by Joe Luna


Soll es eine Vergangenheit geben, wenn es eine
Zukunft gibt?

–Bertolt Brecht

The conclusion is theoretically wrong.

  –Danny Hayward


The beginning and the end of the American poet Anne Boyer’s “Questions for Poets,” first published online on May Day 2014, are as follows:

What is the direct trial that is today? Is it to end the 20th century or end the 21st century or to end all centuries? Is it the trial of survival? Is it austerity? Is it surveillance? Is it the terrorist-romantic relation? Is it the wage relation? Is it the unwaged relation? Is it the furnace of affliction? Is it the womb of fire? Is it the grim work of mimesis, the paralysis of speculation, the soft disappointment of prefiguration? Is it culture, capital, borders? It is how to collapse a structure that will fall on our heads?


For in what other day can we issue forth no answers, but only a set of questions? And by which rhythm can the questions ensue? Should they charm, or bore, or test, or enrage, or captivate? Should they aggress with their own insistence and against custom and with the repeating that is a question we can ask with our bodies? Is the trial of the poet that is today an arena in which we perform only in fidelity to the tradition of what is unanswerable? And how in this shall we in the arena of today make the new arenas, who must always stare in the eyes of the police? [1]

Boyer’s text, composed entirely of such questions, begins by tapping a line from Walt Whitman’s Preface to Leaves of Grass—“The direct trial of him who would be the greatest poet is today”—and draws heavily throughout on the swathes of erotetic urgency that characterize Whitman’s vision of the citizen-poet and his task. [2]

For Whitman, the “jealous and passionate instinct of American standards” ensures the principles of “great literature” are carried alive into the hearts of free men and women, and he enumerates these principles in the grammar of rhetorical passion that characterizes the whole Preface:

Is it uniform with my country? Are its disposals without ignominious distinctions? Is it for the evergrowing communes of brothers and lovers, large, well-united, proud beyond the old models, generous beyond all models? Is it something grown fresh out of the fields or drawn from the sea for use to me today here? I know that what answers for me an American must answer for any individual or nation that serves for a part of my materials. Does this answer?

It does. Whitman’s questions perform the imperative task of equivalent scale which it is the citizen-poet’s duty to complete and to represent; the nation and the poet are equal because they are equally vital to each other’s lifeblood: “If the one is true the other is true. The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.” The great affirmation of Whitman’s eccentric nationalism is the ground upon which the figure of his utopian universalism loafs. His questions are there to be answered: the answer to all of them is yes, for it must be; the poet-citizen, imbued with the responsibility of the ages, incorporates within himself and his poetry the size and the shape of his country, and his country will furnish the materials for this unity, being itself “the greatest poem.” [3] The guarantee of greatness of him who would be the greatest poet, for Whitman in 1855, is precisely that identity of the present moment whose dimensions are figured in the imaginary reciprocity of subject and nation state. The condition of Whitman’s questions is that their destiny will be, and in fact has been, fulfilled, not least by the poet who is Walt Whitman and who has written his Leaves of Grass, and which you are reading, today.

Boyer’s text begins by unpinning Whitman’s “today” from its auratic copula and placing it atop a stack of questions to which, like Whitman, Boyer supplies no immediate and explicit answers, but to which, unlike Whitman, any possible answers—let alone those assumed by the overwhelming confirmation bias of Whitman’s Preface—are spectacularly less urgent than the kind of erotetic logic which compels them. Boyer’s essay reads Whitman’s injunction ironically, as a collective interrogation of the contemporary through an address to the tribe. These are questions for poets, both addressed to them and for them to ask, questions the speculative power of which is to be found in their grammar of persistent negativity. Each new question threatens to cancel its precedent by the urgency of address they all exude. The real content of Boyer’s text, beyond and apart from any answers, is the proliferation and exhaustion of its possibilities as a function of its question form. The accumulation of questions in Boyer’s text is exhausting. And the shape of their accumulation bears witness to the erotetic logic at work in certain strands of contemporary poetic production. This is the logic of what Boyer alludes to, in her penultimate question, as the “tradition of what is unanswerable,” and to which she appends a footnote citing Keats’s letter to his brothers, on December 22, 1817, in which he defines “Negative Capability.” There are many such “tradition[s] of what is unanswerable,” from the mystical and negatively theological to the Beckettian modernist; Boyer’s nomination of Keats hints obliquely at a particular—British Romantic—genealogy of the unanswerable which the present work is a first effort at deciphering. Back of this effort are the contentions that, first, one or two collections of essays notwithstanding, the current state of thinking about Romanticism in relation to contemporary poetry is desperately inadequate; and second, that the most compelling trends in contemporary work—its insistence on the life in the subject that articulates the destruction of subjectivity by capitalist modernity, its discovery in lyric feeling of emancipatory nostalgia, and the concomitant obstruction of emancipation by the future of the bourgeois individual—are themselves profoundly Romantic ones. [4] Despite Boyer’s excision from her penultimate question of Whitman’s superlative, the spectre of “great” poetry, so crucial a part of her Whitmanian model, nevertheless haunts her text. Her essay claims by its very formal inheritance that poets have something to live up to, and since they cannot live up to it by being Walt Whitman, they must find other means of doing so.

Contemporary Anglophone radical poetry absorbs and rejects the imperative to be commensurate with the environment of its making, an imperative made with no greater utopian assiduity than in Whitman’s verse, because the world it must recognize as its own is built upon the systematic exploitation and indentured suffering of those without whom it would not exist. But attention to suffering that refuses the murderous equilibrium of a normative ethics requires the unanswerable lest it degenerate into narcissistic despair. I refer to the “imperative to be commensurate” here, and the “logic of commensurability” throughout what follows, to stress the fundamental relationship of anti-capitalist poetry to what Adorno called the real “antagonistic entirety” of its material context: such poetry is, to borrow a slogan, the consistent sense of non-identity, because its subject is that which remains belligerently irreducible to its concept, incommensurable with its life measured out in an endless exchange of values. [5] Boyer’s negativity in the shape of Whitman’s affirmation does nothing so anachronistic as denounce Whitman as a spokesman for contemporary capitalism and/or nationalism. Rather, it ironizes his rhetorical figure into a critical weapon to be used against both; that is, into an ironic critique of identity thinking.

