Selected Poems, Don Paterson, Faber and Faber, 192pp, £14.99 (hardback) Yellow Tulips: Poems 1968-2011, James Fenton, Faber and Faber, 176pp, £14.99 (hardback)

Love’s Bonfire, Tom Paulin, Faber and Faber, 96pp, £12.99 (hardback)

Don Paterson emerged on to the British literary scene, his poetic identity seemingly already fully formed, with his 1993 debut collection, Nil Nil. After being snapped up by Faber and Faber he was later selected as one of the heavily promoted and much-maligned ‘New Generation Poets’. He later enjoyed more than his fair share of glittering prizes, including the T. S. Eliot, the Whitbread, the Forward and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial, before being awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 2009. Paterson’s new and generous Selected Poems is a welcome mid-career summary of a heavily garlanded poetic career, complete with encomia from such luminaries as Paul Muldoon (an early, influential figure), Carol Ann Duffy and Fiona Sampson.

So what has made Dundee-born Paterson such a distinctive poetic presence over the last twenty years? Partly, it is a matter of his abundant formal skill, lyrical bite and an ability to marry the darkest philosophical matter with concerns of the heart. A disciple of Robert Frost, Paterson is as much a natural sceptic as his New England mentor, curing his own ‘Desert Places’ with the healing balm of love. Despite the variety of his output, however, which includes versions of Antonio Machado and Rainer Maria Rilke, two volumes of aphorisms and a rambunctious study of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Paterson’s work has not met with universal approbation. Craig Raine published an essay-length put-down of Paterson and what he sees as the Dundonian’s ‘weakness for exaggeration’, while the Scot’s frequent attacks on the kind of experimental or avant-garde writing represented by J. H. Prynne and the so-called Cambridge School of Poets have been deemed ‘intemperate’ by fellow Faber poet and critic, Mark Ford.


Early Paterson can sound like a roughed-up aesthete with attitude or a more rarefied version of Simon Armitage. Mixing high and low culture in laddish but lyrically exact explorations of masculinity, he also indulges a penchant for epigraphs and poetic versions. Discovering Tony Harrison’s examination of class in his ‘School of Eloquence’ sonnet sequence was a defining moment for Paterson. The Leeds bard and fellow Scottish poet, Douglas Dunn, are both possible influences on the first book’s ‘An Elliptical Stylus’. A study in snobbery, the poem offers a curt rebuke to a put-down of his father by a snooty record shop assistant – a rebuke enlarged to include the reader:

I’d swing for him and every other cunt

happy to let my father know his station,

But if you still insist on resonance –

which probably includes yourself. To be blunt.

There is a certain Caledonian swagger and aggressive, ‘in-your-face’ quality to Paterson’s debut and its provocatively entitled follow-up, God’s Gift to Women. Relentlessy self-conscious, the poems include tortured studies of male identity filtered through tricksy word games and puzzles. (Reviewing Nil Nil in the Observer, Adam Thorpe neatly defined early Paterson as combining ‘a sort of Empsonian wit-cum-Dundee scowl’.) Opening with a literary joke (‘A poem is a little church, remember,/you, its congregation, I, its cantor’), Paterson’s second book is almost unerringly knowing, pitched ‘somewhere between Tristram Shandy and Muldoon’s glancing obliquities’, to quote William Scammell’s review.

Yet beneath the blank pages, the Gary Snyderish Zen in-jokes and the rather wearing post-modernist high jinks, Paterson lets his steely guard down long enough for the Arvon Poetry Competition winner, ‘A Private Bottling’. This is a more plainspoken and palatable hymn of praise to women and whisky. While clearly influenced by mid-period Dunn (‘O whiskies of Long Island and Provence!’), the poem points to Paterson’s later and generally more emotionally convincing lyrical manner. This was showcased in 2003’s Landing Light and his most recent collection, Rain, which appeared to great acclaim in 2009. These books explore the more chastened landscapes of adult love and fatherhood, with less of the ludic clever-clever stuff. The poet’s early obsession with doppelgangers is literally made flesh when Paterson becomes the father of twin boys. He offers them paternal advice for the future about love, sex and parenthood, exhorts them to value women and provides detailed instructions in the art of erotic love: ‘know, by its tiny pulse and its low gleam/just where the pearl sits knuckled in its silk.’ Paterson even risks emotional candour bordering on sentimentality in the mid-life parental sonnet, ‘Waking with Russell’, where deeply felt emotion meets lyrical epiphany:

Whatever the difference is, it all began
the day we woke up face-to-face like lovers
and his four day-old smile dawned on him again …

Paterson’s Selected ends with poems from Rain, lauded by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy as ‘The best collection of poetry to appear in years’. While the highly feted Paterson has won enough prizes and gongs – an OBE included – to trouble a poet with such an acute sense of existential nothingness, it will be interesting to see how his work develops after the rapid poetic ascent charted in this welcome career best-of.

