While those with an ear to the ground upon which contemporary poetry is written might be familiar with Keston Sutherland’s name and remarkable achievements at so early in a career that promises nothing short of greatness, I thought I would begin to serve the role of the herald and proclaim, as Jon Landau once said in a different context, I HAVE SEEN THE FUTURE OF POETRY AND IT IS KESTON SUTHERLAND. In short, Keston Sutherland’s poetry and critical writing is everything that the acolyte wants. It is the truth on the ground, the gospel on the line, and the samizdat for our age. It is by turns immensely lyrical, intelligent, political, humorous, subtle, ironic, sarcastic, sinewy and masculine, delicate and feminine, sexy, allusive, and complex; it has horns and fur, it is slippery when wet; it is the DNA turned finned and gilled, which then grows legs and crawls from the ocean to shake itself free of the hydra-headed monster that contemporary poetry has become. It is a leap forward that can only compared to the way T.S. Eliot’s poetry must have struck the eyes and ears of readers weaned on the Romantics and Victorians. I believe Sutherland’s extraordinary talent and ability points the way like nobody since Pound.
Remarkably, there are few contemporary poets that have even ventured to write anything approaching the breadth of his verse. And even though leading practitioners of the British avant-garde made a relatively well-publicized trip to the offices of the Chicago Review and the hallowed halls of its University in 2007 (as well as Notre Dame, SUNY-Buffalo, University of Miami and Harvard), and even though both J.H. Prynne and Sutherland have made subsequent visits to do readings, workshops and lectures in subsequent years, whatever graces bestowed here appear to have been shrugged off and forgotten by the U.S. mainstream which seemed more intent in mining the exhausted caverns of late 20th century poetry and particularly the New York School of O’Hara, Ashbery and their progeny, or exploring whatever essences can be squeezed from the dry walnut of conceptualism. [From this comment I specifically except the progressive and experimental contemporary poets (largely women, black, gay and new ethnic writers, and the new Chicago school of Michael Robbins and Anthony Madrid) who have broken away from the dominating influence of our post-WWII saints and cynosures.]
Consider the opening passage to “Ode 1.1” from the still unfinished Odes to TL61P (which appeared in the Chicago Review [56:2/3, Autumn 2011]):
In future you cover your cost in void too empty to be lost, static at terminal velocity; on the opening night as light parts and you jump out to gravitate orderly to ballot the flattering flesh you missed resist arrest in its shattering petty larceny, who looming over a motto executed in the Ottoman style of the sex jargon recited by Ériphile at II.i.477-508, in the mannequins’ scan of which smudged erotic jottings alleged in a hologram into the deep • private end of the primitive primary streak canal bound in stratified squamous • epithelium to descant many few billion one-liners into the hot squamocolumnar • junction with its teat cistern, a photocopy blurred into alienating aleatory poésie concrète by being roughly swiped back and forth with an aging raging hard-on for dysphagia over the scratched platen glass of the Canon MF8180C or Brother DCP-9045CDN all-in-one fax, printer and copier of the incomplete catechism that stubs out the real Shelley’s “Triumph of Life,” the leading question “What is lite?,” under the table propped up at right angles folded until they froth, to triple accountability to an afflatus, doing as the banks just did, not as the banks just said, I understand the hole that George is in, a dot whose innuendo comes too late …
While the style is reminiscent of Prynne’s, it is somewhat more tractable and much less abstract, primarily because Sutherland intends his poetry to be performed before an audience. Consider the phrase, “In future you cover your costs in void too empty to be lost,” which has a clipped, futuristic I Robot character to it. The sure employment of assonance keeps the music going in these diamond-like, faceted phrases, which must be broken out to reveal their nested meanings. The run-on nature of this mostly prose poem recalls Mallarmé”s versification or Nabokov’s prose, where every next word opens up vistas. In a lot of ways though, it is doubling down on the encyclopedic styles of Pound, Olson and Ginsberg in poetry, and Melville, Joyce, Pynchon, and Wallace in prose. The effect of reading all this for the first time is doubtlessly a feeling of vertigo due to sensory overload. In other words, “we’re not in Kansas anymore.” A major theme of the Odes to TL61P (which is the product code for a replacement door on a now defunct tumble dryer manufactured by Hotpoint) addresses a spiritually bankrupt society in the era of The Great Recession. The opening is presented in terms of the search for empty sex in a world of vacant materiality, and the road travels back to the source through the literary, socio-religio-political, industrial and technolgical realms. In the Odes to TL61P Sutherland conveys with excruciating pathos the human sensibility mutated by the radioactive industrialization of the soul, with its zombied and burned husk lacking the instinct to know the way back to the City of Love. Sutherland argues that responsibility for our present circumstances is the hegemony of capitalism which has perpetuated an illusion of progress, but the current regime of politicians and artists are most deserving of his scorn:
it was not so hard to watch you set and go hard into leading members of that cast, lead role models for our past, who beg to differ as to eat the mess we inherited from the last orgasm in government who slurp after the surplus spew of petty change remaindered when the banks have had their due, . . .