Different historical moments have produced differently unanswerable questions; questions that have hitherto been unanswerable may find themselves becoming answerable, even answered. Contemporary poetry produces questions that often seem deliberately construed to obfuscate or delay the moment at which they can be grasped as questions; they incur, in other words, an interpretive effort of deciphering what is being asked in the first place. Contemporary poetry’s questions are also often radically non-constructive, which is to say, they are not written as critical admonitions which might each be cured by the application of an appropriate answer, but are each instead the expression of a condition which is itself deeply and fundamentally questionable, inimical to even the superficial semblance of identity that an answer would confer. This may sound as if I am arguing that unanswerable questions somehow place their answers out of reach, or make them otherwise inaccessible, but that is not quite what I mean. I mean that unanswerable questions, when they do not make answers obsolete, at least ensure that any answer is beside their point, even, or especially, when their syntax is consummately rhetorical or desperately information-seeking; that unanswerable questions instead exhibit the recursive thoughtful labour of forming demands, both of the subject and of the world it composes. The question forms of contemporary poetry in the “tradition of what is unanswerable” perform the unanswerable as a specimen of resistance to the logic of commensurability, identity, and equivalence. What follows is a brief excursion through Romantic questioning and a brief lampoon on the paucity of certain blunt edges of literary criticism, before I take up the “tradition of what is unanswerable” at its contemporary fringes.

The British Romantic tradition of the unanswerable at which Boyer hints begins not with Keats but with Wordsworth. The subject of Susan Wolfson’s 1986 study of both poets, which figures Wordsworth’s self-interrogation as the early model for Keats’s inquiring mind, is “the fundamentally interrogative character of the major poems of Romanticism.” Against, but not entirely distinct from, the lauded “refusal of closure” which characterizes the lumpier accounts of Romantic dynamism, Wolfson asserts that “questioning does not just subvert meanings and closure; it also tests the possibility of new meanings and projects, even if it does not secure, terms of closure,” and claims the energies of inquiry connoted by the original Latin etymology of question and its later developments—“to seek, to search for […] to seek with longing, to miss, to want […] to demand, require”—“persist in the questioning presence of Romantic poetry, […driving] the constructive faculty of the imagination even as they subvert or challenge the results with continued motions of inquiry.” [6] Wordsworth emerges, for Wolfson, as the master questioner, his verse impelled by the “obstinate questionings / Of sense and outward things”: “Was it for this […]”; “Whither is fled the visionary gleam? / Where is it now, the glory and the dream?” [7] Recalling the Ubi sunt formula familiar from classical elegy, to which the traditional answer is, “they are dead,” Wolfson argues that the value of Wordsworth’s “Whither” / “Where” in “Ode (‘There was a time’)” is to be found in “the work of answering” in the subsequent stanzas that goes against the grain of elegy invoked by this particular question form. [8] Wordsworth’s answer to his questions “Whither is fled the visionary gleam? / Where is it now, the glory and the dream?” is that they are in our infancy and childhood, and in our infancy and childhood we are in them; as children we are “among [our] new-born blisses.” [9] But the terms Wordsworth provides in the course of his reply, which Wolfson calls Platonic “mythic schemes”—“trailing clouds of glory do we come / From God, who is our home”—neither fully resolve nor provide the requisite “abundant recompense for the knowledge that conditions” the poem’s most pressing demands. Wordsworth’s questions and answers do not add up, because the questions are more essential, more compelling, and finally, perhaps, more true, than the “schemes” which he imports to deal with them. This is a claim Wolfson repeats in her reading of the final lines of the 1805 Prelude, with its “postures of prophecy barely in advance of confessions of doubt.” [10]

Wolfson’s reading is colored by Wordsworth’s grief upon the drowning of his brother John in February 1805, and she identifies from a letter to George Beaumont the line “a thousand times have I asked myself […] ‘why was he taken away?[’]” with line 13.448:

Prophets of Nature, we to them will speak
A lasting inspiration, sanctified
By reason and by truth: what we have loved
Others will love; and we may teach them how;
Instruct them how the mind of man becomes
A thousand times more beautiful than the earth
On which he dwells, about this Frame of things
(Which, ’mid all revolutions in the hopes
And fears of men doth still remain unchanged)
In beauty exalted, as it is itself
Of substance and of fabric more divine. [11]

In Wordsworth’s letter, Wolfson comments, “the phrase ‘a thousand times’ is no comparative measure for a ‘substance and a fabric more divine’ than earth itself, but the measure of an agonizing interrogative crisis.” And yet Wolfson passes over without comment the most extraordinary lines of the letter, stuffed as it is with unanswerable questions such as these:

Why have we sympathies that make the best of us so afraid of inflicting pain and sorrow, which yet we see dealt about so lavishly by the supreme governor? Why should our notions of right towards each other, and to all sentient beings within our influence[,] differ so widely from what appears to be his notion and rule, if every thing were to end here? Would it be blasphemy to say that upon the supposition of the thinking principle being destroyed by death, however inferior we may be to the great Cause and ruler of things, we have more of love in our Nature than he has? The thought is monstrous; and yet how to get rid of it except upon the supposition of another and a better world I do not see. [12]

Content to summarize this agony of confusion by offering Jonathan Arac’s glibly abstract “problems of relationship between the poetical self and the empirical,” Wolfson nevertheless invites a reading of the erotetic dramas of the Ode and Prelude in the context of the letter’s erotetic “crisis.” The fact is that Wordsworth’s most deeply questionable thought (“Would it be blasphemy […]”)—its very premise is “monstrous”—cannot be answered; it must instead be “[gotten] rid of,” and there is no other way to do so than to speculate upon the mysteries of the afterlife and of redemption. The question of whether it would be “blasphemy” to suppose that “we have more of love in our Nature” than God has in His compels speculation upon that condition in which the question ceases to agonize, not because an answer has been found that confirms the poet either in misplaced piety or in proud damnation, but because in such a condition “love” would cease to be that negative extension by which we learn we are at present as divorced from “all sentient beings” as we are from ourselves as children, and instead be the “exalted” condition of heaven on earth. The erotetic architectures of the Intimations Ode and Prelude do not, simply or only, imply some abstract contravention of stable meaning, which is Wolfson’s disappointing conclusion. [13] They are the ceaseless motors of cumulative pedagogical insistence on the “more of love” which is our human birthright, a birthright “more beautiful” and “more divine” the more it shines in the “Blank misgivings of a Creature / Moving about in worlds not realiz’d.” [14]

