Don Paterson's first Selected Poems seems a long time coming. Simon Armitage published his first book only four years before Paterson's first, yet published his Selected Poems with Faber over a decade ago. You could make a case that Armitage is more prolific, and that would carry some weight. You could make another case saying Paterson is better, and that might carry more. Most other British poets are the warm-up. Paterson is the main event.
He'd probably swing for me for saying this, but it's hard not to feel an almost paternal pride at seeing a writer whose work you've followed since his first book do as well as Paterson has. Not to belittle either the awards or the big names that have tuned in to him since, but it's the feeling of the deserving getting its due that sticks best.
I should own up to a fudge here: that line in the subject heading, and the poem it's taken from, isn't included in this volume. But, as with a greatest hits album, that's one of the incidental pleasures of a Selected Poems: guessing which ones will make the cut, which won't, and seeing the final result. I'm happy to note only three I'd expected to see aren't included ('Graffito' and 'Seed' from Nil Nil, 'Prologue' from God's Gift to Women); and happier still to note the 'Alexandrian Library' series has been left out.
What's been left in tells an interesting, between-the-lines story. The bite and brashness of the early work is wholly intact, vivid and alive in 'Filter', the closing stanza of 'Nil Nil', and my enduring favourite 'An Elliptical Stylus', which sets up the tale, breaks the fourth wall in the middle, and closes with a fist shaken at the audience:
'But if you still insist on resonance -
I'd swing for him, and every other ****
happy to let my father know his station,
which probably includes yourself. To be blunt.'
Most great writers are two people, if not more: their art grows out of the splits in their personalities. The man that 'tilted the bottle towards the sun / until it detonated with light / my lips pursed like a trumpeter's' is also the man that urges you (twice) that none of this matters. Among other things, it's that split between Paterson's erudition and urge to demolish that charges the poems.
The oeuvre, too. Not that the early work lacked tenderness, but the further you go, the more you see it flower in the poems, trusted to stand on its own without getting either too misty-eyed or too wised-up, especially in 'Advice to Young Husbands', 'A Private Bottling', 'Waking with Russell', 'The Swing', 'Why Do You Stay Up So Late' and 'Correctives':
'The shudder in my son's left hand
he cures with one touch from his right,
two fingertips laid feather-light
to still his pen. He understands
the whole man must be his own brother
for no man is himself alone;
though some of us have never known
the one hand's kindness to the other.'
Keeping it all in balance, somewhere in the middle, is Paterson's sense of fun. The playfulness isn't all surface, as with the typography (as in the ones taken from The Eyes, such as 'Sigh' and 'Poem', the latter a swift, perfect little fusion of content and style); the subject ('Two Trees') and including a poem in name only and probably the shortest one in the language ('On Going to Meet a Zen Master in the Kyushu Mountains and Not Finding Him').
As a volume, this has been long overdue: tender and angry, melancholy and witty, vigorous, I doubt a better Selected Poems will be published this year.