Poetry Journal

Issues / Volume 5 Issue 1 , July 2015


John Kinsella’s Wild Ecology of Thought

Bonny Cassidy

It must be said, straight up, that this two-volume publication (Spatial Relations: Essays, Reviews, Commentaries and Chorography) is unlikely to attract the recreational reader. There’s little that’s aesthetically attractive about the presentation of its volumes. They are procedural and thorough in their arrangement and inclusive editorial approach. Between drafts of this review, I worked on my bicep curls with a volume in each hand. Published by international scholarly press Rodopi, it is pitched towards libraries, academics and critics of poetry and poetics, John Kinsella’s work and Australian literary tradition, and other disciplinary areas visited in its pages.

With this in mind, however, Spatial Relations is a unique trove of Kinsella’s uncollected non-fiction to date. It provides a sense of the scope of his work that one may lack from the immediate reception of his publications month-to-month and year-to-year (such is his proficiency as a poet, critic, editor and essayist). Kinsella and his editor Gordon Collier have organised its contents into a series of sections and sub-sections. While encouraging a false sense of progress in the reader, the sections also function as broad indicators of the various interests and forms that Kinsella’s critical writing has taken: from overviews of Australian poetry to studies of individual writers; from memoir to international reviews. The sections could also be roughly distinguished as ‘regionally’ classified, be it under ‘Australian’ poetry, ‘international’, modern British poetics, or the pervasive presence of Westralian writers in Kinsella’s critical work. In this way, Spatial Relations de-emphasises the chronology of the critic’s career, focusing, rather, on its thematic, philosophical and personal nodes. This is a rare type of publication in the local context, for how many Australian literary critics have been collected in the form of what is essentially a print archive? As I’ll attempt to elucidate here, its structure is both respectful of how Kinsella works and frustrating to the reader.

Volume One opens with Kinsella’s signature statements on Australian poetics, defining his theory of ‘international regionalism’ (‘Quarantined Spaces, Groups and a Crisis in Modernism’) and how ‘classic’ Australian literature may be constituted by groupings, ‘maverick’ poetics and self-evident internationalism, rather than by canonical lineage (‘Literature of Australia Past’). These statements provide platforms for the sympathetic criticism and studies of individual poets that follow. Focusing on poets such as John Mateer, Lionel Fogarty, Judith Wright and Coral Hull, Kinsella’s plain-speaking and accessible register tends to be the vehicle for overviews and descriptions of their work rather than searching analysis. Interestingly, his studies of Australian poets were originally pitched at American audiences through journals such as Poetry and the American Book Review. To that end, they are informative yet wide-ranging: little coloured panes that will make for excellent teaching and research resources, providing a model of open critical reading and achieving Kinsella’s aim to ‘demonstrate that relationships between poets in Australia are anything but straightforward’.

A related and remarkable quality of this work is its generous and open-minded tone. Very occasionally, there are odd remarks of cryptic superiority such as this one on reading CK Stead: ‘It is rare for the reader to be able to see beyond the idea of the poem, to have the still moment or emotional insight that invariably informs Stead’s poetic spirit, but that’s not a problem for me. It might be for others’. And because Kinsella is a reader with passion and purpose, there is also a dash of hyperbole (numerous subjects are, in various ways, ‘the most significant’ in their field). Yet even when discussing poets like Robert Adamson and Anthony Lawrence, with whom Kinsella has had notorious public clashes, he sticks to the purpose of his writing—the nature and significance of their poetry—with intimate and thoughtful understanding. Perhaps this is the pacifist at work.

Spatial Relations extends these shorter studies with a section of uninterrupted evaluations of mid- and late-career poets, ‘Longer Views on Individuals’. This section arrives at an apposite moment in Australian poetry publishing. Not since the well-thumbed UQP selected/collected series of the 1990s and the Australian Resources editions of SETIS has there been such a collective movement to collect, reissue and critique single oeuvres of Australian poetry. Look at the contents of APRIL, and the recent catalogues of UWA Press or Grand Parade Poets. Even younger poets are being ‘omnibused’ in John Leonard Press’s new releases, and current PhDs on modern and contemporary local poets are currently at an all-time high. Joining this moment, and including poets who have received more continuous critical airtime such as Les Murray and Peter Porter, Spatial Relations allows us to revisit Kinsella’s overviews of Michael Dransfield, David McComb and Charmaine Papertalk-Green.

