Tuesday, February 12, 2008

On Don Paterson's 'Lyric Principle'

Last night I found myself reading the second part of Don Paterson's controversial essay, The Lyric Principle - having found it impossible to wade through when it first appeared (in Poetry Review Vol 97:3 Autumn 2007) - and decided to blog about it.

I had read Part I of The Lyric Principle and enjoyed it (though not as much as Paterson's equally controversial 'Dark Art of Poetry', the 2004 T.S. Eliot lecture, which struck many chords with me). I did try to get into Part II when the magazine came out, but at the time the prose felt torturous and impossibly weighed down with abstruse detail, along with voluminous footnotes worthy of a spoof academic essay. So I gave up the effort.

But last night, flicking through some of last year's poetry magazines in search of a particular poet, I came across the essay again (Part II) and began to read it.

This time, for some reason, the difficulties I'd experienced back in the autumn were no longer apparent. Everything, in fact, made good clear sense.

Indeed, his remarks made such good sense that, aware of the various outraged 'letters to the editor' that had appeared in the wake of their publication, I couldn't work out why The Lyric Principle was so very controversial. After all, what was there to argue about?

Paterson's main point in Part II, very basically, is that good poetry works because it takes account of our innate preference for pattern and surprise. Which is just another way of saying what all good writers know instinctively, that we should 'give them what they want, but not the way they were expecting it'.

I can't recall, and don't have the earlier Poetry Review to hand, how Part I was controversial, though from reactions in the subsequent issue, I suspect the furore may have been caused by claims that poetry should work in the same way as music, and/or that sound can't be separated from sense. I can't see anything to get upset about there either. But perhaps I missed the point ...

I can understand some people being more sceptical about all this, and perhaps feeling ruffled by the occasional note of hubris behind Paterson's writings, but I'm naturally excited by anything that combines the two great obsessions in my life: language (i.e. linguistics) and poetry.

I can't overstate that position, really. I am, and always have been, hugely resistant to anyone setting themselves up as a figure of authority. It's a knee-jerk reaction on my part to distrust whatever they might say, regardless. But to be given carte blanche by an acknowledged expert on contemporary poetry to continue doing precisely what I've been doing since I first started knocking out my own doggerel at c. 9 years of age, i.e. turning the dial until I can't hear the hiss of the static anymore, is both a relief and a great pleasure.

But not only that. Paterson's detailed list of which consonant and vowel sounds complement each other rather than clash in the poetic line leads neatly into my own personal observations on the similarities between languages, those startling correlatives you come across once you start looking in-depth at a number of different languages - even between languages not belonging to the same 'family'. And once you've been working with a heavily stressed medium like Anglo-Saxon poetry for any length of time, you do tend to respond favourably to the idea that some vowel sounds in some words - though this can also vary according to whether they are in a stressed or unstressed position in the line - are simply 'filler' and should be avoided; the poetic equivalent of fish paste.

So if anyone out there has a good idea why so many people seemed to react poorly to The Lyric Principle, perhaps they could enlighten me?


Ben Wilkinson said...

I get the feeling that many were not so much outraged with the content of Paterson's essay as with its style and method of delivery. As you say, it was chock full of footnotes, and what's more, a great deal of technical jargon, something which Paterson subsequently argued as being necessary, as the essay was (apparently) intended for poets who wanted to understand more about the art form's fascinating uniqueness, and not for the general reader.

My issue is with the failures of this approach. Or rather, his missing a trick in failing to enlighten occasional readers of poetry (many of whoms only real contact with UK poetry magazines is PR) as to poetry's uniqueness and musicality.

Instead, he put many a reader (and a fair few poets) off with prose that made for sometimes insufferable reading. His 2004 TS Eliot lecture, on the other hand, was perfectly accessible and very illuminating.

Jane Holland said...

