Category Archives: politics

The Extended Claudius App Fortnight: Amy De’Ath and Cecilia Corrigan.

This might be quite uncomfortable. This conversation between Amy and Cecilia relates to gender politics at the radical end of the poetry spectrum.

The main thrust of the dialogue is that radical poetry on both sides of the Atlantic is centred around a fairly exclusive grouping that omits feminist issues. I want to think about this point made by Amy:

What I’m taking issue with here is not Keston’s work — but with a whole gestural economy that’s both historical and casually social, an economy that always ensures the white men are at the top of the pile, they are the authority, they are the ones who so often define the terms of the debate.

I am of course ripping this out of the context of a more detailed and nuanced conversation but I think it gets to the nub of the problem. Now, I’m a white male who writes about this kind of poetry and I mostly write about men. I don’t feel that I’m at the top of any ‘pile’ but I do recognise that I am part of the problem. I also recognise the accuracy of the above and would like to spend some time trying to work out why this might be the case.

The first point is that poetry has always been dominated by men and men will always be reluctant to participate in their own downfall. The second is that ‘radical’ poetry is mostly leftist/marxian poetry concerned primarily with class and less about gender (or anything else). The final factor is that poetry is currently in a ghetto and radical poetry is an enclave within that ghetto and this breeds a special kind of neuroses that feeds into the gestural economy referred to above.

Thinking my own contribution to this travesty through, I recall reading something by James Baldwin which forcefully and convincingly pointed out that the white man can/must say nothing about racism because (paraphrase) any words, no matter how well-intentioned, would define the terms of the debate. So, as the oppressor I can’t speak up for those that I oppress. What I can do is to try to live a life that does not perpetuate the misogyny that still rules this side of the gender fence. However, it would be dishonest of me to write about women poets just to even up the balance.

That doesn’t explain why I’ve written much (much) more about Prynne, Celan and Hill than Vanessa Place who I would rank alongside all three of these in terms of importance. Nor does it explain why I’ve written next to nothing about Elizabeth Bishop. So perhaps I should redress this balance. In terms of other kinds of identity issues, I haven’t written anything at all about black poets, which is primarily due to not reading their work. Thinking this through, the prevalence of mental illness in all things Poetry does mean that I don’t experience anywhere near the kind oppression that I do on other areas of my life.

I don’t think I should do the hand wringing liberal thing and plead guilty as charged and leave it at that because I don’t find that productive. I’m very keen on all of us at this end of the spectrum acknowledge, as Cecilia says, the instability of our critical position, I’d also add that the best kind of poetry works from a standpoint that is unstable and transient. I don’t think this is necessarily a relativist position but I am of the view that we need to interrogate our individual certainties a bit more.

In addition to identity oppressions, there’s a couple that I’d like to throw into the pot. Most of this material springs from the middle and lower middle classes and suffers from acadamefication, ie the product of a certain kind of economic position together with a certain level of educational attainment. This isn’t a marxian argument but leans heavily on Bourdieu who demonstrated convincingly the way in which our cultural existences are wrapped up in the prevailing economic order. The role of the academy is as a primary instrument of control and pacification and the small and marginal world of radical poetry can be experienced / read as an extension of that process. I’m tempted to suggest that the avant garde never went to college but instead will be content to observe that, since about 1915, this particular position has been quickly and painlessly malappropriated by established practice and the economic order.

I’m not suggesting that any of these aspects are fixable but I do think that we need to talk about them and find our own ways to respond. Most of us could benefit from following Cecilia in making a poetic that’s ‘legible’ outside of the confines of this particular box. Acknowledging our mutual instabilities might help too.

Prynne week: Hands and Biting the Air.

After today I’m going to leave BTA and move on to the work on George Herbert’s Love III because I’m conscious that there’s only four days left and many things that I want to pay attention to. First, a few thoughts on ‘meaning’. I’m of the view that, as with Celan, we shouldn’t expect an an all-encompassing overview of what’s going on. I’m also mindful of Prynne’s Mental Ears and Poetic Work essay where he writes “I am rather frequently accused of more or less altogether taken leave of discernible sense. In fact I believe this accusation to be more of less true, and not to me alarmingly so, because for what so long has seemed the arduous royal road into the domain of poetry (“what does it mean”) seems less and less an unavoidably necessary precondition for successful reading”. So, in these pieces I may be trying to unpick a number of threads that appear to make a kind of ‘sense’to me but I also recognise that there’s too many ambiguities and intertwined subjects for complete sense to be made. So far I have armed conflict alongside Big Pharma but these are both still provisional and may indicate completely different subjects altogether.

Today, instead of working out ‘what’ I’m going to have a go at ‘why’. By this I mean attending to the repeated use of the word ‘hand’ and things closely related to hands and what hands do. I’m an enormous fan of repetition and recognise it, in any form, to be a particularly strong means of expression. Those that read Monday’s piece on BTA may have noticed that the word crops up three times in the first eight lines of the poem. It then reappears with unusual frequency throughout the rest of the sequence. I’d like to start by highlight the third of these: Enough out of one hand / to grasp another and the last two line of this poem: a country prosperous and blue and bright over / and blindness forever in hand on hand proverb. These appear to be connected especially if I take the proverb to be a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush It seems to my small brain that any process of negotiation involves letting go of some of what you’ve got in order to get more of what you want. In the good old days when we had effective strikes, workers may have closed down a number of factories and have these standing idle so they can get management to either agree terms or reach a beneficial compromise. In Ulster, the situation was a bit more complex- this was a three-sided civil war with all three parties having a different set of objectives. Paramilitaries on both sides of the community could have carried on their murderous campaigns against each other and the British army but (for different reasons) chose to give that campaign up in favour of a political settlement. In order to achieve this both sides had to disarm- ie give up what strength they had in return for that much fatter bird in the bush. Of course, this might be too ‘neat’ but it might tie in with yesterday’s ‘thread’ especially if the eternal blindness refers to the ongoing inability of either side to understand the other’s point of view and aspirations.

This mutual obduracy might also occur if we take ‘rag’ as a ragstone (i.e a hard sedimentary rock that can be broken up and fashioned into paving stones) and for ‘pacify’ to have the same connotations as ‘mollify’ in the second poem that I wrote about yesterday. Would it be too easy to read ‘hand attachment in’ as both giving in an attachment and that hand attachment being a firearm? It probably would.

Before we go any further, it might be useful to consider the why question. Apart from the possible linkage of a thread of sense, is there any other reason to use repetition to this extent? The reiteration of a phrase or image or melody serves to give emphasis, to perhaps signal up this element for greater attention than what surrounds it. In songs a chorus can contain the main theme and give structure to the whole by establishing a kind of rhythm. There’s also Prynne’s strong interest in work songs which rely on a degree of repetition in the chorus. It may be an exploration of using the same word in different ways. Or, it may be none of these.

The word ‘same’ has even more repetition in Prynne’s later Streak~Willing~Entourage~Artesian and some of that may be an echo of the Spanish equivalent in Goya’s notebooks during the Peninsular War. Here it seems less obscure but more complex. These are form the second poem that I wrote about on Tuesday:

......................................Hold one

before leasing forage behaviour; wash the novice
wrist, finger tight. Do you already know this or yet
allocate sufficiency.

and this:

..................................A forever dulcet 

hesitation in the mouth long-dated ostensible tap,
stare in daylight, one hand washes the other.

