Keston Sutherland, wrong poetry and the cultural game.

I’m reading Sutherland’s ‘Stupefaction’ which contains an expanded version of the ‘Wrong Poetry’ essay that I wrote about some time ago. In that post I made a comment in response to Vance Maverick about ‘wrong’ poetry being a potential means of escape from Bourdieu’s ‘iron cage’.

Sutherland addresses the Bourdieu dilemma in a way that I’ll attempt to explain shortly but first I’d better give my take on the nature of the cage. For those who don’t know, Bourdieu was a Marxist sociologist who undertook a comprehensive study of cultural taste and practice in France. The results were published in ‘Distinction’, a landmark book that spelled out the bad news for those of us who clung to the notion of the (at least) partial autonomy of the artist. Bourdieu showed that all forms of artistic endeavour, even the most radically subversive, are structured and determined by the economic order and that all creative interventions were just further moves in this ‘cultural game’

I first read this in the mid-eighties and would have loved to have written it off as yet another piece of simplistic, reductive Marxist polemic but for the fact that is the greatest postwar sociologist with an impeccable body of work and ‘Distinction’ put forward such a comprehensive and well researched picture of how things are that I just couldn’t argue with it. I really wanted to find some flaw but couldn’t and still can’t although his description of the auto-didact is too simplistic and insufficiently researched.

So, my predilection for innovative and subversive work doesn’t spring spontaneously from within me but is essentially a product of the economic order which ‘allows’ such work because it perpetuates rather than challenges the established order of things. This is a variation of the Situationist analysis except it has the facts and figures to back it up.

Let’s try and be clear. There is absolutely no escape from the way in which all forms of creative endeavour are the product of the economic order and to pretend otherwise is both naive and stupid. I am not at all pleased to arrive at this fact, nor do I think it any way vindicates the rest of the marxian analysis.

‘Wrong Poetry’ starts on page 91 but only really begins with its subject on page 119 having spent many many words on matters Hegel, Marx and Adorno. I’m sure that this kind of intense abstraction is attractive to those of a dialectical ilk but it does stand as a significant barrier to the rest of us who might be concerned about the current state of poetry.

There is then this as a proposed route out of Bourdieu-

“The difficult thing for a poet who knows this is not to make art that compels cognitive transformation but that avoids being a plaything in the ‘game of culture’; in a capitalist society, pure art like that is just as profoundly bourgeois as theatricalised suspicion itself. In fact, it is an idol of that suspicion. But neither can radical art just smilingly catalogue itself under the heading of this antimony. The truly difficult thing for the poet is to make a poem that pronounces the antimony in the most sociologically eloquent and cognitively strenuous form imaginable.”

He then goes on to describe the life of a line from Wordsworth’s ‘The Thorn’ which was negatively received because of its absence of poetry-

I've measured it from side to side
'Tis three feet long, and two feet wide.

Sutherland quotes from a variety of negative reactions before giving us his view that this couplet is, in fact, the best part of the poem. He then uses this to attempt a definition of ‘wrong’ poetry- “It is poetry that cannot fulfil the concept ‘poetry’ and that is illiteral.” This comes with two caveats – that ‘can not’ does not mean ‘will not’ and illiteral does not mean ‘incapable of literalisation’.

Regular readers will know that about once every six weeks or so I have another failed attempt at diagnosing poetry and the poetic and that I have come to the conclusion that (before we begin to think about Bourdieu) poetry, in terms of production, dissemination, cultural framing, class profile and ah-me ness, is the fundamental problem with poetry and anything that encourages more of us to try and address this central problem is a Very Good Thing.

I’m not at all clear that my recent interest in machine generated data and/or the way in which data is structured/framed presents any kind of alternative but what I do know is that you really can’t have your cake and eat it. The only point of the Bourdieu thesis is that there nothing outside of the cultural game, i.e, that even the most self-consciously subversive intervention is just another move in the game and that the components of the game cannot change the structure of the game because these are determined by much larger and more powerful economic forces. So, sociological eloquence and strenuous cognition aren’t really going to enable the poet to stop acting as a ‘plaything’ of the economic order.

