Keston Sutherland and the Sonnet

I’m currently having fun deciding which bits of Sutherland to include in the Arduity project, there’s no doubt in my mind that he’s difficult enough and interesting enough to be included but I’m finding it difficult to find excerpts that would give the full flavour of his scope. I’m currently toying with juxtaposing bits of ‘Mincemeat Seesaw’ with one of the prose sections and the first four stanzas from ‘Stress Position’ but this could change…..

Then, into my field of view comes the second issue of the remarkable ‘Cleaves’ which contains a number of sonnets by Sutherland. I’ll glide over the fact that all of these are twelve lines long and don’t obey any of the requirements that I’m aware of for a sonnet and instead concentrate on this one which is Sonnet 18:

Adorno had the nous to circumscribe
history in disgust and its opposite,
for lippy liberals in a laughing fit
to parrot back their too bad vibe,
spread their moral stretchmarks wide
until the marked up ends collide,

but the truth is as different to say
from the heart as it really is,
the lamentations of the autocue miss
the point of what pain is today,
make the price of its icon skyrocket,
a testicle in an eye socket.

Normally mention of Adorno in connection with poetry is enough to put me off so I’ll refrain from considering what it may mean to ‘circumscribe history / in  disgust and its opposite’ and go on to consider the next four lines which I take as a prolonged dig at the bourgeois bleat at all the bad things that happen in the world.

I’m not one to defend liberal guilt but I do think it’s more useful to try and engage with it rather than indulging in easy polemic. Engagement starts with trying to understand the paradox at the heart of the bourgeois mind set. On the one hand these people are employed in professions whose primary task is that of social control (education, health, law etc) yet their liberal/humanist education has told them that there’s something wrong with the amount of suffering in the world. By the same token (and this is the paradox) these people will not give up their class position in order to make things better- the problem is externalised because to do otherwise would threaten both their status and material well-being.

A more interesting poem would try to do something about this problem rather than indulge in a self-important rant.

I much prefer the second stanza because I think that it shows Sutherland’s ability to express complex stuff in a compelling and interesting way.  I’m particularly fond of ‘the lamentations of the autocue miss / the point of what pain is today’ which sums up for me the huge gap between what our spoon-fed media gives us and how things might actually be. ‘The point of what pain is’ is particularly astute. The last two lines are deliberately disturbing and the rhyme is really effective but I am a bit concerned that Sutherland is too intent on playing on the liberal guilt that he’s just descried.

A further thought. The third stanza of ‘Stress Position’ ends thus: ‘…if the so-called / void is grounded as Ali says in the free, then who owns the grinder,  / and who are the traders who ration its daily grind, are they me?’

Isn’t this an example of someone spreading his ‘moral stretchmarks wide’?

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2 responses to “Keston Sutherland and the Sonnet

  1. Yeah, the attack on the failings of the bourgeois is tedious and opens the attacker to “gotcha” counterattacks, e.g. if the educational profession is bourgeois, what does that make Dr. Sutherland? (Of course in saying so, I’m not in the least influenced by my own liberal guilt and membership in the bourgeoisie. I’m not literally a lawyer or doctor, but my kid goes to school with their kids. )

    On the formal level, these are more like sonnets than are many poems alluding to the form (here’s one example; to be fair, Hejinian herself doesn’t insist on their sonnetness). Sutherland’s lines hover close under 10 syllables, sometimes scanning as pentameter; they rhyme in closed patterns like double sestets. The rhymes themselves occasionally lurch, to my ear, into doggerel, but as you say, the second sestet of your example is strong.

  2. Thanks for this Vance, I occasionally get annoyed with Sutherland because he’s such an accomplished poet but seems unable to resist these occasional outbursts of almost infantile petulance.
    You pay a lot more attention to the formal elements than I do, with regard to doggerel, I hope he’s being more than a little ironic.

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