Open Letter to Keston Sutherland

Dear Keston,

I thought I’d try this because it’s probably easier for me to address this directly to you rather than referring to you in the third person.
First of all, thank you pointing me in the direction of the Naked Punch discussion and for sending me the Odes. The discussion throws up some bits that I’d like to take issue with later on whilst still being both impressed and disturbed by the poems.
The other thing I need to reiterate is that having you as a reader is both gratifying and odd. It’s gratifying to know that you are interested to know what I think and are prepared to defend yourself in a way that makes me re-consider my initial response. It’s odd because I never factored in the possibility that poets would be reading my stuff with interest and I still haven’t got my brain fully around that. We’ve discussed whether our correspondence might influence the way that I write about you and I continue to monitor myself to see if this is occurring, I don’t want to be simply another cheerleader for the Sutherland cause.
Which brings me nicely to the discussion, it strikes me that your questioners gave you a bit of an easy ride- you did say a lot of things that need to be challenged/clarified and this didn’t occur. Needless to say I’m going to spend some time here doing those things.
From a purely subjective and personal perspective I find the Odes challenging and disturbing. I’m challenged by some of the things that you say and I’m disturbed by your naked honesty. I like being challenged and I’m getting slowly accustomed to the emotional confusion that you trigger in me.
I’ll also confess that I haven’t yet paid sufficient ‘attention’ to the Odes (I’m still busy attending to SP and I haven’t really begun to work on ‘Hot White Andy’ etc) so the work of interpretation still awaits ( I try to read slowly and carefully) and no doubt I’ll have many further thoughts over the coming years.
I’d like to start with making sense. I know that I’ve said that your stuff when read closely doesn’t make sense. By this I think I mean that sometimes the flow of your argument is wounded and then starts again on a slightly altered trajectory. I imagine that this is deliberate on your part- there’s some wounding going on in Odes 1 and 3 that is really jolting and startles me out of ‘readerly attention’ mode- it’s very effective. The other aspect that I’d like to throw into the mix is what I think of as the Jarvis effect whereby a train of thought is carried along with such verve that I forget where we started from.
Now we come to honesty. I value honesty in poetry more than any other quality, if I find a poem or a poet to be dishonest then I’m not really interested. I know (having now read a number of rants) of your loathing for Larkin primarily because of his reactionary and right wing tendencies. I’d be prepared to forgive him those if I thought that his written was honest rather than a shoddy attempt to manipulate his readers. Incidentally, isn’t it more than a little easy for leftist poets to go on about Larkin (an easy target) rather than tackling more complex (but equally damaging) figures that litter the talking shop? As well as dishonesty, I’m also against confessional poetry or at least the kind that pretends to self-expose but is in fact an underhand attempt at manipulation. In the Odes you refer to your childhood, your mother, Andrea, your first sexual partner and the ongoing development of your sexual identity, there’s also a fairly direct reference to a mental health ‘problem’. In normal circumstances I would be put off by this but I do find that the way you lay yourself bare makes horribly compulsive reading and has led me to re-think my own history and desires, something I don’t often do. I’m tying this in with a more honest and nuanced approach to politics that marks a welcome shift from previous work but I’ll get on to politics later. I’m pleased that you’ve acknowledged to me that saying things ‘just as they are’ is full of contradiction and perplexity, I’d also like to add that it gets us one step nearer to a poetry that’s as impossible as reality- which remains a fascinating prospect.
Moving on to politics, the Odes contain references to (this is a provisional count) Iraq, Afghanistan, Mexico, the DRC and the ‘lank’ that we’re all about to experience. As you know, I have a number of reservations about political verse primarily because of the way poetry is generally regarded and because the politically awake form a small minority of those who actually read the stuff. I’m also still working out how to get poetry out of Bourdieu’s cage but that doesn’t mean that I reject engaged verse as a waste of time. In the discussion you talk of your work avoiding “bad politics through being superabundantly full of stuff” which is a great phrase but I wonder whether we can have too much of this stuff, whether such superabundance will be read by most as the ‘point’ rather than the political message that you want to convey. I’ll contrast this with ‘Streak~~~Willing~~~Entourage~~~Artesian’ which is wonderfully austere and yet is still aiming towards a political goal. It’s interesting to note that there’s even more stuff in the Odes but this is juxtaposed with clearer politics. It would be pointless for us to have a debate about Marxism, suffice it to say that I don’t share your views but I respect the fact that you hang on to them with such tenacity and passion. In the discussion you say something about talking about the dead can become just a matter of data organisation. I think that’s right but I also think that we are incredibly resistant to feeling anything about the distant dead, the UN has just completed a ‘mapping’ exercise with regard to the dead of the DRC and it makes grim reading but I don’t know how I feel about those millions of lives that have been taken away. I don’t hold completely with the Judith Butler line on this but I’m not sure if a sense of outrage is an adequate response. Incidentally, I’ve been trying to write something around Bloody Sunday and the shooting of one individual- it isn’t easy to avoid data collection and it can be useful if you can contrast it with the living body and those that loved him.
Incidentally, if “not the suggestion that hooding was banned in 1972” refers to the Five Techniques then the Parker Report ruled that hooding and the other pleasantries were illegal and always had been for use in the UK but said nothing about using them on foreign adventures which is why they’re still being used today?
This-

At the same time it remains certain that, for as much as having a life is a certainty, its unprecedentedness can be ignored or converted into a better problem—be degraded into a problem that was bound sooner or later to give rise to solutions like government, such as the present one. The public loves to be told that it has to learn to expect less, because everyone wants everyone else to have less, and everyone is willing to have less himself if that is the price of making everyone else but him have less. What a cunt.

is very effective and I think this (together with your musings on social housing) sets out a ‘social demand’ for the coming years. I’m very concerned that what’s left of radical politics in Europe is sleepwalking its way through the current disaster (as it has many times in the past) and this is the first sensible ‘call to arms’ that I’ve seen.

