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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Down With Poets

Something unpleasant lurked in the paper this morning, and I don’t mean the match report of the Liverpool-Blackpool game, or rather I might do if I could have brought myself to read it. But since I couldn’t we’ll stick to Alastair Fowler’s review of Don Paterson’s Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets. As some readers will already know, it’s an idiosyncratic performance, to go no further. But no, let’s go further. Paterson relentlessly insults or ignores other critics, writes in a grating jokey sub-adolescent style, makes basic interpretive errors, to the point where (skipping to the end of Fowler’s review):

Questions arise about what Don Paterson is hoping to accomplish. Does he suppose it advances the cause of modern literature to show contempt for elite standards of scholarship? Why did he write in such a hurry? Why did he not correct his proofs? Why did he take so little trouble over a poet he claims to admire?

We’ve all sat through those nervous little self-put-downs people work into poetry readings, but how odd to see them turn up in a critical book like this (‘let me be the first to say that I consider this theory to be garbage’ , ‘that’s the best I can do’, ‘for all I know’). Paterson cuts through the scholarly stodge with bold new theories of his own, such as the suggestion that him-up-above, Marlowe, not Chapman, is the ‘affable familiar ghost’ of Sonnet 86. Except, as Fowler has to point out, lots of people have already made just this claim. Not that Paterson credits them, or can be bothered working through the evidence to come to the fairly unexceptionable conclusion (I would have thought) that they are wrong. That sounds way too much like homework, or some other form of sweat-breaking exercise. As would be learning that ‘And perspective it is best painter’s art’ does not involve a ‘weird’ stress on the first syllable of ‘perspective’ because, have we got news for you, that’s how people talked back then. ‘Little is offered in support of his verdicts’, Fowler notes. Paterson reads the sonnets as straight (or not so sexually ‘straight’) autobiography (‘Oh come on, people. The guy’s in love with a bloke’). The rhetorical trope of correlatio ‘might well exist, for all I know.’ So go look it up then, your lazyass.

What is going on here? A comparison that springs to mind is Martin Amis’s train-crash of a book a few years back on Stalin, Koba the Dread. While the book was merely wrong and bad in all manner of ways, what riled most was his belief that he, Martin Amis, alone had discovered how bad Stalin was while the rest of us still marinated in our Commie-loving ignorance. If he felt the need to describe the shelf’s worth of books on Stalin he’d read before getting started, maybe it was because he presumed other people, like historians, prepare for writing their books by, I don’t know, taking a brisk walk round the park. Had the rights and wrongs of our attitudes to Communist sympathisers (good old Eric Hobsbawm) and neo-fascists ever occurred to any other commentator at all? Evidently not. And as one last example might suggest, his tasteless and wretched description of calling his infant daughter ‘Butyrka’ on the grounds that her nocturnal screams ‘would not have been out of place in the deepest cellars of the Butyrki Prison in Moscow during the Great Terror’, Amis pulled off the striking feat of making a book ostensibly all about Stalin all about him.

And similarly, this book on the Sonnets is way, way too much about Don Paterson. Fowler’s diagnosis fairly nails it, I would have thought: ‘Paterson believes poets are specially equipped to tell good poems from bad: they have “a special attunement to the weight and texture of language”. But the idea that poets make the best critics has long been discredited. For every Dryden there are two bad poet-critics.’ Far too much writing about poetry today, especially in poetry magazines and newspapers, is by poets. This has created a bizarre climate in which people are not just under-equipped for the task in hand, but encouraged to think of this weakness as a form of superior virtue. It’s the literary equivalent of us having to put up with Alan ‘the lad done good’ Shearer on Match of the Day just because once upon a time he hoofed the ball around the pitch a bit himself too, and what a fine and subtle specimen of a pundit this made him, as we know.

I have always admired writing that combines high and low registers, that can move from discussing Geulincx’s theory of Occasionalism on one page to a fart gag on the next. But Paterson needs practice at one end of this scale much more than at the other. We’ve now established that he can do the blokey knockabout stuff. Perhaps he could be encouraged to take some time off, go read a few more critical essays, and pick up some tips? Or better again, he might be encouraged to go and read the simply outstanding book on Shakespeare published a while ago and which has conspicuously not been reviewed in the newspapers falling over themselves to notice Paterson’s: I mean Neil Corcoran’s Shakespeare and the Modern Poet, which I would describe as one of the best slices of critical prose I have read in a long time (I have written about it for the Edinburgh Review, so will forbear from saying any more about it here). There are many reasons why Corcoran does not write in textspeak in his book, I’m sure, but if his not being a poet is one of them then, once again: down with poets!


Mark Granier said...

Thanks for telling me about Corcoran’s book, sounds brilliant. Unfortunately, it's over 55 Euro, at the cheapest, on Alibris (far more on Amazon). Maybe Ruth will have a reduced copy on her bargain table one of these days, or maybe I'll just give in and fork out.

Convectuoso said...

Is this a rule that extends to Hughes's book on Shakespeare too? I haven't actually read it so I ask out of curiosity more than anything. I saw a snippet from wor Don's book in The Guardian I think, and couldn't help thinking much the same thing. I daresay I wouldn't even consider dipping a toe into the shark infested critical waters of Shakespeare without at least familiarising myself with something of the mountains of work on him already. Maybe Paterson thought his relative poetic fame bought him exemption from the homework?
I always actually found it quite odd that scholars/critics with no creative work themselves could hold forth so convincingly, like eunuchs writing a sex tips column. But then, maybe they just have the good sense and humility not to try, having realised that scholarship and critical faculties aren't necessarily the same thing, something Harold Bloom's attempt at fiction might well attest to...

puthwuth said...

Hughes’s magnum opus is a slightly different case. It’s such a bizarre book – undigested and indigestible – and probably more revealing about Hughes than it is about Shakespeare. But its flaws are born of over-zealousness rather than homework-failure. A heroic folly rather than a piece of skimping and blagging, then. It was assassinated when it came out, I remember, by John Carey. There is a letter about this in Christopher Reid’s edition of Hughes’s letters, in which the dying Hughes tried to patch things up with him while still standing his ground. The book has also never been reprinted, btw.

Mark Granier said...

What do you make of Paterson's recent riposte to Fowler in the TLS letters page?