A more recent account of Romantic interrogation by Ross Wilson summarizes the meaning of “life” in Romantic poetry and letters in a manner which illuminates the motive force of “love” in the early republican Wordsworth. “The Romantic insistence on the essentially poetic nature of humanity,” writes Wilson, “does not simply dissipate the political in the vague diffusion of art but rather seeks to question whether life is essentially reducible to the facts currently obtaining about it.” This question is not, in itself, unanswerable. Life is not “essentially reducible to the facts currently obtaining about it,” and only the stodgiest logical positivist would argue otherwise. The Romantic “emphatic understanding of life,” what Wilson refers to (following Coleridge’s lines ‘Resembles life what once was deem’d of light’) as “very life,” “cannot straightforwardly be gleaned from what has counted as ‘life’ so far” with any greater clarity today than it could be in 1804. [15] “Romantic attempts to address the question ‘What is life,’” then, “often appear to contend with the apparent impossibility of answering it.” It is precisely this “impossibility” that throws us back onto the question as the measure of a condition—and the labour of the effort to understand that condition: namely, what life “resembles,” and what it emphatically is, are not identical. And it is the “war-embrace,” not only between “life and death,” but between “life,” the living death it so often resembles, and what life could become, that Wilson’s reading of the Romantic unanswerable question “What is life?” presses into consciousness. [16] This claim on the unanswerable in the present day needs fortifying against two related things. First, the philosophical positivist common sense that naturalizes capitalist exploitation (for which unanswerable questions are simply the wrong questions); and second, the academic rhetorical suggestiveness that deftly evades the question of what life is by magnanimously claiming to create more of it (for which unanswerable questions are not thinking but its absence). [17]

The most succinct criticism of Wittgenstein’s maxim, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,” is still Adorno’s, who selected it to exhibit “the extreme of positivism spilli[ng] over into the gesture of reverent authoritarian authenticity.” [18] The thoughtful labour that I have been arguing unanswerable questions perform is utterly antithetical to Wittengstein’s unanswerable intellectual dead ends. But such dead ends nevertheless remain enticing to some. The asinine rejection of Adorno’s critique of Wittgenstein in the professional blurb writer Marjorie Perloff’s Wittgenstein’s Ladder (1996) in fact bespeaks a critical idiom keen to embrace the unanswerable in modern poetry, but desperately allergic to its erotetic implications. [19] The hallmark of this kind of critical work—the dregs of a badly digested deconstructive inheritance—is the well-intentioned but profoundly inadequate valorization of what it nominates as the ethical value of the open-ended. Perloff quotes the following aphorism from Wittgenstein:

Someone who doesn’t know English hears me say on certain occasions: “What marvellous light!” […] He guesses the sense and now uses the exclamation himself, as I use it, but without understanding the three individual words. Does he understand the exclamation?

And offers the following account of it:

Questions like this one have no “answer,” at least not a correct (or incorrect) one. They merely open up new spaces, as “poetic” as they are “philosophical,” in which to take a deep breath. [20]

Perloff was not the first to use this formula—the faux humility, the mealy-mouthed “merely”—and will not be the last, but hers is a particularly influential case, her “deep breath[s]” particularly expansive. Unanswerable questions are not here the ironic critique of identity thinking (as they are in Boyer’s “Questions for Poets”), or the constructive iteration of a revolutionary humanism (as they are in Wordsworth’s early poetry), or the recursive thoughtful practice of forming demands (as I am arguing they are more generally). They are instead a walk in the park.

The erotetic stylistics of current critical discourse about modern and contemporary poetry will be familiar to anyone who has leafed through an academic monograph or attended an academic conference at any point the last thirty-odd years. And what these stylistics tell us is that the “merely” rhetorical in such discourse hardly ever touches upon the compulsion of the unanswerable, because the question form it favours is so routinely deployed as a get-out clause instead of a critical inquiry. Thus one recent monograph on the ethical comportment of twentieth-century American poetry looks at situations in which the “moral duty of the ethical reader [is] faced with a totalitarian narrative,” and “the writer is ordained with a new goal and becomes the hostage of a new predicament,” and asks in all seriousness: “Can the writer maintain the diastasis of the subject’s identity, hold open the proximity and immediacy of their discourse and perpetuate the excrescence of alterity?” Can they? The answer is the usual hedge betting alternative, “perhaps this is only possible by degree.” The blissed-out cod-virtuosity of this kind of thinking tells us more about the empty conceptual boardroom in which academic labour goes on than it does about poetry. The “refusal of closure” motif with which Wolfson’s study contends, but does not finally escape, and which was barely sufficient in the 1970s and 1980s, is here inflated into a virtual symphony. The twentieth-century writer, “ordained” with a Levinasian ethical responsibility, valiantly attempts to “hold open” their discourse, all night if they have to, in the quite possibly vain hope of excreting some otherness somewhere down the line, presumably with all the grim determination of the manager of a twenty-four-hour garage but with less appetizing stock. The upshot of it all is that no one is really any the wiser about ethics or alterity for having read the whole of Gary Snyder, but we can rest assured that since “the meaning and purpose of language,” according to Levinas, according to the academic, “is found in the face-to-face to be love for the other,” and since, furthermore,

language as the offering of the signifier is the locus of ethics, then the writer whose first and foremost concern is with language, may work towards an art that perpetuates the Infinite rather than totalitarian axis of life. [21]

They may, though exactly how we might ascertain which axis has been perpetuated by any given poem is anyone’s guess. The problem with this critical idiom, instantly recognizable by its reduction of literary texts into the exempla of pseudo-philosophical schematizing, is not that its questions are too indeterminate, but that they are not unanswerable enough. Every uncritical valorization of the conceptually open-ended—from the productive authenticity of positivist common sense, to the gaping “axis of life” lazily imported from an otherwise antiauthoritarian ethics—makes it easier for fascists to organize, because it promotes to the status of dogma the illusory freedom which it is the task of critical thinking to confront and make impossible in the name of its realization. This is the same freedom that the present-day far right claims is emphatically not illusory but only denied to them by Muslims.

“What is textuality in the twenty-first century?” writes Perloff in her contribution to a recent special issue of Textual Practice. “We talk today,” she continues, “of information glut but that glut is not accompanied by any common information pool. Given that paradox, what doors of perception are being opened?” Perloff’s desire to blast these doors off their hinges by creating a centralized database that would make Wikipedia look like Stonehenge is swiftly followed by her ringing endorsement of the sneeringly reactionary online magazine Spiked, a collection of openly racist, virulently misogynist, and fanatically pro-Trump and pro-Brexit comment threads leavened by the occasional anti-feminist, anti-anti-Trump and anti-anti-Brexit article. [22] The endorsement is the surest evidence, if any was needed, of the proximity of the uncritical idiom of the open-ended to the deadly contemporary manifestation of what is called “freedom of speech,” about which Spiked’s staff writers perpetually screech, claiming “censorship” and “victimisation” every time someone punches a Nazi or says that rape is a problem. The questions we ask of poetry can be fortified against such vapid speculation in the cultural marketplace, and its slippage into fascist ideology, by attention to the questions that poetry asks.


