There is a poem in Don Paterson’s latest collection, The Arctic, which goes some way towards explaining just why he is one of our finest poets. Like the two poems he reads in his Scotsman Sessions film, “Repertoire” is a tribute to his father, a professional musician and co-founder of the Dundee Folk Club, who died of dementia three years ago. The poem looks at his final gigs, when the “garbled switchboard in his brain” left him only able to play a couple of tunes. The temptation to turn up the pathos dial for its last two lines would, to many poets, have been hard to resist.
Not to Paterson. His father’s singing was rare, Michael Marra once told him, because it was “straightforwardly honest” and the same could be said for his guitar playing (the subject of “On Sounding Good”, his son’s second poem in our film). So when it came to writing the end for “Repertoire”, Paterson scrapped any hint of pathos and simply gave the titles of the last two songs that lingered longest in his father’s brain.
“That was about truth versus guff,” he says, “about not trying to manipulate people into feeling something. Any time you play music – and I think this teaches a lesson in how to write – if you feel things too strongly, you are denying the feelings of your reader or listener. It’s about honouring the tune. If you over-invest feeling in your playing, it has the opposite effect on the listener to what you’d expect.”
Now listen to “Snaba”, the first poem in Paterson’s film. It is all about love and loss, but is hardly manipulative. Just the opposite: only now does the poet work out the meaning of the pet name his father had for him as a child, only now do we see the depth of the love invested in that one word, and realise that this was what his father felt at the very moment when his teenage son appeared to be losing his mind. The poem’s honesty and restraint is precisely what makes it so powerful.
Last month Paterson stepped down as professor of poetry at St Andrews University; he hopes to spend the extra time this frees up playing music and writing a “geeky” book on jazz guitar theory. His long-awaited memoir Toy Fights is out later this month and is about, in his own words, “schizophrenia, hell, money, narcissists, debt and the working class, anger, swearing, drugs, books, football, love, origami, sugar, religious mania and the sexual excesses of the Scottish club band scene”. All of this is actually true. You’ll be lucky if you find a more thought-provoking, hilarious, sardonic and scarily brilliant self-portrait this year.
Toy Fights: A Boyhood by Don Paterson is published by Faber & Faber on 19 January, price £16.99. There will be a launch event at the Portobello Bookshop on 19 January (7pm) in which he will be in conversation with poet and academic Rosa Campbell. The Arctic was published last August (Faber, £14.99).