Tag Archives: the odes

Keston Sutherland interviewed. At length.

I am now going to write about an interview with Keston Sutherland which appeared on the literateur site last year. I’m going to do this because he’s an important poet and critic and he says some things that I’d like to unpack and throw around.

Before I do this, I need to add that the people at literateur (I do hope that the name is playfully self-referential) have quoted me, in arduity mode, in their introduction at the top of the page. I didn’t notice this, it was pointed out to me by Keston Sutherland. The problem with writing things is that sometimes you’d quite like to change or delete what had been written with such sharp precision but a few months ago. Caroline Bergvall’s site is now sharing with the world my desire to be Steve van Zandt- for example. I’m reasonably happy with this particular quote although I’d have preferred the inclusion of the next sentence- “No-one can doubt either his commitment or skill and everyone should (must) read him.” as well. I then noticed that someone in the comment thread had taken issue with the assertion which the good people at literateur were then keen to distance themselves from. The temptation is, of course, to intervene, defend my position and to pour scorn on everyone else concerned but I won’t because anybody can click on the link, read the rest of the carefully crafted and elegant piece and come to their own conclusions.

The Keston Sutherland media management machine is more effective than that of any other ‘innovative’ poet but there are times when it comes unstuck. In this instance, someone should have thought for longer than three seconds about the photograph which does nothing for Sutherland and even less for the promotion of poetry. In fact I could go on for a very long time about how this kind of stupidity, together with garbled or badly recorded readings continue to undermine the product- and poetry is a product.

The other problem with this particular interview is one of tone, I have been critical of the current Jacket site for giving Bergvall a very free ride in a recent interview but this seems to be more of an issue here because of Sutherland’s talent and his quite central / pivotal position in the scheme of things and because he does set himself up for more than a degree of controversy.

The ‘feel’ of this conversation is a little too cosy for my taste and allows Sutherland to get away with a lot without being challenged.

I’m about to list some of the missed opportunities but I also need to acknowledge that Keston is amenable to challenge and has responded to most of mine at length and with good grace, even when he’s wrong.

Let’s start with the guff about language in the second paragraph-

But it is language which nonetheless is throughout always committed to mining the echoes and resources and repercussions of ordinary and everyday language.

The obvious response is ‘no, it isn’t’ combined with a carefully selected slew of foreign phrases that cannot be in anyway thought of as the echoes, resources and repercussions of ‘everyday’ language. We’d also like to know a bit more about what ‘repercussion’ might mean in this particular context. It might also have been useful to probe the apparent contradiction contained in the third paragraph of this answer.

Then there’s this-

So for me, right now, the most important political responsibility—and I positively identify it as a Mayakovskyan responsibility for the poet—in an event like that, is to walk around and to discover in the vernacular of protest and anger the means to produce a complex, perceptive account of underlying social contradiction that can on some level be intelligible to the people who were on that march and that will properly reflect back part of the experience of being there—that rather than any kind of de rigeur intensifying climax or amplified poetical outburst which screws up into a ball and perfects its energy at the peak of its intensities of violence.

There is an argument that goes that the invocation of Mayakovsky is not something that can pass by unremarked, most of us will want to know who Mayakovsky was and why Keston is using him in this context and why this identification is said to be ‘positive’. Not everybody reading this interview will have read Keston’s ‘This is not a metaphor’ and may therefore need to know what this kind of responsibility might be.

The nature and function of the truly political poem is also worth unpacking – I now have this image of the poet on the picket line, in the kettle accumulating the words, phrases and gestures of those around him so that these can then be sifted through and elements reformed as a poetic ‘reflection’ of the social reality of the kettling moment. I am trying reasonably hard but I can’t see how this gets us away from the cultural dilemma so accurately described by Bourdieu.

The last sentence in this paragraph is a bit of a mess because I’m not sure whether Sutherland is conceding some value to the vacuous posturing of the bourgeois poet – apart from the fact that it isn’t revolutionary and I’d also like to query the relationship as described by him between the bourgeoisie and the means of production.

I also fail to understand why this contrast needs to be made, Sutherland’s position remains that of the aspiring social realist and the distinction between this and other positions should be rather obvious by now.

I’d also need to query Sutherland’s apparently straightforward understanding of all things bourgeois because I’m of the view that, even from a social realist perspective, the changing face of the upper middle classes make things a little more complex and nuanced.

Much time is spent on the transition from verse to prose but I’d have like more on the transition from imperialism to sexuality and sexual identity. I remain of the view that the latest Odes represent a major challenge to the rest of us in all kinds of ways and I’d like to know a bit more about the motives for taking this quite courageous leap.

