‘Political all the way down’: Keston Sutherland on poetics, politics and community
Keston Sutherland is a poet whose work ‘represents what the future of British verse should look like’. He is the author of several books of poetry, including The Stats on Infinity, Stress Position and Hot White Andy, which was hailed by Jacket magazine as ‘the most remarkable poem in English published this
century’. The Odes to TL61P will be published in 2012, and an extract from it can be read here. His critical account of the uses of idiot figures and stupefying experiences for philosophy, poetry and politics, Stupefaction: a radical anatomy of phantoms, was published in 2011 by Seagull. He lives in Brighton and teaches English at the University of Sussex. He co-edits Barque Press with Andrea Brady and is the editor of Quid.
Interview by Laura Kilbride
The Literateur: In a review of your latest book The Stats on Infinity Adam Piette describes your poem as ‘an event’—according to Badiou—as ‘“a rare and instantaneous supplement to the situation, introducing the radically new and originating procedures of truth”—they cannot occur in ordinary language communications’—do you think your poetry occurs outside of ordinary language communications?
Keston Sutherland: Well, that of course depends on how we like to define ordinary language. ‘Ordinary language’ is a concept which has currency in certain philosophical cultures. Stanley Cavell and others come to it out of Wittgenstein. For an alternative description of ordinary language we could look at J.H. Prynne’s recent essays, in which he says that it’s the poet’s responsibility to build poetry from the corrupted and toxic stuff of ordinary or ‘everyday’ language. That of course is not all that Prynne has actually done in his poetry.
Speaking from something approximately like a common sense point of view, anyone who opened one of my books would not discover there, lying neatly in wait, their language which they do actually use every day; in as much as it can be startlingly unfamiliar, I suppose it’s obviously and at first sight not ordinary language. But it is language which nonetheless is throughout always committed to mining the echoes and resources and repercussions of ordinary and everyday language in order to produce from them some newly intense, newly distorted figurative possibilities, in order to put great metrical pressure on vocal freedom, to reproduce in print the rhythms of daily speech that we might hear in mendacious or manipulative or instrumental uses of language on television, particularly on the news, which has become increasingly important to me as an inevitable resource and streaming archive of manicured and polished rhetorical and oratorical performances by politicians managing public events.
All of these forms of recognisable daily verbal practice and competence find their ways into the poetry under different aspects and different pressures, often quite distorted or disguised aspects, which makes for a—I hope—fairly complicated and internally volatile grammar in my poetry which is pretty remote from ‘everyday’ language but nonetheless plainly couldn’t exist or mean anything without it. I mean, the poetry creates and expresses an intense relationship to how I think and speak ordinarily, rather than just duplicating ordinary language.
TL: There appears to be a real risk in so-called “difficult” poetry that the kind of diction—the ‘toxic’ language you mentioned may become a kind of closed or coterie language—I wonder how a poet overcomes the risk of ossification? Would you have to find fresh stimuli or situations for your poems, I wonder. I suppose that takes me to my next question, because I want to ask you about your poem ‘10/11/10’ which was written in response to the violence following the London protests against the cuts to Higher Education. It feels like a very different poem to your previous work: how did this poem happen for you? Did you compose it immediately? Or did you sleep on it, and write it later?
KS: Ok—that’s a number of questions. If I could rewind a little and begin with the more general question with which you started: I’ve come to believe that it can only be a form of potentially quite damaging narcissistic fantasy to imagine that poetry can only be kept up by a kind of incessant existential refreshment, so that the individual must be obliged to remain forever transcendentally oversensitive and overexposed to the world. I think that may be a fetishism of a certain type of exposure of the person to damage or to society or social relations—whichever it might be… certainly that attitude of vulnerability and its special outspokenness, and being struck by the world freshly and in the new at all times is one that could not be eliminated either through mere apathy or by design or programmatically, and it is there in my poetry; but neither can it be the entire basis and ground of writing. So in other words, if writing is actually to progress and is to discover its own logic of discovery—is to remain intensely, intimately pedagogical, both for its author and for its readers, and to be of genuine use in re-imagining social relationships—then I don’t think that the writer can rely solely or even mainly upon the freshness of impressions—to invoke a Poundian idée fixe.
So something else needs to be developed and found instead, or as a fundamental addition: a logic that is partly internal to the experience of composition, which is in my case a very private experience, and internal also to the act of listening to my own work and of learning from the work itself how I am supposed to listen to it. Now one thing I learn to hear, when I am vigilant, is certain verbal habits, certain manifest instincts to repeat a diction or a metrical motif. I think various types of sceptical attitude are possible in response. You can reject your habits outright; you can try to repeat them, as if by quotation, developing various attitudes and tonalities of irony; you can simply accept that this is your style, that it ought to be or must be, and repeat it to the point where you reach a type of maximum solicitude for your own potential sincerity. I think all of these things are jumbled and mixed up in the poetry I’ve been writing, but, taken together, their tendency has been to produce a language in my more recent poetry—and here I’m coming to the second part of your question—which more nearly approximates a strange kind of prose.
I need to be quite careful in talking about what I mean by this certain kind of prose, because I’m not quite sure I know just what it is. I do know that it’s a prose that is metrical, first of all, and that the prose paragraphs in the poem about Millbank are all metrical. They’re not perfectly, strictly metrical; I’m not sure that they would satisfy the requirements for metricality of a very nicely or punctiliously observant critic of metre. But the metre is there: accentual-syllabic prose is how I would provisionally describe it.
Now, the reason why I shifted into prose I suspect can’t be altogether clear to me. I think any good reason for doing anything in poetry remains permanently obscure in some measure. But it felt to me important at the time precisely not to be able to fall back on the exciting trampoline or springboard of a hyper-cathected and overcharged prosodic zig-zag and somersaults of fragmentation which I’ve done for a decade in poetry. And the energies that can be unlocked and disclosed, particularly at line endings, and across shattered, broken and disrupted verses in poetry with a political mode or object have themselves become to me quite suspicious and dubious. I see now all around me a proliferation of poetry in which the project of socially mindful argument or argumentation is sometimes too easily allowed to be smothered and swallowed up under the justifying cover of a dexterity in verbal energetics: at its worst or most automatic, just screwing around with an extraordinary or jargonised diction and jump-cutting and bouncing quickly between lines and discovering there a kind of irresistible, irrepressible, sexualised kinesis. That all has its place, but I think it’s also at risk of learning its place and ending up there.
