Tag Archives: william wordsworth

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’.


Celan, Prynne, Derrida and what poetry does.

(This might get horribly complicated).

A couple of things have been lurking around the Bebrowed control panel for a while:

  • The possibility that J H Prynne might be right about the authenticity of ‘The Solitary Reaper’ and;
  • The likelihood that Jacques Derrida might be wrong about at least one aspect of Celan’s ‘Aschenglorie’.

Some time ago I wrote about ‘Field Notes’ which is Prynne’s lengthy commentary on ‘The Solitary Reaper’ and got more than a little indignant about the fact that Wordsworth wasn’t actually present when the Reaper’s song was heard. I was also critical of Prynne for appearing to skim over this (to me) problematic element.

Since reading Derrida’s essay on Celan’s ‘Aschenglorie’ I’ve been convinced that this sets the benchmark for writing usefully about the supremely gifted poet.

I think I now have reason to amend these views. As I’ve said before, I’m not at all bothered by this inconsistency in fact I think the occasional about-face is good for the soul, as did William Cobbett.

I’m now going to have a glib moment, bearing witness is one of the main things that poetry does. This aspect of poetic function comes in a variety of different flavours. One of these is the business of memorialisation which can also be tangled up with the Christian and Jewish practices relating to our relationship with God.

To move things along, here’s the poem and the paragraph from ‘Field Notes’, for ‘Aschenglorie’ I’m using the Pierre Joris translation because it’s the most successful English version and Joris writes intelligently about the poem.

Ashglory behind
you shaken-knotted
hands at the threeway.

Pontic erstwhile: here,
a drop,
the drowned rudder blade,
in the petrified oath,
it roars up.

(On the vertical
breathrope, in those days,
higher than above,
between two painknots, while
the glossy
Tatarmoon climbed up to us
I dig myself into you and into you).

glory behind
you threeway hands.

The cast-in-front-of-you, from
the East, terrible.

bears witness
for the witness.

This is from p. 39 of Field Notes. Prynne is discussing ‘O listen’ which occurs at the beginning of line 7, the definition of listen (OED 2a) is ” intr. To give attention with the ear to some sound or utterance; to make an effort to hear something; to ‘give ear’” whilst the second (OED 1a) is ” trans. To hear attentively; to give ear to; to pay attention to (a person speaking or what is said).”

And yet if listen is addressed to us (the readers), then indeed the poet-traveller must know full well that we cannot hear (listen sense 2a) even the slightest echo of this actual song: we know we can only quasi-‘hear’ the tacit melancholy strains of his own song-like poem, and even this lies silent upon the open page. And yet, if the traveller is imagined to hear her song by the projected imagination of the poet, then maybe the readers also can construct not the auditory actuality of this supposed song (based as it is on Wilkinson’s fieldnote report) but rather the inward response to a powerful idea (precisely, listen sense 1a) of what this song and this encounter may have meant and might still mean to a conjectured traveller acting as our deputy (our sound receiver) in this remembered but barely realised situation. But yet again we may notice that what we hear when we listen hard, strain to hear (listen, sense 2a) is neither her song nor even the intense silence which it acutely and transiently enhances: we hear instead the profound absence of her song (listen sense 1a again), even as we are told of the how and why (but not the what) she sings.

Reading this a week ago I realised that my previous concerns about ‘authenticity’ (the poem reports what Wilkinson, not the poet, actually heard) were really rather silly and that Prynne’s reading is quite important because it addresses the what and the how of poetry with remarkable clarity and insight. I want to pull out a couple of these:

Record and performance.

This event occurred, Wilkinson was walking through the Highlands and came across a “female who was reaping alone: she sung in Erse as she bended over her sickle; the sweetest human voice I ever heard: her strains were tenderly melancholy, and felt delicious long after they were heard no more.” It is this event that the poem records, memorialises and then proceeds to perform these accumulated absences- the poet wasn’t present, neither he nor Wilkinson could understand what was being sung and it is impossible to recreate on the page something that you haven’t actually heard.

Going along this route, I must confess that I begin to see the ‘point’ and worth of ‘The Solitary Reaper’ which hasn’t occurred before. One of the successful elements of the poem is that it manages convincingly to draw the reader into an experience that can’t actually be achieved in that it both records and performs the event.

Witness and encounter.

In dealing with ‘Aschenglorie’, Derrida spends a lot of time on the final cry of the poem and considers in enormous depth what sort of witness Celan might be referring to. When I first read the essay I was neck deep in thinking creatively about the various complexities of the witnessing and testifying conundrum and therefore lapped all this complexity up but I now think we might need to bear in mind the whole poem and what Celan says elsewhere about the poem as an encounter if we’re going to make productive sense of the plea.

