Review: 40 Sonnets – Don Paterson

Review by Ellen Cranitch

When, in 1621, Lady Mary Wroth wrote her sonnet In this strange labyrinth how shall I turn.., she could have been speaking for Don Paterson. Paterson has spent more time than most in that selfsame sonnet-labyrinth, navigating its contours and sounding its depths. His own sonnets include pieces as diverse as Landing Light’s blissful ‘Waking with Russell’ and the quasi-sonnet, ‘(IV)’ in Rain’s elegiac sequence ‘Phantom’ where grief and the most irreducible philosophical questions are held in knotted syntax. He’s written two books about the form, 101 Sonnets (1999) and Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets (2010). Paterson’s passion is writ large for the formal model he has made his own.

Some books advance a poet’s work in a different way to others. While Landing Light, Paterson’s fourth collection, propelled the poetry forward, all guns blazing, across a dazzling variety of meters and forms, 40 Sonnets advances the oeuvre in a quieter way. Virtuosity is still to the fore, so too, a range of rhyme schemes. But what distinguishes this book is a new urgency about bearing witness to life’s ordinary miracles and a serious, characteristically ambitious, taking on of searching philosophical questions. The consistency of the sonnet form over forty poems, despite its many variations, particularly facilitates the re-examination of what have emerged as this poet’s overriding themes.

The sonnet, as Paterson himself has written, is ‘one of the most characteristic shapes human thought can take’. This book is full of questions which are probed through the unique strategies of the sonnet, through its specific combination of lyric and argument. Are they all sonnets? They’re all designated as such. Paterson’s definition of the sonnet in 101 Sonnets was strikingly inclusive, particularly with reference in the Petrachan form he himself favours, to the volta or turn. Paterson thinks around that turn. Most of the sonnets here hug its contours and one of the pleasures of the volume is the myriad ways the poems negotiate that shift, sometimes curt as a flipped table tennis bat, other times smoothly as a calm river bend. The collection includes traditional and innovative sonnets. The most arresting poems are the ones in which the presence of the traditional sonnet form is most powerfully felt, either because the poem runs with it, as in ‘The Air’ or runs against it, as in ‘Sentinel’.

‘The Air’ which follows the tight metrical and rhyming constraints of the Shakespearean sonnet, is a tremendous poem, its title a reference both to the element we breathe and to the song. As in Rilke, by connecting air to breath and consciousness, the poem asks profound questions about being and the relationship between the ‘I’ and the cosmos. As such it focuses the collection’s most acute philosophical themes. The issue of the divided self, insistently explored throughout the book, is less a Cartesian divide, closer rather to the shadowy line Yeats probes between the dancer and the dance. However, Paterson’s sonnets, adhering to an Orphic vision, posit the essence of being not as dance but as the song, the word. They then move out to a larger question, ‘what utters us?’ (‘Funeral Prayer’.) This recurring syntactical trope subverts the privileging of human subjectivity.

The question Paterson repeatedly raised in Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets – ‘is this poem felt?’ – focused the issue of how a profoundly formal structure, through the way it can contain emotion can also act to close it off; the feelings which inspired the poem and which it aims to inspire are somehow rendered less accessible. The power of ‘The Air’ lies not just in the way it gives abstract ideas, such as the loneliness of consciousness, shape, but in its emotiveness. We feel just how much the poem’s questions matter to the poet. Lyric and argument come together as the poem interrogates the nature of the air. Sound remints sense as the repeated ‘a’ vowel solemnises the first line and the familiar ‘caravan’ is imbued with mystery through the activation of its Persian etymology, ‘procession’:

What is this dark and silent caravan
that being nowhere, neither comes nor goes;
that being never, has no hour or span;
of which we can say only that it flows?

Feeling floods the last line, above, through the lightest of touches – the use of the adverb ‘only’. Urgency is felt in the extreme poetic distillation as the great abstracts the poem takes on – physics, being, space and time – are given form and coherence through the use of syntactic parallelism and double negatives.

In ‘Sentinel’ in contrast, passionate feeling is communicated through the poem playing against the sonnet’s conventions. The breathless voice rises up against the constraints of the form, unfolding in a single sentence over the fourteen lines. This piece about the lover’s otherness, of being rescued by their truth, is relayed through convulsive images of fire and water and powered by a vivid sense of indebtedness to life. It is as if the sonnet-in-transit has paused and been coloured by all the energies that make and move us, and – to use that extraordinary verb used about love in ‘Mercies’ – ‘conceded’ their preeminent mystery.

Occasionally, when Paterson uses the demotic voice with the Petrachan model, despite the strictures of rhyme, a capaciousness is felt in the octave, the impression of voice draped too loosely over form, resulting in an under-pressured poem. But the collection is littered with striking images and demonstrates a wide-ranging inspirational provenance. Some pieces, like the movingly clear-eyed ‘The Roundabout’, all dynamism and heft, gesture at Heaney rather than Shakespeare.

Compared to the earlier books, vocabulary and syntax are more accessible, less recondite. ‘Love’ and ‘soul’ – apprehended with fresh complexity – have now entered the lexicon and ‘shame’  – a word which ran like wildfire through Landing Light – barely gets a look-in. The poems in general feel more at peace; there’s just some of the old rage against god expressed with some of the old vehemence. There’s also a subtly clever disavowal of Christianity articulated now through choice of metaphor – for example the use of the image of the absolving confessor to pillory Tony Blair on Iraq. In one of the most moving of all the poems in the book, ‘Mercies’, a dog being put down depicts the extreme love of surrender, of sacrifice for another, in a deliberately non-Christian context. The ingenious wit is ever-present, placed now in the service of profound questions; that preoccupation with the divided self, for example, finding expression in the brilliant ‘An Incarnation’ which fashions from a random phone call for a survey, the makings of a masterly experimental sonnet.