Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Ellie's Review

Best Thought, Worst Thought
By Don Paterson
Graywolf Press
Ellison Hitt

Scottish poet Don Paterson, winner of the 2003 Whitbread Poetry award and the T.S. Eliot Prize impresses audiences once again with his most recent book, Best Thought, Worst Thought. This interesting and profound addition to Paterson’s prolific written works provides an entertaining and engaging way for a reader to go beyond the typical form of poetry. Paterson is already an established poet, dramatist, composer and musician, as well as being a professor of English at the University of St. Andrew. And while the creation of new poetry in Best Thought, Worst Thought is an important conception, the book has less of a focus on this creation and more on the importance of poetic ideals with the construction of aphorisms. For anyone unsure of what exactly an aphorism is, an aphorism is a short sentence or statement that concisely contains a subjective truth or observation of the world, quite often through the author’s own point of view. Aphorisms are usually poignant and quite clever in their reflections and considered to be a constricted form of the poetic genre. Paterson can already be considered to be somewhat of an established aphorist with the publication of his other books of aphorisms, The Book of Shadows (2004) and The Blind Eye (2007).
Though Paterson has produced this current book of aphorisms to reflect different parts of poetry, he goes beyond the general subject and explores it’s relation to four key ideas; art, sex, work and death. Paterson takes on this subject matter from his own viewpoint, weaving in personal experiences and memories to demonstrate the importance of specific moments in his life. The moments that he chooses however are often general enough to hold substance to individual readers (break-ups, friendships, work-related dilemmas, etc.). Paterson’s aphorisms may seem simplistic, but in actuality they go beyond the reader’s initial perceptions.
“Whenever we return with music from our dreams, it retains its beauty; the beautiful line of verse, through, oxidizes on its exposure to daylight, and turns to gibberish before our eye. No better proof that music pays its line far more deeply into the unconscious. Poetry is the music of consciousness.”

A basic reading may lead the audience to believe that the aphorism is simply an interesting statement about the beauty of music in our lives. Yet Paterson’s resounding ending, “Poetry is the music of consciousness” demonstrates the beauty of art in our lives and especially its importance and necessity to the genre of poetry. While Paterson explores ideas of beauty in connection to his four ideas, he also expresses opinions of irony and sarcasm in the book.
“Such is E.’s need to be loved, he experiences the casual indifference of a stranger and a snub from his closest friend as the same torment.”

Paterson demonstrates via the language of his aphorisms of the pettiness of the need to be loved that we can encounter in certain people. Through the aphorism Paterson demonstrates the pain that individuals may undergo with love, but mainly the irony he perceives when someone places such an emphasis on needless love. This aphorism also contains personal references which Paterson disperses throughout his aphorism, using only the abbreviated initial of his acquaintance’s name.
While Paterson focuses much of the book on the four key ideas of art, sex, work and death, he also treats some of his aphorisms as direct guidance to his audience. Quite often Paterson’s aphorisms appear to be written like they are part of an entry from his diary in which he reflects on happenings and occurrences in his life and offers up advice to his audience.
“Forty next year. Excellent; that’s broken the back of it. Officially, time will be short. I can stop pretending that I will ever read George Eliot, that one day every woman will love me, that I will find Mozart anything but a huge bore…”

The reflection on the significance of the loss of time in one’s life that Paterson discusses here is often repeated throughout his advice-aimed aphorisms. And while aphorisms like these may come across as condescending educating lecture, the statements seem to read more like a meditation than an instruction in which Paterson is simply cautioning his audience to be aware that life is short and time is precious.

Although the content of Paterson’s aphorisms possesses cerebral qualities, the form is much barer. The book is created in a simplistic manner. The aphorisms occasionally occur in paragraphs, but normally are two to three sentence statements. The promptness of the aphorism is beneficial to the audience because it allows for Paterson to get his point across in a direct manner. Paterson’s construction of the form also includes cleanly listing the different aphorisms on the page and separates them with the section sign (§).There is no specific order or segment that divides his four key ideas; rather Paterson chooses to combine different aphorisms from the groups. The reader jumps from an aphorism about a sexual encounter, to an aphorism about the loss of one of Paterson’s friends. The combination of Paterson’s minimalist form, as well as the scattered placement of his aphorisms reflects how life occurs. There are not just sections of life pertaining to art, sex, work and death; rather these events are interspersed throughout our lives.
Best Thought, Worst Thought may not be a conventional way of looking at poetry, but it is an entertaining and witty foray into a reflection of life. Paterson is able to capture his reader’s attention and use his words to make the aphorism new and pithy.


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  2. reading this review made me feel like it was opposite day and i'm not sure how i feel about that -- in other words while i disagree with many of the claims you make, they made me aware of the fact that contemporary poets/poetry readers DO make at least some assumptions. for instance, i assume most contemp. poetry people would be turned off by poetry that is "often general enough to hold substance to individual readers," as the whole universal art thing is often associated with words like "mainstream" and "billy collins" -- what is interesting about my criticism right now is that i'm not sure how much i like the fact that universality has to come to this.

    similarly, your description of Paterson's poetry as "guidance to his audience" is the opposite of what i expect out of a positive review -- i feel like most poet-y people today would say, "why would i want this paterson guy telling me what to do?" -- you recognize this potential reaction when you suggest "while aphorisms like these may come across as condescending educating lecture..." but do not necessarily resolve the problem by suggesting paterson's poems are more like "meditation" -- what does this mean and how might it make interesting the fact that paterson is taking on the role of didactic poet? in other words, it might well be interesting that didactic, universal poetry is being made, so long as it acknowledges itself as such -- is paterson's poetry self-aware?

    i am similarly interested by your assertion that "The promptness of the aphorism is beneficial to the audience because it allows for Paterson to get his point across in a direct manner" -- it seems like you're talking about some sort of business transaction here, which, again, is either frightening or really interesting. my suggestion is to consider how paterson is using the form of aphorism in the context of what other poets are up to/what other poets have done with aphorism in the past.

    another suggestion is to be careful with your language -- a lot of times your review sounds like it's trying to be a review, if that makes sense. for instance, "Don Paterson...impresses audiences once again" along with adjectives like "profound" "entertaining" "resounding" etc.

  3. This doesn't seem like your average book of what some would deem contemporary poetry. I'm particularly interested in the diary entry format and what I glean is some almost painfully self-aware work on Paterson's part. I feel as though I have a good handle on the book from reading your review--nice work capturing the book! There are just a couple of parts that confuse me a little or could maybe use a little tweaking.

    In the first sentence of the second paragraph you state: "Though Paterson has produced his current book of aphorisms to reflect different parts of poetry..."

    I think the word, "parts" might be a little vague. I'm not sure what exactly you mean here, though I think I can infer it. Maybe there is a more articulate word to use or a different way to word the sentence?

    Also, while I really appreciate that you explained aphorism (I had been getting the term mixed up with a different term, so really, I'm so glad I read that!) I would assume that the person reading the review would know what the term means. If not--send em lookin, I say. It kind of delays discussion of the specifics--what the book is about, etc.

    You seem aware that readers of your review might mistake some of Paterson's conventionalities for banality. You're already doing it, but I would continue to reiterate that his work isn't as run-of-the-mill as it seems at first glance as often as possible without being obnoxious.