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A Poet's View
on 4 January 2011
For those unfamiliar with Shakespeare's sonnets, this is an easy-to-read, common-sensible introduction - a great place to start; but remember it is a personal view. If you are familiar with the text and with the usual lit. crit., you will find this idiosyncratic, fresh, and readable as a novel.
After he has said of Vendler's 'The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets', `Her book is a supreme example of the kind of book there should be more of', he adds, `I'm having my copy rubberised so I can catch it again after I've thrown it at the wall.' I feel exactly the same way about his book: there ought to be more like it and sometimes I want to throw it at the wall. If you love Shakespeare, this is a book to which you will not be indifferent.
I did not buy this book earlier because it was criticised for missing objectives that, I now know, Paterson did not have. Did the critics read the Introduction? There, Paterson sets out clearly his purpose. He distinguishes between `secondary reading' (more or less, serious literary criticism) and `primary reading' (more or less, responding directly to what a poem says). He gives as his aim, `to show [the sonnets] as poems still capable of inviting and rewarding the kind of primary reading I've described, and this is what this book sets out to do.' And his book does that superbly.
Paterson's great strength is in being a poet himself and saying, with some authority, things outside the normal range of critical comment, things like `[so-and-so] rather takes it all at face value - as do most other commentators, forgetting that poets often just tell folk what they think they want to hear, themselves included.' It's about time somebody said things like that. And he says many things like that in the book.
No faults? For me, only two irritations. Except for the famous and crucial ones, I do not remember the sonnets by their numbers and I would have liked an index of first lines. And an index to the commentary would be useful so that you can find the interesting bits, like `where did Paterson discuss rime riche?' He discusses a lot of interesting things in the commentary but finding them is hell. Perhaps he omitted indexes to keep away from even a semblance of heavy lit. crit.
This is a book where you can hear the writer's voice come through, and he's talking sense.