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June 17, 2011

Don Paterson's 'The Dark Art of Poetry'

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This lecture by Don Paterson is available publicly and in full from the South Bank Centre website tagged above. I reproduce excerpts here for poetry students at Warwick - or for any passing migrants settling here for an evening. I urge readers to dive into the full version.

from THE DARK ART OF POETRY by Don Paterson. The TS Eliot Lecture, commissioned by the South Bank Centre, and delivered as part of Poetry International on Saturday 30 October 2004.

There are dangers involved in committing bad things to memory: about a hundred years ago the mathematician Charles Hinton devised a series of three-dimensional geometrical objects, known as Hinton's Cubes. The idea was that once memorised they could be mentally reassembled into a 3D net, and then infolded to produce a 4-dimensional model; this, he claimed, would allow you some conception of 4-space. Bizarrely, it actually seemed to work. There were two unforeseen consequences, however: four-space is not a happy thing to carry around in your head when you have to have to wake up every day in 3-space, put your clothes on in the right order, use the toilet accurately, and place your breakfast in the right holes. But much worse, Dr Hinton had devised no mean by which, once 4-space was memorised, it might be forgotten again. A few folk went irrecoverably insane, and the cubes were quietly withdrawn from public sale.

I've said this so many times it's beginning to sound a bit self-satisfied - but a poem is just a little machine for remembering itself. Whatever other function a rhyme, a metre, an image, a rhetorical trope, a brilliant qualifier or stanza-break might perform, half of it is simply mnemonic. A poem makes a fetish of its memorability. It does this, because the one unique thing about our art is that it can carried in your head in its original state, intact and perfect. We merely recall a string quartet or a film or a painting, actually, at a neurological level we're only remembering a memory of it; but our memory of the poem is the poem. A poet exploits this fact, and tries to burn their poems into your mind, and mess with your perception. Its most primitive (and so we can probably assume its earliest) function is as a system for the simple storage and retrieval of information, and sometimes its concealment; the poets of certain nomadic Saharan tribes are charged with memorising the location of the waterholes, in way that will not betray them to others. No wonder that poetry, from the earliest so deeply connected to the world and our own survival in it, was quickly invested with magical properties, and soon took the form of the spell, the riddle, the curse, the blessing, the prayer. They are - and poems remain - invocatory forms. Prose evokes; the well-chosen word describes the thing. But poetry invokes; the memorable word conjures its subject from the air.

So that's the occult part; but I also believe that poetry is a science, and that poetic composition can be studied in much the same way as music composition. But I think the language of verse composition has been lost, or at least disfigured to the point of uselessness. Poets no longer feel confidently expert in their own subject. The language of academic versification studies and 'poetics' is only appropriate for something that describes the result, not the working practice; the noun, not the living verb. This language always makes the error of talking about the messy, insane process of verse-making as if it were a clean operation. Our business is not with rhyme, but with rhyming; not with metaphor but with metaphorising, the active transformation of the image; and there is as much difference between the two as there is between checking a watch, and building one.

Such description as exists of the real composing process is couched in the language of the beginner's workshop, with its nonsensical talk of show-not-tell, and 'good subject matter' - or the language of self-help. Incidentally, the systematic interrogation of the unconscious, which is part of the serious practice of poetry, is the worst form of self-help you could possibly devise. There is a reason why poets enjoy the highest statistical incidence of mental illness among all the professions. Your unconscious is your unconscious for an awfully good reason. If you want to help yourself, read a poem, but don't write one. Then again I think maybe 5% of folk who write poetry really want to write poetry; the other 95 are quite safe, and just want to be a poet. If they knew what the dreams were like, they wouldn't.

Only plumbers can plumb, roofers roof and drummers drum; only poets can write poetry. Restoring the science of verse-making would restore our self-certainty in this matter, and naturally resurrect a guild that, I believe, would soon find it had some secrets worth preserving.

But the main result of such an empowerment would be the rediscovery of our ambition, our risk, and our relevance, through the confidence to insist on the poem as possessing an intrinsic cultural value, of absolutely no use other than for its simple reading...