It felt to me in this case a more confrontational defiance, somehow a more insistent and demanding politics, to put to the world—and I suppose by ‘the world’ I do at first mean inevitably a small and defined community of readers—verse confined and straightened and locked into the graphic presentation of prose, which, at first sight, adopts irresistibly and forces and impresses upon its reader the kind of slightly stifling and perhaps even disappointing rigidities of argumentative development and grammatical sequencing that you at first sight immediately recognise when you see a sequence of paragraphs of roughly equal length laid out like that, like some kind of briefing document. I didn’t want to use the kind of diverse energies I’m capable of producing through enjambment in a more rampant metricality. I tried instead to measure out the observation in that poem at a rate which would feel like a slightly unpleasant and provocative restraint, which would produce a kind of distortingly too-cognitive awareness of being constrained, held into a pattern of observation which was deliberately detached from the physical intensities of Millbank itself.
TL: So this movement towards prose is something which answers to this present moment?
KS: I think it must be true that this present moment, whatever that means, in our political culture has some probably quite radical bearing on this decision of mine, at least for me. But I don’t want to aggrandise my decision by claiming that it’s a sensitive and seismographic reaction to the world which registers with unarguable fidelity what’s going on right now—I don’t know whether it is or not. It’s a hazard and a gamble like anything you do as a writer. And I felt the need to do it from all sorts of other more intimate, personal, opaque pressures too. But it’s not only in that single poem that I’ve begun working in prose, but also in the larger TL61P project as a whole—of which that single poem is a part.
I should say, about that poem, that of course there was an exchange of views about it afterwards between Justin Katko and myself which is published in Joe Luna’s magazine Hi Zero! It was, I think, a very productive exchange for both of us. If I have anything to add to that exchange, besides wanting to note again my gratitude to Justin for his courage—his unusual courage in this scene, in being willing actually to confront the poet and to ask directly what might be the serious political value of his poem—it’s to say that I think what was overlooked in our discussion of the poem was… all of it except the end, really. And what happens in all of it except the end, is that society is observed, to put it as simply as possible. And the truth of certain forms of social relation—which, even as we walk around in them, we know are both phenomenal and temporary, and at the same time structural and deeply contradictory, are laid bare as best I could within the short span of that poem, always under the steady prescription that they be constrained into this prose paragraph, and under the implicit duress that they will be mounting towards this final culminating utterance in the first person, whose status of utterance is, at least to my mind, obviously extremely uncertain and not the kind of straightforward messianic individualism which some readers might see in it.
TL: The line we’re talking about is, well, I guess it’s an admission: ‘I’m far from knowing what to do about any of this’, before the speaker pledges—in the same breath—and I think the grammar runs two ways—never to deny, either the world, nor the pledge to ‘burst to make its love for everyone shower from my heart’. I’m excited by this simultaneous abdication and reissuing of poetic authority, but I’m also very anxious: I’m wondering whether this is the cri de coeur of the poet satirised? Or whether it’s a battle cry to rethink the original pledges of the poet? And in particular I want to ask how these questions bear on your involvement as an academic—and as a poet and as a human being—in the movement against the cuts that we’re currently experiencing: how do you think these cuts will affect the poetry world?
KS: Okay. I’ll start at the beginning. What I understand by satire is first of all that it must be at somebody’s expense. In so far as that poem and its ending in particular seems to have inflicted itself on a number of readers, causing some agitation—perhaps even some particularly violent disappointment—it is at some people’s expense and might for that reason be accounted satirical. It’s not however, at least in my conception of it, a direct caricature of any particular profile or identity of poet, intended simply to inflate and then to quickly prick and deflate any particular style of aspiration or plenitude of poetical utterance. I wrote it in a curious state both of adamant sincerity and of asphyxiated disbelief that this type of sentence would issue from my imagination in a context like that.
I realise now that I didn’t answer part of your previous question. I wrote that poem the night of the events themselves. I’d been there and had been on the TUC march, but had marched with my trade union, my local branch of the UCU, not with my friends who are poets and who were also marching that day. I actually finished marching before the events at Millbank and was on my way home when I heard about what was happening there. So I stayed up all night by myself watching the BBC News 24 coverage and became more and more interested in policing tactics, and I decided that it was really important not simply to capture the violence and energy of that moment, not just to catch it and to reflect it back at the world through the kind of ideal and savage amplifier of the poetical imagination, claiming—I think, as it might have been, at risk of sanctimony—a special optic full of lyrical intensity, but instead to try to describe in a language of studious and restrained observation the social conflicts and contradictions that I could see all around me, in a way that really wouldn’t in fact only be intelligible to a coterie audience, but might even risk irritating a coterie audience with its transparent gesture of trying to reach beyond the competencies specific to a scene which I, ordinarily, I suppose, do write for, whether I mean to or not.
It’s certainly not supposed to be a death knell for any kind of poetic sincerity. Neither is it finished with its invention of whatever is its new power or promise of irony. It seems to me—and this is something I’ve learnt from studying poetry, in my own way, independently, as a poet this year—that irony is out there in the world and its objects and that it requires only to be disclosed in them by a careful, patient, violent, frantic and steady enough perception of social relations. It’s there in the world in the form of contradiction—Prynne might call it obdurate contradiction in objects. I suppose I may differ slightly with Prynne, in that I might look for, but I wouldn’t confidently find, contradiction in objects themselves—not, that is, in the material substratum, as he once put it—but, rather, as I think Marx did, in social relations.
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. I’m extremely suspicious of the forms of implicit and explicit messianism involved in that kind of fetishism of intensities—not simply because it becomes harder and harder to do, the more I learn about the world, but also because I do think that it’s at least potentially and is often actually and in fact a thoroughly bourgeois posture. I think that people when they hear the word ‘bourgeois’ tend to imagine that this is a concept whose application can conveniently be limited to people whose authority we despise or who are our parents or who are older than us or who own shops or whatever it might be. But in fact, of course, there are all sorts of very exciting, very intense and emotionally bewildering forms of romantic bourgeois posturing which are bourgeois not because they come from the mouths of the people who own the means of production, but rather because they imaginatively spirit into existence solutions to social problems whose origin and engine is the poetical imagination rather than real political activity aimed at resolving social issues.
And I suppose if there was a principle at stake in my choice to march with my union rather than the poets on that day—much that I love the poets—then it is something to do with that: that felt to me like a march in which I wanted to stand shoulder to shoulder with other union members and people I’d been on the picket line with—and to speak back to the poetry scene from an alternative social relationship and an alternative confluence: one in which something else was on the line besides simply the poet and his ‘poetic authority’.
TL: You’ve described alternative positions or ways of looking at a political event like Millbank—do you perceive a contradiction between these positions? Or do they exist on a more dynamic relation? Even a dialectical relation?
