Tag Archives: Odes to TL61P

Keston Sutherland’s Under the Mattress

I am now in possession of a draft of the above, having watched the youtube clip of Keston reading this recently in the US. I’m told that it may not be finished but what I’ve seen is a very impressive piece of work. I’ll start with the central image, ‘you’ are underneath a mattress whilst a British military observer is ‘fucking his girlfriend’ on top of it. This is brilliant in all kinds of ways and in order to identify those ways I want to go back to the first part of the second ode from Odes to TL61P. This concerns our police force(s) and is a savage attack on the way in which the current status quo is maintained.

One of the many developments that have occurred during my adult life is the increased cleverness of the police whose primary function seems to have moved from Catching Bad People to Working with Communities as a kind of social work with muscle. Of course this is not the case, both of these functions are, as they always have been, cover for the ‘real’ task which is keeping us in our place. The general ‘cover’ has moved from the pseudo morality of the first stance to the management of communities with all the performance targets and outcomes and strategic babble that this implies.

This dismal state of affairs is captured thus:

What the public here from the police on TV is the
voice of police management. Everyone who has a
manager knows what that litotic brachylogy always
sounds like. You learn in the end to pick out the
buzzwords like hairs from a dessert you only think you
don't want to eat now, whereas in truth it is what you
have paid for in order that you can be too intimidated
to complain about it or send it back, by way of sending
it back instead, and though the mouthfeel is like
a grease-filled crack except astonishingly ugly you
study to toll your eyes, pucker as if embittered, and
furtively smirk at the gelatine souffle with the other
patriotic bulimics........

This is the sort of stuff that has me punching the air in delight. It’s grown up political satire and it is gloriously complex. This isn’t just another illustration of our complicity in our oppression/exploitation but the truly grim picture which is that we know that all of this is a con and yet make a conscious decision to live our lives as if it wasn’t. Keston has said that he isn’t sure whether he’s written a satire or a critique but I’m of the view that this manages to do both as well as skewering the fundamental lie of the ongoing farce that is New Labour.

Some time ago (before I became a more rounded and understanding person) I would have gone on to have a rant about both litotic and brachylogy as being both obscure and off-putting to the average reader. I think this argument would still stand if we didn’t now have free and instant access to the OED and other reference tomes via the marvels of the interweb. Now, given that I’ve been unable to unwrap both these oddities in less than a minute, I don’t think this argument applies to me but it may do for those who may find words like these intimidating in the sense that whoever uses them is much cleverer than they are and for those who just want to read poetry for the language without being overly concerned about anything as moveable as meaning.

I didn’t have a problem about not knowing what those two words mean and was quite happy to be swept along by the strength of the argument initially but then felt the need to discover that litotic isn’t a word in the OED (and therefore Does Not Exist) but is probably being used as the adjective for ‘litotes’ whichic is defined as “A figure of speech, in which an affirmative is expressed by the negative of the contrary; an instance of this.” Brachylogy (which is a word) is apparently a term used in the lost art of rhetoric and means: ” Conciseness of speech, laconism; a condensed expression.” So, it turns out that this is probably the most concise way of saying what Sutherland wants to say and is therefore not only defensible but also a Good Thing.

Before we proceed to the dreamer under the mattress, there are a couple of brief detours that I want to take. John Bloomberg Rissman and I have been discussing the specialness or otherwise of poetry and I was challenged / asked to come up with a definition. Of course I ducked this as best I could but came up with what had attracted / enchanted me in the first place: the ability of the poem to express greater precision by means of compression. I don’t think that poetry is unique in this but I think, at its best, it does it very well. This is a long way of saying that ‘litotic brachyology’ is an example of this and of Sutherland’s poetic skills.

The other by-way that needs to be trod is that of satire, it wasn’t until I was writing out the above that I noticed the scabrous nature of this astonishingly ugly crack that is filled with grease. Having now noticed it, I think i have to ask whether this extreme kind of satire doesn’t detract from the deadly serious point that is being made. Just because Swift did doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s okay. In this instance I’m prepared to accept that it’s meant to be read at a rate of knots and that something forceful is required but I’m not certain that it isn’t a little gratuitous.

