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Scottish Poet Don Paterson Brings Wry Humor, Airy Verses to Library Series

By Steffi Delcourt Posted: 04/16/2012
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A Scottish poet. That accent, reading poetry. When I heard the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library Reading Series was bringing in a Scottish poet to read several of his works aloud, after a preliminary swoon, I was sold.

Don Paterson, the Scottish poet and Creative Writing Fellow at the University of St. Andrews, read a selection of original poems and aphorisms to a crowded Jones Room in the Robert W. Woodruff Library last Wednesday night at 6 p.m.

Within the first few poems, I realized there was more to Paterson’s reading than his accent.

He dove immediately into his reading, immersing the audience into a world of dark wit, personal revelations and verbal artistry. During the course of the night, Paterson refused to differentiate between the old material he revisited and the new he unveiled. Instead, he emphasized the meaning and tones of the words through vocal intonations and minute facial expressions.

Throughout his reading, the poetry Paterson selected displayed his experimentation within the art form’s structure. Paterson’s persistent couplet rhyming scheme, sent spinning by his Scottish burr when read aloud, set a rhythmic pace.

In an hour, Paterson had read almost 20 poems and countless aphorisms.

His newer pieces were all sonnets “for reasons I fail to understand,” Paterson joked.

However, a quick look through the textual versions of the poetry he read aloud exposed alternative formats, ranging from question-and-answer in “Seven Questions About the Journey” to pure couplets to prose poetry. Each new form brought to light the dexterity Paterson has with words. His phrases are airy and meaningful without compromising Paterson’s style.

Often witty and sometimes dark, Paterson painted a bleak picture of the world while capturing the essence of its beauty. His lyrical stanzas revealed a unique perspective toward the world.

At first glance, his poetry appears abstract and full of cosmic ponderings, but his reading honed in on expressing grief and remorse in an entirely human way.

In a poem that began as a wedding gift, Paterson’s “The Day” rolled out such sentiments as people are “as precious only as the gold in the sea: nowhere and everywhere,” emphasizing the grandeur and the insignificance of the human race when cast against the backdrop of the entire universe. Paterson cited the source of his grand revelation as “the DVD box set of ‘Battlestar Gallactica’ ... one of the high points of Western Civilization.”

The language of “A Scholar,” written as a response to a scathing review of his book Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets, is simple. Yet, his enunciation of each phrase achieves a delicate yet scathing sarcasm, setting the tone of the narrator as humorous, but not amused.

Several times, Paterson lightened the mood with aphorisms, short statements of wisdom or universal truths. His playful inflections of wit and sarcasm drew laughs from the audience every time he pronounced an inescapable truth.

“Of course you don’t like all the aphorisms,” Paterson stated matter-of-factly when reading one aloud. “I don’t like all of you.”

Throwing away traditional smooth progressions, Paterson opted to divulge an inspiration or personal story relating to the following poem instead.

After an awkward stuttering transition between “The Bad Listener,” a poem commissioned about the year 1987, and “Mercies,” in which he described putting down a beloved dog, Paterson joked, “In the most effortless segue I think I’ve ever done.”

When introducing first an aphorism about siestas, then a poem about napping, Paterson described how he felt “cosmically misfiled” after startling awake after an afternoon nap. He felt like “a bald monkey with gravity issues,” shaking his head and chuckling after his pronouncement.

Because his poems are personal in nature, Paterson shared much of his life with the audience when introducing them.

His poetry draws upon his emotions and daily struggles, an artistic response to his world.

Several poems focus on and are dedicated to members of his family: “Why Do You Stay Up So Late?” (a personal favorite), “The Circle” and “The Swing” all revolve around his children’s influence on his life.

“Two Trees” and “Miguel” chronicled Paterson’s method of dealing with a close friend’s death.

The first, he explained to the audience, he “didn’t understand for the longest time.” The poem details how an orange and a lemon tree were first spliced together by Miguel, then chopped apart by the next owner of Miguel’s house after his passing. The poem ends with the line, “And trees are all this poem is about.” After pausing for a moment, Paterson looked up at the audience and added, “which was a lie, as it turns out.”

The next poem, a eulogy titled “Miguel,” was a monologue addressed to Paterson’s deceased friend. Before reading “Miguel,” Paterson quipped, “I still speak to [Michael], which is nice now because when he was alive, I could never get a word in edgewise.” Despite joking at his friend’s expense, Paterson’s voice took on a wishful tone, as if he was actually pleading with Michael to end his game of hide-and-seek and return.

Paterson ended his reading with the titular poem from his latest poetry collection Rain. Striking a melancholy tone, Paterson devotes six stanzas to his love of a rainy start to a movie and one to an origin of human life before ending in an urgent whisper: “and none of this, none of this matters,” he said.

Paterson described “Rain” and “The Air,” another older piece he’d read directly before, as centered around a common existential theme.

“We’re not really here, just matter that thinks it’s here,” Paterson said. “And that ... that seems to be sufficient.”

“I was drawn in to all the works Paterson read and loved how he gave the audience an idea of his inspiration behind most of the poems,” College sophomore Zach Kelly said.

“Paterson’s poetry was full of vivid imagery and was a pleasure to listen to,” College junior Danielle Hesse added. “I thought the poems he wrote for his sons were especially sweet.”

Don Paterson united melancholic despair and celebratory survival in his poetry. Although he tackled hard realities in the poems and aphorisms he read aloud, Paterson made bitter truths palatable through liberal use of wry humor.

“Humor is nourishment,” Harmony Neal, the creative writing fellow in fiction, said after the event. “Don Paterson left his listeners well-fed, and hopefully, a wee bit more enlightened.”

And the accent didn’t hurt, either.

A complete version of the reading can be found at Emory University’s official YouTube channel: www.youtube.com/user/EmoryUniversity.

— Contact Steffi Delcourt.

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