Publication - by which I simply mean 'someone else reading your poem' - directly unites the reader and poet, and to read out a line someone else has written in your own voice is to experience a little transmigration of souls. A glorious example of direct publication is Poems On The Underground. The means is the end. In a radical subversion of the mechanism of corporate advertising - Postmoderns take note - a short good poem is placed in huge type before a person with ten minutes to do nothing else but read it three times, targeting a wide enough audience to find that one-in-six receptive to the high frequency of the art form.


I've always felt that every morning the poet should stand at the window and remember that nothing that they see, not a bird or stone, has in its possession the name they give it. That seems a reasonably humble starting point. It also might have serious consequences - something very important for a mammal within and without it - for our orientation in addressing the world, our prepositional stance.

Whether you take this seriously or not - all this, for the poet, is much more than a little perceptual game. When we allow silence to reclaim those objects and things of the world, when we allow the words to fall away from them - they reassume their own genius, and repossess something of their mystery, their infinite possibility. Then the we awaken a little to the realm of the symmetries again, and of no-time, eternity. The poet's specific talent: when the things of the world (in which we should very much include our own feelings, ideas, and relations with one other) that we have contemplated in this wordless and thoughtless silence reenter the world of asymmetrical concept, of discrete definition, of speech and language - they return as strangers; and then they declare wholly unexpected allegiances, reveal wholly unsuspected valencies. We see the nerve in the bare tree, we hear the applause in the rain. These things are, in other words, redreamt, they are reimagined, they are remade. This I think is the deepest meaning of our etymology as maker. One more point: the poem having been translated from the silence, as my friend Charles Simic puts it, it has briefly kept the company of everything, of all natural things, and its desire to then declare a kinship with those things - to become a beautiful manmade natural object, with the integrity, symmetry and rhythm of the natural - should be no surprise.

So the first thing the poet in the act of composition should always observe is silence. Observe, almost in the religious sense: it's a matter of honouring the silence - of which the white page is both a symbol and a means of practical invocation - in which the poem can ultimately reverberate to its deepest reach. (Space sings: this is why the secret guild of guitarists used to place a horse's skull in the corner of the room, as a sympathetic resonator.) We do this by balancing that unity of silence by a reciprocal unity of utterance; the latter actually has the effect of invoking the former. Poetry is the art of saying things once. After all your other skills are in place, our only task is to avoid understatement and overstatement. It sounds an easy matter, but it's a lifetime's study.

It is our riven condition, though - which Rilke refers to as the double realm (that of a living creature with foreknowledge of its own death, part-ghost) that makes us creatures that continually connect between the two worlds, are in fact driven to connect; and I believe poetry is the highest form of that negotiation, from the tiny narrow aperture of the Adamite back to the wide-field Edenic. Poetry, then, remystifies, allows the Edenic innocence, the symmetrical and unified view, to be made briefly conscious and re-entered via the most perverse (but perhaps only) tool for the job: language. Poetry is the paradox of language turned against its own declared purpose, that of nailing down the human dream. It uses new metaphors against the dead ones that form our speech. It attempts to conjure up, invoke, those states and those deep connections that have been excluded by the narrowness of the dream, and so cast out of our language. Poets are therefore, paradoxically, experts in the failure of language. Words fail us continually, as we search for them beyond the borders of speech, or drive them to the limit of their meaning and then beyond it. No wonder we need a club.

The object of a poem is to place a new unity in the language (an exploded view, if you like, of a new word) that results from the love affair between two hitherto unconnected terms: two words, two ideas, two phrases, two images, a word and an image, a phrase and a new context for it, so on. One thing is sterile and will result perhaps in some pretty description - but nothing the poet did not know before they started. These are the poems that are made up. If two things don't exist, there will be no discovery in our process, and hence absolutely no surprise for the reader. (I'll give you a more specific formula: the process of the poem is that of a unifying idea being driven through the productive resistance of the form proposed by the marriage of two previously estranged or unrelated things.)

Our defining heresy as poets is that we know that sound and sense are the same thing. Everyone else thinks them merely related. We need not connect what is already joined; to unite things again, we so often have to remove our own clumsy connections, our own redundant mediation. The acoustic and semantic properties of the word are not even interchangeable for us; they are wholly consubstantial. They arose together, and to talk of one is to talk of the other. We allow our ear to think for us.


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