Exit Strategies: Danny Hayward’s Pragmatic Sanction

By Ed Luker , 21 July 2016
Image: Endgame, Go!

'What if our possibility is grounded in the uncoordinated?', asks Pragmatic Sanction, Danny Hayward's ambitious long poem. Among other things it undertakes a scarifying assault on the kind of 'thinking' constituted and compelled by the Government's 'points based' Work Capability Assessment system. Ed Luker works through and illuminates the dizzying deadlocks of a contemporary communist poetry that is neither reconciled nor resolved, but inexhaustibly compelling


Although it is perhaps too soon to say to what extent and what the consequences will be, it is not yet too early to say that poetry is finding a new value. There has been a resurgence of interest in the non-prosaic in literary and art worlds. This is perhaps most clearly seen in a large turn towards the word as a part of art practice. This is perhaps not surprising: the word is relatively ‘cheap’ to produce in comparison to other forms of art production, where the means to digital distribution are often immediately at hand for those savvy (or lucky) enough to afford it. Within the world of poetry itself there have been a myriad of discussions around whom poetry is for and who gets to write, or what we even might deem the function of poetry to be.[1] In the wake of the Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place controversies, it seems that these questions come at a time when the task of the historical avant-garde is being re-assessed, perhaps in part through an identification that the work of some of its most currently well-known practitioners seem to run antithetically to the most pressing concerns of our present moment. Last year, David Marriott wrote that the very concept of the avant-garde has slipped into a commensurability with the historical category it was always attempting to negate. Marriott, however, also defends the tasks that the avant-garde set, ‘those European and American avant-gardes posed a question about the relation between the reading and practice of poetry that goes beyond the category of the avant-garde itself.’[2] For Marriott, whilst the term that denotes the organisation that would overcome history may not be to up to task, it is still necessary for history to be sublated.

These discussions around the task and function of poetry in relation to the methods of the avant-garde are important. Without getting into a rather circular and unhelpful set of questions around what is or is not a contemporary avant-garde poetry (a term that perhaps should be consigned to history) we, as Marriott prefaces, need to think carefully about whom and what poetry is for, what kind of questions our poetry is asking, and what kind of tasks we set for ourselves within the realms of aesthetics and politics? Within a North American context it seems undeniably true that a vanguard that set itself in opposition to mainstream cultural practices has become little more than a market appendage, a boutique aisle on the shopfloor. However, this historic failure is not an essential aspect of poetic experimentalism but rather a contingent element of a certain moment. The entrenchment of certain figures, such as Goldsmith, within the establishment does not undermine the thrillingly necessary work of experimentation currently being done by poets as various as Fred Moten, Anne Boyer, M. NourbeSe Philip, or Rob Halpern, to name but a few.

In Britain, the situation is somewhat different. Whilst there are a small number of poets who can proffer their experimental work within the small presses in relatively small circulation from the confines of their academic office, they sit uneasily within ‘the establishment’. From the GCSE syllabus, to ‘Poetry Please!’ poetic taste is bound up within a conservatism of limited ambition. It has felt, until recently, like ‘British Poetry’ has still not overcome the anti-modernist anaesthetic administered by The Movement poets in the late fifties, after Philip Larkin denounced the three P’s of Ezra Pound, Pablo Picasso and Charlie Parker. But, something has shifted ever so slightly. One only need briefly glance at the barometer to see that the temperature has changed; a very short look at the most recent publications by Faber and Faber would show that the establishment’s editors are aware that the tastes of the audience are no longer content with Simon Armitage and Ted Hughes. The most recent publications by younger poets within Faber and Faber demonstrate that this is a generation who have come into contact with poetry beyond the confines of a limited anti-experimental British tradition. Flaring with neon insignia, and verse running free with imaginative purchase, these poets have clearly taken up the jouissance of the New York school, of O’Hara-esque personism as post-Romantic thrill. And it is not hard to understand why this is a direction poetry takes during our current moment, where the turn against conceptual work, as a turn against the coldness of a poetics that rejected subjectivity, during a time when political questions so urgently pivot on who gets to be a subject and who is locked up, out, or withheld. Yet, for all the appearance of a ‘free’ running of the poetic frisson, the best poets of the New York school knew that the lyric subject was bound to a history that no direct expression of infinity and love could circumvent,

is Tibet historically a part of China? as I historically  
belong to the enormous bliss of American death [3]

