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Radical Formalism

Keston Sutherland and Geoffrey G. O’Brien in Performance

January 02, 2014

A few weeks ago, I hosted poets Keston Sutherland and Geoffrey G. O’Brien at WAVEMACHINE, the reading series I run in New Haven. The reading took place in the long, thin, unventilated basement of the People’s Arts Collective, a queer-friendly, crowd-funded community center established in an abandoned liquor store. Shortly after the reading, this community space was forced to close, its building scheduled to be demolished and replaced by a luxury apartment complex. It’s difficult to imagine a setting more appropriate for Sutherland and O’Brien’s work; their poems think hard about what those luxury apartments stand for. The videos below show both performances in full.

Sutherland is an amphetaminic reader. “If you read Marx when you’re stoned,” he says, “it sounds like Beckett”—and if you add some Adderall, it might sound like Sutherland himself performing from his recently published book of five long poems, The Odes to TL61P. At a glance, these poems look like prose with moments of verse occurring here and there, but often the prose is so metrical one begins to suspect it was done in lines at first and gelatinized into prose later. In this passage from the third Ode about a childhood sexual experience, notice how prose trespasses into loose heptameter as the language shifts from past- to present-tense, escorted by a pun linking ejaculation to equality and utterance (25:48 on the video):

                                                       I put Christian in my mouth under the blanket, played with him as if gargling. I didn’t know what to do, so it felt better, authentically childish. […]                                     He asked later that we keep it secret, once we had learned that you can do that. I was fine with that, although I also felt that it was somehow  melancholy  that  such  a  simple  act  of pleasure between people still roughly equal at that age should need to be made into a source of fear, when all we had to fear was other people, who could surely be imagined to come under the same blanket; I wanted everybody to get something out of my mouth. What comes from it now is this ode, bright abolition to apathogenesis; I stare at the white screen wanting to know what comes of it next or later; and whether I am living or dead depends on you, and when you read it; it depends who you are, like tides on the moon, blood on the measured heart.

Sutherland describes the Odes as a suite of love poems to “a no-longer-available Hotpoint tumble washer-dryer” whose product ordering code is indexed in the title. This isn’t the first time he has written love poems to “wrong” objects; recent addressees include the similarly unavailable president of Fox News (see “Roger Ailes”) and an export manager at a Tungsten production company in Wuhan China (see “Hot White Andy”). Each addressee is a corporeal figure for corporate capitalism, and a way to pronounce the marketplace’s mediation of the Grecian urn a poem is sometimes supposed to be. Ode and product code—passionate address and commodity plaything—these are metonyms for the opposing currents crossing each other everywhere in Sutherland’s writing, the wrong object turning the ode parodic, the parody suddenly passing into a lyricism all the more plausible for being tested by its opposite.

Those currents have correlatives in Sutherland’s performance style. As you watch the clip above (27:27 - 28:06 in the video), hear how he alternates between high-speed, satirical logorrhea and measured sotto voce tones of sincerity only an English accent on a mission could produce. The beginning of this passage congeals phrases from Song of Myself (“it shall be you,” “libidinous / prongs”) together with other pieces of Google-able culture-junk, rendering Whitman and Lehman almost indistinguishable. The passage ends with an offensively un-Whitmanian non-sequitur. And in between, tetrameter quatrains uphold a lyricism the framing discourse throws away. The tension between ode and product code is visible on the page but even more striking in performance, where peripheral vision can’t foretell when quatrains are about to happen or conclude.

One of the most penetrating moments of Sutherland’s performance is the autoerotic set piece with which he began. Listen to how his immaculate deadpan carries us from bathetic send-up of the narcissistic post-romantic poet deep in self-communication—the self as wrong object—into something else (1:25):

                                                                                        I remember wanting to go to bed with myself, my bed in particular, so that I could do anything I wanted to do, all to myself,  since I knew everything I would want doing to me and who would do what. I alone would come in both my mouths. I would  get down  on all  four knees and stretch wide my asses to invite in my cocks. One cock, mine, would be way too big for me and way too hard; the other, also mine, is antithetic to magnitude. Harder than a thousand bass teeth. I would talk down to myself, spit in my mouth, force me, I would grip my tongue in my ass. But I would not run my fingers through  my  hair or look  directly into my eyes and  say I love you.

