There is little doubt that Kinsella’s vibrant and voracious poetic intellect is a prodigious event on the horizon of international poetry. As a poet, critic, teacher, pamphleteer, publisher and activist, Kinsella has fast become one of the most widely known Australian voices of his generation.
In what might seem like a short-space of time, Kinsella’s has established not simply a considerable oeuvre which has won high praise internationally from critics such as Harold Bloom, George Steiner, Marjorie Perloff and fellow-poets such as Les Murray, Lyn Hejinian and Peter Porter, but become a dynamic, perhaps unequalled force, in the promotion of contemporary poetry at various levels through publishing, editing and essaying. Most remarkable of Kinsella’s many feats is the establishment of the Cambridge-based Salt Publishing with his publishing partners Chris and Jen Hamilton-Emery, creating a truly international and independent publishing house, and around it a community of authors.
Kinsella also manages to juggle being a Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge University, an Adjunct Professor to Edith Cowan University in Western Australia and Professor of English at Kenyon College in the United States, along with numerous ventures as an editor not simply for Salt Publishing but with journals such as Westerly, Overland and The Kenyon Review , among other guest-editor spots. Poet and publisher, essayist and critic, editor and promoter, activist and academic, Kinsella is currently rolling many lives into one, across time-zones, poetics, vested interests and national borders.
Kinsella’s poetry is a working of environment: its creation, questioning, evocation, testing. For Kinsella, language is the natural environment. Poetic discourses or traditions such as the pastoral or the avant-garde form layers in the geology of the same. Critics and editors approaching Kinsella’s work often drive it into two apparently discrete regions of the experimental and the more plainly lyrical, at the expense of the interweaving of these not mutually-exclusive preoccupations. Indeed, Kinsella’s two most recent collections, enforce this reading of his work by degrees. Where Peripheral Light, edited and introduced by Harold Bloom, gathers together “pastoral in the last ditch”, Doppler Effect, introduced by Marjorie Perloff, brings together Kinsella’s ‘experimental’, or as Perloff corrects, ‘innovative’, work. That said, a poem such as ‘Warhol at Wheatlands’ offers a pretty good insight into the hybrid nature of Kinsella’s imaginative world:
. . . maybe he’s asleep
behind his dark glasses? Wish Tom
& Nicole were here. He likes the laser
prints of Venice cluttering the hallway,
the sun a luminous patch trying
to break through the dank cotton air
& the security film on the windows.
Deadlocks & hardened glass make him feel
comfortable, though being locked inside
with Winchester rifles has him tinfoiling
his bedroom – he asks one of us but we’re
Getting ready for seeding & can’t spare a moment.
Ringnecked parrots sit in the fruit trees
& he asks if they’re famous.
While not as patently ‘experimental’ as poems such as the iconoclastic (at least in terms of Australian poetry) Syzygy, ‘Warhol at Wheatlands’ displays the process of linguistic displacement and interrogation that characterizes much of Kinsella’s work. Drawing the doyen of Pop Art and surface into the rural realities of Kinsella’s imaginative heartland, the Wheatbelt of Western Australia, Kinsella mines this clash of ontological modes not simply for humour and distraction, not simply parlour games, but to question notions of surface and depth. The strange force of ‘Warhol at Wheatlands’ – and of Kinsella’s best work generally – is that in its dislocations and dislocutions, it captures a commonality across the variegation of experience entering poetic discourse.
The pastoral idyll of ‘Wheatlands’ is complicated not simply by Warhol’s presence (or that of the Polaroids or laser-prints for that matter) but by the reality of the season and the climate which themselves defy and deny attempts to idealise. Equally, the superficiality Warhol in part represents, the exhaustion of meaning in humanist terms, is neatly inclined against the pathos of Warhol’s paranoia (“tinfoiling his bedroom”) and his very basic and human fragility (“the sudden change has left him wanting”). Akin to, and no doubt influenced by, John Tranter’s series of displacements such as ‘Enzensbergers at Exiles’, ‘Warhol at Wheatlands’ creates an environment where humanist and linguistic codes conflict but also cross-generate, where the lyrical and the linguistic ‘I’ co-exist.
For Kinsella, poetry is always political. Not simply as proselytizing or propaganda, poetry becomes a site of linguistic and social revolution. Kinsella’s poetics are indivisible from his politics, which are orientated around his practices as a pacifist-anarchist-vegan. Similarly, it is hard to view much of Kinsella’s work without the lens of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, for the theories of which Kinsella has been something of an Australian conduit, influencing several younger Australian poets and generally broadening and deepening the level of recent critical engagement with poetics in Australia.
To L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, all language is viewed as political, and it is the poet’s task not to fall back into the rhetoric and complacency of simply producing lyrical poetry centred upon the reaffirmation of egocentric logic or a logocentric ego. Language, the symbolic system within which we come to the world, is set upon the semiotic, the vital presymbolic, alogical forces and rhythms that flow below the level of the symbolic and break out, disordering its logic and disrupting its established flows and currents of power.