In terms of tone and presentation, I imagine Paterson was just following through a natural line from 'The Dark Art' - i.e. occult, esoteric, for insiders only - to 'The Lyric Principle' which deliberately excludes the casual reader in favour of the initiated.

Whilst I can see the downfall in promoting this kind of exclusive attitude in a flagship magazine, I have to ask, where else could this essay have appeared without giving the same offence?

I can't see Schmidt giving it house room at the more cerebral PNR, though I could be mistaken. Poetry London isn't up to its weight, and London Magazine ... well, if it had been about contemporary art, maybe. Probably too long - and too specialised - for the TLS. The LRB?

After that, you start to descend the ladder ...

So the only answer would have been to keep it at PR level, excise the copious footnotes and generally dumb down the essay for non-poets - and those poets who prefer to do it 'all on instinct'.

My response to such censorship is, perhaps surprisingly, a sense of revulsion. I'd rather suffer the same reaction I had on first encountering it - bafflement, annoyance, even a little tedium - in return for the rewards of reading it later on with my mind suddenly open to his methods.

I can't stand pretension, and that includes pretension of the academic footnote variety. But even more than that I can't stomach censorship for the sake of placating some homogenised petit bourgeois standard.

Either PR is for players or it's for gentlemen (sexism aside for the moment). It's not possible to achieve both at once - at least, not with any conviction. But perhaps that's still one of PR's abiding dilemmas.

Anne said...

We're in danger of confusing a couple of issues here: the value of Paterson's essay, and the market for it. It was good that PR took the high ground here and published something weighty.

I enjoyed both instalments of the Paterson essay. It's always nice to be confirmed in one's prejudices, and Paterson is resourceful and entertaining. At this stage, I can't remember my points of disagreement, but I sense you're after the general impression anyway.

What is the problem with footnotes? Are they like equations, perhaps? I thought his footnotes tended to the light and witty - a bit Donaghian, in fact. He draws the reader aside, like Myles na gCopaleen in his brackets. In any case, why not have serious footnotes? Actually, they can be aspirational. (I subscribe to a magazine that has footnotes: I am an intellectual!)

Must take issue with use of the word "censorship" for what would have been simply editorial discretion if they'd decided to shave off footnotes, or not run with it at all. He is free to publish his work anywhere in UK that would take it (Seam certainly would!) or online. No one is stopping him. It's not "censorship" if someone decides not to pay you for what you have written.

Let's keep the word "censorship" for where it's needed.

I don't know about the role of PR. It just has to find a market, doesn't it? Not our problem, theirs.

Jane Holland said...

Yes, you're absolutely right. I meant self-censorship. That feeling that something probably isn't going to be possible, so failing to run with it in the first place. A lack of courage. There was no lack of courage about that piece, either in the writing or the editorial decision to publish it.

However, while Poetry Review finding the right market may indeed be their problem, not ours, it becomes my problem, specifically, if negative feedback from essays like 'The Lyric Principle' results in any future shying away from similar complexities in critical writing. Which is when I would begin to be affected, as a subscriber.

For example, we saw what happened during the Herd/Potts regime, when - in my opinion - Poetry Review swung even further the other way. Towards complete opacity.

Not that I'm suggesting anything that drastic might happen under Fiona Sampson's firm hand. That would be a ludicrous assertion. But I do think major shifts in focus can grow - over time - from relatively tiny acts of dissent on the part of the readership.

Sorlil said...

Thanks for the link to The Dark Art of Poetry, a thoroughly enjoyable read. I'm fascinated by the idea of the human condition of being simultaneously at home in the world and yet alienated from it so I enjoyed what he had to say about language and nature. I really want to read his Lyric Principle essay now!

Angela France said...

I had exactly the same problems as you did on first attempt to read it - you've encouraged me to try again.

Jane Holland said...

One way of tackling it would be to read it straight through without looking at the footnotes.

I did that, except in a few instances, then went back afterwards and read the footnotes. They seemed far less intrusive once the shape of the essay was in my head.