How Hard Can It Be?

Keston Sutherland
The Odes to TL61P
Enitharmon £8.99

Simon Jarvis
Eighteen Poems
Eyewear £12.99

Luke Kennard
A Lost Expression
Salt 12.99

Cherry Smyth
Test, Orange
Pindrop £9.99

 

Well before he had become the poster-boy of the ‘difficult’ in English poetry, JH Prynne’s lectures filled halls with enthusiastic students. To those who have met him only on the page, perhaps finding him dry and impenetrable, maybe even more to the greater number who have met him only in reputation, that may seem surprising. His popularity owed little or nothing to intellectual snobbery, much to the enjoyment of intellectual stimulation. Prynne’s lectures were fun. The same is probably true of Keston Sutherland, late of the University of Sussex, shortly to take up the Hawthornden Poetry Fellowship at Berkeley, and who is happy be advertized as Prynne’s protégé.

Sutherland the poet can be at least as opaque on the page as Prynne. His Hot White Andy (Barque Press 2007) has been variously described as ‘the most remarkable poem published in English this century’ (by John Wilkinson, his predecessor as number one Prynne acolyte) or ‘barely readable’ (by a publisher of impeccable avant-garde credentials). Neither verdict seems quite right, but neither would be likely to faze a writer who has commended William Hazlitt’s remark that ‘it is the nature of the poetical temperament to carry everything to excess’. Excess, in the case of Sutherland as poet, being mostly an excess of detachment from conventional thought-grammar, a refusal to be clear or obvious. His writing can be tough stuff, sending a critic such as Wilkinson delving into the most obscure corners of the virtual library to tease out references that may or may not be valid or illuminating. Sutherland the writer on poetics, however, like Prynne the lecturer on, say, Romanticism, is absorbing, intellectually stimulating. Fun.

Sutherland the performer of his poetry is astounding. Check out his reading of Hot White Andy on YouTube and you will find that line-by-line attempts to wrestle out meaning, though a popular hobby among devotees, are beside the point. Some poets are surprisingly poor readers of their own work. Some – Tom Raworth springs to mind – are such exciting performers that once you have heard them your appreciation of their work, on the page, is forever enhanced. Sutherland is one such. At that pace, analysis and interrogation are impossible and you are freed to appreciate the dynamism, the clashing of sounds, ideas and images in an impressionistic tumult from which different details are likely to emerge briefly shimmering on each hearing or reading.

This is the way to approach Sutherland’s latest offering – fast. The Odes to TL61P (an obsolete washing-machine product code, apparently) begin in prose, and continue mostly that way apart from occasional lapses into verse setting, even snippets of rhyming quatrains; but it is a breathless, almost Joycean prose. ‘Almost’ because, unlike Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, it is punctuated, quite formally so; ‘breathless’ because you are onto the fifth page and the seventh line of the first irruption of verse before the opening sentence suddenly concludes. If you try to follow this as argument or narrative, you will very quickly be lost. How, for example, can a ‘pyramid of rigid meat’ in a freezer co-exist in one sentence with ‘the abolition of capital’, ‘the scratched platen glass of the Canon MF8180C’, and ‘a kind of backlit soft porn nativity scene’? All these things, however, seem essential to Sutherland’s weltanschauung, his critique of the capitalist zeitgeist.

And critique it undoubtedly is, despite the impressionistic collage in which it is presented. For Sutherland, like Prynne, is an avowedly political poet. Even if, in this instance, the heavy breathing of adolescent sexuality is a more constant background than even the satirized jargon of the business pages, the implicit condemnation of US foreign policy or the rumble of the TL61P. Sometimes – maybe too often – the enjoyable smear of word associations clears for a moment of limpidity, such as this:

 

The really beautiful woman who is yet to explain how I should fight to retain Thatcher’s rebate is now bent over
into a suggestion about how to prop up the euro; I can see
into her womb.

 

Joycean indeed. Those who like their Sutherland less obvious (and less jocular) will be glad to know there is still much that is ‘difficult’ to make sense of – if ‘sense’ is what you should be making of it. The abstract surface of much of the writing suggests it might not be. The problem for Sutherland is that, as an avowed Marxist, his thought is loaded with the social and political outlook he presumably wishes to propagate, while his chosen mode of expression limits the audience willing, or able, to receive the message. His writing, in fact, is about as far from Social Realism – or, indeed, Marxian analysis – as imaginable. In Soviet terms, it could hardly be seen as anything but an extreme of decadence. So he finds himself caught in the traditional trap of the intelligentsia: theorists of egalité and fraternité whose every well-intentioned utterance places them out of the common reach and into a fraternity that is, willy-nilly, not equal (or necessarily elite) but exclusive.

The same exclusive group, or at least one that considerably overlaps, will be pleased to have Eighteen Poems from Simon Jarvis. This again is ‘Cambridge poetry’: Jarvis is a Cambridge professor, associated with the ‘difficult’, who has written learnedly about Prynne. His concern, though, is less topical, more philosophical; and while Sutherland’s writing raises the question whether it should be called ‘poetry’ at all, Jarvis’s experiment here is to see whether he can, in the twenty-first century, get away with writing verse in strict forms that Milton and Dryden would have recognized.

The opening poem, ‘Lessons and Carols’, suggests that perhaps he can:

 

The ring road rests, and frost settles over the meadow;

down at the river the lights are strung out into faint

points of attention, and silence envelops the dark.

