Poetry review by RD Wood
Five Islands Press, Parkville VIC, 2016
Vol I: ISBN 9780734051639 268pp
Vol II: ISBN 9780734051646 281pp
Vol III: ISBN 9780734051653 246pp
There is a prevalent myth among academic poets that there is an ‘official verse culture’ in Australia. It could also go by the name of ‘conventional verse culture’ or ‘state verse culture’. The most cited gatekeeper for official verse culture is often Geoff Page (see Bonny Cassidy’s ‘Wild Ecology of Thought’ in Australian Poetry Journal) though one would suggest that others matter as well. And yet, official verse culture is hard to pin down when it comes both to publications and influence. The straw man of official verse culture in Australia is precisely that when we compare it transnationally. The presence of diversity in the Australian Book Review and the importance of Cordite would only seem to support this.
These are murmurs in the community not explicit lines in the sand. The keening for an establishment is, I think, a reaction to the paradox presented by John Kinsella himself. Kinsella is central, but because of his politics and aesthetics this influence functions in a less direct set of relations than Les Murray. Kinsella is harder to name as an emperor because he disavows a cult of liberalism, and yet, a phrase of his became the title of the most important conference on Australian poetry in a generation (Berkeley’s ‘Active Aesthetics’, April 2016). If that is not the reification of what was once subversive, then I do not know what is. We might name this the Kinsella Paradox, which is to say subversion is its own institution.
There is hard work to be done in thinking through the Kinsella Paradox, namely that the inmates are running the asylum, that the outsider has become the consummate insider, lonely though it is at the top. We would do well then to think of Kinsella as Murray’s inheritor, which is to say, the most important poetic voice of his generation. If critics of such a perspective would like to cite Lionel Fogarty or Michael Farrell as challengers to such a mantle, one need only point to Kinsella’s position at Cambridge, his numerous international publications and connections, or his swag of prizes. And this is despite his disavowal and continued ‘radicalism’, which extends to activism proper (Beeliar Wetlands protests in early 2017) and publishing choices that often see him work with marginal presses.
And so, it is remarkable both that there has been no major survey on Kinsella and also that he is only in the middle of his career. Published in book form since 1989, one imagines that he might keep going for another comparable period. Indeed, if he wrote for the same stretch of time (until 2044), he would only be two years older than Murray now. One need not be reminded that he has over fifty full-length titles to his credit. This observation is one of the most commonly cited qualities of Kinsella, perhaps the most cited. Critics always state that he is ‘prolific’, even worryingly so (John Greening in TLS, March 2001). Reviewers and essayists talk about this publically but it is also there in private conversations with poets and publishers. ‘Kinsella writes too much’ they say, implying, of course, that one must somehow write less, which is to say, labour more, or, at the very least, appear to contemplate and spend longer on one’s writing. But this lament at productivity itself relies on a certain conception of the book – the book as finished product not as work in progress. If we can’t keep up with Kinsella, he is not solely to blame. We must re-work our expectations accordingly.
What then are we to make of Kinsella’s latest work Graphology? At the level of concept, one needs to take stock of a three volume, twenty-year collection. For Graphology is not a mere collected poems but a project that tracks the ebbs and flows of time itself between 19955 and 2015. Written over 20 years, these are poems of place. One will recognize aspects that are typical of Kinsella’s post-youth work, which yokes the experimental with the lyrical – an attention to the natural world (and its pollutants), dazzling use of adjective, slanted rhyme, references to older cultural artefacts (mainly Western) and a locatedness that is rooting (Avon Valley and further afield).
After reading Graphology, I do not agree with Bonny Cassidy when she suggested that Kinsella’s ‘true medium’ is essays as opposed to poetry. And yet, I think Cassidy’s observation might offer an opening I can agree with, namely that Kinsella’s function in the context of ‘Australian poetry’ is essentially critical. This places both of us at odds with David McCoeey who argued in his launch speech for Graphology that ‘at its most fundamental level, John’s poetry is not only a poetry of critique, but also one of optimism, a poetry that sees no discontinuity between poetic and political activism.’
To my mind, to highlight Kinsella’s critique is not to say he is not creative, but that across his work he primarily writes against. For him, ‘poetry need be subversive’ and one notices in his work a tendency to say ‘no’ – no to the destruction of wetlands, no to meat, no to the pastoral, no to ‘Australia’. And while his negation often implies a thesis, more energy has been spent in these antithetical ways. Imagine instead of ‘counter pastoral’ some appellation that was a sub-genre of ecopoetics in the affirmative. Imagine instead of a vote against a poet laureate, a working plan for how the next generation could gain recognition through institutions and the public. In his writing, Kinsella is equipped with mercurial turns of phrase, great breadth of reference, skilled and charismatic daring, prolix volubility and topical range. That such a propulsive, valuable writer can enable us as readers and writers to make good language is to say that Kinsella and Graphology are simply one beginning – they help identify the shape of the enemy but we need more utopianism as a bulwark against hegemony, pessimism and the future.
The central plank of Kinsella’s self-critical discourse is, of course, ‘international regionalism’ and it is on display once again in Graphology as he covers many locales. As simply one response to international regionalism we might propose ‘continental republicanism’, which is to say a recognition of the land mass of Australia in its precolonial political iteration, one not based on states but as an entity of its own making. This might mean An Anthology of Poetry from Noongar Country not An Anthology of Western Australian Poetry, more than any other designation for example, or it might mean seeing the boundaries as being in natural features that are prior to 1788 or 1901. That might simply be one direction we can inherit from Kinsella precisely because he is connected to Wheatlands in an archipelagic sense.
If readers find in Kinsella and Graphology any fixed idea however, it might simply be a dynamic possibility, which is to say, his output encourages, and necessitates, a response of our own making. Kinsella has been so various and diverse, so energetic that one can find almost whatever one likes in his writing. In that way, it is a question of saying, which Kinsella do I want to read, not do I want to read him at all. If Kinsella is in some as yet unnamed moment, transitioning between enfant terrible and grand old man thanks to Graphology, he is a lesson in how one might be a paradoxical hope and a cautionary tale.