Prosody and pain in 'Scherzos Benjyosos'
In the course of Keston Sutherland’s Scherzos Benjyosos, inarticulate pain is transformed into elegy, and elegy, at the last, into love song. This is first and foremost a prosodic achievement. I do not mean by this simply that prosody offers figures or symbols for the poems’ thematic and narrative content — that the book’s tormented passage from pain to love is echoed and illustrated by the shapes and sounds of the text on the page and in the ear (though to some extent this is true). Rather the pressure that prosodic constraints exert on the poet’s language, and therefore upon his thinking, exposes seams of pain and of potential happiness which could not have been anticipated nor, perhaps, discovered in any other way.
The first three poems, or scherzos, share roughly the same design: blocks of unparagraphed text flank a central passage of heptametrical tercets. The fourth and final poem inverts this design — verse encloses block — and the tercets are compacted into strict heptasyllabics.
Block is Sutherland’s term for a graphic-prosodic form — what the sixteenth-century critic George Puttenham called “figure” — that resembles but isn’t exactly prose. Since its first appearance in Hot White Andy in 2007, the block has gradually ousted verse as the dominant mode in Sutherland’s poetry: in Jenkins, Moore and Bird (2015) there are just three lines that could count as verse (because they either fall short of or overrun the margin of the block) while Sinking Feeling (2017), the poem immediately preceding Scherzos Benjyosos, is entirely set in blocks. The blocks resemble prose insofar as their line endings are “compositorial, not compositional”; that is, they are determined not by syllable or stress count, or any other intrinsic feature of the poem’s language, but by an imposed graphical boundary. As with prose, the line breaks are the responsibility of the typesetter, not the author. But on reading one of Sutherland’s blocks, it becomes quickly apparent that we are a long way from normal discursive prose. The graphic density of the blocks, an effect of their justified margins, tight column width, and suppression of paragraph breaks and line-end hyphenation, is compounded by their sonic and semantic density — by jarring shifts in speed, tone, rhythm, and diction, and exhaustingly dilatory or aggressively disrupted syntax. As a result, Sutherland’s blocks are often noisy, hostile, and frustrating spaces to spend time in. Yet it would be wrong to imply that the block is always used in the same ways or does the same things, for what in part distinguishes the form is its ability to absorb just about any language material whatever. And this includes writing that is carefully and conspicuously metrical. Take these sentences from Scherzo 2, for example, which are also a pair of ballad quatrains:
Art world politics take note, history will come, coughed up from your father’s throat on Elysium. […] Look up at the foaming sky pouring life away, how to go on, what to try, difficult to say. (40)
Or the following passage, which buries a sequence of fourteener couplets:
A simple modus ponens inference to Uber’s slaves, in the brain congealing like a soup of flooded graves. The time is near when I go back to stacking up your shelves, in envy of the egos busy shacking up with selves. There simply is more space the more you reach beyond the stars, for distance to appropriate, put away your scars. Imprisoned like shellfish said Plato, speaking for the west, born of a mother before him whose Ursatz knows best. In retrospect love is a banner you too soon unfurled, to end up looking for dead ends in every corner of the world. (41)
Despite, or perhaps because of, the virtuosity with which these venerable English meters — in the case of the fourteener, no less than “the source, or at least the oldest, of all modern English forms” — have been recreated here, they do not dignify the poem — by supplying a bit of heritage patina, say — but ratchet up its satire. Rhymes “stack up” like commodities on supermarket shelves; each couplet terminates in the double-locked “dead end” of a full-stopped rhyme.
The presence of meter in a block is sometimes a clue that a phrase is being quoted (the book is packed with found linguistic objects), as with the eponymous and much-persecuted Benjy’s first and only words: “Fill not my life with torture to the end” (31) — a perfect iambic pentameter that turns out to be a line by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Here too the effect is satirical: what would like to be a spontaneous eruption of impassioned speech — a plea directly from and to the heart — is mocked by the prefab jingle into which it fits itself (and which it fits itself into only by deploying that most embarrassing cliché of poetic diction, an initial anastrophe). But by Scherzo 3, Benjy — now one of “Uber’s slaves” — no longer even gets to speak through somebody else’s words, but is entirely spoken for: “Your driver is called Benjy, they’ve just picked up your order” (55). The richly — if also, in this poem, ironically — saturated cadences of historical verse have been replaced by a sentence whose prosody is wholly reducible to the buzz and ping of a smartphone app (though note its fourteen syllables). The reduction of Benjy’s expressive capabilities to an automated message coincides with the reduction of his very subjectivity, in the eyes of capital, to nothing but his labor power.
