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Opposing forces.

Ryan Dobson (ed.)
The Collected Letters of Charles Olson and J.H.Prynne
University of New Mexico Press 2017 | 248pp hardback | £79.50 | $75.00.


Don Paterson
The Poem: Lyric, Sign, Metre.
Faber 2018. 752pp hardback. £14.48 | $35.00

ON OCTOBER 3rd 1962 J.H.Prynne sent to Charles Olson a list of 60 surviving port books in English libraries, which registered vessels leaving the ports of London, Poole and Bristol between 1622 and 1646. This was preparatory to an offer to search himself the contents of such books as Olson indicated were important to him. This work continued intermittently for the next three or four years mixed in with a great deal of bibliography on many different subjects, and this function of “feeding information” is probably how this correspondence has been generally characterised.1 Prynne’s role has even been called “Olson’s poetic research assistant”. But what Prynne mainly sent to Olson, on the basis of a perceived affinity, was a complete education, not in “Prynne’s theories” but in the world. This was not a pre-formed programme awaiting an American poet, though the most expository account is in the first two letters. It arose, took body and dispersed again in the exchange of letters and documents for as long as it could, with more give than take but with Olson’s alert ear always there to activate the discoveries into his own poetics. Poems by Olson were conceived and first exercised in these pages, as were, less reactively, the first poems Prynne accepted as canonical.2

In 1968, Prynne ‘already knew what he was after, which was poetry, approaching Olson for his work integrating poetry to forms of knowledge…’

So it is important to be aware how early the whole thing was for Prynne. He was 25 when it began, a year before the publication of his later disowned Force of Circumstance in 1962, and it began to fade away well before Kitchen Poems, effectively his first book, in 1968. It begins with such confidence and sense of purpose, and is so far advanced beyond given terms, that it is difficult to believe it occupies this transitional phase. He already knew what he was after, which was poetry, approaching Olson for his work integrating poetry to forms of knowledge, and de-normalising usage to convey that totalised knowledge across to the sleeping reader, who is to be awoken (that is, projected at) by dislocations, broken links, twisted grammar and a poetical self built up as the central active agent. Prynne’s previous poetry lacked this dynamic presence and was set in a distanced and mannered English tradition, perfectly turned if you didn’t expect some kind of revolution, but obviously he found it far from equal to the task. It didn’t require this correspondence for him to encompass the “projective” ethos, but there was also a need for confirmation out of contemporary culture which would rescue him from the position of lone Englishman, and the venture became a mutual almost conspiratorial engagement, a working together at redrawing the world—We are the starting-point of so much else outward. And Olson was …where the rich, pure, language, took on its new (and maybe only) life in this century. Prynne was seeking engagement from British poets at this time, which meant introducing, suggesting, tempering the substance to the subject, getting angry, etc. But with Olson as recipient he could let rip without having to worry about revolts of independence. They both knew where they were and both already subscribed to the general sense of purpose. Olson’s education was already complete and the one he received in the letters was Prynne’s self-education proposed as catalyst to Olson’s future work. Thus the language could take greater risks, rid itself of explanation and assume a shared pleasure in irrational and broken formulations of which both recognised the seriousness and importance, and recognised also the truth of the abstruse under the sign of necessity, meaning, more or less, that if you think the problem is total the only possible approach to it is head-on denial—of now, of here, of every move the decadent culture makes. Take a big breath and speak the whole denial.

And this is the record of it. It’s daunting. Not because it is immensely long and prolix—they leave that to others—but because it has unusual qualities of density and immediacy inseparable from great reaches of knowledge. If it is demanding, what it demands is total and instant surrender: you either give yourself to the entire proposition or you go somewhere else. It is a campaign to assemble believers for a new cultural dispensation, traced through etymology and archaeology to the remote past but looking also to (but not participating in) the upsurge of oppositional culture and poetry in the 1960s sometimes optimistically called the “British Poetry Revival”. It spoke its own language and proposed an abandonment of rationality at the same time as a fervent application of the mind to vast ranges of learning. The only way of “reviewing” such a thing that I can think of is to attempt a detailed exposition which might end up with a volume of Patersonian dimensions, were it even desirable or I capable of it. The commentator is haunted by the knowledge that any explanation is partial and partialising, a distortion of the actual substance, which is conceived from the start as total. What I shall do is go through a number of points or details of language-use in this structure which could be problematic to some readers or all of them.

BUT FIRST, SINCE POETRY tends to get lost within these labyrinths, it should be said that the initial impulsion behind it all included centrally a bitter and sweeping disdain for poetry as normally understood and practised in UK, and the society that produced it and is inseparably bound to it. The quest for sympathetic local poets sought recognition of this situation on at least a national scale and a united effort to reverse it. The terms used are unforgiving and sometimes feel close to a rejection of poetry itself, certainly a desperate flight away from it as it stands, along with almost all twentieth-century English literature and everything it inhabits and propagates

Things English are characterised as parochial mediocrity – rotting in a provincial squeamishness – wan confusion — English sanity – meticulous blindness of English Bloomsbury— official verse culture –Betjeman’s England, the successor to Auden’s… Not, then, Auden’s or Betjeman’s poetry, but their England. The distinction is not made. The poetry creates the land, and if we don’t create it ourselves we shall just have to live in somebody else’s miscreation—a dismal land with its lost element of primary attention and governance. Even Cambridge itself is Now-False-Cambridge. It is a pandemic decay of which the current decadence of language is a central sign. Time itself has fallen into a morbid condition—That pallid reckoning which nowadays passes as time. How the poetry creates the land is the kind of question you stop asking, when you allow yourself to recognise that in this scheme such rationalisation contributes to the proposed destruction, and there are only two alternatives, to accept the whole or none of it, though I don’t think that is what actually emerged in the long run.

Sometimes the point at which the collapse took place is closely identified: …published 1845–62, just before the world collapsed into notion and salesmanship. Just by dropping these provocative two words Prynne leaves us to understand for ourselves what has gone wrong, and to locate the event, which I haven’t been able to.

The implied positive contraries are spread through the book to form its firmest insistences and wishes, sometimes obscurely, sometimes not yet formed.

