Don Paterson’s ‘Oh God’ moment

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The most immediate and forthright analysis of a poem I have seen at any poetry workshop occurred as I passed round copies of Alison Mosquera’s ‘Tamoxifen‘. I was working for the Poetry School at the time, on a series of sessions about health and the body. ‘Tamoxifen’ was one of the last poems we looked at.

On receiving the poem in her hand and before even reading it, one of the participants exclaimed: ‘Oh God!’

These critical incidents are always interesting to me. Partly the moment was a cultural one: by that stage of the course the group knew each other very well, so direct and biographical response to poems was increasingly becoming the norm.

Partly I was intrigued by the speed of the response, merely from seeing the poem’s title, before any analysis or discussion had taken place. It was clear that lived experience was coming into play, which is no surprise, and as it should be.

In a sense, nothing else needed saying. Everything else we might have wanted to say about it felt suddenly superfluous. As a statement of criticism borne of pain, it was immovable.

Hearing ‘Oh God!’ like that reminded me of its use in the closing of Don Paterson’s ‘Prologue‘, the opening poem of God’s Gift to Women (Faber, 1997).

Like so many poems I love, I heard it before I read it. If memory serves, Paterson read it straight-to-camera in the South Bank Show programme about the New Generation Poets. If memory also serves, he looked tremendously pissed off for the duration of the reading, as though he might at any moment stop to have a fight with the cameraman. This was never more true than at the poem’s great moment of risk and shift of gear, eight lines in: ‘Now: let us raise the fucking tone.

It is a neat and clever poem, and far, far more loveable than it first appears. For me this is down to the vulnerability of its final two syllables: ‘Oh God’, the Tamoxifen-response, if you will.

This is the poem-about-poetry as serious lack of fun, which is nevertheless both serious and funny. There is ‘no necking in the pew […] or rustling the wee poke of butterscotch// you’d brought to charm the sour edge off the sermon’. It is a kind of ‘hell’, where the roof leaks ‘and the organ lacks conviction’.

This uber-dour vision (‘sunless pit of rancour and alarm/ where language finds its least prestigious form’ -anyone?) finds open-ended solace in the two-word prayer at the end of the poem which is started but not completed. It is as though everything that the poem wants to be, and isn’t, and sets out to achieve, and hasn’t, is brought to a place of rest and potential forgiveness. Like taking a drug with harmful side effects which, paradoxically, makes you better, the speaker, having spoken, chooses silence, the most eloquent poem of all, and greater than what has gone before, hard going though it’s been.

4 comments

  1. thoughtshaper

    ‘sunless pit of rancour and alarm/ where language finds its least prestigious form’

    Tried! But got stuck on berry-bus just before it. Maybe I could understand if only I knew what a berry-bus was…

    But the ‘Oh god’
    I get that!

    Like

  2. Ben Wilkinson

    Ay up Anthony,

    Little late to the party, but here we are anyway… the “berry-bus in its approach” refers to the old buses in Perthshire that used to transport berry pickers to the raspberry fields thereabouts. https://www.flickr.com/photos/iainrobbie9/4524981449/ It’s significance in the context of the poem, though, is fairly lost on me too.

    As to “that sunless pit of rancour and alarm / where language finds its least prestigious form” – he’s referring to hymns and prayers. Here’s an aphorism from the ‘Book of Shadows’ that expresses a similar sentiment:

    “I finish an enormous book of prayers drawn from every major world religion (I refuse to believe there are any more of the damn things); good to have a prejudice confirmed: prayer really is the lowest form of literature. Desire and flattery and nowhere sung so nakedly.”

    my best,

    B

    Like

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