Multi-award winning poet Don Paterson discusses life and death, hardcore scientific materialism and his latest collection of poetry, Rain, with James Maxwell
Propped against the glossy white wall of the Mitchell Library’s top floor corridor, Don Paterson looks to me every bit the stray musician and vagabond poet. Having discarded his scratched and battered guitar case in the green room, and wrapped in a ragged navy blue winter coat complemented by a silk cravat, he could comfortably pass for a busker or rambling street performer.
But his unkempt appearance disguises his towering professional profile and strict artistic discipline. For the past ten to fifteen years, Paterson has been quietly establishing himself as one of the leading British writers and poets of his generation. Since the publication of his first collection, Nil Nil, in 1993, he has produced three further works of poetry, two books of aphorisms, two plays, and a translation of Rilke’s sonnets. He has also edited a Burns anthology and a selection of poems of the twentieth century greats.
His high standing among critics and peers has been repeatedly confirmed by the slew of awards he has received, and he has enjoyed a degree of commercial success few other contemporary poets could dream of. Still, for all his accomplishments, he retains throughout our conversation — conducted just prior to the 47-year-old’s appearance at the Aye Write! festival — an unpretentious and modest air: an inheritance, perhaps, of his working-class Dundonian upbringing and deep-bred, though long-resisted, Calvinist tendencies.
Paterson moved to London in his early twenties to pursue a career as a jazz guitarist — another ambition he has realised; he still tours intermittently with three-piece outfit The Lammas — but re-directed his creative energies toward poetry when he decided it provided a more effective mechanism for getting laid. In the past, when confronted with his youthful admission that he first starting writing poems “to impress women,” he has seemed chastened, saying, “It sounds like something I would have said at the time. Yes, that fits, actually — given the male insecurities. These things are complicated. You do different things for every conceivable motive that you possess.”
Resisting the temptation to embarrass him again, I opt for a less mischievous line of questioning. I ask first about the relationship between his music and his poetry: to what extent do they infiltrate and influence one another?
“I used to think that it was just the fact that you did the two things, that it wouldn’t matter if you laid floors and you did poetry, you’d see connections between the two,” he says, “but I think now there are strong connections between music and poetry, partly because form and content are the same thing. In music and in poetry the form generates the content and the content generates the form, so you’re not going to be aware of any meaningful distinction between the two. So in that analogy they work very closely together.”
Paterson speaks quickly and assuredly, his sentences often framed by sly grins, as though he is trying to suppress some secret or exclusive joke. His accent, with its subtly elongated vowels, still displays hints of a childhood spent in the north-east of Scotland.
He continues, “but also poetry is very close to song. There is no getting away from it. People like it when it is close to song, in fact they prefer it, and that has some consequences for the way that you write. In fact, there are all sorts of ways in which they map onto each other. They are sister arts.”
Paterson has written that he thinks “poetry works on the heretical principle that sound and sense are the same thing,” indicating a further affinity between the two expressive forms.
“Poets find that when they get the sound the right, the meaning tends to follow. These days it has proper explanation in linguistic terms as well, with some thing called ‘iconicity’ and the way sounds sound like the things they mean. Not in an onomatopoeic sense, but rather that all sorts of sounds affect the senses in ways we don’t understand.
“Poets have had this intuition for a very long time and have always worked on that principle. They know that if they get the sound of a line right, then it gets closer to the truth of the thing they are trying to invoke.”
Paterson’s own intuitions have served him well. His latest collection, Rain, was met with near uniform critical approval on its release last autumn. The Independent gushed that it “gleams with authenticity” and urged people to “read it now, before it becomes famous,” while The Times enthused over the titular poem’s “wonderful lyric force”. The Scotsman, perhaps drifting a little into hyperbole, described it as “superlative and moving… a contemporary classic.”
It has earned its author a plethora of accolades (yet more to add to his groaning trophy cabinet), not least among them the coveted Forward Poetry Prize and the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, an award bestowed by the Poet Laureate, currently Carol Ann Duffy, who remarked of the work, “It is formally very accomplished, and technically brilliant; but it also taps into deep, timeless human experiences.”