If interrogative syntax in the early nineteenth century, as Wolfson argues, “concentrates [the] developing relationship between language, mystery, and imaginative power,” what does it do in the early twenty-first? [23] The merest glance at the poetry of recent years reveals a huge variety of unanswerable questions; violent, stupefied, insouciant, indignant, and beautiful. Consider excerpts from Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women (2015), Danny Hayward’s Pragmatic Sanction (2015), and Keston Sutherland’s Stress Position (2009). Boyer’s poem “At Least Two Types of People” begins: “There are at least two types of people, the first for whom the ordinary / worldliness is easy,” and secondly, “those over whom the events and opportunities of the every- / day world wash over.” [24] For this second type there “is rarely […] any easy kind / of absorption,” and they furthermore seem to be “made of a / different substance, one that repels.”

Also, from them, it is almost impos- / sible to give to the world what it will welcome or reward. For how does / this second type hold their arms? Across their chest? Behind their back? / And how do they find food to eat and then prepare this food? And how / do they receive a check or endorse it? And what also of the difficulties of / love or being loved, its expansiveness, the way it is used for markets and / indentured moods? // And what is this second substance? And how does it come to have as one / of its qualities the resistance of the world as it is? And also, what is the / person made of the second substance? Is this a human or more or less / than one? Where is the true impermeable community of the second human / whose arms do not easily arrange themselves and for whom the salaries / and weddings and garages do not come?

Love, consumption, finance, the body, and survival are stitched together here in a by-now familiar indication of the literal and affective supply-chains upon which any human must depend. We are used to the scene. Enumeration characterizes the passage in much the same way as it does Boyer’s essay, though the matter is less historically urgent than genuinely investigative; “At Least Two Types of People” develops and accumulates a rhythmic and grammatical insistence across phrasal units pre-disposed to concision, and which rise to the cadential wh-movement of the final question.

The final question is parodically mournful, but is not for that reason insincere; it will not brook analytic concatenation into a simple “where is it?” for the simple reason that its formal condition of utterance is precisely that tendency to accumulate by revision of erotetic material which is the poem’s basic energy of disposition. It is in no small part composed of this material, made up from its elements:

Where is the true impermeable community of the second human
whose arms do not easily arrange themselves and for whom the salaries
and weddings and garages do not come?

The location, wh-fronting, and mock-stentorian tone of the question recall the same elegiac Ubi sunt? as Wordsworth’s “Whither” / “Where” in the Intimations Ode, and like Wordsworth’s questions it both invites and refutes the traditional “answer,” “they are dead”—by 2015 even more of an abstraction from a typology than it was in 1804. Boyer’s “true impermeable community of the second human” is that which her poem’s erotetic meandering encounters in the face of its implied destruction. Her cumulative questions fashion this encounter at a moment when the tired syntax of elegiac musing threatens to extinguish its possibility. Inured as we are to scenes of foreclosure and dispossession, the parody suggests, it is the disastrous relegation of a “second [type of] human” in the first place, those “made of a different substance,” albeit “one that repels,” that passes with culpable ease into wistful cultural nostalgia for their contributions to normativity, capital, and property—their “weddings,” “salaries,” and “garages.” The argument that Boyer’s questions labor to perform in “At Least Two Types of People” is finally a very simple and powerful one: patchy universal lament is rapacious speculation on the wholesale disintegration of the US housing market.

Garments Against Women works, in some respects, to resist my account of its questions in “At Least Two Types of People.” Its powers of negation are most prominently employed in the service of a feminist writing through and against the capitalist-patriarchal category of woman, a category produced in the field of discourse as legibly, legitimately, and casually as the “clothes, sex, food, and seasonal variations” about which one of the book’s subjects “mostly” thinks. The book’s central motivating problem, worked through in practically every poem in the collection, is how to write against literature, where literature “is / like the world of monsters is the production of culture is I hate culture is / the world of wealthy women and of men.” As in recent work by Bhanu Kapil and M. NourbeSe Philip, writing against literature in Boyer’s book entails a critical writing of what “not writing” is. For Boyer, “[n]ot writing is / working, and when not working at paid work working at unpaid work / like caring for others,” and writing “not writing” in this sense discovers a litany of the occluded, gendered, socioeconomic responsibilities of life in the midst of which the subjects in Garments Against Women work, care, and subsist. [25] For such a practice, my identification of the specter of a Wordsworthian erotetic insistence, however détourné, risks seeming not only invasive and regressive, but fundamentally at odds with the motivated struggle of Boyer’s poetics. Her poetry, after all, deconstructs the conditions of political economy which make an historical claim on the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, and their composition into verse, infinitely more available for “men” as such (as well as for “wealthy women”) than they have always been, and continue to be, for the impoverished single mother, the sex worker, or the migrant. There is no poet more literature than Wordsworth.

Yet the “tradition of what is unanswerable” is not the foundational influence of Romantic erotetic genius over subsequent strategies of unanswerability, but rather the historical expression of determinate modes of forming demands on the practice of living; Wordsworth’s demands emerge from the galvanizing possibilities of the French Revolution, find their most profoundly enlivening formulations in the still revolutionary idealism of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and settle comfortably, by the end of Wordsworth’s life and the culmination of his political apostasy, into Tory party pamphleteering. [26] Wordsworth’s questions in the Intimations Ode, Prelude, and letter to Beaumont figure the unanswerable as a set of demands at their most revolutionarily universal; his stakes could not be higher, and yet his unanswerables are staked firmly on those “worlds not realiz’d,” either here or hereafter. Boyer ironically splits “people” into “at least two types” in order to encounter “the true impermeable community of the second human” only as the negative image of lamentable loss leaders in the storefront accumulation of values of American capitalism. Both, in the words of Gillian Rose, “take the risk of the universal interest” by encountering the particular (this world, this people) in a crisis of self-recognition, a recognition of its own “damaged good,” for which neither heaven on its own terms, piously abstracted from the incommensurable “more of love in our Nature,” nor a sub-prime mortgage, is adequate recompense. [27] It is in this sense that Boyer’s questions in “At Least Two Types of People” “perform [in] fidelity to the tradition of what is unanswerable,” a tradition that Wordsworth at his most urgently erotetic exemplifies. In his essay “The Essential Standpoint of Man: An Autopsy, in Three Parts,” Danny Hayward reads in Wordsworth’s republican urgency the very “dialectic of bourgeois universalism” that Boyer’s poem, and especially its final question, parodies. This is the dialectic expressed by Wordsworth, during his voyeuristic rhapsody on the charming “Dwelling” of his impoverished neighbor in Home at Grasmere, in the poetry’s “effort to act out the individual alienation of social contradiction as the dissolution of the class whose own composition makes it incapable of acting against social contradiction in any other way.” Hayward stresses Wordsworth’s “desperate attempt to communicate with absolute and unwavering passion the song of the entire unity of all Men formed in brotherhood,” whilst nevertheless “hiding in [his poor neighbor’s] garden” in order to spy on said neighbor’s eldest daughter laboring “at her wheel”; it is the truth of this social contradiction, suggests Hayward, that makes Wordsworth’s “universal interest” and his “individual alienation” so powerfully expressive of the real movement of history: Wordsworth cannot realize the world he so fervently desires because he is in no insignificant part, qua bourgeoisie, in its way. [28] What it means for the composition of class interest to get in the way, and what it might mean as well for it to be worked through and gotten rid of, is a central preoccupation of Hayward’s own poetry.

