John Law: Weel-kent in France

The Poem: Lyric, Sign, Metre

Don Paterson
Faber, £25, ISBN: 978-0571206629, PP732
by Lesley McDowell


August 11, 2018 | by Lesley McDowell

The Poem is a daunting prospect. Some 732 pages long, published in hardback, with a sombre blue cover marked only by a bright orange triangle it both confers and threatens status and importance by its appearance as much as by its sheer weight. Inside there is a preface, then three sections, before finishing with Endnotes, a Bibliography and an Index.

Those who prefer to picture poetic creation as mystical, feminine and muse-like, and view these last three in particular as hindering ‘extras’ (there are footnotes, too), should look away now. It is doubtful Don Paterson would take them seriously, anyway. He may celebrate the business of writing poetry as a ‘messy’ one, and condemn those who ‘credit’ the poet with ‘the deliberate creation and brilliant timing of an effect that was achieved through a mixture of luck, intuition, accident, error or unconscious gesture’, but he is here to demystify a great deal of that messiness, and that demystification will involve diagrams, boxes, numbers, even matrices, for heaven’s sake. No more of this wind moving through the lyre nonsense. This is hard work.

He is also keen to slay some twentieth-century dragons of literary theory such as post-structuralism and New Criticism, which get short shrift for their downgrading of the importance of feeling. But if early twenty-first century poetry has tended to be characterized – and indeed, popularized – by nationwide poetry slams, with the stages of music festivals taken over by ‘street’ poets like Kate Tempest and Hollie McNish, their omission suggests Paterson is not too keen on them either. Perhaps that is not so – Kanye West’s rap, ‘Gold Digger’ is, after all, thoroughly and seriously treated (‘This, one feels, punching the air, is exactly what accentual metre should sound like: poetry dragged back into a musical, rawly temporal rhythmic frame, not noodling around with stresses one can barely hear’). But general accessibility is not what Paterson is after; indeed, he takes great care to warn laypersons off, especially from the third section on Metre, and in other places insists that readers skip some pages altogether, helpfully pointing out exactly which pages these are.

He is not being disingenuous in doing this. For all the colloquial directness of this pedagogical tome (‘so long as it ticks just enough of our core, dictionary-definition zebra-attributes to form a quorum, we’ll agree to call it a damn zebra; I should mention that while I’ll use the words “connotation” and “attribute” to mean roughly the same thing…’), it has a job to do and Paterson does not want to waste anyone’s time. His readers are lovers of poetry, yes, but they are also the next generation of poets – perhaps there is an element of a gathering of lecture notes that as professor of poetry at St Andrews University he would have accumulated for teaching that younger generation – and he doesn’t want them to get it wrong. Ultimately, poetry is about meaning, for the poet as well as the reader; repeatedly, he insists that ‘poets write to find out what they think, not to “commit a thought to poetry”.’

It is hard to think of another contemp-orary book on poetry being as important (not self-important, though some may see it this way), or as thorough, or as rigorous, both intellectually and psychologically, as this volume is. Nothing less, perhaps, should have been expected from a poet who has won every serious poetry award, some more than once; who has translated Machado and Rilke; who has published volumes of criticism and anthologies.

The breadth and depth of detail in these three sections, or essays, Lyric, Sign and Metre, is both remarkable and irresistible. In the first essay, Paterson extols poetry’s aims to ‘transcend the limitations of human memory’ and he does a beautiful job of proving his thesis. ‘To recall a poem is the poem’ captures with great succinctness the emotional investment we place in a particular poem and which we can recall with a snap of the fingers because, as he says, it is ‘part of your being’. He doesn’t like workshops where poets are encouraged to write to order because inspiration is not necessarily ‘jump-started’; but there is a lovely notion of the act of creation for a poet being ‘analogous to trying to remember a poem they have forgotten.’

It’s impossible to forget also, in this essay on the lyric, the influence of Wordsworth, his Lyrical Ballads, his ‘man speaking to men’, his embrace of prose in poetry to do so. The ‘ghosthood’ that Paterson speaks of at the beginning of this section – as human beings we are unique in understanding our own mortality – is also present in any discussion of poetry, those poets who have passed on after impressing upon us for ever. Paterson also explores the musical qualities of voice that contribute to this memorizing quality of poetry, discussing the qualities of ‘half-rhyme’ and dismissing the demands of ‘show-not-tell’ which, he believes, hamper the production of the interior voice.

When he moves on to the production of meaning itself in the second essay, ‘Sign’, he does so through stressing connection with the reader (‘that our feelings are engaged is the first thing the poem requests of the reader’), and those tropes which alternately undermine that connection or which are supposed to reinforce it. This section does become more technical as he seeks to expose ‘the myth of the four tropes’ (metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche and irony) as inadequate descriptions of the main ways in which we convey the meaning of a poem (his ‘own scheme’ prefers metaphor, metonymy, symbol and asymbol, the latter connecting to ‘aseme’, the anti-seme of arbitrary link’).

This second essay is undeniably tricky (and I speak as someone who once studied semiotics for a PhD). Paterson works hard to show what he means, but always through a sheer joy of the incredible variety of language, what it can do and how it does it (‘poets underestimate a sign’s ability to generate a great many secondary attributes’), and this gets the reader through the lists which start to appear, and then the tables, and then the diagrams. There is a little bit of fun with the ‘Improbability Translator’, through which he runs Shakespeare’s eighteenth sonnet ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ – the Improbability Translator ‘runs a text through every language in its database in alphabetical order, translating it into Afrikaans, back into English’ and so on, to produce alternative ‘translated’ first lines (‘It takes a day in summer?’; ‘This should be the summer?’; ‘It is hot?’; ‘This is hot’). It’s making an important point again about the conveyance of meaning being about feeling and experience, not hard facts. It is how to do it that this section excels in demonstrating, and would-be poets – those who are not daunted by it anyway – are going to find necessary wonders all through it.

The final essay is the longest of the three by far, and possibly the least accessible and most technical. Paterson begins by deploring the new critics’ effort to ‘remove messy intent and affect from the study of metre’, because, he argues, this has led to ‘a failure to read stress and rhythm as a sufficiently complex and subjective phe-nomenon.’ Not ‘sufficiently complex’ is your warning for what is to come: ‘insufficiently complex’ is not going to be a charge levelled at this section. But there are many delights for the layperson, too: a lovely brief examina-tion of stress in Emily Dickinson’s ‘I Started Early Took My Dog’ which has you reading it aloud in a completely different way, and an explanation of the importance of choice for longer or shorter words – choices that, of course, are not arbitrary but which have not necessarily been made for the reasons you might assume. I also liked the experiment Paterson suggests of imagining a particular poem is not the whole poem and seeing what that does to meaning (his example, ‘Dover Beach’, is perfect for this).

His aim with The Poem may not primarily be to wrestle poetry-reading and poetry creation from the hands of theorists; nor is it to discourage those poets and readers who do not know their Asemia from their Dysemia, although both these things may result from it. Rather, it is the work of a foremost poet of his generation imparting his considerable knowledge and, certainly, revelling in difficulty, though it is apparent throughout that he wants only for his readers also to relish that difficulty. It is perhaps then a contradictory work that seeks to teach as inclusively as possible, yet also at times feels quite out of reach because of its sheer weight of technical detail and its complexity. But there can be no doubt that it is a volume that deserves all the majesty a sombre cover can muster, and it is hard to imagine a volume having more impact on generations of poets to come than this one.

From this Issue


by Alan Taylor


by Lesley McDowell


by Brian Morton


by Tom Pow

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