Tag Archives: stress position

Keston Sutherland: the Dot Investigation

Regular readers will know that I’ve had a recent peeve (technical term) about the dot that appears in section II of Stress Position and annoyingly re-emerges in The Odes to TL61P. Since then, thanks to the infinite and not-to-be-questioned power of the interweb, several new possible justifications have been put to me and I have been gently reminded that I omitted the Dot in the Foot. I’ve also had a question put to me which I need to quote in full:

I wonder has there ever been a word in your life that has oddly just stuck around or hung in the air or returned obstinately to your mind without ever fully or altogether disclosing its charge of significance or range of associations?

I do want to address this at some length but first I want to report on my Dot Findings.

It turns out that the dot is not an annoyingly empty affectation, indeed it has a very clear origin and ‘meaning’. Thanks again to the power of the interweb I now have a digitised copy of an essay entitled “Poetry and Subjective Infinity” by Keston Sutherland which I am told pre-dates SP.

I think it is only fair to warn the uninitiated that Keston is much more Marxist than your average Marxist and what follows contains more than a little of Karl and may require some sympathy with a leftist position. We start with a childhood dream:

I would return to the labyrinth, resentful and awkward with grief, consciously unable to comprehend the reality that this cycle of meaningless labour in infinite abstraction would go on eternally, that it would go on being interrupted at regular intervals in order that the alien law could be reaffirmed, and that this whole cycle played out in absolute abstraction emptied of all sensuous content was not only inescapable, but that it was somehow the very pattern of necessity itself, and that my whole life would be spent in the dutiful repetition of this cycle, and that I would never understand why or to what end. In the dream I was a dot in infinity. When I woke up, I was a child standing in the living room in my pyjamas, drenched in sweat, convulsively screaming noises, and my father and sister were standing in front of me, nervously attempting to wake me, their two adjacent faces twisted up in worry and astonishment.

We then move on to Becket’s Imagination Dead Imagine from which this is quoted:

No, life ends and no, there is nothing elsewhere, and no question now of ever finding again that white speck lost in whiteness, to see if they still lie in the stress of that storm, or of a worse storm, or in the black dark for good, or the great whiteness unchanging, and if not what they are doing.

Now, you will be pleased to know that, to further this investigation, I have just read all three pages of Imagination Dead Imagine. This isn’t any kind of burden for me because Becket’s prose has been a lifelong companion and I like to think that I have a reasonable grasp of the work. In this particular piece the scene is set with great precision and two prone and motionless figures are subjected to variations in temperature and light. The ‘speck lost in whiteness’ is first described as “Externally all is as before and the sighting of the little fabric quite as much a matter of chance, its whiteness merging into the surrounding whiteness”. There is then an analysis of the grammatical structure before this explanation of the speck:

The figure of the speck lost in infinity is something like the test of this proposition. It is the image of life contracted into a terminally punctual abstraction, jettisoned in a world from which it is absolutely impotent to escape, and which it can never hope even in the slightest degree to alter, disrupt or influence. To be absolutely impotent and absolutely lost in the world is not yet to be dead; but as Beckett often only seems to joke, the difference is in truth indifferent.

This is followed by Marx’s dot or his use of the term Puntualitat which is translated for us as ‘dotlikeness’ and is used by Marx (apparently) to describe the appearance of the individual under the “despotism” of capital. The point is also made that capital “assumes the role of infinity.”

I’m going to glide over the discussion that follows about the (no doubt) complex relationship between Marx and Hegel because it seems to be more about infinity that The Dot. There’s also a fair bit about the way that capital empties out the worker.

The essay ends with a rousing and heartfelt description of what poetry can and must do which starts with:

To be the critic of political economy, really to be the active enemy of capital and not its sycophant, requires poetry: speculation as the work of subjectively infinite self-conscious reflection must be kept alive in poetry.


It has always seemed to me that the image of the dot lost in infinity, the image of absolutely belittled life horrifyingly forever adrift in infinite emptiness, is a basic experiential content of poetry. I have not written a poem I care about that was not in some more or less explicit way determined by that image and my horror of it.

So, I stand corrected – the dot does have a specific significance and meaning in Keston’s work and practice and is not, as I cynically suggested, a mere stylistic tic. There are however a couple of thoughts that this investigation has prompted for me. The first of these is the underlying and (to me) key difference between Becket’s speck and Marx’s punkt. The latter would appear to be a product of an economic system and would disappear if that system was overthrown. The first has always been our reality and will remain so throughout our existence regardless of the contexts in which we live. For Becket struggle and striving are always futile because they always end in a paricularly unremitting kind of failure.

The next point (entirely intentional} that I think needs to be made is that being an active enemy of capital does not require poetry any more than it requires light opera. This seems so blindingly self-evident to me that I cannot understand how very bright people whose work I have the greatest respect for should continue to make this entirely spurious piece of grandiosity. Poetry may be many wonderful things but it is neither essential nor, in any way, special. End of short and oft-repeated rant.

I think I also need to point out the absolute sincerity of Keston’s views on this, I have no doubt that his belief in the power of poetry is keenly felt and probably is the ingredient (technical term) that gives his work its brilliance and strength. I just think he’s wrong.

I’m not going to re-examine each particular dot here because that’s probably best left to individual readers although I may feel the need to return to the dot in the foot and the Capo dot at a later stage.

Keston Sutherland’s dot

Whilst thinking about writing this I realised that something has changed. Not so very long ago if I came across something that I didn’t understand then I automatically assumed that this was my problem, that I was insufficiently educated, inadequately read and what generally ignorant. I now realise that this is no longer the case. When I encounter a similar piece of bafflement I now assume that the problem lies primarily with the poet rather than with me. I’ve also noticed that I’m less bothered by elitism, not because it isn’t a sin but more because it seems to matter less. I think I might need to worry about both of these because there’s clearly some softening occurring and this does not sit at all well with my carefully honed rugged Northern working class persona.

I have no idea when these events occurred but they do seem to be exemplified by the Dot Problem.

I started reading Keston’s Stress Position at the very end of 2009 and was very impressed which is unusual because most kinds of poetic polemic manage to be both childishly agitated and tedious in equal measure.

I’ve written with enthusiasm about SP many times since then but I’ve always managed to glide gracefully around the dot device. Initially this was because I didn’t understand it and felt that this was due to the above issues. I was also very happy to overlook the dots because SP is full of many, many good things that I do understand and can write about. So, I was quite happy to file the dots away until some rainy day when things would become suddenly clear. However the dot (I now notice) has returned in The Odes to TL61P and I am trying to say intelligent things about these because I think they might be Quite Important.

So, I’ve been back to SP’s dots and have to report that they’re not any clearer now than they were in 2009. Section 2 (The Workings) opens with:

        To the anagrammatic Diotima I am a bare intuition of Vietstock
    so we split - on a skiv run down The Street like a milky gutter
        of burnt silk singing 8000 BAHT the girl with the waggly tail
    my eyes too. A billion negligible eggs in a rectangle pruned
        to a triangle, pruned to a dot. Making the parts of a sky inside you
    shift, think, and you too, reliving Svay Pak. Across the road
         Tajik scag, Satyr alive on theft, metanarcissism.

Now you might think that this is a fuss about nothing, that this particular dot makes complete sense given where it sits. However, this is the second half of the third stanza:

I can’t understand how beautiful it is, my thin heart thrashes at
the limit it sets in stony flesh flooded by brilliancy
later unknown, this is the real dot I hear my final voice
repeat as the shrinkwrapped air collapses spinning into the floor.

I would ask you to note the italics above because this is all of the fourth stanza:

        Now I want you to repeat that back to me in white noise
    lived with static that comes in grey when put on the black market,
        like truth faded into. I turn the hole in her foot into
    a man called DOT, it is not a person but a multicoloured and
        immaculate silhuette of whom it thrills me as I eat
    a chthonic donut, which, if you lick its sugar, tells the story
        of my dot, of Black Beauty, of the gastro yacht, of poetry.

