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Rhythm and Reader Identity in Philip Larkin and Keston Sutherland

David Kennedy, University of Hull

The call for papers for Rhythm in Twentieth-Century British Poetry comments that a great deal of the twentieth century's best and most interesting British poetry remains, with regard to its rhythm, under-described'. This speaks to several important and interrelated questions: what does it mean to be able to observe and describe rhythm? And does the ability to make such a description give us more' knowledge about a poem or does it merely support illusions that poems, in contrast to other texts, have accessible interiorities that enable the transmission of truths? Crucially, how does the description of a poem's rhythm converge with and reveal the cultural politics in play in that poem? All these questions are well worth exploring. However, this paper will argue that they are to some extent secondary to the question of how rhythm and its description have been and continue to be involved in the production of the reader.
    This paper will explore this question by examining two very different poets, Philip Larkin and Keston Sutherland. The choice of two poets from parallel traditions is deliberate. Larkin's poetry is held by both apologists and antagonists to exemplify a poetry of empirical reconstruction while Sutherland's poetry seems bent on energetically evading easy links between experience and ideas. Larkin wrote that you've seen this sight, felt this feeling, had this vision, and have got to find a combination of words that will preserve it by setting it off in other people'; while Sutherland's poetry questions the very ethics of such a precise focus.
    Beginning with an overview of the questions in the first paragraph of this proposal, this paper will go on to give a detailed account of Larkin's poem Mr Bleaney' (with reference to other Larkin poems as appropriate). My reading of the poem will question the view of his poetry as empiricist reconstruction and will argue that Larkin in fact teases us with the fictiveness of shared experience. I will seek to show how Larkin's poem elides apparent empiricism with bathos and how rhythm in the poem is itself used bathetically. Sutherland has written that Ideas are the index of my exclusion from a sovereignty I despise: the more passionately I can express my ideas, the more conspicuously I am excluded.' In this context, I will argue that Larkin's poem elides apparent empiricism, bathos and rhythm used bathetically to mime consensus and poetry-as-consensus and then register dissent. Empiricism, bathos and rhythm are used together as a means of location. Class is very important in 'Mr Bleaney': the poem locates itself, the social position of its narrator and, by extension that of its readers. And this, in turn, has the effect of producing a particular type of reader, a reader who regards themselves as superior in their ability to share in the poet's attitudes - in this instance, dissent.
    The final part of this paper will argue that part of the challenge of Sutherland's poetry is not so much that a reader cannot work out what a poem is 'about' or 'who' is speaking as that the reader does not know 'who' he or she is supposed to be.  The reader that Larkin's poetry produces is formed by what Brendan O'Donnell and Derek Attridge have identified in other contexts as an interplay between a metrical abstract and an individual reader; and by what Simon Jarvis has called collectively performed expectations' about prosody. In contrast, Sutherland's poetry is concerned with dramatising incompleteness and the impossibility of wholeness and does so using clusters of words and sudden jolts. This gives the poetry not only a challenging sense of 'liveness' but also a sense of form as something that is always on the point of becoming. The overall effect of this is to force the reader not only to experience the condition of the self as something that is often barely tolerable but also to encounter the poetry as embodied thinking as opposed to the product of reflection. However, this should not be taken to suggest that Sutherland's poetry is careless about prosody - indeed, it is often more careful than its mainstream counterparts. 
    I shall conclude by arguing that these two very different poets tell us much about how rhythm constructs the reader and that more work in this area will enable us to read the extent to which individual poems or bodies of work converge with or diverge from a critique of representation-as-politics.


Catherine Addison, 'Once Upon a Time: A Reader-Response Approach to Prosody', College English, Vol.56, No.6 (October 1994), pp.655-678.

Catherine Addison, 'Stress Felt, Stroke Dealt: The Spondee, the Text, and the Reader', Style, Volume 39, Number 2 (Summer 2005), pp.153-174.

Paul Fussell, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form (New York: McGraw Hill, 1979).

Philip Hobsbaum, Metre, Rhythm and Verse Form (London and New York: Routledge, 1996).

John Hollander, Vision and Resonance: Two Senses of Poetic Form, 2nd edn (New York: Yale UP, 1985).

Simon Jarvis, 'Prosody as Cognition', Critical Quarterly, Vol.40, No.4 (Winter 1998), pp.3-15.
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