KS: I do think it’s a dialectical relationship. In the course of any single life, for any single poet who remains a poet I think there will be moments at which those two identities feel, if not as though they are the same thing, then at least as if they are very tightly reciprocal. And then there’ll be other points at which perhaps—in despondency—it can feel as though the identity of the poet can float off into some new imaginary ether and, in despair, redefine its own impossibilities in alienation from political reality. I try very hard not to let that happen to me. I try very hard to keep those two potential identities, those projects for being a person in the world as close together as I can. One thing that I admire about the Scottish poet Tom Leonard is that Tom Leonard seems to me to be singularly unthwarted by what is nonetheless, still, in his work, evidently the very difficult job of keeping close together these two identities: being a human being in the world full of political responsibilities and solicitude for other people’s well-being and happiness, and at the same time still caring absolutely intimately about the turn of one line into the next. He really stands out for me for that reason—I can’t think of many other poets of whom so much is true, in quite this sense.
For many other poets, including plenty I admire, there very evidently is actually a significant and deeply problematic fissure between the identity which takes hold and grabs you by the neck when you sit down and begin writing a poem, and the one which you try to re-assume when you go to a political meeting or step out into the street. I think anyone who imagines, unproblematically, that these two identities are just the same thing—well, I simply can’t imagine that being true for me.
But it’s really important not to allow the role of the poet, I think, to become one which is conspiratorial in a conspiracy of one—so you don’t go along to a political meeting and sit there with your Moleskine, smirkingly noting down bits of jargon which you can then go home and cleverly insert into your poem, thinking that you’ve trumped and out-flanked politics by being a poet. I think probably I did do that a number of times when I was younger, hence the present lofty chagrin. There was probably something very consoling about the idea that however practically impotent one might be in the face of events which deeply enrage or upset you, you could nonetheless go home and take it out on language, in the domestic comfort of your despair.
But it’s become more and more important for me, actually, to try to reconcile these two differently, very very stubbornly problematic types of personhood and to try to bring them into whatever intimacy genuinely is believable, workable and hopefully profitable for others. But at different points it happens differently. At the moment, with Millbank and the Arab Spring and the part-toppling of the Murdoch empire even as we speak, and the actually frightening and not only joyful riots in London, it seems like a year in which poets can think very hard about what it means to be a poet and a political human being at the same time.
TL: I want to ask you about the poetry reading. We first met at a reading in Cambridge, where you performed your poem Stress Position, entraining the position which inmates of prisons in Iraq and Guantanamo are forced to adopt. Recent readings, such as the reading you gave in Hove of the Odes to TL61P (a now obsolete product code for a replacement door on a Hotpoint tumble drier which doesn’t exist anymore) are very different—and strike me more as a direct recital of previously worked through lyrical addresses. [<http://sarcasticmuffin.posterous.com/a-head-in-the-wrong-part-2>] I know you have said that to write with the thought of performance in mind would distort your poetry, however, it seems impossible to me that some of the more overtly political poems are written without the expectation of an audience. Two questions then—do you think your performance style has changed since Stress Position? And secondly, how important is the physical thereness of the poet’s body or voice to your poetics?
KS: Okay. I don’t know which end to begin at. I’ll begin with the Hove reading. I thought the Hove reading was fabulous, I really enjoyed it for all sorts of reasons. For one, it seldom happens that during your reading Jeremy Prynne manages to eat an entire wheel of brie, explicitly, as he did on that occasion. But that was for me a very raucous and rowdy reading in which there was a lot of bracing shouting, and it was a reading in which—the most exciting type of reading for me is a reading in which it begins to emerge just what a poem actually is or is doing—that reading in Hove, I was reading The Odes to TL61P number 5, and I was really quite uncertain about what exactly I had in my hands and in my mouth. I think when I did a reading of parts of an early draft of this poem in Cambridge, which you helped organise as part of the CRS series, it was a much statelier form of reading than in Hove: I hadn’t yet really figured out what this thing was in my hand. I suppose it may be true that it felt a little as though I was reading from a score or a script and trying to figure out how to do these lines.
Partly for me this is to do with my relationship with Cambridge, if I’m honest, and this might lead back to your question about Stress Position. I suppose I have felt for a while that Cambridge is a very singular environment for me to read in, since my launch reading there of Hot White Andy—which was an unrepeatable reading for me in just about every sense, and was certainly the most emotionally intense reading that I ever gave, possibly that I ever will give, for all sorts of reasons. And since then whenever I’ve gone back to Cambridge to give a reading, I’ve felt an implicit pressure to somehow duplicate or at least read in conversation with that moment when my poetry really seemed catastrophically beautiful to me in that reading of Hot White Andy. When I read Stress Position it was in the very same room, so that I fantasized I might be the same person in it, too, and I arrived almost thinking I could just repeat it all, here I would be again—and it didn’t feel like that to me—partly because, I suppose, Stress Position is a very different poem from Hot White Andy. And it’s very different by conscious design, because I wasn’t capable of repeating the same thing again. But when I set out to begin writing Stress Position it was from a conscious wish to write in a mode and in a manner which was radically inhospitable to my own poetical capacities and imagination and my facility with language. I now think one thing I must have been trying to do was to confirm the unrepeatability of Hot White Andy. So that when I tried to repeat in performance something like the intensities of Hot White Andy it did somewhere deep inside me ring a little hollow, I suppose.
I’ve since figured out a little better—or at least to my own satisfaction—how I think Stress Position could be read, but it’s always difficult to remember, let alone to know, how you come across at readings. But the Odes to TLP61P thing—to finish with this—it’s become a much more raucous and lively performance since you saw me read a bit of it in Cambridge, one that really tumbles over itself and gets tied up in all sorts of knots. And of course I still haven’t finished writing it. I’m not yet certain what it will be like at the end, if there is one. It’s such a copious poem that it—again at least partly by design—defeats my own competence, in this case for one thing my own competence to read it all in one go, or even to adopt a posture in the voice in which any kind of consistency can be kept up in it, for anything more than a brief pre-conscious stretch. So I don’t quite know how that poem ought to be read. Thank fuck!
To say something in response to your question about audiences: audience is a very complicated concept, of course. In as much as I do imagine audiences in advance, I’m not imagining a room full of faces, I’m not imagining the people who probably will be there from the communities and scenes I mostly read in—so I’m not specifically thinking of individuals whom I’m speaking to. Occasionally I do do that, sometimes I put people’s names into the poems and address them directly. But usually I’m not. The whole concept and reality of the audience I think has to be re-imagined as nearly as possible from scratch for each new poem. And it’s an audience that you can have no great confidence that you will ever even reach, so it’s a partly virtual and projected audience, but it’s an audience which I try as hard as I can to identify on the basis of what I was describing earlier as the presence in social relations of certain forms of intractable contradiction: political contradiction, economic contradiction, sexual contradiction. And I try to imagine what our relations are to objects and experiences which we all have in common and which mediate both our intimacies and our estrangements from each other; I try and press on those nerves and bring people into complex relationships with each other, through violently interposing objects which are ubiquitous and obliviated at the same time: TL61P, you know…
TL: Is the act of reading aloud vital to the reception and the life of your poetry? Take the title Stress Position: on the one hand it is an abstraction which describes a concentration of energy, a single isolated moment in a verse design—yet a “stress position” also describes a form of torture, involving a very different kind of comprehension or choice: this duality seems to waver—I want to say dangerously—between what might be construed in the course of a silent reading, and the bodily factuality of the poetry reading, in which the author is undeniably there. How do you negotiate the fact of autobiography?
