Don Paterson talks to Ahren Warner
from Poetry London, Spring 2013
Ahren Warner: You've said that 'poetic language has two functions: to make things clear and distinct where they weren't, and to join them back up again when they were broken apart. It's a natural function of language, and the way that language, certainly, redeems itself'. Paul Muldoon has also talked about a holistic aspect to modern poetics, and you share a common influence in Frost, who you talk of elsewhere as the model of a poet who wrote 'things of immense philosophical subtlety in a language readers can follow'. I wondered if you could speak about the aesthetics, or even ethics—as well as the relationship between—clarity and wholeness in your work?
Don Paterson: There're different issues around clarity, and it's about being honest about what's being communicated just on the simple level of information. The first thing to eliminate is incompetence. The deictic fuckups of pronouns, sequence, location, literal and figurative distinction ... these things can get lost pretty quickly through being too close to it all. But I do think there's a certain moral obligation towards clarity, because it's an act of communication, isn't it? He said naively. It's two monkeys, and one monkey is trying to say something that's really difficult, and slightly beyond what the language is capable of holding, and is trying to do so by the projection of the principle of equivalence into the syntagm and all that. For that reason alone, I think you're obliged to be as clear as possible. You have a greater obligation to clarity the more complex the idea you're trying to communicate. In terms of the holistic, if your aim is unity and integrity—or at least bringing two ideas together into some kind of genuine synthesis—then you're trying to get, as Hughes says, every word listening to every other word, so the whole structure is self-supporting, a cellular entity. And if you think the point you're making is a moral or ethical one ... it strikes me as plainly unethical to present it in language likely to confound the reader. Actually it strikes me as so bleedin' uncontroversial as to be barely worth saying. Though as we know not everyone shares that point of view. Stand up, Geoffrey. Far more time for J H P[rynne] these days, as his language actually honours his project.
AW: This is also a position that holds a certain relationship to Modernism, of which you've written elsewhere that one of the 'legacies of Modernism' is a historical trend of poets 'making themselves irrelevant' and an unfortunate paradoxical effect of this on current poets as an imperative to be 'interesting' by which, I think, you were referring towards a tendency towards over-accessibility or over-simplification. I wondered about the distinction, for you, between clarity and simplification?
DP: It's a risk. I mean, I think the risk is sounding simple, simplistic—and Frost, for God knows how long, was dismissed for that very reason. He's blatantly not simple, or anything like it, but that's the risk. I know I've said this before, but I think there's a kind of fruitful risk in also playing it as close to sentimentality as one dares—and maybe a dumb sort of clarity, and adopting an almost pretentious rhetorical height. You fall off the tightrope and make a fool of yourself, but I think you have to risk it. It strikes me that that sort of game is worth playing, because the stakes are a lot higher; potentially you win a lot more in terms of the force of what you communicate, the strength of feeling you can share with or elicit from the reader, the coining of speech that is both familiar and radically destabilizing. But you have to run the risk of looking like a pretentious dick. An idiot. A sentimental buffoon. Many of our late-mod, non-conformist friends never look so silly, but then they risk very little.
But then again ... in terms of the Modernist thing ... I've got a lot more sympathy than I did even five years ago, because I've been, y'know, speaking to people. Kinsella is eloquent on these matters. I'm not quite the slave to my own prejudices that I used to be. But I still come back to that idea of what kind of work the poem does. The poem can heal, and the poem can also fracture—but in both instances it can present itself as a unity. Its purpose can be to fracture—but I think it fractures more effectively when it's a unity, rather than some kind of ... poem-kit that leaves the reader bleeding and covered in glue before they can even start to read it. There are certain kinds of contemporary practice where the stakes are just too low. It depends how you define 'stakes', but I think if you're trying to share stuff with somebody, to move somebody, to propose an idea that we can speak about rather than just laboriously parse and unpack, and then be too knackered to do anything else with—if we're using the poem as more than an excuse to have a conversation about fucking poetry ... I think clarity is the way to go.
AW: You've insisted elsewhere on a kind of unity or complicity between poet and reader. In your T S Eliot Lecture, you stated that:
If the aim is just to finish the poem and not publish it, the poet has configured their relation to it imperfectly from the start… Publication—by which I simply mean 'someone else reading your poem'—directly unites the reader and poet, and to read out a line someone else has written in your own voice is to experience a little transmigration of souls ...
I wondered if there is a tension, or not, between the argumentative, the discursive and this seeking or production of complicity?
DP: Hopefully not. 'Complicity' hopefully comes through the reader being in a position of overhearing somebody working it through. As opposed to working .it through in your own time, away from the piano, and then grandly delivering your lofty findings. Readers hear a voice—a conditional, uncertain voice—with which they can identify and, y'know ... follow the same kind of process as the author has experienced it. I think that's where the complicity comes in. It's not a rhetorical trick. I think you have to leave yourself open, when you're writing, to being read in just that way. To be overheard thinking. Being unsure. Conditional. Contradictory. But there's no guarantee, y'know: 'I know what I have given you; I do not know what you have received'. So there's a leap of faith, or there should be. Or rather a leap of trust.
