The Odes to TL61P and the nodding dog

The Odes had their London launch last week and I now have to take back anything I’ve previously said about the way that Keston reads his work- this was a magnificent performance which managed to do justice to the text and to throw up more food for thought. Prior to this there was launch in Brighton which was recorded and is now on soundcloud and I think we all need to thank Joe Luna for producing such a clear and professional account of the event.

I’m currently spending most of my reading time with the Odes mainly because I don’t understand how they work – there seems to be a new (to me) set of devices being thrown together and I have yet to work out how the various effects are achieved.

There is one section that is beginning to furrow my brow in unexpected ways, this is the offending paragraph in full:

      China is now a multilateral partner. That joke
about the reference to the answer in the riddle in the
reference to the answer to my life will be repeated
without a pause until I laugh. Bush says three people
were waterboarded, and hold the zeroes; our text today
is maintain physical integrity, but a hundred times funnier,
and therefore a hundred and one times funnier,
billions of times funnier, and hereafter infinitely more
because stupefying at a compound growth rate
too big to fail. There is always something we need to do about
everything, something it is always hard to be. Career
poets are part of the problem, smearing up the polish,
drying out the fire; chucking shit all over the place; not
being party to the solution; banking on the nodding
head 'the reader' saying 'yes, that's what it's like' so
as not to know what it's for, since meaning is easier,
that way, gaped at through the defrosted back window
of the Audi, hence the spring for a neck; we all
know where that shit got us: being what we eat. The
British have become snobs. The don't want to be security
guards always getting the nightshifts at KFC illegally
married to sewage technicians, subject to racist abuse
which intelligent politicians learn they must not be seen
on camera to regard as bigotry; the immigrants are real
because they do. They say, I am more realistic than
you. But at least you listen. The EU ones are the
mainstream, the non-EU ones are the avant garde.

I want to think a bit about the ‘that’s what it’s like’ jibe which I’m informed is a quote from Don Paterson. The normal Bebrowed line on this is that any criticism of this particular poet is a Good Thing per se but this particular
assault may deserve unpacking. As a reader there are very few poems that come close to describing how something is for me. Some, like John Matthias’ ‘Kedging in Time’ are immensely evocative of a group of feelings and attitudes that I hold but I don’t know how those things ‘really’ were because they occurred before I was born. I don’t share John Milton’s faith but his depiction of the way we are brought to do evil seems fairly astute. Keston Sutherland’s depiction of mental anguish in Stress Position strikes a major chord with my experience of severe depression- it isn’t exact but its flow and feel does say more than something about the spirit of the beast. I’m therefore, at least in part, sitting on the rear shelf of the Audi.

Slightly more attentive reading reveals that description (how it is) is being extended into meaning which makes things a bit more complex. Poetic mimesis is complex and layered enough but meaning takes us into this new and shining realm of smoke and mirrors. To get us into this position, Sutherland contrasts similarity for function. ‘what it’s for’, and implies that we attentive readers should concentrate on this aspect if we are to avoid becoming the nodding dogs.

I have no idea, and have no intention of discovering, of the context in which Paterson made this effortless remark but I think the quality of the description is reasonably crucial in leading us to think about function. For example, the Odes describe this really odd but little noticed phenomenon of an acceptance of austerity measures amongst the UK population because we feel that we (somehow) deserve to be punished, that in some way our personal behaviour has resulted in the ongoing fiasco. As a reader, I’ll only be encouraged to think about the meaning or function of that piece of wilful masochism if it is described or alluded to in a way that I can recognise. I think what I’m trying to say is that most of the time I need to be a nodding dog before I can become a thinking dog.

This paragraph also exemplifies Sutherland’s enviable skill in ramming several devices up against each other in ways that shouldn’t even begin to work but do, the themes move from diplomacy, torture, absurdist repetition, mimesis, meaning, the sins of the career poet, immigration, racism and menial labour in a few brief lines and mostly make sense. The only sentence that might not make sense is “There is something we need to do about everything, something it is always hard to be”. I’m struggling with the second half of this primarily because it might sound better than it is. Either this could mean that there is something that it is always hard to be, without this something being specified, or it is hard to be that person that must do something about everything, either way I don’t think it ‘works particularly well but this is small price to pay for the general level of brilliance that runs through this material.

