Lifesaving Poems: Don Paterson’s ‘Heliographer’


W.H. Auden once said that writers should always be honest, even about their prejudices. So here is my confession: when The New Generation Poets was launched in the 1990s, I was against it. Not the poets themselves, you understand, nor even their poems, but ‘The New Generation Poets’. I thought it had more to do with advertising, and with PR, than with poetry and poems. I thought: I don’t need to be told to like Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry. I knew I was right, because people quickly started referring to it by shorthand: the New Gen. I felt the project was hectoring somehow, and a bit obvious.

There was one tiny flaw with trying to hold this point of view: I very much liked the work of the poets concerned.

I can trace the falling away of these arguments to the exact moment that I first came across Don Paterson’s ‘Heliographer’. I had enjoyed watching Don reading his poems on the South Bank Show special about The New Gen. There was a segment of the programme I especially liked, which featured Don sitting in a pub basically talking bollocks with Bill Herbert. Of all the poets on the programme, they looked to be having the grandest of times. I did not tell anyone, but I admired this more than I can say.

None of this means anything of course, if the work itself does not hold up. Which ‘Heliographer’ triumphantly does. I am not telling you to like it; that would be pointless, given what I have just said.

I am still grateful to the poem. Just as the poem’s speaker experiences his own small-scale explosion, a little bit of my own prejudice was ‘detonated’ that day. It’s a lesson I am still learning.



I thought we were sitting in the sky.
My father decoded the world beneath:
our tenement, the rival football grounds,
the long bridges slung out across the river.
Then I gave myself a fright
with the lemonade bottle. Clunk –
the glass thread butting my teeth
as I bolted my mouth to the lip.

Naw…copy me. It’s how the grown-ups drink.
Propped in my shaky,
single-handed grip,
I tilted the bottle towards the sun
until it detonated with light,
my lips pursed like a trumpeter’s.

Don Paterson, from Nil Nil (Faber, 1993)

Lifesaving Poems

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