National Poetry Month Poem-a-Week 2011: Don Paterson and “The Lie”

April 2, 2011

Each April, for the past 14 years, I’ve sent out a poem-a-week via email during National Poetry Month.  Now I’m happy to continue this tradition here on my poetry blog.  If you’d like to receive these poems by email, please write to me at greenskeptic [AT] gmail [DOT] com and I will add you to the list.

For more on National Poetry Month, visit: National Poetry Month

Don Paterson is a contemporary Scottish poet whose work I discovered only last year through my friends at the Scottish Poetry Library.  Upon finding Paterson’s work, I was hooked and devoured it, feeding a hunger I didn’t know I had.  His poetry is unlike any other and I am so grateful to have found it.

Born in Dundee in 1963, Paterson left school at sixteen to pursue a career in music and moved to London in 1984, where he also began writing poetry.  Paterson is an autodidact, which means, as A.E. Stallings has written, “he learned the old-fashioned way, by deep, long reading in the tradition.”

His first collection, Nil Nil, was published in 1993, which won the Forward Prize for the Best First Collection.  Next were God’s Gift to Women and Landing Light, which both received the T. S. Eliot Prize.  In the US, Graywolf Press introduced readers to Paterson’s work with The White Lie: New & Selected Poems. Rain was published by Faber in the UK (2009) and FSG in the US last year and garnered him another Forward Prize.

Paterson’s poetry has a musicality that is clearly informed by his musical pursuits, as rhythms and lyricism build in a layered, patterned fashion.  His use of interlocking rhyme is breathtakingly masterful, and his language moves from high to low, erudite to colloquial, contemporary to mannered, playful to painful, and from Scots to English.

One of the most powerful poems in Rain is “The Lie,” in which the speaker of the poem must “nurture” a suppressed and bound self-deception for fear it will escape and reveal itself.

The anonymous blogger, “An American in the Cotswolds,” has an interesting take on this poem, which stuck with her after hearing Paterson read it in London.  She “interpreted ‘The Lie’ as being about his own divorce. The boy to whom he tends so faithfully and yet from whom he has remained detached for ‘thirteen years or more’ is any one of the number of small lies in our relationships, lies that somehow culminate in that one big lie, that everything is just fine.”

“The Lie”

by Don Paterson


As was my custom, I’d risen a full hour

before the house had woken to make sure

that everything was in order with The Lie,

his drip changed and his shackles all secure.


I was by then so practiced in this chore

I’d counted maybe thirteen years or more

since last I’d felt the urge to meet his eye.

Such, I liked to think, was our rapport.


I was at full stretch to test some ligature

when I must have caught a ragged thread, and tore

his gag away; though as he made no cry,

I kept on with my checking as before.


Why do you call me The Lie? he said. I swore:

it was a child’s voice. I looked up from the floor.

The dark had turned his eyes to milk and sky

and his arms and legs were all one scarlet sore.


He was a boy of maybe three or four.

His straps and chains were all the things he wore.

Knowing I could make him no reply

I took the gag before he could say more


and put it back as tight as it would tie

and locked the door and locked the door and locked the door.

–Don Paterson


Here’s a recording of  Don Paterson Reading “The Lie.”

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One Response to “National Poetry Month Poem-a-Week 2011: Don Paterson and “The Lie””

  1. […] the disregard and  refusal to  admit what causes pain to the most vulnerable amongst us. Lines from Don Paterson’s poem The Lie come to me, the lie trapped in the mind that is like a child locked in a […]

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