40 Sonnets, by Don Paterson, Faber, 56 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-0571310890
I was attending a conference session on the sonnet once, sitting among acquaintances (peers if you like), some of us affecting the snarky lassitude that comes from being in the audience at one of these things, others being more respectful and professionally wary. At the moment when the speaker argued that one fourteen-line poem he was referencing was not a sonnet (because it was written in rhyming couplets) but that another unrhymed fifteen-line one was, albeit one of the “free” variety, it seemed like a good time for all of us to go the pub. “What’s the point of a sonnet with no rules?” asked an unusually despondent member of the company, “ …what’s the point of anything?”
Messing with the sonnet to the extent of declaring it free is in itself an act of desperation, something like what Robert Lowell got up to in his spluttering later phases. Even Elizabeth Bishop’s weirdly strangulated late sonnet is another example of a poem that we have to convince ourselves to admire, trusting her highly astute instinct for making aberration out of what is a customarily squeaky clean formal construct. Sonnets are easy to dislike, because freedom (at least of an unqualified kind) is the one thing they do not provide, relying on formal constraint to wrangle arguments (that might be more smoothly articulated through prose) into knotty word-music. At their best, however, they have a nervous and emotional energy that surpasses what a prose statement of a crisis might offer, opening up new possibilities for engaging affectively with the total climate of a situation rather than just its meaning. The problem with this, on the other hand, is that the sonnet can become a classroom-killer simply because its argument can often be stated in prose. Its core meaning can be too translatable, and the hyper-inventive word-twistings get forgotten. A sonnet is an unthreatening and useful poem in this way, something in which form and content can ultimately be separated, or so the instrumental logic might go. It is hard to persuade people to read and reread the knotty version when the prose translation is right there for them in a Reader’s Guide or on a webpage.
The smartest poets have all sorts of ways of dealing with this drab context for the sonnet as cherished instrument; a first point of reference for anyone has to be Philip Terry’s Shakespeare Sonnets (2010), with its hyper-laconic opening phrase that is far dumber (and more brilliant, like the faux-thickness of the Ramones) than anything you might find in Cliff’s Notes, effectively providing you with the subject of the Sonnets in their entirety (and allegedly, therefore, all you need to know): “Clone Kylie.”
Don Paterson’s 40 Sonnets plays plenty of games with the form, but it does so because of the form, not in spite of it. The ingenuity he discovers within its permutations is almost exasperatingly impressive, not least for the sheer range of rhyme combinations that he discovers. Here follows the rhyme schemes for the first fourteen (in the spirit of rule-keeping) sonnets in the book, there is only a repetition between the first and the twelfth poem:
#1: aabbccddeeffgg (couplets indeed, our conference speaker would pout)
#2: ababcdcdeefgfg (a, c and f all half-rhyme as well)
#4: aabbccdd egffge(a gap signifies the separation between octet and sestet)
#5: ababcdcd efefef
#7: unrhymed, two quatrains and two tercets
#8: abbacddc eeffgg
#11: abccdcbeffaegg (the sixth line is a stretch rhymewise)
#12: aabbccddeeffgg (return of the couplets)
#13: abcdcaefebghgf (this does not tell the whole story: each line is one word, and the poem ,“At the Perty”, is dedicated to Ishikawa and written in Scots)
#14: abbacddc effegg
It is hard to say just how much of a fuss we should make about this, as if the book’s formal inventions were the only show in town; we have become accustomed as post-Muldoonian readers to identifying macro-patterns of micro-effects, even if it might sometimes feel like a relatively minor endeavour. Such variation in patterning is a curious combination of the precise and the random, therefore. The rules are there, everything happens within fourteen lines, but it also feels like anything can happen within them. These poems are demonstrations of the poet’s power to remake and remake, inspired by inhibition.
The epigraph to 40 Sonnets comes from the Argentinian poet Antonio Porchia: Soy un habitante, pero ¿de donde? (I’m an inhabitant, but of where?). This could be read as an existential statement of a familiar enough deracination in modern literature, but in the particular context of this book it takes on a more pointed potential. The sonnet form is the one in which most people (even those who do not like poetry at all) have spent the majority of their poetry-time. The sonnet is a dwelling-place, as recognisably intimate as a bedroom. On the other hand, it is not a private place, given its remarkably various history, and as such it is also a place where a complex temperament can be explored between candour and restraint.
Paterson has always been a poet who has been measured in terms of his supple and knowledgeable formalism, a poet you use to teach what poems can achieve in technical terms (his “Two Trees” is arguably the workshop/seminar of poem of the 21st century so far). Even as we can sense these poems gravitating towards the classroom through textbooks and handouts in A4, however, it feels important to insist upon their resistance to the instrumentalisation which such usage implies. Paterson is not just a technician. In boxing, Floyd Mayweather Junior is technically immaculate, but he hurts. Paterson hits hard too, and has a true fighter’s armoury of punches. One sonnet, “Mercies”, on the euthanising of a dog, is stoically sentimental but aptly measured: “love was surely what her eyes conceded / as her stare grew hard, and one bright aerial / quit making its report back to the centre.” Form does not administer feeling here, rather it lets it grow.