KS: Okay. When I’m writing I don’t anticipate any specific form of performance context. I rarely read the work aloud to myself as I’m writing it. Occasionally I will—partly, I think, to enjoy it, or to see whether I like it, rather than to figure out the kind of utterance that it might require. Plenty of people have said to me that the poetry has made more sense for them, or has mattered more to them, after hearing me read it. And when I first heard that I suppose I was slightly unnerved to hear it, because I fretted that perhaps the meaning of the poem wasn’t there unless I was too, to put it simply. But subsequently I’ve come to think that, in fact, that may have been my way of rather anxiously—again, to use this word—fetishising the privacy and silence of composition. And that in fact part of the hazard not only of acknowledging but also of interrogating and hijacking the circulation of value in our culture, the circulation of poetical value, is accepting that people are going to do whatever they want with it.
And there will be some people, I think, who may be dismayed when they hear my performance and will wish that I could read it in a more sombre and grave manner—that I could do my afflatus in the voice of Yeats or Oprah Winfrey, or some other oral flavour of the month, but. I think that the more anxiously you try to account in advance for the likely reception of your work the more probable it is that you’re going to end up strangling it with its umbilicus. The problem is that for lots of poets that is precisely what the umbilicus is for. I’d rather just wait and see what people think. It’s also become much less threatening to me to either imagine or to hear that people dislike my poetry or dislike a reading.
Previously, I suppose, some infantile part of me believed that it was unaccountable that someone could dislike it, and this was a toxic vanity which I nourished and protected as a form of intransigent self-belief, or belief in what I was doing. It’s become for me much more interesting, and it holds itself up much better to philosophical and passionate scrutiny in me now, when I reflect on the reality that in this room of however many people—typically between twenty to forty people—I can’t possibly judge the complex responses, not just at this moment, of everyone in the room, but of everyone in the room as they go away and get on with living over the next six months, many of whom will forget it in the next five minutes, but some of whom, as it may turn out, will come back to me a year later and say that a particular reading was really important for them. That’s been hugely gratifying to me when it has happened.
I’m writing right now about the critique-of-political-economic account of accumulation in Marx, and the distinction between hoarding and circulating, and I think that—crudely put—whereas I used to be, by instinct, a kind of hoarder, who believed that it was possible to withdraw and captivate value and exert control over its public aspect, I now more and more am interested—and have been since I wrote Hot White Andy in particular—in misidentification, in being misidentified, in the possibility of standing in front of a room full of people who may positively be travestying the meaning of my work, just as I also may, and in being open to that travestying and learning from it something about what may in fact have been opaque or not transparent to me in my own intentions when I was writing it. It’s really important to find the things that are not transparent. In other words I am not the master of my work and don’t want to be.
TL: We’ve been talking, in a sense, about communities of readers and listeners. Recently I read Emily Witt’s article, about her experience of the poetry scene in Cambridge, which made me feel very uncomfortable. The idea of community is still much in mind here, but I’d like to extend it and to ask more generally: community—what is it good for?
KS: Well, I think that community might be a little like audience. Its meaning changes a great deal, I think, depending on the type of intimacy with your own work which is important for you. There are some poets for whom community is largely an interference, and there are some poets for whom it is absolutely indispensable, and without it they probably wouldn’t be poets and couldn’t be sustained in the act of writing poetry at all. My own relationship to poetry has changed a great deal, I think, inevitably, first of all as a consequence simply of getting older. When I was younger there were forms of sociability and friendship amongst poets that were immensely supportive and reassuring to me; the longer I’ve been writing poetry, gradually I’ve come less to rely upon those forms of sociable reassurance, and so community has emerged for me in a different shape.
I’ve become more interested, I suppose, for the time being at least, in doing my own writing somewhat, well, half in private, though as I say I’m happier now to circulate it and even to be misidentified within communities. It’s no longer quite so important to me to define what I’m doing as part of a very close-knit, reciprocal and mutually supportive scene of people who all have a project in common. Increasingly, in fact, I believe not only that that isn’t true for me, as things are, but that it cannot be true, and that part of the deep responsibility of any poet who believes that poetry is essential to her identity and essential to the project of being alive as a human being at all, is a kind of mercilessly intimate pedagogy of instinct and of memory—and here we come round to ‘autobiography’—that everyone must try, or at least I think that I must—and here I do universalise on the basis of my own very private experience—I must and possibly everyone must, by writing, try to teach herself or himself as much as they possibly can about the possibility of their own future existence. I would never write anything, or accept as a finished poem anything that I felt didn’t teach me something that was very difficult for me personally to learn.
Now that problem, that effort in writing, trying really to open my own eyes with a hitherto impossible violence, has for me meant moving further and further away from any merely reassuring or comforting sense of belonging in a community. That doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy communities—and perhaps I enjoy them even more as a result of being less anxious about my membership of them. Nor does it mean that I can’t participate in them for the good of others, as a generous friend. It’s just that I don’t at present think that I am the poet I am because of any community that I belong in.
So, in Brighton now there is a wonderful proliferation of poets writing, who also happen to be lovely people, which really helps—so I go to readings all the time and really enjoy hearing others and seeing the kinds of cross-fertilization and dialogue that open up. I don’t feel any more personally remote from these people and I enjoy very much that company, but, I suppose I do feel somehow—darkly, and in a way that’s still not fully explicit to me—that I am moving off, lost and on my own into some kind of blizzard trial of individuality: I’m not sure where it’s going to end up at the moment. I think these communities are vital, but if there’s one problem with the discourse surrounding community in my present experience of it at least, it’s that they can sometimes be actually blindingly over-reassuring to their members, and people can believe that simply by their inclusion in certain kinds of community, which often have very eminent or important figureheads attached to them, that you’re part of the Turbine or you’re under a halo in the sanctum of sanctums or whatever sanctum undermines it.