In that last sentence, I hear the bathos terminate in pathos. The deadpan turns into an apparently earnest disavowal of affectionate gestures. Why won’t the speaker say “I love you” to himself? Is it because such gestures have been degraded by their use in sentimental literature and advertising copy, commercialized like any other kind of porn? Or because the speaker wouldn’t travesty those gestures by performing them in narcissistic fantasy? Or because the poet is miming the attitude of the consumer who would take pleasure without giving to anyone but himself? Is this the parody neoliberal capitalism has made of Song of Myself? (“Whoever degrades another degrades me,” wrote Whitman, with none of the above in mind.)

This passage strikes me as an antistrophe to the section above, where boys “still roughly equal” become aware of their culture’s prohibitions on expressions of desire, and the address aims outward at a “you.” Between the two throbs an antinomy central to the Odes: that desire is, on the one hand, a revolutionary intensity compelling us to bring others “under the same blanket” in which we warm ourselves, and on the other a narcissistic force that powers capitalism by driving us towards its consumables (porn, blankets, washing machines) at the expense of those exploited to produce them. Torn between these right and wrong objects, Sutherland insists we can’t have one sort of desire without the other, or don’t yet—that our desire is at once irredeemably the engine of depredation while also key to any possibility of doing otherwise. This ambivalence about desire may be responsible for a similarly ambivalent use of lyric affects and old verse resources like rhyme and meter—deployed sometimes to make us feel them failing, other times so that we feel them truly, and sometimes both at once.

Like Sutherland, O’Brien asks whether vestigial verse resources can be divested of their old associations and reanimated towards a living politics—but unlike Sutherland, he rarely steps toward the sublime through the ridiculous. His latest volume, People on Sunday, proceeds through a poetics of discrepancy, giving us stately tercets filled with rage against the state, testing the inwardness of intense patterning against the outwardness indexed by his content. The first sonnet-stanza of “Materia” (which, sadly, was not read at WAVEMACHINE) pressures you to see it as an involute object, but then reverses that pressure suddenly:

I had three tasks: finish, cease, and stop.
I had the single method: wait like form
On the inside of the outside, made
Of being made. There space is nothing
So large as, tests don’t end they resume,
The good and the bad have the same structure.
Let me be more specific: during the war
I remained unreal in order to match
The conflict’s absence of termination
Or my experience of being involuntary
Went decisional, non-native grasses in the park,
Patterns at the edges of the game.
Or I joined one moment of helplessness
To another so that a perpetual intimacy
 
Spanned them, defeating time by further
Dividing it into nameless parts relation
Obtains among. This stretch in which
I washed the dishes perpetually affecting
This other where sunlight was done to me.

The sonnet begins with a sestet. Its first six lines restrict themselves to materials that code as abstract and aesthetic, referring to nothing so much as the nothing of reflexive formal activity in verse, “made / of being made.” At the volta in the seventh line, the poem re-describes those formal “tasks” in politicized terms, turning considerations about aesthetic ends toward the “absence of termination” in “the war”—an absence made of termination (killing), conducted far from the present of the poem’s making, no end in sight. The sonnet refuses to stop where other sonnets do; its last sentence spans the stanza break, joining “one moment of helplessness / To another” by the intimacy of enjambment. Given this poem’s preoccupation with endings, that last line above assumes a double valence: if sunlight is “done” to you, it’s either performed on you, a sunny alternative to other things that might be “done” to you during a war, or finished for you, dead to you, unable to contribute to your flourishing. “The good and the bad have the same structure” because a single structure can produce sunny and dark accounts of Sunday’s passivity, and because structures associated with political passivity and pretentions to ahistoricity—the sonnet, the iambic pentameter line, the “I”—can be made to go “decisional” against those same associations, as they do here.

