Thursday 7 June 2012

Don Paterson at Poetry East

Late, getting changed, wanting to catch the next train into town, I noticed a hole in one sock.  Cursing in an unBuddhist way, I found a clean pair, and ran.  (This was about 3 weeks ago, when it was cold, before it got hot and then cold again, so going barefoot didn’t seem like an option.)

Sure enough, at the London Buddhist Centre we were invited to remove our shoes – a civilised custom, not just in temples or mosques but when entering a house, one’s own or anyone else’s, in many countries.  Why is it still a minority habit in Britain?  It could become highly fashionable; would do wonders for sock / pedicure / nail varnish / glamorous slipper sales.  There would need to be less cleaning of floors.

The LBC used to be a fire station..
The event took place in a square room, with a large golden Buddha statue presiding.  Maitreyabandhu, prize-winning poet himself, interviewed Don Paterson; after the interval, Paterson read for half an hour.  But first of all, Maitreyabandhu led the room into a few minutes of meditation.  If told about that I’d wonder whether it would work – but it did.  It quietened the mind, made it more receptive.  Other people seemed to react similarly; any sceptics stayed silent.  It also reduced my anxiety about being in a crowded room without any windows open, presumably because Roman Road (of market fame) runs outside.

Next, two of our hosts read poems chosen by Paterson, Frost’s ‘Design’ and Muldoon’s ‘Mules’.  One sonnet and one near-sonnet, both combining exact description with metaphysics, both very, very deft with metre and rhyme.  Talking of those attributes, here are lines 5-8 of one of Paterson’s new sonnets, ‘The Air’, that he read later: 

How was it that this empty datastream,
this cache of dead light could so lose its way
it wandered back to feed on its own dream?
How did that dream grow to the waking day?

The whole poem’s on his website – if not at once then keep refreshing this link, and it’ll turn up. 

Listening to Paterson being gently drawn out by Maitreyabandhu, talking fluently and brainily, making us laugh quite often, I wondered what the composition process is for someone who thinks so fast. 

He came to poetry at the end of his teens: coming down to London to do music, he heard Tony Harrison and was struck. 

There was an indirect attack on contemporary poetry mores, at least that’s how I took it.  Spontaneity, said Paterson, produces the commonplace, what anyone might have thought of.  Being forced by form can produce something exceptional.  He described pushing against the form as like pushing against a wall.  Later in the evening, his reading style was distinctive: he emphasised the metre much more than is fashionable (among those who write in metre, that is).  It worked.  Now, looking through Rain, I can hear his reading voice. 

He read one poem in Scots – wonderful, to have that extra dimension at one’s disposal.  I remember going to a London reading by Kathleen Jamie and longing for her to do that, but she didn’t.  Anyway this one was ‘Zen Sang at Dayligaun’ (at twilight), from Landing Light, which starts:

As aw we ken o the sternless dark
is the warld it fa’s amang
aw we hear o the burn and birk
is thir broon or siller sang

Paterson flirted with the Buddhist theme, bringing out what he said were his most Zen poems.  The new work in particular was metaphysical.    Maybe he’s becoming more so, with deepening middle age.  

Why wasn’t he a Buddhist? asked Maitreyabandhu.  He didn’t like rules, said DP.  What rules? asked M. 

Paterson read his poem  ‘On Going to Meet a Zen Master in the Kyushu Mountains and Not Finding Him’.  An expectant, then questioning silence followed the title – not like the earlier meditation silence.  Afterwards, signing copies of Rain, he said that last time he read it, he pretended he’d lost the poem.  Perhaps he really had. 

Photo by Riggzy on Flickr
People who’d heard Paterson read before said this time was better, he seemed more relaxed.  The interview may have helped – a warm-up, a chance to make connections with the audience.  At one point he quoted Michael Donaghy (though my version is probably a misquote): “All poets are mutants, misfiled in the cosmos”. 

This was the first time I’d made it to Poetry East and I’m sorry I came to it so late.  Also slightly concerned by Maitreyabandhu saying at the end that they intend to expand from poetry into other areas: fine, so long as it doesn’t mean less poetry. 
To end, I’m going to confess that I’d like Paterson to escape his controls and maps, and SPLURGE.  The result could be extremely interesting, not least because he might find the process difficult and uncomfortable.  Though ‘Song for Natalie ‘Tusja’ Beridze’ is a splurge.

Oh, and thanks to Anna Johnson's blog, I've just found the whole evening's now available on video...


  1. Hello there. Good to read this and very glad you enjoyed the evening. But do not be afriad - we wont be having any less poetry in the future, quiet possibly more!

  2. Thank you. Very pleased to hear that!