Tag Archives: the stats on infinity

Poetic difficulties

Looking back over the last eighteen months I’ve become a bit of a ‘difficulty’ snob. There have been times when I haven’t read something because it seemed insufficiently obdurate. Writing some of the content for Arduity has helped to maintain this stance which isn’t terribly productive. This does not mean that I’m going to spend the rest of my life reading Fleur Adcock and Anne Stevenson but I does hopefully mean that I’m going to be a bit more tolerant of those poems that say straightforward things in fairly direct ways.
This has led me to think a bit more about difficulty in poetry and especially what I would describe as ‘cognitive’ difficulty. It seems to me that people describe poetry that resists interpretation as difficult but there’s also subject matter that can be difficult to read. The wedding reception scene in ‘Stress Position’ is difficult for me because it is an accurate description of an aspect of mental illness that I have experienced. The detailing of rapes in Vanessa Place’s ‘Statement of Facts’ is particularly grueling because of the objective way that terrible events are written about.
The there’s the difficulty presented by the use of proper nouns and foreign phrases. Geoffrey Hill, John Matthias and David Jones are the biggest culprits in this department and it is only with the advent of the internet that some of this stuff becomes reasonably accessible – I’m thinking of ‘The Anathemata’ in particular.
Straightforward difficulty, the kind that thrives on ambiguity and allusion, has been written about at length on this blog with particular focus on Prynne, Hill, Sutherland and Celan. I’ve been a bit carried away with notions of meaning and intention and this is certainly satisfying but I want to turn my attention now to those things that are physically difficult to read, those things that are presented in a way that deliberately challenges our reading practices.
I’ve alluded to this in the past with regard to Keston Sutherland and I now want to contrast this with John Ashbery but first I’d like to explain the background to this. Following a recent George Steiner review in the TLS, I felt goaded into re-reading Richard Rorty on Derrida primarily to check out one of Steiner’s more sweeping generalisations. This was mainly about ‘The Post Card’ but also described ‘Glas’ as “unreadable”. So, I then looked at the first few pages of ‘Glas’ and realised that Rorty was referring to the fact that the text is divided into three or two columns with the intention that we should work out the relationship between each. I then recalled something similar going on with text, spoken word and image in Godard’s ‘Histoire(s) du Cinema’ which also deliberately makes things difficult for us.
As I’ve said in a previous post, Jacket2 are featuring Erica Baum whose ‘Dog Ear’ can be said to be cognitively difficult in that we can’t see all the words and they also have Hannah Weiner’s “The Book of Revelations” which also ‘hides’ parts of words and phrases. I’d never come across Weiner before and I will be writing about her stuff in more detail in the near future. Incidentally, the Jacket2 site now has an index page which makes things much, much clearer, I still don’t understand why they didn’t think about usability prior to launch.
Keston Sutherland’s “The Proxy Humanity of Forklifts” has a long prose section which is punctuated by numbers like this:

“……it was in that case the point of that different from nothing sixteen point three I was out for no points seventeen point eight dead eighteen eaten nineteen if uneaten twenty if not fucked twenty one point four eight if a can on seeing only that denied me twenty two point one four one…..”

This is a short extract from a much longer section but it does illustrate this particular kind of difficulty which comes from not knowing how to follow the numbers sequence and the ‘sense’ of the text at the same time and whether the effort required to do this will be worthwhile. There’s also the ambiguous use of some terms, is ‘points’ in “out for no points” to be read as part of the text or is it some kind of bridge to the numerical sequence?
Then we come to John Ashbery- “Litany” is a long poem first published in the “As We Know” collection in 1979. “Litany” starts with this author’s note: “The two columns of “Litany” are meant to be read as simultaneous but independent monologues.” This of course throws down a gauntlet to the attentive reader- how can we grasp this simultaneity when we can physically only read one thing at a time? The poem itself isn’t much help, these are the first two stanzas from the left hand page:

For someone like me
The simple things
Like having toast or
Going to church are
Kept in one place.

Like having wine and cheese.
The parents of the town
Pissing elegantly escape knowledge
Once and for all. The
Snapdragons consumed in a wind
Of fire and rage far over
The streets as they end.