AW: Related to this notion of 'complicity', I'm interested in the role of the everyday, of the objects of the modern world as deployed in your work. I'm thinking here of the 'googling' in your 'Song for Natalie 'Tusja' Beridze' or the 'knotted featherlite' and 'Keanu Reeves' in your 'from 1001 Nights'. I'm interested to ask if you see the deployment of everyday objects as a way of invoking complicity?
DP: Well... probably, but I don't know if complicity is the right word. I'm all too aware of the function of those contemporary signifiers, and that's the reason they're there, I guess—and that's the reason it's very dangerous to overdo it. What's most 'now' is quickest 'last week'. But to eliminate them, to be tempted too much to the other side, that might lead to a poetry that was so sub specie aeternitatis that it was impossible to identify with. You might recruit some future readership who regarded you as a cool, anachronistic Augustan or something—but I think it's safer to be in dialogue with the one you actually have. That lay community who can actually tell you you're talking shite. I think the trick is just not to think about it too much. Respond honestly to your environment. If that includes the absolutely contemporary, then fine. But the classic mistake is not trusting yourself. I always think of the end of Mahon's 'Beyond Howth Head' where he changed the last lines: the ones we all committed to memory are 'as I put out the light / on Mailer's Armies of the Night', a brilliant line—ties it to a very specific time and place, you know exactly when it was written ... but it's also an eternally beautiful line.
And then of course it's been since revised to 'as I put out the light / on shadows of encroaching night' or something. And no one's gonna tell me it's a better line, even Derek, I mean—I'm not rememorizing it! It's my poem now! I think the error there was to go for something superficially less time-bound.
AW: Sticking with 'the familiar', I admire your statement, again in your T S Eliot lecture, that:
for a reader to be blown away by the original phrase it must already be partly familiar to them, if they are to register the transformation—a point fatally misunderstood by every generation of the avant-garde, which is one reason they are stylistically interchangeable ...
It seems to me the risk, the radical complicity of the familiar, and the kind of unthinkable phenomena of affect, is something your work is concerned with (especially in more 'personal' poems such as 'The Thread' or 'The Circle' or even 'Phantom'). I wonder to what extent the designations of 'mainstream' and 'avant-garde' mean anything to you, in general and in relation to the notion of risk?
DP: The big risk is just being understood and being found to be saying nothing. Easier not to be understood. Safer, certainly. But if the original isn't part-known—then it's mere innovation, and it can't be called advance, because it advances from nowhere. But that strategy means you're ... subverting the cliché and the received. Which is a dangerous place to hang out, and can leave you sounding merely clichéd, if your calculations are wrong, if you've failed to advertise the subversion properly. But lazy readers from both camps don't help either. Oh I've heard this before. Actually you really haven't. It just sounds like you have.
AW: I wondered if we could talk more specifically about this notion of 'risk'. Again in your T S Eliot lecture, you said that:
risk is also writing with real feeling, as Frost did, while somehow avoiding sentimentality; simplicity, as Cavafy did, and somehow avoiding artlessness; daring to be prophetic, as Rilke did, and miraculously avoiding pretentiousness; writing with real originality, as Dickinson did, while somehow avoiding cliché ...
It seems that, here, the notion of 'risk' is divorced from 'experiment', that it is more to do with the force of an artwork than form? How would you think about the relationship between risk and technique, or form?
DP: 'Risk' is big word and you're right, formally I'm very conservative, so there's no 'risk' involved at that level, but I don't think that's the word to use anyway. I think it's totally inappropriate. Yep—it's to do with force, the speech act and its consequence, including personal consequence. Unfortunately it is a word we do sometimes use in that context—as if there were any sexy virtue in experiment for its own sake, which I just don't believe. I mean—so you've done a homophonic translation of Cavafy in three-letter words and substituted every noun for one four entries along in the dictionary—big fuckin' deal. It's kid's stuff, only kids wouldn't trouble themselves with it because Minecraft is far more fun and creative. Wee word games.
AW: And this is a certain notion of aesthetic 'force' if you like, force that's not created through structure—though it's facilitated by it—and it's related to a specific notion of what art should do.
DP: Yeah. Your reputation should be risked. The reader's mental health should be at risk. Their sleep should be at risk. Their unchallenged assumptions about the world should be at risk. You should risk it not coming off, y'know. As opposed to risking what? Boring the reader? Losing the reader? Is that a risk? I'm not sure that qualifies. And I don't think form can be risky in itself.
AW: The stakes of form, in this context, are too low?
DP: That's the point, it's a low stakes game. All form. Meaningless. It's like when ... one is called 'a lover of the sonnet form'. But I'm indifferent towards the sonnet. It's what goes into it. Look at New Formalism, the promotion of form to an intrinsic virtue: I mean give me Keston going all text-puppet any day of the week. The experimental stuff is fun, all that syntactic disjunction and competing jargons ... but it results in poetry that's really very conservative in content, as evidenced by the fact that it hasn't changed much for a hundred years. It's like real hard core squeaky-bonk free jazz. It's sounded like that since the mid-sixties, because it's a negatively defined aesthetic. No heads, no long melodic passages, no structure that isn't soon dismantled, and so on. That's grand, though. I used to play it for a living, and it can be very beautiful—but despite the fact it's allowed to think of itself as radical on account of ninety-nine per cent of folk totally hating it. It's the most painfully conservative and rule-bound music on the planet. It's virtually a classical form. So is the literary avant-garde. Certainly it has all the authorial anonymity of classicism. But that's all fine. Live and let live. At least it's identifiably poetry.
