Keston Sutherland’s Odes to TL61P

The odd thing about writing is that you’re never aware of who is going to read the stuff that you write. A few months ago I was being highly critical of one of Keston Sutherland’s sonnets and somewhat gratuitously accused him of ‘infantile petulance’. A few days later I received an e-mail from Sutherland announcing himself as a reader of the blog and expressing support for the arduity project. Since then we’ve had fairly vigorous debate on a number of subjects and he’s sent me more stuff, some of which I’ve written about.

I’ve now received 3.5 (ish) ‘odes’ prior to publication and a gentle prod in the direction of a round table discussion with Sutherland published in the current edition of ‘Naked Punch’. Getting stuff on a ‘sneak preview’ basis is a bit odd especially when the fourth ode isn’t finished but Keston’s okay with me writing about them and I think they’re sufficiently important to start pontificating about them now. So, what follows is provisional and not the product of the ‘close’ reading that this stuff demands and I’m going to try and tie this in with my observations of the ‘Naked Punch’ discussion.

The document I have is entitled ‘The Odes to TL61P of Keston Sutherland’. The curious may well wonder what ‘Tl61P’ refers to, a quick search on Google reveals that this is the model number of a now sadly defunct Hotpoint spin dryer.  Sutherland’s last collection made much use of a patent for a fridge door opener. I therefore have to ask whether this apparent theme is the product of chronic self-indulgence or whether there is a point to this interest in domestic appliances. In the discussion Sutherland isn’t asked directly about the fridge patent that gets versified in ‘The Proxy Inhumanity of Forklifts’ but he does say: “I like testing the capacities of poetry and my own interpretation by seizing on a very improbably specific detail of consumer society and trying to make from that some image of the whole”. The first ode ends with:

The code belongs to a Hotpoint dryer;
You’ll find out nothing if you look
it up through the sky in the screen, the vault
of exchangable passion, Vertigo at
the horizon prostrate as an outstretched
cheek; but in the mouth that grows
in capacity behind that overflow,
Nobody can take away the word for it:
love, the end until death;
TL61P its provisional perfected shadow
opposite; Now go back to the start.

There’s a bit of a gauntlet being thrown down here, “Now go back to the start” implies that a first reading won’t suffice until we’re told that this banal bit of kit is the “provisional perfected shadow” of love which I’m taking to mean that everything (no matter how functional or ordinary) is in some way a reflection of human love.

The first ode starts (in prose) with a reference to a fairly obscure play by Racine- we are directed to a particular speech but given no further clue. We then proceed with some haste through a Dassett rosette, Shelley, Alkindus, Martin Amis, a one year old Francis Bacon, a Tefal Maxifry, Fair and Lovely skin cream through to “Turkish eye shadow iconic in the corridors of mock phenomenology”.

It would probably be an understatement to say that the odes are ambitious. The discernible themes are many and various from politics, poetry andphilosophy to childhood and adolescent love (lust). There’s an odd mix of polemic and confession which I found disconcerting at first but am now moved by.

One of my tests in looking at poetry is to identify any lines or phrases that I wish I’d written, the other main test is to identify lines that don’t work or are vacuous. There are many, many bits that I’m envious of- the first ode refers to the unfolding atrocity taking place in Mexico and contains this:

rebrands Félix Gallardo as the
primary nostalgia-object, matriarch and dean of the
first world synapse, udder to its elite sublimities, such
that by his strutting in golden ringlets streaked with
ashen highlights on the sexual proscenium we may
know him, his crotch in knots of living weasel gut,
whispering to love;

I’m of the view that “dean of the first world synapse, udder to its elite sublimities” manages to say an enormous amount in just ten words and creates quite startling images at the same time. Felix Gallardo is a Mexican drug lord currently serving time in a high security prison.

I have yet to find any lines that don’t work although I would question whether “you never get to what the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel in a pleasingly more hyperprolactinemic connection once
called das Unwankende, a word also used by Nietzsche in connection with Apollo on the pretext of his use of it..” is more than a little smug.

During the discussion Sutherland responds to the charge that he pays “an almost hyperbolic attention” to poetry in his work with this:

….I do think that poets today need to have in their grasp the majority of poetry written, at least within English, possibly other languages too and that, at this point, it cannot be looked back on a necessary humanist education in the way that Ezra Pound might have looked back on it, but that it must be now looked back on as an immense accumulation of commodities too, as much as just a training and a tradition.