Both of these throw down a number of challenges, the first doesn’t use ‘hand’ but has two verbs that normally need a hand to be carried out. The preceding sentence ends with “got a banner” so it may be this that someone is being told to hold. As in most civil ways, the flying and display of flags and the respective flag colours was a wearily regular feature throughout the Ulster conflict(s). This ties in with “leasing forage behaviour”. The OED defines the verb to forage as: “To collect forage from; to overrun (a country) for the purpose of obtaining or destroying supplies; to lay under contribution for forage. Also in wider sense, to plunder, pillage, ravage”. To lease something is (in my improbably broad sense) is to allow something to be used for a specific length of time in return for a payment. So, the waving of the flag on marches and demonstrations may be seen as a precursor for plunder and pillage- this can perhaps be more starkly seen in the atrocities that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia.

It might also be that this ‘leasing’ refers to the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) approves drugs for prescription use in the UK- the high price of some of these could be said to be plundering the country’s finances.

‘Wash the novice wrist’ would seem to be fairly clear but not make a huge amount of sense in this context. Slightly more of a sense-thread is to be found if the verb is taken as an adjective to mean washy or weak or tender. So what we might infer is that this novice or new recruit has a weak wrist and is only capable of making things with screws and bolts so that they can be easily undone. This is probably an example of chronic overreading but it’s nevertheless worth some further thought.

The second hand (weak and almost accidental play on words) in the poem might refer to blessing bestowed or absolution (washing) that is given by the clergy. There has yet to be a thorough and independent examination of the role of elements of the Catholic and Presbyterian churches in terms of tacit support given to the respective armed factions. We speak of the guilty as having ‘blood on their hands’ and, according to the tenets of Catholicism this blood can be cleaned of by means of confession and penance. The equivalent in Protestant terms it to identify yourself as a sinner before the eyes of God although there is some disagreement as to what this might result in.

In both Ulster and the Balkans it is possible to see some of the main protagonists as proclaiming and undertaking a religious cause or duty- in this way the respective clergy can be seen as the religious ‘arm’ of the struggle on of whose roles is to provided a kind of moral justification for the violence.

Even as I write this I have doubts as to whether things can be this straightforward, especially as “in the mouth long-dated” seems better suited to a medical reading. This is further complicated if ‘dulcet’ is taken as an equivalent to a doucet which is a kind of musical pipe or flute, which brings us the the Orange marching season and how a cessation of the most provocative of these was seen as an important element of the peace process.

So, many more things to think about and I haven’t begun to look at the economic and financial terms that crop up through the sequence, which might help with the threads that seem to be present.

That’s enough of BTA for now, next I want to give some more attention to Prynne’s remarkable work on Herbert’s Love III which may demonstrate how much thought we need to put into our reading.

Prynne week: Biting the Air. Again.

I’d forgotten just how addictive paying attention to Prynne can be and make no apologies for continuing with the above in order to identify further ‘corridors of sense’. Before we proceed I want here to provide the footnote to the paragraph that I quoted yesterday:

Here may be introduced the notion of meaning-threads or thematic linkage. Sometimes in working on a “difficult” poem a translator may hesitate over how to deal with a word or expression which seems to have many possible meanings. The translator notices that one of the possible meanings seems to have a connection with other words and meanings within the poem, coming before and after the problem word or expression. Maybe this link is an accident, but maybe it is part of the poem’s underlying argument, or one of its meaning-threads; in which case the translator can seemingly with some confidence select the translation of the problem word or expression which fits in best with this line of development. Following this course would help to give the translated poem a certain coherence of connected meaning. But sometimes appearances are deceptive. In noticing what looks like a prominent link, the translator may overlook a more latent or dispersed alternative, or indeed several of them. Furthermore, within a poem a word or expression may precisely not fit at all, maybe even hinting at a connection which it is too discrepant in alternative signification to accommodate neatly. Or, indeed, problem words and expressions may include several of these different possible kinds of connection, all at once. If the original poem is full of alternative meaning-links and threads which do not overtly correspond to a central and single line of development, the translator must resist the temptation to make the behaviour of the original poem more orderly, and must respect possible word-meanings that do not fit in just as much (almost as much) as those that do. The translator has to be
very sensitive to meaning, but not over-respectful towards its demands!

I’m quoting this because it points out that there may be many meaning threads and because it warns against taking prominent linkages for granted because doing so “overlooks a more latent or dispersed alternative, or indeed several of them”. Yesterday I did that very thing, I identified what seemed to be the overarching theme, the pharmaceutical industry, and noticed some other threads but failed to give them any consideration. Today I want to use the second poem in the sequence to try and compensate for that mistake:


Or it may be better to do that. Thick mitts for
an early start, precious upward mounting oval
mannerism, his park molested. Or to match defer
to certainty got a banner, to a grade. Hold one

before leasing forage behaviour; wash the novice
wrist, finger-tight. Do you already know this or yet
allocate sufficiency. Altogether just say the word
as lex loquens inter-married in sparse programme.

its cancel front to dive in a blip forward, your
modest capture. Sudden glial remorse announces
armament redress canine grips, on the platform
a bevy in service affair driven. A forever dulcet

hesitation in the mouth long-dated ostensible tap,
stare in daylight, one hand washes the other. Dis-
tribute what it takes, parallel fog lights crested
vapour banks confirm this. Conclusive under-

written first arrival, safe as houses on a detour
or live transmission in packet throb, insurgency.
Better power assignments for the moment this
sharing by split singlet to mollify what there is.

This will take some time. I’m never sure whether or not to tackle the surprises or the reasonably ‘clear’ first.

His park molested. On this occasion I’ll start with this molested park because it seems extreme, even for Prynne. It turns out that there are 44 definitions of ‘park’ in the OED but I’m going to select only two of them, one of which I knew and the other had escaped my attention. There have been since (at least) the thirteenth century royal parks which are reserved for the hunting of game. Some of the major ‘tussles’ between the gentry and the farming community has been the incursions into these parks by locals in pursuit of the same. The classic work on these confrontations is E P Thompson’s Whigs and Hunters pertaining to the 18th century. This may be confirmed as a sense thread by the presence of ‘mounting’ on the above line. Unfortunately, the same may be said of the second definition- a place for tanks and/or artillery in a military encampment. The OED provides a quote from The Independent in 2001: Close to the city’s ancient citadel, the Taliban maintained a tank and artillery park, which has been torn apart by bombs which also fits with mounting, as in a gun mounting. There’s also ‘armament redress’ in the third stanza, so a meaning thread may be on the horizon.