It doesn’t end there, there are two real dots and and some dots that are all joined up, italicised, upper case dots and a capo dot further on. Now, perhaps it can be seen why I decided to leave well alone, the poem (apart from this and a couple of other tics) is brilliantly inventive and does what poetry can do at its very best. My initial response of being too thick to work out what might be going on has been given over to annoyance. First, I’m not a fan of changes in type to hint at a variation of meaning. Second, I’m not too sure that I can be bothered to work out what the dots might, if anything, signify. Third, I have a lingering suspicion that Section two of SP may be too elaborately affected for its own good. All of which is a pity.

We now come to The Odes of which I am the most enthusiastic fan / advocate / reader. I continue to think that it’s a really important piece of work in that it reaches out to the world well beyond poetry, it’s uncompromisingly honest and incredibly brave. Unfortunately, I’ve just noticed a dot. I hadn’t noticed it before but I am trying to write intelligent things about Ode 1 and this involves me paying more attention than usual. There may, of course, be other dots but this is the first:

     ...................You task Madiha Shenshel with
    cooking your breakfast (hawk eggs in fried milk
    high in polycollaterals), then finishing it, then making
    it again (fuck, a dot), automatically spitting shells
    out; you prefer the boxes to the toys; Deborah's photo
    of herself crammed into her college wardrobe, ad
    infitum; the hair on a thousand mothers; infinity ad
    nauseam; the internal level counter is stored in a single
    byte, and when it reaches 255 the subroutine causes 
    this value to roll over to zero before drawing the fruit.

So, there are two alternatives, I can note that the offending conceit is in brackets and therefore can be ignored or I can take a deep breath and start with all those dots in SP and work out what might be going on. It then occurs to me that the brackets argument doesn’t work because, by that argument, I’d miss the collaterals quip which does make a difference to what’s around it.

So, this isn’t my problem, I’m not missing the ‘point’ or, if I am, the ‘point’ isn’t sufficiently clear. One of the issues that I still have with SP is that sometimes it becomes a little too pleased with itself and occasionally Keston lets his cleverness (he is very clever) get the better of him so that the substance gets a bit lost. Nevertheless, it seems that it’s time to revisit The Workings.

The Odes to TL61P: another experiment in reading

You’ve been reading this in various drafts since 2010 and now you have the Real Thing and you’ve read it a couple of times and you went to the Dalston launch where Keston read bits of it gloriously out of sequence and you’ve blogged on the Odes / Stress Position debate and now it’s time to get to grips with it.

One of your better Sutherland-related observations is that his work makes reasonable sense until you read the actual words rather than let the words wash over you. The first couple of pages appear to bear this out and you’re not sure how you feel about this so you start slowly with the first few lines:

Each time you unscrew the head the truths burn out
and fly away above the stack of basements inundated
in aboriginal mucus, elevating the impeccable,
hereafter congenitally depilated Janine rescaled to a
grainy blank up on to the oblong top of the freezer 
whose shut white lid unhinged at the back alone
preserves a pyramid of rigid meat, budget pizzas,
devirginated arctic rolls, only ever kidding in a
prophylactic void torn into great crates of glittering
eye shadow, dowsing all its stickiness in dark empty 
swerves, for no-one is the radius of everything we 
are,  reinforced steel artery in the very integument

You acknowledge to yourself the energy and the thrust, you also like the confidence of ‘only kidding’ which you’ll come back to shortly but first you decided to think about this ‘head’ that is unscrewed. You recognise that this particular noun has many, many meanings from head of lettuce through to human head and on to the head of an oil well and this last might be appropriate given that this results in burning. The other thing you notice is ‘each’ which indicates, as there’s only one head involved, that the head is unscrewed, emits truths and is then screwed back down again. You know enough about the rest of the poem to gather that this may relate to the theme of the tyranny of secrets and the absolute need to break them but you may, as usual, be rushing ahead of yourself. These ‘truths’ are also a bit of a worry because Keston’s previous truths tend to have been coloured by his Marxian perspective and Stress Position makes fairly explicit his distaste with the/my relativist tendency. You don’t recall being conscious of this getting extended in your previous readings and hope that these kind of truths relate to secrets rather than some kind of universal positivism.

You can’t resist having a peek at the OED definitions for ‘head’ and are staggered by the number and by the fact that you’d forgotten or overlooked so many but it does appear that the well head / flare stack may be the best analogy. The ever-improving Wikipedia tells you that flare stacks are used to burn off the natural gas that comes to the surface (the head of the well) with the oil and that there are normally efficient valves that can stop and start the flow as required. You also recognise that there’s more than one meaning to ‘screw’. This could all be very wide of the mark especially if you take the next two lines into account but it might be significant that these truths burn there way out and then ‘fly away’. You start with the obvious, truths are abstract and completely incapable of either burning or flying. There is however, in the world of secrets, that the content of some truths is so dangerous and corrosive that it is exposed and then flies away. You now hate yourself because you’ve just leapt to Edward Snowden currently in the noplace of Moscow airport and to the slow burn of secrets locked away in Welsh care homes. You then re-read just to make sure that this is a track that you want to go down and realise that ‘burn out’ also has connotations of becoming exhausted, stressed, demoralised and no longer fit for the tsk that you have started. You try to bear this in mind as you come up against these stacked basements.

You don’t want to be too clever or overly poetic but you can’t resist clocking the proximity of basement to abasement and then decide that this is silly, the point is that these burning truths have flown away from their source and are now above these stacks which are flooded with this Very Early snot. This is where the absence of sense may start to kick in but you persevere. Of course, a stack of basements is difficult to envisage because a basement is the room usually at the bottom of the ‘stack’ of other rooms. So if another basement is placed on top of it then that basement becomes a room because it is no longer at the base of the stack.

You consider a different approach but first realise that this Welsh care home thing relates not just to institutional and political secrets but also the truth that an abusing adult will take enormous pains to conceal. You then move on to state secrets and the fact that many of these cover up various forms of abuse from torture through to eavesdropping and reading my e-mails. The different approach turns out to be the function of the basement.

Basements are hidden from view, rarely visited and (in movies at least) the scene of very many bad things. People are killed, bodies are dismembered, the ‘truth’ is extracted in the basement precisely because it is hidden from view, indeed it might even be metaphor for the underbelly of the modern state. We know, thank to the release of truths, that the US and UK arranged for torture to be carried out in basements all over the world and that the use of ‘stacks’ may simply mean ‘very many’.

The snot problem is in part resolved by the discovery that it is only nasal mucus that is snot and that the term is “viscous substance secreted by the mucous cells and glands of animals to provide protection, lubrication, etc” which ties in a bit more with the grisly business of inflicting pain on others.

You may now be wavering between the sense and non-sense positions but you still have your suspicions that this is as it is because it contains more than a touch of the absurd and you’ve just spent ninety minutes or so reading things into something that were never there. This nagging doubt is not at all helped by the prospect of the hairless Janine.

The Odes to TL61P and Stress Position

Word has reached the bebrowed central committee that there are those who are expressing the view that ‘The Odes’ are not as good as ‘Stress Position’ and that they represent a more conservative politics. It would be easy to dismiss this as errant nonsense but it has given me something to consider, primarily because the people expressing this view are not usually foolish.

I also need to throw in some disclaimers, I’ve been reading The Odes, in draft form, on and off since 2010 and I was immediately struck by the quality of the poem and the absolute honesty of what it says. I saw it then, and still do, as a significant improvement on any of Sutherland’s previous work and welcomed the change in political ‘tone’.

