Magazine article The New Yorker

Forms of Attention

Magazine article The New Yorker

Forms of Attention

Article excerpt

It is National Poetry Month, time to remember what distinct pleasure poets themselves take in minimizing and disparaging their trade. No other art makes such a virtue of its grumpiness: painters hate other painters, or other styles of painting, but poets hate poetry itself, hate themselves for getting mixed up in it at all, hate, often, the very poem that they find themselves writing--in language brilliant and moving enough to convey how useless and phony the language of poetry is. You could call this navel-gazing, but the thing about poetry (an art of beheld excruciation) is its capacity to conscript us into emotional states we wouldn't volunteer to experience. I never worry very much about whether I'm pleasing God, and yet I love George Herbert. I don't like cats; I love Christopher Smart's mad paean to his cat, "On My Cat Jeoffry." So you needn't be a poet to care about poems about poetry. In fact, if poets (often lacking God, less often lacking cats) anguish most deeply about poetry, then we might take the argument a step further: non-poets should seek out poems about poetry, where the real intensity can be found.

Tunnel far enough into poets' bad moods about their trade, and you'll find examples of remarkable aesthetic integrity. Way down in that tunnel is the fine Scottish poet Don Paterson, a poet of surface gorgeousness (he rhymes, he writes in chiming little stanzas), who is nevertheless right at home in the dark. Paterson's signal contribution to poetry often seems to be to stamp out its most grandiose claims. Ars longa, vita brevis? Paterson's reply, in a poem from the late nineties, was "None of this is terribly important." Paterson came up early in that decade with some gifted friends--Simon Armitage and Glyn Maxwell, among others--who were notable for doing things in their poems that weren't at all effete or tubercular, like drinking Murphy's, smoking, and watching soccer. This could be irritating: a species of bar bluntness intended to get a rise out of the other patrons. But Paterson has made great leaps in the years since those first poems started to appear, sometimes by ironizing the bloke persona (which, to be fair, already came with a chaser of irony) but mainly just by living--the laddishness, a fad to begin with, was phased out. A few kids, a few deaths, and, before you know it, taking a drunken piss no longer seems like the perfect metaphor for mortality.

After the lad period, Paterson had a look at Zen, gave it up (perhaps wisely), translated (beautifully) Rilke's "Sonnets to Orpheus," and then took up aphorisms in a serious way, publishing two books of them (collected in the United States in a single volume, "Best Thought, Worst Thought"). The aphorism enthusiasm seems somehow illicit, a betrayal of poetry for freakish thrift, as though poetry were, by comparison, some kind of sluggish, swollen kin:

The aphorism is a brief waste of time. The poem is a complete waste of time. The novel is a monumental waste of time.

This is a radical claim; poetry is nearly always thought of as a refinement of longer, coarser forms--the novel, memoir, history, the essay. Poems are not novels distilled; they are aphorisms coarsened and hideously dilated.

"Rain" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $24), Paterson's new book of poems, exchanges his barroom nihilism, and much of its swagger, for a chastened and pared-down clarity that he got from aphorism. Paterson was always a poet of the double negative (his first book was titled "Nil Nil," a soccer score that suggested, lightly, Lear: nothing can come of nothing). The new book ends where Paterson's career began, with a double negative that functions warily as an affirmative: "none of this, none of this matters."

In "Rain," what "matters" is children, friends, and work. What also matters, it turns out, is matter (Paterson likes puns), matter driven by the uncompromising laws of matter. Friends die, work comes to nothing, a child's pride is undone by "the flutter in his signature":

My boy is painting outer space,

and steadies his brush-tip to trace

the comets, planets, moon and sun

and all the circuitry they run

in one great heavenly design. …

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