Sudden glial remorse. Up until three minutes ago I didn’t know what glial meant and I’m not much further now that I do. Apparently it’s the adjective from neuroglia which is the name given to ” the supportive non-neuronal tissue of the nervous system”. This is where we start clutching at straws, a further five minutes sepnt with the interweb reveals that some of the glial cells are responsible for maintaining an environmental ‘balance’ in the brain so that neuronal signalling takes place. These neurons are responsible for every aspect of the various mental processes. This balance may have echoes of ‘flatline’ in the first poem that I highlighted yesterday. Of course this could be me reading glial via the most obvious route and ignoring the other two main functions of these cells. I was going to give ‘remorse’ its common meaning but then decided to check for any other definitions that might be more appropriate. As I noted yesterday, one of the many bonuses of paying attention to Prynne is the opportunity to delve into ther inner recesses of the OED. On this occasion the 7th (obscure, rare) main definition is a “biting or cutting force” and the only quotation is from Spenser’s Faerie Queene: ” Their speares with pitilesse remorse, Through shield and mayle, and haberieon did wend” which makes me smile a lot. Spenser was notorious for his reckless meddling with the English language either by inventing words or using archaisms that didn’t exist of giving different meanings to words that did exist. Throughout the first edition of the dictionary most of these are identified with a sense or weary distaste. However, this type of remorse could be an attack carried out without thought which sets off / heralds / announces in itself a counter attack as in ‘armament redress’ This appears to add further weight to the military sense thread tentatively identified above.

The other probably irrelevant point that springs to mind is the fact there are many knightly fights in FQ and by Book IV, from which the quote is taken, our poet was running out of ways to describe the same event in different ways.

Better power assignments. This final sentence would seem to maintain the conflict thread. Prynne has written in other work ‘about’ the Ulster conflict which he has (accurately) described as a civil war and about the West’s tragic incursions into Afghanistan and Iraq. However the Ulster conflict was ostensibly resolved by a political arrangement known as ‘power sharing’. The power assignments which are said to be better could well be this arrangement which more accurately reflects the size of the province’s Catholic population. My only other observation is that it couldn’t be anything but an improvement on the previous Unionist dictatorship. Readers will be pleased to know that ‘split singlet’ may not refer to a torn vest because a singlet is also:

  • in theoretical physics, a quantum state with zero spin;
  • in spectroscopy, an entity appearing as a single peak;
  • in optics, a single lens element, the building blocks of lens systems;

I’m not even going to speculate about the first of these, having been barred from the physics lab at the age of 13 I really do know my limits. The third option may be me taking the easy route but it does seem that lenses enable us to see clearer but a lens that is split distorts our vision of how things are. Without wishing to run ahead of myself, I’m of the view that all English governments since the Normans have had an ‘idea’ of Ireland and the nature of the Irish problem that is fundamentally distorted. Therefore, it may be that the current power sharing arrangement does soften (mollify) those distortions but underneath there is still what there is- centuries of mutual hatred and suspicion.

I recognise (reluctantly) that the above may relate to the ongoing Afghanistan debacle or any other piece of imperial slaughter but at the moment the ‘sharing’ verb points in the direction of Ulster.

I think that’s probably enough for today, I’m more than a little saddened that the drug industry thesis from yesterday is now under siege but this does seem to bear out what our poet says in the above quote. Tomorrow I’ll have a look at the frequent use of ‘hand’ and hand-related terms that seem to run through the sequence.

Prynne week: Biting the Air.

I’ve now decided to have a series of ‘weeks’ in the way that Radio Three has a composer of the week and some arthouse cinemas have a director’s season. I think I’m doing this because it gives me an opportunity to stay with one poet’s work over a number of posts rather than flitting from one to the other. This isn’t going to be easy because I am a lifelong flitter.

J H Prynne does however present a wide enough range of stuff to keep this tendency at bay and Biting the Air appears to be a good example of this. I will proceed with caution because Prynne’s work is generally tricky (technical term) but repays careful attention. Given the level of trickiness what follows is more than usually tentative, provisional and subject to radical change.

Biting the Air was published in 2003 and appears as the penultimate poem in the second edition and appears, in part at least, to have Big Pharma in its sights. I do know a little about the global pharmaceutical problem, I spent between 2004-10 writing about the inadequacies of the system of drug research, testing and marketing and remain of the view that producing misleading/false information that leads to death or premature death should be a criminal offence. Because I’m bipolar I’ll be taking drugs for the rest of my life so I also have an interest in how things are done.

This is a sequence of 12 poems, 11 of which have five four-line stanzas with the other one having a bit of variation in the middle. The epigraph is from Ockham- “Every property is the property of something, but it is not the property of just anything. This is the start of the first poem:

Pacify rag hands attachment in for muted
counter-march or locked up going to drainage
offer some, give, none ravine platter, tied up
to kin you would desire that. Even hand

bestowing pharmaceutical front to avoid. even
flatline signal glitz perfection, slide under be-
fore matter planning your treat advance infirm
in legal glowing stunt. Enough out of one hand

And this is the final three stanzas of the sixth poem:

told to you, root and branch slope management
at onrush unpaired and less compact, generic death
as possession on nil return. Which way the novice
points trail off, they say the same on the block

new level rib, spit your lips. Be quick, be
long to pump anger revivalism, percolate thick 
forest scarps dug yet deeper. Get a vaccine on
shipment perish thread your face why yours

if told more, stable on a tilted capital feed 
suspected more often. Give out a version amplified
with strings to obligate a boundary check, felt 
damp echo ethic manipulate its life exemption.

There’s gloriously complex things that appear to be going on here. Starting with the obvious ‘medical’ words: pharmaceutical, flatline, infirm, generic, rib, lips, vaccine and life exemption- I’m taking this to indicate that the poem is making direct comment on the issues that beset modern medicine rather than using this particular malaise to talk about something else. Of course, he may be doing both but I’m going to stick with medicine as medicine for the moment.

I’m now going to be very brave and launch into some kind of close reading of the above few lines in order to see if bits can be extracted and refined. The reason for choosing two separate passages is to test out what Prynne says in his Difficulties in the Translation of “Difficult” Poems essay published in the CLR in 2010:

But in certain types of “difficult” poetry this corridor of sense is much wider and more open, more like a network across the whole expanse of the text, with many loops and cross-links of semantic and referring activity which extend the boundaries of relevance, and of control by context, in many directions at once. If these many directions are developed so as to produce strong contradiction and self-dispute then the method may become a dialectic practice, in which poetic form and expression are brought into internal contest with themselves and with each other.

This and the rest of the essay strike me as invaluable aids in dealing with this kind of material but then there’s a doubt for me about how many readers will be bothered to read the essays and the critical work on Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Herbert which demonstrate how this particular poet ‘does’ poetry. I’ve read these because I was already intrigued by the material and wanted to know more, as has also been the case with Geoffrey Hill and Simon Jarvis. Is this what the charge of elitism is about? Should readers need just the words on the page to get the full picture? I don’t think this is necessarily exclusionary, a fan of Liverpool football club may read players’ autobiographies in order to get some context from what they pay to see. I don’t think that I’m unique in wanting to know more about what my favourite writers think about writing and I don’t feel that this is an elitist pursuit.

So, is there a “corridor of sense” running through the above? I think that there might be but it might be best to take things reasonably slowly.

Even hand bestowing pharmaceutical front to avoid. At first stare, ‘front’ is problematic because it’s difficult to see how it can be described as pharmaceutical. It took me a little while but it may be that ‘front’ may refer to a cover or disguise for something else- usually a criminal activity. In New York, the Mafia has used garbage collection to disguise its main lines of business. The OED reminds me that ‘pharmaceutical’ is a noun as well as an adjective and that this has been used since 1829 to indicate a “pharmaceutical preparation; a medicinal drug”. No, one of the many problems with the drug industry are the intertwined problems of neutrality and objectivity. Time after time the biggest drug companies have been fined for presenting skewed and partial information when selling there products. They’ve marketed anti-psychotics as a beneficial treatment for dementia without disclosing the very much increased risk of stroke and the average shortening of life by about five years. This is bolstered by the publication of clinical trial results that are hopelessly compromised by the fact that they are funded by the company producing the drug.