AW: Previously, you've downplayed the New Gen promotion, writing that you 'think the people who came through and found themselves a readership would have done anyway', which is probably true. Yet, a lot of people would say that, regardless of the promotional side of things, a lot of those poets—and others not involved in New Gen—maintain a certain cogency or poetic coherency a grouping. Do you think that would be fair or accurate still?
DP: Yeah, sort of, partly I think it was just a good generation, and it's hard to say what that was down to. We had really good workshop practices that were brutally competitive, and I think that was one factor. It raised everyone's game. I think that's what tends to happen. You get a few really good people coming along—O'Brien and Shapcott, the very slightly older members of that sort of group—they set the bar really quite high. Y'know, it's like Swedish tennis, you get a couple of these guys playing at that level in the domestic game, and you think Jesus, I've got to get my shit together. I really believe that healthy competition is a very good thing. My worry is that certain types of workshop practice got fossilized very quickly and had the opposite effect, and we're maybe guilty there. But we spent a long, long, long time working on these lines, ready for next Thursday when you'd all meet in The Lamb or whatever and you got your poem ripped to shreds. 'Kids these days' seem to spend all their time writing blogs and speaking about... not even poetry: they think they're talking about poetry, but they're mostly talking po-biz, or bitching about other poets, and it's like, No! Just write it. Spend time just staring at the line for another three years until it comes good on you. Not your blog. There's an awful lot of poetry-talk on Facebook and Twitter that seems to have leached or siphoned off the energy that should have gone into the poem. And I think it's workshop culture that's been to blame for that... it led to the illusion of this being a career. Christ I'm sounding so old. Fucking New Gen. There's a laugh.
AW: Related to this I wondered about a tension in your statement that poetry 'is certainly a craft that could be acquired, but it's useless unless you have talent as a poet. So if you don't have a talent, there's no point in polishing your craft, there's no point in being a competent versifier'. In terms of Creative Writing courses, I mean what is the ethic of teaching those students who have no or little talent?
DP: Well, the first thing to say is that I don't really believe in 'Creative Writing'; I'm really trying my best to get the term off the books, because my colleagues at St. Andrews are brilliant scholars, and they're creative writers too, so it's a ridiculous distinction. All I teach is poetry, and poetic composition. But you've gotta watch out, you're absolutely right. I mean what's the point of teaching basic competence to people who perhaps don't have any particular talent? It's wasting their time. It's a vale of tears for most poets, y'know, so you don't want to encourage anybody into that way of living unless they've got the talent for it. And then there's the whole Ponzi scheme aspect. What are you going to do with this qualification except teach Creative Writing? Because no editor is going to be impressed with your postgraduate qualification. It's a teaching qualification, and we have to start making it one. I don't know, I do believe strongly in the one-year Masters, if it's well structured and students are sufficiently talented.
AW: I wanted to finish by talking about the long, penultimate poem of Rain, 'Phantom', which is dedicated to Michael Donaghy. I wanted pick up on those lines 'just plot a course between the Orphic oak / and fuck 'em all if they can't take a joke'. This seems a summation of various positions you've espoused in texts we've discussed: the importance of the lyrical, the imperative to sentiment, to emotion or affect as well as a self-deprecating stubbornness. And, of course, here it's Donaghy's voice directing you, I wonder really about his influence on your aesthetics?
DP: Hugely influential, but as a man as much as a poet. But he had something that I very much wanted for my own verse. I don't think I got it, but I got something else in trying. But that was always Mikey's thing, y'know, if you don't entertain first, you don't get to first base, because nobody is listening. I think it's that simple. And also that thing about risk again; he sought it often. Trouble is his poems are often misread as little performances—but the interdependence of their elements, like that self-supporting mathematical bridge in Cambridge, their harmonic complexity ... once you see what he's actually doing, it's like Donne, but with a heavy layer of naturalism. They are ridiculously complex poems, and anyone who thinks they're simple hasn't read them right, and has confused their relaxed delivery with a similarly laid-back approach to their composition. He worked like a demon to sound that casual. You learn to trust, as you do with Muldoon, that everything is there for a structural reason. But it has to be play too—and his wasn't play in any kind of postmodern, ludic and dry way. It was genuine play, for the sheer joy of it. I think there's a lot to be won there. A lot of trust to be won. Steering between the joke and the 'tall tree in the ear' is just 'play for mortal stakes' again. And on a purely manipulative level, it's the old Ivor Cutler thing: 'first I get them laughing, and when their mouth's open, I pour in the poison'.
Ahren Warner's second collection, Pretty, will be published in 2013.
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