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?