So ‘even hand’ might be read as ‘even handed’, fair, balanced, impartial and these qualities are used by drug companies as a front to disguise the complex and often contradictory realities of new therapies.

Even flatline glitz perfection. The OED fives glitz as “an extravagant but superficial display” which characterizes the way drug companies flog their wares. A flatline on a heart monitor would indicate that the heart has stopped beating but on other graphs and displays it indicates a stable or unchanging state with no variation. The Prynne ‘even’ always presents me with difficulties but on this occasion it may be the verb as in to make level or equal or to describe something that has these qualities. With regard to flatlining, drug companies are particularly good at selling products that don’t make a blind bit of difference. There is currently a bit of a furore in the UK because it has been noticed that £300 million was spent on tamiflu even though the evidence for its efficacy doesn’t exist.

Slope management. One of the very many joys of paying attention to Prynne and Hill is the amount of time that you get to spend with the OED. Looking at the ‘slope’ variations I’ve just come across its use as an adverb, deployed by Milton in PL as That bright beam, whose point now raisd Bore him slope downward to the Sun which is wonderful and is obviously in need of revivial. However, I don’t think that there’s any need to get too esoteric in this instance. I’m taking ‘slope’ as being the opposite of the flat line in the first poem and ‘management’ as a euphemism for manipulation. This works in both ways- drug companies produce results that emphasise the benefits whilst minimising the likely risks. Incidentally, I’m not of the view that Big Pharma is the incarnation of evil but I am concerned that our political masters simply fail to understand the issues involved from the nature of objective knowledge and the intertwined relationships between academic and commercial research and health providers. I’ll also admit to be morbidly fascinated by these folding and re-folding processes.

I’m happy to acknowledge that I might be wrong here, especially as I can’t get to grips with “at onrush unpaired and less compact” but I don’t have any better points of reference at the moment.

Felt damp echo ethic manipulate its life exemption. This might take a little while. I’m going to take ‘manupilate’ to have its common definition and worry instead about exemption. This particular noun refers to setting an individual or entity outside a particular rule or code. The most obvious example that springs into this small brain is the exemption of diplomats from parking tickets. So, a life exemption may be an exemption from something that lasts for life or an exemption from the rules that normally pertain to being alive. It seems, for example, that we are living much longer than any previous generation and that this may be credited to advances in medical practice and treatments. The other exemption from life that can be exercised is the ability of the individual to choose to curtail his or her existence. I’m not going to amplify the minefield signalled here by ‘ethic’ but wish to point out that medical ‘progress’ (loaded term) has prolonged life but in some cases has simply extended an already unbearable existence.

I hope the above points to how a ‘corridor of sense’ may be obtained. I know that this particular take may be very wide of the mark but at least it does begin to tease out some of those boundaries of relevance that Prynne refers to. In the rest of this week’s posts I hope to put more of his description to the test.

Information Quality: the Monstrous Poem

Continuing with my theme, I’d like to move on to monstrosity as one of those quality that often gets overlooked or misplaced. I need to say at the outset that the name of this particular quality is stolen from Keston Sutherland although the following elaboration is all mine. Given the response to all things gnarly, I think I need to make clear that these qualities aren’t indicators of worth, there are good monstrous poems in this world just as there are bad ones. There is also good gnarliness and bad gnarliness and sometimes these are in the same poem (Lycidas, Poly Olbion). As with the gnarly, many of the onstrous demand an almost physical engagement, a bit of a cognitive and often aesthetic struggle before they can be overcome.

Monstrosity: a definition.

A monstrous poem needs to be large and ranging in scope rather than in scale although scale can be an important factor. By scope I essentially mean the ‘range’ of subject matter although a range of perspectives on the same subject can contribute. There are some obvious candidates, Olson’s Maximus springs to mind but some others that are more nuanced and understated but nevertheless deal with a lot of Very Big Stuff. The following are tentative and provisional examples of what I’m trying to say.

Elizabeth Bishop’s In the Waiting Room.

Bishop was probably the most technically able poet of the 20th century and the above is one of her very best:

In Worcester, Massachusetts,
 I went with Aunt Consuelo
 to keep her dentist's appointment
 and sat and waited for her
 in the dentist's waiting room.
 It was winter. It got dark
 early. The waiting room 
 was full of grown-up people,
 arctics and overcoats,
 lamps and magazines. 
 My aunt was inside
 what seemed like a long time 
 and while I waited I read 
 the National Geographic
 (I could read) and carefully
 studied the photographs: 
 the inside of a volcano,
 black, and full of ashes;
 then it was spilling over
 in rivulets of fire.
 Osa and Martin Johnson
 dressed in riding breeches,
 laced boots, and pith helmets.
 A dead man slung on a pole
 --"Long Pig," the caption said.
 Babies with pointed heads 
 wound round and round with string;
 black, naked women with necks
 wound round and round with wire
 like the necks of light bulbs. 
 Their breasts were horrifying. 
 I read it right straight through.
 I was too shy to stop.
 And then I looked at the cover: 
 the yellow margins, the date. 
 Suddenly, from inside, 
 came an oh! of pain 
 --Aunt Consuelo's voice--
 not very loud or long.
 I wasn't at all surprised; 
 even then I knew she was
 a foolish, timid woman.
 I might have been embarrassed,
 but wasn't. What took me
 completely by surprise was
 that it was me: 
 my voice, in my mouth.
 Without thinking at all
 I was my foolish aunt,
 I--we--were falling, falling,
 our eyes glued to the cover
 of the National Geographic,
 February, 1918.

 I said to myself: three days
 and you'll be seven years old.
 I was saying it to stop the sensation of falling off
 the round, turning world. 
 into cold, blue-black space. 
 But I felt: you are an I,
 you are an Elizabeth,
 you are one of them.
 Why should you be one, too?
 I scarcely dared to look
 to see what it was I was.
 I gave a sidelong glance
 --I couldn't look any higher-- 
 at shadowy gray knees, 
 trousers and skirts and boots
 and different pairs of hands
 lying under the lamps.
 I knew that nothing stranger
 had ever happened, that nothing
 stranger could ever happen.

 Why should I be my aunt,
 or me, or anyone?
 What similarities--
 boots, hands, the family voice
 I felt in my throat, or even
 the National Geographic
 and those awful hanging breasts-- 
 held us all together
 or made us all just one?
 How--I didn't know any
 word for it--how "unlikely". . .
 How had I come to be here,
 like them, and overhear
 a cry of pain that could have
 got loud and worse but hadn't?

 The waiting room was bright
 and too hot. It was sliding
 beneath a big black wave, another,
 and another. Then I was back in it.

 The War was on. Outside,
 in Worcester, Massachusetts, 
 were night and slush and cold,
 and it was still the fifth 
 of February, 1918.

