Poetry reading: Don Paterson
Helen Charman goes to hear Don Paterson at St Catharine's College
Don Paterson, the award winning poet who recently received an OBE, spent a considerable amount of his reading at the Shirley Society entertaining the packed audience with laconic quips from his collection of aphorisms, Best Thought, Worst Thought: On Art, Sex, Work, and Death. Some were unsettlingly dark (“Whenever he saw someone reading a Bible, he would spoil it for them by whispering, ‘He dies in the end, you know.’ I’m always tempted to do the same to anyone I see consulting their diary”) but most were funny, including his observation that "writers often end up humorists if they read in public too often. Barring the odd and worthless snort of self-congratulation, laughter is the only audible response we can ever elicit.”
Perhaps this is why Paterson does not read in public so often. Although he was personable and funny, immediately putting the audience at ease with pithy self-deprecation (describing one poem particularly memorably as “Emily Dickinson meets Norman Mailer”), he was never in danger of fulfilling his own aphorism. All his charm and easy jokes aside, when Paterson read his work he was quietly transformed, his slight rocking stance and closed eyes creating a subtle intensity that complimented the quiet muscularity of his verse.
Self-deprecating to the last, Paterson was quick to dismiss his early collections as “the work of someone I don’t like much”, saying of his first book Nil Nil that it was a “typically masculine first book… It was basically me telling the world I have a penis”. He went on, however, to read a lot of impressive material from these early works. His longer poem ‘A Private Bottling’ was a particularly haunting example, especially when read in Paterson’s measured, almost languid Scottish voice that perfectly tread the line between poignancy and sentimentality as it assessed a remembered relationship.
Paterson sustained his humble avoidance of playing the grand and sombre poet, checking his iPhone for the time and speaking simply but interestingly about the nature of poetry and the poet, something that only emphasised the standalone power of his verse. This almost simplistic attitude towards poetry as a discipline echoes his tendency to dismiss the twentieth century conflicts between different schools of literary thought marks his progression away from the Academy politics in which he has been embroiled but which he now refers to as ‘a very silly waste of time’.
This self-containment was both impressive and a little frustrating: he gave very little away about the inspiration behind particular poems, declaring that he had “no idea” what the poem ‘Imperial’ with its fascinating last lines “the night we lay down on the flag of surrender/ and woke on the flag of Japan" might be about. This evasion slightly trivialised an otherwise striking poem. Ultimately, though, his canny refusal to give too much away matched the quiet precision of his verse and was, in the end perhaps more satisfying than answers: Don Paterson is a modest, witty and above all engaging reader who allowed his poetry to speak for itself.