“Minute your gesture but it must be made”: Political responsibility in Autumn Journal and Odes to TL61P

[This is a paper I gave to other post-grads at Edinburgh Uni. Not a review as such, but a write-up of Sutherland's book is in the works. Caveat: These books are not particularly similar. This became clear on a second reading, however by that point I was already kinda committed to writing this paper. Hopefully the ways the books differ in their similar strategies is also valuable. Additionally, I fully admit to knowing less about Sutherland than I do about MacNeice; apologies if there are some particularly egregious misreadings.]

In reading Odes to TL61P closely it became clear that the presiding influence is not Autumn Journal but Eliot’s The Waste Land, in terms of its atmosphere, structure and themes, e.g., the breakdown of meaning and the dehumanising effects of Western culture, although the denial of discrete personal and public zones of experience is also very much a MacNeicean trait. However, the commentary posited by both MacNeice and Sutherland takes its ultimately hopeful cues from a rejection of Eliot’s apocalyptic defeatism. In their criticism of emerging social norms both writers allow for the possibility of positive social change; MacNeice does so explicitly and in a far more idealistic tone than in much of Autumn Journal; in contrast Sutherland keeps his utopia largely implicit. Their hope is not pinned on a reversion to an irretrievable golden age, but on recognising and challenging the assumptions of their respective communities and thinking out a pragmatic and socially just solution.

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Political stakes are at the forefront of Odes to TL61P as the book explores, embodies and exposes the hypocrisies and collusions of the most powerful elements of British society, political or otherwise. The most strident example of this tactic is found in the passage provided, in which Sutherland takes the role of police commander (logic and brutality) and ostensibly helpless middle class bystander (complacent horror). MacNeice, however, keeps his political cards close to his chest, even in Autumn Journal, itself the most politically declared limb of his body of work, as evidenced by his oblique attack on British intelligentsia via the political chicanery and moral relativism of the commonly-venerated Ancient Greeks. A year before the composition of Autumn Journal, MacNeice and Auden travelled to Rekjavik, in part to co-author a collection of poetry under the title Letters from Iceland, in part to escape increasingly tense domestic politics. Although the most accomplished piece is probably Auden’s ‘Letter to Lord Byron’, of more immediate interest is MacNeice’s ‘Eclogue from Iceland’, in which the poets’ avatars, Ryan and Craven, meet the ghost of Grettir, a hero of Icelandic myth who advises them to return home and take up their responsibilities, with the words: “Minute your gesture but it must be made–/ Your hazard, your act of defiance and hymn of / hate, / Hatred of hatred, assertion of human values, / Which is now your only duty.”

The poem articulates a key point of disparity between MacNeice and his contemporaries in the 1930s, the point where his non-defeatist individualism takes on collective urgency. At the beginning of the decade many artists, like MacNeice’s contemporaries Stephen Spender and Cecil Day-Lewis, moved from a 1890s-style aestheticism to committed Communism, before drifting away or outright recanting as the decade wore on. MacNeice very much moved in the opposite direction, and would accuse Auden of ‘straying towards the Ivory Tower’, when the latter wrote in his essay, ‘The Public vs The Late Mr William Butler Yeats’, “art is a product of history, not a cause… The case for the prosecution rests on the fallacious belief that art ever makes anything happen, whereas the honest truth… is that, if not a poem had been written, not a picture painted, not a bar of music composed, the history of man would be materially unchanged.” To contextualise, this is witten partly in response to Yeats’ question in the 1938 poem ‘The Man and the Echo’, ‘Did that play of mine send out/Certain men the English shot?’; it was also written partly in persona, as Auden presented both sides of an argument concerning Yeats’ legacy. It is clear, however, from his later work’s rejection of an explicitly political stance that the passage quoted is the side he favoured. From the mid-30s onward, MacNeice continued to stress – in Edna Longley’s words – ‘the social contexts of the language that reaches the poet: language as a community-product, conditioned by the ‘vulgar’ social and political world’. For MacNeice, Auden’s case for the prosecution ‘does rest on a fallacy but it is not this. The fallacy lies in thinking that it is the function of art to make things happen and that the effect of art upon actions is something either direct or calculable.’ MacNeice argues that the minute gestures of art are the artist’s responsibility to his or her community, the sine qua non of public expression.