Moving on to love I’d like to start with a quote from Ode 1 “But real love is not at the bottom of the abyss, but is consignment to the abyss for being itself, at least to begin with and conclusively as if contracted—soft—to a single point (a dot) at the end of the universe, when dark matter is a distant memory subject by way of penalty to the vicissitudes of italic nostalgia (in her foot), and I am not sure to go on, or how to, or even what your name is any more,…” I read the first bit of this as saying the initially chaotic phase of loving someone involves losing yourself and then I get a bit lost but I really like the “vicissitudes of italic nostalgia” even though it sounds cleverer than it is. The second ode contains this:

………………………………I will
likely not ever meet anyone I love so much as
you again; but I want to try some men before I die.

I’ll get on to desire later but I am taking that the ostensible ‘sense’ of this is deliberately wounded by “likely not ever” which is wrong in every way that something can be wrong.

Your experience of love is clearly tied up with politics and the role of the love of life as a vehicle for change has always interested me but for the first time I’m having to re-evaluate why I found Edward Thompson’s similar line on this a bit anaemic. This is because your view is expressed with an honest intensity that’s compelling and entirely appropriate to verse.

In what follows I’m making a distinction between love and desire and between desire and lust. The lines that deal with pornography and the way that particular image makes you feel together with the rhetorical question at the end should be read by every adult male in the country because of the things it asks and demands and how it juxtaposes the gaze/desire/self-identification dynamic in a totally honest way.

As an ex-social worker I found the ‘Christian’ episode quite disturbing because I’ve had to walk through the equal age/consent minefield on a number of occasions and normally I find this kind of stuff distasteful in poems or novels. This seems to be redeemed on this occasion by you quoting your father and your reaction to what he said which I find honest and moving but I’ll need to give this further consideration.

When I first read the paragraph in Ode 4 that begins “But all sex is barbaric” it felt a bit superfluous and at odds with some of the other bits on sex and desire but, having read it again, I think it forms a bit of a map for the rest of the work as a whole- I’m not sure that I agree with you (primarily because I’m not you) but I can see why it’s there.

I’ve written in the first post about the neighbours and Black Sabbath and must record my personal disappointment that you didn’t pursue these bits further.

“These first four odes are a comically unreorderable anagram laughed at during oral sex, a subtitle for everything;” I’ll ignore the oxymoron but I do want to ask whether we need to be told what the Odes are? It’s certainly a strong image but I wonder why you feel the need to say it.

I really like the third section of the fourth ode- I think it starts really well and sustains this throughout although I had reservations about ‘Schlemihls’ until I looked it up.

Ode 5 contains ‘10.11.10’ which you’ve also sent in a separate pdf so I’m a bit confused as to what your intention is with this especially as it is a specific poem about a specific event and the surrounding text may (even for me) too radically different so I think I’m asking for clarification rather than making a detailed ‘point’.

In summary, this is the best thing I’ve read in years. It’s challenging, disturbing and incredibly well-written. It also sets the agenda for what engaged poetry should look like during the coming struggle. It’s also personally courageous and I remain impressed by the level and depth of your honesty in writing it. It might even be ‘wrong’ enough to start to put poetry back on the road to recovery……

John

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5 responses to “Open Letter to Keston Sutherland

  1. An anagram can be unreorderable if it consists of just one letter, e.g. OOOO — if I’m right about that, it’s an allusion too.

  2. This is a good summary. Many of the things you have mentioned I had felt too. The overall feeling of having read something challenging and disturbing definitely left a funny taste. I found the work more difficult than any of Keston’s other work. It took reading sections several times, often aloud. I had the advantage of hearing a live reading before I even started reading it to myself. Something I found, which is something of a break from recent works, was a lack of centrality. What I mean by this is that in Stress Position, Hot White Andy, Forklifts etc there seems to be an overlying theme (however oblique) that can be grasped at most points in the work (“a kind of art fix panic button”!) I really didn’t feel that was the case here. The only option seemed to be to let the work carry me uncomfortably in whatever direction it wanted. An absolutely brilliant piece of literature!

    • Ash,
      Thanks for this- I’ve just got the ‘completed’ fifth ode which is probably more brilliantly disturbing than the others- will write something about it soon. The lack of certainty I think has to do with the toning down of the polemic into something more considered (probably).

  3. Yes, I agree on that. A lot of his earlier poems seem to be rather visceral attacks on specific ideologies and politics. This idea of love poems directed at totally oblique objects is brilliantly absurd, and I find it fascinating how he moulds what he is saying around those objects.

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