As a sporadic practitioner in the business of verse making, I’m not at all sure that I agree with this. I don’t have the ‘majority’ of English poetry within my grasp and my knowledge of poetry in other language is severely restricted. I am also painfully aware that there are gaping chasms in my reading from about 1650 until 1920 but that doesn’t mean that I feel the need(as a sporadic poet) to get these works within my grasp. I can see point about having a large toy box to play with being useful but I don’t think my lack of ‘grasp’ should hinder my creative ambition.

I think what’s most striking about the odes is the more thoughtful stance with regard to politics, the polemic is still there but it’s done in a much more interesting and complex kind of way. The stuff on love becomes more focused reflective and disturbingly honest in Ode 3 but the work as a whole marks a significant step forward and confirms my belief that Sutherland is head and shoulders above his peers.

Ode 4 shows immense promise but it’s difficult for me to judge whether individual sections are complete and there’s just the end to be provided or whether there’s more to be done on the sections. I’d like to see where he goes with- “I’m going to kill the neighbours. That thumping in the walls. They’d better be having a fucking good time” and “You can pick up social history by watching the more ambitious documentaries about the tours of Black Sabbath (careful with this)” I’m not sure if the last bit is a note to himself but I’d be fascinated to see a carefree progression.

I am therefore immensely impressed and sense that this marks a significant change in the work. I’ll need to spend more time with it and will no doubt feel compelled to write more. The only problem I have is finding the best way to use it on arduity, it’s certainly difficult enough but explicating the thinking behind it could be quite tricky “It’s about a tumble dryer or rather the shadow of a tumble dryer….”

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2 responses to “Keston Sutherland’s Odes to TL61P

  1. Let me know if it’s boring for me to comment on every single post you put up.

    I don’t think the smugness of the Hegel bit can be attributed to Sutherland. The tone is deliberately artificial — take the laborious introduction of the name of Hegel, as if the speaker were trying to impress a less knowing audience. And it makes heavy weather of “das Unwankende”, familiar enough in English as “unwobbling”. (Google strongly suggests that the original use, in both Hegel and Nietzsche, is adjectival, so the speaker has troweled on another layer of pomp there too.) And in interpreting the sonic associations, I suspect it’s Sutherland who’s telling us the unnamed speaker is wanking, though of course it’s hard to say.

    And in context, are you sure that “the code” in the first line of your excerpt is the same as the model number? Computers, and I think appliances too these days, generally come with both a model number and a serial number — type and token, as it were. If the “code” here is the serial number, then the passage makes a different kind of sense. Indeed you usually can’t look up the serial number through a search engine (“the sky in the screen”?), and if you do look it up through the manufacturer’s site, say to check on your warranty, you’ll be shown a picture of (an ideal instance of) the model (“TL61P its provisional perfected shadow opposite”?)

    Agreed on most of your other points, such as the absurdity of aiming to grasp the “majority” of English poetry: impossible unless one somehow defines 99% of the field as not poetry, or not written.

    • Vance, I look forward to your comments and hope that others will gain from them too.
      I got a reply from Keston last night along with the finished sequence (which now runs to 33 pages) these are his thoughts on the Hegel bit – ” think you’re right about the Hegel bit. I’ll think about that. I knew it was smug when I wrote it, but I felt as though I wanted something smug there, and thought that the absurdity of “das Unwankende” (which in the Phenomenology_ means “the unwobbling, the fixed and definitive, the unblurring”) would offset the grimace and tilt the line into a satire I
      can live with. I’ll see if I can”.
      I’ll freely admit that my hackles rise whenever I see the ‘H’ word but I’ll stick with smug because it jars more than a little with what I see as the unvarnished honesty of the sequence as a whole.
      With regard to the ‘code’, I’m not sure of anything when working with this kind of stuff. Typing TL61P into google doesn’t bring up the appliance itself but does give you a whole array of spare parts and components- it’s referred to elsewhere so I’ll have a look at that and see where it takes me”.
      I don’t think the goal of immersing yourself in all of English verse is absurd, I just think it’s far too demanding for most of us- I know that I’d far rather be very familiar with a few poets than have have a vague knowledge of all of them.
      I need to write more about the Odes in the near future, once I’ve absorbed what was sent last night.

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