The political contexts of late 1938 are pervasive in Autumn Journal, and the inevitable march into war is transmitted from newspaper to manuscript via MacNeice’s poetic lens; his response to the Munich Agreement – ‘Save my skin and damn my conscience’ – is an accurate summary of the book’s moral core. Autumn Journal in part presents an imaginative conscience in a time of crisis, Munich sitting at the centre of the book and the heart of its protest. The poem places this individual moment into context with a deflation of the British national narrative since the Great War (the ‘retired generals’ of Section I confronted by a return to the ‘end-all mud of Flanders’ in section XV), and, in Section IX, a revision of the ancient history that shores up so much of the Imperial myth. Here, MacNeice employs his classical education as a vantage point to criticise Chamberlain and his cabinet, undercutting their claims to civilisation by demonstrating that far from being the ideal, enlightened society, barbarity and moral prevarication was also alive and well in Ancient Greece:

And when I should remember the paragons of Hellas
I think instead
Of the crooks, the adventurers, the opportunists, […]
And the trimmers at Delphi and the dummies at Sparta and lastly
I think of the slaves.
And how one can imagine oneself among them
I do not know;
It was all so unimaginably different
And all so long ago.

The sarcasm in MacNeice’s voice is palpable. Here, the myth about Greek civility appropriated by the British intelligentsia (see the ‘humanist’ overlooking the ‘lazy quad’ composing ‘sermons’), and the myth about British civility itself are barely distinguishable, the poet’s moral disgust regarding the self-serving hypocrisy of his political leaders in plain sight.

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This is a central example of a recurring concern in Autumn Journal; that of the absence of free-thinking and free speech; here, ‘free speech shivered on the pikes of Macedonia/And later on the swords of Rome’; in Section XVI ‘Free speech nipped in the bud,/The minority always guilty’ in reference to Irish politics north and south; there are references elsewhere to ‘the dull refrain of the caption ‘War’, ‘blank invective’, ‘travestied in slogans’, ‘The devil quoting scripture’, and in Section VII, ‘we who have been brought up to think of ‘Gallant Belgium’/As so much blague/Are now preparing again to essay good through evil/For the sake of Prague;/And must, we suppose, become uncritical, vindictive,/And must, in order to beat/The enemy, model ourselves upon the enemy,/A howling radio for our paraclete.’ ‘Paraclete’ being a Greek word meaning helper or advocate, which most commonly used in reference to the Christian idea of the Holy Spirit. MacNeice fears the threat to critical thinking that totalitarianism embodies as much as the specific variety of totalitarianism represented by Hitler; it is important to remember that MacNeice is a contemporary of Orwell as well as Auden, and that in the thirties British fascism remained in rude health. In the 1943 essay ‘Looking Back on the Spanish War’, Orwell writes of the unreality of Francist propaganda, both in its insistence on Russian intervention on the Republican side (there was little or none) and denial of Italian and German assistance to the Nationalists (both nations openly lauded their ‘legionaries’ domestically). Orwell speaks of being frightened by the ‘feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world’; in Autumn Journal MacNeice writes of ‘not realising/That Spain would soon denote/Our grief, our aspirations;/Not knowing that our blunt/Ideals would find their whetstone, that our spirit/Would find its frontier on the Spanish front,/Its body in a rag-tag army.’ Autumn Journal frames the Civil War as a reflection of Britain’s failed democratic responsibilities, the emptying out of meaning in its own wartime narrative-building reflected in Franco’s propaganda.

It is precisely this breakdown of experiential meaning that animates Odes to TL61P. In it, Sutherland uses the very language of political and commercial cross-talk to create a nightmare-scape of signal drowned by noise, individual experience negated by overwhelming systemic violence and behavioural control. The title refers to the order code for part of a door to a discontinued model of Hotpoint washer/dryer, and the book chases the implications of the human-as-machine, machine-as-human metaphor to a greatly discomfiting extent, exploring the possibility of individual resistance to a political system that seems corrupt and obsolete, its continued function reliant on the masochistic compliance of a majority of its citizens.

The book negotiates with some, though definitely not all, principles outlined by Marx, primarily his ideas on the commodification and control of labour; in ‘Ode 2, Part I’ the implications of the police commander’s defamation of the Trafalgar Square protestors are played out partly in terms of weakening unions and using overtime pay as a counter-revolutionary tool. This section challenges official narratives not by satirising them (as in Autumn Journal), but by exposing the discrepancies between word and referent through playing them out to their logical and practical conclusions. It may be disquieting to think that violence committed by British police might be justified by or responsible for international trade agreements between mobile phone companies, but Sutherland makes the case that this is a direct result of the systemic links between vested political and commercial interests, interests which hold the power to determine who is protestor and who is criminal. The closing line, ‘Know your fucking enemy’ has the Odes’ narrator becoming something like the Wormwood character from CS Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, inhabiting the enemy’s thinking to better understand it, better understanding to better defend against it.

