It’s fair to say that Don Paterson is a modern master of the sonnet; he’s experimented with them in his previous works (especially in ‘Landing Light’) and even written two books on the subject.
In 40 Sonnets, Paterson continues to use the Petrarchan and Shakespearean forms of the sonnet masterfully but also continues his evolution, and in some of these poems, revolution of the form. As he wrote himself, the sonnet is ‘one of the most characteristic shapes human thought can take’.
The poems range from the philosophical ‘The Air’ to the sardonic and sarcastic ‘To Dundee City Council’ in which he lashes out at local council policy and bureacracy. There is also a heavy tenderness, particularly in the poem ‘Mercies’ in which he details the putting down of his pet dog. (That sounds like a dreadful idea for a poem, but somehow Paterson avoids it becoming sentimental and glib.)
Then we get to the odd sonnets in this collection. The experimental ‘Shutter’ keeps to the sonnet’s 14 lines but each line only contains a word or two, a phrase, allowing the reader to mentally fill in the gaps. ‘Incantation’ is a very modern sonnet about a stunted, circular conversation with a cold caller. The most difficult poem to read in this collection is ‘Séance‘, with it’s unreadable ‘unwords’ that are spat across the sonnet. Finally, ‘The Version’ is a prose poem that begs the question – what the hell is a sonnet if this is one too?