Hayward’s Pragmatic Sanction (2015) opens, “in the run-up to” its own “conclusion,” on a catastrophic scene of gamified world history, in which a “hypothalamus,” “yours and mine,” accompanied, but occasionally outrun, by “us,” cavorts hyperactively inside a ghoulish real-life choose-your-own-adventure, set in something like a Department of Work and Pensions website made entirely of obsolescent architectural part-objects. [29] Five pages in, with “our GDP” shrunk by “35 percent,” the equivalent value accruing to the benefit of “trading diasporas,” and a cartoonishly complex arrangement of walls, pipes, and doors impeding any progress into a “future” that is in any case “cancelled due / to a service announcement,” the hypothalamus has had enough:

Who wins from this, screams the / hypothalamus, biting great chunks of concrete from the edges of its / stained and trembling fingers. The LCD portal is our only hope, we / reply. [30] The answer to our question is contained in its structure. We / leap desperately through it, ignoring the cabinet minister now burnt to / death on the white board lodged in the fertile soils just south of the / Sahel. The agony is tolerable?, we scream in implausible unison. The / question is a real one, vibrant and meditative, part consumed and part / on the table, well advanced in its planning stages and enfranchised, / but nevertheless it can only be answered after the resolution of the / action that promises to substantiate its backlog of conditions. [31]

Hayward’s writing in Pragmatic Sanction is not here, or for the most part, concerned with the vestigial mimesis of lyric modality that characterises Boyer’s staged lament. The majority of the poem is quite self-consciously anti-lyrical, and proceeds through torturously extended screeds of dioramic arrangements and rearrangements of a stupefied virtual landscape, all of which makes the appearance, towards the end of the poem, of a section composed entirely of fastidiously demarcated octosyllabics flare up in a kind of schizoid virtuosity. The poem is irreconcilably split between these registers. The octosyllabics are spoken by “a / hand clenched up into a mouth”; its “judgment” is “fucking contemptible,” and emerges from the sneering managerial larynx of capital itself: “You’ll see we speak as if we’re you: | for this we have the right to do; / | we set the tasks, you play the game; | the roles will always stay the / same.” The elastic clausal detritus of the surrounding material, meanwhile, especially its diagrammatic abundance of labyrinthine allegorical gameplay, makes the purity of lyric sentiment seem as inadequate a response to immiseration as the utopian dream of a state apology for colonial human rights abuses.

The frustration expressed by the hypothalamus in the excerpt above—“Who wins from this”—not even afforded the residual grace of a question mark, is accurate and appropriate: the game is rigged. But Pragmatic Sanction nevertheless insists throughout, and with passionate invective, that the question of what it calls “movement” is a real one, and that “movement,” especially of “knowledge,” must be encouraged beyond the inertial peregrinations of bourgeois left melancholy. “The agony is tolerable?” is not a question we can live up to in solidarity or comradeship, and represents only the desire for a cap on the destitution of the life we share; it is a “real” question to the extent that it is acknowledged by the overseers with whom the deal “on the table” is negotiated, and for whom the infinite deferral of the answer “no, it is not” is, for them, the object of the negotiations. But it is an important question nevertheless, “vibrant and meditative,” because it emerges in the heat of pain and not theoretically outside of it, and it is therefore capable (unlike the question barely posed by the hypothalamus, whose abstract intellect is sequestered in the syntax of competition) of pointing the way a few stages further through the “walkthrough,” some dozen lines down, to the “most pressing task” of the poem. The “task” is this: “to make it possible to feel that knowledge / can be acquired even through the compulsory movement that appears / to disable it.” The imperative that the question form in Pragmatic Sanction labors to communicate is this “task,” which must be taken up against and within the prevailing structure of feeling that predetermines all resistance to wasted life as futile, by short-circuiting the effort of the imagination required to transform impatience into comradeship. Its “task” is to make us feel that what “movement” is—of knowledge, and of the work to defend it—cannot straightforwardly be gleaned from what has counted as “movement” so far.

The questions in Keston Sutherland’s Stress Position (2009) are weirder, more intractable, and more obstinate than any of those in Hayward or Boyer, and they therefore demand a slightly more extended treatment. The poem is structured, like Sutherland’s earlier Hot White Andy (2007), in the triptych form of a classical ode; its three parts are named “The Question,” “The Workings,” and “The Answer.” All three sections are composed of stanzas consisting of seven-line heptameters, divided by diamond-shaped bullet points; “The Workings” also contains four long prose footnotes appended not to individual words or lines, but to the bullet points in between certain stanzas. Even by the generous standards of late British experimental modernism, Stress Position is a difficult poem. In fact, it is a mad, painful, hurtful, upsetting, and violent poem—and unlike its predecessor, Stress Position does not, at any point, offer prosodic sanctuary by shifting into a more recognizably intimate lyric register than the polylingual, syntactically distended, viscerally embodied and disembodied versification of which it is, for the most part, composed. As its title suggests, by means of a pun on the heptameter and the readerly labor often required to hear it, Stress Position is a poem about torture. It begins like this:

    This is the honest account of the passion of Ali whoever, read it
deep in the words, general VAMPIRE, fashioning from this trance
    in mental colours an idiot stilt to trip on, taking the time that
the carousel in this rhyme-sound claims is yours, mindful always
    of imperative limits and where they lie, general JURISPRUDENT,
the limits to meaning and power, and as the innumerable stresses rise
    in a pyramid of lyric ash and flame, keep your eyes out.