What follows is not just a dissection of police tactics in protests but also an interweaving of the hacking fiasco, the Arab spring, the emergence of China Mobile as a global competitor and the oddness that is the lingering and ongoing death of Yvonne Fletcher with management speak and the relationship between police overtime and crisis.

This was intended as a description of the effectiveness of the central image in Under the Mattress but I seem to have gotten carried away, this is magnificent:

.........................have a dream in which to 
evade arrest you squeeze your whole body under a 
mattress laid out intuitively horizontal on which now
 superficially outlays overcharged and wasted an 
obscurely misplaced British military observer who is 
thereby on standby to be presumed innocent on the 
ground of his readiness to fall in with reality not once
but by more expertly fucking his girlfriend, and once
having been gratefully squeezed under the mattress it 
is still being done more expertly to her on, to excuse 
the strange imposition of a life directly under his 
peacekeeping pounding ass, you explain without
 meaning it or strangely caring that who should remain 
at large on the tugboat or free would needs risk 
being captured, in vintage language like that.....

There are two things here that attract my attention. The first is this observer who we are told is a military observer but is also a peacekeeper. Starting with the business of observation, I seem to recall fairly reliable (and not denied) evidence that British ‘diplomats’ were present as observers when people were being tortured in a number of dark rooms all over the world. I also recall the present regime of posh rich boys undertaking to have a thorough review of these observers’ role and / or complicity in these barbaric practices which we could never condone or make use of. However, it must be pointed out that this observer is not actually applying the electrodes, hammer, white noise, hooding but is merely observing the process and the results that then ensue. The eminently reasonable argument put forward by the powers that be, or copied from the Bush adminstration, is that these ‘techniques’ produce valuable intelligence which helps us to win the War on Terror and that we need to observe the process in order to gain that intelligence. Of course this particular military observer may be a peacekeeping observer in somewhere intransigently tricky like the DRC which would be completely neutral and have nothing to do with the interests of the larger (British) mining conglomerates currently bringing wealth and prosperity to the region.

The second thing to think about is what it means or what it’s like to be under a mattress. First and most obviously your movement is restricted and you can’t see very much. Secondly you have the weight of the mattress and those people lying on it weighing down on you. Anything you hear is muffled and you can only see what is apparent in the gap on either side between the mattress and the frame of the bed. You cannot complain against the activities going on above because you are hiding in order to evade arrest.

At least one of your hands may yet protrude from the side of the bed as if in silent protest at what is going on above it. Breathing is likely to be difficult especially as your rib cage is buffeted from the exertions going on above.

It is a dream poem and in this particular dream the protagonist (still addressed as ‘you’) moves in and out of being “Roger fucking Moore” complete with a brief biography of this Great British Icon and the overall ‘feel’ is more satire than critique and it’s very funny.

So, an image that will stay with me for a very long time and a poem that manages to be seriously absurd / absurdly serious with a great deal of verbal flair. One of the threads that seems to be worked through in Keston’s recent work is an increasingly grown-up and sophisticated analysis of the workings of the state. As a closet anarchist, I’m very pleased indeed.

Keston Sutherland’s Odes again

First of all I’d like to start with more confessions of my ignorance. The first of these relates to references to domestic appliances in modern poetry. When ‘The Stats on Infinity’ was published, I commented on the oddness of incorporating a patent for a fridge door closer into “The Proxy Inhumanity of Forklifts” and assumed that this particular conceit was a Sutherland original. I’ve now read Pound’s ‘Homage to Sextus Propertius’ which contains the line “Nor is it equipped with a frigidaire patent;” which was apparently added to the original poem prior to the publication of ‘Personae’ in 1926. The note that I have on this describes the line as anachronistic which it probably is but I think it likely that this is what Sutherland is nodding towards in ‘Forklifts’ and the ‘Odes to TL61P’.
The next confession is completely different – the second ode contains:

But look at these caricatures,
numb by numbers, empty shells,
new complexity doorbells,
jokes about what they are.