Another timely aspect of Spatial Relations is the counter-narrative that it provides to recent, conservative commentaries on Australian poetry made by editor, poet and critic Geoff Page. In particular, Kinsella’s interest in opening up the definition of avant-garde and experimental poetics, particularly by exploring them regionally, offers a sane and refreshing way of reading and critiquing local poetry in contrast to Page’s unilinear views. As Kinsella argues in his introduction to the Penguin Anthology of Australian Poetry, republished here in a new version,

I see ‘experimental’ as referring to a conscious movement away from critically and publicly accepted standards of ‘good’ poetic practice in any given period. This is evidently subjective, but we may always submit critical discourse and publishing tendencies to scrutiny […] to assess what that ‘standard’ might have been, and why a piece of writing might venture away from that standard in content and technique.

Kinsella has engaged with Australian modernisms on a number of occasions, elevating writers like Zora Cross and Christopher Brennan while downplaying the importance of Kenneth Slessor. This collection of studies challenges Page’s notion of monolithic culture with the belief that, ‘even a basic grand narrative such as “modernism” skews when applied to Australia’ (‘Quarantined Spaces, Groups, and a Crisis in Modernism’). Kinsella expands this point to argue that, ‘Australian modernism had its own directions and triggers, and any model for comparison with other modernist poetries/poetics from beyond Australia needs to be reconsidered in this light’ (‘The New Penguin’).

One of those directions, as he presents them, would be the promise of an anti-pastoral tradition in Australian poetry, and a trigger for this perennial concern of Kinsella’s is the tension between settler poetics and colonial history. He invokes Lionel Fogarty as the supreme postmodern, postcolonial reaction to this tension. While Fogarty is frequently cited through the first couple of sections, it’s not until the ‘Longer Views’ section that Kinsella engages in a close exegesis of his poetry. That essay, ‘Lionel Fogarty: The Hybridizing of a Poetry’, first published in 1999, remains a seminal study of Fogarty’s poetics. Radically revised in 2011—the version published here—it has since been joined by further analyses of Fogarty’s work but still stands as a key reference point for any reader making a first foray into this importantly complex poetry. One of Kinsella’s notable insights here is the nature of ‘origins and intactness’ in Fogarty’s poetry, whereby the Western construct of time as a ‘fetishised’ vehicle of progressive adaptation/improvement is countered by qualities of persistence and continuity.

We should notice that Kinsella and Collier have set this essay in close proximity to Kinsella’s discussion of Les Murray, titled ‘Incalculable Influence’. Kinsella’s deep regard for Murray’s poetic voice is evident throughout these volumes, but while Murray, too, ‘frames his poetry around the conflict between the old values and the new’, Kinsella shows us that he characterises the ‘old’ as ‘ancestral purity’—a distinctly different idea from that of cultural persistence as it runs through Fogarty’s work. (This idea may explain Kinsella’s regular deferral to the platitudes of WB Yeats.) The theme of persistence could be followed through any number of Fogarty’s poems, but one selected by Kinsella is ‘Scenic Wonders—We Nulla Fellas’, published in 1983 and anticipating Aboriginal counter-movements to the 1988 Bicentenary of invasion/colonisation/settlement. As Kinsella writes:

This is Fogarty’s own wartime ‘propaganda’ (to thwart that of the invader) but also a highly spiritual and witnessing text that is ultimately about praise and respect for country. Furthermore, as a counter to Western science, Fogarty establishes an investigative language of observation that works as its own science with as much validity, intensity, and authority as that of the colonizers.

A section of the poem appeared as an epigraph to my own poetry collection, Final Theory, not only because of its interest in an alternative paradigm of time and space to the classic Western version but also for its constant references to ‘invader-tourists’, the impact of their incursions articulated in Fogarty’s poem through ‘the language of the pubs, brutal and threatening, morphed with language of navigation and exploration […] an attempt to keep language moving’. In this way, argues Kinsella, ‘the imaginary structure is the page—that is, ‘a place that refuses closure’, so long as its language does not solidify into a text with a single possible reading.

In his Introduction to Spatial Relations, Gordon Collier makes a passing but candid remark about Kinsella’s poetry: ‘I suspect that Fogarty’s is a voice [Kinsella] would have liked to have had’. Towards the end of ‘The Hybridizing of a Poetry’, Kinsella draws their work into comparison via the shared (though linguistically different) intention to ‘hybridize’ language in the interests of postcolonial expression. On re-reading this essay, I felt strongly that Collier’s observation could—positively—be extended to a number of Australian poets developing alongside Fogarty’s oeuvre. It’s an argument that needs to be drawn out at length beyond the bounds of this review, but I think it’s worth highlighting here how Fogarty’s voice appears as one of the key influences on current poetries that want to express the realities of postcolonial Australia. Provisionally, I would cite the work of Michael Farrell, Peter Minter, Sam Wagan Watson, Stuart Cooke, Toby Fitch, Tim Wright, Corey Wakeling and Fiona Hile as some examples of this influence. In this regard, it equals John Forbes’ impact on the same generation; and both Fogarty and Forbes far exceed Murray as a conscious reference point.