The implied positive contraries are spread through the book to form its firmest insistences and wishes, sometimes obscurely, sometimes not yet formed. England is to be re-found in the encapsulation of its qualities by acts of enlightenment, in which landscape, geology and language are united in an individual experience felt as a kind of epiphany or a glimpse of the total, also an authentic re-mapping to counter the falsity of the decadent late Romantic and ironic versions. It is important that these acts, be they writing, painting, music or whatever, are not mere representations; they are direct creation of the other and real place in its other world, which is the only way there is to reach and restore the one we live in. The discourse is exhortatory rather than analytical, operating at two extremes: the particular and individual or “local”, and the most ambitious bid for remote distance, the tension between these two forming the total. Realisations of the present and of ancient time, prehistoric or geological, are the bases of an over-arching juncture which is a refuge, a shelter making the work possible, and a protection from alien temptations into the pastoral dream. The English focus protects, for instance, from the pseudo-heroic false colours of Scotland or Ireland because it is where you are. And if course it is anti-European: It’s the local here that holds it, protecting us from the fabulist who colonised the verb as a constructive agent, e.g. Kafka or Valéry, or Husserl and European pedantry, the whole grinding machinery for crushing the contour of the written word. The fusion of three authors not merely into one belief but into one person (by the singular of fabulist) is typical of a disturbing language use which sweepingly incorporates words from distant and distinct zones into the present discourse, leaving us to work out how they act in it and how the equation immediately extends out of sight. (e.g. in the last quotation the words fabulist, colonised, verb, contour).

Many of these awkward words are subject to an accumulating serial process through the book until they become (in Olson’s usage too) not so much revealed meanings but more like things, objects in the landscape, monuments, menhirs… understood as presences of particular form and emanation passed by en route, and in that way elements of a vocabulary or map, if the poetry can reach to that size of vision. This is of course, not being open to rational argument, a self-reinforcing process and one which disarms questioners. It is also Olson’s insistence, in “Projective Verse”, on speed, each perception to move immediately (“instanter”) to the next, put into thought-practice here as perhaps nowhere else.

Leaving aside such matters as the message about Ireland and Scotland which would seem to arise from the narrative of an England lost and restored (the message is basically “Have nothing to do with them”). (A lot of the factors which are redolent of attitude or conviction were later jettisoned or lost their earthly referents.) There are some particular features or turns of mind which permeate the discourse and seem to create the most important of many difficulties. They seem to demand explanation while repulsing it and give rise to constantly begged and sometimes irritating questions of how all this is to be understood in the lived and common field and how it should affect writing practice (but always bear in mind This is not a thinking letter, but a kind of shout.)

USE OF THE VERB “to be” takes extravagant risks, especially in the form of “is”, which sometimes seems to include “is not”. In ways which are not always easily demonstrable things and concepts, or things and other things, are not merely linked together but unified—

  • ice is the totally serious condition, history of time
  • frost [is] the history of the English spirit
  • history [is] our Black Death
  • the sea is extravagance
  • the ice-floe is a model gerund

This is an Olsonian idiom (“Polis is eyes”) which Prynne adopted towards the end of the correspondence. Developed, I suppose, out of symbolism, it is not pervasive but it is a significant indicator of the way words are being used and makes sense of such things as the preference for the definite article.

Where in the world, one might ask, does an ice-floe actually become a gerund? How in the world is frost a history of anything?

Where in the world, one might ask, does an ice-floe actually become a gerund? How in the world is frost a history of anything? But surely that’s the point: that there could be another world, in which these identities are valid because it is constituted of them. And this is not a “spiritual” or astronomical concept or any sectional option, but a world which is and always has been continuously created by humanity as the super-narrative or myth of its own existence within national or racial borders. And this could be a language-world where phenomena (sea, frost etc.) of this world are (principally but not only in poetry) spoken into a further existence with an objective intensity, to form the items of a constantly evolving grammar. The ice-floe is a gerund as it is the union of fluidity and solidity, as both verb and noun, “model” because it perfectly represents that structure. Frost is what England is always and annually on the edge of, has to be coped with, punctuates the discourse, conditions acts, like a calendar. I’m guessing of course, which is the best thing to do. The conjunctions we are trying to account for are themselves guesses.

This is not abstruse, and I don’t know why it has been found so difficult to acknowledge, whether it works for you or not. (Its results in Prynne’s later poetry are another matter.) To me it seems a commonplace, that in the act of creating the poem (or whatever) you want to speak experience and knowledge as ever-new, and unique (rather than typical or endorsed), which is to cast the work into a foreign kingdom or other world which may be called “poetry’ or “language” or “truth” where it seeks its equivalents, hoping to marry with them. “This is Illyria, lady.”

Even this is a more complicated sketch than it need be, of the simple idea of making something which tests the nature of truth by being, you could say, both here and there. What Prynne does is to attempt a detailed mapping of it and an absolute designation of its locations as established by individual experience, done, I think, intuitively, even impetuously, in the excitement of this correspondence. But the whole diagram could be seen as an extension of common poetical figuration, whether you call it metaphor or analogy or anything else, which brings together a thing and its  distant kindred as a single perceptual verity. Not that poetical tools of this ambition are metaphors; they are pure fact operative in an elsewhere which unites their sense and their furthest import,

The poetical tools of this ambition are not metaphors, they are pure fact operative in an elsewhere which unites their sense and their furthest import, and this elsewhere is no more than the world which poetry enters anyway because it is contracted to extension beyond immediacy and individuality and the tool of this is grammar.

The words do not relate to an elsewhere but to the whole, and turn back to the original percept— The seasons are the motions of being, the world set at large in its own quality. It is an energetic bid to get the things we perceive to speak themselves as they are by an essentiality which objectifies them. Every word the poet speaks is echoed off its history back to the point where it was fictively identified with the thing it now designates, located through etymology. Perhaps all poets except the most prosaic write within this condition, but the project here is not just to gain access to this world but to disclose its immensity and to move it forwards in a process of refinement which began in prehistory, or possibly pre-humanity.

The archaeology (not history which is despised) of this “world” rests on a belief in the original moment, the first formulation of the ur-words, the further back the more whole, comprehending all meanings and all aesthetic force in series of indivisible units. This was the work Olson did on Mayan glyphs, and thence his iterated insistence on the necessity of reaching the first, the original, exhorting us to “Get behind Socrates” etc. (which some took to mean that their first drafts were always the real poem).

THERE IS, I THINK, a double sense of movement back to and forward from that first thing, a sense that poetry might by its compacted figurations regain that inclusiveness as a richness of meanings and non-meanings by using words in the mode of names and titles, absolutely specific and total, and thus escape the reduction of language to social tokens and shopping lists. This, declared rather than practised here, is primary writing which will regain the foundational scope of the early mythic narratives. Standard or mechanical modernisation from that primary point forward is taken to be a process of weakening by elaboration, a thinning. But the mythic narratives open up the action without loss, and poetry, and not only poetry, should be able to bring the word forwards within the language world it has created, sharpen its edges and open avenues to greater complexity and specificity, and that this is what humanity has always done to its language collectively, every stage of which is mapped through advanced etymology. This discipline is clock and calendar of the enterprise, relying mainly on Continental etymologists to supply archaic linguistic discoveries which are not allowed to remain merely historical. The quest is for the root simile of where we can prove to have come from. But this means that a lot of the investigation, and the discoveries and principles located, rests on study of a hypothetical language. The hope was for poetry to recover lost values of usage, to establish a new order whose benignity is guaranteed by its comprehension of experience from intimacy to eternity. Near the end, when Prynne is beginning to despair of the collaboration, he says …but really at this moment there is no useful hope for us, we will never get across to the Secondary Neolithic or anything else, as there are no main locations yet in place.