The ironic, satirical, and bathetic tone imparted by the use of meter in these passages recalls some of Sutherland’s earlier writing — his 2009 book Stress Position, for example, whose title puns on the word stress to imply an analogy, and even a complicity, between poetic language and imperial violence. The verse of Stress Position, like that of Scherzos Benjyosos, is primarily heptametrical — though it would perhaps be more accurate to say that it tries to be heptametrical, for there are plenty of lines in the poem which can only be made to conform to the meter by aggressive impositions and demotions of stress, and even outright guesses as to where accents should fall. This attains a pitch of absurdity in lines like the following, which, by incorporating numerals, acronyms, initialisms, non-English words, and other typographic and lexical oddments, seem almost designed to mock or taunt the diligent reader who tries to hear them as metrical verse:
We board and relax on the scatter of tackle: CCCC, N,
S, VVV, and like neophytes rapped on the nimbus we open
beauty singing what. Ch. Arrested Tôi làm con búp-bê nh_y/hàt
Ph. Drift, Narodnost barging Ch. Arrested wheel, fly the yacht.
CAGE/NCAGE Code #: 31FPI for tender submissions.
No amount of goodwill is going to make metrical sense out of these lines; the only way of getting them to add up is by coercing them into the pattern you want to hear. The metrical design of the poem thus becomes mimetic of the violence the poem describes: the difficulty of getting the language to conform to the heptametrical set subjects the reader to a kind of violence while compelling her to subject the language to violence in turn. Yet the implied link between poetic form and imperial violence is itself painful, because of the obscene discrepancy between these two kinds of pain — the infinitely minor and fleeting pain of a reader uncertain where to put a stress in a line of poetry, and the unimaginable pain of a person being tortured. It is this discrepancy, this distance between the site of writing and the scenes of trauma it describes, which the poem, by concentrating pain onto what is most immediate for the reader (namely, the language out of which the poem is made), at once resists, amplifies, and grotesquely satirizes. Pain runs in every direction in this poem, and there is no way of reading it without becoming somehow entangled in the violence it describes.
The origins of some of the words or pseudowords in these lines are not incidental. The letters C, N, S, and V, for example, were used in various combinations by the US military in Vietnam to classify dead bodies (e.g., VCC = Viet Cong Confirmed) and very often to misclassify them: civilians were routinely counted as enemy combatants. According to Sutherland, this was “a system of counting, a metrical system, designed and implemented with the specific purpose of concealing the murder of civilians, not because of the slightest worry about those deaths themselves, but in order to stem the rising tide of (socialist, left-libertarian) opposition to the war back in the US and strengthen the grip of the government and its capitalist supporters on foreign and domestic policy, at a time of major (even potentially pre-revolutionary) social turbulence. A counter-revolutionary metrics put into practice through the wholesale slaughter of defenceless peasants.” The Vietnamese phrase in the second extract, which appears to have been lifted from a linguistics textbook, means “I make the puppet dance/sing” — a phrase not without menacing overtones in a poem that is partly about interrogational torture. (We might also wonder, when it comes to getting music out of this poem, whether we are pulling the strings or having our strings pulled.) And finally, CAGE and NCAGE codes are assigned to companies contracted to supply the US government and NATO with commodities and services (which could mean anything from chicken nuggets to the private security personnel of Titan Corporation and CACI implicated in the rape and torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib), which fact wrings every last drop of disgusting irony from the punning phrase “tender submissions.” So it is not just any random language junk that disfigures these lines; it is quite specifically the kinds of language generated by imperialist capitalist states and other systems of domination for and through the administration of violence and the extraction of surplus value.
Pain and violence are rife in Scherzos Benjyosos, too, but their relation to poetic form — what they do to it and what is done to them by it — is, I think, quite different. Whereas in Stress Position the measured verse line evokes and even inflicts pain, in Scherzos Benjyosos it is a way of sounding pain that would otherwise go unheard (and by sounding it, of possibly overcoming it). Verse in this book is an instrument for remaking damaged experience into new and less painful shapes; it is a way of containing and articulating thoughts and feelings too fragile, destructive, or upsetting to be got into language in any other way.