I’ve written something about the second ode for Arduity and described the ‘new complexity doorbells’ line as being trite. It was then (gently) pointed it out to me that ‘New Complexity’ is used to describe a particular school of contemporary classical music. The confession is that I’d never heard of New Complexity even though I consider myself to have a reasonable knowledge of most modern musical forms. I’ve now become a fan of Ferneyhough, Barrett, Dench and co but don’t know if that helps with the line and the context in which it is used.

What follows is (as ever) not intended to be definitive as most of what I think is liable to change and these particular thoughts are based on something that has changed considerably over the last four months and may continue to change. What follows is a response to the draft that I received on March 1st.

In November I described the Odes as “the best thing I’ve read in years” and I stand by that, I also think that it’s an important development in contemporary poetry and I want to try and explain why.

The Odes are important because they successfully disrupt current notions of what an accomplished poem should look like and because they embody a degree of ‘wrongness’ that really does clash head on with the ‘unwitty circus’. The combination of the deeply personal and very political shouldn’t work but it does. The confessional elements are disturbing without being either sentimental or offensive. As ever with Sutherland there’s a surfeit of verbal brilliance but what stays longest in the mind is the naked honesty with which things are being said.
I’m very aware that I’m writing about something that only a few people have had the chance to read and that I’m also writing about some versions that will never see the light of day. In what follows I will therefore try to spell out why this stuff is so good with longish examples. Earlier versions of Odes 1 and 2 are addressed on Arduity.

This is from the opening prose section of Ode 1:

but before anyone could actually get hard or wet or both it was imperative that as leading members of that cast and as role models for our past we agree to adopt “the mess we inherited from the last government” for our leading answer rebranded to a motto for compliance with the takeover speculation boosting Autonomy Corp. 5.3% after better-than-estimated worse-than-estimable earnings forecasts at Oracle Corp., our flat back teeth drilled in the new tax protologisms, refuting enamel, scorning accessibility, adrift in gum, sucking the sickbag out of the airbag, phantoms of the gummy grind, children out the window sing “the mess we inherited from the last” humans who engross the past to profit from the joy they bring, the power set, of which children are a set or subset, quasi-unblinking idiot desquamators of the too-accommodating larynx, e.g. i-SENSYS epistemological monogamy “I am alive (repeat)” (repeat) (repeat) my climaxes in marialogical microbiology; e.g. Brittania’s martial amphiboly on acid and amphetamines, 2 (a repeat); phlebotomy of war, get the flow back; Bollywood; sex in bantam art; sex e.g. now; eggs explained in black and white;

The “mess we inherited” is the excuse that every new administration makes when carrying out unpopular policies and is usually accompanied by the revelation that things are actually much worse than the previous government had led us to believe. This has particular resonance at the moment as it is the constant refrain of the current Tory administration as it dismantles the remaining strands of public service in the UK. The above plays around with this political device in quite savage but accurate ways. I’m particularly fond of the supposed relationship between autonomy and oracle corporations