The first line of the poem announces with a combination of bravado and brash insensitivity that it will be the “honest account” of the suffering to the point of death of a negligently unidentified Arab man. The word “passion” already smothers in Christian iconography the suffering of this man, who is presumably a Muslim. The “account” offers itself to the public by addressing us/them initially using a combination of: a word that means both a) in practically all cases and b) practically the highest military rank, and Marx’s ghoulish epithet for the capitalist and the bourgeois consumer: “general VAMPIRE.” The “general,” therefore, proclaims both a pseudo-universal and a specific account of this person. “General vampires / on the make,” we are told, some ten pages and thirty-eight stanzas into the “account,” “will make allowance for obfuscation politically meant.” [32] The “allowance” to which these later lines refer is part of the vampiric tendency practiced by the bourgeois reader in Sutherland’s description, in his critical prose, of Marx’s satire on consumption and the fetish in the early chapters of Das Kapital. What emerges in that description as a specifically bourgeois “class instinct” is the “instinct to theoretical mastery of concepts,” which must include the benevolent excision of the troubling, irritable, and unpleasant material that makes Marx’s writing both satirical and theoretical. [33] The name given to the “general VAMPIRE” who must read “the honest account of the passion of Ali whoever,” then, identifies them as one of the consumers, if not the beneficiaries, of the suffering of “Ali whoever” as much as they are the consumer of the poem Stress Position, and their tendency will be to curate the poem’s “obfuscation” to the satisfaction of their theoretical needs.

One of these theoretical needs is universalism. This is why the “general VAMPIRE” is “general”: they are both at the top of the pile and they are everywhere. What is “obfuscation”?

    […] The apocryphal teeth for TEETH
3 fitment salvage by the moral dicot an icy yes yes to
    10 is how far? And what in the end is acceptable to Taha Bidaywi
Hamed as a biometric ID pun? Redistributing the skin of the
    vaguer animals only to dye some underside disgust black?


   Whatever you say? What will the lung at LUNG 6 flatten into
incendiary powder and cloud if by the sympathomimetic adverb
    ok LUNG 4 is upgraded to a trip hammer? And at the corner
whose cloud it is what if your platoon has cancer? The deeper issues
    stickproof and subterogenic, brush up void. Ashes torn like a cheek
in a balloon dog that, if you rub it on wool, you can cuff to the radiator
    colloid? […] [34]

I said that Stress Position is a poem about torture. It would be more accurate to say that it is a poem about war and torture, specifically the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the atrocities and war crimes committed by the “coalition of the willing,” especially during the battles for the city of Fallujah between 2003 and 2004, and the torture of Iraqi detainees in Abu Ghraib prison. “Ali whoever” is Ali Shallal al-Qaisi, the image of whom—hooded, robed, and placed on a box with electric wires attached to his fingers—came to symbolize not just the horrific abuses of Abu Ghraib, but the entire chaotic, bloody conflict. Less well known is Taha Bidaywi Hamed, the post-Saddam pro-US Sunni mayor of Fallujah, whose tenure began days before US marines fired into a crowd of unarmed Iraqi civilians in the city on April 28, 2003, killing seventeen and wounding more than seventy, an incident widely interpreted as the beginning of Fallujah’s descent into the bloodbath it was shortly to become. The questions quoted above demand to know “what in the end is acceptable” to Hamed, posing a fiction of benign negotiation as inconsistent with its surrounding erotetic indignation as were the US claims of “direct fire” from the crowd with the June 2003 Human Rights Watch report on the massacre. [35] And the questions persist in their demands not because they can in any meaningful sense be answered, by Hamed any more than by US command, but because their irruptive allusions to military destruction and state-sanctioned murder ratchet up the incompatibility of desire for accountability with the impassive structures of motivated political power which both Hamed and US command represent, however unevenly.

The natural liberal response to the suffering inflicted by aggressive imperialism is to claim solidarity with its victims in the name of ending conflict and establishing peace; it is to demand, in other words, what is nominally “acceptable.” What this claim encounters in Stress Position is the “obfuscation” of the unanswerable questions with which the poem is crammed to bursting point, and which it offers in anticipation of their indigestibility by the Western bourgeois consumer of poetry. That is to say, unanswerable questions in Stress Position are the dramatis personae in the poem’s hazing of humanist universalism in the service of a searing critique of the same. The poem is constantly and painfully making the desired “end” of conflict absolutely irreconcilable with the “account” of suffering that it offers, and it is motivated to do so by the Marxist insistence on the irreducible dignity of individual life at its most aggressively destroyed, when, as the last stanza in “The Question” has it, “everything [is] gone and done and all too late to pull out now, / but there to live and deal with, glowing in language unrelated / to the speech fuzz in your thin and vestal throat, and how?” If the poem is anywhere able to offer something like a summary of this argument, to offer some further indication of how this “how?” can be construed, it is in the footnote to the thirty-second stanza, which includes amid its rash of erotetic beginnings and ends, the following:

Trying to be in the end like trying to love includes questions. But / these questions? […] How can the conditions of any group’s life sum up all the / conditions of life in their most inhuman form, when the only group that qualifies / for the arithmetic is disallowed the majority of pleasures?

“Trying to be in the end” is the labor that in Stress Position smashes the kingdom of universal ends into a durable means of solidarity with those whose suffering is certainly, for most of us, distant and unimaginable, but which is nevertheless at the most hellishly instrumental behest of a system that has a set of conditions—conditions that can be analyzed and critiqued at the peaceable distance of the room you are in now. [36] You can do it by reading Marx, whose words from The Holy Family Sutherland hijacks in the lines quoted above:

Since in the fully-formed proletariat the abstraction of all humanity, even of the semblance of humanity, is practically complete; since the conditions of life of the proletariat sum up all the conditions of life of society today in their most inhuman form; since man has lost himself in the proletariat, yet at the same time has not only gained theoretical consciousness of that loss, but through urgent, no longer removable, no longer disguisable, absolutely imperative need […] is driven directly to revolt against this inhumanity, it follows that the proletariat can and must emancipate itself. [37]

Stress Position questions Marx’s claim about “the conditions of life of society today in their most inhuman form” by making visible the absence of the “majority of pleasures” from the “abstraction of all humanity” that is supposedly “complete” in the nineteenth-century proletariat. The point here goes beyond the extension of Marxist logic to an inadequately Marxian sentence, though it is inevitably partly that also; the point here is more that summation itself is beholden to the logic of accumulation and commensurability against which Marx’s description of an “absolutely imperative need” in the service of anti-capitalist emancipation is directed. Marx and Sutherland are in agreement—and Sutherland’s question is the crux of this agreement—that we must work through such a logic as a means to its end, because without doing so “theoretical consciousness” of life’s destruction will not become imperatively fused with its experience. It is with this conviction in mind that the poem Stress Position desires and yet refuses to make the postwar condition of the Iraqi people a vehicle for, and an expression of, the particular social and historical circumstances of early twenty-first century capitalism at large. The quizzical, insistent italicisation of “sum up” in the poem is the indication of the necessity and the paucity of that additive procedure by which life so vitally and beautifully particular is made theoretically comparable in a committed revolutionary critique of the underlying mechanisms—American imperialism and liberal universalism—which are the very mechanisms that reflect humanity only in the form of homogenous abstract human labor power.

