Word has reached the bebrowed central committee that there are those who are expressing the view that ‘The Odes’ are not as good as ‘Stress Position’ and that they represent a more conservative politics. It would be easy to dismiss this as errant nonsense but it has given me something to consider, primarily because the people expressing this view are not usually foolish.
I also need to throw in some disclaimers, I’ve been reading The Odes, in draft form, on and off since 2010 and I was immediately struck by the quality of the poem and the absolute honesty of what it says. I saw it then, and still do, as a significant improvement on any of Sutherland’s previous work and welcomed the change in political ‘tone’.
I’ll deal with quality later but first I think I should address the ‘more conservative’ gibe. (Deep breath). I know that am more than thirty years older than the majority of Sutherland’s readers and our political perspectives might be completely different but the fact remains that an attack on torture in Iraq is easy politics. You do not have to be anywhere close to ideological purity to recognise the folly of the neo-con position and its murderous consequences. Everybody opposes torture, even those states that perpetrate it (ours).
I’m going to indulge in a personal anecdote or two before we get to The Odes. I’ve been professionally involved in a couple of major child abuse crises during the last twenty five years, during the first of these I was stopped in the street by a fellow CPGB member who wanted to know what the ‘line’ was on CSA and how we could make political gain from the disarray around us. It took me at least thirty minutes to gently explain that this was yet another of those issues where conventional thinking about ‘lines’ and political advantage might not apply. I think I also pointed out that ideological affiliation didn’t get in the way of fathers raping their children. I think I must also state that this particular colleague was and is very far from any kind of male chauvinism- he just didn’t get it.
The other anecdote relates to criminal trial involving one paedophile and twenty three young male victims with learning difficulties. Both the police and I were confident that the weight of evidence ws overwhelming but the jury convicted only on charges relating to one of the victims. Immediately after the trial an enraged DS and I pursued several jurors to a nearby pub and (gently) queried their reasoning. We were told that this young person was believed because he admitted to enjoying the acts perpetrated on him.
My point is that a poem about childhood sexuality and activity is neither more nor less conservative than a poem about torture in Iraq because terms like ‘conservative’ simply don’t apply. The analysis of what I’m currently thinking of as ‘austerity logic’ is reasonably astute and he continues to scathe away at the bastions of late capital and imperialism, so I don’t see any significant shift in position but rather an opening out from the confines of leftish concerns into areas where there are no easy ‘answers’.
One of the many challenges The Odes present to all of us is how to confront the way in which we keep some things secret as to do otherwise would be to invite societal/personal rejection. Because I’m a political animal I’d argue that this is a profoundly political issue that ideologues won’t touch with a bargepole precisely because it makes a mockery of the standard political spectrum and is so very threatening.
I’ll also confess to being biased because some of us have recognised since the mid-eighties that the current way of the world demands new and perhaps more oblique forms of action and have spent the last thirty years identifying those areas where a difference can be made in a way that reconfigures the networks by which we live. In brief, writing poems ‘against’ torture and bonkers neo-con imperialism won’t stop these phenomena whereas writing poems about secrets and guilts might encourage readers to consider their own and do something about them.
Now, we move on to the equally tricky issue of quality. I think I may have written more than most on Stress Position over the last three years and I also think I’ve been clear about its strengths and its failings. I know this may seem heretical in some quarters but there are some parts of SP that aren’t very good, there’s many bits that are brilliant and one in particular (which has nothing to do with Iraq) which walks ll over my soul every time I read it. There are also elements of tone where the anger becomes spiteful and arrogant and there are elements that don’t quite work in the sense that the underlying ‘sense’ breaks down which some might find attractive in an agit-prop kind of way but mars the fluency of the rant and, to this reader at least, is simply annoying.
The Odes have their rantings but these have more control and are thus more effective. The verbal clevery is just as incisive but less mannered in that it is clearly a personal statement/disclosure throughout in a way that SP never was. It could be of course that I’m biased, that this more personally honest sequence is more suited to my jaded and cynical palate, that I think it’s much better (and I do) because it’s less polemic and more challenge. This may be the case but there’s also the argument that the weak bits of poetry in the Odes are not as weak nor as numerous as those in SP and the work as a whole is much more ‘significant’ because it has a wider range and takes on difficult and disturbing themes in an accomplished way.
Some may fret about the high ratio of prose to verse and there are always technical questions about balance and the points where verse takes over and vice versa but this can’t be an argument about quality unless it the mix is obviously clunky (lit crit term) and it isn’t.
To conclude, The Odes are radically challenging and disturbing in ways that SP isn’t and they have greater focus and technical control which makes them ‘better’. Doesn’t it?