And this is the first two stanzas from the right hand page:

So this must be a hole
Of cloud
Mandate or trap
But haze that casts
The milk of enchantment

Over the whole town,
Its scenery,whatever
Could be happening
Behind tall hedges
Of dark, lissome knowledge

I’m not about to undertake a lengthy exposition of either of these poems but I would like to point out that they are doing the same thing in presenting us with a set of words that are difficult to get hold of and present an additional barrier before we can begin to make some kind of sense. I’ve made the observation before that Sutherland does seem to go in for a kind of deliberate damage but Ashbery (after Skaters) has always appeared too mannered for his own good. So the question would appear to be- is this stuff worth persevering with or should we, like Rorty, simply consign it to the ‘unreadable’ bin?

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 Forklift

I’ve got hold of Sutherland’s recent “The Stats on Infinity” published by Crater Press but it’s now out of print. This contains one long poem, several sonnets and a poem called “Reindeer”.
The long poem is entitled “The Proxy Inhumanity of Forklifts” and is both complex and challenging. The forklifts and their inhumanity is a reference to the fact that some British squaddies suspended an Iraqi prisoner from a forklift truck and were subsequently prosecuted for this and other acts of brutality.
“Forklifts” is challenging on a number of levels in that there’s a prose section where the text is interspersed with written numbers so that it’s quite difficult to read, there’s a few lines with blank spaces where we’re either meant to guess what should go there or supply our own words, there’s stage directions and the forklifts have a speaking role, some lines appear to spring from nowhere and there are a variety of themes that are alluded to but not really expanded. There’s also a poetised and only slightly amended rendition of Patent 5027473 for a fridge door closing mechanism- the prose version is on the cover.
It’s a much darker poem than Stress Position, the tone throughout is one of barely controlled rage and the ‘sense’ of the piece barely hangs together but this is what is so good about Sutherland, he has this ability to hover on the edge of mania without quite tipping over. ‘Forklifts’ gives us Borders (the bookstore chain), Geoff Hoon, The Waste Land, Dutch Flarf, halon, Marx, Ciudad Juarez and Israeli foreign policy but not in that order.
A pelvis makes an appearance, as it did in Stress Potion. Here the line is; “sh/se had a pelvis like a shrink’s bill in an incinerated ringbinder” whereas Stress Position had; “I, conscientiously synthetic like and alpha hermaphrodite’s PVC / bath water stripped to my gated pelvis, screaming a rhyme for HEAD”. I could argue whether a ‘shrink’s
bill’ can in any way be ‘like’ a pelvis and whether forklift trucks have anything remotely pelvic, but I do admire the way that the motif is carried over the next few lines.
Now we come to bookshops Stress Position referred ironically to the chances of the poem being sold by W H Smith’s and “Forklifts” has this- “…but you were actually sick / Bordersin administration for recalled aphrodisiac”. Sutherland is in the book trade, he and Andrea Brady run Barque Press so this may be just another snipe at a failed bookseller (Borders went bust last year) although ‘recalled aphrodisiac’ doesn’t make complete sense. ‘Borders’, on the other hand may refer to the disputed boundaries around Afghanistan and Taliban-controlled territories of north west Pakistan.
Now we come to the blanks- the word is used twice in the same way “this blank life from routinely going” and “blank life from routinely going out”. Given that the first line doesn’t actually make sense in its context, I’m left to wonder whether ‘blank’ is used as an adjective or whether we are meant to supply our own word. If the first option is the case then it isn’t clear whether Sutherland is describing one life as blank or if he’s referring to life/existence in general. The other more obvious blanks occur when the forklifts get to speak. “Karl Marx” occurs in the middle of the first line, the second line has a gap followed by a comma followed by another gap then “Schmerzesgewalt” then a gap, the third line has a longer gap followed by a comma, a shorter gap and then “the teenage rind” followed by a gap and a question mark. Google tells me that “schmerzesgewalt” means “anguish” but that doesn’t really help with teenage rind so I’ll have to give this some more thought.
“Forklifts” contains one prose section which purports to be the third side of an equilateral triangle, the second being the versified patent text with “out of order” replacing “closing direction” at the end. The prose appears to be fairly straightforward until you try to read it. The numbers that intersperse the words gradually become more complex and disrupt any understanding without quite intense concentration. The effect is quite disconcerting and very effective.
Obviously, I’m going to have to give this much more consideration. What I really like about “Forklifts” is the extent of the challenge that Sutherland throws out to the reader and the sheer intensity that is sustained throughout (patents excepted).