To be fair to Derrida, he did say that he wasn’t going to offer a reading of the whole poem but he does then contradict himself by offering a precise reading of Tatarmoon and then corrects himself for (probably) over-reading. He also provides a brilliant reading of the poem’s first word.

“Pontic erstwhile” doesn’t sound at all promising unless it is referring to the slaughter of Pontian Greeks by the Turks in WW1 and the subsequent return to Greece as a result of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. When they returned they found that their Athenian hosts couldn’t understand their dialect. The Pontian Greeks had lived on the Southern shores of the Black Sea from when the Greek colony was first founded nearly three thousand years ago.

Derrida felt that the ‘key’ to Celan was the fact that his mother tongue was the tongue of those who had destroyed his people and that this displacement (together with living in France yet writing in German) was the essential feature of the work.

What poetry does.

This week’s personal revelation, kicked off by the above, is that perhaps/maybe we need to give more attention to function rather than meaning. I’m not suggesting that meaning isn’t important but it does seem to have been overly prioritised down the years. Celan is of the view that the doing of poetry creates the potential for an encounter and I would go further and suggest that performance (in all of its senses) is what this encounter is mostly about.

Applying this to these two poems is fruitful because it encourages me as a reader to become the member of an audience and this (I think) makes the encounter more urgent, insistent and alive so that I can respond more to what is being done and in this way get greater pleasure from the meeting.

I have quite recently written about Spenser’s exuberant use and manipulation of language which should be the focus of pour attention rather than the political context of colonial Ireland at the end of the 16th century, I think what I meant by that is that we should primarily consider the performative features of the Faerie Queen and the nature of the potential encounter that Spenser’s after.

The poems have a lot more in common than at first appears, both address things that have been destroyed or are dying and both encourage us (me) to think about the process of memorialisation and bearing witness as a performance rather than a statement. Both also do new things with language in order to make that performance and now I’m going away to think about poetic newness as a means of heightening the chances of encounter….

On a final note, Simon Jarvis’ ‘Dionysus Crucified’ probably needs to be considered performatively – Timothy Thornton’s account of the care Jarvis took with the initial reading suggests that this is at least one of the intentions.

J H Prynne and ardency in Streak~~Willing~~Entourage~~Artesian

In the past I’ve taken the ‘forensic’ route with the above sequence, reproducing one of the poems and then trying to identify those phrases that might make some kind of sense. I find this process to be both absorbing and addictive so this is an attempt to wean myself off ‘close’ reading and give some consideration to the sequence as a whole.

I’m still making the assumption that the poems in ‘Streak’ are linked in ways other than the fact that each consists of six quatrains and that one of these linkages relates to the recent civil war in Ulster with a specific focus on the hunger strikes of 1980 and 1981. Having re-read the sequence a couple of times I think I’ve identified a number of places where things become more than a little intense.

Before identifying these, I’d like to give some consideration to what Prynne says in ‘Field Notes’ about Wordsworth’s use of ‘O’ in ‘The Solitary Reaper’. I don’t want to precis the finer points of his analysis, which is both complicated and wonderful, but I do want to point out that for him the use of ‘O’ in poetry is an expression of strong emotion and/or feeling. I also want to think about this:

The motive for ardency is in part supplied by the scarcely bridgeable rift between the possibly actual and the intensely desired (the two senses of listen even in deep memory this separation must remain a disruption to unified human consciousness, which may in this era locate one of the primal tasks of the poet of this kind to make danger or desire upon the surface of the universal earth.

The ‘point’ of this is that ‘oh’ does occur in the ‘Streak’ sequence and there appear to be other statements of intense feeling as well. With regard to Ulster, is it reasonable to characterise British involvement in the recent ‘Troubles’ as attempting in part to resolve the gulf between what was possible and what was desired by the various factions. This, of course, could be yet another example of me running away with myself but it does seem worth bearing in mind at this stage.

Now we come to timing and the fact that ‘Streak’ was the first work to be published after ‘Field Notes’ and the observation that ‘To Pollen’ doesn’t contain a single ‘Oh’. The only other relevant observation is that the above seems to be a quite ardent/fervent expression of what poetry (of this kind) might be about at a quite deep level.

‘Streak’ almost begins with an ‘oh’, this is the first stanza and a bit of the first poem-

Inside the tight closed box off it was it was out
a same summer box oh then at must closed on all
or maybe often maybe open to one side glaze be
in part to spill affirm partial along a rim ballast

Ready known,…………….

Beginning to think about ‘oh then at must’ I think I see what Robert Potts meant when he described this sequence in one word – “impenetrable” but there are do appear to be a number of ways in. The first is to ask what difference would there be if the ‘oh’ wasn’t present. When I say ‘oh then’ this tends to indicate that I have just realised something and am extrapolating from it. For example, if I’m told that it is raining I may respond with ‘oh, then I won’t go for a walk until later’ because walking in the rain isn’t much fun.