Unanswerable questions in Stress Position, as in Boyer’s and Hayward’s work, are, finally, the practice of forming demands on the “conditions of life in their most inhuman form” in the full and desperate cognition of those conditions, and the practice of claiming the incommensurability of what is always called life at life’s expense. It should, I hope, be clear that what I have nominated as a Romantic genealogy of the unanswerable does not mean that I think that Boyer’s, Hayward’s, and Sutherland’s work is in any superficial sense “Wordsworthian.” I think their work is profoundly Wordsworthian—and profoundly Romantic—in this single, important respect: that their unanswerable questions unstitch the logic of commensurability, which is still the reigning ideology of human life, whether in its longstanding liberal capitalist or increasingly white nationalist form, by dramatic acts of cumulative erotetic insistence. Their questions accumulate within and against the accumulation of capital. The ambition of this practice is profoundly enlivening, because it will rest neither with the tediously narcissistic anti-instrumentalism of certain radical poets, nor with the equally tedious indulgent aestheticism of mainstream literary production. Unanswerable questions compel speculation on what is not in order to make it possible to think so. Their delusion is not utopian. They do not expect or desire an answer. They are the radically non-constructive criticism of the world to which they are yet unaccountably attached, whatever their optic or their argument. They make the biggest—if not the most difficult—question of all, because the most certainly related to the possibility of a world that is entirely and emphatically not this world, impossible not to ask. Is it, by any shred of the wasted contemporary imagination, any more possible to conceive of what is called universalism today, without clambering over the wreckage of any “second type” of human, than it was in the imperial advent of the early nineteenth century? Do you think this question is worth asking?



[1] Anne Boyer, “Questions for Poets,” in Anguish Language: Writing and Crisis, ed. John Cunningham, Anthony Iles, Mira Mattar, and Marina Vishmidt (Berlin: Archive Books, 2015), 113–124. For the online version, see Boyer, “Questions for Poets,” Mute, accessed March 8, 2017.

[2] Walt Whitman, Complete Poetry and Collected Prose (New York: Library of America, 1982), 23. Throughout I use the adjective “erotetic” instead of, e.g., “rhetorical.” The OED glosses erotetic as “pertaining to questioning; interrogatory.” The term thus avoids the (at least contemporary and colloquial) expectations of “rhetorical,” by which most people assume a question form that is “not supposed” to be answered. “Erotetic” thus denotes a demand for answers, even where none are possible, rather than a figure of speech for which they are an unnecessary, or unwanted, surplus.

[3] Ibid., 5 and 25–26.

[4] See Julie Carr and Jeffrey C. Robinson, eds., Active Romanticism: The Radical Impulse in Nineteenth-Century and Contemporary Poetic Practice (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2015), and Jacques Khalip and Forest Pyle, eds., Constellations of a Contemporary Romanticism (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016). My contentions here draw on Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre, Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity, trans. Catherine Porter (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2001), esp. chaps. 1 and 3, and broadly follow their sense that, from both aristocratic and revolutionary perspectives, “Romanticism is essentially a reaction against the way of life in capitalist societies […] coextensive with capitalism itself.”

[5] See Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (New York, NY: Continuum, 2007), 10–11.

[6] Susan J. Wolfson, The Questioning Presence: Wordsworth, Keats, and the Interrogative Mode in Romantic Poetry (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986), 18, 31.

[7] William Wordsworth, Poems, in Two Volumes, and Other Poems, 1800-1807, ed. Jared Curtis (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983), 275; Wordsworth, The Prelude, 1798-1799, ed. Stephen Parrish (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977), 43.

[8] Wolfson, The Questioning Presence, 173.

[9] Wordsworth, Poems, in Two Volumes, and Other Poems, 272-273.

[10] Wolfson, The Questioning Presence, 174, 172, 178.

[11] Ibid., 180; Wordsworth, The Thirteen-Book Prelude, Vol. 1, ed. Mark L. Reed (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991), 324.

[12] Wolfson, The Questioning Presence, 180.

[13] Ibid., 181; “Wordsworth is most sure of himself and the value of his poetry when he can feel the confidence of a declarative voice, but his is also an imagination inevitably compelled by questions, questions that often destabilize answers seemingly already determined.”

[14] Wordsworth, Poems, in Two Volumes, and Other Poems, 275.

[15] Ross Wilson, ed., The Meaning of “Life” in Romantic Poetry and Poetics (New York and Abingdon: Routledge, 2009), 7–9. Wilson follows William Keach’s edition of Coleridge’s poems; see Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Complete Poems, ed. William Keach (London: Penguin, 1997), 330.

[16] Wilson, 1-2

[17] A clear expression of the positivist position on the unanswerable can be found in Moritz Schlick’s 1935 essay “Unanswerable Questions?,” in which Schlick asserts that “no real question is in principle—i.e., logically—unanswerable,” and furthermore that the appearance of logical (as opposed to empirical) unanswerability is simply the evidence of an incorrect or inadequate formulation of the question: “For the logical impossibility of solving a problem is equivalent to the impossibility of describing a method of finding its solution; and this […] is equivalent to the impossibility of indicating the meaning of the problem. Thus a question which is unanswerable in principle can have no meaning, it can be no question at all: it is nothing but a nonsensical series of words with a question mark after them. As it is logically impossible to give an answer where there is no question, this cannot be a cause of wonder, dissatisfaction, or despair.” This reading of the unanswerable is entirely appropriate to a philosophy for which speculation upon the presently impossible is not a question of revolutionarily or redemptive critical praxis, but a determinately proscribed violation of that which is given in the present; thus “[p]resent-day man would have no right to look upon other, metaphysical worlds, if they existed, as superior or more meaningful, and ungratefully to despise our own world by comparison. The meaning of the life that he knows can only be sought in this world, as he knows it.” Anyone who has ever had a dream, or wished for something, knows otherwise. See Moritz Schlick, “Unanswerable Questions?” and “On the Meaning of Life,” in Philosophical Papers, Vol. II (1925-1936), trans. Peter Heath et. al., (Dordrecht, Boston, and London: D. Reidel, 1979), 414–419 and 112–129.

[18] Theodor W. Adorno, Hegel: Three Studies, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen (Cambridge, MA, and London: The MIT Press, 1993), 101.