The tone is underpinned by the extended riff on teeth and gums with the children providing and additional layer of ‘stuff’ to think about. What does it mean to ‘engross the past’? What does the ‘power set’ refer to? Or is this another example of Sutherland failing to make sense but succeeding in being over-full?
We then come to the new words (protologism, desquamator. polycollaterals and marialogical) and ask whether they are effective or distractions. I don’t normally have a problem with neologisms providing I can work out what they might mean without working too hard. The first and the third don’t present major problems but ‘desaquamator’ probably derives from ‘squamous’ given that it’s used at the beginning of the section and I have to ask how many readers would know what squamous means? There’s also the difficulty of trying to work out who the ‘quasi-unblinking desquamators’ actually are and why they should be described as unblinking.
Then there’s the proper names and the model numbers of various appliances. The proper names are mostly straightforward ( Martin Amis, Francis Bacon, Jeff Koons, Prometheus, Felix Gallardo, Chekhov, Lenin, Mariana, Traherne, Helmand, Tchaikovsky, Bach, Seurat, Anders Hoegstroem, General Tommy Franks, Mao, Caqmeron, Becket, Keats, Pound, Hitler, Guandong, Hegel, Merrill Lynch, Charles Olson etc) but there’s also ‘Madiha Shenshel’ as in “You task Madiha Shenshel with cooking your breakfast (hawk eggs in fried milk, high in polycollaterals)” which isn’t at all clear and carries echoes of some of the names used in Stress Position and Hot White Andy. There’s also reference made to three printer/copiers, a Tefal Maxifry, the clothes dryer referred to in the title and at least one washing machine. These are all confined to the first ode with the exception of the titular dryer which makes one or two additional appearances.
Ode three is a work of sustained brilliance and probably the best of the sequence, ranging from a sorrowful polemic to autobiography to confession without feeling contrived or self-pitying. It’s mostly prose except where it isn’t. It contains things like “Your fear of rich people getting social housing means that you don’t really want the communism you say you want, but you needn’t be ashamed only of that; your ear of shredded lichen goes down badly in the kitchen salesroom as a form of payment even for only the half or last part of a kitchen,” which is very, very clever and a major leap forward from the politics of Stress Position whilst retaining more than a degree of manic oddness (ear of shredded lichen). It’s not entirely clear who is being addressed here- not all of Sutherland’s readers will want communism so it’s more likely to be a self-accusation that then gets awkwardly absolved in the kitchen salesroom. I’m taking the rich people and social housing fear to be a reference to the fact that cuts in housing benefit in the UK will mean that only the well off will be able to afford social housing in London and that some councils have started to transfer tenants to other parts of the country – a move compared to ethnic cleansing by some of our more emotional MPs. The ‘communism that you say that you want’ is good because ‘communism’ is interchangeable with socialism, liberalism, radicalism, conservatism and any other hue of the political spectrum which makes the accusation more telling. The types of payment in the kitchen salesroom could ‘stand’ for the dodgy types of consumer credit that got us into our current mess or could simply be an allusion to the ways that capitalism creates illusory ‘needs’.
With regard to confession, we get;

I put Christian in my mouth under the blanket, played with him as if gargling. I didn’t know what to do, so that it felt better, authentically childish. I had to sleep in his bed because my mother put me there, as if killing our father; I could hear her sobbing downstairs at being stood up but not listen to it. He asked later that we keep it secret, once we had learned that you can do that. I was fine with that, though I also felt that it was somehow melancholy that such a simple act of pleasure between people still roughly equal at that age should need to be developed into a source of fear, when all we had to fear was other people, who could surely be imagined to come under the same blanket; I wanted everybody to get something out of my mouth.

I do find this acutely disturbing. The sexual child is something that isn’t considered unless it’s pathologised by ‘concerned’ adults. My own professional experiences of working with children who had been further sexualised by adults probably heightens my disturbance but I readily recognise the ‘simple act of pleasure between two people of roughly the same age’ as encapsulating the challenge to conventional grown-up attitudes and prejudices. The references to Sutherland’s mother and father also highlight more than a degree of adult complicity and dysfunction which I’m also disturbed by. There are two types of disturbance for me, one is concerned with my own memories of experiences of sex as a child / adolescent and the other is about how I feel about this as a Guardian-reading grown-up and parent. This has been rolling around in my head since last November and the more thought I give it the more complicated it becomes.
Ode three also contains a degree of tenderness, an ex-girlfriend (who is dead) is addressed with a mixture of nostalgia and genuine affection;

“I could at least pretend to be able to say anything to you, and believe in the pretence while it lasted by acknowledging it as such, and you could do the same for me; but now you’re gone, and I’m the government. But really you’re just away.”