It was impossible to feel happy about Olson’s dismissal of the entire corpus of ancient Greek drama in favour of an original goat-dance which we shall never witness…

This archaeological philosophy has always been difficult – not just digging up the bones but ventriloquizing them, and in the process destroying any historical buildings which got in the way. It was impossible to feel happy about Olson’s dismissal of the entire corpus of ancient Greek drama in favour of an original goat-dance which we shall never witness3 and of 95 per cent or more of English literature. There might be other workings of something like the total/world concept here which don‘t depend on a rigorous test of prowess with a resulting fewness. But for Prynne, whatever else, the existence of the desired world is fragile and needs sturdy maintenance; contributions must come from reliable and responsible thinkers and talented writers. It is the sort of thing that could be destroyed on the spot by people going around saying things like “Zeus was a serial rapist”.

 The poetical process is named as analogy. Commenting on a passage from Robert South, Prynne writes, So that “meaning” here […] comprises the total analogical disposition: the tight gathering inwards of this total passion. […] What could it “mean” without the constant appeal to analogy. This is how word follows word in all this poetry, by natural association or “chiming together” across great difference, but which should be neither tautologous nor a mere musicality, but the analogy possible within the shape of words, inherent. A sentence which might help is, I myself am almost never convinced that there’s no tie between homophones, even when they’re semantically discrete, or seem to be. This might open up a broader corpus of modern poets than the four Americans named in the book.

THERE IS A THING WITH nouns. They are superior, certainly to verbs, if not to other parts of speech. They are a static, substantive, solid, thing on which the poet/hero can stand, the rock from which the seafarer can push off his boat. They are also the non-home returned to, the earth. Verbs are suspect because fluid and insubstantial. As a matter of valuation this is straightforward, and given such a preference you can understand the distaste for versions of reality which stress the primacy of flux—stream of consciousness, Joyce, Woolf, jazz, Henri Bergson’s musicalized world… (though in practice it does not work out as neatly as this), but the statements about the noun are excessive and are intimately involved with the act of artistic creation —

You would know that for me the noun is the holding of all the world’s needful substance, it functions as the irreducible fact which has only […] to be disposed into relevant contours to release what it most certainly is.

In a word, the noun will do it, and give the placement which holds each one of us down.

… as long as the nouns govern themselves, and can be read as a transcription of facts in scope.

The difficulty is of course the tautology. All nouns are single they subsist as how they are, are there, as again and again the vaunting of the noun brings us back to the noun—there is still, only, the persistent noun. Brexit means Brexit, and all that. And as the noun so the world: …the world set at large in its own quality. But there is a corollary by which the one/thing/noun is crossed by passage to become landscape and weather by virtue of the gerund, which is the active agent. The gerund is verbal movement and flow transformed into a substantive. It is thus where we are, it is landscape and weather, it is speaking and being, coastal and urban. Perhaps here it begins to be possible to see a way through these universalised headings to a way of writing in which the inhabited vast extent of this darkness is somehow borne in mind, that the scale of it becomes something to be faithful to rather than instructions.

This will presumably be a rarely taken option, except in a protected context. Especially at a time when the national poetry scene is largely a stag/hen party, headlines such as I must set out the whole universe in its proper guise (quoted by Prynne from Manilius) are likely to be met with (a) a total blank or (b) accusations of ableism.

And there will be a problem that so much is eliminated on the grounds of its temporal, verbal, limits—perhaps 95 percent of everything, including The social anaesthetic called history. The section of the book recently referred to leads into a short passage on music which declares Again no one has got this right: Bergson and Mrs [Susanne] Langer falsify again and again how the nodes will assemble as sheer (mere) sound.4 It is suggested that only Haydn (middle symphonies), Rameau and Schubert (quartets) are essential, and that Campion’s songs […] will tell you more about Shakespeare than ever Coleridge or the helpless theatre. The dialectic split into intonation and sound omits sonority, and thus for a start all concerted vocal music pre-1600. But a year and a half later Prynne redeems himself by sending Olson a photocopy of Dowland’s first book.

THE POET WHO WILL creatively recognise, restore and nourish the lapsed otherworld needs to be exceptional. All this knowledge is of use only to one knowing his own person, down here in (the) fact. […] A man could find himself and his own small coherence in these terms, if he kept accurately to the mythic fact and didn’t allow his vision to go flatteringly cloudy. There is no suggestion that an actual poet needs to master the vast fields of learning which Prynne has at his command; a wider reading beyond literature and above all the will to it would suffice, along with personal qualities of mind. The accumulation of these qualities forms a kind of projected super-poet or poetical hero, the exceptional man at the centre, who must be distinguished from the poet as self. Olson had long ago named this figure “Maximus”, the speaker of the poems, whose “I” cannot be, or should not be, read as merely autobiographical.

It is in fact very difficult to distinguish Olson from Maximus, since the adoption of this pseudonym seems to have released Olson to stuff his poetry full of privacies, and the whole traction of the discourse is powered by the linear time-sense of an intimate journal. Maximus does exactly what Olson does, in research, in memory, or in bed. But the tone of the first Maximus poem is priestly, and protestant, and seditious, and this tone recurs occasionally thereafter.

Prynne did not erect such a projected figure, but relied on the tradition of English lyrical and romantic poetry to register his first-person as an actor whose sincerity preserved a distance from the overly personal. But the qualities he values emerge in the terms used when he praises other poets, who are all either pre-modern or American. These terms are sharply distinguished from Olson’s adventurer-pioneer imagery. Not surprisingly, the figure that emerges is not Maximus so much as Princeps. He turns to the terms of aristocracy and high class as his highest approbation. The cue is given in a quotation from Pound’s version of “The Unwobbling Pivot”: …the man of breed, in whom speaks the voice of his forebears… Edward Dorn’s poetry is fine sterling silver; William Barnes has a noble voice, but most spectacularly in a passage on Leopardi, who

…had a querulous mind and the feelings of a shopkeeper’s daughter, but he was tuned in exactly to the history of the race vested in the lyric language of Latinium: nobility is thus a practised art, as birth is one of the highest forms of attainment. ‘Generosity’ is being born into the gens, of high birth, and the munificence is style. […] The nearest to that is John Wieners, specifically his reading at Berkeley, which is the most white and chastened nobility to come out of modern USA.    

