Saturday 2 January 2016

The Hum of Prize-Culture Machinery

Adam Crothers reports back on a recent reading by Don Paterson:
‘Poetry readings aren’t gigs,’ Don Paterson corrects himself in the course of an anecdote; but as from-the-page poetry readings go, this feels gig-like before it even begins. Advertised as a night of ‘Sonnets and Songs’, the event is to feature Paterson performing on guitar as well as reading from his (largely) acclaimed 2015 collection 40 Sonnets. And before he enters the room, the modest setup of cables, pedals and amp waiting in the stage area of the low-lit room cannot but invoke the buzz of a music venue. When a roadie comes on with an electric guitar a couple of minutes before the event starts, the invocation is surely complete.

That roadie, though, is Faber poetry editor Matthew Hollis; the low-lit room is the event space of Faber’s Bloomsbury headquarters, with plenty of the publisher’s books, including pricey Faber Members editions, on sale; and if this is a gig, it’s fair to suggest that it’s a corporate one.

Paterson has his detractors: there are, for instance, parts of Cambridge where speaking a word in his favour is akin to spitting into your interlocutor’s soup, and coming from that town to London for this event I wonder how far the suspicions of various anti-Paterson friends and acquaintances might be confirmed by proceedings. The notion of a poetic ‘mainstream’ is silly, but, to indulge the term briefly, this event is a mainstream publisher’s promotion of a mainstream poet, and if it wants to defy expectations of status-quo box-checking it has work to do.

Hollis’s laudatory intro doesn’t help, although it tries to. Supposedly when Paterson’s first collection appeared in 1993 it shook up the ‘white, male, middle-class, Oxbridge-educated, mostly dead’ world of contemporary British poetry: this is far from persuasive, and not only because, as Paterson acknowledges, he’s not exactly none of those things, nor was he. And, frankly, looking around at the forty- or fifty-strong audience, one hardly has the impression that all of human life is here gathered. Such is the nature of a Monday-night Bloomsbury poetry reading, perhaps; but it does make the suggestion that Paterson is effectually anti-establishment seem rather shaky. When 40 Sonnets is described by Hollis as ‘career-making’, it might be countered that the attention paid to the book merely expands upon that paid to the two decades of preceding career; when it’s described as ‘forward-looking’, it’s hard not to hear ‘Forward-looking’ and the hum of prize-culture machinery.

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