Wednesday, September 19, 2007

'Prologue' by Don Paterson

From Don Paterson's God's Gift to Women, his much awarded book, the first poem, 'Prologue'.


A poem is a little church, remember,
you, its congregation, I, its cantor;

so please, no flash, no necking in the pew,
or snorting just to let your neighbour know

you get the clever stuff, or eyeing the watch,
or rustling the wee poke of butterscotch

you'd brought to charm the sour edge off the sermon.
Be upstanding. Now: let us raise the fucking tone.

Today, from this holy place of heightened speech,
we will join the berry-bus in its approach

to that sunless pit of rancour and alarm
where language finds its least prestigious form.

Fear not: this is spiritual transport,
albeit the less elevated sort;

while the coach will limp towards its final stage
beyond the snowy graveyard of the page,

no one will leave the premises. In hell,
the tingle-test is inapplicable,

though the sensitives among you may discern
the secondary symptoms: light sweats, heartburn,

that sad thrill in the soft part of the instep
as you crane your neck to size up the long drop.

In the meantime we will pass round the Big Plate
and should it come back slightly underweight

you will learn the meaning of the Silent Collection
for your roof leaks, and the organ lacks conviction.

My little church is neither high nor broad,
so get your heads down. Let us pray. Oh God

Don Paterson's T.S.Eliot Lecture here. The PIW bio and 'The Box' .

But what I really want to read is The Book of Shadows. (Vivek, you listening?)

I generally have some discomfort with the use of the word 'albeit', but maybe that's just me.


equivocal said...

Cool poem, nice irreverent music. I think I read somewhere that Paterson spent formative years in the midst of evangelical happy-clappy churches, an experience he later came to hate. This poem would appear to be partly a parody of that, partly a confirmation that his spiritual instinct has found a better home in poetry.

Paterson may easily be one of the best poets of his generation, but i must say that he says some godawfully imbecilic and witless things in that TS Eliot speech (apart from the beautiful philosophical stuff, that you quote from in yr book, and that he reprises with greater precision in the Book of Shadows). In fact, in BoS, there's another epigram that mentions that he makes a complete fool of himself in public every few months or so.

equivocal said...

The line with "albeit" does seem to be missing a beat somewhere in it-- though one could say Paterson let that be to downgrade the high music of the poem a little.

But who cares. For I must say that the line, "Now: let us raise the fucking *tone*" is pretty fucking good.

Space Bar said...

Equivocal: Yes, isn't it? I didn't know about the happy-clappy, though I did know about his dropping out and the music thing.

I rather liked the lecture - as you already know - though the half-assed things are precisely the points George Szirtes has picked up in his Eliot Lecture the following year: stuff like poems as devices to remember themselves. Sounds nice, but what's it mean?

Paterson's going to read somewhere in London with LAvinia Greenlaw, sometime this month, and a listing I saw somewhere quotes the fucking tone line. Heh!

equivocal said...


Actually I personally like the part about poetry as mnemonic machine and the estrangement of language, etc, essentially what I consider to be the more philosophical threads in Paterson's lecture-- I don't find all of that very new or startling, but I personally do find it relevant and insightful.

The problems I have when Paterson gets on his polemic horse, for instance in the following sentence from his lecture:

"Only plumbers can plumb, roofers roof and drummers drum; only poets can write poetry."

Apart from its catchy nursery school rhythms, this is actually an extraordinarily infantile and meaningless statement, a tautology often beloved of mediocre writers who would anxiously anoint themselves the true poets. Essentially it seems to mean that only Paterson and his friends should be allowed to write poems.

This is also the part that George Szirtes *disputes* in his TS Eliot lecture, after agreeing with him earlier on [long quote from GS's lecture]:

"I now want to quarrel with my immediate predecessor, Don Paterson, and with his view of poetry that he dismisses as 'merely good' 'amateur', 'silly' and 'lousy'. Some poems are so because they are, he thinks, written by the wrong people. 'Only poets can write poetry', he says and develops this by adding, 'first you have to say who is a poet and who is not.'