To this can be added that for both poets at that time the super-poet figure is essentially male, and indeed the pronoun for “poet” throughout is invariably “he”, with emphasis on strength, red-blooded vigour, against words like wan and pallid to describe the lapsed condition. Speaking in the image of a kind of re-emerged Atlantis between Britain and America, Prynne says We could have stood there without drowning or defeat (or any of that female Hapsburg nonsense). (I don’t know what he’s referring to here, perhaps psychoanalysis.) Prynne must have been aware that in a passage like this he was pushing analogy and hyperbole to breaking point. 5

THEY SPOKE DIFFERENT DIALECTS from the start. Prynne’s language was connected, entire, figurative, balanced and in its way, correct. Its vehemence was in the word itself, the force if its metonymic displacement as something wrong or remote or barely possible brought into action within a known structure. Olson’s was literal, spoken, emphatic, broken, haphazard, responding and continuing as his mind wandered over the field in fits and starts, forgetting and recalling on the spot. As it was early for Prynne, it was late for Olson, his social being relaxed into a kind of bohemian ease and his working methods emerging from a disorganised plethora of material, or mess.

Some of Olson’s poems in Maximus, especially earlier in the sequence, if you can manage to extract them from all the notes that come with them, can be quite ordinary poems in a modern idiom, openly casual but inwardly tense, engaging and impassioned, but interrupted. They are interrupted by the sudden intrusion of items from an abstruse elsewhere which was his ever more detailed research, tenuously related to the first-person accounts, and interrupted too by awkward quirks of language: gaps, sudden anti-grammatical halts and twists etc., which must be related to the doctrine of “projective verse”, something which either forces the recipient into a major world questioning, or blocks out all transmission. Mostly the Maximus “Letters” stand out as true sustained poetical writing. The poems which emerged from Prynne’s engagement here were connected and compacted, strongly addressed in argument, sometimes homiletic, taking up all the consistency and rhetorical weight expected of an authoritarian discourse. They were demanding of thought and sometimes evasive, later becoming extremely difficult for the same reasons as this early prose: jammed figurations issued without instructions for opening, thus how to bear the coded messages into a recognised place.

The standard poetry review attitude is “Can’t understand a word but it’s fascinating, love it whatever it says” and so nothing to be said. It won’t do. I think what needs to be borne in mind out of all this, for the reading of any poetry, is how you have the possibility of entering a distinct space which is conceptually parallel to where we are, and all the more attainable and inhabitable as it delivers singular personal intensity. For the passionate voice is precisely the appeal to a chorus no longer heard.

My own uncertainty as to the letters is whether such deliberate large-scale consolidation and extension necessarily has any exchange value in the bargaining with experience which is the writing of a poem, whether the soaring scale of the thing proves itself. But that is the case with everything, for we are in the zone of DRASTIC SOLUTIONS TO THE WORLD LAPSE. Would it were still with us, failed or not.

JH PRYNNE AND DON PATERSON REPRESENT the interface of major opposed forces in contemporary poetry in English. The one proposes an intellectual model of vast size, Heaven and Hell translated, in which poetry is a major activator; the other is interested in short poems on the ironies and opacities of the human condition, and speaks principally of an immense amount of small detail confirming their crafted distinction. Curiously, the two sometimes converge.

Don Paterson’s book is in three parts, which he calls lyric, sign, and metre, meant between them to amount to a complete designation of everything ”the poem” in English can do, and has done since at least the 16th Century and always will do. It will, for example, always, eternally, end-rhyme and its lines will be basically either “four-beat” or iambic pentameter. There will always be other practices which are perfectly valid, but they will be divergences. The attitude to difference is somewhat unstable, but much of the time he manages to be both prescriptive and proscriptive with episodes of permissive.

There are no worlds in attendance here. Qualities which might suggest such a venture (paradisal, passionate, pastoral, etc.) are lacking…

There are no worlds in attendance here. Qualities which might suggest such a venture (paradisal, passionate, pastoral, etc.) are lacking. There is just where we are as it is known to be, except that sometimes the poem or something else reaches a “spiritual” condition which is not identified.

I do not have to go beyond the Preface to know that it is going to be a struggle (as is Prynne, but with him it is more like wrestling with an angel; Paterson is like boxing with a fruit machine).  The attitude is: “Here’s this poem thing which is causing so much kerfuffle, let’s grab it and fling it on the slab and find out what it really is.” While I have to agree that the object on the table is usually “a poem”; that it is “the poem” (i.e., that all poems worthy of the name share its qualities) seems very debatable. This very large book about poetry begins, in its first words, with a complaint about a book I’ve never heard of which is not poetry. I think there are going to be digressions. The Preface ends with the bare statement that Douglas Dunn is one of the finest poets my country [Scotland] has ever produced. There is going to be weight thrown around. And the final statement of intent is that he seeks …the means by which poetry maintains its central role in our cultural and spiritual life. At the moment this sounds like gravestone talk, where actuality is set aside in favour of respect for the departed. So it’s going to be a struggle, but struggles can have enlightening outcomes.

The section “lyric” seeks to define the poem, and especially the origin of the poem, in terms of an inherent musicality in language which creates sound+sense coordinates. It’s very pleasing that he rejects the acquired sense of lyrical as content of a particularly personal nature, which I’m sure was mainly the work of 19th century classicists aware of the original function of the lyre in the creation of a secular and topical realism in song. Lyrical, meaning “song-like” is presented as the major formative factor of the poem concept, producing rhyme, measure, and simply attractively patterned language. As usual with non-archaeological discourses of origins big assumptions are made, such as that poetry developed from the need for memorable language, rather than being itself an original thing, which supports his thesis that spoken repetition, therefore rhyme, metre, form, rather than musicality, continue to define poetry. But while poetry is “lyrical”, “musical poetry”, meaning sound-led or dedicated to sonority, is rejected. This results, for instance, in the standard academic rejection of Dylan Thomas, as if musicality fills up the available space and expels all intellectual content, which of course it doesn’t because the capacity of the medium is infinite. A willingness to extend the sense of lyrical into the whole extent of the poem whether suffused or more modestly guiding, might have brought him to a richer sense of the art. There is general agreement here, though, with Prynne’s sense of analogy as the agent of progressive poetical composition, which includes echoic values, but shunning the “verb” condition of the “merely musical”.