The ‘performative honesty’ of Fogarty’s poetic voice is also comparable to the way Kinsella understands the writings of Ouyang Yu. This is clear when Kinsella comments: ‘Along with Lionel Fogarty and Javant Biarujia, [Yu] might be one of the few poets in Australia, maybe the world, who have been driven to create a new language because of the limitations and complicities of an English that is exclusionary, protective, and deleting’ (‘The Space of the Tale’). In this regard, it’s fascinating to compare Kinsella’s study of the Maori poet Robert Sullivan, whose similarly ‘hybridizing language’ again invites the idea of a cultural ‘intactness’ that resists being talked over by the coloniser’s language (‘The Work of Robert Sullivan’). Or, as Kinsella puts it more directly in the companion piece, ‘Letter to Ouyang Yu’: ‘Language as closer to who we are than anything else?’

The latter sections of Volume One reflect Kinsella’s special relationships as a poet and scholar with Cambridge and Kenyon College. Their purpose is uneven, however. Some of the pieces in these sections are very much about and for Australian readers, including ‘A Poet Laureate for Australia? God Forbid!’ and ‘From Assimilation to Multiculturalism’. In others, Kinsella writes for North American and British audiences as he goes about defending and situating ‘Australian’ poetries and poetics. Still others (‘Plagiarism: A Beginner’s Guide’) seem misplaced rather than specially related to international points of contact. Both volumes end with a miscellany of short arts reviews, ‘Australiana’ and ‘A heteroglossia’. It’s good to see Kinsella’s poetically informed views applied to non-fiction, fiction and music in his short reviews. As with so many poets and poetry, his cultural life is deeply involved with other media, and his views of the arts are interrelated. Rather than being massed together, however, many of these reviews could have been more deliberately aligned with the book’s other thematic sections, including theatre and British poetry.

This raises the question of how Kinsella’s voice is ‘managed’ or presented in Spatial Relations. Such a collection is defined by its breadth; the point of it is to make the constellation of Kinsella’s criticism available at once. It is not intended for cover-to-cover reading. While he and Gordon Collier have done their best to neaten a ranging body of work into themes that show the continuity and persistence of Kinsella’s critical attentions, the collection becomes something of an echo chamber from the last third of Volume One onwards. At this point, his essays, reviews and forewords begin to overlap and sometimes directly parrot one another. Upon encountering the third introduction to the Athenian–Boeotian dialectic, you might decide it’s time to skip to the next section in search of new pasture. (In the latter chapters of Volume One a number of typos appear, as though Collier or his proofreader has simply run out of puff.)

One reason for this issue is that so many of the collected pieces are editorial introductions; as such, they are bound to re-introduce a pool of critical problems, queries and concepts. Another reason is Kinsella’s style itself. In his own editorial introduction to Spatial Relations, Collier remarks somewhat passively on the idiosyncrasy of repetition:

[…] in some sections it can be déjà lu all the way. There’s no point in putting the patient on an editorial gurney and wheeling it into the operating theatre, save perhaps for some minor plastic surgery […] For me as editor (and apropos of ‘mantra’), the matter of the déjà lu often has a magical quality to it, when professional ‘facts’ and aesthetic evaluations dropped in casually here, and again there and there, begin to nudge one towards a true awareness of their centrality in John’s life and ethos.

For Collier, Kinsella’s tendency to return to the same nexus of subject matter and argument is a symptom of the frequently ‘occasional’ nature of Kinsella’s critical publication; ‘on the fly, as it were’. If this is the case, it makes the graciousness of his critical voice all the more impressive. But it also shows up how a more interventionist, stylistically driven editorial approach would have benefited our appreciation of Kinsella’s critical significance and diversity.

