Here's a little intro I wrote for Don Paterson, who read at the 92nd Street Y last night with Paul Muldoon. It's not much of anything, and certainly not even a shadow of Paterson's gorgeous reading, but it has a few biographical facts that might interest folks who don't know Paterson's work. Unfortunately, I had to leave out quotes from poems I thought he might read. Here's one from his latest book, Rain, called "Correctives" that breaks my heart (the second-born of his identical twin boys, now 10, has a hand tremor, as the result of a difficult birth):
The shudder in my son’s left hand
he cures with one touch from his right,
two fingertips laid feather-light
to still his pen. He understands
the whole man must be his own brother,
for no man is himself alone;
though some of us have never known
the other hand’s kindness to the other.
When Bernard Schwartz from the Poetry Center contacted me about this evening with Don Paterson and Paul Muldoon, it wasn’t immediately clear to me if he was putting together a poetry reading or a rock concert. I mean, on the one hand, we have Paul Muldoon—rhythm guitarist, songwriter, and co-founder (with the Milton scholar Nigel Smith) of the “Stones-via-Cream-via-Hendrix” influenced rock band Rackett, performing at the Knitting Factory and other venues—and on the other hand Don Patterson, jazz guitarist, songwriter, and co-founder with Tim Garland of the Euro-jazz-Celtic-folk ensemble Lammas, whose numerous albums include tracks such as The Water in the Rock, a setting of a poem by Antonio Machado for voice and 12-string guitar. What kind of evening are we talking about?, I asked Bernard. Strictly poetry, he assured me.
And yet I can’t help feeling that, despite the absence of Marshall stacks and gleaming Zildjian symbols, what we have in prospect tonight is, in a very important sense, an evening of music. Given the innumerable nuanced sounds that good poetry makes—its rhythms, its chimes and hiccups, its hectorings, its sentence sounds and melodies, its organ tones and wave-laps of syntax: in other words, its music—it is not surprising that the poet and the musician should often be the same person.
Originally from Dundee, Scotland, Don Paterson left school at 16 and moved to London to join a band. Poetry, for him, came later, even as music remained a constant companion and a companion project. Music may be found throughout Paterson’s poems—sometimes as the subject itself. Take his poem “The Box,” from his collection Landing Light, a poem written in the shape of a guitar—the box of the title refers to the hollow body of an acoustic guitar, as in guit-box. Like his poems, this instrument is so well-made, so attuned to and expressive of the sounds of feeling that, as he says, “it takes no more than a dropped shoe or a cleared throat on the hall landing to set its little blue moan off again.”
Or there is the tribute in his most recent collection, Rain, to the minimalist electronic group TBA, from the Republic of Georgia, and its leader Natalie “Tusja” Beridze. The charged music of the poem halloos Paterson’s admiration for a fellow musician, with a glimpse, too—in its incantatory techno-speak—of Paterson’s parallel life at the moog and the mixing board:
Though I should confess that at times I find your habit of maxxing
the range with those bat-scaring frequencies ring-modulated
sine-bursts and the more distressing pshycoacoustic properties
of phase inversion in the sub-bass frequencies somewhat taxing
you are nonetheless beautiful as the mighty Boards
themselves in your shameless organicising of the code.
Organicising the code—that is what the best poets (and musicians) do, isn’t it? They take the raw matter, the data and the program of language, and make it their own. Paterson uses rhyme—in the poem I’ve just quoted from and elsewhere—and meter with a freshness and mastery that gives us the cadence of our contemporary speech as if for the first time.
Rain—how presciently titled, given the down-pour outside—is dedicated to the memory of the poet Michael Donaghy, a fellow musician on the page and off. Michael read at the Unterberg Poetry Center not long before he died, of a cerebral hemorrhage at age 50, six years ago now. Though Michael lived his adult years in London, he was a boy in New York. While he was working as a doorman, a Y patron in his building, Joan Jacobsen, saw him reading a book of poetry and gave him a Poetry Center membership, which he remembered fondly on that night. In Paterson’s sequence “Phantom,” Michael speaks to his friend: “Don’t let pass,” the phantom says,
talk of my saintliness, or those attempts
to praise my average musicianship
beyond its own ambitions: music for dancers.
All I wanted was to keep the drum
so tight it was lost under their feet,
the downbeat I’d invisibly increased,
my silent augmentation of the One—
the cup I’d filled brimful . . . then even above the rim!
But these outward connections to music and musicians are also pointers to the deeper, more mysterious and affecting music in Paterson’s poems—through which the poems express our deepest connections to one another. There is the heartbreaking lyric of a son’s trembling hand, of a swing-set that feels the absence of the child, of the lie that will not be silenced, and of the crushing lack left by a friend who has died. Tonight, let’s have some of the old songs—while they’re still new!—performed by one of our very finest singers, Don Paterson.