The First Lifesaving Poem: Alasdair Paterson’s ‘Fishermen’


Photo: Rob Starling

‘Fishermen’, by Alasdair Paterson, is one of my Lifesaving Poems.

I first read it as a new teacher, in Roger McGough’s Strictly Private anthology.

I love its patient and very filmic presentation of detail. Everything seems to have just the right weight. The tone is perfect, quiet yet oddly unsettling.  Even more, I love that nothing in the poem is explained. We never find out what goes on in the ‘quiet basements’; we never actually see the ‘strange ceremonies’. And it seems every time I read it that the main action really is going on somewhere else, visible only to those ‘umimpressed’ fishermen.

It seems to me a miracle of restrained writing that is paradoxically very powerful. It entered my life at a time when I wanted to show poems to children that were full of accurately presneted details which carried emotion in a direct and mysterious way. It is twently-plus years since I first encountered it, but its beauty and mystery have not dwindled for a second.


the fishermen are patient
their lines settle in clear water
their wide-brimmed hats
will keep off

on the boulevards meantime
carriages come and go
they carry
doctors to quiet basements
and children to circuses
music masters to doleful violins
and lovers to strange ceremonies
of whalebone and gardenias


the fishermen are unimpressed


over clear water
where the rod’s end dances
the world is almost
under control


and everything that matters
is just
about to happen



Alasdair Paterson, from Strictly Private, ed. Roger McGough (Puffin, 1985)


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