I certainly remember feeling this with intense excitement and gratitude when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge, that simply by virtue of my friendships I was surely a very important poet whose finger was, well, riveted to the pulse—but, again, I needed to learn a certain kind of humility and self-suspicion and scepticism about this unexamined conviction I had—that you simply absorb or contract poetical posterity and importance through social contact with other people. But of course the other truth is that you often do.
TL: Then let’s get to one particular characteristic of this community—Brighton and Cambridge are centres for poetry, but they’re also university towns, and many of the poets we’ve mentioned, if we haven’t named them so far, are engaged in academic study—one of the offshoots of this is a culture of reviewing each other, in journals or via conferences: I wonder if this has tended to provoke debate? Or does it tend towards the inclusive?
KS: I think it has tended towards the inclusive, yes, in both good and bad senses, the reassuring, which is again both good and bad, and sometimes the occluding, just about possibly ditto. Very occasionally some challenge will issue from within the community—again, this is what I appreciated so much about Justin’s piece. But I think that’s extremely uncommon in my experience. And when it happens with force, the repercussions can last for a very long time. John Wilkinson, still now, is feeling the heat for his critical review of Denise Riley, several decades back.
I wish that our poetical communities could be much more active in criticising themselves. And I know in fact that almost everyone I speak to in these communities feels the same, and yet, some kind of politesse, or manners indigenous to this clutch of poets seems to prevent it, time and time again—it seems to be somehow implicitly proscribed. But I really wish it weren’t, because when I look back on the cultures of criticism and reception that I am most inspired by and most moved to study—I think of a figure like William Hazlitt, who is enormously important to me personally—and I think how unafraid and unintimidated he was to really directly confront the jugulars of the poets who for him had been idols and great eminences, often perhaps even with an excess of vituperation—I don’t hope for that, quite, but I do at least hope for a candid and unintimidated assessment of each other’s work.
TL: Is this something to do with free-verse? I mean, it’s all very well to talk about Hazlitt, or even a poet like A.C. Swinburne—just about the most vituperative critic I know—but both these readers had a tradition to refer to. However, for me the experience of reading a contemporary poem is almost always an experience of waiting or failing to take it on its own terms. Is critique impossible without the presence of a program? What about a manifesto?
KS: Well possibly. I suppose it must depend on whether anyone has anything to say and whether it is worth saying. We can conjure manifestos here, from the air, and decide that because we need a manifesto we’d better invent the principles fit for one. That would be a cynical way of thinking about it. Drew Milne, of course, has written about this—the embarrassment surrounding manifestos—in his essay on agoraphobia. And I think he’s right that there has prevailed a kind of embarrassment about that kind of very forthright and explicit statement of principle, not only in the Cambridge diaspora.
A collective manifesto, I think, would be a very fascinating object, if poets tried to stand by and agree on some principles which they held in common, perhaps not to everyone’s complete satisfaction, accepting that there’s going to be a bit of jostling and compromise, if such things can be imaginable for poets. But you invoke academia: my experience of working in a university, within an institution, has been that you very quickly have to learn a whole new type of political discourse, a whole new way of relating to others and understanding the language of compromise and persuasion, an understanding of ‘best practices’. What you said about concepts already available to Hazlitt or Swinburne, well there are certainly concepts already available in universities—they come in bullet-point form in briefing documents or the incredibly named ‘agendas’—they’re routinely and with vehemence overlooked in four hour meetings. Yeah, I don’t know. If I could have a conversation with a bunch of other poets in the pub and we all suddenly really passionately agreed about something and we wanted to put it down and out into the world, I would do that; but it hasn’t happened yet, or not for a while at least.
TL: You co-run Barque with the poet Andrea Brady, and this press plays quite a large role in the publication of—what I hesitate to call—‘avant-garde’ poetry in the UK and farther afield. However, I’m guessing that this isn’t a profitable organisation and some readers might find it hard to understand your rationale. In a previous interview with the poet Sean Bonney, The Literateur asked whether it would be true to say that there’s a conflict here between the anti-capitalist and socialist impulse of the small press and the partially consequent exclusivity of such poetry. What’s your feeling about this?
KS: Exclusivity, again, I think, is a concept which we may need to treat with some patience. It is of course true that not that many people own copies of books published by Barque press. So in that straightforward numerical sense they are exclusive commodities. And yet, it is also mercifully true that most people do not own the majority of books published by Faber & Faber. For all their financial advantage in marketing, their public exposure and everything else, the reality is that these larger presses don’t in fact sell a great many more books than we do at Barque. It’s not unusual for us to sell—of our better selling books, at least—within 6 months 500 copies, within two years upwards of 1500 copies, say. That’s really not bad for a book of poetry. I suspect our readers do invariably read the books they get from us, too, whatever drafts they may now and then be used to exclude.
However, I suspect that by ‘exclusive’ something else might be meant too. That this poetry is very difficult, and that readers can’t take to it and be satisfied that they know exactly what it’s doing at first sight, or eighteenth. For me this bears on the nearby concept of elitism, which is one that I hear often invoked, particularly in unthinking and reactionary dismissals of difficult or anti-capitalist poetry by readers who seem already to have satisfied themselves with that impregnable satisfaction of the philistine that they know what poetry ought to be about and why it isn’t. And ‘elitist’ is usually used to mean something like the following: that the poet is looking down sarcastically from some kind of contrived eminence, by default of ivory, and that he feels such contempt for the so-called common or general reader that he can’t abstain from indulging in the very malevolent and childishly exciting pleasure of talking jargon over their fragile heads, reducing and exposing them to their own failures of competence and in general just knocking on people’s vulnerabilities and insecurities.
I think this is a very toxic concept of elitism, and one which has a very reactionary function. It’s often invoked by people in positions of real economic authority and power. It’s invoked by the editors of major presses, it’s invoked by reviewers in the national press, writers in the TLS, people who in fact have very comfortable and coveted positions within the literary establishment, whose way of protecting their own jobs and power is by constantly giving people a reason to feel distrustful or suspicious of other people who are autonomously mucking around at the fringes with the means of production.
As far as I’m concerned, real elitism in our society is films like Avatar or Titanic. Real elitism is where the greatest concentrations of capital and power are, and where the greatest concentrations of capital and power are exercised over peoples heads, whether people enjoy being indulged as the objects or playthings of that exercise or not. Enjoyment, it seems to me, is probably inessential to the meaning of elitism. Elitism is first of all about power, to me. Elitism is not unintelligibility, or whatever is incomprehensible. Plenty of things are incomprehensible in life. Try death.