There are also bits of ‘conventional’ Sutherland cleverness- arch references to Marx, Hegel and Heidegger although I’m of the view that the last two aren’t as clever as they try to be and I do have this abiding suspicion that some of it’s just gratuitous “Heidegger has a shit fit at the letting agents” is probably grounded in something that Heidegger wrote or a ‘position’ that he took but I wonder how many readers will grasp this on a first or second reading and how many of the rest of us will bother to give it any further consideration. I also realise that I expressed the same kind of concerns about the Derrida jibe in Stress Position and in November described the Hegel reference here as ‘smug’.
None of this should in any way detract from the brilliance of Ode 3 which throws down a significant gauntlet to the rest of us who try to write ‘engaged’ poetry in English..
I’ll address Odes 4 and 5 in the near future.

Keston Sutherland and the verse / prose divide

A while ago I spent some time enthusing about ‘Odes to TL61P’ and have now added a page on the first ode to arduity. The reason for doing this is not just my enthusiasm for the work but also the fact that it manages to push certain types of difficulty into newish territory.

The page has produced a helpful and positive response from Sutherland who tells me that it might not yet be finished and Chicago Review wants to publish Ode 1. He also takes me up on my assertion that most of the Odes are in prose-

that while you must be right that they are
“mostly in prose”, I wonder whether they might not at the same time, and in just those justified, block passages, be something other than prose, too? Prose cannot normally be imagined to have porous edges liable to be penetrated or broken through by lines that suddenly qualify as “verse”; I don’t know how to conceive it yet, but the function of that smashable edge must be somehow to introduce a generic contingency or blur, so that we are never fully “in prose”. I think so anyway (though of course you may not).

Before I throw this around, I think I’d better clarify my personal take on prose poems and the relationship between poetic prose and verse. In my adolescence I came across two examples of prose which was really verse. These were ‘Lessness’ by Samuel Beckett and a number of prose poems by Zbigniew Herbert. I understood the prose poem as something which couldn’t be said in ‘ordinary’ prose but couldn’t be versified either. At this point (in about 1971) my thinking on this issue stopped and I’ve spent the last forty years with the same level of understanding.
I’ve now had a bit of a think in response to the above prod and now realise that there are different kinds of prose poem and that poets use prose for all sorts of reasons. Then there’s the ‘form’ issue with some works being entirely in prose, other being predominantly in verse but making use of prose as well and those that are mostly prose interspersed with bits of verse.
I’m now in the process of looking in some detail at the way poets that I admire make use of prose. David Jones, Neil Pattison, Charles Olson, J H Prynne, Sean Bonney and Geoffrey Hill have all made use of prose, either to create ‘prose poems’ or to incorporate both prose and verse into a single poem. Jones, Olson, Prynne and Bonney are of particular interest because they have placed verse and prose together. All of these are distinctly different from the way that the two elements interact in the Odes.
I agree with Sutherland’s assertion that prose can be ‘more’ than prose when used in a poem.
I’m not of the view that the use of prose implies a weakness or lack of ability on the part of the poet but it does seem to me that the notion that ‘it’s a poem because I say it’s a poem’ is more than a little suspect. I’ve just realised that I’ve left out Kenneth Goldsmith from the above list, his appropriation of prose and the subsequent re-framing does result in poetry even though the banal and everyday original text has been left intact.
This is taken from Ode 1:

Isn‟t it the fact that I want you to stare at me until our eyes trade sockets, not the suggestion that hooding was banned in 1972, that asks for an adaptation on bliss in memory? Light
sockets, the penetration of bodies by power and remorse,
devoured in a shadow life sends back?
Remember this: I sort through the boxes,
my first poems are there, the
drawings I made at school are
and my toys are, lead prodigies and barbarians,

It’s difficult to know where the verse prose boundary is in the above, in the pdf the line beginning ‘sockets’ fills the full width of the page and is more part of the prose section than the verse that follows it but there’s also room for the word ‘socket’ to appear at the end of the line above. I’m either taking this too seriously or this is an attempt by Sutherland to create a ‘porous’ edge to the prose. This blurred break occurs in the most personal section of Ode 1, the edges between prose and verse are much clearer elsewhere in the ode as are the reasons for those edges.