Here and more so in the “Sign” department a lot of helpful and intelligent things are said and domains are opened up and clarified which most readers and poets take for granted or aren’t aware of. What is difficult to locate is where any of this discourse (and there is a lot of it) must perforce relate specifically and exclusively to poetry. What is under examination most of the time is language-use, especially modes of signification. Poetry uses language, which means that a lot of the close attention paid throughout to the workings of text is valuable for coping with the poem and knowing exactly how it might have gone wrong in logical or expressive terms, if either of those applies. Prose can, of course, be lyrical or musical ad lib as well as disjunctive, figurative, transgressive, patterned and so forth, and it can involve elements of measure. The careful examination of “symbol” for instance, through an Emily Dickinson poem, is a great improvement on the puff of the old teaching which went something like, “This concrete term stands for an abstract because abstracts don’t belong in poetry”. But it concludes as a psychological construction of domain-within-domain which is only a poetical issue because it is not referred anywhere else. Many poets, even avant-garde, would benefit from the definitions offered, in the whole book in fact, if they could filter their way through.

SO THESE EXHAUSTIVE EXPLORATIONS among language theories seem not to get us much closer to the objective claimed: the definition of what a poem, or poetry, is. Occasionally one such is offered: Ideally poetry is radical thought expressed in appropriately radical language. But this is full of uncertainties. Radical – Since “radical” is not defined it could indicate something alarmingly different from Paterson’s known interest, such as “beat”! Appropriately – this is tautological. Thought expressed – contradicts statements elsewhere about thought or truth being discovered in the very act of writing rather then squeezed out of your innards.

The book is avowedly not a reader’s guide to contemporary poetry in English, and should not be treated as one, although all reviewers have noted that Paterson’s preferences are very clear in his choice of examples.

The book is avowedly not a reader’s guide to contemporary poetry in English, and should not be treated as one, although all reviewers have noted that Paterson’s preferences are very clear in his choice of examples. Neither is it claimed as a beginner’s manual on how to write poetry, but a descriptive account of what constitutes the poem. But this is not true, for the discourse, especially in the “metre” section but elsewhere too, applies a constant pressure saying “This is how it should be done”, and sometimes he says that there is no excuse for a poet not to know such-and-such linguistic technical terms, which probably eliminates shepherd-poets and the like. The terms of measurement, of which the book is crammed full, are not descriptions but rules, and are presented explicitly as such. And there are items of specific instruction or advice, rather in the manner of Delia Smith:

I tend to find that the best results come from getting rhyme-pairs nailed relatively early, and allowing them to dictate the sense around them; this way the syntax ends up affording them a more natural home… [p.85]

Another, with wider implications of the extent of the choice to be made:

…while there are a couple of tricks one can use to avoid trochaics getting repetitive — such as commencing lines with two monosyllabic function words, or using the imperative mood — there are too few to give the trochaic line the flexibility it would need to enter the mainstream of compositional practice. [p.390]

I’m sure this is all good advice, if you want to write that kind of poem, one that can be tacked together from a box full of linguistic components, but with the caveat attached that if you don’t want to write that kind of poem, you’re at best marginal to the great lineage of poetry, as well as “unnatural”. This contradicts a more generous attitude to variance expressed elsewhere.

There is an appeal to the “natural” throughout, which is persuasive but problematic, especially when it gets to complex and sophisticated governing formulations. For a poetical template (such as iambic pentameter, which involves a set pattern of at least ten elements) to be “natural” must mean that a natural product does not grow under its own force plant-like from a nucleus, but a hand intervenes (I wonder whose) and constructs it as an orderly, planned and perfected thing, which acts like a commandment.

The section on ”Metre” is massive, and obviously the core of the book. Metre is important, and traditionally much neglected in English studies, especially compared with Continental practice. I have seen introductions to editions of pre-modern verse texts which don’t mention the subject at all. Paterson’s thesis is very thorough and carefully planned, starting from basic notation and moving into increasing complexity. It is also original, using only a selection from the standard terminology and coining new terms, usually from the Greek, where necessary. “Foot” for instance, is rarely used, being replaced by ”metron”. Metre is relevant to any kind of poet who uses the English language and for analysis of texts, for which a mass of vocabulary and techniques is supplied. But its most valuable effect is to make you aware of rhythmical subtleties and their possible effect on the reader.

I HAVE THREE MAIN problems with this section of the book. Firstly, as it progresses from an elementary level it eventually reaches a super-technicality where the measuring faculty insists on measuring everything in sight in great detail and begins to approach science fiction. Secondly, it is assumed that nothing has changed in basic English metrics since about 1550 because they are “natural”, and most of the many examples given are from contemporary poets of a certain kind, who are thereby privileged while others are implicitly discounted. This especially prohibits consideration of any large-scale, narrative or epic poetry in the modern world; the metrics imposed apply only to short poems or poems in verses. Thirdly, metre becomes such an ikon that it seems to gain priority over content and any other poetical occurrence, to the extent that possibly its manipulation by the poet is the principal compositional act. It is sometimes as if poets go around saying things to each other like, “The bizarre mora in your new poem had me in stitches!” (Mora = a notional very short pause, about half a weak stress, detected by the metrician when the iambic weak stress is not observed, thus a means of restoring iambicity when the poet has abandoned it).6

Perhaps Paterson’s poets do say things like that. There seems to be an uncertainty as to whether the central subject-matter of the metrical section is composition or scansion and on the surface it is scansion, which is normally, I would think, considered to be retrospective, seeking to give some reasons why good poems are effective, or as he puts it to find out why this poem is so successful, so you have to agree. The whole edifice would then be an exploration of poets’ subconscious compositional instincts (or “genius”) which is what I at first took it to be, and in many places is. But there is a persistent sense that the scansion precedes or dictates the composition, almost as if a poet in creative mid-flow might decide, “What I need now is a good old hypercatalexis.” (the addition of an unstressed syllable at the end of a line). I feel sure that the mechanical and deliberative view here of compositional process (not consistently maintained through the book) would feel alien to many poets whether experimental, innovative, mainstream, traditionalist or anything, who more normally prefer to go for poetical rapture.

The scansion Paterson operates is rigid, though this rigidity can be an initial account which is rendered more flexible in later elaboration.

The scansion Paterson operates is rigid, though this rigidity can be an initial account which is rendered more flexible in later elaboration. But generally he takes a line of poetry and says “this is its scansion” and gives a basic notation using only x and /. But however sophisticated the notation gets, there is little or no allowance for the individual reader’s (spoken or silent) freedom to elasticize rhythm, shift emphasis, create new stresses, interpolate pauses, and dictate pitch and volume. This would include variant performances by the same reader on different occasions. Paterson approaches the subject gradually, beginning with common speech, with precise definitions of terms, but the verse scansions given do not allow of any second opinion and seem programmatic, and at times incorrect. So “New Year’s Eve” can only be / x / whereas normally I would expect / / /, and “the babies in their cradles” are marked x / x / x / x, making “in” a stressed syllable. All syllables are either stressed or unstressed with no subtleties. Presumably he does this in order to establish first the ideal or absolute pattern against which actual or human versions will be variations, even if it means introducing the whole subject with examples which are manifestly wrong or arguable. I don’t see how any reasonable scansion in English could be effected without at least a sign meaning “neither stressed nor unstressed” or “lightly stressed” or “heavily unstressed” or “as you like it”.