I’ll deal with quality later but first I think I should address the ‘more conservative’ gibe. (Deep breath). I know that am more than thirty years older than the majority of Sutherland’s readers and our political perspectives might be completely different but the fact remains that an attack on torture in Iraq is easy politics. You do not have to be anywhere close to ideological purity to recognise the folly of the neo-con position and its murderous consequences. Everybody opposes torture, even those states that perpetrate it (ours).

I’m going to indulge in a personal anecdote or two before we get to The Odes. I’ve been professionally involved in a couple of major child abuse crises during the last twenty five years, during the first of these I was stopped in the street by a fellow CPGB member who wanted to know what the ‘line’ was on CSA and how we could make political gain from the disarray around us. It took me at least thirty minutes to gently explain that this was yet another of those issues where conventional thinking about ‘lines’ and political advantage might not apply. I think I also pointed out that ideological affiliation didn’t get in the way of fathers raping their children. I think I must also state that this particular colleague was and is very far from any kind of male chauvinism- he just didn’t get it.

The other anecdote relates to criminal trial involving one paedophile and twenty three young male victims with learning difficulties. Both the police and I were confident that the weight of evidence ws overwhelming but the jury convicted only on charges relating to one of the victims. Immediately after the trial an enraged DS and I pursued several jurors to a nearby pub and (gently) queried their reasoning. We were told that this young person was believed because he admitted to enjoying the acts perpetrated on him.

My point is that a poem about childhood sexuality and activity is neither more nor less conservative than a poem about torture in Iraq because terms like ‘conservative’ simply don’t apply. The analysis of what I’m currently thinking of as ‘austerity logic’ is reasonably astute and he continues to scathe away at the bastions of late capital and imperialism, so I don’t see any significant shift in position but rather an opening out from the confines of leftish concerns into areas where there are no easy ‘answers’.

One of the many challenges The Odes present to all of us is how to confront the way in which we keep some things secret as to do otherwise would be to invite societal/personal rejection. Because I’m a political animal I’d argue that this is a profoundly political issue that ideologues won’t touch with a bargepole precisely because it makes a mockery of the standard political spectrum and is so very threatening.

I’ll also confess to being biased because some of us have recognised since the mid-eighties that the current way of the world demands new and perhaps more oblique forms of action and have spent the last thirty years identifying those areas where a difference can be made in a way that reconfigures the networks by which we live. In brief, writing poems ‘against’ torture and bonkers neo-con imperialism won’t stop these phenomena whereas writing poems about secrets and guilts might encourage readers to consider their own and do something about them.

Now, we move on to the equally tricky issue of quality. I think I may have written more than most on Stress Position over the last three years and I also think I’ve been clear about its strengths and its failings. I know this may seem heretical in some quarters but there are some parts of SP that aren’t very good, there’s many bits that are brilliant and one in particular (which has nothing to do with Iraq) which walks ll over my soul every time I read it. There are also elements of tone where the anger becomes spiteful and arrogant and there are elements that don’t quite work in the sense that the underlying ‘sense’ breaks down which some might find attractive in an agit-prop kind of way but mars the fluency of the rant and, to this reader at least, is simply annoying.

The Odes have their rantings but these have more control and are thus more effective. The verbal clevery is just as incisive but less mannered in that it is clearly a personal statement/disclosure throughout in a way that SP never was. It could be of course that I’m biased, that this more personally honest sequence is more suited to my jaded and cynical palate, that I think it’s much better (and I do) because it’s less polemic and more challenge. This may be the case but there’s also the argument that the weak bits of poetry in the Odes are not as weak nor as numerous as those in SP and the work as a whole is much more ‘significant’ because it has a wider range and takes on difficult and disturbing themes in an accomplished way.

Some may fret about the high ratio of prose to verse and there are always technical questions about balance and the points where verse takes over and vice versa but this can’t be an argument about quality unless it the mix is obviously clunky (lit crit term) and it isn’t.

To conclude, The Odes are radically challenging and disturbing in ways that SP isn’t and they have greater focus and technical control which makes them ‘better’. Doesn’t it?

Getting poetry

Here in the UK it was said of our last prime minister that he didn’t ‘get’ it which is one of the main reasons that he was thrown out. In the popular press our current leaders a portayed as ‘arrogant posh boys’ who don’t ‘get’ it either. In both cases this relates to a failure to understand / identify with the experiences of the ordinary citizen.

I’ve given this some thought with regard to poetry and the sad fact that most people don’t feel that they ‘get’ it in that they don’t see the point of it or how it might relate to them. I’ve come to the conclusion that there is only a very small amount of verse that I can see the point of and a very small proportion of that is poetry that I feel might relate / speak to me.

For me ‘getting’ a poem is not the same as understanding it, I can work out what poems ‘mean’ but this does not mean that I can see the point of them nor does it mean that I can relate personally to them.

I’ll proceed by example, I don’t see the point of Auden, Hopkins, Rilke, Dryden and many others because they don’t seem to be saying anything either useful or different. I’ll readily admit that I might need to spend more time with these but an initial period of attention has failed to impress.

I can see the point of a lot of religious verse in that some of it is both useful and sufficiently different to hold my attention but I can’t relate to it, it says little to me about how I live my life even though I understand and appreciate the way that it says what it has to say. I’m thinking primarily of George Herbert and RS Thomas.

There are very few bodies of work that I can relate to in their entirety- only Andrew Marvell and Elizabeth Bishop spring to mind as poets whose work seems consistently ‘pointful’ and relates to my life in the clattering now. By ‘relate’ I think I mean those poems that I don’t have to think about, those that reflect / embody ways that I have thought and felt so that I know instinctively what’s going on. Writing this I realise that I could and should go on for a very long time about how I know (absolutely) the mind and the impulse that made “The Moose” the poem that it is.

Then there are those poems that I can see the point of but only bits of them speak to me. Some of these bits speak of my experiences and some of the way that I think and feel. The wedding reception scene in Keston Sutherland’s ‘Stress Position’ speaks to both my experience of mental illness and to the way that I think about it and does so in a deeply humane, unselfish kind of way. I can relate to and see the point of the strangeness of the human condition as set out in Books 3 and 5 of ‘The Faerie Queene’ even though my view of Book 5 is far away from the current consensus. I can, of course, see the point of the rest and iy is all magnificent but it doesn’t have the same complexity / nuance / strangeness of 3 and 5. I absolutely ‘get’ Milton’s discussion of evil in ‘Paradise Lost’ and this does speak to my experiences of working with people who do Bad (terrible) Things, I’m also of the view that this particular poem is the best thing ever produced anywhere but the description of Eden (whilst technically a tour de force) is quite boring (to me). ‘Maximus’ is nearly the perfect poem in that it contains so many things that tell me what it’s like to be alive, about place, process and the archive, but the material relating to myth just doesn’t reach me.

Understanding isn’t a prerequisite of getting a poem, in fact it can sometimes get in the way. Some of the work of Paul Celan and J H Prynne I can see the point of and it seems to embody how it is for me but I don’t claim to have a complete grasp of what’s being said. With Celan, obvious examples are ‘Aschenglorie’ and ‘Erblinde’, with Prynne, there are moments of absolute clarity in ‘Streak~~Willing~~Entourage~~Artesian’ and a whole range of ideas going on in ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ that do seem to speak of the now.

Here’s a bit of a confession, Geoffrey Hill’s ‘The Mercian Hymns’ and ‘The Triumph of Love’ are stuffed with point and are two of the finest poems that we have (there is no argument with this as it is obviously a fact) but it is the short poems about landscape that I relate to most because (as with Olson) they put into words (embody) what it is like for me to be in a place. I’m incredibly grateful for this because it (social work term) validates and oddly anticipates the feelings that I have.

