40 Sonnets review – the perfect vehicle for Don Paterson’s craft and lyricism
The poet tugs and stretches a demanding form to its limit in work of vividness and potency
Saturday 26 September 2015
on Paterson has a thing for sonnets. Back in 1999 he brought out an anthology of 101 of his favourites, and in 2012 he delved deeper into their history with Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets Orpheus Landing Light
It’s not true, of course. While sonnets don’t demand the degree of crow-barring required to force words into, say, a sestina or a villanelle, it takes skill to write them, and considerably greater skill to write them well; to work within their strict metrical limits while at the same time, through the heft of your words, to say something that transcends them. The history of poetry is littered with the corpses of bad sonnets, something a connoisseur such as Paterson knows better than most. The stakes must have been high for him when he decided to tackle the form head-on in his latest collection.
Good job, then, that it stands up to scrutiny. The decision to work solely within such an old and freighted form carries the risk of of hobbling deference or showy anarchy, but Paterson manages to tread a delicate middle way. He tugs and stretches the sonnet to its limits without compromising its integrity. Formally, he sticks to the 14‑line rule (except in the book’s centrepiece, a prose story about a misconceived venture into translation), but not much else. Tucked amid Shakespearean and Petrarchan verses are concrete poems (“Shutter”, in which the lines splinter across the page to create bands of shadow and light), a sound poem, “Seance”, which owes a debt to Edwin Morgan (“S p e k e. – s e e s s k s e e k … ”) and “At the Perty”, a Scots poem of one-word lines, written in the form of a fishbone diagram designed to illustrate cause and effect (something I only know because the poem is dedicated to the diagram’s inventor, Kaoru Ishikawa).
In terms of subject, too, he plays fast and loose. Traditionally, sonnets have focused on the theme of love and, as has always been the case in Paterson’s poetry, there’s lots of love here. But it is not the only thing that interests him, and he is more than happy to jettison tradition and apply the form to a range of subjects when occasion demands. Alongside “An Incarnation” (a wry, one-sided transcription of a cold call) and “A Scholar” (after Yeats, whose hand is felt in several of these poems in the form of worked-in lines and phrases), there is an address to Dundee council, a broadside against live-poetry audiences and a mock-heroic tribute to TV’s Vicodin-popping diagnostic genius, Dr House. More significantly, though, a vein of horrified, heartsick politics runs through the collection. In the coldly furious “The Big Listener”, Paterson uses the second person to insert us into the mind of Tony Blair, who “lose[s] no sleep” despite the presence of “your dead, who still rose to the birds / the day we filled the booths and made the cross”. In “The Foot” he solemnises a moment from the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict, in which a medic works “frantically” on a mortally wounded boy, while his father “strokes his gawky long-toed sockless foot”. In both cases, the clash between form and content lends the poems vividness and potency.
Illustration by Triunfo Arciniegas
For all the verve and (in the case of his political poems) fervour of his work, it is when he turns to love that the collection takes flight. Sexual love is here, of course, but he celebrates friendship, too, and family. Throughout his career Paterson has been consistently brilliant on the complexity and exigency of parental love, and the collection’s final sonnet, “The Roundabout”, about a father’s day out with his sons in the wake of his separation from their mother, is an understated masterpiece through which he manages to convey both the father’s guilt and his sons’ resilience: the fact that it is their energy that keeps the world turning, and the grief and pride that this creates. His poem on the death of a beloved pet, meanwhile, might easily have slid into mawkishness; instead, through his skill and sincerity, he manages to transform it into a case for the universality of love, and the need to honour it wherever we find it. The sonnet’s final image, in which the dog “lay back down and let the needle enter. / And love was surely what her eyes conceded / as her stare grew hard, and one bright aerial / quit making its report back to the centre”, reads like modern-day John Donne: it offers a new way to conceive of connection.
Paterson’s poetry has always been distinguished by its marriage of craft and lyricism, and the sonnet is, simply, the perfect vehicle to showcase this. Having scratched the itch, it will be fascinating to see where he turns his attention next.