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.