The conceptualist’s notion that language can do away with identity is entirely a false one. However, identity is in itself as socialised as the justice we demand. The subject as author finds itself both bound up with the work that it creates and entirely externalised from itself within the production of the work. Everyone who has truly felt the flirtatious touch of O’Hara’s address knows that poetic language is inherently dialectical. It is both particular and urging towards a non-realisable universal. This universality is of course determined by the necessarily limited inclusivity of language within national and militarised confines, and therefore qua language, unrealisable, but all lyric address strains towards this universality. ‘I’, is of course the voice of the poet O’Hara, but even after the tragic death of this poet, the ‘enormous bliss of American death’ constituted by the ego of the subject – the collective ‘I’ that makes up the nation – steamrolls on.

In an interview in The Quietus from last year Sam Riviere and Harry Burke ruminate on the latter’s work in editing the collection I Love Roses When They’re Past Their Best (Test Centre, 2014). In the interview Burke characterises the collection as asking where do we consider the poets to be and what does poetry tell us about where we are?[4] Riviere and Burke discuss Burke’s interest in the proliferation of social-media usage made possible by continual technological advancement. They consider how media’s integration into the remnants of the social might be used to understand poetry by drawing together its disparate elements into a ‘network architecture’. In this metaphor the proximity of seemingly disparate poets to one another is revealing of what Riviere terms the ‘cognitive schema’ of the internet. Within this argument the relation between new digital technologies and the editing and publishing of poetry collections is not only revealing of digital proximity between stylistically disparate writers, but also helps us to orientate ourselves within our own peculiarly modern alienation. Riviere asks Burke if his editorial resourcing of new media might not present an idea of the ‘future for poetry’.

Burke’s response deserves noting:

I'm wondering if we're taking on Jameson's idea of cognitive mapping[…], that alienation in the modern city occurs when people are unable to map (in their minds) their own position in the urban totality which they are aware they are inhabiting. You're just drifting in the big grid city, like Detroit or Milton Keynes, where traditional markers of space are largely absent, or at least everything looks the same. Jameson applies this notion to culture: it's the difference between alienation within totalised, globalised, homogenous culture, and having markers to create meaning, or a sense of position, within this. You can quite easily understand this as a metaphor for cultural production within industrial internet infrastructure of today. Perhaps poetry anthologies are a cognitive map of the present.

In Burke’s uptake of Frederic Jameson there is a familiarly common misapprehension of the concept of alienation. In this argument alienation occurs because the re-animated corpse of T. S. Eliot does not know whether he is in a Pret A Manger in London or Hong Kong. As there’s no fossils littering the sidewalks of Williamsburg no one knows which lane of the Quaternary Period they are supposed to be driving in. In these accounts of alienation, the question of the management of human suffering and the construction of cityscapes as something produced by human labour and mediated by the ownership of private property is absent. Intentionally or not, this absence of a reflection upon the ownership of private property, as well as who owns and controls the means of literary production and distribution, the inflictions of private property as containing forms of coherency that could (and should) be considered a politics, means that the world’s problems considered culturally can be easily switched into a dyad of lack and need. This can be supplemented by an authoritative call to knowledge.

The problem with modern urban living becomes that when everything looks the same nobody knows where they are anymore. As the poets heed the particularity of something that could be known as living there, poetry anthologies serve the market function of reminding people where they are. The poets do this by invoking what it feels like to be somewhere that is neither merely digital nor built of concrete. In this argument the poetry anthology becomes a sort of hyper-contemporary Baedeker for the contours of the soul; not merely a map, but one readable on your iPhone where each uncapitalised ‘i’ is dotted with a tiny, biometric reproduction of your retina.

