Lifesaving Poems: Evangeline Paterson’s ‘Literary Portrait’

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I met Evangeline Paterson once, in the early Nineties, at a workshop in London. Rupert Loydell suggested I went as we were both going to be published by him.

In the event it was more of a talk than a workshop. Evangeline’s performance was a marvellous admixture of gossip, anecdote, and wisdom. She had an indomitable air, undercut by sudden vulnerability and charm.

The most memorable thing she said to us that day, prefaced by advice on the perils of poetry publishing in the small presses, was to ask us to pray for her writer’s block. I found it extraordinary that a figure with her kind of track record and reputation would even have such a thing, let alone admit to it. She said it off the cuff, quite unannounced, as we were beginning to reach for our coats.

This unlooked-for utterance had a profound impact on me, not least in the way that I listen to poets when they speak about their work. How many of us abjure the vulnerability so wonderfully modelled by Evangeline that morning, preferring instead the easy answer about our writing process?

I think that same wry intelligence is present in her poem ‘Literary Portrait’. It does not pull punches and settle for easy cynicism, even though its point is squarely made. It remains a lyric poem, not propaganda. In terms of form this is achieved in the reflective pauses at the end of each of its short lines. In terms of content, we are reminded again, in that stunning central stanza, of poetry as a ‘curious/drifting smoke’ and of the poet as one who ‘sings what he sees’.

The toughness and the transcendence of this were also present in Evangeline. I dare to say I miss her.

Literary Portrait

 

He can make fire

with his finger-ends

 

and into it go

letters he is sent

gifts he is given

people trees buildings

 

and in the curious

drifting smoke

he sings what he sees.

 

There is no one who sings

like him. Listen

 

but keep your distance.

He needs

a great deal of fuel.

 

Evangeline Paterson, from Lucifer at the Fair (Taxus, 1991)

Lifesaving Poems

 

4 comments

  1. angelatoppingAngela Topping

    Evangeline and I became friends, mostly by letter, because we were both published by Rupert. It’s good to see her remembered. She was ‘on kissing terms’ with Heaney, so I’ve thought about her a lot lately. We did meet once when she called at the house en route to elsewhere, and she gave me a notebook which was subsequently lost when my handbag was stolen. She was a marvellous poet.

    Like

    • Anthony Wilson

      Hi Angela
      I’m so pleased you saw this.
      I guessed she knew Heaney, though don’t remember if she mentioned him or not. She probably did.
      I’ve been rereading Lucifer at the Fair. It is marvellous, not like anything else.
      As ever with many thanks
      Anthony

      Liked by 1 person

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