Here are the first three stanzas of Scherzo 2:
Only when its truth’s spit out is her pain this specific,
Now the night is sober on a plank too low to bleed
O overlong desired only point you first remember
When it hurts, that the least wind dissembles like water
Backed up for the void to barrel out. Every word of this
Scolds the will to hear its infantile phonation ring,
Real, out of its mind, therefore of its misery, here below,
On an empty stomach in the distribution centre
Desperate to stick out when the future’s redirected. (42)
The first thing to notice is that each line of verse begins with a capital letter. The impression is of a slightly anxious formality, as if verse were an elusive condition that must be held on tightly to once it is found. (John Hollander has described the role of capital letters at the beginning of lines as “one of definition, or of labeling the utterance in question as a poem.”) It also differentiates this writing from Sutherland’s previous verse, which has never, or very rarely, deployed the initial majuscule. Metrically, the passage is quite restrained. Each line contains either thirteen or fourteen syllables, and all but two (or possibly three, depending on how you scan them) start with a stress. The dense, monosyllabic texture of lines 1 and 2 establishes a somewhat congested (“Backed up”) rhythm, which is sustained in the following verses by compacted stress clusters, frequent catalexis (especially in trochaic lines), and alliteration on plosives p, b, and d. The first line in particular, with its sticky s sounds and triple stress unit — “truth’s spit out” — is an awkward, salivary mouthful. Yet it’s fitting that truth is difficult to articulate here, for according to the grammar of the line truth is pain, or at least belongs to pain. And that pain is audible. We hear it in the o’s and oo’s and ow’s of “O overlong,” “Only,” “out,” “sober,” “too low,” “only,” “you,” which, once heard, coalesce into a kind of subverbal lamentation — a moan of desire (l. 3), hurt (l. 4), misery (l. 7), hunger (l. 8), and desperation (l. 9). These sounds are what the poem calls “infantile phonation,” that is, babble. Yet babble is not only produced by prattling infants; it is latent in articulate speech, and it erupts most audibly in moments of grief, pain, suffering, and madness. It is the sound made by a body enduring an experience that cannot be contained in language. And when “Every word” of the poem “scolds the will to hear its infantile phonation ring,” what is being scolded is perhaps the temptation to separate these noises from the all too concrete (i.e., “specific”) pain which they express or try to express (or perhaps simply to smother or muffle or mute). For these are not the Os of some otherworldly Rilkean spirit-voice writhing in mystical unease or ecstasy; they are the groans of a person being brutalized by the torturous practices of capital: “On an empty stomach in the distribution centre.”
In the five tercets following this passage the meter becomes more turbulent:
The mind first has to pick the right reality to limp after,
Ringing in the true the moment evil is corrected,
Mashing up Wednesday so that even the abyss can swallow it,
Which only goes to show that sorrow isn’t what it means.
I never could believe that love didn’t have to kill me
Stuck to the fence behind the scrap of trees, in progress
Past the children shouting at the knife, over the dogshit
To the limit of the little rectangle of grass
Provided for the local recreation of the poor
Where I had to run away with you when you scooped me
At night to watch you dying, stuffing pills into
The stomach I would take to be pumped so I could live
Right up to the far kerb of the prohairetic blank
Where politics takes over and the secret earth is turning,
So bright it cannot but enlarge the organ that contemplates it. (43)
These lines refuse to settle into any consistent pattern. They contain anything from twelve to sixteen syllables, veering from immaculate fourteeners — “Which ónly góes to shów that sórrow ísn’t whát it means” — to lines that threaten to break out of the metrical frame completely. At the midpoint of this passage, on the brink of what is perhaps the most explicit account of pain in the book so far, the lines seem visibly to shrink or diminish, as if they were disinclined to meet that pain, or were flinching from it:
To the limit of the little rectangle of grass
Provided for the local recreation of the poor
This diminution is not only typographic but metrical too, or potentially metrical. For although both lines can be scanned as heptameters, two stresses in each fall on what are relatively unemphatic prepositions: “To” and “of” in the first line and “for” and “of” in the second. As a result the cadence falters slightly. Yet the prevailing meter, and my desire not to let the meter slacken — not now — compels me to exaggerate the stresses, especially the light beats on the prepositions. The pressure which meter places on the lines, and on my performance of them, saves this account of pain from lapsing into prose. It also enables the poem to say what it is for, or what it wishes to be for, and it does so at the very moment when poetry’s efficacy might seem most doubtful. How does meter enable the poem to say what it is for? It does so by producing a rhyme on exactly that preposition: “for … the poor.”
But the other reading of the line, the one in which prose rhythm wins out and the meter does lapse, is not simply deleted or forgotten: it is latent in the metrical reading, and it makes that reading doubtful, for I cannot shake the suspicion that it would have been the better, or truer, sounding of these lines. To be “for the poor” is one ambition of this poem, certainly. Yet by securing the meter, and so achieving the rhyme, I risk imposing on this fragile material an inappropriate singsong — a tune or jingle that would travesty the meaning of the passage and the distressing experience it strives to voice. The choice I seem to be faced with is between a mimetic and sentimental pathos (the gravity of what is being recounted crushes and deflates the meter) or an ironic and potentially hurtful bathos (securing the meter coerces the rhythm into a trivializing jogtrot). I can either sustain the music and risk ridiculing the sentiment, or I can sound the sentiment of the lines and risk flattening the music into prose. Neither of these options feels right. Or rather the rightness of the lines lies in their inescapable wrongness. For no matter how I decide to read them they cannot avoid sounding to some degree damaged, scarred by the pain they recollect.