There is a debate to be had about just how overrated John Coltrane’s ‘late’ phase might be and whether the ‘Impressions’ album is the only one that makes any kind of musical sense but a conversation about poetry isn’t the place to have it- unless of course late Coltrane is felt to be an influence on the work in which case I’d need to know a lot more.

The refutation of elitism is the sort of thing that you would expect from a Marxian poet who has allied himself to all things Cambridge but it’s not a valid refutation, there needs to be some concession to the privilege bestowed by an Oxbridge education whilst at the same time defending the use of what many would consider to be elitist tropes and phrases. The ‘life’s incomprehensible’ quip is a lift from Geoffrey Hill and not worthy of either of them. I’d far rather stick with the ‘it is what it is (read the fucking words)’ honesty espoused by Pound and Philip Roth without the ‘Try death’ sneer which is simply offensive.

A finalish thought, just how compatible are the social realist and wrong poetry strategies? Or, is this another example of hedging the bet?

As ever with Sutherland, there are lots to think about and I am going to return to Mayakovsky and ‘This is not a metaphor’ and think about the difference between circulation and publication and whether we need to throw this into the web 3 mix…

Is poetry too poetic?

I come to this in wavering mode. On the one hand it can (and is about to be) argued that poetry is the main problem with poetry just as politics is the main problem with politics. On the other hand I can point to the work of some of our younger poets (particularly Timothy Thornton and Francesca Lisette) as examples of really strong poetic poets who are moving the form in new and exciting directions.

I need to clarify what I mean by the nature of the problem. The first issue is introspection and the sad fact that most poems a written in and from aspects of poetic lineage. We are all guilty of this, I have spent many years attempting to write in a similar fashion to poets that I admire because I think this is a good way to do poetry and also because I like to think that I ‘get’ what they are about. The second issue relates to what I think of as the heightened language problem. It is absolutely correct to say that poetry in a variety of ways concentrates, refines, energises and thus heightens our language practice but I am concerned that there is too much heightening going on.

Poetry that plainly says what needs to be said.

I’m going to start with a quote from George Herbert because it’s what reminded me of the current poetry problem and because it gives me an opportunity to identify contemporary poets who make matters worse. This is the first verse of ‘Jordan’:

Who sayes that fictions onely and false hair
Become a verse? Is there in truth no beautie?
Is all good structure in a winding stair? May no lines passe, except they do their dutie
Not to a true, but painted chair?

I would argue that the problem is best exemplified by the ‘false hair’, the ‘winding stair’ and the ‘painted chair’. The first time I read these lines I thought of Prynne’s austerity and his stated aim to say how things are and then I realised that he’s frequently guilty of creating a winding stair. In fact it’s the complexities of the stair that I find so compelling. Then I recalled those moments where the austerity is ruptured by false hair moments. ‘To Pollen’ is mostly unlyrical in that the phrases are blunt and completely without heightening. The third poem in the sequence ends with “Stand nearby went off its oil trap refined” which just isn’t poetic. The twentieth poem however has:

will explain how that works, how bravery is planted
in a celestial soil like dust that we are

and ends with:

for good cheer brave hearts never in vain as under
starry skies commit acts of stupendous cocky turpitude.

The first of these is a bitter and sarcastic quote of what the clergy say about warfare whilst the second undermines the lyrical description of our soldiers with the last three words, especially ‘cocky’ which is almost anti-poetic.

I’m ready to concede that Prynne is a special case in all kinds of ways and that the above two examples (ruptures which are intended to take our breath away) can be seen as attacks on Herbert’s false hair but I wonder whether their cleverness can be seen as part of the winding stair. Prynne does all kinds of winding stairs, he does radical ambiguity, he does secondary and tertiary meanings, he does obscure references all of which might appear at variance with his desire to say how things are.

Poetry made with false hair.

I’m guessing that this extract from Simon Jarvis’ F0 is what Herbert had in mind:

The grey shades fall across the lintel and the steppes of lack still roll their perfect carpet out
Not like something upon which it is death to tread rather like some death which we are to be and to tread.
The sun is still felt to go down as this planet spins over it
No less lit when it turns away
Than is this inside
No darker or lighter than a thought.

There’s the poetic twists of the first line (‘shades fall’, steppes of lack’) followed by the repetition ruse in the second and the mannered syntax and distorted perspective of the last four. I speak as fan of Jarvis and consider him to be one of our most accomplished poets but I think this, by being too poetic, is the kind of thing that gives poetry a bad name.

On this theme, it is widely acknowledged that nobody does the English landscape as well as Geoffrey Hill, this is conceded even by those who dislike the rest of his output. It is therefore of some note that Hill is at his most poetic (and playing with false hairs) in this particular mode. This is the beginning of “In Ipsley Church Lane 2”:

Sage green through olive to oxidised copper
the rainward stone tower-face. Graveyard
blossoms come off in handfuls - the lilac
turned overnight a rough tobacco brown. Every few minutes the drizzle shakes
itself like a dog.

