‘Slap us awake to the world’: Don Paterson and Nick Laird introduce ‘The Zoo of the New’

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EVENT: Don Paterson and Nick Laird will be at the Bookshop on Monday 27 March to discuss their new poetry anthology The Zoo of the New. Below, in an excerpt from the introduction to the anthology, they explain a little of the philosophy behind their selections.

While many animals roam its pages, this isn’t a collection of animal poems; and it isn’t, either, an anthology of poetry which is ‘new’ in the sense of having been composed and published recently. It’s just a book of things we love, which we thought you might love, too. Its ‘zoo-ness’ consists in the variety and strangeness of the poems, and its newness in the apparently inexhaustible ability of those poems to surprise, delight or shock us, no matter how many times we read them. Ezra Pound’s declaration that ‘literature is news that stays news’ seems, appropriately, never to get old, and of all literature it may well fit poetry best. A good poem is a record of the poet’s real-time excitement as they composed it – and just by reading it aloud, we can awaken that same shiver, ache or visceral thrill in ourselves. When this happens across many decades or centuries, we experience the little transmigration of souls that is perhaps the most distinctly magical thing a poem can accomplish.

The title comes from Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Child’, included here, which opens: ‘Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing’. A poet is always on the hunt for the next poem – not just one they might write, but one they might read, fall for, make their own, and even learn by heart. The poems in this anthology are taken from our own commonplace books, from the files and folders we’ve filled over decades with poems from any and every time and place. The price of entry here is simply that the poem had to feel exceptional to us in some way, alive enough to have been written this morning. It had to possess that ‘clear eye’, and we had to feel that the stir of its conception has been matched by its embodiment in language. And, no less crucially, it had to slap us awake to our world by means of its alertness to its own. The poems were mainly written in English, although we’ve kept certain translations which mean a lot to us, and seem to us to have taken on their own lives as poems in this language.

We both believe that what initially seems a poem’s ‘subject matter’ will often prove merely a pretext to write about something else – often something so elusive that the poem itself is its only record. While many poems here address the Eliotic brass tacks of birth, copulation and death, there are also poems about friendship, war, animals, religion, science, metaphysics, joy, envy, rage, grief, snails, pebbles and microscopes. We haven’t shied away from including both the momentous and the momentary, the deadly serious and the seriously funny, poems caught in the clear shallows and in the murky depths, poems by the famous and by the not-so-famous, poems already widely anthologized and poems completely unknown. What unites them is their power to offer some relocation in the sense of things, some moment of recognition or surprise.

For more on ‘The Zoo of the New’, join Nick Laird and Don Paterson at the Bookshop on Monday 27 March. Book tickets here.

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