In an interview from March of last year Riviere stated that ‘I feel like nothing happens when poetry and money encounter each other’. His argument is supported by the claim that ‘Maybe it’s just that the abstraction that occurs in the presence of money makes us want to lineate its implied value somehow, and this alerts us to its proximity or governance, even in a market as redundant as poetry.’[5] There is a too simple an irony in placing this comment alongside a consideration of the relationship between digital technologies and poetry. It suggests that poets are mere victims caught under the boot of the glorious march of unabated technological progress. This is a process that Burke posits his own engagement with publishing as attempting to surmount. He states, ‘Why should a poem be free? It costs money to produce poetry, and poets need to eat’.[6]  I urge Burke to ask himself, why should water be free? Or housing? How much do claims of this kind act as an a priori justification for a lack of concern over whom might feed the poets?           

At present the purpose of poetry is a contested and open field, the parameters are currently being determined. Moten has written of the need for a socio-poetics of the riot, as, ‘moving without moving in and against the brutal smallness of imposed needs and nationalized histories with the kind of out lyricism that only comes from being constrained to be somewhere else’.[7] Such a socio-poetics would unleash the celebratory moments of our collective capacities. It is not just the socio-poetics of the riot, but also the demonstration, the party, the dance, the being-together of a sociality that strains toward the possibility of a life led in common, from which Moten maintains the possibility of commonness emerges in this life. The consideration of the brutal smallness of imposed needs seems to me the most pressing question that is currently not being asked in the poetic mainstream in Britain (or by all those that wish to enter into it). Either Burke and Riviere’s comments are naïve, or they are misprisions designed to obscure. If this is naivety, it is borne out of a faith in reconfiguring who and what is included within the domain of poetry. This is a necessary task that poets and readers concerned with questions of liberation should not shy away from, but without thinking about how this domain is being constructed within private ownership – within a rapidly shrinking sphere of capital and the continual exclusion of certain bodies from the means to life – one is just rearranging the cover-pieces in the shop windows of Foyles. If their comments over what marks money’s lineation and its irrelevance to poetry contain a misprision, it is perhaps because it is in their interests to profess that the poetic marketplace is completely redundant. Where there is an absence or a redundancy it can be their task to revivify that market. If that is their task, I hold them to call it into question, to inhabit Moten’s question: to think about how poetry moves against this brutal smallness, this immiserating decline.

Danny Hayward’s poetry and essays are committed to the questions of the articulation and overcoming of alienation through the abolition of private property. His work takes on as its challenge how an experimental poetry can articulate capitalist exploitation. It does this by circumventing a poetics of unabashed resignation put to work on the market, which in glittering hyper-text, reproducing the aesthetics of identification on the shop-floor of M&M's® World, is, as Hayward puts it, ‘what we do anyway’.[8] I want to look at Hayward’s most recently published long-poem, Pragmatic Sanction (2015) alongside some thoughts from Hayward’s critical writings to give an introduction to some of the maneuvers occurring within his work.[9]Neither Hayward’s People (2013) nor Pragmatic Sanction have been much discussed since their release. In a lecture, ‘Blocks: form since the crash’ delivered at New York University on 13 November 2015, Keston Sutherland discusses Hayward’s most recent book.[10] Describing it as ‘a scene with no exit’, Sutherland’s remark conjures an image that presents the poem as a bit like the psychological horror film Cube (1997). In the film the protagonists are stuck inside a giant hexahedral sci-fi structure, which they have to traverse, moving cautiously from room to room so as not to disturb one of the numinous discreet and terrifying traps. If these traps are set off the characters suffer cruel fates such as being sliced apart by flying lasers or burnt by acid. The comparison is an apt one. Pragmatic Sanction is weighted with the logic of consequence played out within the narrative phantasm of minimal choice constructed through the appearance of familiar operative mechanisms from game shows and computer games (also to be found in Sutherland’s own Hot White Andy as, ‘The tension in an unsprung | r trap’).[11]