HIS ANALYSIS IS DOMINATED by the official, fixed and regular template lurking behind it, which is the first thing he hears, and he is not too concerned about the human voice as something which is the property of a person. As the scannings get more sophisticated the notional model is given above the line and the actual (heard and spoken) scansion under it, but still admitting only stressed and unstressed syllables and no license. No audio-electronic systems were used to measure degrees of emphasis, pitch or speed, in live readings, which can be quite radical without being fully apparent to a listener. They can for instance suggest that such a thing as a “syllable” does not necessarily exist, and if it does is essentially a written thing. I have always thought that a poem’s sonic qualities should be open to considerable personal and temporal dramatization, but am now told that the poetic line, which is supremely the iambic pentameter, lasts 2.5 to 3 seconds, which is justified by appeal to “natural” and universal neurological conditions. Again a governing rule is set up, from which individualization however effective is a truancy.

This ruler-based attitude is apparent in other ways, such as his insistence that any “missing” feet are still there in the measure. So when a poem in iambic pentameter suddenly has a line with only three feet, the missing two are there and still count but happen to be silent. (What they count in is, I think, the imposition on the poem of fixed-rule pitch mentioned below.) There is no effective strategy for escaping the iambic pentameter, it is as inevitable and “natural” as trees are in forests. The only alternatives are the four-foot line and common ballad meter, which are the same, because the alternate 3-foot line of the ballad has a silent fourth foot at the end. I think that such a ghost foot would in fact show in most sung performances as an attenuation, but cannot be a compulsory delay in speaking. Perhaps the summit of this obsession is his insistence that Shakespeare’s sonnet 18 has two distinct templates operating simultaneously, and the hidden one is the four-beat line as a “genre” of pentameter, traceable by means of detailed measurement of pace. In the final couplet this leaves three silent syllables after the end of each line which I think he is saying should be maintained in recitation. But you can’t put a three-syllable pause after the last line, because it is the last line, there is nothing to follow it. I am mystified. Whatever you do, he declares, the integrity of the template must be maintained. And the iambic template is not only in some sense a “natural” thing but also integral to specifically English language habits. So it is too with his offhand dismissal of quantitative measure, on the grounds that The English ear doesn’t count syllables.

There is an appeal in much of this to a kind of civilised calm, producing an orderly poem-space in which a debate could take place and different propositions be resolved to a conclusion following proper procedure, without interruption from eccentricities or experiments or noises off. This is attractive and necessary, but assumes the poet’s willingness or ability to offer a serious, considered account beyond typical experience. This is not what we get from most of the poems he quotes.

What Paterson often does as he mines his way through the metrical mountain, is to offer firstly a simple proposition which cannot easily be denied, and he then refolds it into itself, tears it into bits, fills it with ifs and buts, until eventually it has become a complex technicality. Some of these defeat me, but they do not come without warnings. In fact Paterson adopts the unusual practice of dividing his readers into two categories: those able to cope with the high level of technicality and those not, and advises the latter to skip certain sections. Awkward readers like me who are determined to plough on whatever befalls and whatever their qualification, may well get lost in a dark forest, but I do think that some of his most “advanced” lessons go beyond reason in a way apparent to anyone, mainly by his efforts to subject further sonic elements beyond rhythm to a strict and determinative tabulation. This was a well-known mistake of “total serialism” composers who extended 12-tone writing beyond pitch.

TO TAKE AN EPISODE which is advanced-level in his terms but very important for his whole view of poetry: alternating stress. This is the basis of iambic measure. It is the weak-strong, high-low, di-dum pattern which permeates, he claims, not only English speech but also human perception. He very cleverly points out how in speech we change the stress patterns of words in different syntactical contexts in order to maintain even alternation: “The house is unsafe / It’s an unsafe house” — “fifteen men / The first fifteen”. But alternating stress is a lot more than that. It is the way we hear a clock tick (by adding the tock), it is dance itself, the beating of the heart, bodily asymmetry, the creation of meaning… It arises from fear of falling, fear of void, awareness of death, it is an inbuilt condition of existential crisis. The result of this totalisation is that poetical form would not exist without it. It makes of any poem a life-poem. This last is very important as most of his examples couldn’t otherwise claim anything like that distinction and opens up the suggestion that to him the metrics perhaps are the principal substance of the poem, rather than anything said (though I wonder about the logic: if almost all poems are iambic they are almost all life-poems?) But I think it is truly valuable for poets and their readers to have such fundamental and far-reaching conditions proposed to them, even if they do not relate well to particular ways of writing poetry. But the insistence is very dogged. He says early in the book that the fully comprehended metric is what makes the poem beautiful.

Could that really be? It is tempting, it would be a relief, that we could have it all in sections and numbered proportions and so completely demonstrable. The end of all warfare by plain proof. But most of us would probably rather continue outside that swoon, with verbal discoveries concerning truth, world, custom, and the laughable and lamentable silliness of behaviour.

The next section is where I really start backing out, cap in hand. One verse in ballad metre by Edna St Vincent Millay is printed five times. First it is simply scanned but badly (for the first line eight notations are given where there are seven syllables, one very weak syllable is marked strong and one vice versa) and this must be deliberate. I don’t know why, unless it is part of his campaign to establish that the official standard scansion is always there whatever the poet writes. Then the same text but with little arrows, alternately upwards and downwards, over each strong syllable (one of which isn’t, as we know, but never mind), then the same on every other strong syllable, then once per line, then once per two lines and once per verse. Thus, alternating up arrows and down arrows further and further apart along the course of the text, until there is one for each verse. I gather that what he’s saying is that as you speak or hear these lines in progressively longer measures, you begin to perceive that the ups and downs are becoming tones. At the line level the arrow is now really indicating pitch contrasts between whole lines. He is claiming that there is a fixed system of alternation not only for rhythm in the poem, but also for the relative musical pitches of parts of the poem when spoken (or not), which is one area which I thought could be left to the individual voice. Finally we get the original verse with no arrows, but numbers, between 3 and 16, over each strong syllable. I haven’t been able to discover where these come from, but they clearly annotate relative pitch very specifically (are they semitones?). He adds that he considers these pitches to be audible.7 I notice that syllables which are absent sound at very low pitches. I’ve no idea how it works and I find it all extremely speculative but the point is clear: the sanctified rules of poetry can never be escaped from. …the matrix precedes the poem, the values remain the same regardless of the poem-shape, and the poem is merely ‘plugged in’ to the matrix….asymmetric stanzas are unconsciously measured against a symmetric norm. Although there is much original thought in the book, this is not. That linear individuality takes the form of variants on a standard pattern was taught to me before I was fifteen. It is difficult to know to what extent this implies that all human action is at best a matter of playing a few variations on courses dictated by the Gods.

