40 Sonnets by Don Paterson review – playful poems from a master

Extraordinary, beautiful or funny – these poems from an expert in rhythm and rhyme stay with you

A few days ago, I played a little trick on the internet, asking people to name and date a sonnet, whose first few lines I gave as: “Whenne I was ruined by Love, I tooke a Vow / That if I loved againe, I’d love the lesse; / Soe when I spoke love, spoke it to excess, / As Love will make its mirror anyhowe.” What I had naughtily done was antiquate the spelling, for this is “A Vow”, the 17th sonnet in Paterson’s collection, off which an early 17th-century steam rises so powerfully that I couldn’t resist the joke. And I think this is precisely the effect he was after: there’s only one clue to the fact that the poem is modern: the later use of the word “lift” to mean what Americans call an elevator. (And an indirect one: a glancing reference to the speed of receding galaxies.)

But the main point of “A Vow” is that it is a beautiful poem and, once untangled (as in any good metaphysical poem, the language is concentrated, like an artful knot), it spoke to me directly, as if someone had beamed it into my head. It works in two ways: as a literary exercise and as genuinely meaningful verse.

Paterson knows a lot about sonnets both as objects of study and of his own expression. He has anthologised them, explained them and written lots of them; he says they are “one of the most characteristic shapes human thought can take”. They were invented in the 13th century and, after a couple of false starts, poets have never really stopped writing them. Their rhythms, the pacing of expression and comprehension that the number of lines demands, seem to be ingrained.

So a book of sonnets from Paterson has always been on the cards. He plays with the form somewhat, the greatest stretch being “The Version”, which is two and a half pages of prose, an odd example of what you might call apocalyptic whimsy, about a poet trying to achieve notoriety. Its connection with the sonnet form eludes me.

Almost everywhere else Paterson hits the mark. There is stuff here worth learning by heart. So masterful is his way with rhyme and rhythm (even when they seem to go astray, or are simply not there) that you may find lines lodging in your head without any deliberate effort (I offer as an example “The Vow”). There are poems that need some teasing apart, and repay the effort, such as “Two”: “These two, if two, can only half-exist, / their being so lost, so inwardly inclined ...” Again the true metaphysical note, where the pulse of the poem drags you through the brambles of its meaning until you find you have cleared a path.

It is not all difficult to penetrate. “An Incarnation” is a one-sided record of a cold call (“Yeah This is he Aye Donald Just one t”), which is extremely funny; there’s a tirade against Dundee City Council about “that fine baronial stair / you found cheaper to fence off than to repair, / thus adding twenty minutes to my trip”.

The poet manages to maintain his own voice while speaking in many voices: understanding what it is to be not just a man like himself (a divorced father in “The Roundabout”, a poet exasperated by poetry audiences in “Requests”), but to be – as some of the more extraordinary poems show – a book, a wave, the air.

40 Sonnets is published by Faber. To order a copy for £9.01 (RRP £10.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Nicholas Lezard

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Rain by Don Paterson | Book review
Nicholas Lezard on words like hammer blows

Nicholas Lezard

30, Jul, 2010 @11:06 PM

Article image
Shakespeare's sonnets by Don Paterson

Shakespeare's sonnets are synonymous with courtly romance, but in fact many are about something quite different. Some are intense expressions of gay desire, others testaments to misogyny. Wary of academic criticism, Don Paterson tries to get back to what the poet was actually saying

Don Paterson

15, Oct, 2010 @11:06 PM

Article image
The Flowers of Evil by Charles Baudelaire review – the essence of a genius
Nicholas Lezard’s paperback of the week: this translation is the best way yet for English speakers to enter the poet’s dream-like world

Nicholas Lezard

11, May, 2016 @8:30 AM

Article image
Selected Poems by Tony Harrison – review

Three decades on, Tony Harrison's angry but exquisite poetry still has the power to chill, writes Nicholas Lezard

Nicholas Lezard

12, Mar, 2013 @9:59 AM

Article image
Silage by Bethany W Pope review – poetry as salvation
Nicholas Lezard’s paperback of the week: this harrowing collection drawn from a youth spent in an orphanage delights in language as a place of private escape

Nicholas Lezard

16, May, 2017 @8:30 AM

Article image
The Collected Poems by Elizabeth Jennings – review

A poet's fat vol is supremely dippable-into. By Nicholas Lezard

Nicholas Lezard

03, Apr, 2012 @10:30 AM

Article image
Ghost Stories by EF Benson review – gruesome tales from an Edwardian master
Nicholas Lezard’s paperback of the week: Horror stories by the author of Mapp and Lucia break the membrane between the waking and dreaming world

Nicholas Lezard

18, Oct, 2016 @8:30 AM

Article image
If I’m Scared We Can’t Win: Penguin Modern Poets One review – a welcome return
Nicholas Lezard’s paperback of the week: In Emily Berry, Anne Carson and Sophie Collins, Penguin has showcased three funny, playful and creative writers

Nicholas Lezard

26, Jul, 2016 @8:30 AM

Selected Poems and Translations of Ezra Pound edited by Richard Sieburth – review
Nicholas Lezard welcomes a new Ezra Pound selection

Nicholas Lezard

29, Jan, 2011 @12:05 AM

Article image
Nicholas Lezard’s paperback of the week: Complete Poems by Jon Silkin – review
At last, this poet of many voices receives his due – with a postwar anthology all of his own

Nicholas Lezard

31, Mar, 2015 @6:30 AM