"This seems to me entirely the wrong way round for an extraordinary number of reasons and I can only cover one or two. There are, for instance, many one-off poems, or groups of three or four poems by writers who have produced little else of value. There are on the other hand very fine poets who have written a few notably poor poems. Then there are the periods when people write well and others when they write badly.

"It is the poems that matter not the poets: or to put it more clearly it is the poet that appears in the poems not the person claiming the category 'poet' about whom we have to make a judgment."
[end of quote]

Another dubious thread in Paterson where he clearly doesn't entirely know what he's talking about is his tirade against what might call the "other tribe" in British poetry, that is, the grouping that is sometimes referred to as the "Cambridge school", the group loosely clustered around figures like J.H. Prynne. Prynne, for Paterson, is a figure roughly equal to Darth Vader, while Pound would be the dark overlord himself, the source of all evil in contemporary poetry. (Though Paterson, in his infinite charity, does rescue one or two poets from this scene from eternal damnation, like Denise Riley.) It makes me wonder if there is something of the fundamentalist preacher that Paterson has never quite gotten out of his system.

This is a silly and reductive position, based largely on ignorance and non-engagement, and is, to be fair, as reductive as some of the formulations that the Cambridge school devises to dismiss those of Paterson's tribe. One response to this flame war from the other side's trenches can be found by Andrea Brady in a recent issue of Chicago Review:

I don't really agree with much of what Brady says. As you know, I personally don't hold a brief for either tribe. Prynne is a remarkably difficult poet, but I find very often he does pay back patient reading and re-reading with an amazing experience and a truly important poetry that, more than any other poet's work, goes far into the dialogue between poetry and science. Many others in the same scene I find a lot less interesting, more tedious. There is lots of mediocrity on both sides-- Robin Robertson's much prized second collection, Swithering, that Paterson selected, I read and found to be mostly bullshit except for the one or two poems the reviews mention. If I had to choose between reaching for Prynne or reaching for Paterson, I might choose Paterson, just because Paterson is less severe.

One of the silliest giveaway aspects of Paterson's lecture is the way he calls the other tribe "Postmoderns". Leaving aside the empty, overused nature of that term, its relevance to Prynne's high modernism, for instance, is very doubtful; in fact "postmodern" might better apply, if anything, to Paterson's compatriot, the lesser known but very important poet, WN Herbert, whom Paterson has praised very highly.


Space Bar said...

Equivocal: Thanks for that very thoughtful comment; I don't know very much about the Cambrdge School or Prynne's poetry, so I can't say anything about it (thanks for the link also).

The problem I have with the shamanistic statements he makes about poetry is precisely because it is such a seductive idea: that you can fashion the world merely by invoking it with a word, that word and meaning are more closely united in poetry than anywhere else, that the incantatory nature of language is what transforms it into poetry. It's a small step from there to saying, only poets can write poetry, because they're the only ones who can, who've been blessed with unique ability.

Now, the first part of my interpretation is, like i said, deeply attractive to me personally. But I'm also suspicious of this obfuscation, because it seems deliberate. And I can't help asking, why?

Cheshire Cat said...

Amusing poem, though the half-rhymes do get a bit cute.

I think the best way to react to the phrase "only poets can write poetry" is to treat it as a tautology :)

Like equivocal, I find these turf wars rather tiresome. They seem to be a minor version of similar wars in North America between Language and lyric poets. One would think that poets, of all people, would realize the importance of resisting facile stereotypes. Then again, when poets indulge in polemics, they are merely people...

I have this weird sense that English poets typically labor at a disadvantage - Anglicanism must be the most anti-poetic of religions. One as blessed as Larkin could overcome it, but how many are?

I like Prynne's work, though I far prefer John Ashbery, who is roughly his American counterpart in terms of the radical nature of his work and his influence on contemporary poetry. Ashbery is just as smart and just as virtuosic as Prynne, but also more generous. As for Robertson, *shrug*.

km said...

"rustling the wee poke of butterscotch" - now that's a great line.

//I personally find the "fucking tone" bit to be a little precious.