There is nothing metrically uncertain about the lines immediately following this passage. For five stanzas the verses hit their count every time — and not just seven stresses, but fourteen syllables too. It’s as if the poem, after its psychoprosodic wobble, were performing a kind of stoical righting. But this metrical rectitude doesn’t last. After fifteen consecutive fourteeners we come upon a line of just eleven syllables followed by a line of ten (or, if you refuse the elision, also eleven):
But have always strained to love, or even care
Painte on flowdes, till the shore, wait, cry to th’ayre. (43)
To my ears, both lines contain six stresses and I can find no reasonable articulation that would supply the missing seventh. The first line, to employ the fetish-jargon of traditional prosody, is a trochaic hexameter catalectic, or alternatively a headless iambic. The second is taken from a sonnet by Samuel Daniel (though the imperative “wait” is an interloper). As you would expect, Daniel’s original line (in which love is compared to writing on water, plowing sand, and screaming into the wind; in other words, it is futility and trial) is an iambic pentameter, albeit headless and with substitutions (pyrrhic and spondee) in the third and fourth feet. With the interjected “wait” the final three syllables get nudged along one, producing another hexameter catalectic. But nowhere in either line can I find the seventh stress I wish to hear, and the end rhyme doesn’t feel like adequate compensation for its absence. It is painful to me that the meter should fail here, or that I should fail it, for the line’s metrical insufficiency seems to imply, and perhaps even to embody, an insufficiency of love and care. The failure of the line to fulfil its metrical obligations is also my failure, no matter how much I “strain,” or pretend I strain, to “love, or even care,” in a way that would be adequate, that would not be in some way lacking or wrong. In the incompletion of these lines I hear the incompletion of my love; in their failure the failure of my care.
That versification, and meter and rhyme specifically, might enable a poet to articulate feelings otherwise too painful to express is not a new idea. Wordsworth argues something along these lines in his 1802 preface to Lyrical Ballads. He notes that the passion that gives rise to poetry often issues from “an unusual and irregular state of the mind,” and that there is therefore a risk when writing poetry — especially if “the words … are in themselves powerful, or the images and feelings have an undue proportion of pain connected with them” — that passion “be carried beyond its proper bounds,” beyond, that is, the realm of pleasurable excitement that it is the poet’s duty to provide: “the end of Poetry is to produce excitement in coexistence with an overbalance of pleasure.” But according to Wordsworth, excessive passion can be tempered by the “intertexture” or “co-presence” of “something to which the mind has been accustomed in various moods and in a less excited state”: that is, meter and rhyme. Metrical verse makes excessively impassioned and painful feelings tolerable by containing them in a form that is familiar (because we have read other poems that employ the same form) and bounded (because of the metrical constraint). Versified language creates a zone of “unsubstantial existence” in which “distressful” experiences, and the “spontaneous overflow of passionate emotion” they evoke, can be held and endured.
Wordsworth doesn’t specify in his preface what is so dangerous about passionate feelings when they are carried beyond their “proper bounds”; he merely suggests that the resulting poem might not be pleasurable. But Scherzos Benjyosos does, I think, give us a sense of what is at stake, at least for this poet in this particular poem. For there are passages in the book — in the blocks of the first three scherzos especially — which are so frenzied, so manic with passionate feeling and irregular states of mind, that the fixed frame of the page seems to be all that is keeping the text together — and so too, therefore, keeping the possibility of making meaning and communicating, however fitfully or dubiously, alive. Without that possibility, the only ways of enduring a life “stripped to applicability” (31) and “constrained to use” (34) would be self-destructive violence, madness, or total psychic shutdown. One challenge for the poem, then, resolved in part by the prosodic panic room of Sutherland’s block, is how to register the full horror of this condition without being simply crushed by it.
But there is a difference between the kinds of containing done by the margins of the blocks and the containing of metrical verse. The bounds of the block are perfectly rigid: they exert pressure on what they contain but are otherwise unresponsive or indifferent to it. A line of metrical poetry, on the other hand, is at once rigid and flexible. It is “something regular,” as Wordsworth puts it, yet at the same time it invites, even demands, negotiation: it is dialectical and dialogical. Derek Attridge describes how this dialogical aspect of metrical poetry is experienced in the reading of it: “If you prefer to emphasize the regularity of the meter, the resolute irregularity of the language will be felt pulling against you; if you let speech-rhythms have their head, the periodicity of the beat will exercise a counter-claim: both readings, however, will register the inherent tension of the line.” The tension in a metrical poem between “natural” speech rhythm and abstract metrical set means that a line can always be performed differently, and that each new performance of it will disclose nuances of meaning and emotion. Meter, “in its encouragement of dual perception of the same order of words, … encourages a kind of oscillation of mind which in turn helps create a feeling that the resources of the line or passage are never entirely exhausted by a single reading.”
“Dual perception” is built into and dramatized by the very structure of Scherzo 3. The verse section of this poem is made up of two groups of eight tercets, the second of which reprises the first, but with one or several revisions in most lines. Sutherland has described these revisions as “more or less emendatory” (which suggests the original lines are wrong or in need of correction) and even, in surprisingly theological terms, as “explicitly redemptive.”
