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.
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