There are a couple of clarifications that I think that Sutherland glides over. He confuses the conversation that poetry has with itself with the conversation that poetry has with the rest of the world and attempts to apply the ‘rules’ of the former to the latter. This doesn’t work, the social world in which we all make our way is not in anyway perturbed by the nature of Wordsworth’s couplet and is incredibly likely to be equally unperturbed by many more conceits of this sort. The second piece of clarification is that poetry quite likes being poetic and has little or no interest in genuine (as opposed to affected) innovation.

This is not to say that wrong poetry can be ignored – we need to respond to the gauntlet by embarking on an objective discussion of who may be producing it now, Sutherland cites Prynne and Wilkinson but I’m not convinced, of the borders between the wrong, the strange and the (merely) odd and whether Prynne’s head on collision is the right / best means of approach.

Before any wrong poetry can have effect it might be as well to try and understand the frame within which poetry currently operates- the role of education, the influence of new technologies, the effect of reduced production costs, the ways in which the form is presented and talked about in the wider discourse{s} etc etc. Only then, when we have some real data, does wrongness have any chance of challenging even the most peripheral elements of the game.

As a final interim thought, which of the following could be described as wrong or strange or odd-
1. The last line of every poem in Prynne’s ‘Word Order’;
2. The length of some digressions in Jarvis’ ‘The Unconditional’;
3. The verbatim use of court material in Place’s ‘Statement of Facts’;
4. Jonty Tiplady’s mix of the abstract and the demotic;
5. Keston Sutherland’s inclusion of Black Beauty in ‘Stress Position’;
6. Simon Jarvis’ use of the cross in ‘Dionysus Crucified’.


8 responses to “Keston Sutherland, wrong poetry and the cultural game.

  1. Please tell me you mean Simon Jarvis… I was already sufficiently deranged by what I take to be the mangled opeing of the crucial quote from Keston’s essay.

    But, should I interpret this derangement as cognitive transformation? Or, did the misquote evidence the shaping of larger economic forces?

    • My own ineptitude (as usual) and, obviously, the larger economic forces. Quote now unmangled- I need to do more on this because there are a couple of other ‘crucial’ quotes that I’d like to think about.
      Is there any other Jarvis currently doing wrong / strange / odd verse?

  2. I still can’t parse this, am I going mad?:

    “The difficult thing for a poet who knows that this is not to make art that compels cognitive transformation but that avoids being a plaything in the ‘game of culture’;…”

    The Jarvis remark referred to “Paul Jarvis” in the post’s final line.

    Happily, I (or the economic conditions) added to the confusion by reviving the poeticism “opeing”!

    • No, I remain hopelessly inept, Paul now amended to the correct Jarvis and an offending ‘that’ removed from the quote. Must have been even less focused than usual yesterday and earlier this morning- must also try and read what I write before pressing the ‘send’ button but for some reason I find this really quite hard. Sorry for the confusion- the ‘this’ being referred to is the Bourdieu thesis.

      • I don’t think it was helped by me interrupting you lots…. Just chiming in with an unformed thought about the dillema of the cage and the cultural game; I think there is something in queer theory and queer approaches that ‘gets’ this and willfully plays the game in a way that exposes and mocks it. To me, queer ‘work’ (poetry, protest, art, archaeology) is play-ful, in this sense… If that makes any sense?

      • Regardless of the circumstances, I’m now of the view that if you are quoting someone then you ought to take great care to be accurate and calling Simon Jarvis ‘Paul’ is unforgivably stupid.
        With regard to Bourdieu, I think playfulness in this instance is simply playfulness and being playfully self-aware doesn’t prevent malappropriation whereas wrongness just might. Or we could simply be condemned to perpetuating that which we affect to despise…

  3. I don’t get this. It seems like Marxists set out the rules of the game so it’s impossible to win, and then amuse themselves thinking up ways to win. Isn’t it possible to escape from Bourdieu’s iron cage by turning to God or declaring the Death of Marx? No space for God in all this poetry at all – completely outside the cage they’ve built for themselves.

    Incidentally, and I mean this as a serious question, not a trolling sort of question, and I know it may seem calculatedly naive, but – how, as a reader, do you establish the truth value of this kind of poetry? If Neil Pattison could be persuaded to change inlet to outlet, could any possible reader determine whether or not it mattered? I wondered how you weighed this stuff for yourself.

    • I’d like to thank you for this Tom because it seems to get to some fundamentals that most of us don’t spend enough time on. I intend to reply at length but I need to know whether your first question relates just to Marxists or two other members of the Cambridge / Brighton tendency.



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