One can envisage the discriminating progression in critical thinking that dwells within the rather bloated collection presented here. Couched among the more monologic pieces on personal poetics in Volume Two are some interesting engagements with individual artists such as Shaun Atkinson and Sidney Nolan, and delightfully earnest praise of Jarvis Cocker. Elsewhere, in Kinsella’s theatre reviews, the critical voice is typically focused but much sharper-tongued and less generous: ‘bland and poorly scripted’; ‘gratuitous and clunky’; ‘facile and puerile’; ‘boring … pedestrian, and … twee’. It’s an economical, journalistic register, sure, but it’s also the voice of a jobbing writer. Showcasing this diversity is valuable, but its effect would be enhanced by less, not more.

Where his work moves toward the personal essay and its specific, exploratory questions, Kinsella achieves a textured and challenging mode. In an essay such as ‘Sighting’, directed toward a like-minded local audience via the online journal Thylazine, we discover Kinsella the stylist. In this essay, he navigates themes of belief and doubt, circling representations of Aboriginality in settler poetry, while weighing up how to deal with sighting a thylacine in 2001:

I have been resisting a return to the text because of the need to feel an increase in doubt, to foster an environment of scepticism. Distance is a way of testing credulity. In reconfiguring the experience, a number of issues became paramount in terms of both the articulation of the moment of contact and what its significance might be. Always trying to find a language that might express my respect for Indigenous claims to custodianship of the land, I considered how easy it is to conflate issues relating to extinction of animals and plants, the decimation, event attempted genocide, of peoples.

This inviting personal tone doesn’t work as well in a ‘reply’ piece such as ‘“Farther off than Australia” (with Tracy Ryan)’, from a 1997 issue of the Oxford journal Thumbscrew. As we read this account of Sylvia Plath’s poetic voice, it becomes apparent that Kinsella must be responding to a previous, absent commentary by Ryan. With his asides to the elusive presence of Ryan’s text—‘you were speaking of’, ‘the images you just mentioned’ and so on—we are presented with half of a dialogue. Either a clear editorial note should have been provided with this piece, or it ought to have been cut in favour of stand-alone essays.

Comparable criticism might be made of Kinsella’s introduction to Robert Adamson and Juno Gemes’ poetry–photography collaboration, The Language of Oysters. The introduction includes snatches of Adamson’s poems, but without the accompanying visual text of Gemes’ images, Kinsella’s intriguing insights into her art lack context. A much briefer, more contextually appropriate commentary on their collaboration follows this piece in the volume. Why wasn’t it selected to represent both pieces? As Kinsella himself writes: ‘One should consider how the photographs are presented to a viewer. Arrangement—context—is everything’.

This mantra might also have been applied to the album of colour photos from Western Australia (lizards, empty roads, a parking lot) that is inserted into the centre of Volume Two. A sweetly personal touch, the pictures are nonetheless amateur in quality, tiny in size and only broadly relevant to the immediate content, a section of memoir called ‘Life Links’. It might have made more sense to separate and enlarge the images as section breaks or occasional illustrations throughout the two volumes.

On the flipside, Kinsella and Collier have made some productive choices around presenting multiple reviews of individual poets. For example, Kinsella’s very engaging review of David Brooks’ Urban Elegies, published by the ABR in 2007, opens with the normal, temporal situating that reviews do: ‘Brooks’ last volume of poetry … was published in 2005 … Now, after only a two-year gap, Brooks’ new collection … has been published’. It is followed by successively recent reviews of Brooks’ subsequent books, creating a critical archive in which we can compare and observe both the subject’s changing poetics and Kinsella’s own growth as a critical respondent to it.

These examples show that Kinsella’s non-fiction is at its best when turned outwards, towards an external text, interlocutor, or critical issue. To this end, the sequencing of Volume Two is able to create some effective extrapolations on particular topics. For instance, the rather generally directed ‘Why I oppose the genre of “Nature Writing”’ is followed by a highly critical review of Tim Flannery’s An Explorer’s Notebook. In setting these pieces side by side, Kinsella and Collier invite us to enjoy Kinsella’s application of personal poetics to another writer’s voice.

This enjoyment can be found, also in Volume Two, in his review essay of Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory (‘Western Sensibilities: “A Bulging Backpack of Myth and Recollection”’). Here, Kinsella constructs something of a parallel narrative to his frequent quotes from Schama’s book. Highlighting the narrow geographical and cultural scope of Schama’s views on primeval landscapes, Kinsella uses his immediate Perth landscape as well as other local allusions to test the appropriateness of Schama’s thesis to Antipodean place:

Schama is at his best in forests. His presentation of forests as the source of a nation’s power is intriguing […] One is reminded of the Australian fear of forests as places of dope plantations and buried corpses […]. The vignette on Horace Walpole and Thomas Gray discovering the wondrous threats of the Alps is a joy to read […]. Reading Henry Kendall’s ‘To A Mountain’ in the light of Schama’s theories, you can’t help recognising the familiars. Most critics accept that Kendall was one of the first European Australian poets to attempt to give the landscape a voice of its own, but still the same old references and codes occur. It is only later that these codes become subtext. And this only comes with a reinventing of the old inherited myths (in a poem such as Judith Wright’s ‘Mount Mary’, which begins ‘The solitary mountain’).

