Don Paterson’s “Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets”

I bought Don Paterson’s guided reading tour of the Shakespearian sonnets this week, and am presently on page 50-something. I can’t, and won’t, be able to wait until I’m done to pitch it to you all as a must-read.

The book situates itself somewhere between a close reading and an academic symposium. It’s deep and involved and requires a readership that, if not already familiar with the sonnets, is at least familiar enough with Tudor English, and poetry in general, to be able to follow along with the references and tropes that shape the bard’s rhetoric. Some reviewers have taken offence to this tone. I can see why. If I was a Shakespearian scholar, I could see myself irked by Paterson’s tendency to borrow liberally from every major academic in the field, after which, through a combination of jokes, pop-culture references, and shrugging, half-sincere, wisps of “I dunno”, he tries to position himself as a little more wise than learned, more sincere than knowledgeable. It’s an angle I sometimes find myself working here on the blog, and I appreciate that it may be irritating. I mean, I don’t care per se. But I get that it’s irritating.

I’ve just finished with the procreative suite (1-17, the subject of much of Paterson’s scorn and dismissal). I didn’t remember there being so many. Shakespearian sonnets are like Simpsons episodes, you assume you’ve seen them all until you sit down to count them. What I like most about Paterson’s style is his willingness to consider all the theories about the sonnets’ authorship (well, except for the one where they weren’t all authored by Shakespeare, at least not yet). The “gay Shakespeare” theory is taken out for a walk in his commentary on these totally-not-homoerotic love poems from one man to another in which the poet implores the young chap to spread his seed, carry forward his beauty, and in so doing makes an average of between 0.4 and 0.7 masturbation references per poem (depending on how you count’em). Another idea, that the procreative sequence is actually seventeen separate attempts at the same poem, is also dealt with by Paterson. He seems to like it. He also seems to like a third theory, which I find myself suspicious of, that the whole thing was done on commission. It’s not that I don’t see Billy working for commission (he’s one of most pragmatic businessmen in the history of poets, look at his theatrical dealings, for example), but that because of this fact it’s unlikely that there’s much truth to Paterson’s thought that the suite’s comparatively low quality is a sign of work-for-hire. Hamlet was a work for hire. I don’t think Shakespeare phoned it in all that much.

Paterson gets away with this mad theory-hopping because he’s dedicated to the intellectual flaneurism suggested in his intro. He picks up shiny objects, considers them, and throws them aside. He’s not doing a heck of a lot of “research” here, but he wears that laziness openly. He even attests to writing some portion of the book while drunk. His best moments are when he turns the logic of a theory against itself, or speaks to Shakespeare poet-to-poet, in a way that perhaps only he is best suited to among the 6 billion living inhabitants of the planet. On the shared-love v. self-love dialectic of the suite, he says “What I don’t quite get is WS’s easy assumption that self-love and reproduction are mutually exclusive. George Foreman, for example, has eight sons, all of whom are called George Foreman.” That’s hilarious. And true. And Paterson is maybe the only poet alive who is close enough of a cousin to Shakespeare (I say that not just as a compliment on his quality, but also in deference to his aesthetic bent: decidedly and gloriously anachronistic, high on metre, end-rhyme, narrative, themes of love and loss, history, and selfhood) to pick on him. Watching Shakespeare get picked on by an academic tends to reek of reverse flattery and impotence, wathcing him get picked on by his closest living relative feels more like a roast, a send-up. It’s this that excuses the uncertain genuineness of Paterson’s casual tone.

Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets carries all the warm and fuzzy exasperation of watching a beloved mentor try and reason their way through a defense of their own work, or an attack on an enemy, after their six or seventh whiskey-rocks. You can’t stop listening in. Even when you want to shake them. The angriest I’ve gotten while reading the book is when Paterson dismissed the closing couplet of Sonnet 2 with the following off-hand remark: “A long run of monosyllables was as ugly a thing 400 years ago as it is now. It renders the lines as nastily staccato as a sewing machine, and with little shape they can draw from the interior rhythm of the words themselves.”

Now, I also don’t think the closing couplet of #2 works very well. It is a touch awkward (again, always amending these complaints with “for Shakespeare”) on both sound and sense. However, the blinding confidence with which Patersone extends the rule to cover all English prosody is what kills me. The assumption in those two sentences is that if the rhythmic unit of a word is the syllable (specifically, the stressed/unstressed/halfstressed designations therof), then a monosyllabic word has no internal rhythm. I’m okay with that. I guess. But, the “nastily staccato” line goes on to suggest that a phrase made up of wholly monosyllabic words then has no more rhythm that the simple 1/1 time signature of a sewing machine. This is completely fucking stupid. As an example, I submit that at no time since its first usage has the word “and” been stressed, except in the case of a grammatical departure (starting a sentence with it, eg) or a rhetorical adaptation (stressing on it when it ends a list, so as to emphasize the list’s length). Therefore, the monosyllabic phrase “cats and dogs” reads stress/unstress/stress. Disagreements? No? Look at that phrase, how pretty is that? Not at all like a sewing machine. More like an amphimacer.