There is another dimension to getting poetry and this relates to tactics, There are some poets that write poetry that moves things forward and there are those poets that maintain a / the status quo. It is usually reasonably straightforward to identify these poets. Between 1960 and his suicide in 1970, Paul Celan wrote tactically important poems, J H Prynne has spent the last forty years making tactical / strategic interventions, ‘Howl’ is tactically crucial to an understanding of Where We are Now. I don’t agree with asingle word that Kenneth Goldsmith has ever uttered but ‘Traffic’ is something that I ‘get’ and something that is likely to be seen as quite pivotal.

We now come to to poems that I get as poems and that make tactical sense. These are very few in number because I’m a particularly opinionated individual and (I like to think) my standards are high. There is Vanessa Place whose work mirrors ‘how it is’ for me and who rattles many cages whilst pointing out how what we call poetry can begin to reclaim some degree of relevance in these provisional and vague times. There is also the work of Sarah Kelly that speaks to me but also makes a voice that must be heard above and against the prevailing din. Both of these two set up a kind of imperative (must be read / cannot be ignored) and yet they are utterly different, the only link being what they do to the inside of my head.

Is poetry too poetic?

I come to this in wavering mode. On the one hand it can (and is about to be) argued that poetry is the main problem with poetry just as politics is the main problem with politics. On the other hand I can point to the work of some of our younger poets (particularly Timothy Thornton and Francesca Lisette) as examples of really strong poetic poets who are moving the form in new and exciting directions.

I need to clarify what I mean by the nature of the problem. The first issue is introspection and the sad fact that most poems a written in and from aspects of poetic lineage. We are all guilty of this, I have spent many years attempting to write in a similar fashion to poets that I admire because I think this is a good way to do poetry and also because I like to think that I ‘get’ what they are about. The second issue relates to what I think of as the heightened language problem. It is absolutely correct to say that poetry in a variety of ways concentrates, refines, energises and thus heightens our language practice but I am concerned that there is too much heightening going on.

Poetry that plainly says what needs to be said.

I’m going to start with a quote from George Herbert because it’s what reminded me of the current poetry problem and because it gives me an opportunity to identify contemporary poets who make matters worse. This is the first verse of ‘Jordan’:

Who sayes that fictions onely and false hair
Become a verse? Is there in truth no beautie?
Is all good structure in a winding stair? May no lines passe, except they do their dutie
Not to a true, but painted chair?

I would argue that the problem is best exemplified by the ‘false hair’, the ‘winding stair’ and the ‘painted chair’. The first time I read these lines I thought of Prynne’s austerity and his stated aim to say how things are and then I realised that he’s frequently guilty of creating a winding stair. In fact it’s the complexities of the stair that I find so compelling. Then I recalled those moments where the austerity is ruptured by false hair moments. ‘To Pollen’ is mostly unlyrical in that the phrases are blunt and completely without heightening. The third poem in the sequence ends with “Stand nearby went off its oil trap refined” which just isn’t poetic. The twentieth poem however has:

will explain how that works, how bravery is planted
in a celestial soil like dust that we are

and ends with:

for good cheer brave hearts never in vain as under
starry skies commit acts of stupendous cocky turpitude.

The first of these is a bitter and sarcastic quote of what the clergy say about warfare whilst the second undermines the lyrical description of our soldiers with the last three words, especially ‘cocky’ which is almost anti-poetic.

I’m ready to concede that Prynne is a special case in all kinds of ways and that the above two examples (ruptures which are intended to take our breath away) can be seen as attacks on Herbert’s false hair but I wonder whether their cleverness can be seen as part of the winding stair. Prynne does all kinds of winding stairs, he does radical ambiguity, he does secondary and tertiary meanings, he does obscure references all of which might appear at variance with his desire to say how things are.

Poetry made with false hair.

I’m guessing that this extract from Simon Jarvis’ F0 is what Herbert had in mind:

The grey shades fall across the lintel and the steppes of lack still roll their perfect carpet out
Not like something upon which it is death to tread rather like some death which we are to be and to tread.
The sun is still felt to go down as this planet spins over it
No less lit when it turns away
Than is this inside
No darker or lighter than a thought.

There’s the poetic twists of the first line (‘shades fall’, steppes of lack’) followed by the repetition ruse in the second and the mannered syntax and distorted perspective of the last four. I speak as fan of Jarvis and consider him to be one of our most accomplished poets but I think this, by being too poetic, is the kind of thing that gives poetry a bad name.

On this theme, it is widely acknowledged that nobody does the English landscape as well as Geoffrey Hill, this is conceded even by those who dislike the rest of his output. It is therefore of some note that Hill is at his most poetic (and playing with false hairs) in this particular mode. This is the beginning of “In Ipsley Church Lane 2″:

Sage green through olive to oxidised copper
the rainward stone tower-face. Graveyard
blossoms come off in handfuls - the lilac
turned overnight a rough tobacco brown. Every few minutes the drizzle shakes
itself like a dog.

As poetry this is very accomplished and poetic (‘rainward’, drizzle shaking itself etc) with a lyricism that’s at odds with the rougher speech and language struggles that occur in his less popular and more challenging work. This, I feel, tells us a lot about what many critics and readers expect from poetry, that it should have false hair and embellish rather than heighten language.

The Dogme interlude.

(Bear with me, this does make a kind of sense.)

Last night I was watching the Mark Cousins thing on the history of film and he was interviewing Lars von Trier. Lars was explaining what he did with the camera in ‘Breaking the Waves’ and Cousins remarked that Godard did something similar in the early sixties. Lars smiled at this and gently explains that Godard was/is still caught up in the cinematic tradition of making film whereas he wanted to get rid of all that.

The point is that those who do poetry perhaps need to get rid of all that as well. It’s interesting that at Dogme hq there is Dreyer’s editing desk and perhaps poets and critics should take a look at “The Passion of Joan of Arc’ to be reminded of just how much can be done with less.

I’ve never been keen on Dogme because I’m not keen on artificial constraints but some ‘rules’ might be helpful in solving the poetry problem or at least in beginning to think about the problem.

The Stress Position Dither.

As I’ve already said there’s a degree of wavering in my head on this because of the brilliance of some of the poetic and lyrical stuff currently being written. There’s also the problem presented by the first part of Keston Sutherland’s ‘Stress Position’ which is written in metrical 7 line stanzas. The poem as a whole is a searing indictment of the dismal Iraq fiasco in general and the use of torture in particular. This is one of the stanzas:

   Wash your mouth, the rustle of sweetened Diyala inflected by affix
FACE 2, affix CONE GUTS 6, the life you rifle down
battering the slash of blood in procrustean sewage, never bespoke
free karaoke? The revolving door that leads to the emerald
has seven doors and seven plates of glass, the man who pushes
it round, who pushes the push bars, who pushes the meaning onward
himself is the spicy diglyceride, pre-cum for oil and water.

Regular readers will know that I’m a great fan of ‘Stress Position’ and consider it to be one of the best achievements in the last twenty five years. I also recognise that the above containsseveral examples of what I’m trying to identify as the problem. There’s the mannered use of words and phrases (‘rustle’, ‘procrustean sewage’ etc), the faux portentousness of revolving doors and the meaning being pushed onward and the repetition of ‘push’ are all tricks of the trade that we could do without.

The dither kicks in when I can recognise the inherent value of the work as a whole and can recognise why the first part is constructed in this way yet feel (uneasily) that the deployment of the poetic bag of tricks is very bad for the future of poetry in the current scheme of things. The other bit of wavering with regard to ‘Stress Position’ is my minority view that the prose section depicting a wedding reception is the most successful and effective part of the work.

John Ashbery and the Winding Stair.

