Prince among Poets Who Can Dissect a Frog with Finesse

By Kelly, Stuart | Scotland on Sunday (Edinburgh, Scotland), May 27, 2018 | Go to article overview

Prince among Poets Who Can Dissect a Frog with Finesse


Kelly, Stuart, Scotland on Sunday (Edinburgh, Scotland)


Don Paterson is one of the most talented poets working today; he is also an editor of poetry, a reader, someone intrigued by linguistics and philosophy and neurology, and is therefore the perfect polymath to write a book on how we read poetry. Or rather how we are predisposed to read poetry. A word to the wise: if you think this is a book that will teach you how to write a poem, you will be sorely disappointed and indeed frequently chastised. It is far more about the experiential nature of being in the poem, rather than finehoning your adjectives.

The book's divisions are permeable. "Lyric" looks at the modern tendency for the poem to be compact, ambiguous, and a form which "seeks to transcend the limitations of human memory". Poems are, as Paterson says, machines for remembering themselves. The second essay, "Sign," is more about reception theory - how we read, misread and re-read poems. The final piece, "Metre", is the most technical and the most problematic to my mind, a dense discussion of how the human voice, rhythm and forms interact and intersect.

In some ways, when reading this, the mental associations it conjured were always from the 17th century. It seems a strange cousin to Sir Thomas Urquhart's Ekskybalauron or Sir Thomas Browne's Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial or Richard Burton's The Anatomy Of Melancholy. All are books of formidable learning, of neologisms and askance asides. This is not in any way a criticism. I love books that are replete, even when I might disagree with some of the conclusions. Any book which will flagrantly use "mnemotechnology", "anacrusis", "epizeuxis" and "teleutons" while inventing such words as "formeme", "aeteme", "patheme" and "aseme" is never going to be easy going. That said, it is worth it, even though Paterson himself disavows such taxonomies even in the act of enacting them. EB White came to mind more than once: "Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better but the frog dies". (Actually, it would already have been in the choir celestial, when you think about it. That's the thing about language and metaphor: never press too hard).

The difference between consonants and vowels is perhaps the book's strongest point. Consonants convey meaning, vowels convey time, as where certain languages omit vowels altogether and leave a space where meaning is construed around it - which is what we all do all the time reading poetry. We all begin listening to someone else's heartbeat, and this is reflected in the reflexive structures of poetry. Paterson makes a convincing case for a sort of inherent onomatopoeia of language: that apple sounds apple-y. …

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