of his poetry to his witty self, giving the audience a quick comical breather before delving into graver subjects.
Paterson’s next poem, ‘Power Cut,’ was inspired by a horrific event in which he was stuck in a lift. In the true Paterson way, the poem was significantly dark detailing his own frustration and fear at the situation he found himself in accompanied by the witty asides explaining the irony of it all – there had only been two floors. The following two poems, ‘Absinthian’ and ‘Le Joueur d’echecs’ take a darker turn exploring the apocalypse and the unrealistic nature of movies. Then we get his humour with ‘sometimes you write poems which you don’t know what they’re about at all’ describing ‘A threshold’ in which I got a sense of desolation from his emotive imagery. The audience was silent; the only sound was the cogs clicking the words over in their riveted minds.
The next poem ‘Wave’ creates a self-conscious narrator in the wave with its one desire to destroy the shore. Following the water theme, ‘A Pocket Horizon’ adopts the language of a drunken man to describe a nautical table used to measure the horizon and get your bearings whilst at sea. These thought-provoking poems bring you back to the uniqueness of simple objects. The next poem links to this theme. ‘House’ is based on the American Soap of the same name exploring faith and our loss of it.
Then, that ‘wonderful wedding poem’ of Michael Donaghy’s: ‘The Present’. Paterson’s reading of the poem is beautifully emotive with gothic images of the moon and hopeful visions of the future. Paterson follows with the witty prose sonnet ‘The Version’ which evokes the idea that we ‘lose everything in translation,’ that a poet’s best work would be a blank piece of paper. Fantastically witty with lines such as the ‘silent poet leaves no trace’ and the working out of his own fear that he will cease to be in death. His last reading, ‘Rain’ connects perfectly with these ideas that ‘none of this, none of this matters’.
After the huge applause from the crowd, Paul Farley introduces the Question and Answers section of the evening.
When asked what the meaning of ‘The Version’ was, Paterson replied that ‘[all writers] would like to think our work will outlast us… poetry has a life of its own… in many ways it wipes us out… this poem is exploring that fear of our own poetry’.
Another question was posed regarding his decision to only write sonnets and whether it was because he enjoyed it to which Paterson laughed ‘you don’t have to enjoy writing poetry – if you enjoy it then you’re doing it wrong!’ He chose the sonnet because it is a convenient form which is useful for following certain themes. The form itself ‘says something about the human mind,’ it is something which can become automatic. He truly believes that Shakespeare wrote so many sonnets because he became accustomed to the form until he simply didn’t see it anymore – it became innate. He even claimed that the extra line in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 99 was a ‘mistake,’ he simply did not realise there was an extra line. This is, of course, all explained in his book, Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A New Commentary (2010).
Paterson also had some interesting ideas regarding the mechanical writing of poetry or whether poetry could ever be mechanical. He believes that poetry is something which comes to you, it flows naturally and you cannot force it or teach yourself to become inspired – it just happens. He said, ‘You should never have an assignment for poetry, it has a difficult relationship with time’ which is an issue with a time-restricted creative writing course. He debated that often you have ‘two things you know go together but can’t quite connect so the poem becomes a means of bridging these two ideas’ and ‘working out what that deep, strange perplexity is’. He believes that this ‘aurora,’ often described by poets as a prerequisite for writing a poem, is ‘a state of mind that you get into.’ He doesn’t believe that it is ‘accessible’ in the sense that you can control it. ‘Poetry is like lightning but you can’t stand out in a thunderstorm… yet, poets have bad habits of standing out in thunderstorms.’ He also talked of the one main flaw of poetry – when is a poem ever finished? Ending the night by saying ‘Poetry can’t be finished, it isn’t even abandoned, poetry isn’t trying to say something definitive, it’s about asking questions and making the reader think’.
Well Don Paterson, your poetry definitely makes us think.