Don Paterson, ‘Sonnets and Songs’, 14 December 2015

by Adam Crothers


‘Poetry readings aren’t gigs,’ Don Paterson corrects himself in the course of an anecdote; but as from-the-page poetry readings go, this feels gig-like before it even begins. Advertised as a night of ‘Sonnets and Songs’, the event is to feature Paterson performing on guitar as well as reading from his (largely) acclaimed 2015 collection 40 Sonnets. And before he enters the room, the modest setup of cables, pedals and amp waiting in the stage area of the low-lit room cannot but invoke the buzz of a music venue. When a roadie comes on with an electric guitar a couple of minutes before the event starts, the invocation is surely complete.

That roadie, though, is Faber poetry editor Matthew Hollis; the low-lit room is the event space of Faber’s Bloomsbury headquarters, with plenty of the publisher’s books, including pricey Faber Members editions, on sale; and if this is a gig, it’s fair to suggest that it’s a corporate one.

Paterson has his detractors: there are, for instance, parts of Cambridge where speaking a word in his favour is akin to spitting into your interlocutor’s soup, and coming from that town to London for this event I wonder how far the suspicions of various anti-Paterson friends and acquaintances might be confirmed by proceedings. The notion of a poetic ‘mainstream’ is silly, but, to indulge the term briefly, this event is a mainstream publisher’s promotion of a mainstream poet, and if it wants to defy expectations of status-quo box-checking it has work to do.

Hollis’s laudatory intro doesn’t help, although it tries to. Supposedly when Paterson’s first collection appeared in 1993 it shook up the ‘white, male, middle-class, Oxbridge-educated, mostly dead’ world of contemporary British poetry: this is far from persuasive, and not only because, as Paterson acknowledges, he’s not exactly none of those things, nor was he. And, frankly, looking around at the forty- or fifty-strong audience, one hardly has the impression that all of human life is here gathered. Such is the nature of a Monday-night Bloomsbury poetry reading, perhaps; but it does make the suggestion that Paterson is effectually anti-establishment seem rather shaky. When 40 Sonnets is described by Hollis as ‘career-making’, it might be countered that the attention paid to the book merely expands upon that paid to the two decades of preceding career; when it’s described as ‘forward-looking’, it’s hard not to hear ‘Forward-looking’ and the hum of prize-culture machinery.

Really 40 Sonnets can’t stand up under the pressure of acclaim that is, tonight and in general, being put upon it. This is to speak not of the book’s quality but of its qualities: its brief catalogue of formal compressions and explosions, Rilke-inflected metaphysics and restrained elegy suggest that it is either a wilfully, skilfully minor work or a sampling from a far larger project, its title echoing Berryman’s 77 Dream Songs, itself a sliver. Certainly the poet’s confident understatement and wry modesty throughout the event give the impression that, from his point of view, the collection is merely forty instances of poetry’s being a non-mysterious ‘neutral function of language’: it’s not that he’s going through the motions, but he’s definitely doing his job.

This might sound grim, but it means that the book and the performance quietly cut against accusations both of crass populism and of showy privilege, in part by virtue of being so quiet. Paterson has spoken in opposition to the democratisation of poetry-writing, and in doing so has adopted a position that may as well have been consciously designed to irritate as many people on both sides of the fictional innovative-mainstream divide as possible. In his writing, he is determined neither to fetishise individuality nor to Speak to the Human Condition: this is the poet as neither precious snowflake nor strident prophet. Both are hard roles to avoid, and much of interest can happen in an attempt to resist their various temptations, to fall carefully between their two stools.

Tonight poems are read, and a pair of songs (Bill Evans’s ‘Blue on Green’ and Burns’s ‘Ae Fond Kiss’) played, without stammer or swagger: yes, a little of both might have been welcome, and yes, it’s annoying when Paterson doesn’t perform a John Abercrombie piece because of its being too much of a ‘risk’, but the sonnets’ intimate negotiations, like the vulnerability of a solo musical performance in front of a poetry crowd, carry risks as well. The art is subtly at odds with the smooth professionalism of its context, not least because jazz and the sonnet (despite their interactions with blues structures) are not, to my ear, obviously complementary forms, and are sister arts mainly owing to the fact that, as Paterson suggests, they tend not to make much money (although those Members editions must help). The poems are primarily on unhappy subjects; but they seem unhappy in another sense, uncomfortable with receiving attention of this sort. Where Faber are, not unreasonably, thinking of careers and momentum, Paterson is thinking of work and of moments, of the three-second line that the human brain understands as existing in the present, or of gorgeously reverby guitar notes vanishing by the handful; where the publisher wants to make a statement, the poet wants to make poems, the musician music. Paterson is an editor at Picador and so would hardly claim that these priorities cannot coexist, but on nights like tonight one sees them interacting in a small space. The resulting tension is educational; and if one is prepared to enjoy that sort of thing, it also makes for a pretty good gig.


Image credit: Mario Pleitez

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