Before we are given any narrative premises we are informed by Pragmatic Sanction’s opening line that, ‘The conclusion is wrong’. From here on, in some way the long prose-poem (about 32 pages of A4, in three parts) is comparable to the aims of Andrea Brady’s Wildfire (2010), ‘to recognize that certain catastrophes and felicities are not inevitable’, that capitalism is not a transhistorical fact but rather a system of exploitation that has emerged via human activity.[12] However, it approaches the question of an understanding of the relationship between world history, the development of capitalism, and the present in a manner quite distinct from Brady’s in Wildfire. In Brady’s poem the particularity of distinct historical catastrophes is stressed through a disinterred cut-up technique that switches through variegated referents. Things are made commensurable by the poem across historical time that are not so easily made so outside of it, so that the reader has to think through the distinctions between Ancient Grecian fire and the weapons of modern warfare through the contrasts between the source materials. By contrast Pragmatic Sanction forces the history of all hitherto existing society – as an indifferently scholastic form of knowledge – into the video game logic of leveling up. This development is traced from the strict standpoint of the present. We move through world history in the poem as if it were a GCSE Bitesize revision guide for Leopold Bloom’s finals at the Annales School. Transported from Prehistory, through the classical antiquity of ancient Greece and Mesopotamia, across the dark ages, and into the early modern period, all reference to the latest historical time ceases with ‘we wake up absolutely alert in the knowledge that it is 1503.’ This happens just before the first (and longest) section’s final showdown between a travelator that extends across a highly complex image of a global division of labour across all time and a giant self-dividing stress ball. These past moments of world history and our journey through them, however, are pinioned by the intractability of images of the present. As we begin our journey in an Assyrian burger bar, this transport across one moment of history and into another is conducted through a warp pipe of limited option.

On this journey the reader is made into an Ebenezer Scrooge type figure, where the narrator straps ‘you’ into a Perry Anderson-esque Roller Coaster train, where the reader views all history from the standpoint of the grand periodising gesture of the vertical plummet. Often switching between ‘you’ and ‘we’, the narrative runs consecutively through the ‘stages of historical development’ and gets tied up with some curious objects along the way, such as the poem’s seeming hero, the hypothalamus, as well as the travelator and the giant stress ball. This development is never dependent on any particular historical locale for too long. Despite this slack insistence on progression or the logic of linear-historical time, the poem’s staging of history is still ever the more compounded and warped by Nintendo plumbing, giant pointy fingers, click here buttons or walk this way arrows as metonyms for progression as overly-familiar form of leisurely (yet enjoyable) stupefaction. These directional avatars are collocated alongside burn marks, workplace lacerations, sixteen-hour shifts, the drawing of rifles under martial law, no-win no-fee life insurance policies, and mass graves.

Throughout Pragmatic Sanction’s platform hop of dislocations, history cannot be disassociated from the activity of its interpretation. The book’s continual insistence is a large red button signposted YOU ARE HERE. This red button is placed inside a break-glass in case of fire cabinet. Through these markers of location, forced into crudest function, the reader, whom might otherwise attempt to strain to feel like they are located on the poem’s outside, knows that they are forever trapped within language. One that Marx states, is premised on, ‘expropriation […] written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire.’[13] This language as, ‘you’, ‘us’, ‘the hypothalamus’ etc, gets fleshed out by blue cobalt flat-batteries, sped up by hidden ramps, measured by health bars, and flat-lines endlessly into the horizon. Similarly to how contemporary walk-through computer games utilise narrative to give the illusion of the game as an open field, while ultimately that choice is bound by the delimitations of the programming, Hayward’s poem is preconfigured by narrative instruction where the voice of the poem directs the minimum rhetorical possibility of having an option. What is striking about this inexhaustible logic of the game, the minimal sense of having an option, is that the reader knows the laws so intimately. They are so familiar that they feel near enough instinctive. We chose which way we go through the world of the poem, knowing full well that those choices have already been decided for us. As an example of how the poem offers these directions as choices espoused through a rhetorical narrative address, on the first page the first option put to us is, ‘Which way do we go. Between the pipe and the door there is little to choose.’

The near consistent prosodic blocks of double-spaced and justified text fill the whole of the A4 page, apart from the second section, which is in verse form broken and flattened into prose with the line breaks of where the verse should be demarcated by the ‘|’ symbol. In his lecture Sutherland offers one possible influence on the logic of Hayward’s prosaic exhaustion, Samuel Beckett’s mid-period work, such as the endless working through of Cartesian logic demonstrated in Watt (1953). This logic of exhausting the variants of possibility within the work, such as the ‘Tom, Dick and Harry’ descriptions of the arrangements of labour in Mr. Knott’s house, are the modus operandi of certain sections of Pragmatic Sanction. However, Sutherland has rather modestly missed another of the work’s influences, his own The Odes to TL61P).[14] Another precursor to this block form may be Peter Manson’s Adjunct: An Undigest (2009).[15] Much like Hayward’s book, Sutherland’s odes are written predominantly in justified prosodic blocks with excurses into verse. Hayward’s time-hopping pipe is even reminiscent of the kind possibly jutting out of the back the Hotpoint tumble dryer, of which ‘TL61P’ is the product code.