Unlike George Herbert, I don’t have that much of a problem with the ‘winding stair’ and would argue that most ‘good structure’ is in the intelligent and subtle use of form and language. I do however worry about the ongoing influence of Ashbery on both sides of the Atlantic because I feel that his work epitomises what Herbert was trying to get at. I’m going to be glib and suggest that Ashbery is the current poet of the chattering classes, lauded in the quality press and taught extensively in North America and the UK. I remain a great admirer of Ashbery’s earlier work and of the effort that he has put in to champion other poets. It doen’t take a lot of attentive reading to come to the conclusion that most of his later work is fairly self-regarding and repetitive as if Ashbery has found his own winding stair, is sticking to it and wants us all to admire it. I accept that Ashbery can do this because he is John Ashbery and has the absolute right not to care about wider issues. I also feel that, given his ‘profile’ that this kind of stuff is very, very bad for poetry.

The Painted Chair and the Truth

For Herbert, God was the truth, his poems ends with ‘My God, My King!’ as an example of all that plain poetry needs to say. This may be entirely sufficient for religious poetry but doesn’t tally with the situation of poetry today. I would argue that poetry will only survive, other than as a niche for academics and hobbyists, if it challenges, disturbs and confronts our comfortable notions of the truth. The most successful poems that I have read in the ‘challenge and disturb’ department attempt tp say truthful things about difficult subjects- J H Prynne on the ‘Troubles’ Vanessa Place on rape and the nature of evidence and Keston Sutherland on the sexual identities of children. These are disturbing because none of them, as subjects, have easy solutions and the poets do not pretend to provide answers to the challenges that they provoke.

Reading and re-reading ‘Streak~~Willing~~Entourage~~Artesian’, ‘Statement of Facts’ and the yet-to-be-published ‘Odes’ is a disturbing experience but also one that has convinced me that this is the kind of relentlessly honest poetry that must survive and flourish.

Metamodernist poetics

This might take some time.

Over the weekend I fell across (largely by chance) ‘Notes on metamodernism’ by Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker and read it. Normally I get quickly annoyed/bored by attempts to find a label for whatever replaced the last label but this makes a number of points that might have some relevance to the current state of British poetry.

The first thing that caught my eye was this quote from Jerry Solz in the New Yorker:

I’m noticing a new approach to artmaking in recent museum and gallery shows. . . . It’s an attitude that says, I know that the art I’m creating may seem silly, even stupid, or that it might have been done before, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t serious. At once knowingly selfconscious about art, unafraid, and unashamed, these young artists not only see the distinction between earnestness and detachment as artificial; they grasp that they can be ironic and sincere at the same time, and they are making art from this compound-complex state of mind.

These description seems to ‘fit’ with a lot of the poetry that has impressed me in recent years and I want to use this opportunity to think about the different ways that this ‘compound-complex’ mentality may have found voice in poetry.

A definition.

The authors make a case for the metamodern consisting of an ‘oscillation’ between the modern and the post-modern with a twist of neo-romanticism thrown in. I accept that this is a crude characterisation but I think it does get to the essence of the argument.

I continue to have an inherent distrust of labels and of periodisation because they usually hide lazy ways of thinking and the modern/postmodern distinction is often as useless as the medieval / early modern divide. However I am prepared to concede that something did seem to occur in the mid-seventies involving a loss of faith in the relentless march of progress. I’m also prepared to concede that modernism tends to be quite serious/pompous and that the postmodern sets out to undermine this by use of irony and pastiche.

The essay doesn’t bother to define oscillation which is a pity because I think that this might be the most salient point of the argument. The OED has a number of definitions- “movement to and fro; periodic motion about a position of equilibrium, as the swinging of a pendulum”, “A single movement to and fro; a vibration”, ” In music, same as beat‥or beating”, “Vacillation, fluctuation, or wavering between two states, opinions, principles, purposes, etc.; an instance of this” and ” A rapid alternation in the direction of flow of a current; the state of a circuit in which this is occurring. Also: an electromagnetic wave produced by such a current”. I think they mean a rapid movement between two points rather than as in a pendulum- because this would imply a ‘position of equilibrium’ which doesn’t actually exist. I’m trying to ignore the application of ‘metataxis’ because apparently it leads to things being ‘here, there and nowhere’ which is a vain attempt to have your cake and eat it.

Metamodern polarities.

Here’s some polarities identified in the essay;

  • a desire for sens / a doubt about the sense of it all;
  • enthusiasm / irony;
  • hope / melancholy;
  • naivety / knowingness;
  • empathy / apathy;
  • unity / plurality;
  • totality / fragmentation;
  • purity / ambiguity;
  • authenticity / pastiche
  • involved / detached;
  • elitist / democratic.

I’ve added the last two because they seem relevant to what the essay is trying to say.

You may think that this has little or nothing to do with contemporary poetry in the UK but I want to show this rapid movement is used by several different poets with very different aims in mind. I’m going to use Geoffrey Hill, Keston Sutherland, Simon Jarvis and Jonty Tiplady to attempt to demonstrate this. As ever, this is an entirely provisional view that may well be amended / refuted at some later date.

A metamodern Triumph of Love.

Geoffrey Hill is often described as a ‘late’ or a ‘high’ modernist poet. This isn’t particularly useful but a lot of his output does seem to sit firmly at the ‘modern’ end of the spectrum listed above. There are however a number of glaring and significant exceptions to this observation. Two of Hill’s finest works are ‘Mercian Hymns’ and ‘The Triumph of Love’ neither of which fit altogether comfortably into the exclusively modern camp.

‘The Triumph of Love’ is on one level a deeply serious consideration of the Very Bad Things that have occurred in the 20th century which concludes that grace, individual love, decency and endurance have enabled us to endure / survive. At the time of publication, Hill came in for some critical flak for the way that this very serious theme was interspersed with several much lighter / knowing elements. There are the editorial comments placed within the poems, the direct abusive addresses to three unfortunate critics and the occasional refrain from stand-up comedy. The sequence is made up of 150 numbered poems, most of these fit into one category or the other but some combine both. Poem LXIII belongs firmly at the modern end:

These obscenities which - as you say - you fancy
perverting the consecration; you hear them all right
even if they are unspoken, as most are. It is
difficult always to catch the tacit
echoes of self-resonance. Is prayer
residual in imprecation? Only
as we equivocate. When I examine
my soul's heart's blood I find it the blood
of bulls and goats.
Things unspoken as spoken give us away.
What else can I now sell myself, filched
from Lenten Hebrews?

Here we have a desire for ‘sens’ together with a strong interest in unity and authenticity. There’s also a very earnest and serious tone together with the elitist obscurity of the last two lines. It’s also significant that this kind of stuff epitomises how Hill is portrayed in the ‘quality’ press: religious; grumpy; obscure and more than a little intimidating.

At the other end we have poem XL:

For wordly, read worldly; for in equity, inequity;
for religious read religiose; for distiction
detestation. Take accessible to mean
acceptable, accommodating, openly servile.
Is that right, Missis, or is that right? I don't
care what I say do I?

Excessive wordplay, the self-conscious anticipation and defiance of criticism (to write accessible verse is to be ‘openly servile’) followed by pastiche- this is all fairly post-modern, isn’t it?

Now we come to oscillation, ie moving between the two extremes in a single poem this is CXXXI:

Mourning registers as celebration. Haydn
at sixty-six, his clowning majesty
of invention never bettered [He means,
I think, the late 'Erody' Quartets - ED]
Bartok dying in New York, unfinished
music among the sickbed detritus:
ta-Rah ta-Rah ta-rarara Rah

This is the third of five poems with the same last line, all of which are intended to be playful. This is the only one of the five to have an editorial intervention. There is a to-ing and fro-ing between these two devices and the serious point being made about how one element of mourning can be seen as a celebration of the dead person’s life (the whole business of memorialisation is a key factor in Hill’s work. So, can this movement be usefully described as metamodern? Or is it simply late modern with a few postmodern bits thrown in?

