June 29, 2015KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsEnthusiamsReading

Neustadt Prize Nomination: Don Paterson


This year I’ve had the honor of joining the jury for the Neustadt International Prize in Literature, called by some the “American Nobel.” As a juror, I was given the opportunity to nominate one creative writer (poet, novelist, or dramatist) and write a short essay about that writer for the other jurors, who would read, before we convened, a single book by that writer.

One writer, one book. I could think of several living writers I’d feel good about nominating. I went to the list of prior laureates, and I found that Toni Morrisson and Tom Stoppard had never won the prize; nor had Cormac McCarthy, or Salman Rushdie, or V. S. Naipaul, or Margaret Atwood, or Kay Ryan…. I even flirted with the idea of expanding the notion of “creative writer” to include the philosopher-critic George Steiner. With the exception of Steiner, whose age at this point would have precluded his traveling to the U.S. if he won (this being the sole prerequisite for nomination), they were all equally excellent possibilities.

No specific guidelines were given. The writer didn’t have to espouse a right-thinking political cause (though I feared/suspected political “relevance” might guide the nominations, and still fear/suspect that it will dominate, as a factor, the eventual selection). Anyway, the field was totally open. Of all the great living writers out there—who?

I wanted to pick a deserving writer, but I also wanted my choice to be a personal one. Not a writer who necessarily “speaks to me” in some narrowly self-referential sort of way, much less someone whose work resembles what I am trying to do in my own work—although one or both of those factors are probably always at play when a writer develops a readerly adoration. I wanted someone whom I felt I knew about and loved, but not enough of my countrymen knew about or loved. I also wanted, stubbornly, to pick a poet—I didn’t want to fall into the default notion, seemingly widespread in literary circles, that novels are Relevant and Major, while poetry is a relatively minor art. (The majority of the recent prize winners are not poets.)

The poet I ended up choosing is exceptionally well-known and -awarded in Britain, but rarely focused on here in the U.S. His name is Don Paterson, and what follows is the essay I wrote nominating him for his latest collection, Rain.







The Scottish writer Don Paterson has translated (and recreated in English) Rilke, Vallejo, Desnos, Quasimodo, Cavafy, and Machado; he is an astute and sometimes surly and irreverent critic of Shakespeare’s sonnets, one of our most underrated aphorists, and opinionated editor. But above all he is a poet in his own right, and it is his poetic work that I submit for consideration, recommending to you his latest volume, Rain.

The lack of a late-career Selected or Collected prevents me from introducing you to Paterson’s award-winning earlier books of verse, from Nil Nil to Landing Light. I encourage you to expose yourself to as much of his poetry, translations, and aphoristic work as you can, both in book form and online, to supplement Rain.

Paterson contains contradictions, and these are, as with so many artists, the source of his strength and the interest of his oeuvre. So there is a meditative, philosophical, highly emotive Paterson and a wry, slightly foulmouthed, sardonic Paterson, and both of these writers cohabit early volumes like Nil Nil. You can think of these two tendencies as the unearthly and the worldly (and earthy), or as the solemn and the irreverent sides, of the same writer.

In recent years, he has shifted this brasher aspect of his personality largely into his prose. The few memoir fragments (one available on his website) and the commentaries on Shakespeare’s Sonnets are all written in this irreverent style. As a poet, Paterson has moved, in the spirit of the Irish writer who strove to “purify the language of the tribe,” toward a cleaner and more austere line, and an elegaic or meditative mood. (In Rain, you can get a taste of the loquacious, worldly Paterson in “Song for Natalie ‘Tusja’ Beridze.”) He spent the years of the transformation consciously (it would seem) studying the sonnet form. It began with his edition of 101 Sonnets and proceeded to translations of Machado and the Sonnets to Orpheus. He seems to have selected (and, as it were, Englished) his poetic ancestry during this period, and today he has emerged as one of the language’s foremost sonneteers. The commentary on Shakespeare (Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets) is in the same spirit of “long and patient study.” Notice that Paterson has either translated or commentated on every last sonnet in the two most famous sonnet sequences in Western literature, Shakespeare’s and Rilke’s. That is not a coincidence.