The passages he quotes as examples of expert performances are revealing, not only of his taste, but of what his enterprise stands for, what history of contemporary poetry in English it promotes.

The poems and passages he quotes throughout as examples (mostly) of expert performances are, as I have mentioned, revealing, not only of his taste, but of what his enterprise stands for, what history of contemporary poetry in English it promotes. They are what you’d expect, “conservative” by almost any definition except the political, though different poets are cited for special purposes. The ones that stand out by repeated citation are Dunn, Heaney, Muldoon, Frost, CK Williams, O’Brien, Donachy, Wilbur. I don’t see any point in labouring the obvious bias; it is entirely in keeping with the whole substance of the book and with the fact that consistently “poem” in it means the short intricate poem of modest compass. He does not choose bad poets; he avoids the possibility of major poets on account either of quasi-epic bulk and ambition or too unorthodox a texture.

My experience of this book is repeatedly of a complex, meticulous and even passionate exposition of methodologies and technicalities, and then when you look at the modern examples which illustrate them, you might think, “Is that all?” “All that fuss for a bit of nothing much.” A sense of emptiness, a lack of substance in the poem itself. These poets are talking poets, they tell us mainly about themselves, too often only half-telling, too often telling obliquely. They tend to be loaded with suggestions of typicality, and are full finally of regrets, resignation, sense of inadequacy, terminating in wry ironic shrugs – a sense that all that is reachable of the world is their own spread of circumstance, the self’s enclosive sphere of reflection and nostalgic unease, which always lets you down, collapsing at the end of the poem into time or death or the distance of others. We get the tone but not the fullness of elegy, worldly poems with so little of the world in them, poems in which the self-cinema substitutes for poetical substance or grip on experience, with a paucity of active linguistic resource and imaginative displacements, or any form of alertness or vitality, which is typical of the undead. It amounts to an existential sadness, varying in strength from lamentational to merely wistful. I wonder if this is the reason for of the success of these poets? To my surprise Douglas Dunn seemed the one with most to offer by way of fulsome language. Are these really the crowned monarchs of our poetry, who are reluctant to raise their sights beyond the nearest wall?

I don’t much like the tone of that paragraph, which is the kind of thing you get if you insist on a binary opposition, true or not. But it reflects Paterson’s tone when he talks, as he occasionally does, about the avant-garde as he calls it. It is not so much the mocking or even scoffing that he allows himself, as the assumption that the reader is entirely on his side, the appeal to a clubbish solidarity : I confess that there are very few hobbies more rewarding than winding up the radical wing of the avant-garde.

IF WHAT I’VE BEEN saying sounds like an attack on a ”mainstream”, well so it is, but only insofar as Paterson declares his belief in such an entity, and chooses his poets in that understanding. There are plenty of other mainstreams. But let there be no doubt that the “avant-garde”, which he also believes exists, is always capable of a lot of sullen resentment, self-centering, evasive mannerism, wry shrugs and above all clubbish solidarity. But among Paterson’s poets the persistent end-rhyme often seems to set the limited attitudes in concrete, delivered so pat exactly where expected that in some cases no metrical subtleties will rescue the discourse from a sense of determination, stamping a foot and saying “I will rhyme if I want to, damn you all!” for which there is really no need.

Among these poets any consideration of large-sale concern, such as war, or politics, or migration, or the earth, or economics, has to be approached obliquely through personal or inter-personal experience, landscape (rural), the impedimenta of daily existence, company, ancestry… etc. small-scale fates, little universes. Many of them are Irish or Northern Irish poets who (including Himself) have for a long time been granted the privilege of being accounted serious poets of war and politics by oblique or subsumed reference to the Troubles—the Troubles on my doorstep or in next-door’s field, without analysis or any impassioned appeal, everything restrained and particular (think of the distance between them and Whitman). It feels typical of Paterson’s enterprise for him to prefer the poem as essentially a technical construct to be supported by these poets whose content can be taken for granted.

But to get one thing straight, Paterson is not, as I have heard him accused, hostile to all poetry which is set up on a different basis from his, and particularly the avant-garde. Not all of it. He expresses a new interest in Prynne and quotes him among his exemplars, as also Tom Raworth and Keston Sutherland, on the technical matter of extreme disjunction. They are taken seriously. This confirms a tendency I have noticed elsewhere, that traditionalist critics and publishers, when they feel the time has come to exercise some generosity towards the avant-garde, will go for the most extreme, the most disjunctive and cryptic writing. I think this is because he needs the category as a contrary which by being so distinctly other confirms the solidarity of his own selected “mainstream”. There is a kind of pact-making episode to end the book, mischievously mocking the avant-garde’s hyper-sensitivity to criticism but also allowing it a function in the historical “scene”. It includes the following passage—

All the same, the mutual exclusivity of our various sects can serve a real purpose. The avant-garde remains critically important to the poetic biosphere, and contributes an alternative gene-pool that regularly saves the mainstream from death by inbreeding. (The British Poetry Revival of the 1960s, for example, rescued UK poetry from a post-Movement Americanophobe doldrums that might have rivalled the Georgians for mediocrity.) [p.696]

Without considering myself a member of any avant-garde, I feel grateful for this, and only wish the same pacific gesture could have been made without resort to the collective terms mainstream and avant-garde when nobody knows what they really mean or could confidently connect them with some poets and not others, so that we would know at least who he might be talking about.

Paterson is the professor who also wants to be seen as one of the lads. There are tremendous differences in tone, from meticulous scientism to bar-chat, and not much in the middle. The terms he needs for analysis are carefully considered or specially coined; other terms are thrown out without a thought or a hint of justification, such as “mediocrity” in the above passage, which repeats a commonplace of long standing which I think is due for revision. These asides (which are not aside – they are quite loud) can be entertaining and they can helpfully keep the book rolling on, but they can also be irritating. Thomas’s “Do not go gentle…” is one of the silliest poems I know. There is quite a collection of outbursts like this: sheer, abrupt and sometimes brutal opinion, throwing around words like ”rubbish”, or equally bare and defiant praise. In fact all Paterson’s particular judgements, for or against, are offhand. His arguments about the poem’s structures do not themselves say anything about quality. When they appear to, as in a quite lengthy scanning of a Heaney poem, it seems clear to me that the admiration preceded the exposition. Quality is not convincingly defined, but declared by stepping out of the professor role and declaring things “brilliant” “silly” etc. So much reasoning and taxonomy in this book, so much close examination and helpful explanation, and so much sheer bluster.