Keston Sutherland

We now come to the slightly more complex case of Keston Sutherland. I’m going to use ‘Hot White Andy’ and ‘Stress Position’ because they both throw up quite involved questions about the use of stylistic and formal devices. The first observation to be made is that Sutherland is a Marxist and, as such, he ought to be a clear advocate of modernism’s totalising and Grand Narrative tendencies. He should be writing deadly serious and committed poetry about the political and economic issues of the day, he should have no time at all for the playful fripperies of the postmodern.

There is also the problem of differentiating between the modernist sneer and postmodern playfulness. The first is profoundly elitist and undemocratic whereas the second runs the danger of being simply vacuous. The first example for consideration is from ‘Hot White Andy’ where “I remember that / they were showing Bleaching Lenny. which has this gloss at the bottom of the page-

British reality TV show. Famous comedian Lenny Henry is caught on camera indavertently bleaching himself, one body part per week. In the final episode (8) of the series we are given to contemplate a morose Henry, by this point a ghastly supernatural alabaster from head to foot except for his (since episode 7) quasi-autonomous scrotum, engaged in teabagging an unnamed but invidiously Chinese companion of unfathomable gender. Henry fails to detect through the dark suck-hole in her latex Marsillio Ficino mask, the two tiny hidden natatorium of bleach fashioned ingeniously out of an aluminium peel-lid from a peach yoghurt pot Henry dared to lick out in the first episode (2).

Using the ironic, knowing footnote is a postmodern device, an interest in celebrity is a postmodern trait. The language of the above is also an ironic comment on the glossing of poetry. For those who don’t recall, Henry started his career by impersonating and making fun of black immigrants to the UK from the West Indies and was subsequently pilloried (as a black comedian) for pandering to racial stereotypes. So, I guess we’re meant to go along with this rather facile bleach metaphor and have a bit of a white-boy sneer, all of which feels a bit second hand even if we pause to reflect on the inclusion of Ficino’s first name. I think I’m of the view that this is a piece of old=fashioned modernism trying quite hard to wear a postmodern frock.

The next obvious candidate for metamodernism is Sutherland’s ‘Stress Position’. It is deeply po-mo to include fictional characters from other periods and genres as if to flaunt notions of authorial/poetic chicanery and sleight of hand. Having Black Beauty (the horse created by Anna Sewell) as a main character in a poem about American imperialism and torture in Iraq would not normally be seen as a modernist device. I have written at length about the poem as a whole but looking at it in terms of this particular divide then it does contain many postmodern devices together with passages that are resolutely in a ‘modern’ voice. The clearest examples (apart from the horse) ar the b-movie quasi kitsch ending and the remarkable and very modernist dream riff on mental illness.

I’m not entirely clear that there is much oscillation going on between the two but I’ll give this further thought.

The Jarvis sneer.

With regard to Simon Jarvis, I’ve looked again at the Princess Di / Paul Burrell ‘theme’ in F0 and at the Cheryl and Ashley Cole quips and I can’t get much further than reading them both as straightforward modernist sneers. I’m prepared to accept that I might be missing some key ingredient but I see both as old-fashioned elitism. I’m not entirely sure where the Jarvis interest in the British road network and related signage fits in ths spectrum, if at all which might underline the problem with this kind of exercise.

Jonty Tiplady’s hurt face.

When I first read the essay, two poets were vying in my head for attention in the metamodern, Geoffrey Hill and Jonty Tiplady. The second of these was provisional but stemmed from something I’d written about Jonty’s contribution to ‘Better than Language’. I don’t normally quote myself but I am rather pleased with this- “This is really clever stuff that’s deceptively straightforward whilst actually managing to undermine to poetry-making business in a number of different ways. I’m particularly impressed by the humanity of the ‘voice’ running through this and the way in which the playful tries to batter the serious into submission”. I think this ‘battering’ process might be close to what the essay calls ‘oscillation’. It so happens that on my hard drive sits a prose piece by Tiplady that has yet to see the light of day. It is called “But my face hurts” and this is from somewhere in the middle-

Sit down in your room if you have one and think carefully about whether there is really anything left to say. Make sure you say in the next moment whatever it is you decide is then left. The end of the end is the end. You can find
my eyes in the sockets in my skull. Please come straight up to me and kiss me. Please rape me properly. Bugs Bunny is a
stupid fucking bunny rabbit. I am not interested in wearing any clothes anymore. I am not surprised by how many times I
pretend to have conversations with you. I am surprised by how cruel kindness seems. I have never had any idea what is
happening. Such cruelty comes from everything. I think I have a mania about the planet. This morning I was worried my
hands would hit me. Last night I was worried my Dad would be in the bathroom when I turned the light on. I am getting older and I will die eventually. My hands are so big. There have been several perfect moments.

At some time in the future I want to go on at much greater length about how utterly wonderful this is but here I want to point out the embodiment of the ‘everywhere and nowhere’ the utterly serious within the incredibly banal’ and the absence of earnest intensity that the metamodern might be about. I think the above demonstrates a very, very clever use of oscillation between and within registers. I was going to list the modernist and then the postmodern but I think they are reasonably obvious. What leaves me in jaw-dropping awe is how this very self-conscious series of statements manages to find by shifts in register and focus a very clear and compelling account of what it might be like to be alive in the clattering now.

So, am I now converted to labels? No, I don’t think that they are particularly useful but I do think that looking for common traits within those labels can be a useful way of rethinking some work. For example, I’m now more confident about what ‘The Triumph of Love’ might be trying to achieve and I’m even more convinced of the towering genius that is Geoffrey Hill. The New Yorker quote above has also pushed me into thinking about an ‘ethical turn’ that might be under way but I’ll need to think a bit more about this.

Keston Sutherland’s Odes again

First of all I’d like to start with more confessions of my ignorance. The first of these relates to references to domestic appliances in modern poetry. When ‘The Stats on Infinity’ was published, I commented on the oddness of incorporating a patent for a fridge door closer into “The Proxy Inhumanity of Forklifts” and assumed that this particular conceit was a Sutherland original. I’ve now read Pound’s ‘Homage to Sextus Propertius’ which contains the line “Nor is it equipped with a frigidaire patent;” which was apparently added to the original poem prior to the publication of ‘Personae’ in 1926. The note that I have on this describes the line as anachronistic which it probably is but I think it likely that this is what Sutherland is nodding towards in ‘Forklifts’ and the ‘Odes to TL61P’.
The next confession is completely different – the second ode contains:

But look at these caricatures,
numb by numbers, empty shells,
new complexity doorbells,
jokes about what they are.

I’ve written something about the second ode for Arduity and described the ‘new complexity doorbells’ line as being trite. It was then (gently) pointed it out to me that ‘New Complexity’ is used to describe a particular school of contemporary classical music. The confession is that I’d never heard of New Complexity even though I consider myself to have a reasonable knowledge of most modern musical forms. I’ve now become a fan of Ferneyhough, Barrett, Dench and co but don’t know if that helps with the line and the context in which it is used.

What follows is (as ever) not intended to be definitive as most of what I think is liable to change and these particular thoughts are based on something that has changed considerably over the last four months and may continue to change. What follows is a response to the draft that I received on March 1st.

In November I described the Odes as “the best thing I’ve read in years” and I stand by that, I also think that it’s an important development in contemporary poetry and I want to try and explain why.

The Odes are important because they successfully disrupt current notions of what an accomplished poem should look like and because they embody a degree of ‘wrongness’ that really does clash head on with the ‘unwitty circus’. The combination of the deeply personal and very political shouldn’t work but it does. The confessional elements are disturbing without being either sentimental or offensive. As ever with Sutherland there’s a surfeit of verbal brilliance but what stays longest in the mind is the naked honesty with which things are being said.
I’m very aware that I’m writing about something that only a few people have had the chance to read and that I’m also writing about some versions that will never see the light of day. In what follows I will therefore try to spell out why this stuff is so good with longish examples. Earlier versions of Odes 1 and 2 are addressed on Arduity.

