Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Friday 2 April 2010

"Landing Light" by Don Paterson (Faber, 2003)

The entries on these pages are usually more notes than reviews, emphasising Forms and other measurable features at the expense of overview. With this book I'll practise giving a more extended coverage. It'll be messy at first but I'll tidy up later.

Let's start with the title - well, it's been used before (I used it before his book came out). It can be read domestically as "the light on the landing", aeronautically ("Landing lights are lights used on aircraft to illuminate the terrain and runway ahead during takeoff and landing" - Wikipedia), or more abstractly, suggesting a return to "land" with little (spiritual) "baggage". Several poems deal with landing or light or flights of fancy. It's an apt title.

The cover's black with Paterson's name in grey and the title in white. Again, a good choice. Inside, variety is evident - shape poems; 5-liners, 7-pagers, translations, narrow poems, prose-poems, 3 poems in Scots, and poems in various rhymed forms. He's written a book of aphorisms too. All that makes me feel that he has no need to write poems that are really just jokes or aphorisms wrapped up, or poems with gratuitous line-breaks (that said, I don't know why "'96" should take 12 lines - other than so that we can feel the width). Style and subject matter vary too, though themes emerge, as do leit-motifs - e.g. things tend to come in 12s, perhaps allusions to months or disciples, or a fairy-tale convention, or perhaps a combination of "1" and "2" - twins are a theme.

Some poems made me conscious of the Poem-Reader-Poet triangle; at their conclusion it's as if a storyteller closes their book and talks to the audience directly.

  • "I post this more in testament/ than hope or warning" (St Brides: Sea-Mail)
  • "It gives me no joy/ to tell you this" (A Fraud)
  • "Now change your life" (Archaic Torso of Apollo)

Storytelling's another theme - not only do deathbed patients have stories to tell, but so do inanimate objects - possessed by spirits in fairy tales, or containing electronic records

Also Nature and Artifice are compared, most clearly perhaps in "St Brides: Sea-Mail" where birds are killed, dried out and made into gliders. The verses are shaped like flying saucers (or eggs?), though the indentation's function might merely be to highlight the abcdcba rhyme pattern. And where there's "Nature vs Artifice", "Feeling vs Form" isn't far away, or "Constraint vs Creativity". How does he balance these binaries? The first poem says that

   When the day comes, as the day surely must
   when it is asked of you and you refuse
   to take that lover's wound again

(a lyrical, welcoming start) you should to go to Luing - "Kilda's antithesis". St Kilda is a World Heritage Centre populated by seasonal volunteers, a military base and lots of birds. In contrast, Luing has evening classes in Tai Chi, Sewing and Patchwork, etc. It's an island, but only a partial retreat. There, you go

   to find yourself, if anything, now deeper
   in her arms than ever - sharing her breath,
   watching the red vans sliding silently
   between her hills

Nature may help, but so might red vans that become symbolic as soon as they're mentioned. The poem has 4-line stanzas and decasyllabled lines, but there's no rhyme or insistant meter. Then "One morning/ you hover on the threshold, knowing for certain/ the first touch of the light will finish you", and will finish the poem too.

I liked the similar balancing acts of "A Gift" (Early Muldoon?) and "The Wreck". The latter could have been disappointingly crass (relationship = shipwreck), but it works because the loosely rhymed couplets don't use the symbol too mechanically; they riff off it

  • "We slung the drunk boat out of port// and watched our unreal sober life/ unmoor, a continent of grief"
  • "gently hooked each other on/ like aqualungs, and thundered down// to mine one lovely secret wreck"

I like the respectful distance he maintains between the persona and the world, or the persona and words. Those distances are negotiable; he can zoom in until the distance is zero and the world and word are one, then pull back and analyse his catch. Perhaps that's why he's drawn to the longer poem - he needs room to manoeuvre, flip-flopping tenor and vehicle. Most of the longer poems couldn't be mistaken for poem sequences. I had trouble with "The Hunt", "A Fraud", "The Bandaged Shoulder", and "The Long Story". Perhaps I'm not used to the pacing, but they seem to go on a bit, small-scale word substitutions performed on plain prose in an attempt to elevate it.

   After your ninemonth in utero rehab
   you'll hit the ground running as usual, and make
   the worst of all possible starts:
   penetrating a woman - your mum, of all folk -
   with completely unreasonable force

(p.53). Though most of them have 5-beat lines, not all the longer poems have the same style. Here's a more obscure example

   Remember how it sent
   poor Louis marching underground, when all
   he needed for those ticking stalactites
   was a box of thumbtacks, gently shaken out
   in a BBC firebucket, the result
   then filtered through the educated drainpipe
   of The Great British Spring. Now that immortal coil
   has gone the way of all its noble forebears
   (from the Watkins Copycat and metal plate
   to standing very far away and shouting)

(p.72). If the Scots poems have notes why not this one too? Though I described this as obscure, the grammar is intact and it's not fractured or polyphonic. Some of the semantic challenges look as if they could be solved with Google/Bing, though "Fermier" (mentioned in "The Alexandrian Library") still puzzles me.