Much of this is taken from contemporary French thought, most specifically Julia Kristeva’s reading into the works of Lautreamont and Mallarmé. For Kristeva, the excavation of language excuted by these two quite disparate poets, does not represent simply a revolution in poetic language but in the social body as well, as it reorientates the very structures through which the human subject comes to the world through ruptures in the repressive forces of the symbolic. One criticism that has been raised against the various assimilations and redeployments of these ideas – criticisms that have equally been raised against the work of Lautreamont and Mallarmé – is that of needless obscurity and of over-theorisation. Such criticism smells of bad blood and elitism, as much as labeling more plainly spoken lyrical poets as ‘diarists’ or ‘kitchen-sink poets’. Each world has much to offer, not least for its sense of strangeness and estrangement.
It is important to note here that when I first approached John Kinsella about contributing to the Australian magazine of PIW, he raised a series of concerns regarding the very nature of the ‘Australian’ magazine, and the development of discrete sites orientated around the idea of ‘nation’ as a way of presenting literature or indeed any form of discourse, premised as it is on closed notions of community. In his essay ‘Anthologising the Nation’, he writes:
To open lines of communication between different kinds of poetries coming out of a spatial zone that implies shared language, geography, social and cultural concerns, and political frameworks, can be useful in presenting a picture of how that place works subtextually. But it is also limiting, and tends to help establish a nationalist discourse, a collective identity that places those outside the fabric as Other. This Other varies in degrees of rapprochement and alienation, but all those outside the place denoted by the rubric ‘Australia’ become the necessary counterpart in a binary that defines collective identity. This can easily become the machinery of oppression, the emotional and potentially propagandist means of oppressing those who aren't of the nation.
On this last point, as an editor it has been my aim to engage just these issues regarding the shifting, sometimes shifty, determinations of what ‘Australia’ might mean and how it is variously expressed.
I had hoped to include Kinsella’s long poem Syzygy here, as it in many ways was central in opening up of new territory in Australian poetry, and seems the most successful of his more language-based interrogations. The poems selected here from Kinsella’s voluminous work are but a small sample, with – in the absence of Syzygy – a bias toward his more readily accessible work. Several of these poems offer cautionary tales about the risks humans take in presuming authority over our environment, be it the phenomenal (such as ‘Drowning in Wheat’ and ‘Death of a Farm Boy’) or the linguistic (such as ‘Tarot’). In these poems, the environment – equally land and language – is a force reckoned with and which comes not so much to subvert human presumptions of authority and sovereignty, but to press us toward a deeper sense of interconnectedness, the need for relation without aggression, for community without borders.
Death of a Farm Boy
Drowning in Wheat
Pillars of Salt
Sanctus, Sanctum: a love poem
Warhol at Wheatlands
Wheatbelt Gothic Or Discovering A Wyeth
The early onset of darkness
The Frozen Sea. Zeppelin Press, 1983.
Night Parrots. Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1989.
The Book of Two Faces. PICA, Perth 1989.
Poems. John Kinsella and Philip Salom, Folio, 1991.
Ultramarine. John Kinsella and Anthony Lawrence. Folio, 1992.
Eschatologies . Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1991.
Full Fathom Five. Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1993.
Syzygy . Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1993.
Erratum/Frame(d) . Folio/Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1995.
Intensities of Blue. John Kinsella and Tracy Ryan. Folio, 1995.
The Silo: A Pastoral Symphony. Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1995; Arc, 1997.
The Radnoti Poems. Equipage, Jesus College, Cambridge 1996.
The Undertow: New and Selected Poems. Arc, UK, 1996.
Lightning Tree. Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1996.
Graphology. Equipage, Jesus College, Cambridge 1997.
Poems 1980-1994. Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1997; Bloodaxe, 1998.
voice-overs. With Susan Schultz. Tinfish Network, Hawaii, 1997.
The Hunt. Bloodaxe, UK, 1998; FACP, 1998.
Kangaroo Virus. With Ron Sims. FACP/Folio, 1998.
Sheep Dip. Wild Honey Press, Co. Wicklow, Ireland 1998.
Pine. Poems by John Kinsella and Keston Sutherland. Folio (Salt), 1998.
alterity: poems without tom raworth. x-poezie, new york/prague1998.
The Benefaction. Equipage, 1999.
Fenland Pastorals. Prest Roots Press, Warwickshire, UK 1999.
Visitants. Bloodaxe, 1999.
Counter-Pastoral . Vagabond Press, Sydney 1999.
Wheatlands. With Dorothy Hewett. FACP, 2000.
Zone. e-matters and FACP, 2000.
Zoo. With Coral Hull. Paperbark, 2000.
The Hierarchy of Sheep. Bloodaxe 2000; FACP, 2001.
Genre. FACP, 1997.
Grappling Eros. FACP, 1998.
Lines of Sight. With Tracy Ryan. Folio (Salt), 1997.
Crop Circles. Marlowe Society, Cambridge 1998.
John Kinsella’s homepage
With an extensive collection of his writing on poetry and poetics.
Poems by Kinsella in the Boston-based alternative literary and visual arts journal.
John Kinsella/Tracy Ryan
John Kinsella and Tracy Ryan webspace.
Interview with John Kinsella.
Cortland Review feature on Kinsella.
Poems by Kinsella.
Cortland review 5
Poems by Kinsella.
Cortland review 3
Poems by Kinsella.
Poems by Kinsella.