In this way, Kinsella brings his considerable knowledge of both European and Antipodean poetics to bear upon Schama’s text, as it were ‘improving’ the book under review by mounting an extension of its ideas into Australian experience.

Finally, a notable inclusion in this volume is a lengthy correspondence between Kinsella and American poet Rosanna Warren. Liberated from his own voice for a spell, Kinsella finds an interlocutor and not simply a dramatic audience: Warren is a sometimes sympathetic, sometimes contrary and always rigorous listener and writer, bringing in discourse from the field of visual art, and pushing some of Kinsella’s more fixed notions of artistic value to be cross-referenced and nuanced.

To me, Collier’s hands-off approach to the shape of Kinsella’s oeuvre sounds resigned, possibly even fearful, in the face of Kinsella’s ideas about how he wants to present himself. We get a strong sense of those ideas in the second volume of Spatial Relations, which projects Kinsella’s philosophical and literary concerns through the lens of his own poetry and poetics. In the first two essays, he undertakes articulate self-exegeses, albeit occasionally self-righteous. Here, Kinsella introduces a political problem in detail, then shows us the poem that addresses it. It seems to be an effort to demonstrate the currency and attentiveness of his poetry to the issues that concern him, notably the complicated intersection between Aboriginal land rights, ecology and agricultural settlement. In some instances, this mode of demonstration is useful, for example, when it concerns an issue of poetic tradition like classical pastoral and Kinsella’s desire to shape a ‘counter-pastoral’ theme for the postcolonial landscape (‘Southern Winter and Northern Summer: A Dialogue with Rosanna Warren’). In other instances, however, such exegesis in fact serves to reveal a tension between Kinsella’s prose and his poetry.

He feels that poetry, unlike commentary or speeches, is a superior form of activism: ‘language that squeezes past the censors, is able to go where posters of objection might be pulled down’ (‘My Participation in Poetry Parnassus’). Kinsella seems compelled to publicly demonstrate the conviction of his views by enacting them poetically as well as personally; to constantly proclaim that his poetry must ‘do something’, not loaf behind the ‘cordon sanitaire’ of pastoral aestheticism (‘Southern Winter and Northern Summer: A Dialogue with Rosanna Warren’). This view is reinforced by his repeated insistence that language is to be inhabited by the reader and can be a fluid, morphing sign in poetry. Again and again, Kinsella argues for the ‘“performative activist poem”: one in which action is an implicit part of the writing, delivery, and hopefully the reception of the piece’ (‘The Performative Activist Poem?’). Yet Kinsella himself seems unconvinced of his poetry’s performative efficacy. In some of these essays, including those in the section ‘Towards a Personal Poetic’, he is caught in a loop of explaining himself and correcting critical summations of his work with which he disagrees. In fact, I increasingly felt that the exhaustive and repetitious arrangement of Spatial Relations was precisely for that purpose: to defend, justify and explain his poetry, for fear that it be misunderstood or misread. This conclusion is an unfortunate one to be left with, since there is so much enquiring, intelligent and purposeful critical work to be found here.

Reading Spatial Relations has turned me back to Kinsella’s poems, in search of a deeper understanding of how their aesthetic possibilities (which he denies) offer something more than his procedural explanations of them. It has also, perversely, underlined for me the importance of a duality of poetic activism and poetic reticence (including how the ‘unsaid’ might be politically and poetically ‘productive’). Both volumes of Spatial Relations have ultimately assured me of the strength of Kinsella’s critical and essayistic voice, and have confirmed my belief that, at its best, this is his true medium as a writer. Paradoxically, to enjoy the fruits of this book is to take a pastoral route; a matter of carving a pathway through the wild ecology of Kinsella’s thinking.

→ John Kinsella. Spatial Relations (Volumes One and Two) Edited with Introduction by Gordon Collier. Cross/Cultures Series Vol. 161-162. ISBN 978-94-012-0938-0. Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi, 2013. Hardback $US199 (vol.1), $US196 (vol.2)