While the formal influences of Sutherland on Pragmatic Sanction allow for a starting comparison for those uninitiated with Hayward’s work, the motivations for their separate projects are distinct enough. Sutherland’s odes could be crudely typified as poems about what the possibilities for love are in a society dominated by the rule of the exchange of commodities. His work reaches dizzyingly heightened expressions of lyric avowal through an exacting Romantic pressure. In contrast Hayward’s book is much less concerned with such ‘personal’, subjective expression. Personhood is enacted by subjecting the reader to work through the logically consequent and the interminability of the line as one tries to cling onto every back-flip and black hole the poetic image buckaroos into. The affective quality of the reading experience is based on interminable pressure and cognitive demand; it is intensely claustrophobic.  Whereas Sutherland’s book offers up psychological damage and considerations on sexual history as demands for the consideration of how bodies and psyches might come to be damaged, and how the forces that damage them might be annulled, the way that Pragmatic Sanction demands an end to suffering is somewhat different.

In earlier work by Sutherland, such as Hot White Andy, the poem produces its disorientation and dislocation through cut and shut lyricism within the clause. Consider the lines, ‘in pursuit | of the protocols for our overdue Borland Delphi haiku split in | two like a smitten Ramadi heart, tediously equivocal’. The breaks emphasize the damage to thinking enacted by the laws of exchange through non-equivalence.[16] By contrast this disorientation occurs in Pragmatic Sanction across clauses. This is done through a grammatical structure that is both unrelenting and logically deceptive due to its immediate impression of coherent stability:

What if our possibility is grounded in the uncoordinated, what if coordination itself were a kind of torture, what if the torture could be unfolded to reveal again the points system embedded in it, its pink flesh on fire in the afternoon, what if, says the hypothalamus, the need to win the game is the face of loss itself, or what if loss is the face of need, what if the face of the face of loss would peel off to reveal a tick box of inestimable depth hosting at its bottom a fire out of which our own face emerges mouthing torture to rise up on the hot air towards the sky with which it is integrated?

[unpaginated, approximated as (16), formatting and line breaks differ in original]

This section operates through the repetition of the hypothetical conditional question ‘what if’ as an emphatic imploration to the reader. However that imploration twists away from its earnest design through further refractions of instrumental stupidity. The opening plea, ‘what if our possibility is grounded in the uncoordinated’ designates a non-existent and potential political community through the possessive pronoun to hold that the emergence of such community might be minimally feasible and therefore absolutely necessary. The possibility of that not yet existent space of the uncoordinated then gets interred in the managerial space of coordination, mapped out in an officiated and institutional culture. This happens by its being spliced through a ‘points system’, a reference to the point-based ‘score system’ used in the Work Capability assessments. It is then stretched out against the necessity of winning, and finally, after ‘the face of the face of loss’ is peeled off, the absolute catastrophe beneath is revealed: a ‘tick box’, the murderous documentation of the assessment schemes’ final sanction, ‘pragmatic’ cost savings implemented by private companies on behalf of the British state.

What this structure of narrative consequence avoids is the modernist diagnostics of, say, Pound or Eliot, ‘The tea-rose, tea-gown, etc. | Supplants the mousseline of Cos’.[17] In Pound, the vantage on suffering is constructed from the position of a non-complicit observer who can bemoan the state of affairs with little risk to the self nor providing any acknowledgement of those who are most damaged by modernity. Not a lost culture, then, but those exploited and crushed by capital. In Pragmatic Sanction, the mechanism of the poem’s inclusion of the reader through direct address, ‘What do we do, we say, tearing at our partners with our teeth’, (3) implicates all in its structure by mimicking the thought patterns of the subjects of contemporary capital in a developed Western consumer-economy in decline. The emphasis, here, is that these thoughts of this subject, ‘we’, both are and are not their own.