The commoditizers of the divine must face up to the consequences:
our flat back teeth drilled brightly in the new international tax regime protologism, refuting enamel, scorning accessibility, adrift in gum, a real rift per adage, cuts in holy water damage, implants of the daily grind, children out the real yet almost shut but not yet shut and yet still fantastically not shatterproof and smeary window sing the mess we inherited from the last magic diether who scrap the past to recycle the joy it brings the power set, of a subset, of a power set, UberBollywood: . . . .
I know of no contemporary poet in the U.S. (or the world) who has attempted to portray our human condition and cultural plight in so comprehensive and symphonic a style of writing. Obviously, the poem is broadly allusive, dense and scholarly, requiring an informed and committed reader. But in this way the work is no different from that of any of the great writers of the last century. Yes, by this I mean to put Sutherland in the class of Eliot, Joyce, Pound, Bellow, Pynchon, Wallace and the like. He is that good. However, this does not mean that American poets should rush out to imitate him. For every Eliot and Pound, there were also great poets like Stevens, Williams, Cummings and others who followed their own unique paths and wrote poetry of the highest calibre. A particular type of personality and intellectual ability is capable of reaching Everest’s peak every so often (notwithstanding the commercial exploitation that makes any reference to that once universal measure of human achievement obsolete). Perhaps the best way to put it is that Sutherland’s Odes to TL61P, which should be completed within the next year or two, will be the poetic equivalent of Sputnik’s launching, and I believe it will increase the arc, the height and reach of British and American poetry.
In an e-mail exchange with me, Scottish professor and poet Robin Purves commented that the British poets learned so much from their American counterparts, but that a reciprocal gesture of the next wave of British-inspired verse has not yet been reflected on the shores of the States. There is the hope, he said, that the American poets now studying at Cambridge would begin to make inroads here when they return.
I intend to annotate this piece with many links to Dr. Sutherland’s work and hope that you will pursue them. Sutherland is the real deal and there is absolutely no doubt that, with the completion of his much awaited Odes to TL61P, the world of poetry will never be the same.
Keston Sutherland’s “Instincts on Trump University” (audio recording)
Keston Sutherland, “Sinking Feeling” (Sections 1 and 2; excerpt from The Proxy Inhumanity of Forklifts; Stress Position III: The Answer; excerpt from ‘Ode to TL61P 5’). “Sinking Feeling” (Section 3), (Section 4) and (Section 5) [from Soundcloud].
Nicholas Niarchos, “A Radical Poet in the Age of Google and Guantanamo,” The New Yorker (March 15, 2016).
Keston Sutherland’s statement for ‘Revolution and/or Poetry’ – October 15, 2013.
“The Poetry of Destroyed Experience” by Matthew Abbott – A Review of Odes to TL61P – “This is the culmination not simply of previous work but of a set of astonishing poems; their Aufhebung gives the most unsettling but also authentically hopeful account in verse of what it is to be human now of which I am aware. This is Sutherland’s most expansive, confronting, politically intransigent, funny and – in its best moments – convincing encounter with the destruction of experience yet.”
From The Literateur – ‘Political all the way down’: Keston Sutherland on poetics, politics and community An interview with Dr. Sutherland by Laura Kilbride which offers an introduction to Dr. Sutherland’s poetry and politics. Excerpt from Odes to TL61P 5.
Keston Sutherland and John Wilkinson – Holloway Poetry Series (11-15-12) A new reading from The Odes to TL61P .
Keston Sutherland and J.H. Prynne reading at the University of Chicago, the first part of which consists of Sutherland reading from “Stress Position.”
Keston Sutherland performing a “Hot White Andy” – Keston Sutherland – Hot White Andy – Part A – 1/4 – YouTube (The video is in four parts – follow your nose)
Keston Sutherland performing a portion of “Stress Position” – Keston Sutherland, Stress Position, Part 2, SoundEye 13-1/4 …
Keston Sutherland – two poems (from Jacket Magazine #3)
Keston Sutherland – a poem (from Jacket Magazine #4)
Keston Sutherland – Happiness in Writing (from World Picture Journal) – an essay on Wordsworth’s Prelude and Adorno’s advice to writers in Minima Moralia.
Keston Sutherland – “Junk Subjectivity” – Article about “the consumer revolt in the avant-garde’s inbox” [from Mute Vol. 1, No. 28 (Summer/Autumn 2004)
Keston Sutherland on the poetry of J.H. Prynne: “Hilarious Absolute Daybreak”
Keston Sutherland, “The Trade in Bathos,” Jacket Magazine #15, December 2001.
Categories: Literary Criticism