Now if I'm really honest there's nothing I like more than a bit of handbags at dawn among the literary cognoscente, and I have discovered the best vantage point for observing a rather quaint and comely exchange of this nature is on the letters page of the Times Literary Supplement.
I now 'take' (wrong word... 'pay for') the TLS and it plops into the postbox every other week, and my first port of call is the arena of gentle, gladiatorial combat which is the Letters to the Editor page. I like to see whose blood will be quietly spilt this week... who has come back, feathers ruffled with a robust riposte to a challenging review of their book, who has picked up one misplaced word in the second sentence of the third paragraph and is writing from Kyrgyzstan to point out the error, but best of all.. whose letter embraces the tree. This is the 'star' letter, the central motif on the page, the one that would win a nice Mont Blanc pen anywhere else, but this being the TLS it's the glory that matters. But the central letter usually carries the biggest handbag-iest clout and it is nicely wrapped around a picture of a tree bearing letters dropping from the branches instead of leaves... and I suspect we are all meant to feel equally 'shaken.'
So a few weeks ago a book arrived from Faber, Reading Shakespeare's Sonnets - A New Commentary by Don Paterson, and though it is no secret that I love Faber books and I met poetry editor Matthew Hollis recently, you'll have to trust me whan I say that is of little relevance here.
Because you see, Don Paterson and I go back a long way and are good friends, except he doesn't know this, but we 'met' (he doesn't know this either) at an Open University A319 Modern Literature Summer School at York University back in 2000. In which case this is also the Summer School that I truanted and ran away back home because of a very obnoxious group tutor... also a poet but of the minor variety. It's a long story best left untold but suffice to say that in my haste to escape, and fearing recapture, I parted with a mortgage payment in return for a ticket but then caught the wrong train and ended up in Weston-Super-Mare at 11pm, a hundred miles from home and Bookhound had to drive up and fetch me.
But before this hasty departure (and my complaint 'tutor not of merchantable quality' was upheld on appeal to the OU with a refund of the summer school fees) I went to a reading and discussion about their poetry with Matthew Sweet and Don Paterson. Truth was I loved the pair of them and that session remains a redeeming feature of the whole debacle so I bought their books and Don signed my copy of The Eyes
To Lynne, With love and best wishes, Don, York 00
...so you can see how that makes us good friends and when Reading Shakespeare's Sonnets arrived I thought 'Oh lovely, a book by my old mate Don', so I settled down to explore it and quickly bonded with the whole premise.
It felt like a bit of a restoration as I read Don's introduction, because any book that prises Shakespeare or any other author from the slender, gracefully inked fingers of the academics and returns him into the grubby mitts of the masses will always appeal to me, and Don Paterson's reasoning in his introduction confirmed his purpose here,
Poetry demands of us a personal response. The problem with a poem like the Sonnets is that most available criticism is necessarily impersonal in nature - otherwise it wouldn't count as scholarship.
And instantly I could see the appeal of a book that it was suggested might
'...involve you violently disagreeing with the reading of this reader .'
I was going to be allowed to 'enter into the picture', to argue and think around the Sonnets with Don and not assume I was being given an incontrovertible gospel account of meaning. Don was about to walk his own literary plank and impart the opinions and thoughts elicited by that all important first reading of a poem, the one that under normal circumstances he might be a little too guarded to share for fear that others would disagree with him and, by his own admission, he hates being wrong as much as the rest of us.
Brave nay plucky writing I thought from my old mate Don, but I would expect no less because I always think of him as one of our courageous poets-of-the-people. Here's a book that gives me permission to jump in with both feet and make my own interpretations, even if they are mistaken, but with no fear of feeling stupid (because by his own admission Don's gone there first) or that I am treading on hallowed ground where I don't belong. So heeding Don's advice that the Sonnets are 'next-to-impossible' to read in one sitting, I earmarked the book as one to keep alongside, one to dip into and read and enjoy a Sonnet every so often through the next year. The fact that my next OU course after A319 Modern Literature was A306 Shakespeare in Text and Performance is irrelevant, it was academic and objective and I have my annotated Katherine Duncan Jones's Arden Sonnets edition to prove it. In complete contrast Reading Shakespeare's Sonnets is about subjective enjoyment.
But where are the handbags you may ask? I definitely promised you literary handbags at dawn.
Well the next thing I read was a rather scathing and entirely dismissive if not derogatory review of the book in the TLS (Jan 14 2011 Canon Fodder) by Alastair Fowler, who may or may not still be, but was in 2007, Regius Professor Emeritus of Rhetoric and English Literature at the University of Edinburgh, whilst Don teaches at nearby St Andrews.
Do I sense campus handbags?
I actually wanted to wail because the venerable man has sadly fallen right into the trap, he shouldn't have touched this one with a pikestaff and in fact if I'm honest I wanted to shout out loud... '
'Oi, leave it out, this book's for us, it's not for you.'
Those of us who don't have that level of expertise can have a mess around with something we might like to get to know better, the academics have got plenty of books of their own after all, and what better way than via Don's challenging view of received opinion and his accessible use of language. There is plenty of friendly vernacular and banter here that I actually think the Bard himself would have appreciated, making the book feel refreshing and different, and it's in my grubby mitts for the forseeable future plus I've written all over my copy already.
This is not academia and it makes not a single pretension to be, so fancy giving it to a Prof to review... it's a springboard for some deeper thinking for ordinary readers, and to review in any other light, whilst suggesting that fault lies in leaving 'less than half the book for serious criticism', is plain daft. It was obvious Alistair Fowler would have to shred it in the light of his expertise and perhaps feel the need to defend eminent Shakesperian colleagues in the process; the ones who Don respectfully dissects as he dives into each Sonnet in his quest for relevance and meaning. So in a way I sense the Prof has been had by the TLS who I hope paid double the fee for his trouble, or at least sent him a nice Mont Blanc fountain pen or something by way of recompense.
But excuse me a moment while I go and find my best Mulberry and join in the handbagging, because it came two weeks later with a wrapped-around-the-tree letter in the TLS from Don Paterson and I heaved a sigh of relief. A robust defence of his book and the right of the individual to experience and voice a personal response to a poem without the weight of literary criticism bearing down on them, the opening gambit thus...
If Alistair Fowler had taken the trouble to read my book on Shakespeare's Sonnets in the context in which it was presented, he may have found it a less distressing experience...
and an argument that worked its way methodically towards a checkmate that had me feeling very sorry for the Prof whilst cheering ' Hip hip hooray it's ours again' on behalf of the rest of us.
And if poor Prof. Fowler had read the small print he would have known that none of this is Don's fault anyway because he cleverly says as much in his acknowledgements...
'Finally I would like to thank my partner Nora Chassler, who did her best to excise the larger stupidities; those that remain are her fault alone.'