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

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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.


Fishermen

 

the fishermen are patient

their lines settle in clear water

their wide-brimmed hats

will keep off

everything

 

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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