The greater lyrical simplicity of Paterson’s later work has been a feature of James Fenton’s poetry from the start. Yet the uninitiated may find reading his new selected, Yellow Tulips: Poems 1968-2011, a disconcerting experience. While not large, Fenton’s varied poetic oeuvre contains everything from Cole Porterish love lyrics to high table word games and nonsense verse, and from stark, publicly pitched war poems to a dark evocation of collective national guilt, in the highly regarded early poem, ‘A German Requiem’. Often considered a literary heir of W. H. Auden, Fenton is generally closer to the early, rhythmically memorable Auden of Look, Stranger!, producing poems of great narrative power, such as ‘Out of the East’:

Out of the South came Famine.

Out of the West came Strife.

Out of the North came a storm cone

And out of the East came a warrior wind

And it struck you like a knife.

Fenton’s curriculum vitae is as various as his work. The son of an Anglican priest and later a chorister at Durham Cathedral, before Magdalen College, Oxford, where he won the Newdigate Prize for poetry, Fenton has served as a war correspondent in the Far East, a political journalist, a theatre and art critic and an opera librettist. He is also a keen rose gardener. These strands all feed into his work, with its ever greater clarity of expression, edged with the cryptic quality of the darkest nursery rhymes. This has led to accusations of lyrical superficiality. The late Mick Imlah, reviewing Fenton’s 1993 volume, Out of Danger, suggested such poems could produce ‘a standard featureless rapture’, purging his work of what Swinburne called ‘singularities … of anything that strikes the eye, the ear, or the intellect as exceptional’. Ironically, however, Fenton employed his plain-spoken lyricism to great effect in his recent elegy for Imlah. ‘At the Kerb’ captures ‘mourners processing to the grave,/Each bearing a history like a precious ointment’, each with ‘Grief to bestow what beauty once bestowed’. Although a slimmer volume than Fenton’s Selected Poems in 2006, Yellow Tulips is the perfect example of a fruitful collaboration between his public and private voices.

Tom Paulin really started kicking down the door to a looser, slangier and more demotic poetic language in his groundbreaking 1987 collection, Fivemiletown. Spontaneity has been the name of his game ever since. ‘To break the pentameter, that was the first heave,’ said Ezra Pound. Paulin has gone even further in the last twenty-five years, ousting standard punctuation and syntax in favour of lines that swerve in jazzily unpredictable directions, Joycean dashes and ‘writing to the moment’. His later poems seem obsessed with dreck and detritus, whether battered bungalows or the domestically mundane. Paulin picks away at the surface of language to reach some kind of lyrical quiddity: ‘That squat red tub of Swarfega … it goes with spanners clappedout vans/the diesel the greasy the plain basic but useful.’ (‘The Utile as Fetish’, from The Wind Dog, 1999). While still acutely aware of the pressures of Irish history and politics – the Troubles included – Paulin constantly foregrounds the arbitrariness of speech, with all its hesitations, repetitions and second thoughts. Risking mundanity, and what Sean O’Brien has called the ‘merely diaristic’, Paulin has forged an inclusive, malleable poetic rhetoric, sensitive to the randomness of the spoken word.

The verbal fireworks are more muted in Paulin’s latest collection, Love’s Bonfire. Split into three sections, the book forms a kind of poetic triptych, with versions of the Palestinian poet, Walid Khazendar, forming a middle panel. These translations are by far the most robust and worldly pieces in the book, the poet inhabiting the heart and mind of a writer for whom poetry and politics are one: ‘and then the window the dark/window with no curtain showed a sail/– sure it was torn to bits/but still it led the wind’ (‘The Sail, Again’). Nonetheless, there is an elegiac quality to most of the book. This is brilliantly encapsulated in the title poem, as Paulin’s memory of falling in love with his future Indian wife is clouded by cultural tension, including the threat of an arranged marriage.

Easily the best poem in the book, ‘Love’s Bonfire’ is anchored by a line from Virgil’s Aeneid – ‘veteris vestigia flammae’, ‘the ashes of an ancient flame’ – which Hardy used as the epigraph for his moving sequence of elegies to his late first wife in Poems of 1912-13. Following his generous volume of translations, The Road to Inver (2004), and his epic war poem- cum-historical collage, The Invasion Handbook (2002), the latest poems feel emotionally bruised and possessed by a Hardyesque sense of regret. Despite, or perhaps because of these qualities, Love’s Bonfire is one of Tom Paulin’s most memorable collections to date.

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