I’m struggling to see how ‘at must’ relates in any way to ardency especially when placed with this flurry of repetition. There is a very, very slight possibility that ‘must’ is actually the Middle English variant of ‘most’ and a slightly greater chance that it is used as an expression of ” a command, obligation, or necessity; (hence) an obligation, a duty; a compulsion” (OED). I’m currently inclined towards ” Expressing a fixed or certain futurity: am (is, are) fated or certain to, shall certainly or inevitably” because it seems to fit best with the certainty of ‘it was it was’ and contrasts with the maybes in the following line.

The second use of ‘oh’ occurs in the fifth stanza of the same poem-

Recital to side, same with to side livid in part
newly profuse did civic offer on a dial, sweep
flight oh disposal profligate buck more in and
ready. Tantric cube up tight seam, signal limit

The previous stanza ends with a full stop so this extract does contain the full sentence. Things may be a bit clearer in this instance. The notorious use of internment (imprisonment without trial) by the British government between 1971 and 1975 resulted in a rise in the membership of paramilitary groups. So ‘sweep flight’ may refer to the initial arrests and ‘profligate disposal’ to the fact that many (over 1900) were incarcerated whilst ‘buck more in and ready’ may refer to internment causing more individuals to go against ‘normal’ law-abiding practices and to join the IRA and other groups and to be ready to participate in violent acts. If this is the case then ‘oh’ here is likely to represent an ardent (as in keenly felt) lament or disappointment at the brutality and crass stupidity that characterised so much of British policy throughout the seventies.

The third ‘oh’ takes me back into bafflement territory although there are a few more footholds-

let lid flicker, stand up. Said what choice spoken

Quickly at a brag do they when not or if profound
same brows matching oh weigh out lamp for show fly
forward, must do. Weed wet they say would you de-
lay hard trimming fast the sluice unclued eye into.

I have spent ten minutes in the company of rules 88 and 89 of the Hong Kong Jockey Club and can now confirm that a jockey ‘weighs out’ before a race and weighs in after it and that the rules about this are quite complex. This, of course, does not help with either the bafflement or the ardency. The eagle-eyed amongst you will note the proximity of ‘must’ and some may recall that ‘lamp’ as a verb can mean to strike or to thrash, especially in northern dialect. So somebody may be being beaten up in order to either deter or intimidate others. ‘Brag’ as a verb can mean both arrogant and boastful language and a ” Show, pomp, display; pompous demeanour or carriage” which brings to my mind the deeply weird Orange marches that continue to be such a source of conflict.

If this particular ‘oh’ does not indicate ardency then might it indicate a kind of bored resignation because all parties during the Troubles continued to make the same mistakes and adopt the same nonsensical ‘positions’. There’s also the slim possibility that the verification involved in weighing out a jockey might nod towards the actions of the independent group set up to monitor if the IRA was actually disarming.

The fourth ‘oh’ (from the eighth poem) doesn’t offer any obvious footholds-

at the boundary. Draw back torted, for fraction unlit
decept inner bark what frame oh how not even upright

Is the surface entire all for them compose him runnel
delegate incision, enjoy the permit gates, be tint likely
pitch acid hob. Loop for fray unpick over flint skies.

I’m not going to even attempt the ‘torted’. ‘decept’, ‘runnel’ route because that is likely to take me into forensic fretting over signification and what I’m trying to do here is to examine the nature of the ‘oh’. It can of course be argued that in order to grasp the oh then I need to understand the context. I accept this but also point out that this particular ‘oh’ seems to be another expression of either dismay, exasperation or disappointment and doesn’t seem to contain very much ardency- although we can be ardently exasperated, can’t we?

The final ‘oh’ (from the penultimate poem) is a bit more promising-

folder wasted in a cratch, into that. Did they wear better
busy neck-piece jesting harmonious interlock bundle tag
agreement oh same training striker defect. All same lock

‘Same’ is repeated throughout the sequence and one day I will try and make sense of the various ways in which it is deployed. Is this particular same involved in some kind of coaching or education? Does ‘striker’ refer to hunger striker and what might this defect be? The strike was in part an extension of the blanket protest against the withdrawal of political status for IRA prisoners and the requirement that such prisoners should wear ‘ordinary’ prison uniform. I’d like to think that this ‘oh’ is an expression of fervent regret but that might be more about my feelings about the hunger strike than Prynne’s.