This is from the opening prose section of Ode 1:

but before anyone could actually get hard or wet or both it was imperative that as leading members of that cast and as role models for our past we agree to adopt “the mess we inherited from the last government” for our leading answer rebranded to a motto for compliance with the takeover speculation boosting Autonomy Corp. 5.3% after better-than-estimated worse-than-estimable earnings forecasts at Oracle Corp., our flat back teeth drilled in the new tax protologisms, refuting enamel, scorning accessibility, adrift in gum, sucking the sickbag out of the airbag, phantoms of the gummy grind, children out the window sing “the mess we inherited from the last” humans who engross the past to profit from the joy they bring, the power set, of which children are a set or subset, quasi-unblinking idiot desquamators of the too-accommodating larynx, e.g. i-SENSYS epistemological monogamy “I am alive (repeat)” (repeat) (repeat) my climaxes in marialogical microbiology; e.g. Brittania’s martial amphiboly on acid and amphetamines, 2 (a repeat); phlebotomy of war, get the flow back; Bollywood; sex in bantam art; sex e.g. now; eggs explained in black and white;

The “mess we inherited” is the excuse that every new administration makes when carrying out unpopular policies and is usually accompanied by the revelation that things are actually much worse than the previous government had led us to believe. This has particular resonance at the moment as it is the constant refrain of the current Tory administration as it dismantles the remaining strands of public service in the UK. The above plays around with this political device in quite savage but accurate ways. I’m particularly fond of the supposed relationship between autonomy and oracle corporations

The tone is underpinned by the extended riff on teeth and gums with the children providing and additional layer of ‘stuff’ to think about. What does it mean to ‘engross the past’? What does the ‘power set’ refer to? Or is this another example of Sutherland failing to make sense but succeeding in being over-full?
We then come to the new words (protologism, desquamator. polycollaterals and marialogical) and ask whether they are effective or distractions. I don’t normally have a problem with neologisms providing I can work out what they might mean without working too hard. The first and the third don’t present major problems but ‘desaquamator’ probably derives from ‘squamous’ given that it’s used at the beginning of the section and I have to ask how many readers would know what squamous means? There’s also the difficulty of trying to work out who the ‘quasi-unblinking desquamators’ actually are and why they should be described as unblinking.
Then there’s the proper names and the model numbers of various appliances. The proper names are mostly straightforward ( Martin Amis, Francis Bacon, Jeff Koons, Prometheus, Felix Gallardo, Chekhov, Lenin, Mariana, Traherne, Helmand, Tchaikovsky, Bach, Seurat, Anders Hoegstroem, General Tommy Franks, Mao, Caqmeron, Becket, Keats, Pound, Hitler, Guandong, Hegel, Merrill Lynch, Charles Olson etc) but there’s also ‘Madiha Shenshel’ as in “You task Madiha Shenshel with cooking your breakfast (hawk eggs in fried milk, high in polycollaterals)” which isn’t at all clear and carries echoes of some of the names used in Stress Position and Hot White Andy. There’s also reference made to three printer/copiers, a Tefal Maxifry, the clothes dryer referred to in the title and at least one washing machine. These are all confined to the first ode with the exception of the titular dryer which makes one or two additional appearances.
Ode three is a work of sustained brilliance and probably the best of the sequence, ranging from a sorrowful polemic to autobiography to confession without feeling contrived or self-pitying. It’s mostly prose except where it isn’t. It contains things like “Your fear of rich people getting social housing means that you don’t really want the communism you say you want, but you needn’t be ashamed only of that; your ear of shredded lichen goes down badly in the kitchen salesroom as a form of payment even for only the half or last part of a kitchen,” which is very, very clever and a major leap forward from the politics of Stress Position whilst retaining more than a degree of manic oddness (ear of shredded lichen). It’s not entirely clear who is being addressed here- not all of Sutherland’s readers will want communism so it’s more likely to be a self-accusation that then gets awkwardly absolved in the kitchen salesroom. I’m taking the rich people and social housing fear to be a reference to the fact that cuts in housing benefit in the UK will mean that only the well off will be able to afford social housing in London and that some councils have started to transfer tenants to other parts of the country – a move compared to ethnic cleansing by some of our more emotional MPs. The ‘communism that you say that you want’ is good because ‘communism’ is interchangeable with socialism, liberalism, radicalism, conservatism and any other hue of the political spectrum which makes the accusation more telling. The types of payment in the kitchen salesroom could ‘stand’ for the dodgy types of consumer credit that got us into our current mess or could simply be an allusion to the ways that capitalism creates illusory ‘needs’.
With regard to confession, we get;

I put Christian in my mouth under the blanket, played with him as if gargling. I didn’t know what to do, so that it felt better, authentically childish. I had to sleep in his bed because my mother put me there, as if killing our father; I could hear her sobbing downstairs at being stood up but not listen to it. He asked later that we keep it secret, once we had learned that you can do that. I was fine with that, though I also felt that it was somehow melancholy that such a simple act of pleasure between people still roughly equal at that age should need to be developed into a source of fear, when all we had to fear was other people, who could surely be imagined to come under the same blanket; I wanted everybody to get something out of my mouth.

I do find this acutely disturbing. The sexual child is something that isn’t considered unless it’s pathologised by ‘concerned’ adults. My own professional experiences of working with children who had been further sexualised by adults probably heightens my disturbance but I readily recognise the ‘simple act of pleasure between two people of roughly the same age’ as encapsulating the challenge to conventional grown-up attitudes and prejudices. The references to Sutherland’s mother and father also highlight more than a degree of adult complicity and dysfunction which I’m also disturbed by. There are two types of disturbance for me, one is concerned with my own memories of experiences of sex as a child / adolescent and the other is about how I feel about this as a Guardian-reading grown-up and parent. This has been rolling around in my head since last November and the more thought I give it the more complicated it becomes.
Ode three also contains a degree of tenderness, an ex-girlfriend (who is dead) is addressed with a mixture of nostalgia and genuine affection;

“I could at least pretend to be able to say anything to you, and believe in the pretence while it lasted by acknowledging it as such, and you could do the same for me; but now you’re gone, and I’m the government. But really you’re just away.”

There are also bits of ‘conventional’ Sutherland cleverness- arch references to Marx, Hegel and Heidegger although I’m of the view that the last two aren’t as clever as they try to be and I do have this abiding suspicion that some of it’s just gratuitous “Heidegger has a shit fit at the letting agents” is probably grounded in something that Heidegger wrote or a ‘position’ that he took but I wonder how many readers will grasp this on a first or second reading and how many of the rest of us will bother to give it any further consideration. I also realise that I expressed the same kind of concerns about the Derrida jibe in Stress Position and in November described the Hegel reference here as ‘smug’.
None of this should in any way detract from the brilliance of Ode 3 which throws down a significant gauntlet to the rest of us who try to write ‘engaged’ poetry in English..
I’ll address Odes 4 and 5 in the near future.

