Archive for the ‘poems’ category

Reading Shakespeare’s sonnets

October 22, 2010

If you like Shakespeare’s sonnets then you will be interested to know that Don Paterson has recently published a new commentary on them. You can read an article about the writing of this commentary, by Paterson himself, on the Guardian website here.

Anyone who has followed the few entries in this blog – and I apologise sincerely for those who return looking for something new and find it all but abandoned these last months – will notice a fondness for Paterson. I confess to finding him one of the most interesting living poets and am drawn to everything he writes. The piece on his book Rain that I wrote is here, but, for those interested there is a transcript here of the speech he gave on receiving the T S Eliot prize for poetry a few years ago. It’s a lovely analysis of what he calls the ‘dark arts.’

But back to this article. There are a couple of delightful little asides, not least of which is an account of his struggle with Helen Vendler’s commentary on the sonnets. Vendler is one of our foremost analysts of poetry, and, normally, she elucidates and adds to a poem she is talking about. In the case of the sonnets she spends several hundred pages of a very handsomely bound book demonstrating the arcane structures she has discovered within them, how one word, like ‘love’ will be used and re-used, twisted, added to and finally contorted within the last two rhyming lines. Paterson says of this:

‘I also wanted to try to bring a bit of sanity to the discussion of how Shakespeare wrote these crazy poems in the first place. The main motivation here was reading Helen Vendler’s brilliant and infuriating The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. As a critic, Vendler has led me through the thickets like a bemused and grateful child for years now, but I’ve had growing misgivings over her critical method, and her Shakespeare book was where I finally lost it. (Twice I found myself on my hands and knees, taping the book back together after it had bounced off the wall.)

I wanted to say something to counteract the perception of Shakespeare’s compositional method as a kind of lyric soduku, and put in a word for the kind of glorious, messy procedure I’m quite certain it was, whatever the crystalline and symmetrical beauty of the final results.’

And, earlier he comments on the type of love being described:

‘This is a crazy, all-consuming, feverish and sweaty love; love, in all its uncut, full-strength intensity; an adolescent love. The reader’s thrill lies in hearing this adolescent love articulated by a hyper-literate thirty-something. Usually these kids can’t speak. The effect is extraordinary: they are not poems that are much use when we’re actually in love, I’d suggest; but when we read them, they are so visceral in their invocation of that mad, obsessive, sleepless place that we can again feel, as CK Williams said, “the old heart stamping in its stall”.’

Just to finish I thought I might include my favourite sonnet (because I can) number 73, one that others often seem to ignore:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold,

When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang

Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,

Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.

In me thou seest the twilight of such day

As after sunset fadeth in the west,

Which by and by black night doth take away,

Death’s second self that seals up all in rest.

In me thou seest the glowing of such fire

That on the ashes of his youth doth lie

As the death-bed whereon it must expire,

Consumed with that which it was nourished by.

This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,

To love that well which thou must leave ere long.



April 1, 2010

Let me begin with the bloggers lament: No, scrap that. Here I am. Now. I’ve been waiting for Don Paterson’s book to arrive. Rain. I talked about one of his poems from this collection a few weeks ago here but I cannot resist posting the complete version of the title poem. It needs, I believe, to be read aloud to hear the full cadence, the internal rhyme.

Now, a few hours later, and much sweat, and no success, I post this poem. It’s supposed to have spaces every fourth line but WordPress takes them out regardless of what I do in CSS or HTML or anywhere else. If you know how to fix this please, please tell me.


I love all films that start with rain:

rain, braiding a windowpane

or darkening a hung-out dress

or streaming down her upturned face;

one big thundering downpour

right through the empty script and score

before the act, before the blame,

before the lens pulls through the frame

to where the woman sits alone

beside a silent telephone

or the dress lies ruined on the grass

or the girl walks off the overpass,

and all things flow out from that source

along their fatal watercourse.

However bad or overlong

such a film can do no wrong,

so when his native twang shows through

or when the boom slips into view

or when her speech starts to betray

its adaptation from the play,

I think to when we opened cold

on a starlit gutter, running gold

with the neon of a drugstore sign

and I’d read into its blazing line:

forget the ink, the milk, the blood –

all was washed clean with the flood

we rose up from the falling waters

the fallen rain’s own sons and daughters

and none of this, none of this matters.