I think the best way to approach the Odes is to read them straight through at least a couple of times so that you can grasp the glory of the full picture before beginning to think about the component parts.

The Odes to TL61P is published by Enitharmon and sells for £8.99.

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10 responses to “The Odes to TL61P and the nodding dog

  1. krappsfirsttape

    Thanks for the reading–I finally got my hands on the Odes (harder to do in the U.S.) and am working through them, with a lot of exhilaration and a bit of skepticism. Have you read Sutherland’s recent “Theses on Antisubjectivist Dogma”? I’ve been trying to wrap my head around his opposition to ‘conceptualist’ poetry (as it currently exists, I guess), and what he means by the term ‘antisubjectivist.’ Admittedly, there’s some selfish motivation here: I’m preparing for an doctoral exam involving contemporary forms of ‘lyric subjectivity.’ That being said, any thoughts?

    • Haven’t read it- who published it? I’m reluctant therefore reluctant to offer a view but I’m guessing that he might see conceptualist material as being on the ‘wrong’ side of the positivist / relativist fence- this is not a view I share. Antisubjectivist would probably take me into uncharted waters without seeing the context so you’ll forgive me if I pass on that.

  2. Thesis 5 actually – bizarrely – reduces Adorno to the 1937 ‘Third Reich’ context, in order to dismiss his antisubjectivism. & somehow ally it to fascism. Where was Adorno in fact in 1937? Oxford? The US?

  3. PS Of course the above quibble does not prevent me from generally agreeing with any critique of antisubjectivism (particularly Althusser’s). Though I do wonder where this critique sits with Prynne’s ‘humanist Marxism is the enemy’ (v. Ben Watson, ‘Blake in Cambridge’) – a remark I have been trying to get my head around for two weeks now!

  4. krappsfirsttape

    Robert, I could be wrong, but I don’t think Sutherland’s suggesting that Adorno is anti-subjective–the essay (“Late Style in Beethoven”) criticizes the “cliché ‘subjective’ for being a cliché, then shows how subjectivity and objectivity interact in the music. Adorno’s definitely anti-antisubjectivity. Sutherland just wants to show that it’s a tired dismissal, and that claiming the opposite (antisubjective) is both deluded and possibly collusive with capital. As for Prynne, I think there’s a shade of difference between ‘humanist’ and ‘subjectivism,’ but I’d have to know the context a bit better. I agree with you–antisubjectivism mistakes the problem for the solution.

    • Yes, the theses’ reliance on Adorno is a little unclear but obvious now that you highlight the apostrophization of ‘subjective’. I’m not altogether sure that Adorno on the whole is definitely anti-antisubjectivity, but for the time being I’m prepared to trust in your sense of this.

    • PPS apostrophization is the wrong word, but I remain baffled by the strangeness of KS’s phrasing: if Adorno was ‘already’ referring ‘wearily’ to antisubjectivism c.80 years ago, why bother to blow up his views into a tumblr manifesto now? And as he would have said, if you live in this world you are collusive with capital. Still.

  5. Jo Gardiner Green

    What a wonderful passage from Keston Sutherland. For me the feel is more Lowenthal than Adorno, by which I mean the analysis of poetic mimesis is itself stabbingly reductive and the pastings-in of Sutherland’s opponents’ or betes noires’ language grotesque, without attempt to work them in or up: ‘China is now a multilateral partner’, ‘Career poets are part of the problem’, and the plonked-down ‘too big to fail’ at the end of a sentence. This refusal or inability to articulate an alternative case registers how it’s simultaneously too easy and too hard, say, to conceive of another framing of sense in verse to Don Paterson’s–too easy because his comment is a dolly, too hard because any alternative relationship of writing and response would require large-scale reorganizations of practice on both sides–that is, would need to be orchestrated socially. The section I especially like is the again grotesquely large homology comparing low-wage-job seeking immigrants to different classes of poets. Again the affect is of frustration, a splurge of ill feeling–‘The EU ones are the mainstream, the non-EU ones are the avant garde’; the mediation is either postponed indefinitely, or we have to read back for it through the passage’s unusually flat, broad ironies.

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