Keston Sutherland’s long poem Hot White Andy (2007) begins:
Lavrov and the Stock Wizard levitate over to
the blackened dogmatic catwalk and you eat them. Now swap
buy for eat, then fuck for buy, then ruminate for fuck,
phlegmophrenic, want to go to the windfarm,
Your • kids menu lips swinging in the Cathex-Wizz monoplex;
Your • face lifting triple its age in Wuhan die-cut peel lids;
This opening might seem completely alienating to the uninitiated. The average reader would, no doubt, toss it quickly aside. The poets who have (to create a loose category for them) rejected the work of people like Philip Larkin to follow instead in the steps of J.H. Prynne, have ‘a notorious reputation for obscurity.’ Sutherland’s poetry ‘resist[s] pleasure’ and ‘can only “play” […] for the poet himself,’ writes Fiona Sampson in Beyond the Lyric; ‘you can’t tell one poet from the other and they’re all just a bit smug’, comments one Kevin McCann in the Guardian. But if a second could be taken to reread, and think about how and where these words fit in, it would be found that Sutherland is not some textual UFO but an intelligent and considerate writer who is trying hard to access the world anew.
But ‘new’ forms define themselves by historicizing the ‘old’ forms from which they derive. This historicisation forces the innovator into a paradox: he is stuck relying on his forebears at the same time as he is trying to create his own identity. How, from this mess, can something fresh be made?
The answer to this is simple, for the Modernists established an old way to be new and so gave their successors a route out of tired repetition. If ‘modernism’ can be thought of as a mode, not a movement, then the experimentation of contemporary academic poetics and performance art (work by people like Keston Sutherland, Geoffrey G. O’Brien, John Wilkinson or the dramatist Jeremy Hardingam) stop seeming like inviolable masturbation and instead becomes an informed and creative continuation of that modernist mode.
The opening of Hot White Andy is, for example, no more impenetrable than the following, from Ezra Pound’s The Cantos:
And then went down to the ship,
Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and
We set up mast and sail on that swart ship,
Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also
Heavy with weeping, so winds from sternward
Bore us out onward with bellying canvas,
Circe’s this craft, the trim-coifed goddess.
A ‘monoplex’ means more to most of us than a ‘bellying canvas’; the monosyllabic rhythm of ‘buy for eat, then fuck for buy, then ruminate for fuck’ is more ours than is the compound-obsolete ‘trim-coifed goddesses.’ Yet the experimentalists amongst contemporary ‘language poets’ are so quickly dismissed as elitist nerds hiding behind fancy degrees.
Nomenclature is unhelpful. Categories like ‘language poets’ are both too expansive and too restrictive, vaguely implying a group coherency that encourages the false image of elitism. Indeed, the writers who rely on the support of universities rather than the support that comes with the Guardian’s approval are not a cohesive ‘scene’ or ‘subculture’ but a variety of discrete individuals with different interests, idols and focuses. There is a degree of conceptual consistency in their ‘very strenuous scholarly and critical theoretical discourse,’ but this discourse is varied enough to imply individual appraisals of different political and literary traditions. Some writers are steeped in Shakespeare, others are working from Beckett, Marxists, Adorno, Wordsworth, J.H. Prynne or Ed Dorn.
The contrasts between members of the new avant-garde were made obvious during the Sussex Poetry Festival in the first week of June. Geoffrey G. O’Brien and John Wilkinson read in succession, and in doing so dramatised their many differences. The two were at complete stylistic loggerheads with one another: O’Brien read in a soft American accent with generous introductions to different sets of poems, which were themselves moving examples of ‘life dovetailing into art.’ John Wilkinson’s reading, which was from his newest book Reckitt’s Blue, was an ivory tower of academic enthronement.
Wilkinson, once upon a time, studied at Cambridge. J.H.Prynne is a life fellow at Gonville and Caius college, Cambridge. The elite educational heritage of experimental writing is the root of much public distaste. But universities like Cambridge and Sussex are not the point of the work that they have facilitated. The Sussex reading, although it was hosted by Sussex University, took place in a pub near the station. Except in the reading’s titling, there was no mention of the university.
Indeed, as facilitators, Cambridge and Sussex receive too much attention, given that Cork and Ohio have also played lively parts in encouraging political-literary experimentation—Cork, Ohio and, most importantly, the internet. Poetry readings and performances are advertised on blogs that are only a few clicks away from a Google search of ‘contemporary writing,’ and all published books are available online. Some writing and videos of readings are even free. More established publications like the Cambridge Literary Review have done a fair amount to make writing enter that academic mainstream, and from there broadsheet newspapers have given the work some attention.
The work, to be sure, is still hermetic. The names Keston Sutherland, Geoffrey G. O’Brien, John Wilkinson and Jeremy Hardingham are probably unfamiliar to most everyone. Hardingham has taken his dramatic output to Edinburgh a total of maybe one time. But this isolationism isn’t stubborn elitism. There is something to be said for the integrity of things that grow cellularly and of themselves, untainted by the timing and pricing demands of Edinburgh venues. The UK Poetry mailing list moderates access specifically so that it can be something more than a list among hundreds.
It must be said that the UK Poetry mailing list is a good example of the work’s real problems: its strange academic virility complex, for example, that is unpleasantly reminiscent of the masculinity of post-WWI modernism. The maleness is not absolute, though, and people have reacted to it by creating online-only journals and journals for female writers like How2.
There is a close relationship between revolutionary writing and universities (How2, for example, borrows its web domain from Arizona State University) but there need not be a hypocrisy inherent to this. Indeed, the close relationship says more good things about universities than it does bad things about radicalism. Lisa Jeschke, co-editor of MATERIALS (which publishes poetry, drama and polemical writing) said on the topic that criticizing the educational privilege of artists risks ‘abandon[ing] any idea of the university as a public institution that could be relevant for everyone […] confirming the university is and could only ever be something for your private leisure time, or a stepping-stone towards your career in the City, but never possibly a site for public thought.’
The lives of those ‘on the fringes of academia’ (David Grundy, co-editor of MATERIALS with Jeschke) – i.e. the graduate students and academics who might not be recognised for their creative output – is by no means easy. As Grundy said, being affiliated with a university is not ‘a guarantor of stable job privilege and security’ and ‘is actually a pretty fragile position to occupy in economic terms.’
In terms of us, the readers, we should know that we don’t need English degrees to ask what it feels like to read a long poem that looks like prose, or to think about the different subjectivity of a poet whose work we cannot find on Amazon. The obtuse referencing of contemporary poetics is self-aware: ‘phlegmophrenic’ from Hot White Andy quoted above, is no more or less complex than any of the cute jargonizing we hear in adverts every day. No one needs to have read Marx to imagine what it might look like to draw the brink of hate. Reading more than one piece by a writer is all it takes to start identifying the domains (eg. videogame language) from which they draw their vocabulary.
The real hypocrisy is in the criticisms of those who damn contemporary experimentalism as elitist: it is as though they were not themselves part of the same competitive and ‘economically antagonised society’ (Jeschke) as everyone else. The infra-avant-garde, various and idiosyncratic as it is, is only a little out of reach. There is nothing preventing us from picking up the pace and catching up.