To further the distinctions of the kind of work done in Pragmatic Sanction, the poem works through the cultural processes by which the exploitation of labour processes become normalized; this is the function of its instructive dependence on the logic of a gamified popular culture; the ‘thinking’ inherent in processes as the administration of workplace discipline is commensurate with the kind of ‘thinking’ our culture experienced as leisure makes us do. This is why Sutherland states in his lecture that the poem does a lot of ‘cognitive work’, and is, ‘cognitively inoculated, it has an ironic and conscious relation to the power of cognitive work, to put up a kind of resistance against being crushed.’[18] In its conclusion, described beautifully by Sutherland, Pragmatic Sanction offers up the minimal possibility of resistance against being crushed. However, this minimal resistance is only an option made possible within the poem because of its mode of exhaustion, that is, after the narrative has dragged the reader through thirty-one pages of a description of being chased through world-history by a large booming sound. If the poem opened with this minimal possibility from the outset the work of the poem would be immediately undone. It is only after the cognitive working out of the poem’s exhaustive effect –forcing the reader to engage in certain kinds of familiarly stupefied and contradictorily enjoyable thought processes – that the possibility of resistance can emerge.

When flapping my dorsal fins and trying to open my third eye to engage in the act of thinking that I feel a poem like Hayward’s Pragmatic Sanction is cajoling me into undertaking, I have often felt far too dizzy to know what kind of thoughts it wants me to have. That last clause is a strange one. For Hayward it is erroneous to claim that all products of the culture industry do not want us to think, that they simply want to massage our temples and rub our feet whilst a large assemblage of nanobots run up the back of the sofa, into our ear canal, saw the top of our skull off from inside out and then sequester our brain. What is fundamental for an understanding of capitalist popular culture is the kind of thinking it makes us do, the kind of thinking it continually forces us to undertake, a force so coercive that we barely even recognise we are doing it. Don’t push the giant red button. Such an understanding of the common mechanisms of capitalist popular culture would allow for their reversal in what, as Hayward intimates in his essay ‘The Comedy of Domination’, he desires that does not yet exist: a communist populism. This reversal can be enacted through the production of misrecognition, as an intractable absurdity, that, ‘wants to force you [or ‘you’] to work to experience your own necessary misrecognition in the simulation of […] illegitimacy’ because ‘you’ encompasses the figures of literary consumer, the reader, as well as those whose lives are most disastrously ruined by capitalism.[19] Hayward’s blunt use of the mechanism of popular culture, the game show’s predictable awarding of the prize to the one deemed most worthy through their ability to complete stupid and arbitrary tasks, exposes how these processes create a subject which ‘you’ in fact are not. The reader’s subjective freedom lies in the fact that, whilst culture may try and make us into restrained and individuated types, we are always more than culture tries to make us be.

If Harry Burke states that, ‘we constitute ourselves part textually’, Pragmatic Sanction niggles us with the linguistically enforced processes, the anti-homeless spikes and taser barbs of the official state language imposing the management of decline alongside the culture that assures it.[20] It reveals how ‘we’ are constituted, managed, assessed, and disciplined by a language that is not in our possession. Hayward's idea of how capitalist popular culture forces us to make certain kinds of thought-based recognition (one could also say identification, our investment of emotional belief in a cultural object, the idea that it could be our own) is taken up in his poetry by its mimicking of that logic of technique in capitalist popular culture.

In a moment of narrative climax in Pragmatic Sanction the authoritative voice stops describing the course of world history so as to pause and reflect upon the course of events so far:

The booming sound grows aggressively louder. The hypothalamus tries to jam a great slab of mined copper into the slot but is defeated in this attempt. Can we sprint through all of human history not stopping in order to know the inexorability of movement?, I say. Are we chased by the booming sound? Is it the noise of our own despair? Is there a value in proving to ourselves just how out of control we are? Is the desire for collective control strengthened by the knowledge of our wild and unchosen trajectory? Is this tongue folded up into a larger tongue and counted along with its neighbours to be passed on to a higher department and then counted again in turn, only then for another administrator to draw a red line on a map that may then be counted along with other red lines and folded into an aggregate figure to be fed to a higher oven and to be released as steam into a turbine powering a mannequin tearing its hair out on a stage? And can the mannequin be counted along with other mannequins on other stages also with more or less hair, more or less desire, and can the total number of mannequins be summed and passed upwards to a higher department to establish moieties thereof or ethnic groupings or nations also with more or less hair cleverly built into a pipe leading downwards through wage labour to serfdom to slavery and out into the patriarchal family sitting around the table in the burger joint from Stage One? The others hotly deny this. (7) [Formatting and line breaks differ from text]

The reading-process exacerbates its attempts to make our minds do something like identifying ourselves within the text by stretching the logic of popular culture beyond comprehension through continual extension. This dislocates the stable logic on which the 'scene-setting' of popular culture operates. It introduces something familiar, which is then made to intersect with or switch into the domain of the unfamiliar through a lack of coherence in the consecutive part. This constructs a sort of continual Verfremdungseffekt where A and B are both understandable but the move from A to B is not. This technique does not state ‘THIS IS A POEM’ so as to break the spell of the artwork in the way that Jean-Luc Godard's Week-end (1967) says ‘this is just a film’. The spell is never convincingly cast in the first place. We know we are contained within a poem through the relentless, unfolding of satire that it drags us through. Within this construct, what we are also made aware of is that the world outside the text is one and the same as the world of the text. While distinctions can be drawn between the two, the language of the poem is still always the same as the language of domination. All exit strategies are blocked.

In a recent critical appraisal of Lisa Jeschke and Lucy Beynon’s David Cameron: A Theatre of Knife-Songs, Hayward describes how the play works through its psychological character-types in a way that presents ambivalence as a form of mental labour.[21] According to his argument, irresolution is the strength of the work, emphasised through the unsatisfactory fleetingness of its suspension via forms of temporary resolution – often occurring in the wrong place. What is key to these character-types is that they forego easy or conclusive analysis. Things can be said about the play but they cannot be typified into a resolution that could be either merely comforting or starkly upsetting. Similarly, Hayward’s Pragmatic Sanction is a book that depends on a narrative that the reader can in one sense follow, a line of direction that takes one from a certain identifiable fictional construction into another, but the logic of movement by which this extension occurs is typified by fallacy or willed incoherence. This is emphatically not a way of stating that in Pragmatic Sanction there is no right life to be lived in the wrong. Within the book this truism is no longer granted its conciliatory capacity as an injunction against taking standpoints (or action).[22] In this culture you are wrong from the start, but you will be forced back to the beginning, the first level, every time you fail, so as to fail better.

For Hayward, Jeschke and Beynon’s play demonstrates how individuals can inhabit a non-schematic or incoherent worldview where the very possibility of holding to an opinion, idea or set of political values can be forever deferred.  We might hold this position to be the opposite of another commonplace view: it is often expressed that the inability to hold to a view, the inability to display constancy in the face of perennial exposure to the news of human suffering, is exemplary of inactivity. This is so because it is irresolute, as if all if it would take to overthrow capitalism is for the masses to make up their minds.

In the attempt to diagnose the possibility of politics in the contradictory attachments of the damaged, activity, as the mental labour of the wrong, is mistaken for inactivity. Correspondingly, the possibility of a radical or emancipatory politics emerging from the condition of the broken is therefore put in doubt such that two outcomes might occur. The critically-critical theorist, the analyser of wrong life, can attempt to create correct positions for the minds of those not them. The identification of an incorrect position is imagined as the imperative that pushes radical progress back in the right direction. What direction ‘we’ are in, the course of history, is a matter of pointing out the sides of the class struggle in the correct analysis of the history of capitalism, its victors, its wrongs, and its wronged. In this schema critics are pedagogues who construct positions, vacillation can be put back on track and the wrong can stand corrected. The other alternative is that the critically-critical theorist can identify the proliferation of the wrong so as to hold to their schema of diagnosis, where the activity of arriving at the correct diagnosis, the mental labour of analysing what wrong life is and simply repeating how and how much wrong it is, becomes a form of resignation. This is, ‘the conviction of merely being | right, that has | marched into the patter of balance’, as J. H. Prynne puts it.[23] The mental labour of the analyst, or the theorist, whilst presumed to be an active relation to the world, can be no more than the inactivity of holding to the same in a world that is in itself not static. Holding on to the irresolute as it flinches from one’s grasp, Hayward’s poetry and essays aim at such thinking and will to pull the ground from underneath such comforts, these truisms of Left academic thought are simply maneuvers that Hayward’s Pragmatic Sanction does not allow one to make; with crushing urgency all the exits are bolted shut; the sign hanging over the fire escape flashes ever more virulently.