There’s a lot about music in the book, reflecting the author’s dual roles, perhaps too much. Plenty of it is interesting and pertinent but it doesn’t show the knowledge of the subject historically or technically that the writing on poetry does, and is restricted by his own rather narrow field of interest, almost confined to jazz, which at times he seems to be setting up as a paradigm of poetry. At least once the escape from professorship is into sheer philistinism—Moses und Aron put me in the same state of psychosis as would a month in the trenches. And true to form he goes on, in a passage about atonal music, to find that the same old formats – dominant, tonic, key etc. the tonal language of feeling, are retained in our perception even of music which has deliberately and radically departed from the tonal system. Again there is no escaping from the conservatoire. I don’t know how he would maintain this thesis with western music, or poetry, before, say, 1450, but that is a zone he stays well clear of, except for dismissing the troubadours. His whole historical stance could be under threat if he allowed himself to think of the (contested) Chaucerian iambic pentameter as a French influence, as against the clearly English prosody of Langland, but alliteration is evidently not worth mentioning.

WHERE, FINALLY, I DO disagree strongly is precisely with that mutual exclusivity, the force which cleaves British poetry into bipartite opposition. Whatever may be allowable beyond these boxes as marginally acceptable or “fair enough”, the final structure of the Paterson and Prynne realms is of two back-to-back houses where nothing shall be heard of the neighbours but when they stoke the fire, and anything beyond the regimental order of either, and the fewness it creates, is considered compromised.

Clearly Paterson cannot bear the thought of fixed and venerable categories being dissolved into a fluidity where opposites merge into each other and form new types…

Clearly Paterson cannot bear the thought of fixed and venerable categories being dissolved into a fluidity where opposites merge into each other and form new types, which in the quest for value and authenticity might prove just as strict as any precedents.8 There are poets who have no part in Paterson’s scheme of things and whose contribution to the art is assumed to be nil who might yet prove to be where it’s at. There are poets, for instance, quite a lot of them, who have been involved in something like the avant-garde and benefited from its optimism at certain times, and have brought something from it without incurring any debt. The great influx of young and novice poets now enjoying every favour certainly includes many whose poetry stands in that medial position without their recognising or caring about the original factions. There are some whose reputations suffer from the word “avant-garde” persistently plastered on them when it is no longer definitive. In principle most poets who use language are involved in Paterson’s metrical and other structures and would surely benefit from the finesse of the definitions, such as to recognise the comparative strength of disruption resulting from different grammatical degrees of enjambment. The bulk, design and tone of the book make it very difficult for outsider poets or their readers to locate what would be of value to them, but it will be there. In the practice of these poets such matters of the ear are folded into the script and probably worked intuitively, and so not separated from all the other poetical faculties which don’t require tabulation, but in any few words there is likely to be a choice made within Paterson’s scheme of things.

Paterson’s thesis is set up to oppose or block a process which is obviously well begun, where the no-longer mainstream and the no-longer avant-garde (and the never-heard-of-either) dissolve and unite as the manufactured irrelevance of their pure faiths becomes more and more evident, not just in poetry. Paterson would be against this liberalisation, and so would Prynne (as shown in his 1960s letters at any rate) and they have good reasons in terms of guarding against the loss of craft and the loss of vision respectively, but we may have to entrust those faculties to the future. Otherwise: two monuments back-to-back in the desert. Monuments (such as monasteries) in the desert have a reputation for preserving truths and techniques for as long as possible until it becomes possible to realise them again, while the squads of the new anti-poetry scour the horizon.

Fortnightly ReviewsPeter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry (including The Glacial Stairway [Carcanet, 2011]) – and some of prose. He lives in Yorkshire and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.

Peter Riley’s latest books are Pennine Tales and Hushings (both from Calder Valley Poetry) and Dawn Songs (Shearsman, 2017). His Due North (Shearsman), a book-length poem, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection, 2015. A collection of his ‘Poetry Notes’ columns has been collected in The Fortnightly Reviews: Poetry Notes 2012-2014, and published in 2015 by Odd Volumes, our imprint. An archive of his Fortnightly columns is here.


  1. The Olson-Prynne letters are dated 1961 to 1970. Prynne’s letters to Olson have been available for consultation by scholars for some time.
  2. Paterson’s book was finished by 2017 but must have been a very long time in the making. I feel justified in treating both of them as extremist versions of what was being thought about poetry in the later twentieth century in the UK and USA. In discussing the Collected Letters I shall focus almost entirely on Prynne’s contribution to the correspondence, for it was he who initiated and led it, and the greater part of it consists of him feeding thoughts and information to Olson as a contribution to the furtherance of The Maximus Poems through the second volume. Olson says pertinent and enlarging things in response but the whole “push” as it was called, was Prynne’s, and it is his version of poetry that emerges most forcibly from it. Italics indicate material quoted from the book under review.
  3. Something not dissimilar can probably still be witnessed in parts of Romania.
  4. Uncertainly, I worry that the accusation here is not one of indolence, carelessness or even stupidity, all of which we own daily, but that the word falsify holds an accusation of deliberateness. This is a recurrent worry among the denunciations of this discourse.
  5. One way of accounting for the use of this lexicon would be that in Prynne’s nascent system concerning the origins of words, they do not, on the usual thesis, arise in the mundane sphere and thence get used for gods and goddesses and their qualities, but vice versa: they descend to earth where they are appropriated for “lower” meanings, and do not necessarily retain their value. And this is a kind of collapse of the word’s value, its fall into society. I’m guessing, and using terms which he would not, and of course he would not use such terms now in the way he did in the 1960s.
  6. See “Iambicity, Rhythm, and Non-Parsing“, by Henrietta J. Hung. University of Ottawa, December 1993.)
  7. Unless I have missed some major revision of European literary scholarship, there is an un-professorial mistake in this section, which I feel naughty mentioning but it is important to his argument. He says quite clearly [p. 463] that the “Italian sonnet” has twelve lines. The only twelve-line sonnet I have been able to locate is Shakespeare’s number 126, though there are probably one or two more somewhere in the world. In Paterson’s scheme the stress-value of the two “missing” lines is felt in their absence and contributes to the weighting or pitch of the poem, thus converting it back to what a sonnet aught to be.
  8. And yet on 25th January 2019 the BBC broadcast a long interview with Paterson by Ian MacMillan in which he spoke eloquently, calmly, and generously of the process of writing a poem, placing the creative focus in the act itself, the writing of the poem as itself a search for the nature of truth, and allowing, indeed relishing, liberty of inner movement, unexpected turnings and even shifting to a completely new place in the middle. I can’t recall anything in the book under review which spoke in this way.
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