So my experience with Barque books is that people can get these things into their hands, and they can stop at them and toss them aside with a look of panic in their eyes, or, equally, people who have no particularly distinguished or exceptional education can pick up a book from Barque and maybe they will laugh at it at first sight, at second sight be puzzled by it, at third sight be so utterly delighted that something so skewed and improbable as this page exists in the world—it can become an object which is important to people for all sorts of reasons, besides that they have done the Cambridge Tripos and can recognise a paralytic allusion to Paradise Lost. I mean, there are in the world all sorts of complex relationships to difficult texts and difficult objects. ‘Getting them’ is one relationship in a thousand, and hardly by now the most interesting.
Now, to my mind—to progress to the part of the question which is to do with socialism and radical politics: socialism is not simply about confirming in people the competences which they already possess, or reassuring everybody by telling them that the pleasures which they already enjoy in the world, because they are common to everybody, because they are general, must therefore form the basis of any future socialist culture. I think the deformations, or if you prefer we might simply say, the formations inflicted on culture by capital are by this point so intensive and so deep-going, that we need a culture which can genuinely shake up people’s flesh, imaginations and hearts rather more than a little bit, and remind them just how powerful money is in distorting-comprising pleasure and distorting-comprising our relationships.
Now that might be done directly by making an explicit and comprehensible argument about the involvement of money in people’s lives. Or it might be, more indirectly, and in an intense and physical way, by just jolting people out of certain kinds of complacent forms of consumption and pleasure. Now I don’t for that reason imagine, with any great confidence, that this poetry therefore can simply claim socialist credentials on the basis that it is a weird or difficult enough object to do that in potential—I think that it has to do it in reality in order to earn its status as a socialist art. And this takes me back to what I was saying earlier on about the constraints of observation, of social contradiction in the prose that I’m writing now. It has to actually earn it by really affecting people.
But there’s more than one way of affecting people. You don’t just affect people by simply confirming in them pleasures that they already enjoy, or by restating to them in easily digested forms some kind of sentimental summary of socialist principles which it’s easy enough to go along with, even if it’s difficult in practice actually to bring them into our lives and on their basis to introduce a responsibility of care in our relationship to others. That’s a long-winded answer, perhaps: I could go on at great length about this.
TL: Then can I interrupt, only to ask what motivates you to publish your work? Do you feel duty-bound as a poet to give your poetry as a gift to the world? Or as a form of intervention? Otherwise, why not continue to write as a personal exercise: why publish it at all?
KS: If it won’t sound too conceited or grand, I would say that in everything that I do socially, I mean in the world and with others, I at least try to do things which I hope will be of some social use and value. As a teacher at Sussex, as an organiser of poetry readings, as a publisher, as a friend and as a poet. It would seem to me very strangely artificial only in the single case of poetry to try to cut yourself off from the world and limit yourself to some kind of private scrutiny of the unfathomably idiosyncratic and disconnected personality. So in fact, it’s not even so much a conscious decision to allow politics into poetry and to address the world socially from a conviction about how life isn’t good enough. It’s simply that that’s right there at the origin and root of my instinct to write poetry at all. The pain which I feel when I see another human being suffering is, for me, at some deep level, identical—whether that person is suffering from cancer or because they’re being clubbed over the head by a hired Saudi thug for opposing the government in Bahrain or for any other number of reasons. Politics is, for me, not a separate province or neatly hedged and limited discourse in the world, disjointed from humanity: humanity as we can experience and live it is political right to the bottom.
And if poetry genuinely aspires, as Wordsworth did in his poetry, to comprehend everything that an individual can know about the world, and everything he can feel about fellow human beings, then poetry must inevitably be political, and must explicitly engage with all the forms of suffering that it sees around it. I don’t mean that it is political in all cases and whether it has anything explicit to say about politics or not; I mean that there is an intrinsic duty in poetry to give a voice to suffering and to light up the experience of it and criticise its causes.
For me, the artificial poetry is the stuff which proliferates in the mainstream, the stuff written by often very competent and even talented poets who nonetheless long ago contrived to believe that writing poetry means learning to do whatever is required to get published by the presses with the most expensive marketing campaigns, piddling and infinitesimally relevant though they might be in the long run, and who now just duplicate with a little idiosyncratic twist or two whatever is the Faber or Bloodaxe house-style, usually by reciting solemn little prettifications of sentimental experience or humorous little anecdotes from memory about moments in life which culminate in a cookie-cutter epiphany.
The house-style poem is one which typically fits onto one page, or almost, which is more or less and half-consciously designed to be picked over by a reader pleased to be reminded of the competence required of him when he did his GCSEs, happily noticing a pattern of superficially organised formal features. Poetry has catastrophically degenerated in that culture into a very trivial type of parlour game. Poets with black and white airbrushed author photos and agents—agents! for poets!—go off and read at these country houses and other sinkholes for British Heritage and are feted and cossetted and purred at by audiences wearing their best hats for the afternoon who enjoy nothing better than to hear a bitter-sweet parable which explains in 500 words or less the significance of your cat being stuck behind your fridge.
In my poetry, if the cat’s stuck behind the fridge, then I want to know what kind of fuse there is in the fridge plug and whether it wouldn’t be better rammed in the cat, not to mention a detailed chemical breakdown of the aggregate fatty acids of the whole diorama by way of segue into a stupefying speculation on the connection of credit default swaps to Congolese orgasms. I want to know what kind of crow-bar I’ll need to have to get the cat out from behind the fridge and whose face I can pull it out from. Poetry has to be political all the way down. I think that anyone whose poetry doesn’t attempt that coverage of total suffering or try for an infinite interrogation into the infinity of capital’s repercussions is simply lacking in humanity.
TL: Do you find it useful to think about your work in comparison to other art-forms or media, for example art, music, or film? I’m interested in what is or isn’t translatable here—or why are you not a painter?
KS: Because I’m not good enough. I’d love to be a painter. I have painted, previously. Painting is extremely important to me, I enjoy painting immensely, I will travel the world to go to galleries to see an individual painting. Music is absolutely indispensable to my life and to my thinking about poetry too.
TL: Can you say something more about that?
KS: It’s been important to me for a long time to build particular relationships with particular artists, whether they are poets, jazz musicians, painters, composers or whatever, and to learn my relationship with them very intensively, and to try to understand what I can learn about my own life and about the world from their work. So I try to build particular relationships which then get addressed and explored in my poetry.
With music for example—my relationship with Mahler has been extremely important to me as a poet, as has my relationship with Beethoven, and with Mozart—all obviously very towering figures—and my relationship with John Coltrane also has been extremely important to me: musicians that—without any musicological competence, having never even learnt to read a score—I will just sit and listen to these types of music very intensely over many years, and try to decide just what, in my own way, I am learning from them. I mean that very literally. What is their pedagogy? What must I do with my life now that I have heard this song, or this symphony, for the hundredth time? It’s always a pedagogical question for me—what am I being taught about the world, about other human beings.