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The governing poetic strategy of Odes to TL61P is presented explicitly in Ode 5:

‘Career poets are part of the problem, smearing up the polish, drying out the fire; chucking shit all over the place; not being party to the solution; banking on the nodding head “the reader” saying “yes, that’s what it’s like” so as not to know what it’s for, since meaning is easier that way, gaped at through the defrosted back window of the Audi, hence the spring for a neck; we all know where that shit got us: being what we eat.’

The image of the nodding-head dog is a direct rebuke to the kind of representative/recognition-based poetry Sutherland sees as being the norm in British poetry, though it can very much be taken as a rejection of any a priori response to art. In a piece written for Revolution and/or Poetry, Sutherland attacks not poetic form in toto (as many of MacNeice’s Modernist predecessors and contemporaries did, reductive thinking which persists to this day), but ‘compulsory or approved techniques, compulsory or approved trivialisations of technique, compulsory or approved evacuations of technique, and their common use value’. In the same article, Sutherland takes Ezra Pound to task for his assumption that art is primarily a tool for inspiring consent and obedience, essentially propaganda; Sutherland argues that this view is a direct product of Pound’s failure/refusal (changed depressingly little in contemporary poetry) to recognise working class experience, or indeed any experience outwith the established elite, as legitimate, let alone equally valuable. He argues that ‘Class, race, gender and sexuality are not just categories supervening on individuals, but worlds of subjective experience that extend right into their capillaries and marrow’.

Odes follows this theory in its depiction of a society that exerts and exploits power at every level, from the intimately personal outwards. In an article in 3:AM Magazine, ‘The Poetry of Destroyed Experience’, Mathew Abbott argues that Sutherland’s frequent return to sexual fantasies or anecdotes in Odes are not only a nod to the British Romantic tradition, they form a major part of the book’s treatment of power structures, in Abbott’s words, they are ‘the site of our deepest ties to power’. Sutherland explores the fraught nature of these encounters, particularly those of adolescence, in their feelings of shame, and occasional violence, but it is the persistent presence of uneven power dynamics that is their most consistent characteristic. There are moments when a sincere voice is heard through the noise: ‘The point is not to unlearn love […]Passion must be learned back start to end infinitely or your life will end without you.’ (Ode 3, Part 1.3); ‘our tribute to the world is our desire, nothing else’ (Ode 5, 10/11/10, a reference to student protests at Millbank). These moments are followed by a passage of TV-ratings gibberish and a discussion of civil rights and the country’s alliance with China respectively, dramatizing the arbitrariness and hard-won nature of shared pleasure in the world of the Odes.

This constant drive to disgust the reader could easily be read as a cynical Burroughsian shock tactic; American critic Steven Critelli compared Sutherland to novelist David Foster Wallace in an article crowning him ‘The Next Great One’. But Sutherland is doing something more generous, nuanced and certainly more sincerely optimistic, for all his grandstanding and panoramic vision; in his arrangement of hopeful signal surrounded by oppressive noise, he dramatizes the possibility of challenging and changing the most insidious social narratives. The book’s final section eventually fades into characteristic corporate babble, but the last intelligible message is this: ‘Don’t worry too much if you don’t get absolutely all the off the when you first start. The idea at the beginning is to get some. You started it. Increasing as the screenings multiply, what’s your fucking problem in the future? That we do not know yet.’ That a collection as essentially clear-eyed about the corruptions of contemporary society should end with such a heartening note seems as clear a statement as ‘know your enemy’; as Abbott points out, these are Odes rather than Elegies. In this, Sutherland and MacNeice’s ultimately affirmative strategies align; though the past cannot be rewritten, meaning can be reclaimed, and art has its minute role to play. The final lines of Autumn Journal are a prayer to the present:

Sleep to the noise of running water
To-morrow to be crossed, however deep;
This is no river of the dead or Lethe,
To-night we sleep
On the banks of the Rubicon – the die is cast;
There will be time to audit
The accounts later, there will be sunlight later
And the equation will come out at last.

4 Comments

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4 responses to ““Minute your gesture but it must be made”: Political responsibility in Autumn Journal and Odes to TL61P

  1. Am excited to read this. I remember we talked about Sutherland on a random walk from the Book Festival up Lothian Road. You’re inspiring me to actually get down to reading some, rather than just knowing vaguely about it!

  2. Well this is a testament to the powers of good conversation :-) Hope to see you at something festive soon

  3. Pingback: Keston Sutherland – Odes to TL61P | Dave Poems.

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