Rain contains some of Paterson’s most profound and unsettling pieces. The Error, for instance, perfectly articulates an apparently permanent sense of pointlessness or insignificance: “As the bird is to the air/ and the whale is to the sea/ so man is to his dream. His world is just the glare/ of the world’s utility/ returned by his eye-beam”.
In Correctives, he explores themes of loss and loneliness. Referring to the natural shudder in his young son’s left hand, he writes, “He understands the whole man must be his own brother/ for no man is himself alone;/ though some of us have never known/ the one hand’s kindness to the other.”
Many of the poems in Rain have an elegiac quality and Paterson frequently revises the discomforting prospect and impending reality of death — that of his own and that of those close to him. The centre-piece in this respect is Phantom, composed in memory of his friend and fellow poet Michael Donaghy, which treads tentatively toward the existential abyss (“We are ourselves the void in contemplation./ We are its only nerve and hand and eye./ There is something vast and distant and enthroned/ with which you are one and continuous”) only to pull back, eventually, into the material world (“I closed my mouth and put out its dark light./ I put down Michael’s skull and held my own”).
“Rain is a book that has a lot of death and sadness in it,” he explains, “and you draw from your immediate biographical circumstances to a certain extent. Bad things had happened to me over the last few years,” he says with a slightly morbid laugh. “It wasn’t so much a bad case of life as just life happening and, you know, you’ve just got to take it on the chin.”
Do the darker moments of life filter disproportionately into the poetry? “No, there is no guarantee that they are going to do that at all. Poems are only useful, I think, when you need something assuaged, when you have to explain something to yourself — at least that’s how I use them. I use the composition of poems as a way to interrogate things I don’t understand, of trying to work out what’s true, when I don’t know what’s true.”
The idea of composition as interrogation reflects Paterson’s belief that poetry should be a “moral project”, a belief, he claims, that shocked guests at a dinner party in London when he first announced it.
“It is what people expect from poetry. It should not exactly be a moral excitation of guidance, but it should allow for the serious questions to be raised and discussed to the best of your ability and expressed as best you can, and I think when you stray from that project it becomes trivial.”
One of the serious questions Paterson raises and discusses in Rain is that of how to reconcile the elemental and physical aspects of human experience — the immense indifference of the rationalist world-view — with the sensual ones; with the actuality of emotions like love and affection. Paterson has spoken of his recent “painful conversion to hardcore scientific materialism” and I wonder if the tensions in Rain echo the obvious unease he felt throughout that process.
“Well,” he pauses a moment to consider his response. “Yeah, probably actually. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but I mean that is not a bad way of putting it at all. Yeah, uhm. Will yes do?” he smiles, “I think you’re on the money with that.”
This is typical Paterson; just when things look like they are going to get too heavy, too intense, he deftly shifts the tone of discourse. Presumably this is what one reviewer meant when he described Paterson as a “master of shadow play”.
I am reminded of The Hunt, a poem from his 2003 collection Landing Light, which draws the reader into a sinister, disorienting narrative while deliberately projecting the impression that the protagonist is being watched or pursued, but then ends abruptly with the lines, “so I put my hand out hoping this/ might break our dead impasse/ and he had made to tender his/ when my hand hit the glass”.
Further, in Rain, Paterson makes a point of adopting and adapting the voices of other poets and the structures of other’s poems, particularly those originally written in languages with which he is unfamiliar. Is this a further attempt at disguise; an effort to distance himself from the moral and emotional depth of his own statements?
“It’s just because of art I suppose. I’m a lousy linguist but I read a lot of stuff in translation. It’s that thing where you identify certain trends in Anglophone poetry and you think what can other people, other languages, offer by way of a corrective or to move that on in some way? But mainly it’s just selfish. I get sick of my own voice and I figure if I steal one for a while it might lend me some bravery to do things I wouldn’t have had the voice to do otherwise.”
Paterson has often advised interviewers and audiences that they “should never trust a poet,” and playful deceit is, evidently, a motif of his work. It occurs to me that he may just be a uniquely talented storyteller and dissembler, stringing me along as an unwitting questioner with some flashy but insubstantial insights into life, death and hardcore scientific materialism. Why should I believe anything he says?
“Oh, you can trust me,” he grins again, eyes glittering, “you can perfectly trust me.”
Rain is published by Faber in hardback, RRP £12.99 and will be out in paperback in August.