Here is the first pair of tercets:
Starting from low the light ascends in a single slow movement,
So that sight is lifted the distance up to the tilting board.
On top of the board is a pair of bodies, one on top of the other.
One of the bodies is still alive, the other is beneath her.
She cranes the little distance down to brush it with her mouth
And bring it back to meaning, bites to resurrect the cord. (56)
After the carnage of the foregoing prose block, these lines are like a voice from another world. The tone is quiet and restrained, the imagery dreamlike in its blend of immediacy and distance. Rhythmically the verses are less congested than those of Scherzo 2, their movements drawn out and lightened by a higher proportion of unaccented syllables and open vowel sounds. If the chief metrical difficulty in Scherzo 2 was cramming seven stresses into lines of just eleven, twelve, or thirteen syllables, here we are faced with the opposite challenge: too many syllables (as many as eighteen per line) for the seven stresses demanded by the heptametrical norm. In Scherzo 2, the choice was often either to come up short of the heptameter or to produce a line that obeyed the set but risked sounding awkwardly full; here, on the other hand, keeping the lines heptametrical results in a surplus of unstressed syllables and a somewhat flattened or deflated cadence. This cadential flatness, this lack of rhythmic buoyancy, is exacerbated by a want of energy at the line breaks (every line-end coincides with a sentence or a phrase) and the absence in many lines of a caesura or pause with which to resuscitate the melody.
Here now are those tercets reprised:
Starting from here the lights go up in attenuated movement,
So that sight can spot the difference on the tilting board.
On top of the board is a pair of bodies, one on top of the other.
Both of the bodies are still alive. Her child is beneath her.
She bends the little distance down to feel it on her mouth
And bear with it for meaning, breathes vibration to the cord. (57)
The emendations in the first line are relatively minor: “light” has been pluralized (suggesting, perhaps, that the scene or dream is being staged or reenacted); one iamb (“go up”) has been substituted for another (“ascends”); a “single slow movement” is now simply “attenuated”; and the lights, instead of starting from “low,” now start from “here.” This slight gain in specificity, from “low” to “here,” is clinched in the second line by a shift from the passive voice into the active: sight, in the revised line, has agency.
The revisions in the second tercet are more striking. Here, “the [dead] other” is emended to — or, in the language of the poem, resurrected as — “Her [living] child,” who no longer needs to be “brought back” to meaning but simply “borne with” for meaning to disclose itself. In being reprised this traumatic material is transformed: subjection becomes agency, meaninglessness becomes meaning, and a future is found for a life that was written off before it had even begun. Just about every emendation in these verses, to a greater or lesser degree, follows this redemptive arc. As the passage is repeated it is redescribed, and in being redescribed less traumatic interpretations of the same material are disclosed. The “exchange of fear” (57) offered by the first eight tercets becomes an “exchange of hope” in the second (58).
Yet there are limits to what can be redeemed by redescription. A static future containerized (58) is, to be sure, a bit more of a future, and a bit less painful to contemplate, than a missing future cannibalized (57). But not by much. And Bronstein (that is, Trotsky), who first time round is “in his grave with no encouragement” (56), is still, when the line comes back, “in his grave without his nourishment” (57). In other words: we still live under capitalism, and “We’re still going to die” (64).
The verse meters deployed in Scherzos Benjyosos are not perfect replicas but partial echoes of historical forms, and picking up these echoes will inevitably alter our reading of the poems. Hearing the English fourteener back of the heptameters of the first three scherzos, for example, will be an inducement to read the seven-syllabled line of Scherzo 4 as a kind of crushed ballad meter, the alternating eights and sixes of the latter equalized into unvarying sevens. And this in turn will have implications for how we listen to this final scherzo, by emphasizing the lyrical, songlike qualities implied by the shorter line. The structural shift of Scherzo 4, then, its eversion of the block-verse-block design of the preceding three, is also a tonal shift — and not only towards a more songlike sound, but a sound that is much more tender and lucid than anything we have heard in the book so far. It’s as though clarity were the last tactic available to this poem in its effort to find an exit out of a life “boxed / Into the abyss” (75) and into a space where happiness could be heard, felt, and even lived. But tactic is misleading, for it suggests this clarity was simply opted for, when in fact (as the first three scherzos attest) it is the fruit of arduous psychic, intellectual, and poetical struggle. This delicate music is not a retreat from pain but a discovery made on the far side of pain. And it’s this in part that makes the poem so breathtakingly moving: the undeniable sense of what it has cost this poet to get here.