 

It is a confident beginning, rhythmically and descriptively, to a reflective poem about the buying and giving of Christmas gifts, and the transactional environment in which we co-exist. The pondering poet, after enjoying the urban winter landscape in which he sets out, comes to question both the buying and the giving, and with it the ideas of money, love and ‘spirits’ – and then to question his questioning: ‘Why should I not like these colours, these lit invitations?’ There is no clear answer beyond a somewhat resigned, bathetic ending and the wish ‘May the bereft state continue its care for our welfare’, which hints that we are not far from the thought-world of Jarvis’s philosopher hero Theodor Adorno. Despite its occasional archaisms, this is a fine poem that is worth returning to (and not really that ‘difficult’).

Thereafter, however, the collection falls most frequently into such an insistent rhyming pattern, heavily underscoring a rigid metrical structure, that it almost seems the form is the meaning. The half-dozen brief lyrics ‘after’ the nineteenth and early twentieth century Russian poets Fet, Batiushkov, Kuzmin, Pushkin and Khodasevich are light confections but provide relief from the drumming noise that almost drowns out Jarvis’s signal.

 

Nothing drowns out the signal in Luke Kennard’s crystal-clear writing; there is nothing to tease out. What you see is what you get: a series of comic commentaries on English society as we live it and watch it. No Adorno, no Hegelian dialectic, but a lot of fine observation and some crisp one-liners. Kennard has a fine ear for the oddities of colloquial speech, so attuned to right now that his inflections are as fresh as tonight’s pizza (and apt to date almost as quickly). He has a nice sense of the ridiculous, the reductio (or extensio) ad absurdum and the surreal. Though the application of this sensibility to poetry has been described as ‘groundbreaking’, there are clear comparisons to be made with Edwin Morgan in his humorous mode – or, equally, with Ben Elton, Kurt Vonnegut and the best Sunday supplement columnists. His work is full of little perceptions, little surprises, unexpected similes – ‘He takes your hand and it feels awkward, like a stranger palming you a betting slip’. He is a master of the bathetic punchline, the throwaway ending that may not really be so throwaway after all. As with all the best comedy there is a constant sense of social discomfort and a feeling that all around you are things you may never look at quite the same way again.

The very titles of his poems – ‘Will Write Properly Soon’, ‘Dolphin With a Time Machine’, ‘A Psychiatrist Rolls Through Town Face-Up on a Trolley’ – give a clear indication of his playfulness. At a shallow level – and Kennard never minds splashing enjoyably through the shallows – A Lost Expression is not obviously darker than his earlier books, but it has greater depths to be glimpsed occasionally through the shimmering surface. And he makes one point, in passing, in the book’s best and least obvious poem, ‘Parabola’, which Sutherland or Jarvis might have made less succinctly:

 

The plants just want to expand and they don’t know why,

like FTSE100 companies, like hair.

 

The political points made by Cherry Smyth in Test, Orange are seldom that abstract or impersonal. With none of the whimsy of Kennard, the showiness of Sutherland or artifice of Jarvis, Smyth is more directly political than any of them. Though nakedly personal, and very focused on specific people, moments and events, her subject is, at root, nothing less than the human condition. This outstanding collection opens with its most enigmatic poem, ‘Transparency’, in which a scientist in Japan is ‘whispering to water’. Ultimately, ‘He photographs the feeling’. How crucial is it that this is a man ‘whose wife has left him’? In the interweaving of global and personal significances, it is emblematic of the whole book.

In ‘Rushes’, a short sequence of prose poems, Smyth declares, ‘I couldn’t film people. The camera was a gun I couldn’t point’. Yet she is never really shy of observing others, even inhabiting their consciousness, as well as uncovering her own with sometimes painful honesty. Much of the politics is of the kind defined by issues of gender or sexuality, featuring occasional brushes with shocking violence. A reference to ‘singed hair’ in the poem ‘Montjuic’ echoes the matter-of-fact description in ‘Patriarchy’, a disturbing account of sexually predatory bullying:

 

First it smelt of sugar

being baked, then it blackened to smoke. My hair

never grew back. I hide it. He prefers that.

 

This weaving of themes from one poem into another occurs throughout the book. So the experience of being looked at, or worse, recurs. As does the idea of near-death, especially by drowning. The Japanese scientist’s examination of water is obliquely recalled in ‘Safe’, which asks, ‘do birds still fly over Fukushima?’ Such a vital question is worth putting directly, and expands on the catastrophism already encountered in ‘Lost Bees’. Both poems raise to the macro scale the question implicitly repeated elsewhere at individual level: the decision to live or to die, in situations where that decision is germane.

Though none shares his reactionary politics, all four writers considered here are, in their very different ways, aesthetic descendants of TS Eliot – still, after all these decades, for many the touchstone of ‘difficulty’. On that subject, Eliot said, ‘People are exasperated by poetry they do not understand and contemptuous of poetry which they understand without effort’. In those terms, while two of these poets do not so much risk exasperation as gleefully pursue it, and one friskily courts (or defies) contempt, Smyth strides the middle ground confidently from edge to edge. If the milieu of Jarvis and Sutherland is the dusty attic of academe, and Kennard’s the comedy club, Smyth is alternately at the bedside of a dying father or out on the streets waving placards. Which is where, appropriately, she is at her most direct:

 

I told you marching

changes nothing. ‘Nor does poetry,’

you said, ‘or music, yet somehow

we do it, involved in useless

making until it’s a need met.’

How I loved you for that.

 

Is there a better justification for poetry? Or a sweeter love poem?