Nationality: Scottish. Born: Dundee, 30 October 1963. Career: Since 1982 jazz musician, London. Writer-in-residence, Dundee University, 1993–95. Since the late 1990s poetry editor, Picador Books. Awards: Eric Gregory award, 1990; Forward Poetry prize for best first collection, 1993; Arvon/Observer International Poetry Competition, 1993; Scottish Arts Council Book award, 1993; T.S. Eliot prize, 1998; Geoffrey Faber prize, 1998. Address: c/o Faber and Faber, 3 Queen Square, London WC1N 3AU, England.
Nil Nil. London, Faber, 1993.
God's Gift to Women. London, Faber, 1997.
The Eyes. London, Faber, 1999.*
Critical Studies: By Michael Hulse, in Poetry Review, 83(2), summer 1993; in Poetry Review, 84(1), spring 1994; "The Dilemma of the Poet" by the author, in How Poets Work, edited by Tony Curtis, Bridgend, Seren, 1996.
Don Paterson comments:
I believe that the poem (a form of public art, as distinct from the practice of poetry, which is a private religion) belongs to the reader. The desire to comment on my own work is usually misplaced, as it derives from a proprietorial, not a generous instinct. So I am trying to avoid it.* * *
The three published volumes of Don Paterson amount to 171 pages, and within that modest compass there are more wordplays, allusions, puns, and aporia than would serve most other poets over a lifetime. This represents a remarkable combination of easy colloquialism and linguistic texture. Paterson seems to have solved the conflict that is likely to take place between utterance and form. "Bird" is one of a quartet of sonnets concerned with demise:
The wind baffled lightly as they filled the grave
and a queasy flutter left us, the last faint
ripple of the peristaltic wave
that ushered her out. In eight months, her complaint
had whittled her down to the palsied sylph
who filched the car-keys from her snoring spouse
and went out to prove a point; then found herself,
like Alice, on the wrong side of the glass.
Later, back at the house, I overheard
the disembodied voices in the hall
where George, who'd only last another year,
was trying to be philosophical:
"Ach, there was nothin' o' her. She was nae mair
than a sparra, nae mair than a wee bird."
One sign of a good poet is a dynamic use of verbs. Here we have, in the octave alone, "baffled," "ushered," "whittled," and "filched." This is a fetching reapplication of sonnet form and a characteristic of the arts that enthused reviewers and competition judges alike.
Paterson has an infectious delight in language, as evidenced by his vocabulary: "the foaming lip mussitates, " "the best way to play the bodhran, " "you work out a grimoire, " and, on a single page, "a sackful of doves rendered up to the heavens / in private irenicon " and "made nothing of him, save for his fillings, his tackets. " The Oxford English Dictionary defines "mussitate" as an obsolete form of "mutter"; Merriam-Webster's Collegiate defines "bodhran" as an Irish drum made of goatskin; Collins's French Dictionary defines "grimoire" as "unreadable scribble"; and, according to Oxford, "irenicon," usually spelled "eirenicon," is the term for a proposal to promote peace, most often between churches, and "tacket" is a small nail, a little tack. This is one of the finest examples of dictionary bashing in verse since Wallace Stevens, although, unlike Stevens, Paterson does not go on to invent a word when he cannot find one to suit his purpose.
The mixture of the colloquial and the learned can be seen in "The Alexandrian Library," a kind of ode to lost books and a bibliophile's delight. One is tempted to invoke Borges as an exemplar. Certainly Borges would have known Stanyhurst's eccentric translation of the Aeneid, though he might not have so readily embraced The Al Bowlly Songbook and the back issues of Button Collector, let alone 16 RPM—A Selective Discography and Living with Alzheimer's. The last is not only a contradiction in terms but, for obvious reasons, is repeated on the next page.
There is a sequel to "The Alexandrian Library" in Paterson's book God's Gift to Women, but, like most sequels, it does not live up to the standard of its predecessor. "The Return of the Book" shows Paterson's tendency in his later work to sacrifice structure to texture. The charismatic phrasing is still there, but it is harder to determine the context. The sequel rambles over nine pages, as does the title poem, and it would take considerably more narrative pressure than is evinced here to justify such discursiveness. More successful, at four pages, is "A Private Bottling." Even so, the poem includes a surprising amount of heterogeneous matter. The datum is a man listening to the radio as he samples a vast profusion of whiskeys in memory of a love: "Tonight I toast her with the extinct malts / of Ardlussa, Ladyburn and Dalintober / and an ancient pledge of passionate indifference …" On the whole Paterson is better in shorter forms, as in "Baldovan," the name of a defunct train station, and "The Lover," which is already being anthologized: "Poor mortals, with your horoscopes and blood-tests— / what hope is there for you …?"
The tendency to discursiveness has been recognized and checked by recourse to the Andalusian poet Machado, whom Paterson has chosen to imitate in his collection The Eyes. If Paterson's versions are compared with those of a more conventional translator such as Willis Barnstone, it can be seen that the difference between the two lies in the degree of recourse to ellipsis. Barnstone writes, "Beside the black water. / A scent of sea and jasmine. / Malaguenean evening"; Paterson, "By the black lagoon / sea-smell, jasmine: / Malaga dusk."
Whether original or derived, the poetry of Paterson can charm at the same time it baffles. His is the talent of the postmodern novelist, and it is difficult to imagine this proto-Joycean talent patiently developing his gifts from one slim volume of poems to the next. He seems to need a mask or a persona through which to speak his mind. Though certainly one of the most talented of the younger British poets, there is absent from his writing a cohesion of structure sufficient to contain his effervescent phrase making.