The word here echoes through Scherzo 4 like a refrain: “But here we are,” “We’re still here”(64), “I’m still / Here”(65), “simply being here to share this definitely finite piece of existence with you” (68–69), “being here for no imaginable greater purpose than to love you” (69), “Come here so I can hold you,” “we are both here now / And there is no reason why / We can’t stay here if we like // It here” (72). There is a tone of disbelief to some of these heres, as if the poet can’t quite comprehend how he’s made it this far, and perhaps of gratitude too. But they are also, I think, a kind of petition or litany, an attempt to correct or repair a moment that occurred at the very beginning of the book, in the opening clauses of Scherzo 1:
I am sitting writing this in a bar, doing what in drug and alcohol addiction support groups is called ‘defining a private world’, according to their poster next to the church opposite the Mash Tun, where I first met my love, and therefore where, in effect, the origin of this voice is deposited, across from the staircase up to the Therapy Centre, where I am between five and ten minutes early, in order to be sitting thinking when I am called, where a voice that is not mine but is inside me starts saying unkind things, like this time it is the proprietor of the Gathering Zone, who had died where people are shocked and confused (27)
The book begins, straightforwardly enough, with a direct statement in the first person singular: “I am sitting writing this in a bar.” But the coherent grammar — and with it, the stable link between subject and object — quickly unravels, and what triggers its unraveling is a death: “who had died where people are shocked and confused.” The where in this phrase is the fifth occurrence of that word in a dozen clauses. There’s nothing irregular about the first four occurrences (though the frequency of the locative adverb may suggest some anxiety about “defining a private world”). But this fifth time it’s used the syntax goes awry — not dramatically awry but enough that the phrase doesn’t quite cohere. This death, and the “shock and confusion” of it, is registered in the very grammar of the poem, which after this moment will no longer, or very rarely, be able to organize experience into coherent, thinkable, and inhabitable forms. And because this where has been loosened from any certain grammatical function, it is possible to hear the interrogative sense of the word too: “where?” or even “where are you?” or “where have you gone?” It is this event — and the endlessly proliferating trauma that spirals out from it — that the here’s of Scherzo 4 (and perhaps the poem as a whole) are an attempt to rectify and recover from.
But whatever emotional equilibrium is achieved in this last poem, it is exceedingly fragile. This fragility is palpable in the heptasyllabic line, which affords none of the leeway, and has none of the tolerance for ambiguity and variation, of an accentual-syllabic measure: the verse either hits its count or it fails. And in a poem whose grip on the world is tenuous at best (“clinging on like an equilibrist by the fingernails to the rotten fraction of a ledge of air” ) it is hard not to feel that metrical failure would mean failing in some larger and more catastrophic sense too. The resulting poetry often feels nervous, hesitant, brittle, each word in danger of coming “too soon” or of being “too near” or of going “too far” (64, 73). It’s as though the poem were traversing a prosodic tightrope on which any misstep would be fatal. Yet there are passages which do emerge into a kind of melodious fluency, where the phrases seem almost to be draped over the syllabic frame rather than torturously maneuvered into it:
It is really good to see
You looking so well at last.
Come here so I can hold you
Up to the light that I have
Kept for when you are ready
To use it. I have been gone
Too, but we are both here now
And there is no reason why
We can’t stay here if we like
It here and hold on to each
These verses are heart-stoppingly exposed — almost reckless in their plainness. The discipline of the seven-syllabled line precludes the kinds of wild and disruptive writing which the prose block enables. It is no longer an option to take off in flights of delirium or to flood the text with noise; every such hiding place and escape hatch has been sealed off by the meter, as though Sutherland were deliberately denying himself certain possibilities and ways of writing. And we might also note the predominance of monosyllables in this scherzo — sixty-two out of sixty-seven words in the passage just quoted, for example. It seems an effort is being made to speak clearly, to sound out each word no matter how unpleasant or painful its meaning. But the severity of the versification only serves to intensify the vulnerability of the feelings it discovers and contains. In the lines immediately following this passage, the slightly disjointed prosody, and the complex interplay between line and syntax in particular, lets us hear just how fraught are the poem’s efforts to extricate the pronouns I and you from patterns of incomprehension and harm, and to recombine them into a grammar of love, forgiveness, and recognition:
You don’t need to tell
Me again what you did or
Couldn’t not do or how it
Wasn’t you or try again
To hold the rift together
Any more and nor will I
Need it or try to do it
For you on my own as if
I had to be both of us
Or else it would never end
Rhyme is more prevalent in this last scherzo than anywhere else in the book. These rhymes are not regular or schematic but unpredictable and improvised; they do not “delineate and control patterns of versification” (by emphasizing line endings, say) but unsettle and disturb them. Christopher Middleton has suggested that “a tacit faith in a cosmic harmony might seem to underlie the ability of older poets — think of Keats, of Byron — to rhyme with great zest and no effort.” Rhyme was expected by their readers “not as a jingle, not as décor, but as a voicing of the harmonia mundi, of which poets were supposed to be the singing messengers.” The rhymes in Scherzo 4, by contrast, are the voicing of the disharmonia mundi, the discordant world. They are not evidence of unchanging order, but a song made out of damage. They are also how the poem keeps itself moving — how it resists the temptation to stop, fall silent, and let pain win out. Thanks to what J. H. Prynne has called the “hazards of phonetic accident,” one word leads as if inevitably to another, compelling the poem to “a hundred places where / I scorn to go” ):