Part of Paterson’s practice is to build hooks and knots into his lines that summon other master-makers, so “Two” starts with summoning Donne’s compass hypothesis from “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”: “These two, if two, can only half-exist”; it is significant that the poets Paterson cites are those who make form a matter of synaptically connecting thought and feeling, as if the poem itself is a nervous system. So where there is craft, there is also anxiety; and there is unmistakeable animus. A poem of arch pedantry, “A Scholar”, replays how Yeats’s “The Scholars” withers the little emperors of academia with multiple allusions to Milton, Dylan Thomas and Terentanius Maurus (and via him, Umberto Eco and Robert Burton), citation ad nauseam:
The light is dying, and the clock has died;
the page succumbs to the atrocious care
that disinters the things not wholly there
by which your solemn field is justified.
Pow. Tony Blair takes a similarly pinpointed strike in “The Big Listener” (he is also the poem’s dedicatee), in which he is imagined as dreaming of himself in the guise of father-confessor (“that old divided dark, / the white square at your neck”, the only guest at a piety-orgy of his own making: “You rinse a thousand souls before the lark / and wake refreshed, if somewhat at a loss / as to why they seem so lost for words.” More powerful than its critique of the betrayer, however, is the self-loathing of the betrayed, those who were lured into voting for his Tonyness:
They are your dead, who still rose to the birds
the day we filled the booths and made the cross,
before you forced them howling to their knees
to suffer your attentions. Spare us. Please.
A substantial part of the resolute authority of 40 Sonnets is in its mutation from poem to poem, its only casual adherence to the sequentiality that we associate with sonnet collections. The book is a circuit of sonnets, rather than a more conventional crown, each poem in itself describing in turn a circuit of its own, sometimes corresponding directly to others and sometimes not at all. So even as there are multiple variations on the recognised sonnet here, there are also poems that venture into unprecedented experimentation. “The Version (after Nicanor Parra)” is a meta-sonnet, a what-might-be-bogus history of a poem that can be effectively translated as meaning whatever the translator wants, so rebarbative is the original. “Shutter” summons the aforementioned strip-sonnet of Bishop, while “An Incarnation” sonnetises a set of responses to a telephone survey:
I guess White British? None No I agree
Agree Agree I strongly disagree
You what me? Hold? For how long? Seriously?
Jesus. Speaking speaking…This is he
Paterson is as good at writing L=A=N-G=U=A=G=E poetry as Charles Bernstein; it turns out; he can irritate (productively) as much too. “Séance” (“S p e k e . – s e e s s k s e e k”) is written in the form of sibilant messagings from the other side, and as such can mean whatever you want it to mean. You might begin to respond to this poem by seeing it as a joke gone on too long, or that it might be the kind of poem that gives poetry a bad name. On the other hand, it is also a pretty mordant commentary on the kind of Merrillian poetry that might claim to have been written via a ouija board and a vodka too far. At least Paterson does not pretend that the other side has anything communicable to say. He is the poet as counter-charlatan, a maker of material magic. In a much more conventional poem that ends the book, “The Roundabout”, he appears to take us right back to a core function of the sonnet, to synthesise feeling into a sufficiently powerful conceit. The poem describes a father out with his sons for a walk “our first out / after me and your mother”. They find an abandoned roundabout in a field (recalling Frost’s “The Woodpile” in the process), and as such a ready-made metaphor for failed marriage is on offer: “I was all for / giving up when we felt it give, and go. / What had saved the axle all those years?” A less intelligent and sceptical poet would dwell in that conceit and judge the poem to be done, but instead the metaphor is discarded just as readily as it came into focus, and the poem redirects to less predictable endings, possibilities for life that are unanticipated but not necessarily unwelcome:
Our hands still burning
we lay and looked up at a sky so clear
there was nothing in the world to prove our turning
but our light heads, and the wind’s lung.
In the roundabout of 40 Sonnets, Paterson has found room to breathe among the conceits and constraints, not arbitrarily breaking from convention to suit his own purposes but instead discovering elasticity and spatial possibilities even as the form suggests they are impossible. These are properly free sonnets, therefore, providing a liberty that is not definable in terms of genre or category, but in the possibilities of temperament and generosity that they provoke. This is a supple book, cool and learned in its artistry but equally robust in its appetite for argument and experiment. Paterson needs to recognised as a poet who offers us strenuousness and sweetness in a way that nobody has since Donne; he kills his enemies and loves his friends, making us vibrantly aware of poetry’s capabilities as an affectionate medium. You can read him with intense pleasure in this way, feeling as he feels; for the fundamental sanity of his politics, you can read him with relief. 40 Sonnets is a little book with big muscles.
Michael Hinds is co-ordinator of the Irish Centre for Poetry Studies and head of English at the Mater Dei Institute, Dublin.