The beginnings of and nature of self-consciousness is a pretty big piece of ground but here we also have family, otherness and our prurient, arrogant interest in what was then thought of and depicted as the ‘savage’, World War One and what seven year old can see of others with a ‘sidelong glance’, and what time does.

I challenge anyone to find a single mite of clunk in any of the above but my point here is that huge subjects are covered in a way that feels conversational and completely unforced. The monstrosity arrives in full flow in the second and third stanzas which take us (whilst still in the waiting room) to a level of abstraction that requires several readings, some reflection / consideration before things become a bit clearer.

Paul Celan’s Aschenglorie.

I wasn’t going to do this because I probably write too much about Celan and about this poem in particular yet it does have that huge, sprawling scale but in a way that is completely different from Elizabeth Bishop. Like the above, it’s one of my favourite poems. Although Celan was a Holocaust survivor, it is a mistake to think of his work only in that context, as I hope to show:


ASHGLORY behind
your shaken-knotted
hands at the threeway.

Pontic erstwhile: here,
a drop,
on
the drowned rudder blade,
deep in the petrified oath,
it roars up.

(On the vertical
breathrope, in those days,
higher than above,
between two painknots, while
the glossy
Tatarmoon climbed up to us.
I dug myself into you and into you).

Ash-
glory behind
you threeway 
hands.

The east-in-front-of-you, from
the East, terrible.

Nobody
bears witness for the
witness.

Most of the writing on Celan’s later work is speculative and I certainly don’t intend to provide any kind of explanation for this piece of brilliance. For those who would like one, I’d suggest that Derrida’s Poetics and Politics of Witnessing is a better stab in the dark than most. I’d simply like to draw attention to the following subjects that may be being addressed here:

  • the current status/nature of those who died during the Holocaust;
  • language and the return from exile;
  • filial guilt;
  • Stalin and the displacement of ethnic groups;
  • suicide in the face of tyranny;
  • the problems facing/confronting the poet as memorialist.

What is brilliant about Celan is that he is able to pack so much into so few words. The first word, which is repeated further into the poem, brilliantly encapsulates the fate of victims but also the way in which they will continue- the image I have is of brightly burning wood beneath a light covering of ash, your hands will burn if you get too close. I like to think that Pontic erstwhile brings into focus the Greek speaking people of Pontus who lived on the Black Sea coast in what is now Turkey. Along with the Armenians they were subject to genocide at the hands of the Turks and then deported to Greece. It is said that the ‘native’ Greeks could not understand the type of Greek that these returnees spoke. The Tatar people were also moved en masse from their land in the Crimea by Stalin.

Of course, the implacable aridity and extreme ambiguity of Clean’s poem-making makes over-reading very, very likely but that should not stop any of us paying close attention to this almost magical body of work. My own sins in this regard read the ‘threeway’ as the meeting with the poet’s mother and father, both of whom were murdered by the Germans. The other big leap into speculation is the reported answer that Celan gave when asked what he did in labour camps during the war: “dug holes”. The last three lines are those that have caught the most critical attention, in his otherwise excellent essay, Derrida probably over-complicates this solitary, isolated act of witnessing and I’m never sure whether it’s a statement of fact or an anguished cry. The third bracketed stanza is gloriously complex and monstrous in itself and I hover between each of the eight or so readings that I have in my head, the breath rope may be a noose but it may also be the lines of bubbles rising from the mouth of some one (drowning) underwater, both possibilities cast the poem in a dramatically different way.

Sir Geoffrey Hill’s An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England.

This was published in the Tenebrae collection in 1968, following Mercian Hymns. The notes at the back of the original inform me that these thirteen sonnets were written for a number of contexts and this goes some way to explaining the monstrous scale of the sequence. The title is taken from Pugin- the leading proponent of the 19th century Gothic revival.

The sequence uses this to expand on England, colonial India, ruins, the English landscape and (as ever) martyrdom. Each of these are huge but the ‘thread’ running though them is one G Hill and his idiosyncratic ‘take’ on these things which, with the possible exception of India, have been lifelong concerns. I’ll give a few brief examples to try and show this scope. There are three sonnets entitled A Short History of British India, this is the second half of the second:

The flittering candles of the wayside shrines
melt into dawn. The sun surmounts the dust.
Krishna from Rhada lovingly entwines.

Lugging the earth, the oxen bow their heads.
The alien conscience of our days is lost
among the ruins and on endless roads.

Obviously, our imperial experiences in India are difficult to encapsulate in 42 lines but it would seem that Hill’s thesis is in part British arrogance and its resulting inability to understand or engage with the glorious complexity that is Indian culture. Whilst the critique is occasionally scathing, the tone is rueful and oddly elegaic.

The second sonnet is entitled Damon’s Lament for his Clorinda, Yorkshire 1654. I’m taking this to be a nod towards Marvell’s Damon and Clorinda which carries more than a nod in the direction of Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calendar. These are the first four lines:


November rips gold foil from the oak ridges.
Dour folk huddle in High Hoyland, Penistone.
The tributaries of the Sheaf and Don
bulge their dull spate, cramming the poor bridges.

And these are the last 3.5 lines:


................Why does the air grow cold

in the region of mirrors? And who is this clown
doffing his mask at the masked threshold
to selfless raptures that are all his own?

So this would seem to be perpetuating the distinctly English pastoral with a juxtaposition between the rural and the spiritual. The mysterious and allusive ending is in stark contrast with the clarity of the opening lines. This in itself is monstrously wrestleable. I also need to report that the recent Collected tells us that this particular sonnet is “an imitation of a sonnet by L. L. de Argensola” without specifying which sonnet. Of course, this information isn’t in the original edition. I don’t think this invalidates the Spenser-Marvell- Hill guess but it certainly throws something else into the pot.

Hill’s relationship with England has always been more than a little complex, he’s clearly a patriot and, as a red Tory, despairs of many elements of contemporary politics, especially our membership of the EU. He is also our best poet of the English landscape and his involvement with all things rural is unambivalent. This is the first part of The Laurel Axe which is the ninth sonnet in the sequence:

Autumn resumes the land, ruffles the woods
with smoky wings, entangles them. Trees shine
out from their leaves, rocks mildew to moss-green;
the avenues are spread with brittle floods.

Platonic England, house of solitudes,
rests in its laurels and its injured stone,
replete with complex fortunes that are gone,
beset by dynasties of moods and clouds

One of the epigraphs for An Apology is from Coleridge: “the spiritual Platonic old England” which adds another level of monstrosity to the sequence as a whole. Coleridge’s admiration for Plato is in itself unstraightforward but you don’t need to puzzle over this to appreciate the strength and brilliance of the above.

So, monstrosity of scale which seems more monstrous than the much longer Triumph of Love because so much is compressed into these 182 lines. I’m now going to spend a few days trying to subdue it into something more manageable.

<Simon Jarvis' The Unconditional.

I was going to use this as the example par excellence of monstrosity by means of digression and I was looking for a suitably digressive passages when I came across one of my v informative exclamation marks in the margin of page 179 and decided to use that instead, for reasons that will hopefully become clear as we proceed.

