The Odes To TL61P of Keston Sutherland (at last)

This is the short version of this blog: It’s published, it’s a landmark, buy it.

That was fairly easy, the long version is much more daunting. But first of all I need to point out that we all owe a huge debt to Peter Target at Enitharmon for bringing this material to the wider world. The daunt stems from a couple of things:

  • I’ve written about the Odes here and on arduity before when they were in gestation and I don’t want to repeat myself;
  • I’m mindful of Peter Philpott’s comments re arduity and I don’t want to be explaining the late modern offside rule (again);
  • it won’t be easy to put into sensible words just how significant this stuff is.

I’ll start on a purely personal level, I disagree with Keston’s Marxist analysis of where we are now in terms of social and economic development, I’m ‘against’ confessional poetry for the same reason that Michael Drayton was against it in the 1590s. I worry about poems that aim to shock. Therefore, I should not be nodding my head and smiling as I read these pages, I should not be using terms like significant and landmark. However, I do and I have and I’ve een trying to work out why.

For me, as an increasingly frequent poem maker, the Odes provide an additional dimension to what poems (rather than poetry) can do and I haven’t felt this as clearly since reading ‘Crow’ when I was 15. I think I felt this when I first saw the drafts but reading the proof has strengthened that feeling. I’m nearly 58 and I’ve been paying attention to contemporary poetry since I was 13 and most of it is dismally similar. The additional possibilities that the Odes open up are about ‘doing’ personal honesty and being able to sustain political acuity over 70 pages without sliding into polemic or becoming boring.

It’s quite a big claim to describe a poem as a landmark and I have thought quite hard (for once) about this particular noun which I can justify. In the history of the poem there are some poems that stand out as ‘game changers’, poems that break many of the accepted norms and yet still manage to work and to push others in a radically new dimension. Of course there are many of these landmarks that work and are radically different but fail to change the game. The Odes are a landmark because they stand head and shoulders above anything else in the last forty years in terms of innovation, technical brilliance and absolute honesty and more than deserve to change the game in quite fundamental ways.

The danger is that they won’t and this is because of the level of defiant intelligence shining out from these lines. In the past I’ve expressed more than a little disdain for the late modern reliance on obscure words and foreign phrases because it smacks of elitism and deters (intimidates) most readers of ‘serious’ poetry. The Odes are not littered with these but there are enough to worry me. This no longer annoys me because (I think) doing arduity on Jones and Celan has demonstrated that (in good, honest work) this material if often essential in enabling a poet to say what must be said. This isn’t excusing those poets who use the obscure and the foreign to disguise the fact that they don’t have very much at all to say. Keston Sutherland however has lots to say and most of what he says is really quite important.

My usual method of road testing this kind of material is to show it to intelligent and normally receptive readers of poetry for a reaction. The current reaction to the first page is positive but people begin to fall over on the second with ‘Eriphile’, ‘squamous epithelium’ and ‘squamocolumnar junction’ and fail to proceed any further whilst glancing at me with a look of bemused sympathy.

We now come to significant as in “sufficiently great or important to be worthy of attention; noteworthy; consequential, influential” (OED) and I’m justifying this by the nature of the rupture that it inflicts on the scheme of things. It is utterly different from anything else and it rents asunder many of our (mine) notions of what the poetic may be about. In fact it is this wrongness that demands attention because it works when it really shouldn’t and it shouts this fact with a kind of joyous intransigence. I often struggle with justifying my notion of what works as opposed to what doesn’t- in this instance The Odes work because they demonstrate verbal brilliance together with considered intensity that sweeps the reader (me) along without a technically duff note along the way and yet I know that this mix of analysis and disturbingly personal confession shouldn’t function especially when the analysis is old-school Marx and the confessional relates to accounts of childhood sexual experimentation and the uncomfortable fact that children have an ‘interest’ in sex too.

Of course it can be argued that I’m of this view because I was sent early drafts and this has in some way clouded my perspective. I don’t think this is the case, I like to think that I’m (unfortunately) sufficiently aware of the dangers of ‘capture’ and the halo effect to know when the soul has been sold but it is nevertheless a possibility that I acknowledge.

Of course there’s subtexts that I want to be present but might not be, for example we’re going to see ‘Not I’ at the Royal Court on the 25th because it’s a significant landmark in world literature and because I’ve never seen it live. The first part of Ode 1 has this:


    canal bound in stratified squamous epithelium to
    an alternatively screaming mouth, destined while
    dying inside to repeat before dying outside one
    last infinity of one-liners before snapping and giving
    up, or better yet pretending to, once you get it, once
    that is you really get it at all, or not at all, directly into

Needless to say, I’m now going to spend some time with my 1973 copy to work out if I’ve ever really got it even though the above might be about something else entirely.

The other it of affinity occurs with the observation that “if it’s not interesting to read what’s the point of doing it”. It just so happens that I’m putting on a series of poetry / music / storytelling and art events at our local arts centre and because this is not an audience of poets and poetry readers and I’m charging money at the door then the issue of interestingness in my own work is currently at the front of my mind and I have to report that poems that argue with what Levinas said about Celan in 1978 are not at all interesting whereas material about personal and political violence is. Needless to say, The Odes re endlessly interesting and full of stuff to think about, throw across the room and argue with. They must be read. Now.

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