Poets who recombine old verse resources with the techniques of more contemporary avant-garde practice have sometimes been derided for co-opting radical aesthetics while abandoning the politics those aesthetics once entailed. Sutherland and O’Brien strike me as striving for the inverse—a repurposing of putatively conservative aesthetic resources toward radical political commitments. In his as-yet-unpublished poem “After England,” O’Brien describes this kind of formalism as an experiment that dreams of not being limited to poetry (18:20):

And you call it experiment,
The experiment of the sea
Pouring into the city, people
Into squares, forms that can’t
Hold so much, weren’t
Designed with this in mind
 
Like the mind itself, builded
Here from ancient materials
That couldn’t predict the future
Or even rise to meet it
But maintain a right of way.

The “forms” here encompass cities inundated by the effects of global warming, public squares flooded by protesters in Cairo, London, and Oakland, stanzas filled by such spontaneous overflow, and the mind straining to hold the waves. Americans typically understand “right of way” as the privilege to go forth while others wait; but I think we’re meant to understand the right of way “after England,” where the phrase denotes a thoroughfare that must remain available for public use—like the public square, the People’s Arts Collective, or the sonnet—regardless of whether it is privately owned. The English sense of this shibboleth leads to an assertion of public access against private privilege: in ancient materials, a way of protecting the commons. This poem’s nod to Blake’s “Jerusalem” (“builded / Here”) makes me re-read that elder poem as if its ancient city figured such a commons—not a place so much as a potential that must be ceaselessly recreated if it is to exist at all. In returning us to Blake’s materials, O’Brien implies that experiments with old verse forms in poetry, like the experiments with human forms in public, must support a building higher and other than those “dark Satanic Mills,” or the apartment complex soon to stand where O’Brien and Sutherland once did. They must support a “building” as an action, not a thing.

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Comments

Next year can there be an Arroz Bowl

Empty assertion number one (perhaps the most offensive one, as it reaches beyond the poetosphere, into politics: "their poems think hard about what those luxury apartments stand for."  E.A. number two (if there's an English heptameter that can possibly be referred to in the context of the BR, i'll shit my pants: "notice how prose trespasses into loose heptameter as the language shifts from past- to present-tense...."  E.A. three:  "Ode and product code—passionate address and commodity plaything—these are metonyms for the opposing currents crossing each other everywhere in Sutherland’s writing, the wrong object turning the ode parodic, the parody suddenly passing into a lyricism all the more plausible for being tested by its opposite," but why should an ode which is innovative in its addressee be considered a parody?  And why oh why cannot parody be expressed in lyric form?  E.A. four:  "The deadpan turns into an apparently earnest disavowal of affectionate gestures"--no tone of voice can make those sentences seem apparently earnest, not in the context of this piece of writing and certainly not in the context of European poetry at least since Baudelaire.  E.A. five:  "This ambivalence about desire may be responsible for a similarly ambivalent use of lyric affects and old verse resources like rhyme and meter—deployed sometimes to make us feel them failing, other times so that we feel them truly, and sometimes both at once"--but anybody who is a sensible reader/auditor ALWAYS heard "verse resources" as sometimes failing, and maybe sometimes succeeding!  What in the world can it mean to feel "verse resources" "truly" if it is something other than that?  E.A. six: "His latest volume, People on Sunday, proceeds through a poetics of discrepancy, giving us stately tercets filled with rage against the state, testing the inwardness of intense patterning against the outwardness indexed by his content"--but what nonsense to suggest  that "intense patterning" like tercet form must be "stately" and that even when it is, such form cannot be used to express content "against the state"?  The counter-examples are legion.  E.A. seven: "Poets who recombine old verse resources with the techniques of more contemporary avant-garde practice have sometimes been derided for co-opting radical aesthetics while abandoning the politics those aesthetics once entailed"--maybe so.  But anybody who's read much since Whitman knows that almost all of what passes for "contemporary avant-garde practice" in poetry is rehashed modernist experimentation, and guess what, the politics of such work hasn't progressed much further.  E.A. eight and the last i'll bother with:  "Americans typically understand “right of way” as the privilege to go forth while others wait"--no, actually, and crucially, this understanding of "right of way" does not denote privilege but rather a shared responsibililty, a turn-taking which protects the person or vehicle exercising the"right" as much as it protects the person or vehicle yielding that right with the expectation that the next time they are in the position to exercise a "right of way" it will be yielded to them.   BR can do better than this.  Really it must do better than this.  It has always sought to. 

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