For those that don’t know, the Jarvis project is one of the most important of this century, his longer, formal work is a brilliant thumb in the eye at what we might think of as the literary establishment on both sides of the Atlantic for a number of different reasons. The above was published in 2005 and consists of a single poem containing about 235 pages of defiantly metrical verse. This is what caught my eye:

        Presuicidal choclatiera
coat morsels with a delicate agony
        for which their German reading long ago
was how the cost effective entrance fee
        ("In every line that Celan ever wrote
hovers a brooding ethical concern".
        poor penny dreadfuls of the critical sense
where the quotidian shopping carts unseen
        gather to give this hulking strut the lie
full of their viands for the evening pie.
        The worst that is thought and known in the world.
Precisely instead unriddable pleasures
        the poet gripped until he fathomed them wet.
(How precisely the joyful idiot is snubbed
        the couriers of singularity
can well arpeggiate as they now tread
        on underlings of idiotism who
know little of the sacrifices made
        by the sole selfers walking on their guts
(Tsk my resentimentful prosodist!
        Excellent rancour from the hilltop sire
When may we know what you yourself have lost
        or ever had to put up with in the rain?)))

This is horribly complex, at it’s heart it’s a rant at all things Continental but Derrida and co. (yet another technical term) in particular. Writing about the Holocaust is a huge subject as is writing about writing about the Holocaust as is the Adorno / Continental divide yet Jarvis takes these on together with a note of self-deprication at the end. I won’t argue with the notion that most of the critical writing on Celan is dire in the extreme but I don’t think that this is confined to one particular ‘sect’. I’ve gone on about this Adornian snobbery in the past and don’t intend to repeat myself. My point is that many many tomes have been written about writing about the Holocaust and many complexities have been examined yet Jarvis manages to encapsulate his fairly nuanced ‘position’ in one page and there’s a whole set of small monstrosities within.

So, I hope that I’ve demonstrated that this quality needs to be paid some attention. In writing the above I’v discovered a few other qualities (relentless monstrosity, monstrous ambiguity etc) which I’ll write about at a later date.

Marvell, Matthias, Sutherland and Information Quality

Not entirely sure where I’m going with this but I’ve come across the above notion which apparently is a growing field of study. It turns out that information quality is thought about in a matrix of different qualities and as soon as I saw these I thought it might be useful to think about The Odes to TL61P in these terms and see where we get to. I then had a closer look at these ‘metrics’ and decided that they wouldn’t fit this particular bill after all because they omit or confuse many of the aspects that I think about in poetry.

So, I’d like to start with what my own headings might look like. I need to emphasise that these qualities appear to me to be the ones I ‘apply’ in my reading this week and is entirely provisional, tentative and obviously subjective. In order to do this properly, I’m going to pay attention to three very different extracts from three poems that I’m reasonably familiar with and see where we get to: Andrew Marvell’s Upon Appleton House, John Mathias’ Laundry Lists and Manifestoes and Keston Sutherland’s Odes to TL61P.

This is Marvell:


But most the hewel's wonders are
Who here has the holt-fester's care.
He walks still upright from the root,
Meas'ring the timber with his foot;
And all the way, to keep it clean,
Doth from the bark the woodmoths glean.
He, with his beak, examines well
Which fit to stand and which to fell.

The good he numbers up, and hacks;
As if he marked them with the axe
but where, tinkling with his beak,
Does find the hollow oak to speak,
That for his building he designs,
and through the tainted sign he mines.
Who could have thought the tallest oak
Should fall by such a feeble stroke!

Nor would it, had the tree not fed
A traitor worm, within it bred.
(As first our flesh corrupt within
Tempts ignorant and bashful Sin.)
And yet that worm triumphs not long
But serves to feed the hewel's young
While the oak seems to fall content,
Viewing the treason's punishment.

And this is Matthias:


           .....while on a promontory broken off
The screensaver image 0f an ancient SE10
Madame C's high cognates gather around boxes dropped
By Ever Afterlife Balloonists working on the script
Of Cargo Cults. They argue (the cognates) that a manifest
Attached to shipment listing all collaterals and cogs
Codes and codices for Mme's Nothing Else Cockaigne Machine
In fact are elegaic poems, that David sings for Jonathan,
Gilgamesh for Enkidu. They inscribe themselves as
Manifestoes which proclaim their faith in algorithms of an
Unkown field of force. They're cognizant and they can glow.
They're coeternal, and they rise to an occasion.
Although they tell no story of their lives,their little trumpets blow.

And this is Sutherland:


The west Irish had nothing but tiny scraps of land with
a cabin; a pig and potatoes; but Belfast and Dublin
had England. Love gets saner, stained into the glass.
All countries must work together toward a mutual
resolution of currency imbalances, or risk war, says the
governor of the Bank of England, tasked with making
the genital stage of Godzilla inevitable; but he is
right, it's the answer Jesus would give if pressed; the
severance will yet amount to minus sweet fuck all.
Your job is to be at that orgy and to experience
maximum anxiety, write, and see what happens; it's not
a joke to say that you learn from that, except you
decline. Synergized to social fact, surplus grout of the
myriad equivalents; at the source I is screaming or am;
prolegomenon to an epigram. Smoke that shit. Yes.
Passion swings both ways, unfixed to be enlarged,
hungry for the majority of the earth, Robert's penis is a
surprise. In my tent, it is more pink than I am. I am 
more red or purple or brown. I had guessed, startling
me, but I sucked it anyway, not to go back; I think it
was an excruciation to him and a probably morally
significant embarrassment, because he never used it
against me when I started punching his face in on the 
couch that my mother pissed herself on; get it back;
why did I do that, smacking around with childish 
fists, deepening our wishes, blunting life in him and
me; and smack that miniscule nameless boy who merely
explained to me that my fantasy car for sale to him
could be given wheels, when I wanted it to be flat and 
just glide? The Victorian English had their more
innocent Green Zones in India, from which to peroroate
on the superiority of peace for trade; indiscreet to go
slaughtering around all over the place like the Russians
via the French and in any case very likely more
overheads to redemption. If sex is the price for that,
be it what you may; after all sex disappears anyway.

Verbal skill.

This is a broad category but, in my view, one of the things that poets do is to make words to a variety of different things at the same time, the words chosen shouldn’t ‘jar’ on the ear, should be precise whilst at the same time carrying a number of different contexts. There’s also the skill of putting words together, in whatever form that enhances both the sound of sense of what’s being written.

Taking Appleton House first, it seems to me that the words are taking us, almost by stealth, from the world of the wood to the world of politics. Unlike the others, Marvell is constrained by both rhyme and meter yet the lines proceed without that sing-song playground effect that seems to be present in too many poems of his period. Tinkle might be thought of as problematic but this is helped a little by the discovery that it can also mean ‘tingle’, especially with regard to the nose. The other concern might be the are/care rhyme in the first quoted verse and long/young in the last. It may well be that these could be credibly made to rhyme in the 17th century ( long/yong) but it still strikes me as clunky.

John Matthias is a superb technician who hardly ever puts a verbal foot wrong. I know this because I’ve been working with him to produced an annotated on-line version of his Trigons and that entire sequence is remarkable for its absence, with one very small exception, of clunk. It could be argued that I’m biased but this mastery is something I’d written about before John got in touch. The poem above is the last from the Laundry Lists sequence and these are the first lines that had me punching the air with delight precisely because of the verbal brilliance of the last line and this uncanny ability to use ordinary/conversational language to do very complex and intelligent things. As well as being a sucker for the great phrase (their tiny trumpets blow) I’m also of the view that poetry, if it’s about anything, is about a ‘mix’ of compression and precision. I have gone on at length about the last 6 and a half lines that conclude the sequence but I still feel the need to emphasise in terms of word-choice, syntax and phrasing how the very difficult to do properly is made to feel relaxed and easy.