Several reviews are online - from the USA and India as well as the UK. Here are some extracts that caught my eye, along with my reactions


  • "an unsettled collection, sequentially awkward ... and even technically rough-and-ready at times" ... "the reader might feel that ... there is actually more propulsion in these poems than there is aeroplane" ... "a book which only raises expectations for the next collection" (Richard Price)
  • "while I cannot agree with the effusive mainstream encomia that his work regularly attracts, Paterson is - I have to admit - a talented poet. His range, control, diction and sound all make me wish he wasn't quite so hidebound by the current British mainstream's preferred style" (Tony Frazer, Shearsman)
  • "Other poems defeat me - I end up feeling that their mysteries lie just beneath the surface, lacking only one small fact to make them plain" ... "Whenever he tries to be entertaining, Paterson becomes gauche and uncertain ... and his long-winded long poems tend to beetle off into a fabulistic realm from which there is no return." (William Logan, New Criterion) I didn't have the sense of withheld information. I thought the long poems were prolix and that sometimes there was the kind of chattering that's symptomatic of nervousness.
  • "the three poems in Scots (despite the well-meaning glossary) left me cold" (Tibor Fischer, Daily Telegraph) They're the last poems I read


  • "Dante is the guiding spirit throughout Landing Light" ... "this book ... is best at desolation" (Bernard O'Donoghue, Independent) I didn't notice much desolation. There are references to Dante, but no guide or muse or middle-age crisis. Paterson's formalism and mix of subject matter echo Dante's, I suppose, but Dante had more politics, or at least more satire. The translation of Dante into rhyme quatrains (not even sharing rhymes between stanzas) isn't a popular decision
  • "Paterson works within fairly tight formal constraints" (Adam Newey, Guardian)
  • "Paterson often steers his poems toward small epiphanies, approached with wary patience" ... "he rarely suffers from Muldoonitis" (William Logan, New Criterion)
  • "To enter the labyrinth of Paterson's poetry is to submit to a constant idea of rebirth and renewal, to succumb to the lavish ballet between dark and light, to hunt the musical corridors for the note that will take you back to a beginning. It is to come in from exile in search of the safe place you have been seeking, only to find it doesn't exist." (Tishani Doshi, Hindu Times) Birth, dark/light, (along with Dante and twins) are indeed themes, but I didn't notice any disappointed exiles, spiritual or otherwise


  • "Landing Light is a magisterial work, well deserving the prizes it has won and the attention of anyone who admires well-crafted poetry" (Howard Miller, Avatar Review)
  • "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" (Sue Hubbard) I've not followed him closely, but I can believe this. I think it's more a change of proportions than a new ingredient
  • "there's so much he does with ease and flair, it's interesting to note the little he can't do." ... "Paterson has been the best thing to happen to British poetry since Glyn Maxwell and Michael Hofmann" (William Logan, New Criterion) Hofmann's often in "Poetry" so from a US critic this is praise indeed.

In conclusion, I think this book is well worth reading - interesting even if you don't like it. Paterson has said in the past that too much poetry was being published each year in Britain. Thirty books were too many, he said. I don't know how seriously he meant this. He's also said

  • "We read according to an undeclared handicap system, to the specific needs of the author. We meet the novelists a little way, the poets at least halfway, the translated poets three-quarters of the way; the Postmoderns we pick up at the station in their wheelchairs."
  • "To my mind [workshops] represent the infantilisation of a perfectly serious subject and are mostly a waste of time"

This book might well qualify to be amongst the year's survivors. Readers won't often need to bring a wheelchair. Nor will they waste their time.


  1. I do enjoy Don Paterson's books on the whole although sometimes it feels like he is trying that bit too hard and I like it better when he doesn't and his poetry feels natural and effortless. I do feel saddened by his attitude though - poetry, as with prose comes in many guises and there needs to be a variety to suit a variety of tastes. It's a bit like saying only 50 novels should be published a year and they have to be need the others for the stars to shine through and as stepping stones to the literary heights. As for his opinions on workshops and courses - a lot of people would not have the time or money to write without that income and I for one started my proper writing journey by doing a workshop, then a degree then an MA - often taking that first step is the key...

  2. In the Guardian last weekend he wrote "any middle-aged editor who doesn't talk to poets in their 20s about the contemporaries they're reading is in danger of publishing only young poets who sound like the now-middle-aged ones they grew up with" - so at least he's happy to note the opinions and attitudes of others when selecting the 30 survivors.

    I liked "Landing Light" more than "Rain".