Selected By Cyril Wong
For the Sep/Oct issue of Book this year, critic Stephen Whited has very few good things to say in his recent reviews of two collections of verse by Don Paterson and Seamus Heaney respectively.
Don Paterson is also a musician and an editor, and currently lives in Edinburgh. His first collection Nil Nil was awarded the Forward Prize for best first collection. His second, God's Gift to Women, was awarded the Geoffrey Faber Award and the TS Eliot prize. His version of Machado's The Eyes was published in 1999.
Paterson’s latest, The White Lie: New and Selected Poetry, compiles poems from his first three volumes, alongside five new poems. Heaney’s collection is the already well-known Electric Light. In the review of Paterson, Whited begins harmlessly enough, "This is well-made verse, and Paterson exhibits a fine ear."
But then he goes on, "But while the romantic notion of the autodidact who thumbs his nose at the old college dons is attractive, Paterson tends to overcompensate with heavy-handed erudition smothered in gritty, sentimental images of street love gone sour. The lines are sprinkled with predictable Gaelic references, good-old Anglo-Saxon vulgarity, obscure and archaic words and British Isles street slang. The poems frequently resort to violent adolescent fantasies and troubling visions of cruelty to women and children; Paterson is a younger, Scottish version of Bukowski."
Quite readily, I do not agree with Whited when he suggests the possible "element of self-parody" in his Bukowskian propensities. It might be giving Paterson a tad too much credit, considering how much I agree with the rest of Whited's review; I believe Paterson is better as a guitarist with his award-winning folk/jazz ensemble, Lammas, with whom he has recorded three albums. Paterson ends up, like Whited points out, displaying a "tiresome, unrelenting nihilism (which) feels more like impetuousness than outrage."
In faultless, bitchy style, he ends his review with this quote from Paterson's own poem, ironically titled "Advice": "To be quite honest with you, / none of this is terribly important."
As for Heaney, who needs no introduction, Whited does the perfect introduction to his review of Electric Light, which I believe is his most boring to date, "The general tone of Nobel Prize-winner Heaney's latest collection, which presents lamentations, elegies and autobiographical fragments of the 'Where is everybody?' variety, suggests a case of writer's fatigue." Writer's fatigue indeed.
"Composed using an array of poetic forms, this collection includes scenes from childhood, conversations about life and love, and mutability and unfairness, as well as elegies for the dead (poets Ted Hughes, Joseph Brodsky and Zbigniew Herbert are featured alongside Gaelic poets and characters from the writer's own past)."
And Whited continues, "Lacking humour and stoicism... there is lots of talk, without much of Heaney's famous imagery and startling associations. Some of the most moving lines in this book are excerpted from the author's bestselling translation of Beowulf."
The decent poems, according to Whited, are just "Out of the Bag" - about Irish children awed by a doctor delivering a baby, and the title poem "Electric Light" (what an insipid title, by the way) about a frightened child in the care of an old woman. Such so-so poems express, for Whited, at least, as though it were the only saving grace, "the author's characteristic spark of ambivalence and worry."
Should Paterson stick to guitar? Is Heaney suffering from writer's fatigue? Drip acid in the Forum!
'The Acid Tongue' is a column that celebrates acerbic reviewing. Mail us if you know of any examples.
QLRS Vol. 1 No. 1 Oct 2001