I will be forgiven this
In a sensitive abyss
Too long not missed, in the way
Your sound will turn out to be
Hid in every other sound,
Not even mine. Listen out: (63)
While the majority of verses in Scherzo 4 are enjambed, often aggressively, the line breaks do not cut as deep into the phrasing as might be expected given the short line and inflexible meter. (Word boundaries, for example, are never violated.) The text has not been poured into the measure nor sliced up to fit; rather syllable and phrase have been worked out line by line in careful, cautious, difficult dialogue. In the following passage, despite the harsh enjambments, the lineation conspires to produce four grammatically complete sense units within the two larger phrases. These lines thus become slightly unlinked from the movement of the passage and, in so doing, reveal a second voice in the text, a series of half-throttled pleas and exclamations. Versification lets us tune into a frequency of pain that would otherwise be inaudible:
By still going on like this
You are trying to go home
To a mother who will not
Stop committing suicide
That you have to take to A
And E in an ambulance
When you have school the next day
Nothing is going to change
That. It is caught up in why
All the things you always say
Keep the pain they mock in play
Till it is no longer sore
And, emboldened, you reply
I don’t want to any more. (75; my italics)
There is a possible exception in this passage to my claim that word boundaries are never violated in the poem. “A and E” — Accident and Emergency — is conventionally written without word spaces and conjoined by an ampersand: “A&E.” Here that typographic unit, which encapsulates trauma — both trauma in general and, in this poem, a specific traumatic event — is broken open, split not only across lines but stanzas. This break, and the extra attention the syllables receive as a result of it, makes me hear in “A and E,” subliminally or latently, “I” and “you”: the two subjects, mother and child, harmed by this event. Syntactic damage, here, coincides with psychic damage.
Yet this line break is not only hurtful but potentially healing. For the line-and-tercet terminal position of “A,” which here is a bearer and marker of pain, triggers a run of rhymes and half-rhymes that echo and modulate through the following lines, until, via “day,” “change,” “always,” “say,” “pain,” and “play,” we arrive at “reply.” Pain, or more precisely, the perpetual repetition and rehearsal of it, is answered and refused: “I don’t want to any more.” And this is not the only instance in this passage of versification saving what at first seems hopeless. It is true too of the following stanza break, where we discover that it’s not that “Nothing is going to change” (anywhere, ever) but that “That” specific thing is not going to change. This specification holds out the possibility, however slight, that something might change, a thought that is fractionally more hopeful, or less distressing.
In moments like these versification opens up a chink in what had seemed unchangeable, and we glimpse the possibility, even if only dimly, of new life beyond the poem’s “Ancient gist of pain” (74). I use the phrase “new life” advisedly here, for there are echoes, both formal and thematic, of Dante’s poem throughout Scherzos Benjyosos. Most obviously: both poems alternate between verse and prose; both deal with the repercussions of childhood experiences; both are concerned with dream-vision and death; and both articulate a passage from personal despair towards what Michael Palmer has called a “transformed conception of love and its language.” Palmer goes on to suggest that Dante’s poem does not only narrate or describe this transformation but makes it happen; the poem is not only about this experience — it is this experience:
The gradual overcoming of a Cavalcantian poetics of tumultuous personal psychology creates a path toward a new comprehension of self and other, and the material and the metaphysical. A vision of grace through higher love displaces one of relentlessly dark entanglements terminating in loss. The new poetics is the new life.
If we delete the metaphysics and jettison the grace, and if we overturn the priority implied by the word higher, this strikes me as a decent conspectus of Scherzos Benjyosos: “A vision of love displaces one of relentlessly dark entanglements terminating in loss.” But I especially want to insist on the sentence about the new poetics being the new life. I want to insist on it because it asserts the primacy of poetic work: it says that poetry, and a new way of writing it, could actually transform life as opposed to merely offering an account of life transformed. This may sound like an excessively ambitious or wishful claim to make on behalf of poetry. Yet to have read Scherzos Benjyosos — or perhaps better, to have undergone it — is to know what it would mean for this not to be true, and what it means that it is.
The book’s final rhyme, in its closing tercet, is a perfect rhyme:
Still alive, hear
Love echo. Even here, like
Laughter, any second now. (77)
It is fitting that this book, which from its musically inflected title down to this terminal stanza has foregrounded the act of listening, should match these words for its last rhyme: “hear” / “here.” But perhaps it is not the last. For it may just about be possible to make out another rhyme, albeit a part-rhyme — one that reaches all the way back to that dissonant “where” at the beginning of Scherzo 1. In the bounded “here” of song, the poem’s cry of loss and pain receives an answering echo. Or very nearly.