Leaving the question of the ‘smashable edge’ to one side for the moment, consideration of other poets’ use of prose within a poem reveals a wide range of approaches. The Maximus Poems contains a few paragraphs of prose, some of which refer to events from Gloucester’s archives whilst others express Olson’s point of view. Given that Olson frequently versifies complete extracts from these archives, the prose/verse rationale isn’t immediately apparent but I’m prepared to accept the complexity of Olson’s thinking about form and structure.
With regard to Prynne, there are two prose paragraphs in ‘High Pink on Chrome’. Both of these are placed at the foot of the page, like unmarked footnotes. The first of these reads as a scientific elaboration of the poem whereas the second is more oblique and deliberately odd. As far as I’m aware, this is the only occasion where Prynne mixes the two elements and he does it such a way that the reader isn’t entirely sure whether the paragraphs are to be read as part of the poem or as a comment on the poem. This is also an example of having your cake and eating it in that both prose sections are very clearly delineated by the acre of white space above them leading this reader to view them both as somehow ‘optional’. The only other instance of Prynne using prose is in ‘The Plant Time Manifold Manuscripts’ which contains only a few lines that might be construed as verse.
We now come to David Jones who makes extensive use of prose in both ‘In Parenthesis’ and ‘The Anathemata’. I remain of the view that these are two of the most important poems of the twentieth century and thus make no apology for using these as examples of the ‘porous edge’.
‘In Parenthesis’ is concerned with the WWI Somme offensive and the Battle for Mametz Wood in particular. The following occurs in Part 4 (‘King Pellam’s Laund’)-

He noted that movement as with half a mind – at two o’clock from the petrol-tin. He is indeterminate of what should be his necessary action. Leave him be on a winter’s morning – let him bide. And the long-echoing sniper-shot down by ‘Q’ post alone disturbed his two hours’ watching.

His eyes turned again to where the wood thinned to separate broken trees; to where great strippings-off hanged from tenuous fibres swaying, whitened to decay – as swung
immolations
for the northern Cybele.
The hanged, the offerant:
himself to himself
on the tree.
Whose own,
whose grey war band, beyond the stapled war-net –
(as grey-banded rodents for a shelving warren – cooped in their complex runnels, where the sea-fret percolates).
Come from outlandish places,
from beyond the world,
from the Hercynian –
they were at breakfast and were as cold as he, they too made their dole.

(The two lines beginning ‘himself’ should be indented).

It’s interesting to note that Jones doesn’t address the prose/verse issue in his preface, he refers to the poem as a writing and points out that ‘In Parenthesis’ is so-called because it is written in a ‘space between’ yet he acknowledges that he’s not sure what it is between.

I’m not sure that this gets us very far but it does identify some ways in which verse and prose forms may ‘play off’ against each other in productive ways. It also demonstrates that the edges between the two can function as giving additional meaning or significance to the work.

I was going to conclude this by giving an example from ‘The Anathemata’ but wordpress won’t let me indent as I would wish. I’ll finish instead recording my agreement with Sutherland that some poets do manage to produce a ‘generic contingency or blur’ and that this can work to good effect. I’d add the rider that it also means that we are never ‘fully’ in verse either.