None of this is terribly helpful in terms of ‘joining up the dots’ and doesn’t bode well for trying to do the same with other recurring features but it does lead me to think much more about the sequence as a whole which is a Good Thing. Incidentally, there are references to keenly felt emotions that are completely ‘oh’ free…

Keston Sutherland on wrongness in poetry

I am going to have to stop reading Sutherland, he gives me far too many things to think about. I’ve recently had sight of an essay on two lines from Wordsworth’s ‘The Thorn’ which was published in ‘Lyrical Ballads’. The essay is called “Wrong Poetry” because these two lines were universally criticised for their seemingly unpoetic ineptitude but Wordsworth stood by them for seventeen years. The lines in question are- “I’ve measured it from side to side / ‘Tis three feet long and two feet wide”. Against my better judgement and overcoming my natural aversion to all things Wordsworth, I have now read this particular poem in its entirety and have to report that it isn’t very good and that the aforesaid couplet does seem a bit clunky even when compared with what surrounds it. ‘Clunky’ is my personal term and it applies to bits of poems that just don’t work or seem out of place. I like to think that I’ve had enough experience of clunkiness that I can recognise it in the work of others. This characteristic I would distinguish from ‘bad’ which in my lexicon refers to either dishonest posturing or complete technical ineptitude. I’m not of the view that a poem can be so bad that it’s good- although I do accept this may apply to certain pop songs.
That was the first digression, this is the second. The essay spends the first three pages rattling on about Hegel and Adorno. To uneducated souls like me this kind of obfuscation is deeply off-putting. In normal circumstances I would mutter darkly and not proceed any further in accordance with my lifelong vow never to ‘do’ Hegel and also because I fail to see what whatever the great German said could have to do with the way that I read and think about poetry. Furthermore, ‘Field Notes’ doesn’t begin with three pages of Hegel, neither does Fish when writing about Milton nor Derrida when writing about Celan. I fail to see why Sutherland feels to need to dabble in this academic nonsense, especially when he’s got something useful to say. Still, perhaps all this does is further demonstrate the need for the arduity project.

After the first three pages we get to the lines in question and the critical response to them then Sutherland defends them (and Wordsworth’s defence) with his usual vigour. Calling Simon Jarvis to his aid, he makes the claim that Wordsworth disliked being praised in the wrong way but that he also liked being dispraised in the right way,  Sutherland asserts that Wordsworth “should have needed an occasion to insist that poetry which even the most sympathetically inclined right-minded judges, and perhaps those judges especially, cannot like, nonetheless ‘ought to be liked’.”

This line of thinking is carried further in defence of the offending couplet. To condense a more detailed argument, Sutherland praises the lines because of their absolute literalness and points out that what may lie behind them is  “an attitude and pressure of conviction dislocated from its social context and its materials of argument, an excitement too powerful to disown that is persisted in with almost nonsensical tenacity”.

I don’t care enough about Wordsworth or this particular poem to form a view as to whether or not Sutherland is right but along the way he does throw out a number of ideas and issues that I will have to think about. The first is the concept of poetic wrongness. In this age of free verse and poems that consist solely of appropriated text, do we still have an idea of wrongness?

I think we do, two examples spring to mind where radical devices have been used that are ‘wrong’. Geoffey Hill’s ‘The Triumph of Love’ contains editorial notes and responses to critics within the poem. I don’t think that either of these elements work but aren’t wrong enough to detract from the brilliance of the poem. They shouldn’t be there, they are too pleased with themselves and  nowhere near as innovative as the time shifts used in ‘Mercian Hymns’ yet the rest of the poem is strong enough to carry them. Of course my idea of wrongness is entirely subjective and not in step with Sutherland who intends it to denote the overly literal. In the case of Hill, the devices used could be seen as conceptually bold, innovative and ‘wrong’ in the sense of defying convention but the fact remains that the content isn’t effective enough to match the devices.

The other proponent of  ‘wrong’ poetry that comes to mind is Sutherland himself. I’ve already written at some length about ‘Stress Position’ and speculated that it may be an attempt to fulfil his stated need for ‘poetry that is as impossible as reality’. I’d now like to throw wrongness into the mix. Wrongness in this particular poem comes in two distinct forms, one that doesn’t work and one that does precisely because it defies both logic and convention, demanding that the reader enters into the inherent contrariness. The first kind of wrong is the gratuitous Derrida quip in the final section of the poem which doesn’t work because it is merely offensive and repeats tired old cliches that have been around since the late sixties- if Sutherland wants to take on deconstruction and/or relativism then he should try and put up an argument.

The second kind of wrong relates to the gang rape scene and to Black Beauty. ‘Normal’ rules would suggest that if you are writing about torture and include a rape scene then you should not (under any circumstances) depict it in a lyrical way, especially if the victim is yourself.

The other maxim goes- if you are writing about torture and the vagaries of American foreign policy which are serious themes you should not place a fictional horse in the narrative. You must not do this because it will confuse your readers and it will not (under any circumstances) work.

This kind of brazen wrongness does actually work on a number of levels precisely because it is so very brazen and because Sutherland executes these two wrongs with enormous skill. I like to think that I’m not easily pulled in but I find both the inclusion of the horse and the rape scene very plausible. It’s this kind of wrongness that may indicate where the future of poetry lies.