Keston Sutherland is the most exciting British poet writing today but he isn’t without his annoyances and the most irritating of these is his tendency to throw in the obscure word or phrase which has always struck me as less than democratic- ‘prolegomenon’ and ‘perorate’ being the only offenders here. This aside, the above is utterly brilliant in that it manages to create a verbal flow that effortlessly takes us from wider public issues to the deeply personal and back again and achieves this by being both precise and economic with the words that are used. The way in which the sophisticated political analysis is smashed to bits by the extraordinary account of Keston as a child sucking off differently-coloured Robert is breathtaking, in the Prynne sense, and profoundly disturbing atleast to this particular reader. In terms of words, those used here are straightforward and clear we are not left in any doubt what is being said although the small and nameless boy at the end might carry some ambiguity. Incidentally, I’ve checked and ‘prolegomenon’ is a classical term for a written preface and I have to wonder whether ‘preface to an epigram’ is more democratic. As far as I can tell, we can reasonably use ‘declaim’ instead of ‘perorate’ and the same argument applies. I don’t find myself feeling the same about Matthias’ cognates because I can’t think of a more accessible substitute.

Tone

One of the surprising things about thinking in this way is that I’ve discovered or refined what seems to be important to me. I used to think of this as ‘voice’ but I now realise that this musical term seems to cover this better. I also realise that, most of the time, I’m attracted to and impressed by a mix of the clever and the playful. I’ll try to use these three extracts to think a bit more about what I mean.

Starting with the woodpecker’s journey through the wood. The first verse reads as a description of this progress and plays with language to create an ostensibly simple and pleasant scene. Things become much more serious by the end of the third verse which makes the subject matter very clear. The language sounds like an attractive melody but (cleverly) carries more than a little ‘bite’ it also conveys a degree of ambiguity which I find satisfying. The creation of these twelve lines of complexity seems quite improvised and conversational yet the ‘message’ is very serious indeed and refreshingly different in its use of play from other poetic efforts of the time.

I now see that it was this combination was what drew me in to Matthias’ work, in his longer work he clearly plays with language and conveys to the reader the pleasure that he takes in this. More so than with Marvell The above is a demonstration of the playfully clever in this pleasure and the verbal exuberance of the opening lines. The concluding image does many things given that the sequence as a whole is about our relationship to a sense of order and the ways in which we struggle with that. I hesitate to say this but “their little trumpets blow” is about as playfully clever as it gets.

Since i first came across his work, I’ve thought of Sutherland as essentially experimental even though he probably views himself as essentially political. The good thing about these experiments is that they mostly work. The beginning of this particular paragraph reads like the beginning of an earlyish Jon Zorn Riff, leaping from target to target at a rapid pace. Then you come across Godzilla’s genital stage which injects some humour into this depiction of Capital and Empire. The one-liners ooze (technical term) with cleverness and there’s clearly more than a little fun with words being had along the way. The most cleverly playful aspect is the insertion of the childhood confessions which tackles the wider theme of how the breaking of secrets can be a powerful and liberating political weapon.

Subject Matter.

I’m against political poems mostly because I find them too ‘viewy’ in the E Pound sense and I have more than enough views of my own. All of these poems ‘do’ politics but accomplish other things as well. Upon Appleton House encompasses landscape and the effects of natural forces, celebrates the life and achievements of his employer, Thomas Fairfax (all-round Civil War good guy) and presents this front row view of one of the most turbulent times in British history. It also does all these things very well indeed. I’m not that interested in the political aspects of the Civil War because I think we continue to give them far too much importance but I am fascinated by how poets responded to those events on either side of the ‘fence’. I am however fascinated by the interplay between the forces of the state and individual agency. Fairfax was on of the most prominent figures on the Roundhead side of the fence yet he was firmly opposed to the trial of Charles I, indeed on the first day of the trial his wife heckled from the gallery. So what Marvell seems to be playing with, as in his An Horatian Ode is the complexities involved in any political strategy/

Laundry Lists and Manifestoes is less obviously political but nevertheless plays along the manifesto / manifest / list and the way in which we ‘lean’ on lists as a kind of prop to calm our various neuroses. It’s not that lists are meaningless and arbitrary collations (as with Perec) but that they are inherently faulty in many kinds of ways. One of the very many clevernesses is that the sequence can itself be read as a long and overlapping list of proper nouns, so it’s a list of listists about lists. Of course, manifestoes are a central part of political life and they have there own frailties between ideology and electoral success.

Keston Sutherland is determinedly political and The Odes present a more considered analysis of the dismal workings of the state than his previous work but also makes use of his personal biography to make a more general but astute point about secrets and the liberating effect of exposing secrets.

One of the ‘big’ secrets of contemporary life is that children are sexual beings with sexual feelings. This isn’t in any way a defence for paedophilia but unleashing this particular secret does cast a lot of adult assumptions about notions of innocence and purity out of the window. In The Odes Sutherland describes in quite graphic detail his own childhood sexual preferences and desires and contrasts these with the desire of his parents to both prevent these being acted upon and to keep them hidden from the world. As well as disliking political poetry, I have a distinct loathing of what we now think of as confessional work so I should really hate this particular mix but it is saved by the strength of the analysis and the wider implications of the confession. I think.

There’s also the issue of wider appeal, we all live under the rule and by the rules of the state, we’re currently watching a couple of states looking increasingly fragile from internal strife and one that has gone beyond the point of self-destruction. We all make lists, nobody is free from the deep need to impose order on the world around us and this takes the form a list of nouns interspersed with a list of their ‘connectors’. We all have a personal manifesto which, whether conscious or not, guides our behaviour. Mine is poorly articulated notion of integrity that contains all of the qualities that I aspire to and it’s there because my previous behaviours have refined down those moral traits that make sense to me. There have been other lists, the clearest being the set of tasks that needed to be done in order to gain as much money in as short a time as possible. Everybody should think more about lists in a much more critical and sceptical manner- Matthias’s sequence prods us into doing that very thing. In a similar fashion we all need to confront our most hidden and awkward secrets and the lies that we tell ourselves about them. It now seems to me absurd that we deny in ourselves what we know to be true and incorporate that denial into our view of the world. Keston’s choice of secret is perhaps extreme but there are many, many others, the way that we deny our racism, our material greed and what Foucault almost described once as the fascist within.

Pointfulness

I read a lot of poetry and I’ve noticed a new demarcation in addition to honest / dishonest line and it’s to do with futility. It seems to me that the vast majority of published work on both sides of the Atlantic is utterly pointless, it makes no positive cultural contribution and is staggeringly complacent even as it glides into its own irrelevance. I’m not going to name names but it does take a lot for work to rise above this dismal morass. None of these three are complacent, the poets involved a clearly challenging themselves to produce work that challenges the staus quo and move things forward in a positive direction. I accept that Marvell’s being dead for a long, long time but nobody yet has picked up the gauntlet that he laid down.