Open Letter to Keston Sutherland

Dear Keston,

I thought I’d try this because it’s probably easier for me to address this directly to you rather than referring to you in the third person.
First of all, thank you pointing me in the direction of the Naked Punch discussion and for sending me the Odes. The discussion throws up some bits that I’d like to take issue with later on whilst still being both impressed and disturbed by the poems.
The other thing I need to reiterate is that having you as a reader is both gratifying and odd. It’s gratifying to know that you are interested to know what I think and are prepared to defend yourself in a way that makes me re-consider my initial response. It’s odd because I never factored in the possibility that poets would be reading my stuff with interest and I still haven’t got my brain fully around that. We’ve discussed whether our correspondence might influence the way that I write about you and I continue to monitor myself to see if this is occurring, I don’t want to be simply another cheerleader for the Sutherland cause.
Which brings me nicely to the discussion, it strikes me that your questioners gave you a bit of an easy ride- you did say a lot of things that need to be challenged/clarified and this didn’t occur. Needless to say I’m going to spend some time here doing those things.
From a purely subjective and personal perspective I find the Odes challenging and disturbing. I’m challenged by some of the things that you say and I’m disturbed by your naked honesty. I like being challenged and I’m getting slowly accustomed to the emotional confusion that you trigger in me.
I’ll also confess that I haven’t yet paid sufficient ‘attention’ to the Odes (I’m still busy attending to SP and I haven’t really begun to work on ‘Hot White Andy’ etc) so the work of interpretation still awaits ( I try to read slowly and carefully) and no doubt I’ll have many further thoughts over the coming years.
I’d like to start with making sense. I know that I’ve said that your stuff when read closely doesn’t make sense. By this I think I mean that sometimes the flow of your argument is wounded and then starts again on a slightly altered trajectory. I imagine that this is deliberate on your part- there’s some wounding going on in Odes 1 and 3 that is really jolting and startles me out of ‘readerly attention’ mode- it’s very effective. The other aspect that I’d like to throw into the mix is what I think of as the Jarvis effect whereby a train of thought is carried along with such verve that I forget where we started from.
Now we come to honesty. I value honesty in poetry more than any other quality, if I find a poem or a poet to be dishonest then I’m not really interested. I know (having now read a number of rants) of your loathing for Larkin primarily because of his reactionary and right wing tendencies. I’d be prepared to forgive him those if I thought that his written was honest rather than a shoddy attempt to manipulate his readers. Incidentally, isn’t it more than a little easy for leftist poets to go on about Larkin (an easy target) rather than tackling more complex (but equally damaging) figures that litter the talking shop? As well as dishonesty, I’m also against confessional poetry or at least the kind that pretends to self-expose but is in fact an underhand attempt at manipulation. In the Odes you refer to your childhood, your mother, Andrea, your first sexual partner and the ongoing development of your sexual identity, there’s also a fairly direct reference to a mental health ‘problem’. In normal circumstances I would be put off by this but I do find that the way you lay yourself bare makes horribly compulsive reading and has led me to re-think my own history and desires, something I don’t often do. I’m tying this in with a more honest and nuanced approach to politics that marks a welcome shift from previous work but I’ll get on to politics later. I’m pleased that you’ve acknowledged to me that saying things ‘just as they are’ is full of contradiction and perplexity, I’d also like to add that it gets us one step nearer to a poetry that’s as impossible as reality- which remains a fascinating prospect.
Moving on to politics, the Odes contain references to (this is a provisional count) Iraq, Afghanistan, Mexico, the DRC and the ‘lank’ that we’re all about to experience. As you know, I have a number of reservations about political verse primarily because of the way poetry is generally regarded and because the politically awake form a small minority of those who actually read the stuff. I’m also still working out how to get poetry out of Bourdieu’s cage but that doesn’t mean that I reject engaged verse as a waste of time. In the discussion you talk of your work avoiding “bad politics through being superabundantly full of stuff” which is a great phrase but I wonder whether we can have too much of this stuff, whether such superabundance will be read by most as the ‘point’ rather than the political message that you want to convey. I’ll contrast this with ‘Streak~~~Willing~~~Entourage~~~Artesian’ which is wonderfully austere and yet is still aiming towards a political goal. It’s interesting to note that there’s even more stuff in the Odes but this is juxtaposed with clearer politics. It would be pointless for us to have a debate about Marxism, suffice it to say that I don’t share your views but I respect the fact that you hang on to them with such tenacity and passion. In the discussion you say something about talking about the dead can become just a matter of data organisation. I think that’s right but I also think that we are incredibly resistant to feeling anything about the distant dead, the UN has just completed a ‘mapping’ exercise with regard to the dead of the DRC and it makes grim reading but I don’t know how I feel about those millions of lives that have been taken away. I don’t hold completely with the Judith Butler line on this but I’m not sure if a sense of outrage is an adequate response. Incidentally, I’ve been trying to write something around Bloody Sunday and the shooting of one individual- it isn’t easy to avoid data collection and it can be useful if you can contrast it with the living body and those that loved him.
Incidentally, if “not the suggestion that hooding was banned in 1972” refers to the Five Techniques then the Parker Report ruled that hooding and the other pleasantries were illegal and always had been for use in the UK but said nothing about using them on foreign adventures which is why they’re still being used today?
This-