[19] See Marjorie Perloff, Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 12. After quoting Adorno’s criticism, Perloff writes that “[f]ar from being [what Adorno claimed it was], Wittgenstein’s aphorism […] is no more than the commonsense [sic] recognition that there are metaphysical and ethical aporias that no discussion, explication, rationale, or well-constructed argument can fully rationalize—even for oneself.” But this is no refutation at all, because all Perloff does here is to appeal to the positivist “commonsense” about what there is in order to restate Wittgenstein’s prohibition against going beyond it, but without the scriptural stylishness which at least lends to his law the semblance of a literary acquisitiveness. Perloff does this in the name of making aporias unrationalizable, and her interest is in what she calls the “anticlosural bent of Wittgenstein’s investigative mode” (14). But her reliance on the spectral ideology of “commonsense” evacuates from Perloff’s interpretation of this “bent” any and all of the material urgency which motivates a criticism like Adorno’s in the first place.

[20] Ibid, 23.

[21] John Wrighton, Ethics and Politics in Modern American Poetry (New York, NY, and Abingdon: Routledge, 2010), 16–17.

[22] Perloff et. al., “30@30: the future of literary thinking,” in Textual Practice 30.7 (2016): 1169–1170. “Increasingly, I predict, Textual Practice will be publishing work in sync with the UK’s own best writing and art production. Certainly such non-academic journals as Frieze and Spiked are pointing the way.”

[23] Wolfson, The Questioning Presence, 26.

[24] Anne Boyer, Garments Against Women (Boise, Idaho: Ahsahta Press, 2015), 23. Throughout the book Boyer’s poems are set in justified prose-like paragraphs; the “line breaks” indicated here by virgules are a function of this justification, rather than a compositional “return” to the left margin.

[25] Ibid., 15, 23, 44, and 46. Both Kapil and Philip write “not writing” in comparable fidelity to the historically occluded body of their subject matter. Kapil’s Ban en Banlieue (New York: Nightboat Books, 2015) searches, like Garments Against Women, for “a literature that is not made from literature,” offering early on a kind of meta-commentary on the book’s negative methodology of the writing of racism and state violence: “On September 4th, 2010, at 7 p.m., I began to write—but did not write—[wrote]: Notes for a novel never written: a novel of the race riot: (Ban.)” (32, 19–20). In her “Notanda” to Zong! (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2008), Philip is more explicit about the imperative “[t]o not tell the story that must be told” of the murder of one hundred and fifty Africans thrown overboard the Zong slaver in 1781, and thus to respect and preserve the event’s “mystery of evil”: “The story that cannot be told must not-tell itself in a language already contaminated, possibly irrevocably and fatally. I resist the seduction of trying to cleanse it through ordering techniques and practices, for the story must tell itself, even if it is a partial story; it must be allowed to be and not be” (189, 190, 199).

[26] For accounts of this trajectory, see the essays collected in E.P. Thompson, The Romantics: England in a Revolutionary Age (Woodbridge: Merlin, 1997).

[27] See Gillian Rose, Mourning Becomes the Law: Philosophy and Representation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 62.

[28] Danny Hayward, “The Essential Standpoint of Man: An Autopsy, in Three Parts,” in World Picture 6 (Autumn 2011): 13, accessed March 8, 2017.

[29] Danny Hayward, Pragmatic Sanction (Cambridge: Materials, 2015), np.

[30] The “LCD portal,” we recall, having been apprised of its location on the previous page, is “bored carefully / into the hyperplasia forming at the base [of an ashen-faced cabinet minister’s] skull.”

[31] Hayward’s poem is set in one continuous block of justified prose; the virgules here offer the same (minimal) indication of the reading experience as they do in the quotations from Boyer. For a consideration of the relationship of this kind of formal layout (tubes of fully justified prose poetry, whether metrical or otherwise), to recent politico-economic history, and which includes reflection on Hayward’s poem, see Keston Sutherland, “Blocks: form since the crash,” available at the time of writing in two recordings both publically accessible. The first from a seminar held at New York University (13 November 2015) , and the second from a lecture at the University of Chicago (19 November 2015). Verity Spott’s Gideon (London: Barque Press, 2014) is also discussed. Practically all of Sutherland’s own recent poetry employ this form; see the last two books collected in his Poetical Works: 19992015 (London: Enitharmon, 2015).

[32] Keston Sutherland, Stress Position (London: Barque Press, 2009), np.

[33] See Sutherland, Stupefaction: A Radical Anatomy of Phantoms (London, New York, and Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2011), 26–90.

[34] Sutherland, Stress Position, np.

[35] ‘Iraq: U.S. Should investigate al-Falluja,’ in Human Rights Watch. For the report itself, see “Violent Response: The U.S. Army in al-Falluja.

[36] For a singularly developed account of “trying” in Sutherland’s poetry, especially “trying to love,” see Danny Hayward’s essay “The Proxy Inhumanity of Forklifts” in The Stats On Infinity (Brighton: Crater Press, 2010), in which Hayward argues that “[a]ll of Sutherland’s recent long poems may be approached as a kind of trial, where the conditions most inimical to impassioned and impassioning thinking are raised into an iron grid against which lyric will put itself to the test.” The “trial” of “The Proxy Inhumanity of Forklifts,” a poem that is in many ways the sequel to Stress Position, thematically and not just chronologically, because also centered on the agony of the occluded body of an anonymous Iraqi detainee during the war, “is a trial in incompletion made against the fact of the desire to exit it. The poem traps itself between the ineliminability of the material injustices it protests against and the endless eliminability of those injustices in language, and it makes being trapped, and the experience in language of living with it, into the most seethingly funny and irresolvable drama of effort and its decline.” Hayward’s account of the trial of commitment in Sutherland’s poetry is an account of the particularly intractable contradictions of writing a song of barbaric suffering which must include “the indelibility of my [any reader’s, or any poet’s] fantasy of completion,” where “completion,” or “being in the end,” is indefatigably both the momentary suspension of capitalist-imperialist reality in the rapture of lyric imagination, and the attempt to preserve in the very imagination fired only by the negative backdraft of such rapture, the image of a world in which the “end” is not wasted death, but living only for the loving generosity of other people. See Danny Hayward, “Exit Strategies: Some Problems of Commitment in Keston Sutherland’s ‘The Proxy Inhumanity of Forklifts,’” in Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry 3. 1 (March 2011): 35–56 (47–48, 53, 51).

[37] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Holy Family; or, Critique of Critical Criticism, Against Bruno Bauer and Company, in Marx and Engels, Works, Vol. 4 (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1975), 3–211 (36–37).