In conclusion, I’m discovering a growing number of components that make up my idea of quality and it is making me read familiar work in new and fascinating eays. I wonder if others have their own readerly criteria…?

Keston Sutherland’s Under the Mattress

I am now in possession of a draft of the above, having watched the youtube clip of Keston reading this recently in the US. I’m told that it may not be finished but what I’ve seen is a very impressive piece of work. I’ll start with the central image, ‘you’ are underneath a mattress whilst a British military observer is ‘fucking his girlfriend’ on top of it. This is brilliant in all kinds of ways and in order to identify those ways I want to go back to the first part of the second ode from Odes to TL61P. This concerns our police force(s) and is a savage attack on the way in which the current status quo is maintained.

One of the many developments that have occurred during my adult life is the increased cleverness of the police whose primary function seems to have moved from Catching Bad People to Working with Communities as a kind of social work with muscle. Of course this is not the case, both of these functions are, as they always have been, cover for the ‘real’ task which is keeping us in our place. The general ‘cover’ has moved from the pseudo morality of the first stance to the management of communities with all the performance targets and outcomes and strategic babble that this implies.

This dismal state of affairs is captured thus:

What the public here from the police on TV is the
voice of police management. Everyone who has a
manager knows what that litotic brachylogy always
sounds like. You learn in the end to pick out the
buzzwords like hairs from a dessert you only think you
don't want to eat now, whereas in truth it is what you
have paid for in order that you can be too intimidated
to complain about it or send it back, by way of sending
it back instead, and though the mouthfeel is like
a grease-filled crack except astonishingly ugly you
study to toll your eyes, pucker as if embittered, and
furtively smirk at the gelatine souffle with the other
patriotic bulimics........

This is the sort of stuff that has me punching the air in delight. It’s grown up political satire and it is gloriously complex. This isn’t just another illustration of our complicity in our oppression/exploitation but the truly grim picture which is that we know that all of this is a con and yet make a conscious decision to live our lives as if it wasn’t. Keston has said that he isn’t sure whether he’s written a satire or a critique but I’m of the view that this manages to do both as well as skewering the fundamental lie of the ongoing farce that is New Labour.

Some time ago (before I became a more rounded and understanding person) I would have gone on to have a rant about both litotic and brachylogy as being both obscure and off-putting to the average reader. I think this argument would still stand if we didn’t now have free and instant access to the OED and other reference tomes via the marvels of the interweb. Now, given that I’ve been unable to unwrap both these oddities in less than a minute, I don’t think this argument applies to me but it may do for those who may find words like these intimidating in the sense that whoever uses them is much cleverer than they are and for those who just want to read poetry for the language without being overly concerned about anything as moveable as meaning.

I didn’t have a problem about not knowing what those two words mean and was quite happy to be swept along by the strength of the argument initially but then felt the need to discover that litotic isn’t a word in the OED (and therefore Does Not Exist) but is probably being used as the adjective for ‘litotes’ whichic is defined as “A figure of speech, in which an affirmative is expressed by the negative of the contrary; an instance of this.” Brachylogy (which is a word) is apparently a term used in the lost art of rhetoric and means: ” Conciseness of speech, laconism; a condensed expression.” So, it turns out that this is probably the most concise way of saying what Sutherland wants to say and is therefore not only defensible but also a Good Thing.

Before we proceed to the dreamer under the mattress, there are a couple of brief detours that I want to take. John Bloomberg Rissman and I have been discussing the specialness or otherwise of poetry and I was challenged / asked to come up with a definition. Of course I ducked this as best I could but came up with what had attracted / enchanted me in the first place: the ability of the poem to express greater precision by means of compression. I don’t think that poetry is unique in this but I think, at its best, it does it very well. This is a long way of saying that ‘litotic brachyology’ is an example of this and of Sutherland’s poetic skills.

The other by-way that needs to be trod is that of satire, it wasn’t until I was writing out the above that I noticed the scabrous nature of this astonishingly ugly crack that is filled with grease. Having now noticed it, I think i have to ask whether this extreme kind of satire doesn’t detract from the deadly serious point that is being made. Just because Swift did doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s okay. In this instance I’m prepared to accept that it’s meant to be read at a rate of knots and that something forceful is required but I’m not certain that it isn’t a little gratuitous.

What follows is not just a dissection of police tactics in protests but also an interweaving of the hacking fiasco, the Arab spring, the emergence of China Mobile as a global competitor and the oddness that is the lingering and ongoing death of Yvonne Fletcher with management speak and the relationship between police overtime and crisis.

This was intended as a description of the effectiveness of the central image in Under the Mattress but I seem to have gotten carried away, this is magnificent:

.........................have a dream in which to 
evade arrest you squeeze your whole body under a 
mattress laid out intuitively horizontal on which now
 superficially outlays overcharged and wasted an 
obscurely misplaced British military observer who is 
thereby on standby to be presumed innocent on the 
ground of his readiness to fall in with reality not once
but by more expertly fucking his girlfriend, and once
having been gratefully squeezed under the mattress it 
is still being done more expertly to her on, to excuse 
the strange imposition of a life directly under his 
peacekeeping pounding ass, you explain without
 meaning it or strangely caring that who should remain 
at large on the tugboat or free would needs risk 
being captured, in vintage language like that.....

There are two things here that attract my attention. The first is this observer who we are told is a military observer but is also a peacekeeper. Starting with the business of observation, I seem to recall fairly reliable (and not denied) evidence that British ‘diplomats’ were present as observers when people were being tortured in a number of dark rooms all over the world. I also recall the present regime of posh rich boys undertaking to have a thorough review of these observers’ role and / or complicity in these barbaric practices which we could never condone or make use of. However, it must be pointed out that this observer is not actually applying the electrodes, hammer, white noise, hooding but is merely observing the process and the results that then ensue. The eminently reasonable argument put forward by the powers that be, or copied from the Bush adminstration, is that these ‘techniques’ produce valuable intelligence which helps us to win the War on Terror and that we need to observe the process in order to gain that intelligence. Of course this particular military observer may be a peacekeeping observer in somewhere intransigently tricky like the DRC which would be completely neutral and have nothing to do with the interests of the larger (British) mining conglomerates currently bringing wealth and prosperity to the region.

The second thing to think about is what it means or what it’s like to be under a mattress. First and most obviously your movement is restricted and you can’t see very much. Secondly you have the weight of the mattress and those people lying on it weighing down on you. Anything you hear is muffled and you can only see what is apparent in the gap on either side between the mattress and the frame of the bed. You cannot complain against the activities going on above because you are hiding in order to evade arrest.

At least one of your hands may yet protrude from the side of the bed as if in silent protest at what is going on above it. Breathing is likely to be difficult especially as your rib cage is buffeted from the exertions going on above.

It is a dream poem and in this particular dream the protagonist (still addressed as ‘you’) moves in and out of being “Roger fucking Moore” complete with a brief biography of this Great British Icon and the overall ‘feel’ is more satire than critique and it’s very funny.

So, an image that will stay with me for a very long time and a poem that manages to be seriously absurd / absurdly serious with a great deal of verbal flair. One of the threads that seems to be worked through in Keston’s recent work is an increasingly grown-up and sophisticated analysis of the workings of the state. As a closet anarchist, I’m very pleased indeed.