As poetry this is very accomplished and poetic (‘rainward’, drizzle shaking itself etc) with a lyricism that’s at odds with the rougher speech and language struggles that occur in his less popular and more challenging work. This, I feel, tells us a lot about what many critics and readers expect from poetry, that it should have false hair and embellish rather than heighten language.

The Dogme interlude.

(Bear with me, this does make a kind of sense.)

Last night I was watching the Mark Cousins thing on the history of film and he was interviewing Lars von Trier. Lars was explaining what he did with the camera in ‘Breaking the Waves’ and Cousins remarked that Godard did something similar in the early sixties. Lars smiled at this and gently explains that Godard was/is still caught up in the cinematic tradition of making film whereas he wanted to get rid of all that.

The point is that those who do poetry perhaps need to get rid of all that as well. It’s interesting that at Dogme hq there is Dreyer’s editing desk and perhaps poets and critics should take a look at “The Passion of Joan of Arc’ to be reminded of just how much can be done with less.

I’ve never been keen on Dogme because I’m not keen on artificial constraints but some ‘rules’ might be helpful in solving the poetry problem or at least in beginning to think about the problem.

The Stress Position Dither.

As I’ve already said there’s a degree of wavering in my head on this because of the brilliance of some of the poetic and lyrical stuff currently being written. There’s also the problem presented by the first part of Keston Sutherland’s ‘Stress Position’ which is written in metrical 7 line stanzas. The poem as a whole is a searing indictment of the dismal Iraq fiasco in general and the use of torture in particular. This is one of the stanzas:

   Wash your mouth, the rustle of sweetened Diyala inflected by affix
FACE 2, affix CONE GUTS 6, the life you rifle down
battering the slash of blood in procrustean sewage, never bespoke
free karaoke? The revolving door that leads to the emerald
has seven doors and seven plates of glass, the man who pushes
it round, who pushes the push bars, who pushes the meaning onward
himself is the spicy diglyceride, pre-cum for oil and water.

Regular readers will know that I’m a great fan of ‘Stress Position’ and consider it to be one of the best achievements in the last twenty five years. I also recognise that the above containsseveral examples of what I’m trying to identify as the problem. There’s the mannered use of words and phrases (‘rustle’, ‘procrustean sewage’ etc), the faux portentousness of revolving doors and the meaning being pushed onward and the repetition of ‘push’ are all tricks of the trade that we could do without.

The dither kicks in when I can recognise the inherent value of the work as a whole and can recognise why the first part is constructed in this way yet feel (uneasily) that the deployment of the poetic bag of tricks is very bad for the future of poetry in the current scheme of things. The other bit of wavering with regard to ‘Stress Position’ is my minority view that the prose section depicting a wedding reception is the most successful and effective part of the work.

John Ashbery and the Winding Stair.

Unlike George Herbert, I don’t have that much of a problem with the ‘winding stair’ and would argue that most ‘good structure’ is in the intelligent and subtle use of form and language. I do however worry about the ongoing influence of Ashbery on both sides of the Atlantic because I feel that his work epitomises what Herbert was trying to get at. I’m going to be glib and suggest that Ashbery is the current poet of the chattering classes, lauded in the quality press and taught extensively in North America and the UK. I remain a great admirer of Ashbery’s earlier work and of the effort that he has put in to champion other poets. It doen’t take a lot of attentive reading to come to the conclusion that most of his later work is fairly self-regarding and repetitive as if Ashbery has found his own winding stair, is sticking to it and wants us all to admire it. I accept that Ashbery can do this because he is John Ashbery and has the absolute right not to care about wider issues. I also feel that, given his ‘profile’ that this kind of stuff is very, very bad for poetry.

The Painted Chair and the Truth

For Herbert, God was the truth, his poems ends with ‘My God, My King!’ as an example of all that plain poetry needs to say. This may be entirely sufficient for religious poetry but doesn’t tally with the situation of poetry today. I would argue that poetry will only survive, other than as a niche for academics and hobbyists, if it challenges, disturbs and confronts our comfortable notions of the truth. The most successful poems that I have read in the ‘challenge and disturb’ department attempt tp say truthful things about difficult subjects- J H Prynne on the ‘Troubles’ Vanessa Place on rape and the nature of evidence and Keston Sutherland on the sexual identities of children. These are disturbing because none of them, as subjects, have easy solutions and the poets do not pretend to provide answers to the challenges that they provoke.

Reading and re-reading ‘Streak~~Willing~~Entourage~~Artesian’, ‘Statement of Facts’ and the yet-to-be-published ‘Odes’ is a disturbing experience but also one that has convinced me that this is the kind of relentlessly honest poetry that must survive and flourish.