At the same time it remains certain that, for as much as having a life is a certainty, its unprecedentedness can be ignored or converted into a better problem—be degraded into a problem that was bound sooner or later to give rise to solutions like government, such as the present one. The public loves to be told that it has to learn to expect less, because everyone wants everyone else to have less, and everyone is willing to have less himself if that is the price of making everyone else but him have less. What a cunt.

is very effective and I think this (together with your musings on social housing) sets out a ‘social demand’ for the coming years. I’m very concerned that what’s left of radical politics in Europe is sleepwalking its way through the current disaster (as it has many times in the past) and this is the first sensible ‘call to arms’ that I’ve seen.

Moving on to love I’d like to start with a quote from Ode 1 “But real love is not at the bottom of the abyss, but is consignment to the abyss for being itself, at least to begin with and conclusively as if contracted—soft—to a single point (a dot) at the end of the universe, when dark matter is a distant memory subject by way of penalty to the vicissitudes of italic nostalgia (in her foot), and I am not sure to go on, or how to, or even what your name is any more,…” I read the first bit of this as saying the initially chaotic phase of loving someone involves losing yourself and then I get a bit lost but I really like the “vicissitudes of italic nostalgia” even though it sounds cleverer than it is. The second ode contains this:

………………………………I will
likely not ever meet anyone I love so much as
you again; but I want to try some men before I die.

I’ll get on to desire later but I am taking that the ostensible ‘sense’ of this is deliberately wounded by “likely not ever” which is wrong in every way that something can be wrong.

Your experience of love is clearly tied up with politics and the role of the love of life as a vehicle for change has always interested me but for the first time I’m having to re-evaluate why I found Edward Thompson’s similar line on this a bit anaemic. This is because your view is expressed with an honest intensity that’s compelling and entirely appropriate to verse.

In what follows I’m making a distinction between love and desire and between desire and lust. The lines that deal with pornography and the way that particular image makes you feel together with the rhetorical question at the end should be read by every adult male in the country because of the things it asks and demands and how it juxtaposes the gaze/desire/self-identification dynamic in a totally honest way.

As an ex-social worker I found the ‘Christian’ episode quite disturbing because I’ve had to walk through the equal age/consent minefield on a number of occasions and normally I find this kind of stuff distasteful in poems or novels. This seems to be redeemed on this occasion by you quoting your father and your reaction to what he said which I find honest and moving but I’ll need to give this further consideration.

When I first read the paragraph in Ode 4 that begins “But all sex is barbaric” it felt a bit superfluous and at odds with some of the other bits on sex and desire but, having read it again, I think it forms a bit of a map for the rest of the work as a whole- I’m not sure that I agree with you (primarily because I’m not you) but I can see why it’s there.

I’ve written in the first post about the neighbours and Black Sabbath and must record my personal disappointment that you didn’t pursue these bits further.

“These first four odes are a comically unreorderable anagram laughed at during oral sex, a subtitle for everything;” I’ll ignore the oxymoron but I do want to ask whether we need to be told what the Odes are? It’s certainly a strong image but I wonder why you feel the need to say it.

I really like the third section of the fourth ode- I think it starts really well and sustains this throughout although I had reservations about ‘Schlemihls’ until I looked it up.

Ode 5 contains ‘10.11.10’ which you’ve also sent in a separate pdf so I’m a bit confused as to what your intention is with this especially as it is a specific poem about a specific event and the surrounding text may (even for me) too radically different so I think I’m asking for clarification rather than making a detailed ‘point’.

In summary, this is the best thing I’ve read in years. It’s challenging, disturbing and incredibly well-written. It also sets the agenda for what engaged poetry should look like during the coming struggle. It’s also personally courageous and I remain impressed by the level and depth of your honesty in writing it. It might even be ‘wrong’ enough to start to put poetry back on the road to recovery……

John