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.

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2 responses to “Keston Sutherland on wrongness in poetry

  1. I agree that “good taste” is problematic. The crudity of Jenny Holzer’s formulation “money creates taste” (amusingly, you can buy a version engraved on a silver spoon for just $1500) is itself an intentional violation of good taste, but it gets at the point — however we may value it, “taste” implies a sort of ineffable aristocracy, a grace intrinsically distinguishing haves from have-nots. I think violation/subversion of norms of taste is a good part of what Forrest-Thomson was after, in both her poetry and criticism — part of what she liked and used from Swinburne and Plath. So Sutherland’s in good company in defending Wordsworth’s lapse. 

    Myself, I’ve deeply absorbed the idea of good taste — I’m not of course confident that I have it, but part of me would very much like to. (I revere Henry James, an embodiment of this ambition and weakness.) So I share the conventional judgment on “The Thorn”, that its stanza form is ill-fitted to its matter, with the famous lines as the low point. But I take Sutherland’s point too.  

    • I’m also fascinated by taste and have spent many hours arguing with the Bourdieu line that all aspects of taste are economically determined. This is an argument that I always lose and I share your hankering for having good taste but I’m unfortunately arrogant enough to defend my taste against that of others. I also find that my notion of what is contrary to good taste is deeply idiosyncratic.
      I think I agree with you on Forrest-Thompson but I also thinks she tried too hard on occasion. I’m becoming increasingly attached to the idea of ‘wrong’ as opposed to ‘poor’ taste because I think it has enormous potential to break out from Bourdieu’s analysis.

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