Keston Sutherland and the Forklift

I’ve got hold of Sutherland’s recent “The Stats on Infinity” published by Crater Press but it’s now out of print. This contains one long poem, several sonnets and a poem called “Reindeer”.
The long poem is entitled “The Proxy Inhumanity of Forklifts” and is both complex and challenging. The forklifts and their inhumanity is a reference to the fact that some British squaddies suspended an Iraqi prisoner from a forklift truck and were subsequently prosecuted for this and other acts of brutality.
“Forklifts” is challenging on a number of levels in that there’s a prose section where the text is interspersed with written numbers so that it’s quite difficult to read, there’s a few lines with blank spaces where we’re either meant to guess what should go there or supply our own words, there’s stage directions and the forklifts have a speaking role, some lines appear to spring from nowhere and there are a variety of themes that are alluded to but not really expanded. There’s also a poetised and only slightly amended rendition of Patent 5027473 for a fridge door closing mechanism- the prose version is on the cover.
It’s a much darker poem than Stress Position, the tone throughout is one of barely controlled rage and the ‘sense’ of the piece barely hangs together but this is what is so good about Sutherland, he has this ability to hover on the edge of mania without quite tipping over. ‘Forklifts’ gives us Borders (the bookstore chain), Geoff Hoon, The Waste Land, Dutch Flarf, halon, Marx, Ciudad Juarez and Israeli foreign policy but not in that order.
A pelvis makes an appearance, as it did in Stress Potion. Here the line is; “sh/se had a pelvis like a shrink’s bill in an incinerated ringbinder” whereas Stress Position had; “I, conscientiously synthetic like and alpha hermaphrodite’s PVC / bath water stripped to my gated pelvis, screaming a rhyme for HEAD”. I could argue whether a ‘shrink’s
bill’ can in any way be ‘like’ a pelvis and whether forklift trucks have anything remotely pelvic, but I do admire the way that the motif is carried over the next few lines.
Now we come to bookshops Stress Position referred ironically to the chances of the poem being sold by W H Smith’s and “Forklifts” has this- “…but you were actually sick / Bordersin administration for recalled aphrodisiac”. Sutherland is in the book trade, he and Andrea Brady run Barque Press so this may be just another snipe at a failed bookseller (Borders went bust last year) although ‘recalled aphrodisiac’ doesn’t make complete sense. ‘Borders’, on the other hand may refer to the disputed boundaries around Afghanistan and Taliban-controlled territories of north west Pakistan.
Now we come to the blanks- the word is used twice in the same way “this blank life from routinely going” and “blank life from routinely going out”. Given that the first line doesn’t actually make sense in its context, I’m left to wonder whether ‘blank’ is used as an adjective or whether we are meant to supply our own word. If the first option is the case then it isn’t clear whether Sutherland is describing one life as blank or if he’s referring to life/existence in general. The other more obvious blanks occur when the forklifts get to speak. “Karl Marx” occurs in the middle of the first line, the second line has a gap followed by a comma followed by another gap then “Schmerzesgewalt” then a gap, the third line has a longer gap followed by a comma, a shorter gap and then “the teenage rind” followed by a gap and a question mark. Google tells me that “schmerzesgewalt” means “anguish” but that doesn’t really help with teenage rind so I’ll have to give this some more thought.
“Forklifts” contains one prose section which purports to be the third side of an equilateral triangle, the second being the versified patent text with “out of order” replacing “closing direction” at the end. The prose appears to be fairly straightforward until you try to read it. The numbers that intersperse the words gradually become more complex and disrupt any understanding without quite intense concentration. The effect is quite disconcerting and very effective.
Obviously, I’m going to have to give this much more consideration. What I really like about “Forklifts” is the extent of the challenge that Sutherland throws out to the reader and the sheer intensity that is sustained throughout (patents excepted).

Keston Sutherland on wrongness in poetry

I am going to have to stop reading Sutherland, he gives me far too many things to think about. I’ve recently had sight of an essay on two lines from Wordsworth’s ‘The Thorn’ which was published in ‘Lyrical Ballads’. The essay is called “Wrong Poetry” because these two lines were universally criticised for their seemingly unpoetic ineptitude but Wordsworth stood by them for seventeen years. The lines in question are- “I’ve measured it from side to side / ‘Tis three feet long and two feet wide”. Against my better judgement and overcoming my natural aversion to all things Wordsworth, I have now read this particular poem in its entirety and have to report that it isn’t very good and that the aforesaid couplet does seem a bit clunky even when compared with what surrounds it. ‘Clunky’ is my personal term and it applies to bits of poems that just don’t work or seem out of place. I like to think that I’ve had enough experience of clunkiness that I can recognise it in the work of others. This characteristic I would distinguish from ‘bad’ which in my lexicon refers to either dishonest posturing or complete technical ineptitude. I’m not of the view that a poem can be so bad that it’s good- although I do accept this may apply to certain pop songs.
That was the first digression, this is the second. The essay spends the first three pages rattling on about Hegel and Adorno. To uneducated souls like me this kind of obfuscation is deeply off-putting. In normal circumstances I would mutter darkly and not proceed any further in accordance with my lifelong vow never to ‘do’ Hegel and also because I fail to see what whatever the great German said could have to do with the way that I read and think about poetry. Furthermore, ‘Field Notes’ doesn’t begin with three pages of Hegel, neither does Fish when writing about Milton nor Derrida when writing about Celan. I fail to see why Sutherland feels to need to dabble in this academic nonsense, especially when he’s got something useful to say. Still, perhaps all this does is further demonstrate the need for the arduity project.

After the first three pages we get to the lines in question and the critical response to them then Sutherland defends them (and Wordsworth’s defence) with his usual vigour. Calling Simon Jarvis to his aid, he makes the claim that Wordsworth disliked being praised in the wrong way but that he also liked being dispraised in the right way,  Sutherland asserts that Wordsworth “should have needed an occasion to insist that poetry which even the most sympathetically inclined right-minded judges, and perhaps those judges especially, cannot like, nonetheless ‘ought to be liked’.”

This line of thinking is carried further in defence of the offending couplet. To condense a more detailed argument, Sutherland praises the lines because of their absolute literalness and points out that what may lie behind them is  “an attitude and pressure of conviction dislocated from its social context and its materials of argument, an excitement too powerful to disown that is persisted in with almost nonsensical tenacity”.

I don’t care enough about Wordsworth or this particular poem to form a view as to whether or not Sutherland is right but along the way he does throw out a number of ideas and issues that I will have to think about. The first is the concept of poetic wrongness. In this age of free verse and poems that consist solely of appropriated text, do we still have an idea of wrongness?

I think we do, two examples spring to mind where radical devices have been used that are ‘wrong’. Geoffey Hill’s ‘The Triumph of Love’ contains editorial notes and responses to critics within the poem. I don’t think that either of these elements work but aren’t wrong enough to detract from the brilliance of the poem. They shouldn’t be there, they are too pleased with themselves and  nowhere near as innovative as the time shifts used in ‘Mercian Hymns’ yet the rest of the poem is strong enough to carry them. Of course my idea of wrongness is entirely subjective and not in step with Sutherland who intends it to denote the overly literal. In the case of Hill, the devices used could be seen as conceptually bold, innovative and ‘wrong’ in the sense of defying convention but the fact remains that the content isn’t effective enough to match the devices.

The other proponent of  ‘wrong’ poetry that comes to mind is Sutherland himself. I’ve already written at some length about ‘Stress Position’ and speculated that it may be an attempt to fulfil his stated need for ‘poetry that is as impossible as reality’. I’d now like to throw wrongness into the mix. Wrongness in this particular poem comes in two distinct forms, one that doesn’t work and one that does precisely because it defies both logic and convention, demanding that the reader enters into the inherent contrariness. The first kind of wrong is the gratuitous Derrida quip in the final section of the poem which doesn’t work because it is merely offensive and repeats tired old cliches that have been around since the late sixties- if Sutherland wants to take on deconstruction and/or relativism then he should try and put up an argument.

The second kind of wrong relates to the gang rape scene and to Black Beauty. ‘Normal’ rules would suggest that if you are writing about torture and include a rape scene then you should not (under any circumstances) depict it in a lyrical way, especially if the victim is yourself.

The other maxim goes- if you are writing about torture and the vagaries of American foreign policy which are serious themes you should not place a fictional horse in the narrative. You must not do this because it will confuse your readers and it will not (under any circumstances) work.

This kind of brazen wrongness does actually work on a number of levels precisely because it is so very brazen and because Sutherland executes these two wrongs with enormous skill. I like to think that I’m not easily pulled in but I find both the inclusion of the horse and the rape scene very plausible. It’s this kind of wrongness that may indicate where the future of poetry lies.