1. Scherzos Benjyosos is published by The Last Books (Amsterdam and Sofia, BG: 2020), of which I am one of two editors. As well as the title poem — the subject of the present essay — the volume includes the long poem Sinking Feeling, originally published in Whither Russia (London: Barque, 2017). Page references for Scherzos Benjyosos are hereafter cited in the text.
2. “Your laſt proportion is that of figure, ſo called for that it yields an ocular repreſentation, your meeters being by good ſymmetrie reduced into certaine Geometricall figures, whereby the maker is reſtrained to keepe him within his bounds.” George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie, ed. Gladys Doidge Willcock and Alice Walker (London: Cambridge University Press, 1936), 91. Unlike Puttenham’s examples of figure poems, Sutherland’s blocks do not represent or mimic any particular object in the world. But the fact that the language is visually “reduced,” “restrained,” and “bounded” (to use Puttenham’s terms) by the blocks’ squared-off margins is clearly important, and Sutherland has linked the pressure which the block form exerts on the language it contains to the kettling of protestors by police and to the psychological and physical constraints of wage labor. On the emergence and significance of the block in Sutherland’s work, as well as the work of some of his contemporaries, see, for example, Keston Sutherland and John Tamplin, “Transcription of a Conversation in Princeton, USA, 7th December 2015,” Blackbox Manifold, no. 17 (Winter 2016); and Sutherland’s talk “Blocks: Form Since the Crash,” available online in two versions: one recorded at New York University, November 13, 2015; and one recorded at the University of Chicago, November 19, 2015.
4. For a brief and insightful comment on punctuation and pain in Sutherland’s Sinking Feeling, see Joe Luna, “Three Types of Pain in the Poetry of Keston Sutherland.”
7. A stress position is a torture technique, or, euphemistically, an “enhanced interrogation technique,” in which the victim is bound and forced to hold a position that concentrates a large amount of pressure on a small number of muscles and joints. These techniques were used by the US military during the Vietnam War, as well as in Iraq and elsewhere.
11. The emphatically metrical reading of this line may also reveal a latent Marxian pun, by skewing our pronunciation of the word recreation (as in leisure) towards its near-homophone re-creation (as in reproduction). For a worker under capital, leisure is never “free” time, but time in which she is forced to reproduce her life only to sustain the very system that steals her life: “[The capitalist] profits not only by what he receives from the worker, but also by what he gives him. The capital given in return for labour-power is converted into means of subsistence which have to be consumed to reproduce the muscles, nerves, bones and brains of existing workers, and to bring new workers into existence. Within the limits of what is absolutely necessary, therefore, the individual consumption of the working class is the reconversion of the means of subsistence given by capital in return for labour-power into fresh labour-power which capital is then again able to exploit.” Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1990), 717–18.
19. On the historical emergence of ballad quatrains from the break-up of fourteener couplets see, for example, George Saintsbury, A History of English Prosody from the Twelfth Century to the Present Day, vol. 1, 2nd ed. (London: Macmillan, 1923), 248–50; Saintsbury, Historical Manual of English Prosody, 325, 328; and Catherine Ings, Elizabethan Lyrics: A Study in the Development of English Metres and Their Relation to Poetic Effect (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1969), 86–8.
20. “[F]ourteeners … in which the long lines have no real break [e.g., many of the verses in the first three scherzos], are not, and cannot be, lyrical in the sense of singable: a musical phrase long enough to carry the unbroken line is difficult to sing. … Hymn [i.e., ballad] measure shows by its name its essentially singable form.” Ings, Elizabethan Lyrics, 86.
21. The citation is from John Hollander, “Rhyme and the True Calling of Words,” in Vision and Resonance, 121. According to some definitions of rhyme — e.g., “the production of like sounds according to a schedule that renders them predictable” (Hugh Kenner, “Rhyme: An Unfinished Monograph,” Common Knowledge 10, vol. 3 : 394; cited in Simon Jarvis, “Why Rhyme Pleases,” in The Lyric Theory Reader, ed. Virginia Jackson and Yopie Prins [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004], 448) — these echoes should not even count as rhymes. Yet Kenner, in a discussion of Milton’s Lycidas, makes a case for unscheduled rhymes, suggesting, in language that is strikingly apt for Scherzos Benjyosos, that they are inherently elegiac: “Having had no reason to expect a consonance, we notice it just when it has gone by. … A sweetness richly though vaguely anticipated, not always offered and perceived just as it is going, seems the right decorum for this elegy of a life that was past before it had properly started” (Kenner, 395; my emphasis).
24. Sutherland has himself tentatively suggested the connection; see “Paranoid Ears: Keston Sutherland Interviewed by Robert Crawford,” BOMB Magazine (March 1, 2021).