The Chimera of Pessimism


Falling Off, Paul Sutton (55pp, 7, Knives, Forks & Spoons)


'If one doesn't give one's life for something, one ends up giving it for nothing. But before I die for Democracy, I'd like to be certain that I am living in one', wrote Jean-Paul Sartre (in 'Is This a Democracy', an essay published in April 1952 in Les Temps Modernes) - words that could well have issued from the pen of Paul Sutton, who has realized that without such a singular commitment to anything, British poetry would be almost devoid of a 'subject', its authors fictive, and all 'acceptable' criticism nothing but a peremptory negation.

As a poet, Sutton chooses to accept only a bilious mind, like a character out of the Old Testament shaking his fist at whatever smacks of organized desuetude, or worse, the lethargy of unforgiveable provincialism. After all, in his poems, he is telling us that the plague of dilettantes that populate the English 'poetry world' merely pretend
to be language-experts, and are in fact 'specialists' only of the deceleration of what, in the imagination of the real poet, is supposed to be limitless. So that if poetry can (as Sutton sometimes seems to think) alleviate the weight of living, of despair, then everything melancholy has been quite rightly left intact, perfectly atrophied, and stuffed into the skins of the poems by a poet secretly portraying the smile of the taxidermist, and who, from poem to poem, manages to induce a never-ending and incurious climax of ennui:

     Of all human experiences, the least discussed.

     It lurks on bookshelves, in overgrown suburban gardens, under
     layers of bored management - using loupes to examine flawless
     crystals for incipient signs.

          (from 'Ennui')

In England, where according to him the 'Poetry Society' chooses everything for its readers and its poets, right down to their individual neckties, Sutton sees only the fraudulence of the 'workshop/poetry school' style, which in this book is (thankfully) not utilized at all. This poet is then, I would suggest, what the thinker E.M. Cioran described as a 'victim of the meaning of life', i.e. one who writes using the tone
of disappointment, but not, as some readers might falsely believe, by always cultivating the one righteous outcry of indignation; Sutton is more than that: he lifts up the organs of man into a beleaguered and mutilated song, closer to the spleen of Baudelaire than on the impotent banality of Larkin. Each tormented 'character' of the poems, while suggesting a Dostoyevskian hero, is more often than not (and more realistically) an already 'out-of-date' alibi for the crimes of history; for like still-to-be-sent telegrams, Sutton's poems unveil him in the guise of metaphysical traffic warden handing out tickets for anecdotal violations in a democratic Hell-on-Earth; that is for all of those, like him, not liberated by doubt, or more explicitly, distressed of existing in a too understandable moral world.

What saves Sutton's scepticism from becoming merely attritional, if not conventional, is his refusal to dupe any of us into believing that his poems are anything other than malignant gripes - although in truth there are also cataleptic 'aftertastes' of society; the characters that people these poems wallow not just in 'appearances', but are more like holograms that feel forced to fiddle with their own filaments so as to attain the attributes of those deemed most human
by society. After all, as (again) Cioran put it: 'the history of ideas is the history of the spite of certain solitaries', but again, this would not be totally fair, for 'spite' is not Sutton's real motif; rather he prefers to trace (for us?) those simians that have remained, only in secret, human beings: inoculated nihilists who have returned to the fictive dwelling-place of suburbia and the city to create for themselves functional psyches for working and progressing in the world, but also the necessarily feigned personalities that re-create age-long cultural relationships with 'each other'; those still tempting themselves into believing in the popular 'ideas' of the mainstream, which, for Sutton, is the recidivist's notion of walking the wrong path, but in the right century, a notion it seems that he himself has experienced the calumny of:

     And if I insist on
     a diverse monolith -
     oxymoron -
     to crush dissent,
     it's first in myself.
          (from 'Evidence-Based Practitioner Speaks')

Sutton is no longer describing for us the sturdy and hirsute gait of the great ape of Darwinism, for he is more interested in those apes who have shaved and washed, and been handed a briefcase, a bowler hat and a mobile phone, those trained
to traipse back into the ritualized servitude of the jungles of employment. This poet charts the pseudo-progressive 'progress' of any 'species', whether in reality or the imagination, which happen to have been overwhelmed by certitude. In fact when reading these poems the words of Marcus Aurelius come to mind: 'Man's nature is fluid, his feelings dim, the substance of his body tending to corruption, his soul comparable to a spinning-top, his destiny hard to define, his reputation a matter of uncertainty.'

Sutton's voice then is the flux inside of the parenthesis between body and corruption, destiny and time, for he is himself
a divergent history and revolt against what, in society, amounts to no more than ideological and artistic anaesthesia; though there is, I would say, a legitimate spiritual principle behind what he writes, not the spiritualism of the religious, but rather something akin to the pre-nihilistic cry of the holy beggar abandoned outside the walls of the citadel, or better, the scream which, for the poet, should always remain the last stage of lyricism; there, where negation alone is never enough to slow the always oscillating polemics of the mob. Sutton, tugging perpetually on creation's tail-end, drags up closest to him the most self-denying and irreparably bloodied visage of the beast in man, that which most resembles him at the time of writing any one poem, the 'personality' that hides behind the ogling and (mostly) grotesque mask of the 'everyman':

     And one day I woke and felt nothing.
     The entire town was hidden by clouds.
     Every building had been destroyed.
     The native people had been replaced.
     Vibrant reconstruction had started.
     Diverse poems will soon be published.
          (from 'Cured')

So, how can the atheist uproot the tree of Good and Evil and watch its no-soil fall from the palms of no-gods? Well, Sutton is telling us, by not believing in any god fatuous enough to consider himself limitless, or one without an appetite strong enough to imagine a religion that differs from what, in modern man, is preserved by what atheism has never stood for: objectivity. Thankfully, the poems of Sutton reside forever on the periphery of doubt, not certainty; so that this poet, rather than saying 'I will show you fear in a handful of dust', tells us that he will in fact show us subterfuge in a face full of phlegm, and it is that kind of ineffectuality which truly lies at the crust of the tectonic plates of his poetical 'selves'; the 'selves' therefore that parade in his poems not as incalculable 'personas', but actually as the same tragic figure hooded and hidden away by the flesh of anonymity that we find in every century, and likewise the anonymity of the entire history of the soul from Hellenic times to modernity, and in a body that is infinitely disgruntled, beleaguered, and worn down by all forms of psychological babble, never-provable suppositions, theories, etc. ('refuse of the soul, / coagulations of the blood' - Gottfried Benn). For this poet has realized that he must at all costs maintain his thesis, that he must also never stop recognizing what, inside of him, is torn apart continually by the falsity of thought-systems and ideas, whether in politics, anthropology or culture.

So, quite rightly ignoring the collective opinion for his own, Sutton has based his poetical style more on his nerve-endings and/or on the vegetal wisdom of a society in decline, than on anything that might be described as 'poetical'. His technique, while appearing outwardly to be, at times, flaccid and without syntactical shifts is, in truth, the result of what happens to a writer when he wakes up and realizes he no longer wants to be the Marquis de Sade or Tennyson and, instead, begins to treat his own sense of 'authorhood' as a secondary cause, rather than anything the ego might induce. Thus this book will appeal mostly to those readers who, in society, have always felt like the sole survivors of a great anthropological shipwreck (which is much worse than loneliness) and if Sutton believes himself to be in anyway an accomplice to the crime of such an existential catastrophe, then he, above all people, will surely not be seeking to acquit himself any day soon.

     Paul Stubbs 2015