Born in Dundee in 1963, Don Paterson left school to pursue a career in music, living in London and Brighton. His first book Nil Nil was published to acclaim in 1993, and in the same year he returned to Scotland as Writer in Residence at the University of Dundee. He was included on the list of 20 poets chosen for the Poetry Society’s ‘New Generation Poets’ promotion in 1994, and in 1997 he became poetry editor at Picador Macmillan, a position he still holds. An accomplished jazz guitarist, he has worked solo and with the jazz-folk ensemble, Lammas. He currently teaches in the School of English, University of St Andrews, and continues also to work as a musician, editor and writer.
He has also written drama for both radio and stage, including The Land of Cakes and A’body’s Aberdee, both produced at Dundee Repertory Theatre. His other work includes The Eyes, versions of Antonio Machado; Orpheus: a version of Rilke, from Die Sonette an Orpheus; and two books of aphorisms, The Book of Shadows and The Blind Eye. He has edited several anthologies, including an edition of Burns’ poems, 101 Sonnets: From Shakespeare to Heaney, and New British Poetry (with Charles Simic) for the US press Greywolf (which has also published US editions of his poems and aphorisms). Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets: a new commentary was published in 2010.
He has won many awards for his poetry, including an Eric Gregory Award in 1990; the Forward Poetry Prize for Best First Collection for Nil Nil; the 1993 Arvon Foundation International Poetry Competition for ‘A Private Bottling’; the T. S. Eliot Prize and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize for God’s Gift to Women; both the T. S. Eliot Prize and the Whitbread Poetry Award for Landing Light (he is the only poet to have won the T.S. Eliot Prize twice); and the Forward Poetry Prize for Best Poetry Collection of the Year for Rain. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a Fellow of the English Association, he received an OBE in 2008 and the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 2010.
Paterson’s work is notable for its traditional formal and technical elements, specifically an adherence to rhyme and regular metre. But this use of conventional form, which in other poets tends to move towards resolution or closure, acts rather as a counterpoint to unsettling subject-matter, ambivalent narrative personae, black humour and a scouring of illusions. In The Edinburgh Companion to Contemporary Scottish Poetry, Alan Gillis has written of the poem ‘Nil Nil’ (which, at its most superficial level, narrates the decline of a football club): ‘although logically regressive, the poem’s intuitive effect is expansive; its swoop propelled through a broadly dactylic rhythm… creates a paradoxical momentum.’ As the team spirals downwards through the leagues, the poem, in its rhythms – and also in its sensitivity to specifics – creates a sense of opening out, discovery and lightness. This might stand for much of Paterson’s work: while its subject-matter is downbeat, about error, failure and impotence (with as much self-deprecation as deprecation of others), formally its trajectory is controlled, dynamic and achieved.
In Nil Nil Paterson also announced his fondness for the sonnet form; these are scattered through his collections to date. In the ‘Afterword’ to Orpheus he comments on the form’s offering, in its 14 lines split 8/6, a poetic equivalent of the Golden Ratio. As well as these versions of Rilke, he has also written about Shakespeare’s sonnets, and the one striking gap in his own poetry is an original sonnet sequence. This is perhaps explained by the enjoyably rambling quality (in narrative, rather than formal, terms) of his longer poems, a quality which might be constrained by the repetitive stop-starts the sonnet sequence necessitates. Some of his finest work is to be found in three (disparate) poems entitled ‘The Alexandrian Library’ spread over Nil Nil, God’s Gift to Women and Landing Light, while in Rain’s ‘Song to Natalie ‘Tusja’ Beridze’, he clearly relishes the freedom to deploy lines of varying extent (some extremely long), timing his sometimes outlandish rhymes for maximum effect.
Paterson’s ‘versions’ – notably The Eyes, and Orpheus, after Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus – recur through all his collections: most recently, Rain includes poems ‘after’ Li Po, Quasimodo, Machado, Desnos, Cavafy and Vallejo. (These are all dead poets – Paterson’s conversations with the living tend to be less respectful and more argumentative.) In the ‘Afterword’ to Orpheus, Paterson writes: ‘Versioning allows a poet to disown their own voice and try on another… When the poet returns to reclaim their old voice, it either no longer quite fits, or has altered, having apparently kept some strange company in the meantime.’ As well as trying on such ‘real’ voices as those above, Paterson has invented others, such as the fictional French thinker François Aussemain, whose musings provide epigraphs for each part of ‘The Alexandrian Library’, and the invented Nordic poet Jørn-Erik Berglund, purported to have written the original of ‘Sunset, Visingsö’ (Paterson felt the only way to write an unironic poem on such a done-to-death subject was to present it as a ‘version’). In a similar way – as an escape route from the conventional and obvious – there are poems in Scots scattered through the books, sometimes a realistic imitation of spoken (Dundonian) Scots (‘Postmodern’), and at other times using a more literary form (‘Twinflooer’).
Paterson’s first two books – Nil Nil and God’s Gift to Women – are full of “demonstrable knowledge and technical expertise” (Lilias Fraser, in Alba Literaria, 2005) as well as a hard-line scepticism about intimate, especially sexual, relationships. Fears and failures are dissected with insight and often comic detail. These were followed by The Eyes – Paterson’s ‘versions’ of the Spanish poet Antonio Machado – which demonstrates an increasingly relaxed lyricism. The emotional palette is extended further in Landing Light with poems of heartfelt feeling dedicated to his new-born twin sons, and a poem dedicated to friends about to be married; the theme of appreciation is continued in Rain in ‘Phantom’, an extraordinary elegy for Paterson’s friend and fellow poet Michael Donaghy, who died suddenly in 2004.
As Ben Wilkinson summed up in the British Council’s Writers Directory: ‘a sharp, witty and distinctive poetic voice, Paterson’s formal dexterity and dedication to poetic tradition are combined with contemporary postmodernist elements, producing poems of cutting-edge relevance, but also of intense, MacNeiceian lyrical beauty.’