So in different poems, different painters or artists might emerge at the fore. I think when I was writing Hot White Andy, Mozart was particularly important to me; Mahler too. Not to mention The Scorpions. I’ve always thought that the reconciliation, in much of Mozart’s religious music, of the sexual and the devout is heart-breaking and profoundly beneficent. In Hot White Andy—I think a devout poem in some sense—that was a very powerful achievement for me, as I reflected on it and studied it, very important to the pressures of feeling I felt at that time.
In the poetry that I’m writing now, there’s a curious combination of Mahler and John Coltrane, a really bastard hybrid—the poetry makes a basis on which to compare and merge them. There’s a wonderful remark in Adorno’s book on Mahler, where he talks about the strange tectonic dislocations over enlarged symphonic structures in Mahler’s music, large apparently disorganised passages of music, crossing over, almost as if in an earthquake, pushing and rubbing against each other, like dislocated plates of sound. And this has been a deeply impressive description for me, while I’ve been working on the TL61P odes. Also, to my mind, Mahler’s apparently indefatigable inventiveness within a climax: the way that Mahler can extend beyond all intuitive conceivability the pressures and intensities of a climax in music, just constantly unfolding and developing into a bigger and yet-more-brassy slow explosion of sound—there’s something profoundly ironically anti-sexual about that—the climax indigenous to a non-ending. So Mahler has been for me a musician who is very interesting for thinking about sex, as John Coltrane has been too, simply for his differently indefatigable, delirious invention as an improviser, particularly in his music from the later 1960s. I particularly love his album Meditations.
All sorts of painters have been important to me too. Painters whom I at first sight possibly didn’t much care for, but later decided to discipline myself into admiring, have been particularly important. Edgar Degas, for example. When I say ‘discipline’ I mean discipline in the sense that I at first definitely don’t like these artists, I’m suspicious of myself for not being able to like them, so I’m going to train myself to like them, by looking at them until I can see something of value. The thing that is deeply not transparent. This is true, actually, of poetry too. It is a Wordsworthian discipline, though by now very far gone from Wordsworth’s world and life.
The poetry which I have been slow to get to grips with has been poetry conducted on a modest scale, wittily crafted poetry of smaller-scale metrical delights, particularly poetry of the mid-seventeenth century which isn’t John Milton, who is in this case ineligible because impossible not to admire. Lately I’ve been going to bed at night reading Herrick, and admiring Herrick’s sexual wit—and it’s on such a circumscribed scale and so full of clever courtly innuendo, of a type which, I’m sure, ten years ago, would at best have seemed to me mildly disgusting and delightful, but which now seems extremely brilliantly artificial. This was a case where I did say: I don’t like this—why not? I’m going to train myself to find the value of something which is absolutely contrary to all of my instincts. In other words, it’s really important to my development as a poet, and, I think, as a person, and as a thinker in general, not to always simply re-duplicate my forms of obvious or instinctive affection for objects which confirm me in my identity as a poet, but instead always to look abroad and to try to learn forms of esteem and affection for things which at first sight have no obvious appeal for me.
This I suspect has been one of the motives or experiences behind the decision to try writing in a kind of prose. I just want to say one more thing about the prose, actually—it’s a prose that could not exist for me except as a painful contradiction of writing poetry. So it’s not that I sit down and I think: I’m now going to write in prose after the manner of an essayist or a novelist. It’s that I want to write a prose which is prose only by virtue of the omission or proscription of enjambment—so it’s prose in which a line-break has been painfully repressed, prose by that negative definition.
TL: On those line-breaks: I want to press you about something you said about metre in an interview you gave in Naked Punch in 2010. I remember Danny Hayward asking about the allusive quality of metre you write in, though this got partly side-tracked by a discussion of allusion generally. You talked then about your sometimes over-conscious historical sense of English verse—its structures, rhythms and line-constructions—which you describe as ‘commodities’; so, if I follow when I read in your work, a line of blank verse which tends towards a line we might expect to find in Wordsworth’s Prelude, the thoughts and connections attached to this poem are being made available as ‘materials’. Now I’m anxious about this poetic, because it appears to take the petrification of metre—which we’re led to believe took place after Pound’s claim to have “broken the pentameter”—for granted, without considering whether this is good practice? Quite apart from the question as to the availability of these experiences to a general reader—does it not tempt a purely associational regression of listening? Isn’t there anything pure about our experience of metre?
KS: I in turn must voice a suspicion of this phrase ‘good practice’, which to me has an unappetisingly institutional flavour to it. But to address the substance of your challenge—it’s very important to me that we first establish what is meant by the word ‘commodity’ in the context of this description. A ‘commodity’ is not simply something which is available for purchase and consumption and which for that reason might be regarded in a pejorative light as an object of diminished value because of its universal equivalence with all other commodities. It’s also very important that the commodity is dead labour. That is, of course, Marx’s description in Capital, that human labour in commodity form is what he calls Gallerte [a German word for a gelatine product used e.g. in breakfast condiments], both a satirical figure and also a literal and real commodity which I’ve described in my essay ‘Marx in Jargon’, now extended and published in my book Stupefaction.
The commodity is a form of human experience which has been—I’d like to be quite careful about the metaphors here—not in fact ‘congealed’, as Marx’s English translators have rendered Marx’s word, that is, not petrified, nor frozen, quite—I think the best gloss in English may be something like “industrially processed and reduced irreversibly into a tremulous digestible lump”—so there is a form, a definite and measurable loss of humanity and paralysis of living human experience in the form of the commodity. This is partly of course a figurative abstraction, a satirical challenge to consumers, but also Marx means by it to establish a new form of literalism or objectivity about what an object is. An object is, in this case, literally, dead humanity processed into a comestible blob.
Now, we might prefer a more optimistic account of versification, or metre, or poetry, which would… in a more Adornoite discourse, would talk about, say, the sedimentation of human experience in prosody or in metre or in poetry, which would say that by philological recovery or otherwise, carrying across the meanings of poetry from the dead past into the living present with the aid of hermeneutics, what we in fact do is restore properly to full living human view the history and lives, and possibly even the ontology of generations of humans past, and of experience past; and that by bringing to light in the world we now live in the experience of people now gone, we can restore to view a certain kind of possible universe, or universalism—this is the argument, I think, which prevails in Prynne’s The White Stones, for example, a book I greatly esteem and love, though it is certainly not uncontested there, since that book is cross-weaved with lots of contrary or dialectical energies: that it can all flow again if we “suppress the breaks”, as he puts it, the breaks of history and of history’s specific human death, and recover to view human experience as it once was, in a more fundamental shape or expression, which will shine through in our understandings and comprehension of poetry from the past and in our taking to heart the measure of its intensities and its metrical fidelities in our present lifetime.
