Monday, January 18, 2010

Don Paterson (OBE) has been awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry. He was recommended by Carol Anne Duffy (CBE), the British Royal Court's Poet Laureate. The Scottish bard was chosen for the medal by a committee of "eminent men and women of letters", selected by Ms. Duffy.

Says Duffy: "It’s simply about excellence, and it means that the monarchy can sprinkle a little stardust on poetry.”

Yes, she really said that.

Unabashed, she continued to heap praise on the medallist's poetry: “It’s formally very accomplished, and technically brilliant" (i.e. it's uses conventional rhyme and metre). Duffy then ploughed on, embarassingly, about how Paterson taps into "deep, timeless human experiences" and ended with a resounding cliche, cleverly combined with a bit of canonisation: "He’s a poet for all time who speaks very much to us in the 21st century, to our preoccupations, but he also belongs in the company of the poets of the past.”

It's appropriate that the award was instituted by King George V: Paterson's poetry reads to me like minor Georgian poetry. But that's the way with literary awards; the example of Abdellatif Laabi below shows that they sometimes, almost by chance, get the right person. But not often. Ah, well. 'Twas ever thus.


Matt Merritt said...

Yep, try as I might (and I have bought all his collections, although most in charity stores), I just cannot see what it is that people rave about in Paterson's work. Technically brilliant isn't the term I'd use.

John B-R said...

I think they got the right person, when you think about who "they" are. "They" have nothing to do with "us".

The Editors said...

The issue is, really, that there is a gap in mainstream poetry criticism and reviewing where serious thought about craft, form, tradition, experiment, etc, should go, and that gap has been filled with an awards culture, which is as vacuous and artistically reductive as using sales as a means of judging quality. The apotheosis/nadir of this was reached by a recent Guardian feature on Sean O'Brien, in which he was crowned 'Britain's most garlanded poet.' Not best, mind you, but 'most garlanded'.

Mainstream reviewing, meanwhile, has degenerated severely, and is now almost entirely concerned with the emotional content of poetry - which woolly thinking leads to the kind of cliches you picked up on in Duffy's speech - at the expense of considering the formal content of poetry. In such a reviewing context, Paterson can be labelled a 'master of form' in spite of the fact that he's done nothing new with poetry at all; in fact, seems almost allergic (and hostile) to the alien idea of formal innovation. What makes, say, Bunting a master of form is the fact that understood form in the most serious and engaged terms possible, which is to say that he conceived of form and content as being inextricably related. The mainstream can't seem to concieve of form as anything other than an inorganic means of shaping content, rather than a natural outgrowth of and cousin to the content.

Alan Baker said...

Interestingly Matt, I get my Paterson books as remaindered copies in a local bookstore. What does that tell us?

John, I think, sadly, you're right - it's all about a self-perpetuating in-group.

Simon, I think your point about serious reviewing - in the 'mainstream' world at least - is spot-on. I think it's partly because the so-called serious newspapers have dumbed-down drastically in recent years; in contrast to, say, French newspapers, where it's still possible to have some serious intellectual content. As you say, the discussion is often more about marketing.

Speaking of prizes, I was driving to work this morning, listening to Radio 4, when the winner of the TS Eliot prize came on - Philip Gross said some sensible things about egalitarianism in the poetry world, then read a poem from his winning collecton - typically, it was something which could have been written a century ago or more, and it certainly wouldn't have been out of place in one of the Georgian anthologies. It was completely untouched by subsequent developments, in either form, content or ideas. But that point won't be raised or discussed anywhere in the media - only in places like this.

Ed Baker said...


; nothing much ever happens in a group


best "do your own thing"
and die happy

you know one knows that they are going the the "right" direction
when they (their work) is ignored...

John B-R said...

Alan, it's funny, actually funny, about how out-of-it an in-group can be ...

To The Editors, only problem is, I wouldn't say that Paterson's and Duffy's poems actually have emotional content, they just mime it.

Ed, unfortunately, you're "famous" now, remember? Does that mean you're now headed in the **wrong** direction???

Ed Baker said...

Hey J-BR

I never ever vote for "empty suits"

glad that you told me that I am now "famous"

I'd yet be getting my knewze fro The Popular Media!

pee est:

what was the original question?

something about form an content being inner-changeable?

gawd: I know I should have gone to graduate school

and learned how to read my own poetry


I had a full tuition scholarship!