Tag Archives: The Odes to T61 LP

The Odes to TL61P: another experiment in reading

You’ve been reading this in various drafts since 2010 and now you have the Real Thing and you’ve read it a couple of times and you went to the Dalston launch where Keston read bits of it gloriously out of sequence and you’ve blogged on the Odes / Stress Position debate and now it’s time to get to grips with it.

One of your better Sutherland-related observations is that his work makes reasonable sense until you read the actual words rather than let the words wash over you. The first couple of pages appear to bear this out and you’re not sure how you feel about this so you start slowly with the first few lines:


Each time you unscrew the head the truths burn out
and fly away above the stack of basements inundated
in aboriginal mucus, elevating the impeccable,
hereafter congenitally depilated Janine rescaled to a
grainy blank up on to the oblong top of the freezer 
whose shut white lid unhinged at the back alone
preserves a pyramid of rigid meat, budget pizzas,
devirginated arctic rolls, only ever kidding in a
prophylactic void torn into great crates of glittering
eye shadow, dowsing all its stickiness in dark empty 
swerves, for no-one is the radius of everything we 
are,  reinforced steel artery in the very integument

You acknowledge to yourself the energy and the thrust, you also like the confidence of ‘only kidding’ which you’ll come back to shortly but first you decided to think about this ‘head’ that is unscrewed. You recognise that this particular noun has many, many meanings from head of lettuce through to human head and on to the head of an oil well and this last might be appropriate given that this results in burning. The other thing you notice is ‘each’ which indicates, as there’s only one head involved, that the head is unscrewed, emits truths and is then screwed back down again. You know enough about the rest of the poem to gather that this may relate to the theme of the tyranny of secrets and the absolute need to break them but you may, as usual, be rushing ahead of yourself. These ‘truths’ are also a bit of a worry because Keston’s previous truths tend to have been coloured by his Marxian perspective and Stress Position makes fairly explicit his distaste with the/my relativist tendency. You don’t recall being conscious of this getting extended in your previous readings and hope that these kind of truths relate to secrets rather than some kind of universal positivism.

You can’t resist having a peek at the OED definitions for ‘head’ and are staggered by the number and by the fact that you’d forgotten or overlooked so many but it does appear that the well head / flare stack may be the best analogy. The ever-improving Wikipedia tells you that flare stacks are used to burn off the natural gas that comes to the surface (the head of the well) with the oil and that there are normally efficient valves that can stop and start the flow as required. You also recognise that there’s more than one meaning to ‘screw’. This could all be very wide of the mark especially if you take the next two lines into account but it might be significant that these truths burn there way out and then ‘fly away’. You start with the obvious, truths are abstract and completely incapable of either burning or flying. There is however, in the world of secrets, that the content of some truths is so dangerous and corrosive that it is exposed and then flies away. You now hate yourself because you’ve just leapt to Edward Snowden currently in the noplace of Moscow airport and to the slow burn of secrets locked away in Welsh care homes. You then re-read just to make sure that this is a track that you want to go down and realise that ‘burn out’ also has connotations of becoming exhausted, stressed, demoralised and no longer fit for the tsk that you have started. You try to bear this in mind as you come up against these stacked basements.

You don’t want to be too clever or overly poetic but you can’t resist clocking the proximity of basement to abasement and then decide that this is silly, the point is that these burning truths have flown away from their source and are now above these stacks which are flooded with this Very Early snot. This is where the absence of sense may start to kick in but you persevere. Of course, a stack of basements is difficult to envisage because a basement is the room usually at the bottom of the ‘stack’ of other rooms. So if another basement is placed on top of it then that basement becomes a room because it is no longer at the base of the stack.

You consider a different approach but first realise that this Welsh care home thing relates not just to institutional and political secrets but also the truth that an abusing adult will take enormous pains to conceal. You then move on to state secrets and the fact that many of these cover up various forms of abuse from torture through to eavesdropping and reading my e-mails. The different approach turns out to be the function of the basement.

Basements are hidden from view, rarely visited and (in movies at least) the scene of very many bad things. People are killed, bodies are dismembered, the ‘truth’ is extracted in the basement precisely because it is hidden from view, indeed it might even be metaphor for the underbelly of the modern state. We know, thank to the release of truths, that the US and UK arranged for torture to be carried out in basements all over the world and that the use of ‘stacks’ may simply mean ‘very many’.

The snot problem is in part resolved by the discovery that it is only nasal mucus that is snot and that the term is “viscous substance secreted by the mucous cells and glands of animals to provide protection, lubrication, etc” which ties in a bit more with the grisly business of inflicting pain on others.

You may now be wavering between the sense and non-sense positions but you still have your suspicions that this is as it is because it contains more than a touch of the absurd and you’ve just spent ninety minutes or so reading things into something that were never there. This nagging doubt is not at all helped by the prospect of the hairless Janine.

The Odes to TL61P and Stress Position

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?

The Odes to TL61P and the nodding dog

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.

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.