Tag Archives: not I

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.

Keston Sutherland on Beckett and embellishment

I’ve just bought Sutherland’s ‘Stupefaction’ which contains four long essays. I haven’t yet read any of these but there is something in the introduction to the ‘Wrong Poetry’ essay that I feel I need to respond to. I’ve written about a shorter version of this and will be interested to see the direction that the longer one takes.

The introduction starts with Hegel on knowledge and goes on to attack Yirmiyahu Yovel’s 2005 translation of the preface to the ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’. As I’ve said many times before, I don’t care about Hegel and am remarkably relaxed about this, Hegel is not one of those thinkers that causes those feelings of inadequacy in this auto-didact that Bourdieu describes so acutely. I can however share in the anger that is felt when a translation does a disservice to the original. I remember my sense of violation on reading a recent and very bad translation of ‘Orlando Furioso’ and I continue to despair at the plaudits that John Felsteiner received for his skewed translation of Celan. So, I can understand this kind of getting cross especially when Yovel states that he has ‘followed the letter of the original Hegelian text….using straightforward contemporary style and avoiding literary embellishment’ and goes on to tell us ‘I broke Hegel’s long sentences or simplified their structure, I also omitted his italics’. You don’t have to care about Hegel to comprehend the monumental stupidity of such a strategy in any context. It is therefore reasonable that Sutherland should scathe but he does so (in part) with this- “Every reader of Beckett will know that literature is not so easily avoided, and that nothing embellishes like simplification and ommission”.

The first piece of unpacking that needs to be done with this is about the sneer that lurks within. I’m fond of the ‘anybody’ device, my current favourite being ‘anybody who has thought about this for longer than thirty seconds will know….” because it implies that the object of my scorn either hasn’t given this much thought or that he or she is actually incapable of reflective/analytical thinking. Throwing something specific into the mix does raise the stakes however because it is creating a specific coterie (readers of Beckett) who are in some way especially aware of these two specific points.

It just so happens that I’m a current and attentive re-reader of Beckett and neither of these assertions spring immediately from the page. I readily accept that there are many different Becketts doing many different things in many different ways but I’m struggling to square either of these with the Beckett that’s in my head.

Let’s start with the avoidance of literature (which is different from the avoidance of “literary embellishment”- something which Sutherland neatly overlooks). I take it that Sutherland intends us to know that Beckett is an example of a writer whose apparent rejection of literary conceits and devices still results in great literature. I don’t think that Beckett does reject or avoid literature, I think the large body of his work from 1945 on over demonstrates an intensification of literary strategies rather than an avoidance of them. There are far too many examples that I can produce to underline this but I’ll try just three. This is from ‘Not I’:

…for her first thought was…oh long after…sudden flash…brought up as she had been to believe…with the other waifs…in a merciful…[brief laugh]…God…[Good laugh]…first thought was…oh long after…sudden flash…she was being punished…for her sins…a number of which then…further proof if proof were needed…flashed through her mind…one after another…then dismissed as foolish…

(The bits is square brackets are Beckett’s stage directions which are in italics in the original.)

This is how ‘Company’ begins:

A voice comes to one in the dark. Imagine.

To one on his back in the dark. This he can tell by the pressure on his hind parts and by how the dark changes when he shuts his eyes and again when he opens them again. Only a small part of what is said can be verified. As for example when he hears, You are on your back in the dark. Then he must acknowledge the truth of what is said. But by far the greater part of what is said cannot be verified. As for example when he hears, You first saw the light on such and such a day. Sometimes the two are combined as for example, You first saw the light on such and such a day and now
you are on your back in the dark. A device perhaps from the incontrovertibilitv of the one to win credence for the other. That then is the proposition. To one on his hack in the dark a voice tells of a past. With occasional allusion to a present and more rarely to a future as for example, You will end as vou now are.

Finally this is from ‘The Lost Ones’:

The truth is no searcher can readily forego the ladder. Paradoxically the sedentary are those whose acts of violence most disrupt the cylinder’s quiet.Fourthly those who do not search or non-searchers sitting for the most part against the wall in the attitude which wrung from Dante one of his rare wan smiles.

The first thing that I ever understood about Beckett (and here I’m getting quite protective) is that primarily there is a distillation and compression going on rather than an avoidance, that whatever he is doing (like Rothko) is saturated in the practices and effects of what’s gone before and, I would argue, this is what ‘any’ reader should and does know. The above examples aren’t carefully chosen but are from the things I was reading yesterday, my point would be even easier to make if I used any of the longer plays or novels- as anybody who has read Beckett would know.

I’m now going to address the use of ’embellish’ which the OED defines in the following ways:

  1. To render beautiful;
  2. To beautify with adventitious adornments; to ornament;
  3. Now often with sense to ‘dress up’, heighten (a narration) with fictitious additions;
  4. To brighten (in feeling), cheer.

I’m taking it that both parties are using the first part of the third definition. I have absolutely no idea whether Hegel resorted to literary dressing up but I am firmly of the view that (if he did) these should be included- the sentence structure must be retained and the italics left in purely for reasons of obtaining as clear as possible an understanding of what he meant at the time of writing.

Harold Pinter (Nobel prize winner and leading Beckett disciple) once said that he always returned to Beckett because he knew that Beckett would always rub his nose in the shit. I wouldn’t go quite as far as this because there are many more dimensions to Beckett than this. What I would take issue with is whether any of Beckett results in the kind of dressing up that Sutherland implies.

I could go on about this at much greater length- it is remarkable how much stuff Sutherland gives me to think about and argue with and ‘Stupefactions’ will no doubt trigger off a whole load of thoughts.

Finally, I wonder if Beckett is being used to add cachet to the argument, it strikes me that either Joe Luna or Vanessa Place are much more appropriate examples….

Stupefaction is available from Amazon for £12.

A Response from Keston Sutherland

Since this was posted, I’ve had the following response from Keston-

“I’m grateful for your post on that remark in my book _Stupefaction_. I
think our wires may be just a little crossed. Perhaps you remember that
in _Molloy_ Beckett writes “it is not at this late stage in my relation
that I intend to give way to literature” (something like that, that’s
almost but not quite verbatim). His joke is that literature has until
now been successfully altogether avoided and that he means to keep it
that way. Of course the truth is that is was never avoided for a moment.
My point about embellishment is a riposte to Yovel, whose word that is;
but it is also the suggestion that Beckett understood, painfully and at
real cost, that you can’t avoid addition simply by means of subtraction:
in the context of my criticism of Yovel, the point is that every
omission, levelling, normalization into familiar idioms, etc, is in fact
a positive addition to the text, or if you like a “literarization” of
it. Yovel claims that literariness can be trimmed and expunged; I
counterclaim that the trimming and expunging is itself a modality of the
literary (and that no-one understood that fact so well as Beckett). In
any case I certainly didn’t intend a “sneer”. The chapter “Marx in
Jargon” which precedes “Wrong Poetry” and sets the stage for it is an
investigation into the meaning of the idea that “anyone” or “everyone”
could know something, so that when I make that remark in “Wrong Poetry”
it is from a theoretical basis already established earlier in the book.”