Today I opened the paper to see that Don Paterson had won the Whitbread Prize for poetry with his latest collection Landing Light. No surprises there then. But I make an admission; I have never been a fan. Admiring of the brio, the panache and the verve I read Nil Nil and God's Gift to Women like one amazed at angels dancing on pinheads or a tightrope walker crossing the high wire in stilettos, gawping at the dexterity and skill of his tight language but not caring very much that he had bothered to do it. For his poetry, for me at least, as the beer advert insists that all good beverages should, never touched me in the places that other poetry managed to reach. As an art critic, used to the brat-pack of yBAs with their animal carcasses in formaldehyde and unmade beds, their two-fingers-in the-air to the establishment, I saw Paterson and his Picador cohorts as the Damien Hirsts of the poetry world. All in-your-face street cred; the hard boys of the postmodern stainless steel stanza. That Paterson had a great ear for conversational language was not in doubt but his poems seemed aggressively self-defensive, to lack vulnerability which, surely must, in the end, be the sign of great art. I simply did not find the laddish swagger engaging. As he wrote in A Private Bottling:
Paterson's seemed a world of simulacra, where nothing was quite real but rather all sassy surface. He ransacked the word hoard of the pub and the club to write - both in English and Scots - of porno movies, coco butter and masturbation or of his lover's room under the ironic title 10001 Nights - the Early Years, in which he described with cold detachment his "puddled suit" strewn on the floor next to "her dog-eared Kerouac,/the snot-stream of a knotted Fetherlite". This were also moments of Trainspotting aggression: "I killed the alarm, /then took her head off with the kitchen knife." His poetry was often dense and obtuse; it seemed, rather arrogantly, to care little about wooing the reader.
But then came Landing Light. Up at the Edinburgh Festival during the heat of August, writing art reviews, I slipped off for the day to hear some poetry at the Book Festival. Paterson was reading, part of a double act with John Burnside a poet I knew I would enjoy, but despite my prejudices I was completely seduced by some of the poems he read. There was a raw passion that poked through the tightly packed surface of language, restrained to be sure, but of a spiritual depth and a lyric intensity I had not experienced before in his work. And what had brought about this change? Well cliché though it may be - the softening of the hard man - it seems to have been the fathering of his twins. Certainly there are still a number of testing, surreal poems that grudgingly yield up their complexities to the reader, the strange tale The Long Story or the poems in Scots dialect - for which I am sure he has a good ear but as a Sassenach I find it hard to judge - but which seem, as in Twinflooer to need footnotes almost as long as the poem. There are, though, some wonderfully evocative poems on the landscape and traditions, such as St. Brides: Sea Mail, but it is in the first poem in the collection Luing, where he watches the slow "red vans sliding silently between her hills," on the small island that Paterson introduces the image of birth that dominates the book; birth, which throughout these poems is both actual and metaphoric.
His sonnet Waking with Russell is one of the most tender evocations of fatherhood I have read. It is as if Paterson's tight glittery language has found a worthy subject and he seems rather to have amazed himself:
Love, as they say, seems to concur all, even bringing back hard Scots poets to the 'true path'; a poetry that can cause the heart to flutter. Just as touching is the poem to Jamie, The Thread in which Paterson remembers, as he watches his small son race down a windswept hill, how he nearly died at birth, "All that trouble just to turn up dead," and muses on the fragility of the thread that holds both life and relationships together. One of the loveliest poems, Letter to the Twins, begins with an epigram about Romulus and Remus from Plutarch. Here the paternal voice dismisses instruction on the "infinite laws of Rome" in favour of educating the young boys in the art of satisfying a lover. Writing about sex in either prose or poetry is notoriously difficult, but Paterson brings it off with tender lyrical eroticism.
But just in case previous fans should think that he has gone all mushy there is plenty of the ironic, sparky Paterson here, too. In A Talking Book he swipes at more or less his whole constituency of potential readers "those kabbalists and chrsometronomes/who drag each sentence through their fine-toothed combs," and "those undecided shades in Waterstones" even bitingly "those holders, old and new/of the critic's one-day travel-pass". He drops in illusions to Barthes and literary theory laconically along the way, just so we know that he knows what's what, adding "the charge of being clever, coy or cute/I will not even bother to refute." This is a tough poem about forms of choice, both personal and creative. The poem ends with the gutsy pronouncement that:
Like the poet William Carlos Williams for whom there were no ideas but in things, Paterson suggests something of the same. His poems are generally not much concerned with self-revelation, "Here is the secret long vouchsafed/to the brotherhood of things and things alone." Life, he seems to suggest, is a series of new encounters, new sensations, even simple things such as sliding on the ice in the lovely short poem Sliding on Loch Ogil.
Scattered throughout the book are some wonderful versions of Rilke, Dante and Cavafy. Paterson is never afraid to stretch himself technically either with his rhyme schemes or with the visual shape and form of a poem such as The Box. His poetry became known for being clever, hard, hip and gutsy. But now, it seems, he has added a whole new dimension that lifts his writing from the realms of mere technical adroitness and wit into those of a fierce compassion and empathy.