What’s wrong with the end couplet to Sonnet #2 (“This were to be new made when thou art old,/And see they blood warm when though feel’st it cold”) has more to do with the specific sounds of the syllables than their number. I’d submit, to begin, that the alliterative Ws in the second line slow the speech too much for the line to hold its energy, and that the two big ol’ glaring long vowel sounds “made” and “though” need some supportive friends around them to help disperse their weight. I’m not sure if that’s the whole problem. I am sure that the whole problem can’t be summed up with “using strings of monosyllabic words is always bad in poems”. This is the problem with Paterson’s commited neoformalism. Zealotry. His is a great position to take if you’re willing to see beyond your own borders. If Paterson wants to witness the multitudinous rhythmic opportunities of the monosyllabic phrase (even when its spoken in monotone), he’d do well to consult the oevre of the last poet-turned-essayist profiled in this blog.

I wanted to take some time to yell at Paterson’s two-sentence hiccup a bit, because it gets at what’s been so addictive about his book so far. A great essay (and I’m thinking, like, once-every-few-decades great, like for me a Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, or Minima Moralia, or Against Interpretation, this kind of great) will oscillate in its reader a kind of sine-wave of rising and falling defensiveness. The author will provoke and hypnotize, will lower and raise the reader’s natural biases and defenses. Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets, though it’s not an intellectual equal to any of the three works above, has some of that ability. So did his controversial introduction to his recent anthology of British poets. You love hating him. Then you love hating with him.

Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets owes its biggest debt to Karen Duncan Jones’s similar The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Describing a similar love/hate relationship, Paterson says of Jones’s work, “I’m having my copy rubberized so I can catch it again after I’ve thrown it at the wall.” Fifty pages in, and with a few hundred left to go, I’m considering putting Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets through the same protective measure.

Explore posts in the same categories: Poems in the Wider World, Reviewing

8 Comments on “Don Paterson’s “Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets””

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ross McKie, Jacob M. Mooney. Jacob M. Mooney said: Now on Vox Pop, Reading Don Paterson's "Reading Shakespeare's Sonnets": […]

  2. Well put, Jake. I had the same response to that crazy comment about monosyllables. I expect Paterson had it too, but said fuckit, leave it in and watch people fume. I mean, dude _has_ read Frost. This book is my toilet reading now; perfect for that. I have yet to tear out any pages…

  3. voxpopulism Says:

    That’s probably true. After reading, say, the intro to the Modern British Poetry (or something like that…) anthology, I wouldn’t put it past Paterson to think: this is reductionist at best, and wrong at worst, but it’s certainly an entertaining thought, so it stays.

    Really, it’s that audacity that makes the book as much fun as it is.

    Save tearing out pages for a paper emergency, not a poetry emergency.

  4. Just ordered it based on your words, Jake.

  5. voxpopulism Says:

    Cool. Now I’ll get a kickback from Amazon. Did I mention that the blog was now adspace?

  6. James Langer Says:

    Based on what you’ve said here, Jake, I won’t be reading the Paterson book. Rather not play Sancho to his Quixote.

    And isn’t it possible that he’s just wrong and can’t see it anymore? I mean, you suggest that he knows better, but Paterson’s opinions seem to be hardening into dogma. He seems to be walling himself up within his own practically useless final vocabulary. All his talk about “occult science” and the “guild” from his T.S. Eliot lecture years back: are you buying any of this?

    I don’t see anything that wrong with the close of sonnet #2, as long as you read the “new made” and the “blood warm” as spondees and notice the slight pause that separates them and the phrases that follow. That is, when you read them like an indifferent machine they seem flat. Read them like a human being and they’re not. And the balance in the lines doesn’t come from meter, it comes from the meaning and the pressures that meaning places on the words. No?

    Take Paterson’s claim about monosyllables over to the last line of #73 and watch it burn like so much methane.


  7. Except it is Helen Vendler’s book, not Katharine Duncan-Jones’s that he wants to throw at the wall. Much as Alastair Fowler must have felt about Paterson’s.

  8. voxpopulism Says:

    Hmm. I don’t have the DP here in front of me, Heather. Will check. Apologies to all three authors (and yourself ;P) if I messed it up.


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