Don Paterson, Rain. Farrar Straus Geroux, 2009

Can I say: treat yourself. Section V from the poem Phantom is as close and as beautiful a description of our fate as anything I’ve ever read.

Don Paterson

January 6, 2010

A review in the Weekend Australian of Don Paterson’s new collection of poems (written by Robert Gray) has drawn me back to his earlier works, in particular the afterword for his translations of the Sonnets of Orpheus by Rainer Maria Rilke, simply called Orpheus.

Probably I should be talking about the poems but it is the Afterword which in this case most grabs me. Paterson finds himself ‘dismayed to discover the Sonnet’s recent recruitment to the cause of “spiritual literature”’. He believes that the Sonnets are ‘a strongly non-religious work, and easily capable of an anti-religious interpretation.’

Casually reading the slim volume late at night in my bed I stumble upon this paragraph:

‘The two principal religious errors seem to me beautifully refuted in the Sonnets. The first is to think of truth as being in the possession of an inscrutable third party, whose knowledge and intentions can only be divined. However, we are all the thinking that matter is doing in this part of the universe. If the universe has an eye, it sees only through the eyes on this Earth and elsewhere; if a mind it thinks only in these minds …

‘The second error is to think of an afterlife or any reincarnation we are bound for as more extraordinary than finding ourselves here in the first place. This projection of ourselves into a future beyond our deaths warps our actions in, and therefore our sense of responsibility to, the here and now – as well as our negotiations with the real beings with whom we share and to whom we will bequeath a home … This, in a perfectly straightforward sense, is already life after death, as remarkably so as any “you” you might wake as in the future. Factor out the illusion of the unitary self – being a phantom centre created by an evolutionary necessity – and its back-formations of ego and soul, and being here once is the identically equivalent miracle to being here again.’

Suddenly I’m sitting up, wide awake. What Paterson articulates so concisely is something I encounter every time my mind comes awake for long enough to notice where it is I am: that this is all there is, here, in this moment. That this person I’m with, this weather we’re having, this room we’re in, or this mountain that we’re on, is, in fact, the moment, for all its unsatisfactoriness, equal in intensity and possibility to every other moment. The quality of attention which I bring to where I am is the governing factor controlling how important it is, not some external force.

It shouldn’t, I guess, surprise me to find such acuity in Paterson. He is the poet who, apart from writing his own poems, also translated the poetry of the Spaniard Antonio Machado, producing the book The Eyes.

In the Afterword to that collection, speaking of translation, he wrote:

‘These poems are versions, not translations. A reader looking for an accurate translation of Antonio Merchado’s words, then, should stop here and go out and buy another book – probably Alan Trueblood’s Antonio Machado: Selected Poems, which although it isn’t poetry, at least gives a more reliable reflection of the surface of Machado’s verse. Poems, though, are considerably more than the agglomerated meaning of their words, and in writing these versions I initially tried to be true to a poem’s argument and to its vision … This quickly became the more familiar project of trying to make a musical and argumentative unity of the material at hand, and this consideration, in overriding all others, led to mangling, shifts of emphasis, omission, deliberate mistranslantion, the conflation of different poems, the insertion of whole new lines and on a few occasions the writing of entirely new poems. In the end it became about nothing more than a commitment to a process – what Machado everywhere refers to as “the road”’.

I must off to the bookstore to buy this new collection, entitled Rain. Gray quotes several of the poems in his review. This one caught my attention, from ‘Phantom’:

We come from nothing and return to it.

It lends us out to time, and when we lie

in silent contemplation of the void

they say we feel it contemplating us.

This is wrong, but who could bear the truth.

We are ourselves the void in contemplation.

We are its only nerve and hand and eye.

There is something vast and distant and enthroned

with which you are one and continuous,

staring through your mind, staring and staring

like a black sun, constant, silent, radiant

with neither love nor hate nor apathy

as we have no human name for its regard

Death, a poem by W B Yeats

December 22, 2009

Nor dread nor hope attend

A dying animal;

A man awaits his end

Dreading and hoping all;

Many times he died,

Many times he rose again.

A great man in his pride

Confronting murderous men

Casts derision upon

Supersession of breath;

He knows death to the bone –

Man has created death.

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