Now that form of universalism is intensely beautiful to contemplate and indeed it may be indispensable to great poetry, but I think it is also dangerously close to being an idealistic bourgeois form; I think Prynne long ago decided it is, too, and that the damaged political appeals in Brass are a kind of testimony to that.The form of universalism which I believe in, and I do profoundly believe in a form of human universalism and the common humanity of all people, is the perhaps presently more pessimistic view which I get from Marx. Which is that, the very possibility of even conceiving universalism as a political principle in its current political expression—that is, the natural inheritance of equality from the point of birth of all human beings, regardless of class or gender or anything else—that possibility only emerged as such in the history of human consciousness and culture because of the pre-existence of the specific form of universal equivalence that is commodities.
The commodity is the historical precondition, the basis for the emergence historically, of the modern concept of political universalism. The commodity, however, is a contradictory object, in as much as it not only discloses to the human imagination the possibility of human equality by modelling universal equivalence, but it also blocks us in the meantime from getting to that equality in reality, because, for so long as what mediates our forms of universal equivalence with each other is an object into which there has been trapped a form of dead labour, then our forms of mediation are deeply based on a fundamental injustice and exploitation. Dead labour isn’t simply finished labour—it’s the labour of people who haven’t got back in payment or in rights the value of their labour and who therefore have been exploited and are in Marx’s judgment typically upwards of 50% slave.
When I look back on poetry whose rhythms and metrical identities and expressive potentials I might be able to imitate or duplicate or reinvent in my own poetry, it doesn’t seem to me that I can simply conjure or invoke or summon, as if in some magical incantation, the previous human intensities and expressivities of poets now dead. It seems to me, in fact, that because of the present dominion of capital, specifically because of the mediation of intimate human relationships by capital, my relationships with poets in the past are also mediated by capital, and their expressive accomplishments do come to me in a variant form of dead labour, as Marx describes it. A labour which is now exploited, which is commodified, which is presented, both for literal sale and for transactions with the imagination in all sorts of coercive and exploitative patterns of prestige, which have been brilliantly explored by Pierre Bourdieu—and that the poets whom I most admire and esteem now, when they invoke or quote from older poetries and try to exploit again the expressive potentials of older forms of metre, are not doing this from an optimistic faith in the recoverability of whatever is pure and human in those metres, but they are doing it precisely in order to indicate, and to indicate as painfully and as radically as possible, a certain kind of compulsory radical estrangement from temporarily annihilated expressive potentials.
Now I know that in making this argument I may appear to contradict a very impressive and, for me personally, influential argument to the contrary which has been made by Simon Jarvis. However, my experience of reading Simon’s poetry is not in fact that it recovers or simply expresses or discovers a sheer organic pleasure in versification, or that it makes possible a pure enjoyment. Rather, what it makes possible, for me at least, is the affective and intellectual experience of a specific defiance, a painful and wishful commitment to the potential for a pure experience, and that in that dislocation from the object of desire, the experience of pure pleasure, there is the trace and damage of capital, which Simon of course explores in all of his critical and philosophical thinking.
I think, however, that it’s often very important for poets intransigently to insist on something which is radically counter-intuitive, and which must somehow form—if we like—the cognitively or erotically prestigious absolute: whether that’s a negative absolute, or a positive absolute. Poets have to be perverts. For some poets it might be that pure pleasure is the absolute, which must be conceptually or intellectually protected against forms of rational cynicism or psychoanalysis. In my case, I suppose, rather than pure pleasure, what I believe in rather naively and crudely as an absolute is injustice. And because I believe that there is such a thing as fundamental injustice in capitalist culture and society, the fundamental injustice and exploitation of wage labour, it follows as a logical consequence for me, as well as something which I simply believe in for all sorts of other reasons to do with my experience of being in the world, that my mediation with people, in so far as it can nearly approach universalism of identity and of rights and feeling, is radically mediated by objects which are the livid and dead icons and perfected expressions of exploitation and injustice. And I see this in forms of verse as well as I see it in objects before us like this dictaphone or this bowl of sugar that it’s propped up on.
For me handling these metres cannot for that reason simply be a kind of job of putting on your radioactive gloves and treating them like toxic objects with tweezers and mocking them. It has to be about really trying to disclose the once living and the future living human potential in these forms of expressivity; but to do that I absolutely must sound what is dead in them too. And everything that shudders in them which might nearly approximate to or sound like or resemble or project or hint at our possible reconciliation with pure and simple pleasure, which cannot simply be adopted as pure pleasure or be resolved into pure pleasure, because then, for me, that last section of Minima Moralia simply disappears into the heavenly hoover at that point. If pure pleasure is already right here and right now, then, for me, that belief potentially subtends a too conservative political account of culture: we find the things where there is pure pleasure, we like those things, and we’ll discard the other things in which there is not pure pleasure or the potential for pure pleasure, do away with those.
You know, the story that after Pound everything gets complicated and polluted and full up with corruption and aggressions and forms of social distrust and whatever else it might be—I actually don’t think that is true. I think Pound, for all his cutlass-brandishing journalistic cowboy contempt for the idea of the iambic pentameter, and despite the polemic about hypnotic culture, or the feminization of the reader’s imagination which Pound projected as a corruption deriving from the use of the pentameter—Pound was one of the greatest writers of verse in the twentieth century in English. In fact he wrote iambic pentameter better than anyone else in the twentieth century in English. Pound’s ‘Homage to Sextus Propertius’ is, I think, one of the greatest triumphs of versification in the English language in the twentieth century: so Pound again is just an intransigent pervert coming all over his own bonfire.
To set him up iconographically as a moment at which metre became unacceptable or impossible, I think, is not only an artificial kind of literary history, but a very tendentious and convenient one too—because it allows us then to recover something from before Pound, which Pound has screened or blocked out, and overtrustingly to reassert it against modernity; it allows us, I think, to topple modernity by one man’s back door. But I think modernity is actually a much more deeply founded and problematic social reality than can simply be denied by for instance knocking over Ezra Pound.
Pound is a great prosodist, he is a great versifier in traditional verse forms. It’s just that he cared about them so much and had such a profound appetite for a workable and undeceptive experience of traditional metrical forms that he was apoplectic over what he thought was the numbing and dilution that prevent that experience. In fact, let me borrow another of Simon’s arguments in support of Pound—Pound believed in the idol that he broke. There was no better way for him to believe in traditional verse forms than to smash them the way that he did.
Tuesday 9th August 2011, Brighton
Keston Sutherland’s new monograph is available here: Stupefaction: a radical anatomy of phantoms
His poetry collections are available via Barque Press.
Readers interested in the poetry of Keston Sutherland may be interested in the Cambridge Poetry Series.