Ed Luker edvard.lvker AT is a poet and a writer. He is the author of Peak Return (Shit Valley Press, 2014), Headlost (RIVET. Press, 2014) and The Sea Together (Materials Press, 2016). He is currently working on a long prose-poem on detainment and attainment called Universal Attainment Centre



I am ever grateful to Hannah Proctor, Joe Luna and Danny Hayward for their comments and feedback on this piece.



[1] See: Andrea Brady, ‘The white privilege of British poetry is getting worse’, The Conversation, 8 October 2015; Sandeep Parmar, ‘Not a British Subject: Race and Poetry in the UK’, LARB, 6 December 2015; and Kavita Bhanot, ‘Decolonise, not Diversify’, Media Diversified, 30 December 2015.

[2]  David Marriott, ‘Response to Race and the Poetic Avant-Garde’, Boston Review, 10 March 2015.

[3]  Frank O’Hara, ‘Rhapsody’ in Selected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 2005), p. 148.

[4]  Sam Riviere, ‘I Love Roses When They’re Past Their Best: Harry Burke Interviewed’, The Quietus (June, 2014).

[5]  Sam Buchan Watts, ‘Poetry as Product: An Interview with Sam Riviere’, review31, undated, probably published May, 2014.

[6]  S. Riviere, ‘I Love Roses When They’re Past Their Best: Harry Burke Interviewed’.

[7]  Fred Moten, ‘necessity, immensity, and crisis (many edges/seeing things)’, Floor, 30 October 2011.

[8]  ‘DH’, ‘Partial Notes on the Situation in London’, Tripwire 8, ed. David Buuck, (Oakland, 2014).

[9]  Danny Hayward, Pragmatic Sanction (Cambridge: Materials Press, 2015) [Unpaginated. All further references to the book made within the text].

[10] An audio recording of the talk has been uploaded to

[11] Keston Sutherland, Hot White Andy (London: Barque, 2007) [Unpaginated].

[12] Andrea Brady, Wildfire A Verse Essay on Obscurity and Illumination (Krupskaya, 2010), [quote from blurb].

[13] Karl Marx, Capital vol. I, trans. Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1990), p. 875.

[14] Keston Sutherland, The Odes to TL61P, (London: Enitharmon, 2013).

[15] This observation was stated to me by Luke Roberts, it is his possession. See: Peter Manson, Adjunct: An Undigest (London: Barque Press, 2009).

[16] K. Sutherland, Hot White Andy.

[17] Ezra Pound, Poems 1981-21 (New York: Boni and Liverlight, 1921), p. 54.

[18] K. Sutherland, ‘Blocks’.

[19] Danny Hayward, People (Cambridge, Mountain Press, 2013).

[20] S. Riviere, ‘I Love Roses When They’re Past Their Best: Harry Burke Interviewed’.

[21] Danny Hayward, ‘Strong Language: Beynon & Jeschke’s David Cameron: A Theatre of Knife-Songs’, Hix Eros 6, ed. Jo Walton & Joe Luna, (August, 2015).

[22] For a critique of Adorno’s notion of dialectics without a standpoint see: Danny Hayward, ‘The Essential Standpoint of Man: An Autopsy, in Three Parts’ (Autumn 2011). A continual element in Hayward’s thinking is a strong mistrust of Marxian absolutist positions of resignation that hold that the absolute despair of wrong life functions as a justification for not acting, or there being simply nothing that one can do. There is always a minimal possibility that there may be something one can do.

[23] J. H. Prynne, ‘A New Tax on the Counter Earth’ in Poems, (Hexham: Bloodaxe Books, 2015), p. 172.