This fixation on a single form or verse structure need not strike us as the slowing-down of age or the foreclosing of possibilities. Quite the contrary. Rumi and Hafiz in the ghazal, Dickinson in the abab quatrain, Dante in terza rima, Milton in blank verse, Pope in the heroic couplet: Adopting a single form and sticking to it is, paradoxically, a way of opening up possibilities. Paterson’s next published book, due out in September 2015, is a book entirely of sonnets—and it may well be a monument within the form.


This is not to say that Paterson is a dainty, finicky poet whose stylistic finesse forces him to exclude the coarser, earthier aspects of life. He just doesn’t include them coarsely. He is able to write of the most intimate things imaginable, often by harnessing metaphor in ways that open the poem into far larger meaning. Consider the mid-career poem “Imperial,” which is not so much a love poem as a sex poem.


“Imperial” (from 2005’s God’s Gift to Women)


Is it normal to get this wet? Baby, I’m frightened—

I covered her mouth with my own;

she lay in my arms till the storm-window brightened

and stood at our heads like a stone


After months of jaw jaw, determined that neither

win ground, or be handed the edge,

we gave ourselves up, one to the other

like prisoners over a bridge


and no trade was ever so fair or so tender;

so where was the flaw in the plan,

the night we lay down on the flag of surrender

and woke on the flag of Japan


Leave aside that this is a conceit worthy of Donne, with its brilliant implicit parallel between hara kiri and sexual penetration. Or that the abab rhyme scheme, in this poem about coupling, asserts itself as interpenetrated couplets; or that the rhymes are slant rhymes, implying an imperfect fit, phonetic matches not quite made in heaven. Just focus on how rare it is to find good sex writing, in prose or in poetry; and consider how Paterson takes twelve lines to evoke all the doomed violent power-struggle complexity of the First Time. Other writers—a Henry Miller, an Erica Jong—would take a few hundred pages.

Paterson is also a writer who has mastered, not just demotic speech, but dialect. Consider “The Human Shield” from Rain, an isolated but perfect lyric, an atavism of Robert Burns. Paterson’s isn’t the bland, metaphor-poor prose of Standard International English, newscaster-English, Hollywood-blockbuster-English, or “spare” and “economical” high-literary fiction-English; nor is it the self-consciously idiosyncratic English of the poetic stylist, pursuing novelty at the expense of meaning and emotional intensity. This is why Paterson has appealed throughout motley multiethnic modern Britain (and indeed, throughout the Anglophone world)—while still retaining the charm and specificity of a local or regional writer. His poetry is at once universal and clearly of place he comes from.

And not just in the place names and proper nouns: Existentially. This is what sets apart the crowning seven-part elegy that is the penultimate poem in Rain. It is the best showcase of Paterson’s Flaubertian pursuit of the right word. Consider this line.


Were there design, this would have been the flaw.


This line, iambic pentameter with two inversions, is at once flawed, in that it isn’t precisely iambic, and perfect, in that it exhibits and undermines, by its form, its own content. That ten-syllable line is designed, very precisely, to be imprecisely iambic. This line, achieved using the same verse line that was Shakespeare and Milton’s weapon of choice, is a statement whose form sets up a paradox and causes you to question the implicit assumption behind the statement itself. Were there design takes it as a given that there isn’t; the question is settled at the outset, in a four-word subordinate clause. But the line is one that hides its own design. Is the apparent flaw (as in the verse line, so in fallen human beings, so in the cosmos) actually an inapparent design? The fact that this line comes toward the end of the extraordinarily moving “Phantom” is something I will leave aside for now: It is difficult for a writer to comment, at the same time and in the same space, on surface poetic ingenuity and deep poetic feeling. How much more difficult, then, for Paterson to have created and combined them.

Paterson isn’t a writer who espouses social or political “causes” in his art—and yet his poetry isn’t art for art’s sake, either. His poetry handles, with sustained musicality, the central questions of literature, considered across cultures and eras: Being, time, love, memory. Like the only English-language poet to have won this Prize since its inception (Elizabeth Bishop in 1976), Paterson’s sophisticated technique serves the most basic, almost primal motivations of literary art. He is taking poetry “forward” by taking it back to its formal and thematic origins; to the source of its (and his) strength. As such, Paterson’s oeuvre is more than just “international.” It is, in the fullest sense of the word, universal.